Dismounting her horse, the Queen of War looked up at the tower. Moss was growing on the ancient stone, but the stained glass windows depicting golden crowns remained unnaturally clear, a sign of the magic that filled the place. Its high roof was topped with a gable bearing four more windows pointing in the cardinal directions. The width of the structure was quite grand, giving it a well-fortified appearance.
The Queen noticed ten others horses wandering about the surrounding field. That was fine—she had expected to be late, and at least she was not the last to arrive. Approaching the wooden double doors, she braced herself, pulled one open, and entered. The first step was always an unpleasant one, as the tower’s magic struck her head-on like a cushion of humidity. Once her body adjusted, she resumed walking.
The interior was mostly open space. No decorations could be found, and the room smelled like rot, but it was made lively enough by the many colors of light spilling in through the windows and the echoes of every small sound. Around the center of the floor sat a wide ring of thrones, each carved from gold and lined with velvet cushions; a different insignia was on the back of each, and in all but two sat women of various ages and appearances. Every one of them wore a crown.
The Queen of War sat in the throne which bore her mark: a shield being impaled with a sword. She quickly glanced over the others. One Queen in particular, a dark-skinned woman about her age wearing clothes made from animal skin, seemed quite interested in her arrival.
“Have you something to say, Queen of Nature?” asked the Queen of War.
The other Queen shifted her attention to the brightly-colored bird on her shoulder. She stroked its feathers, resulting in a short string of pleasant chirping.
“It will have to wait. Violence is prohibited on these grounds.”
A chuckle came from another Queen. She wore red armor beneath a tattered cloak, and dark blonde hair fell half way down her back.
“Did you decimate another army, War?”
“I was merely acting in defense, Queen of Fire,” she calmly replied. “How else am I to react when troops march upon my land?”
“I dunno, maybe not gut them all? Guess that wouldn’t occur to a slayer like you, though.”
The Queen of War said nothing.
Shrugging, the Queen of Fire added, “So where’s the Queen of Light, anyway? She’s the one who called us here—pretty rude to be the last one to show.”
“For once I agree with you.”
This response came from a woman dressed in a white kimono, which was far cleaner than a garment of such color had any right to be. She held a folding fan in one hand and was currently putting it to vigorous use.
“The sooner I can leave this dreadful warmth, the better.”
“Trust me, Ice, this is nowhere near warm,” replied the Queen of Fire. “I’ll never know how you can all stand this climate; it’s way too—“
She was interrupted as the doors opened once more, informing the gathering that the Queen of Light had arrived at last. Their looks of irritation quickly turned to surprise when they saw her. The young woman’s hands and about half of her face were wrapped in bandages, and as she came closer it was observed that her dress had been mended recently in numerous places. She moved slowly, but she did not stagger—each step flowed straight to the next.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” she grumbled.
When the Queen of Light reached her throne, she eased into it slowly. First to voice concern was the Queen to her right: a tanned woman with hair the color of the ocean.
“Are you okay, Light?”
She forced a smile.
“I’ve had better days, Sea. Anyway. Thank you all for coming. I know we don’t use the gathering spell that often, but something very troubling has occurred. Some of you may be familiar with a spellcaster named Mahou, correct?”
Shrill laughter broke out. Its source was an abnormally young Queen, one who could not be far into her tenth year.
“You lost to that quack sorcerer? I think you’re losing your touch!”
The smile on the Queen of Light’s face wavered.
“Thank you, Queen of Time. Your grasp of the situation is flawless, as usual.”
“One loss does not justify a gathering,” said the Queen of War. “I trust this has implications for the rest of us?”
The Queen of Light nodded. After taking a breath, she rose to her feet—the Queen of the Sea prepared to help her, but she refused the aid.
“Fellow Queens…Mahou has found a way to break the bond between our body and our Crown.”
Deafening silence followed. It was broken at last by the Queen of Nature.
“Preposterous. If something like that did exist, why did no one discover it over the past several thousand years?”
“Nature’s got a point,” agreed the Queen of Fire. “It just doesn’t make sense. From what I’ve heard, this Mahou guy has about as much subtlety and magic skill as War over there. How could he secretly come up with something that dangerous?”
Pointing at her bandages, the Queen of Light retorted, “What, you think these are just for show?! Look: I had a hard time believing it too, but facts made a pretty darn convincing argument! He nearly killed this body, and I don’t have a successor picked yet. I figured maybe I should take him seriously for once.”
“Calm down,” said a Queen with short black hair and ornate armor. “Queen of Knowledge, do you think such a spell could be possible?”
The eldest Queen present closed her eyes and murmured something. When she stood, her long gray hair fell in sheets over her incredibly intricate robes.
“It is hard to say, Queen of Music. I have never heard of magic such as this…but that does not make it impossible. There is still much we do not know about the magic of our Crowns, but the details may be recorded somewhere. If a mage were to get his hands on such information, even one as incompetent as Mahou…it is plausible that he could find a way to damage that magic. The injuries of our fellow Queen are evidence enough, I think.”
The Queen of Gravity, a woman who was dark-skinned and well-armored, leapt to her feet.
“But if this is true, then how do we defend against it? If this guy comes for Land and me, I want to be prepared!”
The Queen of Light looked at the ground.
“I’m afraid I haven’t been able to come up with a countermeasure.”
The Queen of Gravity was about to ask for more details, but she was stopped by the Queen of the Land, a smaller woman who took her by the arm and pulled her back a half-step.
“We’ll be fine,” she said cheerily. “If nothing else, we can be on our guard now, right?”
The Queen of Gravity’s expression slowly softened into a loving smile. Several thrones away, the Queen of Ice scoffed.
“That’s little comfort. A threat like this is not lessened just by being aware of its existence.”
“What have you got to worry about?” asked the Queen of Time. “Your place is colder than cold—how’s a geezer like Mahou gonna invade somewhere like that?”
With a shrug, the Queen of Ice said, “I am merely stating the facts.”
This request came from the Queen of the Sky, a black woman dressed in green who had several daggers strapped to her belt.
“Okay, the threat is established, and we don’t have a countermeasure. What are we going to do about it? Is it every Queen for herself, or are we actually going to work together for once?”
An awkward silence came next. She gave an exasperated sigh.
“Well,” the Queen of Light offered, “I definitely think we should team up. Mahou is going to come after us and our queendoms—the safest thing for our people would be to evacuate them all to one location, where the twelve of us can gather and hold a number advantage. Crown-busting spell or not, he can’t fight us all at once.”
“Our region would be best,” volunteered the Queen of Gravity, with a nod of agreement from the Queen of the Land. “It has a lot of open space to set up camps, plus strong natural barriers. The climate isn’t extreme or anything, so it should be an easy adjustment.”
“Please,” said the Queen of Fire. “You want natural defenses? Nobody’s getting past my volcanoes. Then again, I guess your citizens wouldn’t be able to take the heat either.”
“I’m afraid not,” answered the Queen of the Sky. “So? Will you move your people?”
The fiery Queen shook her head. “They’ll stay where they are. I’d like to keep an eye on them too, so count me out of your sleepover. Though I would like to throw a few punches…tell you what: if Mahou shows up, send me a psychic wave and I’ll intercept him when he turns and runs.”
The Queen of the Sky nodded.
“Thank you. That will be a big help. Will anyone else be joining in the evacuation plan?”
“It would be a waste,” said the Queen of Ice. “My people are safe. Nothing else concerns me.”
“I expected as much…” replied the Queen of the Sky.
“Well, I’ll join,” said the Queen of the Sea. “The people will take some convincing, but backed up against the ocean as we are, we must look pretty vulnerable in Mahou’s eyes. He might not be wrong…”
The Queen of Light grinned and said, “I knew we could count on you. We’ll try to find a lake to stage the battle by, so you won’t be too out of your element.”
The Queen of the Sea smiled in return.
“My people are not so weak,” said the Queen of Nature. Her pet fluttered its wings to punctuate the point. “We will defend our land, not abandon it in fear.”
Frowning, the Queen of Light argued, “You’re misinterpreting the situation. This is about being as cautious as possible to insure our victory. I should know: if I hadn’t been so careless dealing with Mahou in the past, we wouldn’t be in this situation. Please, reconsider.”
“I will not. Huddle together if it makes you feel safer, but I shall have no part in it.”
“Same here,” said the Queen of Time. “Come on, I control time. Why the heck should I worry?”
She snickered arrogantly. The Queen of Light clenched her teeth and glared.
“Listen here, you little brat—“
“Listen to you? You got your butt kicked by an old guy! You’ve got no idea what you’re doing.”
“I only lost because of that spell!”
The Queen of the Sea tapped the Queen of Light on her shoulder. The redhead whirled on her and exclaimed, “What?!”
Her friend said nothing. After a brief pause, the Queen of Light closed her eyes and sheepishly cleared her throat.
“Er, rather…I feel as though some of you aren’t taking the situation very seriously…again, I implore you to reconsider.”
“Ooh, you get so fancy after she tugs on your chain,” teased the Queen of Time.
Blushing slightly, the Queen of Light ignored her and sat back in her throne. The Queen of Music stood next.
“I believe I shall take the same approach as the Queen of Fire. Our defenses are strong, as is our pride. Should we need assistance, however, I hope you will allow me to ask for it.”
The Queen of War shook her head.
“Futile,” she mumbled. When the others turned to her, she said, “I for one will not be content to sit idly and wait for Mahou. Thank you for your warning, Queen of Light; I shall tread carefully, but I intend to hunt down this mage and end his threat myself.”
Rolling her eyes slightly, the Queen of the Sea said, “Well…best of luck.”
All eyes then turned to the Queen of Knowledge, the only one who had yet to state her position. She looked down solemnly.
“I do wish I could join you, fellow Queens…but due to the longevity of my people, we are a nation of elders too frail for such a journey, and I shall not be so selfish as to ask you come guard us. I will, however, join our best scholars in dedicated study, in the hopes of finding some previously-overlooked shred of information that may prove useful in your fight.”
The Queen of Light bowed her head in gratitude. Silently, she reviewed the situation: an alliance of five Queens had been created, certainly no small accomplishment, but the other seven would remain isolated and vulnerable. She had never imagined they would all join, but she had at least hoped that more of them would.
“It’s so stupid,” she found herself saying. “You all value your pride more than your own safety—the safety of your citizens, even. How is it I get called irresponsible when so many of you are so incredibly stubborn?”
Several Queens elected not to hear her remark. The Queen of War, however, rose to her feet.
“You should not speak of things you don’t understand, young one. Nor you should you speak as if we could all cohabitate without several Divine Clashes breaking out.”
Taking a few steps forward, the Queen of Light said, “So it’s that rivalry that’s the problem? Come on, of course you’d all be welcome! Right, Gravity?”
Hesitantly, the Queen of Gravity cast a concerned glance at the Queen of the Land.
“You see?” said the Queen of War. “She still holds a grudge, though I know not why. I returned her Crown to you after the allowed time of possession had elapsed.”
Mostly to herself, the Queen of Gravity said, “I’m not so sure you would’ve if the others hadn’t intervened…”
“You are blind to the nature of things, Queen of Light,” said the Queen of War. “We compete. We fight, as we have for thousands of years and will for thousands to come. And haven’t you noticed? It is becoming more hostile. Millennia of quarrels have eroded all our reason, and I suspect we are not far from the day that the tenuous arrangement by which our queendoms coexist in ‘civility’ will give way to total anarchy.”
Making a slashing gesture, the Queen of Light said, “That’s never going to happen!”
“But it will. It is a foregone conclusion in the eyes of anyone with a grasp of reality. Our peace has always been an illusion, and an alliance such as this is merely proof that some of you are deluded enough to accept the ruse. That is something I view as irresponsibility…but if you are opposed to that term, perhaps I should just call you a lunatic?”
The rays from the stained glass windows began to twist in on themselves as the Queen of Light glared on. Suddenly, she recoiled, as if struck by an invisible force. The Queen of War looked mildly pleased.
“You see? Even you have malice towards me. It may have been fleeting, but you considered initiating a Clash with me. Perhaps you forgot that the tower will punish such thoughts?”
The Queen of the Sea went to help the Queen of Light to her feet, saying, “That’s enough! You know she’s injured—it’s a low blow to provoke her like that!”
“It is quite shameful, War,” said the Queen of the Sky. “You could also do with a little more self-control.”
Her point made, the Queen of War sat back down. As the Queen of the Sea put her arms around the Queen of Light to aid her, she paused for a moment. The rough texture of bandages could be felt quite clearly through her dress, and she winced at the slightest touch. The Queen of the Sea opened her mouth, but the Queen of Light grabbed her arm—she looked her in the eye and shook her head as subtly as possible. With a disguised nod, the Queen of the Sea gently helped her up, both doing their best to make it seem like the silent request was merely the Queen of Light grasping for more support.
“Surely, you must understand,” said the Queen of Music. “You too have your pride—in past lives you’ve been as focused on it as we are now. Do you not remember?”
“I remember,” the Queen of Light said quietly. “I can still hear my pride, believe me, but this time around I realize it’d be careless to let it drown out my conscience.”
“Are you implying that we are ignoring our consciences?” asked the Queen of Ice. “Nothing could be more wrong, I assure you. We are each doing what we feel is right. How arrogant of you, to judge it wrong merely because it is not what you consider to be right.”
“Maybe she’s just a big scaredy-cat,” suggested the Queen of Time.
“Of course I’m afraid,” said the Queen of Light. “We’re facing an enemy who can disrupt our powers. Only an idiot wouldn’t be afraid of that. But if you think I’m letting my fear get out of control, that’s where you’ve got it wrong. So I suppose…”
She smiled and finished, “That just makes us braver than you.”
The Queen of Time scowled and stuck out her tongue, an expression the Queen of Light mirrored. Putting a hand over her face, the Queen of the Sea muttered something about ruining the mood and went back to her throne.
“I think we should stop before this escalates any further,” said the Queen of the Sky. “Those of you who won’t be joining us, you are free to leave. For the rest of us, we should begin discussing the details of this arrangement immediately.”
The Queens of War, Nature, Fire, Ice, and Time stood up and left the tower, while those of Knowledge and Music chose to remain and listen to the discussion. As she left, the Queen of War paused by the throne of the Queen of Light.
“If you still desire a Clash, I would be more than happy to oblige once this is all over. I’ve been quite eager to make up for that match 800 years ago.”
Annoyed, the Queen of Light made a dismissive gesture.
“So,” said the Queen of the Sky, “we’ll be moving in with the Queens of Gravity and Land. May we see a map of your territory?”
The Queen of the Land came forward, knelt, and closed her eyes. Seconds later, the stone floor of the tower undulated and morphed, being shaped into a miniature replica of her home, ringed in high mountains with a conspicuous notch in one side.
Indicating the gap, she said, “This is where our fresh water comes in. I don’t have the magic to recreate the waterfall, but…”
“I could take care of that if you’d like,” said the Queen of the Sea.
“Showing off won’t be necessary, thank you,” said the Queen of the Sky. “And thank you, Queen of the Land—this is just what we need.”
The Queen of the Land smiled brightly and went back to her throne. As talks began, the Queen of Light began to wonder. Surely, she thought, Mahou would not really be crazy enough to challenge a group of five Queens.
Then again, it’s not all that insane when you can short out our power with the wave of a wand.