Chelsea leapt back from the lunging shadow-beast, blasting it in the face with emerald fire. In an instant it burned up, leaving nothing behind.
“These things are like Hollows,” Chelsea said, looking around to make sure the rest of their group was okay. There didn’t seem to be any more of the shadow monsters.
Born of the darkness infesting the Library of Solitude, these beasts came in many forms, surging out of the darkened halls to kill any intruders.
Thankfully, Chelsea and her companions knew how to fight. Well, except for Isabelle. And whether or not Merric could fight (Chelsea doubted it), he wasn’t exactly in a position to do so at the moment.
“Are you okay, sir?” Delilah asked, hopping down from her floating platform to check on the still wheelchair-bound librarian.
“I’m safe, thanks to your efforts,” Merric said. He was a comical sight, tied up in the yellow cushioned wheelchair with wheels that changed color every time they spun. But he wore an expression that was less desperate, less cowardly, than earlier.
Guess Isabelle’s speech is having an effect on him. The man’s learning to be brave, one tiny bit at a time.
Chelsea had, for a moment after waking up back in the library, had a struggle with fear herself. Though she’d been encouraged by the light, encouraged by the force that gave her the secret to releasing her hatred, and encouraged by Gwen and herself safely conquering the darkness… she’d also been nervous upon seeing Delilah. She hadn’t been ready for it, but there had been a brief moment where she’d wondered…
Is she real?
Chelsea had faced doppelgangers of herself, her mother, and Caleb within the darkness. While she knew there was really only one Chelsea, and her mother couldn’t possibly still be alive, Caleb was the troubling one.
She knew the Caleb she’d seen in the darkness was a fake.
But would she know if she saw the real Caleb? One day, he’d return to her. Would she be able to see him for his real self, or would she be too terrified of the memory of the harsh, fake Caleb from the darkness?
Thankfully, she could accept everyone around her. She hadn’t seen any of them as evil doppelgangers in the darkness, so that helped. She also didn’t think that she was necessarily traumatized or anything so intense.
It was just a nagging uncertainty at the back of her mind. That had the potential to do much more damage than overt mental trauma, Chelsea knew, but at the moment, she was functioning just fine. And she needed to.
After all, she was finally getting a chance to do what she was best at: fighting monsters. It had been too long, and she had felt herself getting a bit rusty. When was the last time she’d fought?
Oh, right… Anastasia. That didn’t go nearly as well as this is. I guess fighting monsters is a lot easier than fighting humans, as strange as that seems.
“We seem to have cleared this area,” Gwen said, wiping her brow with the back of her right hand. In her left, she held a thin, silver needle about two feet in length, which was attached to silver thread that was wrapped around Gwen’s fingers and wrist. Though Chelsea had heard about and seen evidence of it in the darkness, she hadn’t seen Gwen fight before. Seeing the woman she’d thought of as a simple, kind-hearted tailor wield a weapon was a fascinating sight.
“Where do we go from here?” Lorelei asked. She tugged at the bottom of the glove Talisman on her right hand, making sure it was snug.
“There should be a staircase further on the left,” Merric said, pointing down the corridor. The darkness had abated, letting them continue farther on safely. “We’ll go down two floors, and then continue around the ring a bit further.”
“We’re clear to the stairs,” Delilah said. She hovered over the group on her wide, circular disc of light, and Chelsea smiled. Delilah had taken Caleb’s Mobility discs and turned them into something even cooler than what her big brother had.
After all, while Caleb could make as many discs as he wanted, he couldn’t fly around on them.
The group walked forward carefully, knowing they still had much farther to go. Despite Merric’s planning, and helping them navigate a much longer, more circuitous path to their destination for the sake of safety, they’d still run into quite a few shadow-beasts. According to the librarian, the darkness had indeed spread further, making the path he’d chosen more dangerous than he’d anticipated.
That hadn’t been a problem so far, though. Chelsea and Lorelei were experienced Hunters, so this was like an ordinary night at work for them. Delilah was only fourteen, but her secret training had paid off – if she wanted, Chelsea knew the little blondie could become a Hunter straight out of high school. Her Felines were fairly strong individually, but with all three of them in action, they were a sight to behold. Their teamwork was astounding, and Delilah was excellent at leading them.
Then there was Gwen. She clearly had the most rust on her skills and athletic abilities, but she was quickly shaking that off and rediscovering her prowess as a fighter. She had no training at all in Enhancement Magic – something Chelsea and Lorelei far too often took for granted – and yet she moved swiftly and gracefully, like a gymnast, flexible and strong at once. She mostly fought with that super-long sewing needle, and it flashed with silver light with each strike, turning shadow-beasts into nothing often with a single thrust. And she had her extending, retractable thread, allowing her to attack from a great distance when necessary, without ever losing control of her weapon.
We’ve got a strong team.
Realizing that made Chelsea a little sad. She’d so often been a part of a different, smaller team: Caleb and herself. And in the heat of battle here in the Library, though she and her friends were able to fight through the foes they faced with ease so far, she still found herself missing Caleb’s chains and discs – and missing even more the way they just knew each other. He was always where she needed him to be at the right time, without needing to communicate much at all. He was marvelously reliable, and not having him by her side was a constant reminder of the pain he’d endured, and the personal journey he was on now because of it.
And yet at the same time, Chelsea was glad to fight side-by-side with her best friend, and her newest friend. Lorelei knew Chelsea better than anyone, and she was a reliable partner at all times. Chelsea wielded fire, and Lorelei wielded ice, which always made them think they’d be an inseparable pair when they became Hunters.
I still don’t know why we end up on different teams all the time. I should petition to have her made a permanent member of my team with Caleb.
Meanwhile, Gwen and Chelsea had bonded so fast and so strong, and that was reflected on the battlefield. They were often near each other, and they rarely communicated with words. A look here, a gesture there, and they knew what to do. It wasn’t the same as with Caleb; there wasn’t the experience, the comfortability that only happened over months and years of time together. And Gwen was, quite obviously, different from Caleb in many ways.
But this new connection was just as special, in its own way. And Chelsea was glad for it.
Down the stairs they went. Delilah scouted ahead with her green Feline, the archer named Redmond. Chelsea couldn’t get a handle on their complicated full names – weren’t they supposed to be characters from a kid’s show? – but she’d learned their first names quickly, and that was all she really needed to know.
They emerged from the stairs onto the third floor – they’d been going up and down quite a bit – of the third ring. In the hub room connected to those stairs, the girls prepared for another battle. While darkness didn’t cling to the air like an impenetrable force, such as in the hallway where Chelsea and Gwen had had their personal adventure, it did move and writhe like a living thing. Corners here and there had pockets of darkness that clung to the walls like a sticky substance, absent from all light. Up near the ceiling, the darkness was the worst – Merric said it tended to climb high and then descend, which was useful for taking inhabitants of a place by surprise.
And then there were the shadow-beasts. They were made of the darkness, and had that strange color to them – completely black, never casting a shadow, never catching the light, they were unreal and unnerving to human and Enchanted eyes. But, as Chelsea had noticed from the start, they were an awful lot like Hollows. There were four-legged lupine beasts like Howlers, spindly-legged spiders with bulbous bodies like Weavers, blade-armed speedsters like Splicers, and multi-headed serpents like Hydras. Because of that, Chelsea had taken to calling the shadow-beasts by their corresponding Howler names.
“It makes you wonder,” Lorelei had mused after their first two encounters with the monsters, “if Hollows come from Hollow Island, and the Hollows on the island were different from the ones in Grimoire… could these shadow monsters be the true forms of Hollows?”
Chelsea wasn’t much for that kind of speculation.
They were monsters trying to kill her and her friends. So she killed them first.
In the hub room before them, Chelsea spotted several Howlers and Hydras pacing the aisles of bookshelves, almost like they were patrolling for intruders. Up above, near the lofty ceiling, Weavers were weaving their webs, still a few hundred feet above the floor.
So these monsters are new here. They haven’t had time to establish this place as their home. Merric was right – the darkness is spreading.
But we can do something about that.
With just a handful of words and a shared look, the fighters of the group sprang into action. Delilah hopped onto her floating disc platform, flying above the battlefield and commanding her Summons. Redmond found the highest shelf he could perch on and started shooting shining green arrows up at the Weavers. Felix went straight down the wide center aisle, deftly slicing through Howlers with his twin swords. Meanwhile, Nekoma hung back, watching over Isabelle and Merric.
Chelsea, Lorelei, and Gwen spread out, looking to force the shadow-Hollows on the perimeter of the room in towards the center, containing the monsters and destroying them in a swift, unrelenting attack. Lorelei formed ice walls over branching hallways, and rained icy spears onto foes in her path. Gwen tossed out her needle, slicing through distant foes, then reeled it back in on its silver thread and dispatched Howlers that charged her, thinking her defenseless. Chelsea took a cue from Lorelei, forming walls of flames to block off hallways, and then tore into the monsters before her with a variety of flaming attacks: spheres, spirals, torrents, waves, rings, and more, keeping them off-balance, striking from their front, their back, their sides, above, and below.
It wasn’t a hard battle. There were twenty Howlers, ten Hydras, and a handful of Weavers, by Chelsea’s rough estimate, and the room was so large that they were widely spread out. Struck by a swift surprise attack, nearly half of the shadow-Hollows were wiped out before they even began to fight back.
The battle was over less than two minutes after it began.
“Don’t worry, you’ll get a chance to show off eventually,” Chelsea said, as her owl returned to her shoulders with a hoot of frustration. “Things have been easy so far. Your skills are meant for the tough stuff.”
“Any idea how much farther we have to go?” Lorelei asked as the group reformed at the far side of the hub, continuing on through the corridor Merric indicated.
“We’ll enter the second ring soon,” Merric said. “The path I planned on will take us almost directly to the map room, so we shouldn’t have to face too much danger within the second ring.”
“I’ve been wondering,” Gwen said, “why didn’t Chelsea and I encounter any of these shadow-beasts? We found a place much darker than we’ve seen so far, but there were no monsters.”
Merric shuddered. “Which would you rather face,” he asked, “the darkness you entered and escaped, or the monsters you’ve been fighting recently?”
Fair point. I’m glad we defeated the darkness, and I’m especially glad that we found the answers to our pain, but… I don’t want to go through that place again.
Fighting monsters is a piece of cake.
“So what you’re saying is that, when the darkness takes over a place enough, it doesn’t need the monsters anymore?” Chelsea asked.
Merric nodded. “That’s right. The monsters are the ones who defend the darkness, who scout the ground before, and who help cultivate it until it is strong enough to sustain itself against external threats. Once their job is complete, they are either assimilated into the darkness, or continue on further to repeat the process.”
“Assimilated?” Chelsea asked. “That sounds disgusting.”
“They were once a part of the darkness,” Merric said, “and so to darkness they inevitably return.”
“Monsters ahead,” Delilah said. “Looks like… just a handful? Some Howlers, nothing else.”
“Well, let’s still be careful,” Lorelei said.
“I know what we can do,” Chelsea said, looking up at her owl with a grin. “Let’s have a Summon party. Owl and cats, lead the way.”
“They’re Felines,” Delilah said, but she looked excited at the idea. Felix raced forward, with Chelsea’s owl flying overhead. Together, they joined Redmond farther on, and battle ensued. Chelsea knew Delilah could see what her Summons saw, but Chelsea couldn’t figure out how to do that. Was it Divination Magic? If so, Chelsea would never stand a chance – that was her weakest magical class, and she’d never figured out how to use Divination on even the most rudimentary level.
Still, she could see the flashes of light ahead, and feel in her heart what her brave owl was up to. His white, shining form and wide wing span seemed like a direct challenge to the darkness: “Try and put out my light, I dare you!” He fought from a distance, using the chains wrapped around his legs to batter and constrict enemies – quite a lot like Caleb would. Beneath him was Felix, his orange blades dancing in the gloom, and assisting the pair of them from the back was Redmond, raining emerald arrows into their shadowy foes.
White chains holding the enemies down, while green attacks launched from a distance finish them off.
Chelsea smiled, seeing Delilah and herself working together to enact a strategy so very common to Chelsea and Caleb.
“All done,” Delilah said proudly as her Felines returned to her, and Chelsea’s owl Summon flew back to Chelsea’s shoulders. “Where to next?”
“We’re going to climb up a set of stairs, then follow a corridor above that avoids any hub rooms,” Merric said. “From there, we’ll enter the second ring and descend to the deepest floor.”
“How long has it been since you were in the second ring?” Gwen asked.
“Too long,” Merric said bitterly. “It may well be lost to us.”
“Don’t be defeated!” Isabelle said, slugging Merric in the leg with her tiny fist. “Remember what I said? Be brave. You can do it, Merric.”
“I am trying my best,” Merric said, a patient smile on his face.
“Does the special wheelchair help?” Chelsea asked with a smirk.
Merric seemed to actually give that question serious consideration. Finally, he smiled again. “Yes, I do believe it’s aiding my fight against fear.”
On they walked, finding the stairs and rising to the corridor that would take them up and over the hub room, presumably in much more peaceful comfort than trying to traverse the larger space below. As they walked, Lorelei came up alongside Chelsea, eyeing her strangely.
“What?” Chelsea asked. “Do I have something on my face?”
“Your hair looks longer,” Lorelei said.
Chelsea’s hands instantly went to her hair, feeling down the back of her head and smacking her owl in her panic. With an annoyed hoot, he took to the air, circling above her as she panicked over her hair.
“It… feels longer,” she said, holding the strands of her now longer-than-shoulder-length-hair.
Lorelei laughed. “No need to panic,” she said. “Hair tends to do that, you know. And we’ve been in the Dominion for a long time. It was bound to grow. I just didn’t notice until now.”
Chelsea nodded, trying to be reassured by Lorelei’s words. But…
The Chelsea in the darkness had long hair.
Chelsea’s hair still wasn’t half that long, but it growing longer, and her not noticing that fact, sent a chill down her spine.
It’s just hair doing what hair does. I know that. I just…
“Hey Gwen, do you have scissors?” Chelsea asked.
“Are you serious?” Lorelei asked, her tone colored with amusement.
“I do,” Gwen said, her golden eyes glittering with curiosity as Chelsea came over to her. As Chelsea took the offered pair of blades and raised them to her hair, Gwen cocked her head. “Do you want me to do it?”
Chelsea thought for a moment, then shook her head.
“It’ll be really sloppy,” Lorelei said.
“That’s fine with me,” Chelsea said. She tugged on a cluster of strands behind her that she couldn’t see, tried to measure out a decent amount of inches, and hacked away.
“Oh,” Gwen said, blinking in astonishment.
“Are you going for a whole new look?” Lorelei asked.
“Just let me do this,” Chelsea said, trying her hardest to be patient as she continued hacking blindly at the length of dark hair behind her head. She felt along with her fingers, trying to keep things relatively level, but purposely allowing things to be at least a little bit sloppy.
I will never look like her. Ever.
Chelsea realized she was cutting her hair even shorter than she normally had it cut – shorter than the shortest she ever felt she could comfortably tolerate. Circumstances had raised her tolerance, apparently.
Finished – or so she thought for now – with the back of her hair, she tried to even things out a bit length-wise on the sides. She’d keep her bangs – she liked them how they were – but the rest had to be shorter.
“You’re not going to want to look in a mirror for a month,” Lorelei said.
Chelsea scowled, cutting off the last bits she thought necessary. “Gwen, do you have a mirror?”
“You always were so stubborn,” Lorelei said, chuckling.
Gwen produced a small hand mirror, and Chelsea’s owl flew closer so she had his light to see things better. Staring at herself, she could understand Lorelei’s comments. She was rather shocked, too.
Oh. Well… that’s… different. Kind of a grungy rocker look? At least it’s not a pixie cut. Though looking at it like this… I think I could actually pull that off. But I’d miss my hair too much for that. This… hmm. If the shock ever wears off, I think I’ll be okay. I didn’t realize my hair gets kinda spiky and flippy when it gets short enough. That’s weird. Kinda cool, kinda stupid.
Oh well, I can bear looking half-stupid.
“Thanks,” Chelsea said, handing the mirror and scissors over to Gwen.
Also, don’t ever let me cut my hair again. Unless I have an emotional crisis. And even then… make sure I have Lorelei or you do it.
Lorelei shook her head and wrapped an arm around Chelsea’s shoulders. “You should see your face right now,” she said.
“Shut up,” Chelsea said. “It’ll grow back.”
“Any chance you’ll explain why you cut it like a crazy person?”
Chelsea chuckled. “I am a crazy person.”
“Whenever you guys are ready,” Delilah said. She, her Felines, Isabelle, and Merric were quite a ways down the corridor, apparently having found passage to the second ring.
“Come on, let’s go!” Isabelle called, waving excitedly.
When the trio rejoined the rest of the group, Isabelle stared at Chelsea with wide, excited eyes. “Hey, hey,” she said, tugging on Chelsea’s sleeve. “Can you cut my hair sometime?”
Chelsea blinked twice at the little girl, and then burst out laughing. Lorelei followed suit, and then Gwen, and then Delilah were all laughing with her. Despite all of that, Isabelle kept tugging on Chelsea’s sleeve, her excited face turning into a scowl. “Hey, I’m serious,” she said. “Come on. I wanna look cool like you, too.”
Kids are so freaking weird. Especially Enchanted Princess children who are actually hundreds of years old, but, like, still children.
“Maybe someday,” Chelsea said, ruffling Isabelle’s hair. “Come on, we’ve got a map room to find, right?”
Isabelle nodded, smiling. “Yup!”
The corridor over to the second ring was different from the other halls that Chelsea had seen in the library. There was a glass roof above it, and on either side there were floor-to-ceiling windows. All looked out at darkness, but as Chelsea peered through the glass, she realized that she wasn’t looking at more interiors.
She was looking outside.
She could see leafy shapes, bushy shadows, and the vague outlines of trees. The sky above, despite its darkness, was very clearly a sky, not a ceiling.
“What you see through these windows are the outer gardens,” Merric said. “Ah, if only you could see them in the light. They are truly beautiful.”
“That’s what we’re fighting for,” Chelsea said. “Among many things. Help us succeed, and we’ll all visit these gardens together.”
Merric smiled, but said nothing.
Their comfortable conversation was suddenly shattered, as the glass around them exploded with such force that Chelsea was tossed off her feet. For a moment she was spinning, working with her momentum to try and land on her feet.
But then the sound and force were followed by darkness, flooding into the space with the sound of rushing wind. For the briefest of moments, Chelsea was completely overwhelmed by pitch-black darkness, and her heart caught in her throat.
Not again! Please not again!
And then she was sent flying, hurtling laterally through the air. Her left shoulder slammed against something, reversing the way she was spinning, and she could feel wind whirling all around her. Small pinpricks slapped against her, like…
Chelsea did her best to right herself in the darkness, working on instinct and the feeling of the objects slapping against her. She reached out her hand, and…
She managed to grab hold of a branch, only to realize she was flying much faster than she’d thought. The branch held her weight and force, just long enough for Chelsea to feel like her left arm was being pulled out of its socket.
Then, the branch snapped, and Chelsea tumbled to the ground.
The darkness suddenly rushed away, as if it had been a sudden wave washing over her and the rest of their group, now returning to the ocean it had come from. Still, the sky was dark, and there were no lights out here. Chelsea had landed in the garden, and it only took her a moment to see the shadowy form of the hallway she’d fallen from, a sort of indoor bridge three stories up. Not only had she fallen that far vertically, but she’d been tossed several hundreds of feet away from the corridor.
Despite the burning sensation in her left wrist, elbow, and shoulder, Chelsea focused on taking stock of her surroundings. The first thing she realized was that she wasn’t alone.
Isabelle was standing next to her.
“Are you okay?” Chelsea asked, keeping her voice low in case there was an enemy nearby. Her combat and survival instincts were on full alert, and she wouldn’t dare let her guard down.
“I’m okay,” Isabelle said, rubbing her hands with a look of mild concern on her face. “I just skinned my palms. I’ll be fine.”
And here I am, a trained fighter, and I feel like my arm’s gonna fall off. What’s this little girl made of?
“Stay quiet,” Chelsea said, holding her a finger to her lips. Isabelle nodded, mimicking the motion with a smile. “We need to find the others, but I don’t like what just happened. It felt like a planned attack. That means there’s an enemy somewhere. So let’s be careful, okay?” Isabelle nodded again, keeping her mouth shut. Chelsea smiled, and sent her owl soaring high into the sky. She couldn’t well keep him on her shoulders – he turned her into a beacon, alerting everyone around to where she was.
Keep an eye out for friends… and foes. I’m counting on you.
“Do you know your way around this garden?” Chelsea asked.
Isabelle nodded. “It’s hard in the dark, but I know it,” she said. “Where do you think we should go?”
Chelsea looked around their current surroundings. There was the tree she’d crashed through, and besides that she was surrounded by…
Well. Good to know my landing could have been a lot worse.
“Is there somewhere more open?” Chelsea asked.
Isabelle nodded, pointing along the stone path to a gap between the bushes. “This way.” She gently took hold of Chelsea’s injured hand, and despite the initial sharp stab of pain, Chelsea found her heart swell. It wasn’t too long ago that Isabelle had been scared of her, gravitating towards Lorelei and Gwen rather than coming near the girl who had destroyed nearly half of Hollow Island.
She forgives so fast.
That simple thought meant a lot to Chelsea. Could she be like Isabelle? Or was this naiveté, this ability to trust so easily, the domain of children alone?
Think about that later. Focus on the danger now.
Chelsea’s Summon still hadn’t spotted any of the rest of their group… which shouldn’t be that hard. Delilah had kept her three Felines out the entire time they’d explored, and they glowed just as brightly as Chelsea’s owl.
So where were they?
But getting impressions from her Summon, Chelsea could start to get a sense of just how vast the outer gardens were. Like the Library itself, these gardens were bigger than anything she’d find on Earth.
Had the wave of darkness really flung the others so far?
Out from the bushes, Chelsea felt like things were lighter and more visible, probably because the space opened up. There was a fountain about fifty feet ahead, though it wasn’t spraying water in the air. To her right, Chelsea thought the shadows looked like metal wire chairs and tables, and there were several small statues and pedestals with odd objects on them scattered around.
A tug on Chelsea’s hand alerted her to something more important than the scenery. Beyond the fountain, between two statues, was a dark figure. Chelsea could tell it was someone living, by the subtle movements compared to the statues on either side – no living being could stand perfectly still.
The statues seemed to be about Chelsea’s height, while the dark figure was a few heads taller than them. They seemed of a rather average build, dressed in close-fitting clothing, with no real distinctive qualities about their short hair. There was a strange shape, coming up at a diagonal from the figure’s right shoulder. A quiver full of arrows? Chelsea hoped not.
What really got to Chelsea though was the figure’s color.
They were as impossibly pitch-black as the darkness that plagued the Library itself.
“Isabelle, follow my directions exactly, understood?” Chelsea asked softly. Isabelle nodded silently.
“That won’t be necessary.”
The voice came from the dark figure. It was the melodic baritone of a suave, cultured man. But the fact that it came from such a figure kept Chelsea on edge.
One step, then two. The dark figure walked forward, until Chelsea could see him. It was like the darkness of his figure melted away, revealing him more clearly. Despite the lack of light, Chelsea could suddenly see the man in full, and he matched his voice. He was dressed in a black suit and tie, perfectly tailored to his lean frame. His dark hair was slicked back, and his pale, angular face was set with two stern, dark eyes. In his left hand was a long, metal bow, while there was indeed on his back a quiver filled with dozens of arrows.
“You don’t need to run,” the man said. His eyes turned to Isabelle, and he cocked his head to the side. “We have been looking for you for a very long time, Princess of Solitude. It’s a pleasure to finally meet.” His lips turned upward in a smile, but the expression seemed alien to him, like he was mimicking a smile based on what he’d seen on human faces, without understanding its purpose.
“Who are you?” Chelsea asked. “And what do you want?”
The man’s eyes slowly turned to Chelsea, and his head cocked to the other side. “I just want the girl,” he said. “I don’t need you. You can leave.”
Chelsea glared at the man. “And if I don’t?”
The man sighed, lifting his bow while drawing an arrow from his quiver with his other hand in a smooth, but slow, movement.
Chelsea wasn’t going to stand still and let someone shoot her. She lifted her silver lighter with her right hand, clicked it, and blasted the dark-suited man with a powerful torrent of emerald flame.