Chelsea clicked her lighter, blasting the dark-suited man with a powerful torrent of emerald flame.
The fire lit up the entire courtyard, giving detail to the shadows and shapes of the fountain and statues. It would have been a pleasant place if the Library wasn’t infested with darkness.
“Don’t burn any of the plants, please,” Isabelle said, fixing Chelsea with a pleading look.
Right. Like how you told me not to burn the trees on Hollow Island and I…
Chelsea nodded. “You got it, kid.” She took a step back and towards the right, still holding Isabelle’s hand, and the little girl followed. One blast of fire would definitely not be enough for this guy – there was something very wrong about him, and Chelsea had a feeling she was going to need everyone with her to have a real chance of fighting him.
“That was unnecessary,” came the man’s melodic baritone. “I don’t need you. Simply leave the princess behind and go on your way.”
“That’s not gonna happen,” Chelsea said, blasting the still burning man with another shot of fire.
From the crackling flames came a weary sigh. “I really do prefer not to fight,” the man said. “It’s not my strong suit. But, if you insist…”
Here it comes.
A sudden flash of movement, and Chelsea ducked, pulling Isabelle to the ground with her. Something thin and sharp shot over their heads, zipping through the rose bushes behind them with the barest rustle of plant life.
“Your arm is injured,” the man said. He waved his hand, and the fires surrounding him floated away into nothing like wisps on the wind. His hair, his clothes, and his skin all seemed completely untouched by the fire.
Great. I can’t burn him. The one thing I can do, and it doesn’t faze him at all.
“I don’t need both arms to kick your butt,” Chelsea said, glaring at the mysterious archer. He’d already set another arrow to his bowstring. It was an odd-looking projectile. The shaft twisted in a corkscrew shape, and instead of arrows for fletching, it had small, black leaves. The head itself was shaped like a pitchfork, with three wickedly sharp points.
“Is this confrontation necessary?” the man asked. “I have work to do. I’d rather not drag this out.”
If he needs Isabelle so much, why didn’t he attack before? He seemed to be made of living darkness, so he’s probably tied to it.
We’ve gone deeper into the Library. Maybe he couldn’t do anything to us when we were farther out, where the darkness was weakest?
But I don’t see any of the darkness here. There’s just him. Maybe because he’s close enough? He probably came with that wave of darkness, but then where did all of that darkness go after it hit us?
And where is everyone else?
Chelsea’s owl still hadn’t spotted any of her companions, and the more time went on, the more it made her worry. The gardens were still far larger than she could wrap her mind around, and he hadn’t searched every part of them, but if he still hadn’t found them, that meant that Chelsea and Isabelle were barely thrown by the wave of darkness at all, and everyone else…
Well, they’d better be alive. I just started to get really close to Gwen and Delilah. And Merric’s a coward, but he’s getting better, and we do need him.
Lorelei, you especially can’t die. Of course, knowing you, you’ll show up at the last possible minute to save us all.
You’re kind of a jerk like that.
The man raised his bow, pulling back the arrow. It was a smooth, languid motion that caught Chelsea off-guard.
What caught her even more off-guard was how quickly the arrow was suddenly in flight.
It was Isabelle this time who saved Chelsea, pushing her aside. The three-pronged arrow zipped past her face by mere inches, and yet the wind that flowed with it seemed to sting Chelsea’s face in an unnatural way.
What the heck just happened?
Chelsea couldn’t wrap her mind around it. He’d moved so slowly, or so it had seemed, but then, all of a sudden, he’d finished his movement, and the arrow was in flight.
He’s messing with my perception. Illusion Magic? That’s assuming he’s a mage, which… well, I’m not even sure he’s human. I have to be ready to move as soon as he starts.
“Princess, I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t interfere,” the man said, his dark eyes turning on Isabelle.
That turned on a lightbulb in Chelsea’s mind.
She can see his motions properly. I don’t know how, but…
Wait. Caleb said way back when that she wasn’t affected by his Time Magic, either.
This girl’s pretty amazing. I don’t know why she can do so many cool things, but I’m not about to complain about it.
“Let me know the instant before he fires,” Chelsea said softly. Isabelle nodded, her face scrunched up in determination.
The man set another arrow against the string, his motions, as before, so slow and relaxed that Chelsea couldn’t believe it. She had all the time in the world to watch him, to wait for him…
No. Trust Isabelle. Be ready to dodge. And then see if you can do something about his bow. Maybe that’ll burn easier than the rest of him.
“Down and right,” Isabelle whispered, nudging Chelsea. She ducked, stepping to the right, and the next arrow – when had the man finished aiming? – shot over and past her. Chelsea instantly clicked her light, shooting a thin, swift-moving line of flame straight for the archer’s weapon. The flames came to life, coiling around the bow and then smothering it.
The man simply sighed. He waved his free hand, and the fire wafted away into nothingness. His bow was untouched.
Chelsea pursed her lips, thinking and focusing rather than letting her ineffectiveness get under her skin.
If the fire doesn’t hurt him, why brush it away at all? He looks unharmed, but… maybe he has a limit? Maybe my flames actually do something, and I’ll just have to hit him, like… a billion times?
Or maybe he just finds it annoying, and I’m finding hope where there’s none.
Let’s pretend it’s the former.
Chelsea shot three small orbs of flame which arced up and then dropped low, landing at the man’s feet at three different points, surrounding him. They suddenly burst into life, shooting flames ten feet into the air and surrounding the archer with a ring of fire.
“Let’s get moving,” Chelsea said, pulling Isabelle lightly with her injured arm. “I don’t like our odds if we just stand here.”
The girls started running, but at the familiar noise of an arrow fwipping off the bowstring, Chelsea ducked. An arrow flashed overhead, and she kept running, leaving the courtyard behind. She and Isabelle ran along the stone paths, turning left, then right, passing through two more courtyards, each different from the last.
“You won’t find an escape,” the man’s voice said, seeming to come from multiple directions at once. “Why do you think I brought you into this garden?”
“So he has us trapped here,” Chelsea said, pausing at a statue. She cast about, but saw no signs of the man in black. “Isabelle, do you know where we are? And if Merric’s okay, do you have any ideas of where he might go in times of danger?”
Isabelle nodded, pointing past the hallway-bridge, which they had almost reached. “There are two major courtyards that way. The first one’s close, but the second one is really far away.”
“Then it’s probably the second one,” Chelsea said. Her owl Summon still hadn’t found the others. “Let’s check them both to be safe. Can you still run?”
Isabelle nodded, smiling for a moment. “I’ve got tons of energy!”
Chelsea led the way, following Isabelle’s directions. A sudden sound made her stop in her tracks, and an arrow struck the ground just inches ahead of her. Its three-pronged tip seemed to ooze darkness into the stones of the path, and Chelsea and Isabelle quickly rushed past it.
His arrows create darkness? Then…
Chelsea touched her cheek, where an arrow had almost struck her. The spot stung, and she pulled her hand away, but didn’t see anything.
“Hey, how’s my face look?” Chelsea asked, ducking behind a low stone wall.
“It looks like a rug burn,” Isabelle said.
“So it isn’t black and inky and gross?” Chelsea asked.
Isabelle shook her head. “It’s red.”
Well, that’s a relief.
Just as Chelsea and Isabelle started running again, an arrow arced up and over the wall to strike the ground right where they’d been hiding.
“Where are you?” Chelsea shouted, continuing to look about as she ran. She saw no signs of the dark-suited archer. If she could, she’d send flames all over the place, but she wasn’t about to torch Isabelle’s home. These gardens seemed like they’d be beautiful if the darkness wasn’t here. Chelsea didn’t want to ruin that for the little girl.
“I prefer not to be seen,” the man’s voice said. “I revealed myself earlier in the hopes that the princess would come with me quietly. But as I said, I am not much of a fighter. I’d prefer to stack the odds in my favor. I’m sure you understand.”
Yeah, I understand how annoying this is.
“The first courtyard is up ahead,” Isabelle said, pointing to a stone archway farther up the path. A shadow-Howler suddenly leapt into the path, and Chelsea roasted it, burning it to nothing with a vicious blast of fire.
Then they were through the archway, and Chelsea was impressed. The gardens had seemed rather claustrophobic so far, since there was so little light to see by. But she could tell instantly that this space was large and open, and it was a breath of fresh air after the tighter pathways. There were several stone tables, chairs, and benches, and in the center was a large statue on a pedestal. It was of a young woman, and for a moment, Chelsea gasped. She looked so much like Lorelei at first glance. Her hair was tied in a single braid, and she had a very similar build to Chelsea’s best friend.
But no, it couldn’t be Lorelei. The braid was much longer than Lorelei’s, and she wore only a simple dress – she was barefoot, just like Isabelle.
The eyes were what sold it for Chelsea. Despite the age difference, they still had the wide, curious aura to them that Isabelle’s had.
“That’s my big sister Mari,” Isabelle said, smiling up at the statue.
Well, she did say Lorelei reminded her of her big sister. Now I know why.
The shadows around the perimeter of the courtyard stirred, and Chelsea held Isabelle close to her. All around the pair of them, shadow-Hollows appeared. There were mostly Hollows, but she spotted a few Splicers among them as well.
“What, you don’t want to fight us yourself?” Chelsea asked.
“How many times must I repeat that I am not a very able fighter?” the man in black’s voice asked. “Please surrender. My time is quite valuable, and I hate to waste it on chases with inevitable outcomes.”
Chelsea glared at the dark monsters around her defiantly. “You shouldn’t be so sure of yourself.” She clicked her lighter, and emerald flames rolled forth, racing around the perimeter, carefully avoiding plant life and stone furniture as they swallowed up shadow-beasts left and right. A Howler leapt out of the way, only to have the flames alter course and devour it. A Splicer was even faster in its evasion, and Chelsea clicked her lighter again, giving that monster its own personal torching.
Within seconds, the two dozen Hollows were gone, leaving Chelsea and Isabelle alone in the courtyard once more. Chelsea smiled proudly.
It’s really easy to take out large groups when I have so much open space. This is my element.
“Hey Isabelle, can you find us a way to the second courtyard that uses the widest paths and most open spaces possible?” Chelsea asked.
Isabelle nodded, pointing past the statue of her sister to an archway. “Through there,” she said.
They ran again, and Chelsea took a new approach during their flight. Occasionally she held her lighter up to the sky and clicked it once, launching a blast of emerald flame as high up as she could, like a flare.
Lorelei, I know if you’re okay you’ll see those and come running.
I hope you find that stupid archer man on the way. I’m sick of not knowing where he is.
“Watch out!” Isabelle said in a loud whisper, tugging Chelsea towards the ground. Chelsea ducked, and an arrow went whizzing over her head.
“I don’t know how you noticed that, kid, but thanks,” Chelsea said, smiling. Before she could continue running, three shadow-Howlers blocked the path. Surrounding rings of fire made short work of them, but then Chelsea was ducking under another arrow.
He doesn’t shoot very fast. His individual movements – draw to aim to shoot – is a lot faster than it appears when watching, but he takes a long time between shots.
That’s helpful to know. Hopefully it doesn’t change.
A message came from Chelsea’s owl as she continued running. Unlike Delilah, Chelsea couldn’t hear and see exactly what her Summon was thinking and saying, but she could understand without actual words. Her owl had spotted something he’d never seen before, but somehow he knew it was connected to Delilah. It was blue, and moving fast in their direction.
Blue? Connected to Delilah… does she have a fourth Summon we’ve never seen?
They passed through another small courtyard, where Chelsea defended Isabelle from an attempted ambush by Splicers. Their bladed arms were frightening, and they moved quite fast, but they’d picked the wrong place to attack. Chelsea had enough space to see them all at once and let loose with her flames, torching the monsters. Another arrow breezed past her face, and the wind from it stung her skin something fierce.
Despite his desire to take Isabelle, he doesn’t seem to be trying very hard. He isn’t sending many Hollows at once – assuming he’s the one in control of them – and he still hasn’t managed to hit me with his arrows, even though I can’t see him at all.
Maybe he really is just bad at fighting, like he said. In that case, I don’t need to worry.
What I’m worried about is that he’s a lot more dangerous than he says he is. After all, I blasted him with tons of fire, and he wasn’t even singed. Even his hair was fine, and I know how easily hair burns.
“Through there!” Isabelle said, pointing. A bushy archway was ahead, trimmed into being from the hedges. They passed through it, and the space closed in around them. Hemmed in by hedge walls, they turned left, then right, and then Chelsea stopped. Isabelle looked up at her inquisitively.
“Don’t tell me…” Chelsea said, eyeing Isabelle.
Isabelle grinned. “It’s a hedge maze!” she said happily. “We have the advantage, because I know the way.”
“You do know my magic is all about burning things, right?” Chelsea asked, following Isabelle’s lead.
“You have that magic type that makes you super-strong and fast, right?” Isabelle asked. “Just punch the monsters if they catch us.”
I’m not a martial artist, kid. My whole fighting style, everything I’ve trained for, revolves around shooting stuff from a distance.
There wasn’t much point in explaining that to Isabelle. Chelsea could do precise flame shots, anyway, they just weren’t very powerful. With most enemies, she wouldn’t mind the strength reduction, but with these strange shadow-Hollows…
She couldn’t see any vital points. Their eyes, the insides of their mouths, none of that was visible. They were inky black silhouettes given three-dimensional form, with no distinguishing features aside from their size and shape. Chelsea’s precision shots were most effective when she could accurately target weak points like a Hollow’s eyes.
Just throttle it back until you find the right balance. Assuming you have to – Isabelle knows her way, so we might be safe for a little bit.
Chelsea’s owl relayed another message about the mysterious blue Delilah thing. It was much closer now, though it had slowed down to almost a crawl. It was somewhere off to Chelsea’s left, outside the hedge maze.
If it’s slowed down that much…
Delilah probably sent it ahead, and it’s spotted the big bad archer boy, so it’s looking for a way to sneak up on him. Nice work.
Feeling her heart swell with pride, Chelsea was taken aback for a moment. For so long she’d been close to Caleb, but not any of his siblings. She sort of knew Shana – the energetic girl thought Chelsea was so cool and always wanted to spend time with her when they were around each other, which wasn’t often. She’d met Fae and Shana once each, and didn’t get much of an impression of them. Delilah, until this excursion into the Enchanted Dominion, Chelsea had met three separate times, but it was when the blonde girl was younger and very shy. She hadn’t heard her speak more than two words before recently.
Why did she feel so attached to, and affectionate towards, the younger girl all of a sudden?
Chelsea smiled. She knew why.
It all started with Gwen. We went to her house, and while she was making us new clothes, the rest of us all took a nap on her couch. Isabelle slept on Lorelei, and Delilah took a nap against my shoulder. She even drooled on my sleeve – which was adorable.
That was the big binding moment for us. Isabelle became totally attached to Lorelei, and Delilah became much more open with me. And then the five of us spent all that time in the Starlight Spires making our way to Millennium Vista, and now here in the Library… I was away from everyone but Gwen most of the time, but…
We’ve really grown close. And I didn’t even realize it was happening.
“Here’s our exit,” Isabelle said, tugging Chelsea along through another hedge archway and out into the open gardens. The instant they left, Chelsea spotted the massive dark forms leaping into the sky in an ambush.
“You’ll have to try better than that!” she shouted defiantly, clicking her lighter. Emerald flames flew forward in a spiral, engulfing the shadow-beasts, and all were reduced to nothingness long before they would have hit the ground.
A tug on Chelsea’s hand made her duck, just as an arrow nearly took her head off. And then a message from her owl, not in words, but clear enough that Chelsea could translate it easily: bad man is left. Blue thing about to attack.
Chelsea stayed low, taking Isabelle along a leftward path. Another arrow shot by – Isabelle somehow knew exactly where it would be, and pulled Chelsea out of the way – and then Chelsea saw it. There was a faint blue light, about a hundred yards off, slowly moving to her left and towards her.
“Do you see the archer man?” Chelsea asked.
Isabelle shook her head, though she pointed to the left. “He’s somewhere over there, but I’m not entirely sure,” she said. “He moves fast whenever I’m not looking, so I usually can’t see him.”
“Let’s see what we can do about him,” Chelsea said. She wanted to tell Isabelle to stay low and keep quiet, but she couldn’t let the little girl go. Chelsea couldn’t see where the man in black was, and she struggled to know when the arrows would come her way. She wanted to protect Isabelle, but she couldn’t do that if she was dead. In order to protect the girl, she was going to have to keep her in danger, right by Chelsea’s side.
The pair dashed forward, stopping suddenly to let an arrow slam into the stone path before them, and then continued. Chelsea sent a flare up into the sky, ran a few more paces, then stood and sent a torrent of flame blasting off to her left. The emerald fire illuminated the area, bathing it in green, and Chelsea spotted the moving shadow of the man. She sent another blast of flame his way, then ducked as an arrow came flying back at her.
Keep his attention on me. Help that little blue guy – whatever he is – get the jump on him.
Though this is kind of annoying. I can handle monsters and Hollows so easily, but when I’m faced with humans – or humanoid archer people – I’m totally outclassed.
Chelsea’s thoughts went to her battle with Anastasia in the Wood of the Wisps, where her objective had quickly changed from “beat this lady and save Isabelle” to “buy time for everyone else to get here and save the day.” It had been a humbling moment that shattered her lofty perception of her own power. Now that she was once again facing down an opponent she couldn’t easily defeat – who she couldn’t, so far, even harm – she wasn’t as off her game. She remained focused, with a new realization in mind.
I am not very strong.
It was something that she never would have imagined thinking back in Grimoire. Even in the days after fighting Anastasia, the thought never really entered her mind.
It wasn’t until facing down the darkness and her own demons, and coming face to face with who she was – and how to change that person into who she wanted to be – that she was able to wake up.
I am not very strong. And that’s okay. I can get stronger. But more than that, strength isn’t everything. Standing brave and tall all alone against danger isn’t everything.
I have friends. I have a family, even if they aren’t related by blood. I have love for those long gone, and for those still with me.
I recognize my weakness, and I choose not to be afraid in the face of it. And somehow, knowing how weak I am makes me feel so much stronger.
Chelsea ducked another arrow, continuing to pour carefully controlled fire out towards the man in black. She had a clear fix on him now, and he wasn’t moving much. He realized that Chelsea was standing her ground, and probably figured he didn’t need to hide anymore. After all, Chelsea couldn’t hurt him.
Finally, the flash of blue movement Chelsea was waiting for happened. Delilah’s messenger, or whatever he was, leapt into the air, and even in that brief moment, Chelsea could see what he was.
He was, of course, a Feline.
Dressed in a stylish tuxedo – rather like a butler’s uniform, Chelsea realized – this new Feline leapt into battle with a long cane in hand. Pulling at one end, the top of the cane came off like a handle, connected to a long, shimmering blue whip. The whip lashed out, wrapped around the man’s arms, tying them to his sides, and then pulled, forcing the man to stagger back a step.
Seeing the blue Feline land safely out of range of her attacks, Chelsea torched the man in black once more. Meeting the Summon’s eyes, Chelsea grinned, and to her surprise, the Feline responded with a gesture like he was tipping his hat, though he didn’t wear one. That just made Chelsea laugh as she blasted the man in black with fire again and again.
So he’s a Feline of refined tastes. Delilah, I like your style.
In the flames that obscured the archer, Chelsea saw a flash of blue light. The Feline’s whip went spinning back to him, and Chelsea ducked, knowing what was coming next. An arrow shot over her head, followed by a weary sigh from the man in black.
“Have you yet realized that you cannot defeat me?” he asked. “You can be joined by all of your friends and it will mean nothing. All you do is delay your demise.”
I’m fine with delaying my demise. I’d like to delay it for a very long time, actually.
The blue Feline leapt out of the way of an arrow directed his way, then lashed the man’s bow hand. The man in black frowned, then tugged in his languid, deceptively slow way of moving. The blue Feline was tossed into the air, and the man lined up another arrow.
Chelsea tried a new tactic. Raising her lighter, she shot a barrage of tiny bolts of fire, no larger around than the tip of her little finger. They struck the man in black in the eyes, and she kept firing with pinpoint precision, targeting his eyes again and again. The man shook his head in irritation, turning away from Chelsea, but she raced around him, continuing to burn his eyes.
So there is something I can do to affect him. Whether or not it hurts doesn’t matter. I can stop him from seeing, which stops him from aiming, which stops him from shooting.
Maybe all I can do is delay him, buy time until the others get here. But I’m holding on a lot better than I did against Anastasia.
It feels good to be useful for a change.
The blue Feline managed to land safely back on the ground and pull his whip back to him, and Chelsea continued to pour tiny, whistling bolts of flame straight into the archer’s eyes. Wherever the other’s were, Chelsea didn’t know. However long it would take them to reach her, she didn’t know.
But right here, right now, aided only by a small blue cat-person and a little girl, Chelsea wasn’t afraid.