Shana raced forward, trying not to fall behind Maribelle. They rounded the corner into the large intersection, racing towards the stairs where Annabelle still sat, staring at the ceiling.
The area was huge, and appeared to serve as more than just an intersection. The stairs ahead were the entrance to the throne room, and furniture was all about the large space. Chairs around different sized tables were near the walls, and plush couches and armchairs provided cozy seating areas closer to the center. A luxurious grand piano sat nearest the stairs, its top tilted up and open to allow for a resonant sound, though no one was currently playing it. Even with all the furniture, there was still tons of floor space, and it was clearly designed to accommodate hundreds of people comfortably, if need be. Two hallways branched off from it, one to the right, and one behind Shana where she’d come from. The stairs to the throne room lay ahead, while to the left was a passage onto an outdoor staircase descending to a separate building.
And in the center of the intersection was a large, circular fire pit. Twenty chairs were seated around it, with space for a dozen more. Within the stone perimeter, coals glowed with heat, and tongues of flame licked up at the air here and there.
Shana was nearly to the fire pit when Annabelle noticed her. Her eyes widened in fear, and she shot to her feet, shouting out at them.
“No!” she cried. “Don’t come any closer! It’s a –”
Shana had realized that before rushing in here, but she was determined to spring it. She wasn’t leaving without Annabelle.
And spring the trap she did. Something snared her leg, and Shana toppled forward, barely catching herself on the marble floor with her hands. She looked back to see that a thorny vine, glowing with magic, had sprung up out of the floor and wrapped around her leg, its spiky thorns making shallow cuts through her pant leg and into her skin.
The vine must have been hidden, waiting for intruders to activate it. All around Shana, more vines were springing into existence, snaring the doppelgangers of Ben that charged forward. As soon as Ben noticed the vines, he created even more doppelgangers, making them fan out wide and do their best to intentionally get snared, revealing traps so that the others could race forward.
“How come you’re fine?” Ben asked, one of his doppelgangers watching Kathryn gracefully run across the floor, untouched by vines. She glanced back at him with a grin.
“I’m immune to traps,” she said simply, continuing to run ahead.
Right. Mobility Magic. That’s what she was working on during our training.
Shana tugged against the vine, but couldn’t free herself. Altair, faithful and brave, was immediately at her foot, carefully avoiding the thorns as he chewed through the vine, severing it and freeing Shana.
“I love you,” Shana said breathlessly, pulling her leg loose as soon as she was free. The thorns had dug into her leg, but not very deep, She was bleeding, but she could stand and move just fine, and for a moment she surveyed the area, taking stock of her team’s condition.
Kathryn and Maribelle were both nearly to the stairs. Ben was dismissing doppelgangers as soon as they were snared by vines, then replacing them with more and continuing to reveal the traps. Rae rode up on Brutus’ shoulder, his massive body able to break free of any vines that snared his legs with ease. Shias took his time, letting Ben reveal traps ahead of him before advancing.
That wasn’t so bad. If we hurry, then…
Shana stopped in her tracks as she saw Maribelle dive to the side, barely avoiding a flash of green light. In the ground where Maribelle had once stood, three shimmering green arrows were embedded in the marble.
“As nimble as ever, Maribelle,” came a voice from atop the stairs. The woman who’d fired the arrows glared down at Maribelle with fierce, amber eyes. Her dark hair was worn in a single long braid, and she wore the uniform of the Royal Guards – white with golden buttons, the gloves on her hands bearing the emblem of a crown surrounded by ten stars. She augmented the uniform with a golden bracer along the arm that held aloft her tall, golden bow, while her other hand touched the bowstring with three fingers. A shimmering verdant arrow suddenly sparked to life, and the woman took aim once more.
Shana knew who she was, thanks to Maribelle drilling the Dawn Riders on the identities and abilities of all of the ten Royal Guards to the Radiant King. The woman readying to fire another arrow – and, Shana realized, the woman who’d set the traps all around them – was Artemis. That was the name she had chosen – whatever name she’d had before becoming a member of the Radiance was unknown, as all of them, fashioning themselves as gods, had chosen new names for themselves.
If Artemis was here, then it was highly likely her sister was here as well.
“It seems we underestimated them,” came a calm, serene voice from the left. Standing at the entrance to the outer staircase, with a posture that made it clear she was blocking escape by that route, was another member of the Royal Guard: Artemis’ sister, Athena. She was tall and fair, with grey eyes that gleamed with determination. On her left arm was a round, golden shield.
“They still won’t succeed,” Artemis said, firing four more arrows in rapid succession. Maribelle dodged them deftly, then stretched out her hand. Like Shana had seen before Dullan, reality itself seemed to tear open, revealing a strange, indescribable world. From that world, in a gleaming blaze of golden light, came Maribelle’s magical sword, Takina.
“Rae, you’re on Athena!” Shias called out, taking up a spot in the center of the room, near the fire pit with Shana. “Kathryn, go for Artemis! Ben, scout for other Guards and help support the others!”
“Platina’s on her way!” Ben shouted. “She’ll come from the left hall!”
As everyone else sprang into action, Shana found herself frozen in the middle of it all. The vine traps littered everywhere were disappearing, as Artemis engaged in open battle, raining arrows down at Maribelle and Kathryn. Brutus charged Athena, slamming down on her with his massive red fists, but Athena easily blocked them with her shield, as if they weighed nothing. Shias held his pen Talisman aloft, and shining white shields flashed here and there, defending his allies.
And here was Shana, unable to make her legs – or her mind – work.
“Shana, you know what to do,” Shias said, his voice calm and steady.
That simple phrase of encouragement sent a shock through Shana’s system. She knew, without seeing Shias’ face, that he’d noticed her struggle to move and realized exactly what was going through her mind: complete paralysis in the face of so many things happening at once, in the face of a desperate fight breaking out, the first fight Shana had been in since the debacle in the grove against Neith’s spider Summon.
Shana didn’t know what to do, not at first. But that line from Shias helped her to clear her mind and focus on what there was to do, to find the one thing in all this chaos that she was suited for.
That was her goal, and the goal of her entire team. She couldn’t lose sight of that, no matter how chaotic things became.
This wasn’t a fight to overpower an enemy. It was a fight to save a little girl.
Is she still there?
Shana was relieved to see that Annabelle continued to stand at the bottom of the stairs, watching the combat around her in fear and dismay. She’d tried to warn them, told them to flee.
But now that they were here, Annabelle wasn’t going anywhere.
She’s scared, more for us than her, but she isn’t leaving. The trap is sprung, her job’s done, but she isn’t leaving.
She’s hoping. She doesn’t think we can actually win, but she’s hoping that we can.
Around Annabelle were Kathryn and Maribelle, so close, and yet so far. They were at the stairs, but Artemis was far too dangerous to ignore for a moment to grab the girl and run. She rained arrows down at them with frightening speed and precision, and it was all Kathryn and Maribelle could do just to not get hit.
It’s gonna have to be me.
Shana smiled, staring straight at the little girl. “Annabelle!” she called out, and their eyes met. “I promised you that I’d come back, and that I’d bring Maribelle. Here we are.” She pointed at the little girl, mustering every ounce of determination that she could in the midst of such conflict and fear. “We’re getting you out of here, no matter what it takes!”
For a brief, passing moment, Annabelle smiled. That was all Shana needed.
“Altair, support Kathryn,” Shana said, and her little blue dog raced forward. His blue glow intensified, and a faint blue aura began to surround Kathryn. It was Altair using his Support Magic on her, which Shana had trained to serve two purposes. Both were very subtle.
The first helped boost the potency of the target’s magical skills, just a tiny bit. It would allow Kathryn to fight at her very best, and then some.
The second was, in Shana’s mind, the most important part: hope.
She and Altair had trained primarily in that one aspect. If she couldn’t fight – and she didn’t want to fight, for that matter – she’d find what she could do best. She could give her friends hope, even in the face of fear and overwhelming odds.
To Shana, hope was a better weapon, a better armor, than anything else.
I should probably take a bit of that hope for myself.
“You got this, Kathryn!” Shana shouted, forcing a smile on her face. Knowing Altair would take care of her best friend, Shana raced for Annabelle.
I never really thought about being on a battlefield like this. I gave all my magic to Altair, and all of that magic is focused on helping others. Which means he leaves me, and by myself, I’m completely defenseless.
Shana’s eyes suddenly lit up.
I gave him all of my magic… except for Conjuring. All I can Conjure are things from my library, and those are only books, but…
Shana reached through a portal into her magical library, snatching a sturdy tome she knew well. It had always stuck out to her, because it wasn’t just a hardcover – its cover was magically enhanced metal. Why someone wanted an armored textbook that could deflect magical attacks, Shana couldn’t fathom. But in this moment, she was glad she had it, and glad that she hadn’t forgotten it.
Now I have a shield! A heavy, awkward, kind of small shield. But it’s something.
And if I’m really in a pinch, I can Conjure more books and throw them at people!
I’d better pick the books carefully. I don’t want to cry later over something I actually wanted to read that I accidentally used as a weapon to save my life or my friends.
“The little lady won’t be going home with kidnappers,” came a warm, elegant voice. At the top of the stairs, a new member of the Royal Guard arrived. His honey-blonde hair was combed to the side, not a single strand out of place. He could have been a model or a movie star, with a jawline that looked chiseled out of marble. In his right hand he held a long, gleaming white sword, while strapped to his left arm was a kite-shaped shield emblazoned with the symbol of the crown surrounded by ten stars.
So that’s Galahad. Maribelle’s description of him was perfect: he looks completely full of himself.
But if he’s here, things are really getting rough.
Galahad and Platina were the frontline fighters of the Royal Guards, experienced and skilled in direct combat. Maribelle had said she could defeat either of them in a straight fight.
Either of them. Not both at once.
Kathryn was dancing left and right, deftly avoiding Artemis’ glowing arrows as she slowly climbed the stairs. She spun and twirled, her ribbon wands lashing out, but Artemis was agile as well. She leapt and spun, firing arrows even in midair. And the fight wasn’t as even as it looked – several arrows would have hit Kathryn, potentially fatally, but were deflected by a quick burst of white light: Shias’ Guardian Magic at work.
Even so, Artemis clearly needed to focus on Kathryn enough that Maribelle was free. Takina in hand, she charged up the stairs and intercepted Galahad. Golden, Japanese-style blade met white, European style sword in a harmonic burst of sound and blaze of sparkling light.
“I haven’t seen you in a very long time, Lady Maribelle,” Galahad said, perfectly white teeth shining as he smiled. “We always seem to be at odds.”
“You talk too much,” Maribelle replied. She slashed and lunged, launching a rapid offensive that forced Galahad back a step. The sword-fighters exchanged more than a dozen blows in the space of two or three seconds, a spectacular display of skill and speed that left Shana stunned for a moment.
Don’t get distracted!
Shana ran forward, finally managing to reach Annabelle. Holding her shield-book and bookmark Talisman in one hand, she took the little girl’s hand with her other.
“You’re ready to leave this place, right?” Shana asked.
Annabelle stared at her, eyes full of conflict, torn between hope and fear. “I…” she started, then her eyes flicked to her left, widening in fear. She tugged Shana towards the ground, and both girls dropped to their knees.
Something whizzed over Shana’s head, making her heart skip a beat. She looked up, and what she saw nearly made her heart stop entirely: a long, silver blade extended right through the spot where her head had just been.
“You’re faster than I thought, little Annabelle,” came the familiar, derisive voice of Platina. The impossibly long blade that was over Shana’s head retracted, zipping back over a hundred feet to the handle in Platina’s hand. The Royal Guard’s captain stood at the entrance to the second hallway, leaving the Dawn Riders now with only one avenue of escape that remained unblocked, and that was the path they’d come from.
Her weapon can extend to any length, just like Maribelle said.
It’s a lot scarier seeing it in person.
“You should all stop this farce and surrender,” Platina said, her voice somehow carrying through the large, boisterous space without shouting. “Our orders are to not kill you if we can help it – and of course we must spare the Dreamer – but it’s hard to guarantee your safety if you persist in such chaos.”
Yeah, I totally believe you after you nearly killed me a second ago – and I’m pretty sure that wasn’t an accident!
“Shias, take Galahad, I’ll –” Maribelle started, but was cut off by Shias.
“No,” he said, and Shana stared at her brother with shock. His eyes were narrowed in a venomous glare, directed straight at Platina. “She tried to kill my sister. Ben, you and I’ll handle her.”
“R-right,” one of the many Bens said, staring with trepidation at Platina. But at another look at Shias, his face suddenly resolved into one of confidence. “Right! Let’s do it!”
Ten Bens suddenly Blinked into place, surrounding Platina.
“Fools,” Platina said, rolling her eyes. She flicked the handle of her metal weapon, and the silver steel warped and twisted, shooting off to her right, directly at the heart of one of the Bens…
And was blasted into the marble floor by one of Shias’ shimmering white shields.
“We know what we need to do,” Shias said, eyes still fixed on Platina. “Let’s not waste any –”
Platina’s weapon extended with lightning speed, its coiled blade springing across the distance towards Shias. Shias didn’t even lift his Talisman, as a shield materialized and batted away the blade, knocking it into the fire pit in the center of the room. Glowing coals hissed as several were sent flying out onto the marble floor.
“Like I said, we underestimated them,” Artemis said, ducking – just in the nick of time – under one of Kathryn’s ribbon wands.
“Looks like your fight is still with me,” Galahad said, grinning at Maribelle as he attempted his own speedy offense. Maribelle instantly turned it back on him, forcing him up yet another stair as their duel resumed.
By the outer stairs, Rae and Brutus were knocked back by a blow from Athena’s shield. With just a gesture and an expression, Rae directed Brutus to turn away – and pick up the grand piano.
It was a massive instrument, nearly the size of Brutus himself, but he hefted it with ease. A powerful throw launched the piano through the air, and Shana couldn’t help but wince at the musical destruction that was about to ensue.
Athena caught the piano on her shield, a blast of golden light tossing it aside, but Brutus had used that brief moment where she was focused on the instrument to charge her, firing off a volley of powerful punches. Athena couldn’t block them all, and a punch to her stomach knocked her back. She vanished down the stairs, and Brutus charged after her, just as the piano landed with a sickening cacophony of notes and splitting wood on the floor near the fire pit. A few pieces of wood spun off into the fire, lighting instantly and sending spirals of orange flame shooting up into the air.
Ben’s doppelgangers charged at Platina. Her silver weapon flashed – coiling, warping, extending, bending, a vicious assault in all directions – and Shias’ shields flashed in response. Again and again, the skinny, not-at-all-intimidating Bens were defended, and Platina was forced to dodge, weaving away from the crowd, her face one of derision and annoyance at being forced back by relatively harmless children. Ben wasn’t a fighter – he couldn’t hurt Platina, even if he tried, and he was trying – and Shias’ skills were in defense, not offense. Yet their combination was enough to force the Royal Guard’s most fearsome warrior onto the defensive, simply because they created a wall that she couldn’t break through.
Kathryn, finding herself unable to gain more ground up the stairs, had taken to using one of her ribbon wands to grab small objects and the light, wire-frame chairs to throw at her opponent. Artemis remained undaunted and untouched, but her barrage of arrows slowed, allowing Kathryn to dance, spin, and weave her way closer to her foe.
“Annabelle,” Shana said, kneeling next to the little girl. “You created a portal to get us out of here last time. Can you do it again?”
“It would be dangerous,” Annabelle said. “If any of us are too close to the Royal Guards, they can follow us through. And when I create a portal, I have to enter it last.”
Shana’s heart sunk. If Annabelle had to enter the portal last, they wouldn’t be able to defend her.
If she was going to get them out of here with a portal, they were going to have to be somewhere safer.
“What’s the best way to safety?” Shana asked.
Annabelle pointed towards the outer stairs. The sounds of Rae and Brutus’ fight against Athena sounded from somewhere out of sight. “It leads to another building, and there aren’t any guards patrolling it right now,” Annabelle said. “But we’ll have to get past Athena.”
“What about back the way we came?” Shana asked.
“They’ll be coming to block your escape from that way any minute,” Annabelle said. “Or they already have, and are just hiding to surprise you if you try to go that way.”
The sudden cry came from Galahad, and Shana looked at the stairs to the throne room to see him flat on his back. His sword was nowhere to be seen, and his shield had been sliced from his arm. Blood trickled from thin cuts where the shield straps had been. Standing over him was Maribelle, pointing Takina at his chest.
“You’re useless!” Artemis shouted, firing a pair of arrows at Maribelle, who deflected them with her sword without even looking.
That moment diverted Artemis’ attention just enough that Kathryn was able to charge farther up the stairs, snagging the archer’s boot with one of her ribbon wands and pulling her feet out from under her, knocking her to the ground.
“You’re all useless!” Platina crowed, not that she could back it up. She’d been forced several dozen feet back down the hall she’d come from. Ben clones kept rushing at her, shielded by Shias’ Guardian Magic, and they kept Blinking and surrounding the woman so that she never had a chance to rush past him.
“Perhaps I can lend some assistance.”
This voice was a voice that Shana knew very well. It was the warm, echoing voice of the Radiant King, and it seemed to come from all around her, as if emitting from the very walls and floors themselves.
Shana looked at the stairs to the throne room, heart pounding. Was the Radiant King himself going to leave his throne and fight them? How powerful was he?
But no. The figure who rounded the corner, standing at the top of the stairs, was not the King.
In Shana’s mind, this new foe was definitely more intimidating.
Encased in golden armor from head to toe, with a giant golden sword as tall as he, the Gold Knight came to fight. Maribelle was the closest to him, and she immediately charged him, slashing with Takina.
And then… she stopped.
It didn’t look like Maribelle stopped on purpose. It was as if invisible hands had grabbed her sword arm, yanking her back. She stumbled away several steps, staring with wide eyes at the Gold Knight.
“That’s not…” she said in shock, “that’s not possible. I don’t understand.”
The Gold Knight raised his massive sword, gleaming in the golden light.
“Maribelle!” Shana shouted.
“Sister!” Annabelle cried.
Maribelle still didn’t move, her body shaking, her eyes wide, her mouth agape as she stared at the Gold Knight, his giant sword held aloft.
The sword swung down.
And hit… nothing.
The Gold Knight’s massive sword swung through empty space, and he stopped his stroke before it crashed through the ground, a shocking display of control.
Where was Maribelle?
Kathryn had grabbed her with one of her ribbons, pulling her out of the path of the sword just in the nick of time. Even Kathryn looked surprised, as if amazed she’d managed to pull that off.
Her astonishment costed her. Artemis took aim and loosed a pair of shining arrows. Kathryn dodged one, but the second pierced her shoulder. Crying out, Kathryn fell, tumbling down the stairs.
A sudden, booming sound took Shana’s attention away from her fallen friend, and her jaw dropped at what she saw. Up from the outer stairs came… Brutus. He was flying through the air, as if he’d been thrown, and in his arms he cradled Rae, turning so that he crashed to the floor back-first, cushioning the small girl from the fall. Up the stairs strode Athena, her hair slightly unkempt, her shield a little dirtier, but otherwise not showing any signs of wear or tiring from her battle with the massive Summon.
This can’t happen! Not now!
“Get her out of here!” Maribelle shouted. Shana looked up the stairs to the throne room and saw Maribelle dodging away from the Gold Knight, stepping in the path of Artemis so she could deflect her arrows with Takina. For Artemis had begun to take aim straight at Shana and Annabelle. “We can’t all escape. Get Annabelle to safety!”
“This isn’t…” Shana said softly, struggling for words.
“I can’t…” Annabelle said, trailing off as she stared up at her sister, bravely fighting on her behalf.
Shana’s eyes went to Brutus, barely conscious, holding Rae protectively as Athena stood over him. She looked to Ben and Shias, still courageously fighting against Platina, still managing to hold off the deadly warrior, though Ben was very clearly tiring. His doppelgangers moved slower, and he had dropped his total number of extra Bens from over a dozen to just six. It wasn’t just the physical exertion – magic took its toll on the mage, exacting a physical price for wielding it. Ben’s doppelganger technique was incredibly new, and even in training, he’d never pushed it this far. He was running out of stamina way too fast.
And then Shana’s eyes went to her best friend. Kathryn lay at the bottom of the stairs, clutching her shoulder, face twisted in pain. The arrow had vanished after striking her, but blood flowed freely from the wound. Altair nosed her shoulder, blue tendrils of light going from his face to the injury, doing his best to heal it. But Shana knew that Altair’s healing abilities were slow – it was the best they had managed to do with a short time to train.
You’re going to tell me to leave? Now?
Shana didn’t call out, but instead sent a mental message to Altair: Protect and heal Kathryn with all you’ve got. I’m counting on you to handle the stairs crew.
Then she rose. Annabelle looked at her questioningly.
“We’ve got to do something, right?” Shana asked. She wanted to force a smile, but she couldn’t. She was too angry, too frustrated with the turn of events, too irritated with herself for not being able to do more.
I can’t just stand by while my friends fight for me.
“Stay close,” Shana said, taking off as fast as she could straight for Athena.
“What are you doing?” Annabelle asked, still clutching Shana’s hand as she ran with her.
“Trying to save our heavy hitter, if I can,” Shana said. Athena wasn’t fighting, just watching Brutus carefully, in case he rose. Her only weapon – ostensibly also her Talisman – was a shield. Maribelle had explained that she was a lot like Shias. Athena had focused on Guardian Magic above all else, and was nearly impossible to overwhelm with force alone.
But if I get a little creative, I might be able to at least slow her down, distract her enough for Rae and Brutus to get away and work on giving us a different escape route.
Shana felt like she was close enough, so she raised her hand that clutched her Talisman. She’d only tried this a few times before, and never thought of it as a combat technique, but… well. This was the best she could do.
If she couldn’t be strong, she could be creative.
A portal opened above Athena, small and unobtrusive, an attempt to be stealthy. Out of it, as if Shana were tipping over bookshelves in her magical library, poured books.
Athena’s eyes flashed with momentary surprise, and she leapt backwards – farther away from Brutus and Rae – shield up and ready to defend herself. When all she saw was a dozen books falling a short distance out of the sky, she smiled.
Try this, then.
The portal closed, opening again behind Athena. Shana knew, from experience, that the portal to her magical library was completely, one hundred percent silent. No one could hear it open and close. It was a nifty trait, especially when Shana wanted to grab a book without letting on to her parents that she was awake so late on a school night.
Now, it came in handy for a totally different purpose.
Defying physics, books flew out of the portal directly at Athena’s back. One struck her, and she jumped in surprise, wheeling around, shield at the ready, then relaxed when she saw it was just books again.
“Rae, get moving,” Shana said quietly, staring at her friend. Rae was up now, realizing that Athena wasn’t threatening her, and shaking Brutus’ shoulder. Then, her eyes raised to Shana, sad and desperate. She shook her head, holding up her keychain Talisman to dismiss the giant Summon.
No. Brutus is… he’s exhausted? He needs to leave to rest?
I can’t hold off Athena any longer like this. What do we do now?
Shana glared, and moved her portal again, letting loose. With a little nudge from her Talisman, Shana tipped over more than half of the bookshelves in her magical library. Books of all sizes and shapes – many of which, Shana mournfully realized, she still wanted to re-read – came pouring out, faster and more violent than before. Athena wasn’t prepared for this, having seen the books as just brief annoyances, and was caught off-guard, toppling out of sight. Shana turned away, looking back around the battlefield.
Ben was spent. He’d dismissed all of his doppelgangers and Blinked away from the fight with Platina, now kneeling behind Shias in the center of the intersection, panting heavily and wiping sweat from his face. Platina tried to advance, but now Shias held her off alone, blocking both her coiling, warping, extending weapon and her body itself with his shining magical shields. He was more annoying than threatening to Platina, but he was succeeding – she couldn’t move forward. Her offensive against Shana’s twin was brutal and violent, though, and she was astonished that Shias could hold up so calmly under such danger. He barely moved, holding his shining pen Talisman in hand, his primary movement coming from his eyes as they tracked and anticipated Platina’s every move.
Up on the stairs, Galahad had risen. Unable to carry his shield, his sword arm was fine, and he, along with Artemis and the Gold Knight, were swiftly forcing Maribelle farther down the stairs. Kathryn rose, her shoulder healed, and Altair’s Support Magic raised another blue aura around her. She prepared to race to Maribelle’s assistance.
Shana’s eyes widened.
“Let’s go!” she shouted, racing towards the path from where they’d come, Rae and Annabelle following her. She knew from Annabelle’s warning that there could be danger waiting for them, but at the moment it was unblocked. If they all charged through it together, they could surely make a path.
“She’s right!” Ben said, nudging Shias gently. “The path back is open, and she’s got Annabelle. Let’s go!”
“You won’t make it!” Artemis shouted. Shana looked up at the archer, and suddenly raised her heavy book-shield as an arrow was loosed her direction. There was a whistle in the air, and then a brief, soft impact against the book.
Shana was unharmed.
It works! It really works! But…
Shana ducked as more arrows were loosed her direction. While Maribelle was forced down the stairs, Artemis still stood at the top, and now she had a line of sight to Shana that Maribelle couldn’t guard. Luckily, there was furniture near Shana, and she pulled Annabelle and Rae with her behind a couch. Shana kept her book-shield up and ready just in case. Arrows thumped against the couch, but apparently the furniture here was sturdy enough to withstand magical attacks.
Then, quite suddenly, the impacts against the couch ceased.
“Get moving!” Shias shouted, his voice making Shana’s heart leap.
For a moment, that commanding, clear tone sounded an awful lot like Caleb.
Shana rose, and saw that Shias was pushing himself even further than before. Platina was still kept at bay, but now Artemis’ arrows, Galahad, and even the Gold Knight, were being held off by shimmering white shields phasing into and out of existence.
How long can he hold that up?
“Come on!” Shana shouted, racing towards the hallway, Annabelle and Rae close behind her. Ben met them, barely able to keep up with them – he was completely and utterly spent. Kathryn soon arrived, and then finally Maribelle, though she kept glancing back at Shias.
“He can’t keep that up,” she said.
“Look,” Shana said, nodding to her brother.
Shias had noticed that the rest of them were ahead of him, so he had started moving towards them at a swift walk that occasionally broke out into a run. His attention was heavily divided, but he was moving incredibly fast for someone using so much magic in so many places at once against so many dangerous foes.
“Altair!” Shana shouted as her little blue dog ran alongside her. “Recon!” Altair barked once, charging ahead – his energy never seemed to diminish. He disappeared around the hall, and instantly barked a warning.
“I’ll handle it,” Maribelle said, taking the lead of their fleeing group, Takina at the ready. She vanished around the corner, and there was a sudden yelp from a new voice.
“What’s happening?” the voice cried, and Shana recognized it. Rounding the corner, she saw the Royal Guard who had been so adoring over Annabelle when Shana and the others had first been in the throne room.
Her name’s Hestia. She was so happy that Annabelle wanted to hug me… I wonder how she feels now that she knows that was a trick to help us escape.
Hestia seemed like the youngest of the Royal Guard, with a smooth complexion, bright, youthful eyes, and flowing brown curls. She was a Support specialist for the Royal Guards, but alone she wasn’t much of a combatant at all. Maribelle had stopped short of her, pointing Takina at her threateningly, while Altair…
Altair was nuzzling against Hestia’s leg, wagging his tail.
“Don’t hurt her!” Shana suddenly shouted, racing forward. Maribelle stepped back, eyeing Shana suspiciously. Shana knelt right next to Hestia, patting Altair on the head. “He can tell friend from foe. So she’s good.”
“I don’t understand what’s going on,” Hestia said, voice shaking. She looked past Shana, and when her eyes fell on Annabelle, they widened. “Anna! What are you doing out here? Are you…”
“I’m leaving,” Annabelle said firmly. She jogged up to Hestia and held out her hand. “You were always good to me, though. I hope you won’t try to stop me.”
“But…” Hestia shook her head. “I thought you were a guest of the King. I thought… I thought… I don’t understand what’s going on.”
“We’re being pursued by your friends,” Shana said. She glanced back, saw Shias round a corner. Finally, after all he’d done, he started to look like he was struggling, Sweat ran down his face, and his breathing was coming faster. “Please. Annabelle was a prisoner. We’re trying to rescue her. Let us go, please.”
Hestia hesitated for several seconds that, in their current situation, felt like an eternity. She looked at Shana, at Altair, at Annabelle. She looked beyond them at Shias, who still desperately fought to defend the rest of them.
“I…” Hestia started, her eyes suddenly flashing with determination. “There isn’t much I can do. And I still don’t understand what’s going on. And I… I’m going to be in so much trouble. But…” She looked to Annabelle once again, and her eyes swam. A single tear ran from her left eye and down her cheek. “Oh, Anna. I wish you had more time to explain. But if you were ever wronged here…” She looked up, clearly frightened, but doing her best to find her courage. “I will do my best to make it right. Please forgive me. And please forgive the others. Good luck. And I… I know I don’t have any right to say this, but…”
“We need to go!” Maribelle snapped, staring exasperatedly at the drawn-out conversation.
Hestia ran towards Shias, looking quickly back at Annabelle – possibly for the last time.
“I hope we can meet again!” she called out, her voice breaking on the last syllable. She passed Shias, and then Shias was running, racing to his friends.
And then they were all running, turning several corners before they found an open atrium. Altair sprinted faster than he ever had, checking every corner for safety while Annabelle and the others gathered in the center of the atrium.
“Ready to get out of here?” Shana asked, smiling at Annabelle.
Annabelle, for her part, looked like she was struggling to hold back tears. She nodded. “Yes. Let’s go. Remember, when you feel the tug of the portal, give in to it. Let it take you.”
“Where are we going?” Maribelle asked.
“Does it even matter at this point?” Kathryn asked. “As long as it isn’t here.”
The portal suddenly appeared, high above them, and Shana felt it tugging at her. Unlike the last time, she smiled, and easily gave herself up to it. She held up her bookmark, calling Altair to her, and held him tightly in her arms as she was pulled into the sky. Just as she was fading away, she heard Annabelle answer Maribelle’s question.
“Mother had a place for us to go if we ever lost our way,” she said. “There’s someone we need to meet. He’ll help us get back home.”