Felix, Nekoma, and Redmond were alongside her, spaced out enough that they could protect her in the mysterious gardens while also watching out for the rest of her companions.
And then there was Reginald.
When Delilah and her Summons were hit by the wave of darkness, they’d been separated from everyone else. For quite some time, Delilah had hunkered down in a dark corner, hiding, afraid of what might happen next. Where had the dark wave come from? What if it came back again? That sudden, overwhelming feeling of helplessness had crushed her, left her adrift and lost for the brief moments in which she was tossed about by the wave, and Delilah never wanted to feel that again.
But she couldn’t just hide. Chelsea, Lorelei, and Gwen could fight, so they might be fine even separated from Delilah.
But what about Isabelle? Merric? They’d be helpless. If they weren’t with one of the other fighters, Delilah needed to be looking for them.
Besides, she couldn’t forget one advantage she had over all of her companions: she could be in more than one place at once.
That was why she called upon Reginald. While she kept her three main Summons nearby, Reginald was small, so he wasn’t as easy of a target, and made for a great scout. Plus, the fighting style she’d chosen for him worked best for disarming and disabling threats so that he could make an escape. He’d be all right. If things got to be too much, Delilah could just call him back.
Redmond, get up high. Delilah sent the message through her thoughts, not daring to speak a word. The gardens were frighteningly, crushingly dark. Enemies could be anywhere. She’d seen enough of how those shadow-beasts just formed out of the darkness, sometimes coming straight out of seemingly innocuous shadows for surprise attacks. She was already lit up by her Summons – she didn’t need to be loud, as well.
She thought about hopping onto her Mobility disc platform and floating above the fray, but…
In truth, she was too afraid. That would certainly make her a major, obvious target. And none of her Summons could fly. She didn’t want to do that unless she knew the area, and she just couldn’t see enough in these darkened gardens. It was only thanks to the glow from her Felines that she avoided crashing through rose bushes or stomping through fountains.
Reginald sent her a message: he’d spotted Chelsea’s owl Summon! For a moment, Delilah was stunned by what she was hearing from him. Her Felines had never interacted with other Summons, so she’d never actually heard messages from Summons that didn’t belong to her. At first, the voice of Chelsea’s owl was so foreign, Delilah couldn’t understand it at all.
But Reginald could, and he translated for her.
Chelsea and Isabelle are together. They’re fighting a man, and it isn’t going well for them.
Fighting a man? There were other people in this place? From what Delilah got in feelings and impressions from the two far-off Summons, the man probably wasn’t human, and he was very dangerous. He seemed to be working with the darkness – or was he in charge of the darkness? Delilah wasn’t getting straight answers, because the owl just didn’t know completely.
Still, Isabelle at least wasn’t alone.
Go help them out, Reginald. Be careful and focus on support. If things get too rough, I’ll pull you out of there. Redmond, see if you can catch up to him and give them extra assistance.
The rest of us need to focus on finding the other helpless person in our group: Merric.
Nekoma stayed by Delilah’s side, while Felix began taking on Redmond’s role of speedy scout. The orange swordmeowster was just as fast and agile as the green captain of the Catwood Company, but Redmond often took up the scouting role because he did his best fighting from a distance. Felix would be fine, though, and Nekoma…
Delilah smiled up at the armored purple Feline. She wasn’t fast like the others, but she was strong and dependable. Delilah knew she was safe with Nekoma at her side.
They continued on through the gardens, with Delilah completely marveling at the enormity of the space. When Reginald had come into contact with Chelsea’s owl, Delilah knew the direction they were in, and kept her eye on the skies, but she didn’t see the glowing white owl anywhere. The gardens were simply too vast, and to think that she and Chelsea had been tossed so far in opposite directions was shocking to her.
What was more worrisome was that she hadn’t been attacked yet. Her Felines acted as beacons, so surely shadow-beasts could see her, and yet the only fear she had was fear of the unknown, fear of a possible attack that had so far never come.
So what are they waiting for? Or…
Delilah spurred herself and her Felines on faster. If Chelsea was under attack, it was probably because she had Isabelle with her. After all, Isabelle was a Princess of Solitude. She was the key to freeing this entire place from darkness.
The only other person in their group who might actually be important would be the one who knew so much about the Library of Solitude: its head librarian, Merric.
He might be able to at least run away, normally. But when the wave of darkness had hit them, the librarian was still tied to his fluffy cushioned wheelchair. He couldn’t even wheel himself around because of how his hands were bound. Wherever he landed, he’d be completely and utterly helpless.
Please find him, Felix! We can’t let anything happen to him!
Felix raced back and forth, his keen Feline eyes helping him find his way deftly through and over the dense foliage of this foreign place. He darted this way and that, combing the gardens in a wide pattern, looking everywhere for the wayward librarian. Meanwhile, Delilah and Nekoma kept a steady forward pace. They’d keep heading towards Chelsea, and if they didn’t find anyone else before then, they could back her up, help her defeat this strange and dangerous man who was giving even Chelsea –the most fearsome fighter Delilah had ever seen – trouble. Then they could all work together to find Merric. Delilah would keep Felix looking for him on his own until the librarian was found.
Far ahead, Delilah could get impressions and even brief glimpses of the battle unfolding. Chelsea and Reginald were in combat against a man in a dark suit and tie. He looked strangely ordinary, except that he carried a tall, wicked looking bow, and a quiver of arrows that never seemed to diminish was slung on his back. Chelsea blasted him with fire, Reginald pulled at him with his whip, and yet the man continually looked unscathed. Chelsea fired darts of green flame to scorch the man’s eyes, and while the light blinded him as long as the fire was there, it never did damage, and Chelsea had to keep up the pinpoint assault to keep him from being able to see.
Who doesn’t get burned by fire? Even his clothes are fine. This man…
Delilah noticed something else. Chelsea was only using one of her lighters, in her right hand. Her left arm hung limp at her side, and there was noticeable bruising on that hand.
Redmond, hurry. You have the traps. You can lock this man down – assuming he can be locked down.
Racing onward as fast as her small frame could carry her, Delilah did her best to stay calm and focus on many things at once. There was Felix looking for Merric – he’d alert her if he found anyone or anything important, so she didn’t need to constantly monitor him. Nekoma was by her side, so that was another thing she could be at peace about. Reginald was fighting, so she only needed brief reports from him, and Redmond was almost there.
And as she kept an eye on her Felines’ eyes, Delilah also needed to keep an eye on her own immediate surroundings. She was the most vulnerable of her group.
A sudden noise ahead made Delilah come to a skidding halt, nearly tumbling forward and faceplanting on the stone path. She ducked behind a stone pedestal, her heart beating so loud she felt like her chest was about to burst open.
“Delilah?” came a voice that instantly allayed Delilah’s fears. She leapt up, laying eyes on Lorelei, and ran forward, wrapping her arms around her in a hug.
“Oh, thank goodness you’re here!” she said. “Lorelei, I…” She found her heart caught in her throat, and for a moment couldn’t speak as she fought back tears.
Don’t cry. It’s okay. You were scared. But it’s okay now. Now isn’t the time for tears. Come on eyes, don’t start leaking on me!
“I’m glad you’re okay,” Lorelei said, holding Delilah tight. “I can’t find anyone else. I saw flares from Chelsea just a moment ago, but they’re very far away.”
“I know where she is,” Delilah said, standing up straight and composing herself. “Isabelle’s with her. And I sent Redmond to help her. She’s in a fight against a strange man that can’t be burned by her fire. And her left arm is injured. I don’t know how badly.”
Lorelei nodded, not betraying any emotion on her face as she raised her right hand, tugging down on her Talisman glove to make sure it was secure. “Then we need to find Merric. He’s in the most danger, especially if Gwen isn’t with him.”
Delilah blinked, taking a moment to respond. Lorelei didn’t want to run straight to Chelsea’s aid?
Lorelei noticed Delilah’s confusion and smiled. “She’ll be fine,” she said. “As long as we’re quick about things, she’ll be all right. If the man she’s fighting can’t be burned, well, that’ll just get her even more fired up. Besides, if we ran to help her when someone actually helpless is unaccounted for, she would be very cross, with me at least. After all, I’m a Hunter. I’m supposed to have my priorities in place in times of crisis.”
Delilah nodded and followed Lorelei, explaining to her how Felix was combing the area in search of Merric, and hadn’t found any signs of him yet.
“It’s frustrating,” Lorelei said, stopping in the center of an open courtyard. “This place is huge. We’re heading in Chelsea’s general direction, but what if he’s in the opposite direction, farther than we’ve been? Can you have Felix go back the way you came and search past where you started? I’ll search the area ahead of us.” She nodded to Nekoma’s armored form. “You have a very capable bodyguard, don’t you? We’ll go back and forth in a zigzag, so our paths overlap now and then. Can you handle that?”
Delilah nodded, and the girls parted ways heading in opposite directions. Delilah wished she’d thought about or trained in other applications for her Divination Magic. She’d tied everything except Mobility and Support Magic to her Summons, when now would be a great time for her to be able to see through the darkness and obstacles around her and pinpoint who she sought. Again she thought of taking her Mobility platform and flying above the maze of darkened gardens, but she didn’t want to expose herself so clearly. And even then, she wouldn’t be able to see much in the darkness.
Far behind her, Chelsea heard Lorelei start calling out Merric’s name. Delilah had been too scared to do so, but as she paused for a moment, she was also able to hear the dull, distant sounds of Chelsea’s battle. Things weren’t so silent anymore, and the danger seemed to be centered on Chelsea. She could afford to call out, right?
“You’ve got my back, right?” Delilah asked, raising a fist to Nekoma. The armored Feline smiled, bumping a gauntleted fist against Delilah’s. Despite the hard-edged appearance of the armor, the contact felt to Delilah like a warm, light tap. Nekoma’s armor protected her from danger, but it couldn’t cause harm to Delilah. After visiting the Wood of the Wisps, Delilah now knew more clearly than ever why her Summons would never bring her to harm.
Continuing on, Delilah raised her small voice and called out Merric’s name. She heard no response, and did her best to search thoroughly for the wheelchair-bound librarian.
I know it made sense for Isabelle to tie him up, and… well… I’ll admit that I thought it was pretty hilarious to see him confined to a goofy cushioned wheelchair like that. What’s that old saying? It’s only funny until someone gets hurt?
Merric may not be hurt yet, but it sure isn’t funny anymore.
Reaching the far wall and doubling back, Delilah and Lorelei’s paths briefly crossed before they continued their search. Far in another direction, Felix had passed where Delilah and her Felines had started, and dashed deftly through the dense decor of the gardens, his keen eyes carefully examining everything in sight.
I wish I could move like you, Swordmeowster.
Ten more times, moving slowly in Chelsea’s direction, Delilah and Lorelei’s paths intersected. Each time, both had to unfortunately report that they’d found no sign of the librarian. The sounds of Chelsea’s battle came closer and closer, and Delilah could now see in the distance frequent bright flashes. There was the green of Chelsea’s fire, the blue of Reginald and his whip, and the softer green glow of Redmond’s arrows. Checking up on their situation through her Feline’s eyes, Delilah was surprised to see that the fight continued at a stalemate. The man in black rarely fired his bow – he could hardly ever get a shot off, with Chelsea blinding him, Reginald tugging his bow arm this way and that, and Redmond bombarding him with glowing projectiles – and yet he continued to remain unscathed. There were no scratches, no bruises, no burns on his body, and his clothes and hair weren’t even dirty from the constant assault. When Delilah caught sight of the man’s expression, he seemed… frustrated. Not in an angry way, but in a bored, tiresome way, like he’d had much more peaceful plans for the day, and now some upstarts were ruining it for him, but he was sort of resigned to it.
Who in the world is that man?
The living darkness seemed to fester at the man’s feet, and areas around him showed that shadow-beasts seemed to appear where he was, perhaps even by his command. The three fighters dealt with them quickly and easily, but there didn’t seem to be a proper end to them like there had been in the past rooms where the girls had fought shadow-beasts. The darkness continued to writhe and spawn more monsters, and…
Yep. That’s what I thought.
Every monster came straight for Isabelle. When Delilah noticed that, and how important Chelsea’s one-armed fiery onslaught was to keeping the archer man from fighting back, she changed Redmond’s assignment – it was up to him to protect Isabelle and fight off the shadow-beasts. Immediately the Feline archer set up a dozen traps in a radius around Isabelle, returned to his lofty perch near the wall, and started firing away at the monsters.
Good job, guys. I don’t know why you can’t hurt the man, but I’m glad you’re keeping Isabelle safe.
Now if I could just find…
Delilah stopped as she entered a wide, square courtyard with a statue in the center. The statue was the least of her concerns, though, because at the base of the statue was a very familiar cushioned yellow wheelchair.
It was unoccupied. That would have been a relief, except for the fact that the chair was also torn to shreds. The wheels were crumpled and warped, the stuffing of the cushions was ripped out and littered all around, and the chair itself had been sliced neatly into three pieces.
Delilah forced her legs to move despite the fright in her heart, and she examined the chair’s remains closely by the light of Nekoma.
“I don’t see any blood,” she said, breathing a sigh of relief. “Lorelei! Come quick, I found something!” In her mind, she also called out to Felix.
Lorelei soon arrived, and Felix shortly after, and they examined the wreck together. “I’m guessing Merric didn’t do all of this,” Lorelei said. “It had to be a variety of shadow-Hollows. But why would they tear up his wheelchair if it’s empty?”
“He might have still been here part of the time,” Delilah said. “Maybe he was freed in the fall, but was soon attacked, and he used the chair as a shield or something?”
“Let’s hope he managed to escape,” Lorelei said, standing up and looking around. “He never mentioned if he has any magic for self-defense. I sure hope so.” She headed toward the side of the courtyard closest to Chelsea’s battle in the distance, and knelt by the stone archway. “It’s hard to leave tracks on stone like this, but… it looks like there are marks from someone fleeing in a real hurry, which would have to be Merric. So he should be in the direction we’ve been going.”
Delilah sent Felix off ahead, to move as fast as he could to cover the distance between them and Chelsea, and then double back for a thorough search towards Delilah and Lorelei, while they did their own thorough search going towards him with Nekoma. They weren’t at all shy about calling out Merric’s name, and Delilah threw in Gwen’s name too, for good measure.
They were halfway to meeting with Felix when Delilah suddenly heard frantic screams that were clearly from the librarian.
“Help, please, help!” Merric screamed, somewhere to Delilah’s left. She ran towards the noise, Nekoma close beside her, and she called Felix to come join them. There was a crashing of branches and leaves ahead, and Delilah rounded the corner only to fall back as a shadow crossed her path.
Finally, she’d run into the shadow-beasts again. One of the massive wolves – Howlers, the Hunters called them – raced past her, but stopped and turned when it noticed the girl. Leaping into the air, the massive beast made it halfway to Delilah before Nekoma stepped forward, slicing the monster in half with a single swipe of her long sword.
“Merric, where are you?” Delilah asked, fighting to make her voice loud against the quaking fear in her heart. That had been too close a call for her tastes.
“Help!” Merric cried, and Delilah pushed herself to her feet and ran towards the sound. She rounded a narrow path, and entered a courtyard where she finally found the wayward librarian.
A ten foot tall obelisk was in the center of the courtyard, and somehow Merric had climbed to its very top, clinging onto its smooth surface for dear life. A Howler leapt at him, and he ducked, slipping to one side, barely avoiding the massive dark jaws – and barely avoiding falling to the ground.
“Nekoma, Felix!” Delilah called, spurring them into action, while she whipped out her keychain Talisman and finally brought her Mobility platform to life, hopping on board and floating up into the air, a dozen feet higher than the obelisk. She chose to soar so high both to avoid danger, and also to make sure Lorelei could see where she was. Below her, Nekoma stood at the base of the obelisk and cut down any beasts that came close, while Felix darted into the fray, leaping and dashing to and fro. The number of shadow-beasts seemed to suddenly multiply exponentially, and Delilah was glad she’d gotten into the air when she had. A sudden lurch of fear had her whip her head back to look up above her, only to find that, thankfully, there was no ceiling out here in the gardens. No chance of Weavers dropping down on her.
Lorelei’s arrival was heralded by the ground near the edge of the courtyard suddenly erupting with icy spikes, surging upward to impale a pair of Howlers that had just started to leap into the air. “Don’t you dare fall!” she shouted, directing her command to Merric, who adjusted his position desperately for the sake of a handhold. Who knew how long he’d been up there – or how he’d clambered up the smooth surface in the first place – but somehow he was hanging on.
Delilah brought her platform lower, until she was alongside Merric. “Would you like to come aboard?” she asked, doing her best to smile for the librarian. She knew from Caleb that smiling in the face of danger was one of the best ways to help someone who was very frightened feel at ease.
Merric nodded frantically, and Delilah came in closer and a little lower so the librarian was able to drop down onto the platform. She quickly gained height once he was aboard, and just in the nick of time, as a stray Splicer – those frightening, skinny creatures with blades for arms – came leaping up at them. It just barely missed them, and landed on a thick spike of ice jutting out of the ground.
“Have you seen Gwen?” Delilah asked.
Merric was sitting on the floor of the platform, his mind clearly whirling at his brush with death, and for a moment didn’t respond. Finally, he looked up and nodded. “I saw her,” he said, taking a moment to calm his breathing. “I went to call out to her, but then I was beset by monsters, and had to run. They blocked me off from her. Though I shouted, she never came. I’m not sure where she is.”
“Where did you last see her?” Delilah asked.
Merric got up to his knees, looking out over the gardens. He pointed in the direction of Chelsea’s fight, which Delilah could actually see for herself at this height. “She was running in that direction. From what I saw, her expression, it was… very determined. She had a clear goal in mind.”
Delilah could guess what Gwen was focused on immediately. After the mysterious experience they’d been through together, those two seemed like best friends now. Surely if they were separated, Gwen would be going straight for Chelsea.
“How long ago was this?” Delilah asked.
Merric shook his head. “Not long, not long. Just before I climbed up. You came along shortly after that.”
“Things are clearing up down here!” Lorelei called from below. “Let’s try to find Gwen!”
“It seems like she went to Chelsea!” Delilah called back. “But my Felines don’t see her anywhere yet.”
“Well, guess we should head that direction. How’s Chelsea doing?”
“Still holding up. But that man isn’t getting hurt by anything.”
Delilah flew ahead, while Lorelei, Felix, and Nekoma took the slower path below. When Delilah was close to Chelsea’s battle, she noticed a curious detail.
Chelsea’s owl was nowhere to be seen.
Descending towards the combat, she realized that Gwen was also nowhere to be seen.
“You okay down there?” Delilah asked, not coming down too far. She had Merric on board, so she needed to keep him safe.
“Took you guys long enough!” Chelsea said. Her voice was strained, revealing that, despite the intense focus on her face and the seeming effortlessness with which she bombarded her invulnerable foe, her strength was waning. After all the fights on the way to the gardens, it was no surprise that she’d be struggling now in this protracted battle against an enemy she couldn’t harm, especially when she had to be constantly on the attack. She couldn’t let up for even a second. “Thanks for the cats, by the way. They’re a huge help!”
“They’re Felines,” Delilah said. “Have you seen Gwen? She was heading towards you.”
Chelsea nodded with the barest motion of her head, most of her focus dedicated to the battle before her. “She was heading my way, but then she noticed something else. I don’t know what. But I guess she and I can talk to each other through my owl. I told her I was fine, and I loaned her my owl so she could go deal with what she found.”
You just loaned your Summon away? I didn’t even know that was possible.
“What made you think you were fine?” Lorelei asked, arriving to the battle and blasting away a trio of Howlers and two Splicers with icy wind that froze them, followed by a barrage of frozen spears that shattered them to bits.
Chelsea, despite the stress and strain, grinned. “I knew you’d be along soon enough.”
Lorelei laughed. “It’s a good thing you know me so well. And hey, how come you’ve never loaned me your owl?”
“You can have him next time. Mind helping me out here?”
“Already am, obviously.”
Fire and ice blasted away at the dark-suited archer, Reginald’s whip flashed, Redmond’s arrows flew, and the swords of Felix and Nekoma sliced away. The assault was in full force, bolstered by the new arrivals, and yet…
The man continued to just stand there and take it.
He wasn’t idle. He made attempts to draw a new arrow, to turn away from attacks, to adjust his stance, but his movements were slow and languid, a poor fit for someone under constant attack. Despite remaining unscathed, he was bothered and affected by the attacks. The strange thing was, though Reginald, Delilah’s weakest Summon, could tug and move around the man’s bow arm without much effort, when Nekoma slammed the man’s chest with her heavy chain weapon in an attempt to throw him to the ground…
He didn’t budge.
Who in the world is this man?
“So Gwen just went and left?” Delilah asked. “Do you know what she found?”
“I think she noticed more people,” Chelsea said. Her attacks slowed, as she was afforded breathing room by her allies. “They seemed like allies, so she went to help them.”
“Allies?” Merric asked, incredulous. “Here? We should be completely alone.”
“Well, before we arrived, you were completely alone,” Lorelei said. “Maybe we’re just the start.”
Chelsea smirked. “Seems like the Library’s open for business, whether you like it or not.” Her smirk faded, and she stopped firing away at the man in black, slapping her hand against her waist in frustration. “Hey, creep! Who the heck are you, anyway? Why can’t we hurt you?”
The man’s voice came from his spot in the clearing, a surprisingly calm, melodious baritone. “I am called many names, for none truly know what to call me,” he said. “If you must give me a name, I prefer Valgwyn, but I must confess I am not fond of names. I am a caretaker… a gardener, if you will. As I said before, I am not much of a fighter, and I find these sorts of direct confrontations distasteful. I suppose that it’s fortunate for you that my brothers have moved on from here to more important battlefields. Things would not go so well for you if they were here.”
“So what, you’re losing?” Chelsea asked. She lifted her lighter and fired a single spiraling blast of flame that engulfed the man’s head for a few seconds before dissipating. “That’s good news.”
Valgwyn sighed. “I suppose I should leave and try a different approach, when your guard is down again.”
“Don’t just leave!” Chelsea demanded, scorching his head again and again. “I’m not finished with you!”
“You would do well to let your arm heal,” Valgwyn said. “Now, I will take my leave. Don’t fret, Isabelle. I will be back for you soon.”
Darkness suddenly sprung up from the ground, engulfed Valgwyn, and then, as if falling into a puddle, dropped with a brief plop and a splash. And then the darkness, and the man called Valgwyn, were gone.
“Gosh dang it,” Chelsea groaned, stuffing her lighter in her pocket. She was soaked with sweat, and her face looked rather pale, but her expression was one of frustration, not exhaustion. “I thought those kinds of villains only show up in video games. ‘Look at me, I’m so strong, now I’m going to leave and come after you again some other time.’ Come on.”
“Maybe count your blessings,” Lorelei said, pulling a handkerchief from her pocket and handing it to Chelsea, who took it gratefully. “You needed that fight to end.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Chelsea said. She cocked her head to the side for a moment, then nodded. “Gwen’s got some new friends for us to meet. They should be by any minute.” She wiped her face with a sigh and plopped down on a stone wall.
Isabelle hopped up next to her, hooking a finger in Chelsea’s belt loop. “You were amazing,” she said, her voice awestruck. “Thank you for protecting me.”
Chelsea looked taken aback for a moment, then smiled, and once again Delilah saw that change, that new softness, in Chelsea’s demeanor. “Sure thing, little one,” Chelsea said. “I’m glad you’re safe.”
“I’m not glad that man’s going to come back,” Lorelei said, staring into the distance, her expression concerned. “We couldn’t harm him at all. If he gets the jump on us, we could be in trouble.”
“Well, we’ll just keep our guard up,” Isabelle said brightly.
Delilah smiled, bringing her platform to the ground and hopping off with Merric. She turned at the sound of footsteps, and suddenly felt her heart skip a beat. Her eyes went wide as Gwen rounded the corner, with three girls alongside her. One of them Delilah instantly recognized, and as their eyes met, both of them stared at each other in utter disbelief for several long moments.
“Delilah?” Shana asked, her voice shooting straight to Delilah’s heart, striking a chord of heartache and homesickness that Delilah hadn’t noticed until this moment, as she stood staring at her older sister.
“Shana,” Delilah said, unable to get her voice out in more than a whisper. Her eyes swam, and she couldn’t fight against tears. Shana came racing towards her, the little blue dog Altair cradled in her arms, and wrapped Delilah in a hug. Altair, smushed between them, leaned his head up and licked Delilah’s cheek, lapping up each tear as it fell. Delilah laughed, and Shana laughed, and they hugged each other even tighter.
Suddenly, in this dark and frightful place far from home, home had come to Delilah.