Shana was terribly conflicted.
On the one hand, she’d accomplished her goals – saving Annabelle, and getting her and Maribelle to the Library of Solitude.
She also had reunited with her little sister, Delilah, and got to be around Chelsea, who she hadn’t seen in way too long.
Shias. Kathryn. Rae. Ben.
Why’d you have to leave me?
The sudden confrontation in the Hall of Many Ways had taken her completely by surprise. And when not just Shias, but the rest of her friends had leapt into action in order to make sure she reached her destination safely, it had almost broken her. They were a team. The Dawn Riders. Shana had brought them together, had come up with the name and, most importantly, she had relied on them.
And longer than she’d ever relied on her friends, she’d relied on Shias.
For as long as she could remember, she and her twin brother had been completely, sometimes hilariously, inseparable. They’d even coordinated their outfits until high school, wearing similar clothes, patterns, and styles every single day. There was a stretch, in early elementary school, where Shana got her hair cut exactly the same as her brother’s and wore matching clothes so that the two of them could confuse their classmates and teachers.
They read almost all of the same books, played almost all of the same games, and talked to each other more than they talked to anyone. They knew each other so well that the subtlest look, the tiniest bit of body language, was enough for one to know what the other was thinking.
And recently, with all the danger Shana had been facing, she knew it had been Shias who could protect her above all else.
When Dullan, an impossible, unbelievable being of extraordinary power attacked Shana, moving with blinding, imperceptible speed… Shias had stood in the way. He hadn’t just used his Guardian Magic too fast to see to protect her.
He had stepped in front of her in case that failed.
Then, within the Radiant Palace, during the Annabelle rescue mission, Shias had stolen the show. He’d defended everyone, not just Shana, from relentless attacks from some of the most dangerous people in the universe, and made it possible for everyone – himself included – to escape safely.
And finally, in the Hall of Many Ways, he’d decided to stay behind and stop a deadly foe so that Shana could escape safely.
It didn’t have to go this way, did it? Was that really the best choice? Couldn’t you have thrown him through a door and then followed me or something?
And, as much as Shana hated it, selfish thoughts crept into her mind.
Why did it have to be you? Kathryn, Rae, Ben… all three of them could handle that Void guy. You could have let them take the fall.
As long as you were with me, everything would be okay.
But now… what am I supposed to do?
Shana wished she didn’t have the time to think like this. She didn’t like such selfish, unkind thoughts. She wanted to be distracted by whatever they were doing in the Library of Solitude. Apparently, Delilah’s group had just been in an intense battle. But that was over now, and they were gathered in these dark gardens, planning their next move, and tending to their wounds. Chelsea had hurt her arm pretty badly, but Lorelei was working her Healing Magic to help her get going again. Shana did notice that there was a glowing white owl Summon perched on Chelsea’s shoulders. At first she’d thought the owl was the Summon of Gwen, the lady who’d found her and the Princesses and led them to the others, but it turned out he was Chelsea’s. And Chelsea had changed her hairstyle. It was shorter, and pretty messy, like she was going for an edgy punk-rocker look, but Shana thought it kind of suited her.
Of course, there were some wonderful moments. Before they’d left the music library, Shana, Annabelle, and Maribelle had learned from Lahain that Isabelle, the long-lost third sister, was here in the Library of Solitude. And that reunion was a heartwarming one.
“Mari!” Isabelle cried out, her eyes wide and her smile the kind that lights up an entire building. Shana was shocked at first – she was definitely Annabelle’s twin sister. Their faces, their hair, their bodies were all identical in Shana’s eyes.
But Isabelle’s enthusiasm, her childish wonder, was totally different from her twin.
“Belle-Belle!” Maribelle cried, racing towards Isabelle and tackling the little girl in a hug. The two lay on the ground, laughing, crying, and embracing. While it was bittersweet for Shana, reminding her far too much of the sibling she no longer had with her, it was also undeniably adorable. And Shana had to remind herself – Maribelle had not only not seen Isabelle in centuries, but she’d also, tragically, believed that Isabelle was dead.
“Mari, I missed you!” Isabelle said, sniffling and laughing.
“I missed you too, Belle-Belle!” Maribelle said, squeezing her little sister even tighter. “I’m so happy you’re safe!”
“I’d say the same, but I knew you’d be safe,” Isabelle said, giggling as Maribelle played with her hair. “I told Merric and everyone else – you’re super strong, nothing bad can ever happen to you. Now that you’re here, we can do anything!”
Shana had to look away. Isabelle’s words were far too close to home.
When Shias is here, I know I can do anything. But now?
“You okay?” Delilah asked. She was staring up at Shana, and next to her was the orange Summon: Felix Feline Felinosis, First Swordmeowster of the Twelfth Circle. When Shana looked at him, he knelt in an elegant bow that was picture perfect to his movements in Great Feline Adventures.
“I knew he was yours,” Shana said, smiling at Felix. “You saved me and Fae that night, didn’t you? The same night you disappeared.”
“From Weavers?” Delilah asked. Shana nodded. “I didn’t realize that was the two of you.” She looked away smiling. “Now I’m even more glad I stepped in there. I hadn’t tried fighting Weavers before that night.”
Shana smiled. I have to try not to be so lost. I still have a sibling with me, and she’s super amazing, too.
Just then, from down the path came three more Summons, and Shana gaped. “Nekoma? Redmond?” She blinked in shock, and she found herself grinning despite her sadness. “Reginald Feline Meowmont the Third?” She looked at Delilah, eyes wide. “You have four Feline Summons?”
Delilah giggled, nodding happily, her mass of blonde hair bobbing up and down. “They’re all mine,” she said. “I’ve been keeping them a secret. I’m glad I did, because your reaction is priceless.”
Shana found her emotions bubbling over, and the tears that had earlier been stinging tears of sadness were now mingled with tears of joy. She pulled her little sister into a hug, holding her tight.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” she said softly. “I missed you.”
Delilah laughed, and when she spoke it was clear she was struggling not to cry again. “I missed you too,” she said. Altair, still in Shana’s arms, started licking Delilah’s face, and she giggled. “And you too, little pup. You took good care of Shana, right?” Altair barked happily, and Shana could feel his little butt wiggling in joy.
“But where’s Shias?” Delilah asked, pulling away. “I can’t imagine you ever going somewhere without him.”
Shana’s face fell. “He… he was with us,” she said. “So were Kathryn, and Rae, and Ben. We had a really big group, and we were amazing. But…” She looked away. “We were chased by a man named Void, and he and the others fought him off so that we could make it to the Library.” She shook her head. “I don’t… I don’t know where he is anymore.”
“He’s a hero,” Maribelle said. Her solemn expression looked comical, since she was carrying Isabelle on her shoulders now. “And he’ll be all right. He seemed to have seen a door he recognized. I’m amazed at how brilliant he is for his age, but it’s a good thing. He knows what he’s doing.” She smiled. “He wouldn’t dare leave his twin sister all alone for good. You’ll see each other again.”
“You have a twin brother?” Isabelle asked, her legs kicking lightly against Maribelle’s shoulders as she stared at Shana.
Shana nodded, smiling, by this point not even worrying about her tears and letting them flow freely. “He’s the best brother in the world,” she said.
Isabelle grinned. “And I’ve got the best sisters in the world!” she said happily. She looked down at Annabelle, who was staring up at her with a subdued smile on her face. “I’m so glad you found me. I missed you lots!”
Annabelle nodded, and then looked away. “Missed you too,” she said softly, raising a hand to her eyes.
“Did you say Void earlier?” Gwen asked. She was looking at Shana intently, her golden eyes glittering.
Shana nodded. “He captured us once before,” she said. “But this time, he was trying to follow us secretly.”
Gwen’s eyes flared. “So the Radiance makes their move once again,” she said bitterly. “I had hoped they were locked away for good.”
“The Radiance?” Chelsea asked.
There was a brief moment as every member of the now combined groups looked at each other. Maribelle was the first to break the silence with a light laugh. “Well, I suppose we should compare notes. You’ve been through a lot here, I see. And while you’ve been working your way through the Library, we’ve been out facing dangers of our own.”
So the girls sat in a circle near a three-tiered fountain, sharing everything they’d been through and all they knew. While Shana, Maribelle, and Annabelle talked about the Radiance, the Dreamer, and the Endless Night, Delilah and her larger group spoke of the living darkness, of their trek to find the map room and a way to save the Library of Solitude, and…
The Endless Night.
“So we’re both dealing with the same primary problem,” Maribelle said. Even sitting on the ground, Isabelle still sat on her shoulders, her eyes intently on her big sister. When Maribelle lifted a hand to her chin and lightly pursed her lips in thought, Isabelle mimicked the pose and expression. “It’s interesting, though, that the Radiant King claims to want to stop the Endless Night. In a sense, we’re working towards the same goal.”
“He only wants to stop it so that it doesn’t interfere with his own goals,” Gwen said, her musical voice stained with anger. “He and the rest of the Radiance fashion themselves as gods. His goal is to rule over all of the universe, and in his pride, he thinks that if he saves the universe, the people will worship him for it. The Endless Night is a threat to him, but it’s also his greatest tool. If he’s the one who stops it, and people know about it, it could change everyone’s perception of the Radiance. I know many Enchanted would think twice about their hatred of the Radiance if they heard that their King had stopped the Endless Night.”
Maribelle nodded. “Among the many prophecies in the Dominion, the Endless Night is one event that people fear more than any other,” she said. “The end of all life, swallowed by darkness. For so long, many of us thought it would never happen. Even though I call a Daylight Bastion my home, I never truly believed that the Endless Night would come. I know mother believed, though she hoped it would never happen, and worked tirelessly to keep the Library functioning to its greatest purpose.” She paused, staring into the distance in thought. “Her absence, and the absence of myself and my sisters… that’s what made things fall into ruin, isn’t it?” She looked to Merric for clarification.
Merric nodded sadly, looking ashamed. “We did the very best we could,” he said. “But without Lady Kodoka or the Princesses of Solitude… there never was much hope. While Lady Kodoka sought out the missing Princesses many times because she truly grieved their loss, she also sought them out because of duty. With each loss, the Library grew weaker.”
“But with mother taking all those trips away…” Maribelle’s face fell.
“It explains… that,” Annabelle said softly.
“Explains what?” Isabelle asked, rocking back and forth. “Don’t be all secretive and stuff.”
“Isabelle,” Maribelle said softly. “Do you remember our other sisters?”
Isabelle nodded. “I remember all of them,” she said. “Well, not all of them. I know some of them were gone before I was born. But I remember most of them.”
“Do you remember Sarabelle?” Maribelle asked. Just speaking the name – the name she wouldn’t say when she spoke of the fourth sister back at Millennium Vista – drew a sharp look from Annabelle.
Isabelle nodded. “Of course I do!” She smiled. “She played piano with me every day.” Her face fell. “I miss her a lot.”
“Sarabelle’s the one who told mother to never leave the Library again,” Maribelle said softly. “She said some other things – blamed mother for the others disappearing – but in the middle of all of her anger, I think that was one thing, one word of advice, that perhaps mother should have –”
“Stop,” Annabelle said, glaring at the floor, her hands balled into fists. “The way things ended up… it couldn’t have happened any differently. We still don’t know why the others disappeared. Between the three of us, I was kidnapped…” She looked up at Isabelle. “What happened to you? How did you go missing?”
“I got lost,” Isabelle said. “I was with Mommy and Mari, and then there was a bunch of darkness. When the darkness was gone, there was a bunch of light, and when that was gone, I was in a…” She looked at Chelsea. “What did I call it?”
“A grove,” Chelsea said.
“Right! A grove! I was there, and then I was at a library, and then Caleb and Chelsea found me.”
“A grove?” Shana asked. She and Annabelle stared at each other, both picking up on the same thought.
“What is it?” Chelsea asked.
“We met in a grove outside Grimoire,” Shana said. “That grove… that’s where so many of the children that were taken away by Pipers were.”
“You found the missing children?” Chelsea and Lorelei asked together, staring in shock at Shana.
Shana nodded. “We did, but…” she shook her head. “They should be all right. Mom and dad know about the grove, and they said they’ll be going to get them with a team. But that grove…” She looked at Isabelle. “Was there anyone else there with you?”
Isabelle shook her head. Maribelle looked up at her and asked, “Could you describe the grove, the best you can?”
“It was pretty big,” Isabelle said, spreading her arms out wide to demonstrate. “The trees all around were super thick, it was like a wall. I’m little, and I still couldn’t squeeze through. Up above… there was a ceiling. A ceiling made out of silver thread. And there were balls of silver thread attached to the trees. Tons and tons of them, I couldn’t even count them all.”
“How big were those balls?” Shana asked.
Isabelle bobbed her head from side to side. “They were about as big as me. Some were bigger. And they were long, not totally round, so I guess they’re more like…”
“Cocoons?” Annabelle asked.
Isabelle’s eyes lit up. “That’s right! They looked just like cocoons!”
Shana frowned, staring at the ground. “But there wasn’t anyone there with you?” she asked.
“No,” Isabelle said sadly. “I was all alone.”
“How did you get from there to the library in Grimoire?” Maribelle asked.
“She said before that she just ended up there,” Chelsea said.
Isabelle nodded. “I didn’t know what was going on. And there were long times when I was… nowhere.”
“Nowhere?” Maribelle asked.
Chelsea’s eyes lit up. “She’d disappear,” she said. “When she appeared in Grimoire’s library, it was only for one hour, the same hour that the Hollows were there. When their time ran out, so did hers, and she disappeared until the next night.”
Now Maribelle’s eyes lit up with understanding. “She was caught between the Dominion and your world. Belle-Belle, did anything happen to you when you were nowhere?”
Isabelle nodded. “This man would come visit me,” she said. “Not when I was at the library, but before then, when I was nowhere and not in the grove. He kept asking me for the flute that mommy gave me, but I wouldn’t give it to him, because I won’t give it to anyone. It’s special. But I could make copies of it, and he said they were good enough.”
“What did he look like?” Maribelle asked.
“He was tall and had white hair,” Isabelle said. “And he had a big scar going all the way across his face, from one side to the other, down his neck. He didn’t talk much, but he wasn’t mean. Just kind of scary-looking.”
Both Maribelle and Gwen had wide, worried eyes at Isabelle’s description. “You know who he is, don’t you?” Shana asked.
Gwen nodded. “The name that he chose for himself is Jormungand,” she said. “He is the closest advisor to the Radiant King, and… he’s the one who started everything.”
“What do you mean by that?” Lorelei asked.
“He’s the one who told the Radiant King about how to turn others into Eternals,” Gwen said in a hushed voice. “He shared the forbidden secrets of blending magics in order to make a human being live forever. I don’t know all of the details – no one seems to, outside of the King and Jormungand – but he started everything. Some debate whether it is he or the Radiant King who is truly in control of the fool’s gods.”
“And he was asking you for flutes, which are exactly the same as the Piper’s Flutes used by Hollows,” Lorelei said. “This is very puzzling.”
“What was the ‘nowhere’ place like?” Shana asked. “Was anything there? What did it look like?”
Isabelle looked at Shana curiously for a moment, then shrugged. “I dunno,” she said. “There was nothing. When Jorm-guy showed up, then there was something, but when he left, there was nothing.”
“What was the something when he showed up?” Chelsea asked.
Another shrug. “I dunno.”
Maribelle laughed, idly tickling one of Isabelle’s feet, causing her to giggle and flail around atop her shoulders.
“Hold on, though,” Chelsea said. “Jormungand is one of these Eternals, right? He’s part of the Radiance? So how come Caleb’s parents –” she stopped for a moment, looking apologetically at Shana and Delilah, “and your parents too, sorry. Why have they seen Jormungand before?”
“Have they traveled to the Enchanted Dominion?” Gwen asked.
Chelsea shrugged. “I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter, since they told Caleb they’ve seen the scar-face guy multiple times in Grimoire.”
Gwen and Maribelle gaped at Chelsea in shock. “You’re certain of this?” Maribelle asked.
“That’s what they told him.”
“But that shouldn’t be possible,” Maribelle said.
“They were banished from Earth entirely, right?” Shana asked, getting nods from Maribelle and Gwen.
“That was a long time ago, right?” Delilah asked. “And if they’ve taken up residence where the Crystal Family – the ones who banished them – are, maybe they’ve found a way to undo whatever was done to them.”
“But what would they want with Grimoire?” Lorelei asked.
“It’s where they started,” Gwen said. “It’s where they’d intended to start their reign. They’ve been away a long time, they’re probably desperate to return home by now.”
“No,” Annabelle said firmly. “Hestia, and some of the other Guards, too, have said they don’t care about Grimoire anymore. Some of them don’t even care about Earth anymore. They’ve been away so long, and made their home in the Dominion, that they don’t see any point in going back. Everything they knew about their old homes is gone, anyway.”
“Well, it seems not all of the Radiance are in agreement,” Gwen said.
“Anna, have you seen Jormungand before?” Maribelle asked.
Annabelle shook her head. “I’ve never even heard the name,” she said. “Whatever importance he has to the Radiance, he was never there for the time that I was their prisoner.”
“So we have no idea where he normally is, or what he might be planning,” Maribelle said.
Shana leaned back, petting Altair behind the ears. “So what?” she asked. “Right now, we need to figure out how to save your home, right? Like in my dream.”
Isabelle swayed back and forth, causing Maribelle to sway with her. “Dream? What dream?” she asked.
Shana explained the dream she’d had about Maribelle, Annabelle, and Isabelle, and then explained what Annabelle and Maribelle already knew – that Shana was the bearer of the Dreamer’s Heart, that the Radiant King wanted her, that somehow she was important for stopping the Endless Night. She felt a little embarrassed talking about herself in such lofty terms, but Maribelle often interjected to help her along, letting her know it was okay. After all, she was just telling the truth.
“To the center?” Merric asked when she was done, his voice shaky. “But that would be… that would be where the darkness is at its strongest. I don’t even know if we can reach the center.”
“Merric, honestly, I told you to be brave,” Isabelle said, her lips pursed in frustration as she glared at the librarian. “Haven’t you seen how strong everyone is? And now Mari’s back, so we don’t have to fear anything. So just take your fear and shove it in a rose bush, ’cause you don’t need it.”
All around the circle, the girls were desperately trying not to laugh. Meanwhile, Merric looked properly chastised, staring glumly at the ground between his feet.
“The map room probably still has important information for us,” Maribelle said. “We’ll want to find the safest and fastest path to the center, but also, if there are any major areas that we should clear of darkness first, we should be prepared for that and pick our route carefully. And in terms of the center… well, I’m not entirely sure what lies there.”
Annabelle shook her head. “Me neither,” she said. “There are multiple levels to the center, that’s all I know. But mother never allowed anyone except herself to venture in there.”
“So now we finally get to see the secret place,” Isabelle said, smiling mischievously.
“Well, I’m all set to go,” Chelsea said, standing up.
“You’re really not,” Lorelei said, standing with her. “You need to back off the flames for a while, get your strength back. Let us take the lead for a while.”
“The kitty-cats can kick tons of butt!” Isabelle said, pointing to the four Feline Summons. “And Mari is unstoppable! You don’t need to worry about a thing, Chelsea.”
Chelsea rolled her eyes. “I guess I can hold back for a little while.” She started stretching, focusing on her wrists and shoulders.
“Altair’s a good scout,” Shana offered. “And he has Support and Healing Magic.”
“Gwen’s no slouch in a fight, either,” Chelsea said. “And if Lorelei ever finishes warming up, she’ll be the toughest person here.”
“Nuh-uh!” Isabelle said. “Mari’s the toughest!”
“I’ve been supplanted,” Lorelei said with a sigh.
“Well, it’s tough to beat sisters,” Chelsea said.
Lorelei looked at her, smiling. “It sure is.”
The group of nine, plus six Summons, began their trek out of the gardens and into the next area of the Library of Solitude. Chelsea’s owl, Altair, and the Felines provided tons of light to see by, piercing the gloom and adding wonderful color to the place.
“We went somewhere really amazing before this,” Delilah said to Shana as they walked. “It’s a place called the Wood of the Wisps.” Her eyes lit up as she smiled. “It’s where these creatures called Will Wisps live. And we found out that the Will Wisps are what become Summons. My Felines, Altair, Chelsea’s owl… they all started as Will Wisps, waiting for someone to call them into their true forms.”
Shana looked down at Altair, who was trotting slightly ahead of her. “So all Summons come from the same place?” she asked.
Delilah nodded. “That’s right. There were so many Wisps there. And every single one is its own unique color. No two colors are the same.”
Reginald was walking ahead of the girls, not too far away from Altair, and Shana was able to closely compare the two blue Summons. Altair was a lighter shade of blue, bright and cheerful, while Reginald’s blue was deep and calm.
“Chelsea called her owl into being in the Wood of the Wisps,” Delilah said. “It’s a long story, but… it was something amazing to see a Wisp transform into a Summon right in front of me. I…” She tilted her head down shyly. “I kind of want to go back there and find another Wisp, call a fifth Summon.”
Shana smiled. “What do you think, Altair?” she asked. “Should I get you a friend?”
Altair’s tail wagged happily, and he looked back over his shoulder at Shana, as if giving his assent. Shana laughed. “How about next time, you can take me to the Wood of the Wisps with you?”
Delilah nodded. “It’s a deal.” She looked up at her sister. “I’m glad you’re here. I know you don’t want to be here without everyone else, and I know you don’t want to be away from Shias, but…” She laughed softly. “I missed you a lot.”
Shana grinned, bumping her shoulder against Delilah’s. “I missed you too.”
Up ahead, Lorelei was walking beside Maribelle, while Isabelle continued to ride atop her sister’s shoulders, and Annabelle walked on the other side. “Isabelle,” Lorelei said, “do you remember when we met, how one of the things you said was that… I think you said ‘time is difficult for people like us.’ What did you mean?”
Isabelle nodded. “Mommy always told me it would be,” she said. “I don’t know what it means. I just know that time is difficult.”
“It’s due to our nature,” Maribelle said. “It may be why this one got caught in the nowhere space between the Dominion and Earth, too. All of us were born for the purpose of manning the Daylight Bastion, of keeping the darkness at bay. We’re meant to exist apart from the world, just like the Library did. Even before it became untethered from the Dominion by the darkness, it was never an easy place to reach. In many ways, it exists in a time of its own, and outside the time of the rest of the universe. It makes it difficult for us to comprehend the passage of time.”
“But you’re perfectly good at it,” Annabelle said.
Maribelle chuckled. “That’s because I spent perhaps too much time outside of the Library,” she said. “I traveled a lot, so I suppose some of my inherent nature as a Princess of Solitude is different than it used to be.”
“You’re still a princess to me,” Isabelle said, playing with Maribelle’s braid.
“Darkness up ahead,” Chelsea said. “It’s thicker than we’ve seen before. Lots of shadow-Hollows.”
“Didn’t I tell you not to stand up front?” Lorelei asked, tugging on Chelsea’s shoulder. Chelsea’s owl Summon came down from his hovering near the ceiling, and Lorelei pointed at him. “Keep your Summoner out of trouble, okay? She’s liable to bouts of reckless behavior.” A hoot of ascent made Lorelei smile triumphantly, while Chelsea sighed and headed to the back of the group.
“Traitor,” she said softly, to which her owl hooted in amusement.
“Delilah, how about you and I take the front lines?” Lorelei asked. “Shana, stay safe and do your thing with supporting us. Chelsea, protect the ones who can’t fight.”
“Mari can take the front lines!” Isabelle said with a fist-pump, hopping down off of her sister’s shoulders. “Use your super golden sword!”
Maribelle smiled. “I can’t right now,” she said. “I used her too recently, so I can’t bring her back out for a while. It’s one of her rules. But don’t worry, I can still fight just fine.”
“Go, Mari, go!” Isabelle cheered, as Maribelle joined Lorelei, Delilah, and the Felines (aside from Reginald, who stayed with Chelsea on guard duty) rounded the corner and went to work. Altair jogged after them, while Shana stood still and let her focus go to looking through Altair’s eyes.
The sight was a grim, frightening one. A large, cylindrical room with bookshelves lining the walls was drenched in what the others had called living darkness. Bulbous blobs pulsed like exposed hearts, tendrils of darkness linked them to each other and draped down from the ceiling, and along those tendrils crawled Weavers, those frightening spiders Shana had seen in Grimoire, spinning thread that turned into more tendrils or that they rolled and rolled into bulbous blobs of shadow. The darkness here was so thick, so impenetrable, that light didn’t catch it, and it cast no shadow. It was unnerving, impossible, something Shana struggled to wrap her mind around. While the shapes and monsters were in fact three-dimensional, the fact that they caught no light meant that they often appeared flat, almost intangible in appearance, as if they didn’t belong in this three-dimensional world.
Despite the fear that gripped Shana’s heart, the girls and Summons that had gone ahead to combat this darkness leapt into action without hesitation. Dozens upon dozens of wolfish Howlers patrolled the floors, and blade-armed Splicers clung to walls or hung from tendrils along the ceiling. When the girls attacked, the shadow-Hollows leapt into action in response.
Shana let Altair move as he wished – the little dog was perfectly capable of avoiding danger, and he seemed to be absolutely fearless at all times – as she surveyed the situation and tried to decide who Altair’s support should go to. He could only enhance the abilities of one mage or Summon at a time.
Because Maribelle couldn’t use Takina, Shana chose to support her. Altair’s tell-tale blue glow surrounded Maribelle as she raced into battle. She dodged a scything arm of a Splicer and raised her hand, aiming her palm at the monster’s shadowy face. From her hand shot brilliant, pure white shafts of light, ringed with spiraling spheres of the same light, and they blasted through the Splicer and up towards the ceiling, eliminating a pair of Weavers as well.
So… maybe she doesn’t need my help?
Maribelle, despite being able to attack from a distance, seemed to like to get up close to her foes. She blasted light straight down the jaw of a Howler, and was constantly dancing in the midst of the fray. Her movements reminded Shana of Kathryn, though perhaps more forceful and deliberate – the dance of a warrior.
Lorelei froze everything that came near her, and sent icy spears hurtling towards far-away foes. Felix and Nekoma sliced through Howlers and Splicers with ease, while Redmond danced away from the grounded foes, focusing his attention on the many Weavers far up above, hurling arrows their way. Many arrows were dead-on, piercing straight through the tiny heads or large, bulbous bodies of the shadowy spiders, but other arrows transformed, turning into spinning ropes that wrapped up their legs, or weighted nets that trapped spiders and sent them plummeting towards the floor.
Shana shifted Altair’s Support aura to Delilah, who followed close to Lorelei, hoping that by empowering her sister, she would in turn empower all of her incredible Summons. Sure enough, that blue glow around Delilah also appeared around Felix, Nekoma, and Redmond, and Shana saw them move faster, hit harder, and give even more effort than they had before.
Maribelle, having cleared a path around the large, heart-shaped blob in the center of the room, stood in front of it. Raising her hand, she blasted the pulsing orb with light, so bright that Shana, even looking through Altair’s eyes, had to look away.
When the light cleared, the central shadow-blob was gone, and the tendrils connecting it to other blobs and darkness all around dissolved. The girls and the Felines pushed forward, destroying the rest of the shadow-beasts crowding the room, and the fight was over.
“You guys are amazing!” Shana said excitedly, following them into the large chamber. “That was just so… so… so… so freaking cool!”
Delilah smiled, turning her head away shyly. Maribelle and Lorelei laughed, and standing side-by-side, Shana thought they kind of looked alike. They both wore their hair in a single braid, with their bangs loose, and both had a similar lean, athletic build. Maribelle’s hair was longer, though, and their facial structure and outfits made it easy to tell them apart, but it was still surprising to see their similarities.
Maribelle’s laughter quickly faded, though, and she stared back at where the central shadow-blob had been with a look of concern.
“What is it?” Shana asked.
“The darkness here… did you find it familiar?” Maribelle asked.
Shana was taken aback by the question, but took a moment to think about it. Of course, she’d only been seeing things through Altair’s eyes, but…
Oh. Yes. With all that had happened, it had been put farther out of her mind than it might have otherwise been, but Shana quickly made the connection.
“Dullan,” she said softly.
Maribelle nodded. “He seems to be formed of the same darkness.”
“Dullan?” Lorelei asked.
“A horrible villain,” Maribelle said, eyes flashing with anger. “He deceived me, made me think that all of my sisters had left, that I was all that remained, and fooled me into a state of hopelessness and despair. He is the reason I was so long isolated on the Westward Plains, the reason I stopped searching for my sisters. And long before then… he had appeared to me before. He has often plotted and schemed against us, the Princesses of Solitude, but I thought him an isolated foe, acting alone.” She sighed. “How naive I was.”
“Valgwyn spoke of his brothers,” Lorelei said. “He said that they were more suited for battle, but they had gone on from here to focus on more important areas. Perhaps this Dullan is one of them.”
Maribelle nodded. “I find it very likely… and very disturbing. Though it makes sense now, knowing the purpose of this Library, the purpose of the Princesses, and the schemes of Dullan… things are more connected than I realized.”
“Valgwyn did only want Isabelle,” Chelsea said. “If this Dullan guy wants the Princesses, it seems like you’re right about him being connected to this.”
Maribelle sighed, gesturing towards the center of the room. “Well, at the very least, we have arrived at the map room,” she said. “If we move quickly from here, perhaps we can undo the schemes of these villains before things get worse.”
In the center of the chamber, where the shadow-blob had been, was a massive circular table, on which appeared to be a three-dimensional map of the Library of Solitude.
“It may take time, but with this, we should be able to find a way to the Library’s center,” Merric said. He turned to Isabelle. “I am terribly sorry, Small Lady, for doubting you, your companions, and your sisters. We will reach the Library’s center and eradicate this darkness, and I will be by your side until the end. Can you forgive me?”
Isabelle grinned, nodding happily. “Of course!” she said. “I told you you could be brave.”
“Well,” Merric said, smiling, “let’s find our way to victory, shall we?”