Shias was the last one into the Share House.
Their group had reached the end of the path, culminating at a quite large log cabin, clearly designed as a sort of inn. It was perhaps half the size of Greyson manor, but the inside was very spacious, with wide open rooms, high ceilings, and a central staircase that led up to bedrooms on the second floor.
Maribelle had said that the place wasn’t “what it used to be,” and Shias could see that. The exterior was rather faded, and there were faint signs that the House had been perhaps twice the size it currently was. Inside, it was quite cozy, but the furniture was worn and weathered, and the glass of the windows was foggy and in need of cleaning.
Still, it was a welcome respite from their days on the road.
“Bedrooms are upstairs,” Maribelle pointed out, “and the baths are through there.” She pointed to a corner doorway that had a red curtain over it with a painted symbol that looked rather like a circular bath with steam rising from it.
“I call a bath!” Kathryn shouted excitedly, racing towards the curtain. Shana charged after her with Altair.
“Me too!” she shouted, and the two girls vanished through the curtain.
“Me three.” Timidly, Rae brought up the rear, leaving Maribelle, Shias, and Ben alone in the main area of the House.
“It’s called the Share House,” Ben said, looking around, “so where is everybody?”
“Not many people live out here,” Maribelle said. “This is the very fringe of the Enchanted Dominion. Most who live on the Final Frontier live closer to the border. The Share House was designed in the hopes that people would come live further out, and as a place of rest and recovery for weary explorers. You saw along the road we came, but there used to be quite the massive city out here – the Share House was a major factor in that happening, as it served as a welcome checkpoint for workers and merchants transporting materials out this far. The Share House itself is run by an old friend of mine, but he doesn’t live here, just visits occasionally to make sure things are still in order.”
“So what happened?” Shias asked. “The city out there was huge, probably bigger than Grimoire.”
Maribelle sighed. “It didn’t happen all at once,” she said. “Just one thing at a time, slowly, over many decades. There’s… something strange in the air of the Frontier. It’s the very edge of this world and, as you saw, at times you can even see the boundary between the Enchanted Dominion and the nothingness that lies beyond here. It’s unsettling, and can be lonely even when you’re surrounded by people.”
“So people just left, a little bit at a time,” Shias said.
“Well, that’s enough of a sad story for today,” Ben said, plopping down on a couch next to a dormant fireplace. “Ahh, this feels fantastic! Finally a proper place to relax!”
“We won’t just be relaxing here,” Maribelle said, giving Shias a knowing look.
Shias nodded. He knew what she was getting at – a few times here and there, during their journey across the Westward Plains, the two of them had shared brief conversations pertaining to their ultimate goal: saving Annabelle.
“We’re having a short training camp,” Shias said. “And after we leave here, we’ll be training and strategizing every day until we reach the Radiant Palace and it’s time to rescue Annabelle.”
Ben sat up on the couch, draping his arms over the back of it as he looked at Shias and Maribelle. “This is really serious, huh?”
You could adopt a more serious posture if you’re actually taking it seriously, Shias thought to say, but he knew better. Ben never really looked like he was taking things seriously, even when he was. It was something that annoyed a lot of people, but Shias had grown used to it, for the most part. He’d known Ben long enough to get a sense of when he was being serious and when he wasn’t.
“Well, we weren’t able to do anything at all the last time we were there,” Shias said. “You were captured, but even if you weren’t, we wouldn’t have escaped without Annabelle’s help. We need to be better prepared if we’re going back.”
“All I can do is Blink,” Ben said, laying back down on the couch, out of view of Shias. “I know you’ve praised me, and I know I can do Overwatch and tell everyone what’s going on, but… I think this is too serious for me to only have one skill and no combat abilities.”
“We’ll work on that,” Shias said. “Let’s wait until the girls are out, and then we can get started.”
“I probably should have stopped them so we could talk about everything together,” Maribelle said, laughing softly and shaking her head. “They’re very energetic. Reminds me of Isabelle.”
“Isabelle?” Shias asked.
“My youngest sister,” Maribelle said. “She and Annabelle are twins. They were never very similar, though, except in appearance. Isabelle’s always been so energetic and full of life, while Annabelle…” She looked at Shias appraisingly. “She’s kind of like you. She’s very smart, and she analyzes things carefully. It goes well with her special ability.”
“Those portals, right?” Shias asked, remembering how they’d been saved from the Radiant Palace. “I’ve never heard of anything like that being possible. But then, there’s also Lock. Him and Annabelle both could send us anywhere so easily.”
“For Lock, it’s because of special tools – his keys and his doors,” Maribelle said. “He can’t just send people anywhere on a whim, either. You got a taste of it, but his magic has quite a number of rules that must be followed – most of those rules pertain to him, rather than the ones he transports. Annabelle… those portals are something she was born with.”
“Born with?” Shias hadn’t heard of unique magic being something one was born with. Everything was studied and trained, as far as he knew.
“Didn’t Shana say you have a brother who uses Time Magic?” Maribelle asked. “It’s the same as that, except Time Magic is more easily defined, since it’s appeared in so many people over the ages. Not just anyone can use Time Magic. You have to be born with the ability.”
Shias felt mentally staggered. Born with it? But Caleb studied so hard. He trained it. And now he’s training even more under someone in the Dominion.
“I suppose Time Magic isn’t exactly the same,” Maribelle said. “You have to train it, and it helps to have a teacher. And Time Magic… well, we could be here all day if we get into the nitty-gritty details of all that. But it’s the same principle. Only those born with the ability can use it. For your older brother, it’s Time Magic. For Annabelle, it’s her magical portals.”
“And for you, it’s that super cool sword, right?” Ben asked excitedly, sitting up on the couch and staring at Maribelle in awe.
Maribelle chuckled. “No, that’s not the same,” she said. “That’s Covenant Magic.”
Shias suddenly understood. He’d wondered about her shining sword – the way she called it out of thin-air was like Conjuring, but the way it appeared, like the fabric of reality had been torn, suggested there was something far more special about it.
“So you have rules pertaining to it and its use,” Shias said. “I know the theory of Covenant Magic, but I haven’t seen it in action before.”
Maribelle nodded. “The sword, called Takina, was a gift, but I added Covenant Magic to make it what you saw today.”
“What’s Covenant Magic?” Ben asked.
“We learned about it in middle school,” Shias said, frowning at his friend.
Ben shrugged. “I forget stuff that doesn’t seem important.”
“It’s the ability to create an item or a magical ability of great power that can’t be achieved through normal magical classes and training, by binding that item or ability with specific rules. The strictness and substance of those rules help define just how powerful and different the Covenant item or ability is.”
“So that’s how Lock’s keys and doors work, too, huh?” Ben asked.
Maribelle shook her head. “His are different,” she said. “You’ll find, the more time you spend in the Enchanted Dominion, that we Enchanted are known to invent things. Magic… it doesn’t always work the way that humans have tried to categorize and classify it. When you live in a world infused with great magic, and you yourself can use magic so freely, rules and classifications have far less weight. Lock’s keys and doors are items of his own creation. I suppose it’s possible that, by your standards, there is some Covenant Magic at play, but that isn’t the reason behind his tools and their abilities.”
“My head’s spinning over here,” Ben said, slumping back down out of view.
“What are the rules about Takina?” Shias asked.
“For one, I can only call upon its use in great need,” she said. “So our training won’t involve it, unfortunately. Everything else… I’d rather not say.”
Fair enough. I shouldn’t pry so much. Guess that’s one way Shana and I are similar – we’re both perhaps overly curious, even if it’s for different reasons.
“If you can’t train with it, then what are you gonna do until it’s time to use it?” Ben asked, his voice a disembodied one as he remained hidden on the couch.
Maribelle laughed softly. “I have more than my sword,” she said. “Don’t worry about me, Ben.”
“Yeah, don’t worry about the super awesome lady with the golden sword, Ben,” Kathryn said. She emerged from the bathing room, dressed in a plush blue robe, a purple towel draped around her shoulders, her blonde hair still wet. She grinned. “This place is awesome! The baths are so warm and they have tons of different soaps and you even get these super comfy robes to wear!”
“So comfy…” Shana said, following Kathryn out into the main area. Her face was the picture of contentment, and she laid her wet head on Kathryn’s shoulder with a pleased sigh. “Just what a girl needs after too long on the road.” Altair trailed after her, matching Shana’s sleepy contentedness as he laid down next to Shana’s feet.
“So what did we miss?” Kathryn asked. Rae came out last, her hair wrapped in a pink towel, and stood watching and listening – though, Shias was relieved to see, she had a contented smile on her face.
Shias and Maribelle explained what they’d discussed so far, with Ben occasionally interjecting.
“Wait… are we starting training today?” Shana asked.
“No, the day’s already coming to a close,” Maribelle said, smiling warmly. “You have nothing to worry about. We’ll just be discussing our strategy – our training schedule, how long we’ll be staying here, things like that. Once we leave, we’ll still have morning and evening training sessions every day on the road, but I think we need at least a little while of intensive training at a stationary location – this house is the perfect spot, especially with only us here.”
“We’re already a pretty great team,” Shana said, smiling. “We had a bunch of training before.”
“Yeah, and then got our butts kicked,” Ben said glumly. “All that training, and we got walloped by a giant spider.”
“A giant spider?” Maribelle asked. “You fought Neith?”
“I don’t know if you could call it a fight,” Ben said.
“Will you stop being so negative?” Kathryn asked, glaring daggers at Ben.
“With luck, Neith won’t be at the Palace when we go,” Maribelle said. “She’s an Enforcer –a field agent – after all. But you have more experience with them than I thought.”
“We also met Void,” Ben said. “He captured me. Held both my arms behind my back with one hand. The dude’s scary.”
“He had a similar uniform to Neith,” Shias said. “So he’s an Enforcer, too?”
Maribelle nodded. “It’s rare to see multiple Enforcers at the Palace at one time,” she said. “Most likely, we’ll only have the Guardians to deal with.”
“The King had a personal guard, too,” Shias said, thinking back on their time in the throne room. “I couldn’t tell much about him – he was huge, and encased from head to toe in golden armor.”
“Golden armor?” Maribelle had a thoughtful look in her eye as she held her chin, stroking her bottom lip with her thumb. “I haven’t heard of this. Did you ever see him move?”
Shias shook his head. “Not that I remember,” he said. “I think he might have moved his head, but… he didn’t go anywhere or say anything. He just stood right next to the throne.”
“Well, we’ll need to keep our wits about us,” Maribelle said. “No matter what, we will be outclassed in a straight fight. But the goal isn’t to win a fight – it’s to save Annabelle.”
“So Shias is in charge of strategizing, right?” Shana asked. “He’s really good at that stuff.”
Maribelle smiled. “I was getting that impression.”
They all moved to where Ben was by the fireplace, sitting on couches and comfy armchairs around a large coffee table. When Shias started explaining their previous training, using different team role names, Maribelle stopped him for an explanation.
“Ben, you’re the Overwatch, so you tell her what your job is,” Shias said.
“I move around the entire battlefield,” Ben said. “I keep my eyes and ears open, keep track of movement and information, and relay information to the team to help them react accordingly.”
“We’re Eliminators!” Kathryn said excitedly, throwing an arm around Rae’s shoulders. “We fight the bad guys.”
“I use a… a S-Summon,” Rae said, staring at the floor.
“A super awesome Summon!” Shana said, eyes wide. “His name’s Brutus, and he’s gigantic, and super strong!”
“And what’s your role?” Shias asked, looking at his sister and suppressing a laugh at the enthusiasm going around.
“I’m Support!” Shana said, hopping up to her feet and snapping a salute. “Or rather, we’re Support!” She picked Altair up off the couch and hugged him close. “We’ve been training in Divination and Support Magic. I can see whatever Altair sees when I concentrate, so he can go ahead and sneak around and scope out the area for us. We can also heal minor wounds and injuries, generate a sort of aura of encouragement to keep people’s morale and energy up, and we can enhance other people’s magical power slightly, but only one person at a time.”
“And I’m the Warden,” Shias said. “I focus on defending the team and turning enemy attacks back onto them.”
“Well-rounded,” Maribelle said, nodding. “Well, I can fight up-close or at a distance. If I use Takina – which is very likely, considering who we’ll be up against – then I can’t use any of my other combative magic, so keep that in mind.”
Shias sat back in his chair, going through things in his head.
They had a lot of options. But they were missing something. And that elusive “something” kept bringing Shias’ thoughts back to Ben.
His Blinking is incredible. He can go so far, so precisely. But he doesn’t have any combat skills.
What would suit him best? What would complement his existing skillset, and also be something that he can learn effectively without access to proper teachers and textbooks?
“Oh, I forgot to mention!” Shana said suddenly, raising her hand. “I also have some Conjuring Magic. I have my own little magical library where I store most of my books since I ran out of space at home.”
Shias looked up at that detail. “What kinds of books do you have in there?” he asked.
“Oh, all kinds,” Shana said, grinning. “But none of my favorites. Actually, come to think of it, I’ve put a lot of books I don’t read at all in there, like all my elementary and middle school magical text books. I barely read those anyway.”
“Which textbooks do you have?” Shias asked.
Shana reached into the pocket of her robe and pulled out her bookmark Talisman. “I think I have everything,” she said. “Did you have something in mind?”
Shias thought for a moment. “See if you have the sixth grade books about Mobility and Illusion Magic,” he said.
Shana’s bookmark flashed, and a circular portal, about a foot in diameter and glowing blue, appeared in the air before her. She reached in, rummaging about for a bit before pulling out two thick volumes in nearly pristine condition. When she plopped them down on the coffee table, they sent up a small cloud of dust.
“Got ‘em,” she said proudly.
“Why those?” Rae asked, leaning forward curiously.
“And why do things collect dust in your magical portal library?” Ben asked, waving his hand in front of his face.
“Things collect dust everywhere,” Shana said with a shrug.
“I’m thinking about you, Ben,” Shias said, sliding the books towards Ben. “We don’t have to look at them yet, but I have a few ideas of some simple abilities you could add to your repertoire to expand your combat effectiveness. Let’s discuss them in the morning, but look through them tonight and see if anything catches your eye.”
“I… have to study?” Ben asked, eyeing the books suspiciously. “I thought we were on a field trip. But, wait…” He looked up at Shias, his expression one that Shias hadn’t seen before. “You… want me to learn something new? I mean… you think that I can actually do it?”
Shias blinked twice, confused by Ben’s questions. “Yeah, of course,” he said. “We’re on a short time limit, so it can’t be anything very complicated, but not all magic has to be complicated to be useful.”
Ben leaned back, staring at the ceiling. His usual constant thrum of energy was gone – he wasn’t tapping his toes or fingers on anything, wasn’t humming a weird tune. He was uncommonly still and silent.
“What’s the matter?” Kathryn asked, nudging Ben. “Hey, did you faint or something?”
“I’m fine,” Ben said, pushing her hand away. “Just… thinking.”
The entire room was silent for several long seconds.
Ben suddenly hopped to his feet, snatching up the books from the coffee table. “Whatever, you guys are too quiet for me to think!” he declared. He turned on his heel and marched away, up the stairs and vanishing into one of the bedrooms, slamming the door behind him.
“So… that was weird,” Kathryn said.
Shias couldn’t agree more.
“Well, it is rather late,” Maribelle said. She smiled as she stood. “I’ll get some food ready, and after that we can all just relax and spend the rest of the night however we want. We’ll talk more specifics about training in the morning.”
“I’ll work up a tentative schedule,” Shias said. “How long do you think we should stay here?”
Maribelle thought for a moment. “I think no more than five days,” she said. “It’s still nearly a week to the Winding Stair, so we’ll be able to train on the road for that time as well.”
“Is five days enough?” Shias asked.
“I fear every day we spend here is a day that brings Annabelle closer to whatever wicked plans the King has for her,” Maribelle said. “Five days is the most I’m willing to spend here. I’d like to leave even sooner, but… well. I think we’ll need all the training we can get.”
The meeting over, the five remaining downstairs shared a meal – Ben remained locked up in his bedroom and wouldn’t come out for anything – and then split up to their own activities. Kathryn and Rae ended up huddled by the fire, talking about who knows what until very late in the night. Maribelle sat on the Share House’s spacious front porch, and eventually Shana joined her with Altair.
Shias was left alone. He went and knocked on Ben’s door several hours after dinner, but Ben wouldn’t even respond. So Shias explored the Share House, eventually finding a small staircase that led up to a trapdoor that opened out onto the roof.
“Just like home,” Shias said with a grin, climbing up onto the roof and taking a seat, leaning back against the sturdy wood. Greyson manor had a sneaky little passage out onto the roof, too, and he and Shana – not just the two of them, but really all five of the Greyson children – spent quite a lot of time up there.
The Final Frontier’s night sky was fascinating to him. Against a field of a deep blue that was nearly black, strange shapes flickered here and there. They were always a single color – light blue, silver, purple, and an occasional pale green – and reminded Shias of Earth’s aurora borealis. If someone had taken that beautiful collage of rippling color, and then torn it into a million pieces and scattered them across the night sky, it would look much like this.
Where the Westward Plains were home to howling, vicious winds that grew even fiercer after dark, the night around the Share House was quiet, almost deathly so. It made it clear that this was the marker between the Westward Plains and the main section of the Final Frontier.
We’ve passed out of the wilderness, and are heading towards civilization.
It wouldn’t be an easy road ahead for them, Shias knew. He had seen in Ben earlier tonight, and in Rae and Shana at other moments, that his team was still hurting after their trouncing by Neith. And yet his confidence remained steady.
We were caught completely by surprise there. We had trained for fighting Hollows, and ended up facing down a gigantic spider Summon that we never could have been able to prepare for. We were never that strong, but for that to be our first fight… that was beyond unfair.
We’re a great team. I hope they still see that. And if I’m the only one who does see it, it’ll be my job to help them to realize it. Brutus is an incredibly strong Summon – he was just outclassed. That doesn’t diminish his strength at all, or the strength of Rae for being his Summoner.
Ben still is completely incredible. He’s so fast, so accurate, so smart about where to go and what path to take to get there.
Kathryn is so graceful, so bold, so creative in how she fights. There was nothing she really could have done in the grove, but against ordinary foes, she’ll do great.
Shana and Altair are fine. I think maybe she’s worried that she isn’t a fighter, but I wouldn’t want her to be. It doesn’t suit her. And what she is able to do is amazing. Especially considering it wasn’t that long ago that she wanted a normal life, and wanted nothing to do with magic outside of Altair and her magical library.
To see her come so far, so fast, is astonishing.
I wonder what Caleb would say about us? He’s an actual Hunter, he’s worked in professional teams against real dangers so many times. Would he see us as being effective?
I know we’re out of our league, going up against the Radiance. I don’t know what Maribelle is really capable of, but she’d have to be impossibly strong to turn the tides for us in a straight fight. And I know it’s a good thing we’re not looking for a straight fight.
But, in an ideal world, we would be the last people sent on this mission.
Still… I’m glad it’s us.
Even if it’s just for Shana’s sake, I’m glad it’s us. She promised Annabelle she’d save her. If someone else did the job for her, she’d be heartbroken.
And, if we succeed, this will make us so much stronger, and bond us so much closer together. If we succeed at this, if we can march right into the Radiant King’s Palace and steal away one of his hostages…
Then we’re pretty amazing.
I know I’m the only one on this team who wants to be a Hunter. I’m the only one who takes this as a professional duty, as a sort of pre-internship. But I love this team. I want to see us succeed.
Shias tilted his head back, staring straight up into the sky as a silver ribbon flickered through the night.
I guess it’s up to me.
I’m the leader. I know our team the best. I know what we need to improve on, and I have a decent idea of what we’re up against – and Maribelle seems to know enough for me to be able to make an effective plan.
It’s up to me to make this mission a success.
What comes after?
Do we go home?
No, Shana has to go to the Library with Annabelle and Maribelle. And Delilah is supposed to be at the Library with Isabelle.
What comes after that?
Do we go home?
And when we do go home… what happens then?
Do we go after the missing kids again? Mom and dad said they were on that, so chances are all the kids will be home safe by the time we get back to Grimoire.
Do we ever return to the Enchanted Dominion and explore some more? Go on more adventures?
Or do we just… go back to how things used to be? Do we just go back to our club, our school, and continue on with our lives?
Would that be a bad thing?
It’s getting awfully cold out here.
Shias sighed and returned down the stairs. Back in the warmth of the Share House, he looked around for his teammates. Kathryn and Rae were still by the fire. Maribelle and Shana were still outside. Ben was still in his room – a knock on the door and a wordless grunt of reply confirmed that.
Whatever happens, I’m glad I have all of you right now, and I’m glad we’re on this mission together.
Shias shook his head and chose the bedroom next to Ben’s. Inside, he lay on the bed, staring up at the ceiling.
I’ll worry about that when I get there.