Chelsea sat by the exit from the map room, looking out into the darkened hall. Behind her, inside the map room, Merric, Isabelle, Gwen, Delilah, and new arrivals Shana, Maribelle, and Annabelle were gathered around the map talking.
It was far too crowded for Chelsea’s tastes. Even considering the size of the room and the map table itself, Chelsea didn’t feel like joining the party. Although… it was only partly because it was crowded.
This is the first real chance I’ve had to think since escaping the darkness.
Chelsea and Gwen’s lonely battle with shadow and darkness, in a strange place that Chelsea still couldn’t understand, was something she’d never forget. And she was grateful for it. Though the darkness, and the beings within it – like the eerie other Chelsea – tried to use Chelsea’s inner demons and tragic past against her, it had ended up being a blessing in disguise. Forcing Chelsea to face her past, to face the secrets and the pain she’d buried deep within, had forced her to figure out what she could do about it.
More than that, forcing Chelsea into that place had also brought Chelsea through the gate and into the presence of The Light. Surrounded by power, and by love, Chelsea had heard the words she’d needed to hear, realized the truth she’d needed to know all along.
She couldn’t keep burying her pain. She couldn’t redirect her anger into other places. If she kept up those methods, she would forever be consumed by her hatred and rage.
No, Chelsea’s only hope, the only cure for what ailed her…
Was to let it go.
That was harder than anything else she’d done. At times it was a beautiful, freeing truth that lifted her heart and soul and made her feel more hopeful than ever before.
Other times, it was a frightening, painful truth. Because it demanded so much of her. It required her to take the hardest path she could imagine.
How long had she longed for satisfaction through violence? How long had she tried to escape from that frightening part of herself by burying it deep within?
How long would it have taken for that lifestyle to utterly destroy her?
So Chelsea would take the hard road. Chelsea would leave behind her pain, would refuse to accept that she had to live with who she was, to stay the same way she’d always been.
She needed to change. She needed to let so much of her old self go.
There was still a strange mystery that hovered over everything, though. Chelsea’s mother was dead, and she would never come back, but the circumstances of her death had never truly been solved. She’d died when out on patrol, fighting Hollows with Callum and Deirdre Greyson.
And yet she’d been murdered by a human.
Initial accusations had been leveled at the Greysons, but they had been cleared of all charges against them. Jacob Crowley, who at the time was a Hunter and not yet head of the Hunter Guild, had been at Marion’s funeral and, seeing the Greysons there, had exploded with rage. He’d told them they were responsible, no matter what anyone said.
And there were the words of Chelsea’s grandmother, Marion’s mother, Moira. On her deathbed, what had she said to Chelsea? She remembered it, word for word, exactly as she spoke it: “The Greysons. The Greysons, they…” There was a long pause, and then, “My daughter. They took… my daughter. The Greysons…”
For a long time, Chelsea had taken those words at face value. It was simple: the Greysons had killed Marion.
But the more Chelsea thought on that, the more doubt crept into her mind. During that pause, Moira’s lips had been moving, as if she was trying to say other words, but the sound never came. When she said “My daughter,” the lip movements were different. She’d been trying to say something else in between there. And the way her words were broken up, Chelsea had to face the fact that…
Grandma never said the Greysons killed my mother. ‘They’ could be anyone. Whoever it was, grandma knew, and… well, if she did, then she took that knowledge with her in death.
Caleb’s parents were mom’s best friends in the world. And according to Caleb… they have something for me from her. They’d been holding onto something from mom, something she wanted me to have when I was older.
I can’t keep jumping to conclusions. I can’t just take what others say and believe as facts.
I need to find the truth. When the Library is saved, and I go back to Grimoire, I need to track down the truth. And…
I can’t keep lying to Caleb. I need to tell him everything I know. And I hope… I hope he’ll help me.
In her mind, Chelsea was already thinking about a team, putting together a group of people she could trust. Of course Lorelei was in. Caleb was in as well – he couldn’t lie to anyone if he tried, he was adorably naive, and, even when Chelsea had been horribly unfair to him, he’d always been good to her.
There were a few others on Chelsea’s mind, but she intended to keep the group small. Anyone she had even the slightest ounce of doubt about was immediately excluded. That included Caleb’s parents. While she believed more and more that they hadn’t killed her mother, they were clearly the type of people who kept lots of secrets. Caleb couldn’t see it, bless his heart, but Chelsea couldn’t trust them with much.
But for now…
I need to make sure my mind’s right. I need to let my anger go, and go into things with my heart and mind at peace.
Sometimes… I don’t even know how to do that. Mom and grandma always praised me for being bold and fiery, and encouraged me to take risks and stand up for myself. But I think I might have taken some of that the wrong way.
Don’t worry, Caleb, I know you like me all fiery and argumentative. I won’t mellow out too much.
The question came from Lorelei, who had left the map table group to join Chelsea.
“Mm,” Chelsea murmured, nodding. “Better than I’ve been in a long time, actually.” She raised her left arm, flexing her fingers. “And the arm’s great, too. Thanks to the best healer I know.”
Lorelei laughed. “We’re close to finding the path forward,” she said. “Just a little concerned because there’s another set of gardens. The only way across those, besides going straight through them, are hall-bridges.”
“Well that sounds familiar,” Chelsea said. “You think Valgwyn would try another wave of darkness on us?”
“Who knows?” Lorelei asked. “Anyway, they’ll figure it out.” She gave Chelsea a long, appraising look. “You look different. And I don’t mean the haircut. Whatever you and Gwen went through, it looks like it was pretty serious.” She smiled. “And it looks like you two came out better for it.”
Chelsea looked away, feeling slightly guilty. “I wish I could tell you about it,” she said. “It’s just… I mean, I can tell you most. It’s the last part that’s really hard to explain.”
“Maybe it’ll be easy if you try,” Lorelei said with a wry smile.
Chelsea sighed. “You’re probably right.” She started to talk, slowly at first, and then faster, occasionally stopping entirely to think long and hard about how to describe her experience. The final part – the part where she encountered The Light – was the hardest, but somehow she managed.
Afterwards, Lorelei said nothing, and just leaned her head against Chelsea’s for a long while.
“This might sound trite, but I’m happy for you,” Lorelei said softly. “After all this time, all this anger… you finally found your cure.”
“Kept you waiting, huh?” Chelsea asked.
Lorelei laughed softly. “I knew you’d find your way eventually. I just wish I could have helped.”
Chelsea frowned at Lorelei. “What are you talking about? Without having you around all these years, I wouldn’t have made it out of that place. Or if I had, I’d be worse for it, I’d be like the freaky other me. It’s because of you, and your parents, that I never really lost myself after everything with mom and… well, especially with dad. The way I see it, you’re the one who prepared me for that dark place.”
Lorelei raised a closed fist, and Chelsea bumped hers against it. “Glad I could help, sis.”
Chelsea looked past Lorelei. “Looks like they’ve figured out the way forward,” she said. “Let’s see what the plan is.”
“We have one route that completely bypasses the gardens and the hall-bridges,” Merric explained, showing them on the map. It was a three-dimensional projection of the Library of Solitude, and Chelsea was staggered by the size of it. She’d realized she was in a place she struggled to comprehend just by being in it, but looking at this map now, she realized just how little she understood its scale. The center of the Library was a massive cylinder, and four rings were around it, each farther out than the last. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hallways connected everything, and there were easily hundreds of the huge hub rooms. Any one of those hub rooms was big enough to contain all of Grimoire Academy, and this Library had so many of them it was insane.
And on top of that, there were nine total floors – three below ground, and six above.
Merric was pointing out where they were – the map room was in the second ring out from the center, on the bottom basement floor – and then where they needed to go. Unfortunately, it was very nearly the longest route possible to the center. They needed to climb up to the top floor, cross to the first ring, trek down to the first basement level, and then wind around to the other side of the Library before climbing back to the top floor and finally taking a secret hall to the center. Chelsea liked the idea of a secret hall – a library this huge had to have secret tunnels and hallways and such – but the journey there was going to be a rough one.
“Our bedrooms are here,” Maribelle said, indicating a spot on the top floor in the first ring. “That would make for a good place to rest and recover before the final push towards the center.”
“I haven’t slept in my bed in so long!” Isabelle said excitedly. She was riding on Maribelle’s shoulders again, clearly completely enamored with her older sister. Chelsea found it endearing and funny at the same time. She remembered one time when she was in her final year of high school, when Caleb had shown up to meet her, Lorelei, and a few others at the Lunar Festival, with Delilah riding on his shoulders. At the time, Delilah had been nine years old, barely older than Isabelle looked to be, and she’d adored Caleb the same way Isabelle adored her big sister.
The more time Chelsea spent around Maribelle, the more Chelsea understood why Isabelle had bonded with Lorelei so quickly, and why she’d said that Lorelei reminded her of her big sister. It wasn’t just the hair – both were redheads, with their hair in a single braid, bangs loose – but their demeanor and personalities as well. Both gave off the impression of being cold and distant, but there was a strong warmth underneath that appearance, and a rich, honest, emotional core and sensitivity that shone through when it mattered. They also had an almost motherly tenderness to them at times, which made it easy for young girls like Isabelle to gravitate towards them.
“Unfortunately,” Merric said, “I have no information on how deep the darkness is going forward, or what kinds of dangers we may face. We may well need to take many unexpected detours.”
“For now, all we need to do is climb stairs,” Maribelle said. “The top floor crossing isn’t far from there.”
“Let’s go, let’s go!” Isabelle said. “I wanna watch Mari blow up more monsters!”
“You’re so violent,” Annabelle said, shaking her head.
“And you’re so rude,” Isabelle replied, sticking her tongue out at her twin sister. Annabelle, for her part, didn’t spend much time with her sisters, instead latching onto Shana. Though Chelsea noticed that Isabelle’s more reserved doppelganger was perfectly willing and eager to show affection to her sisters… until they called attention to it. Since Isabelle struggled to keep her mouth shut when she noticed cute things like Annabelle clinging to Maribelle’s pant leg, Annabelle had been rather grumpy recently.
“How’s everyone feeling?” Lorelei asked. “I know our group’s been through a lot of fights so far, so our stamina’s starting to waver.”
“It’s nice that we had time to rest here,” Delilah said. She looked to little Reginald, the butler-cat, and smiled. “We’re ready to go.”
“You never have to worry about me,” Chelsea said, grinning.
“Unfortunately, I do,” Lorelei said, “since you never take the time to worry about yourself. Someone needs to do it for you.” She smiled. “I’m ready to go, too.”
“We’re ready,” Maribelle said, looking at Shana, who was holding Altair in her arms. “Right?”
Shana nodded, and Altair barked once. “Let’s do it,” she said.
“Put me in, coach,” Chelsea whispered to Lorelei as they started towards the stairs. “I’m ready.”
Lorelei started laughing, and then Chelsea started laughing. Isabelle, with Maribelle behind them, started laughing even though they didn’t know what about, and soon the laughter spread through the entire group, until only Annabelle and Merric were left wondering why everyone had suddenly lost their minds.
Laughter’s a light. We need to let it shine, and pierce through all this darkness.
They were able to climb up all three basement floors without incident, but once they reached the first main floor, the fighting began in earnest.
Chelsea and Maribelle took the front lines, with Gwen and Lorelei not far behind. Delilah’s Felines formed a strong defensive unit, rotating as necessary to make use of their individual skills depending on where enemy attacks were coming from. When things got too hectic, it was Lorelei who was the first to calm things down, freezing massive groups of shadow-Hollows in place until they could be dealt with properly. Chelsea, Gwen, and Lorelei often found themselves near each other, syncing up in combat without so much as a word between them. A glance here, a gesture there, and they knew what the others needed. When enemies were too close, it was Gwen’s needle-sword that made short work of them. Chelsea changed between booming blasts and precise bolts of flame for whatever the situation called for. Because they were magic, and because Chelsea and Lorelei worked so well together, Chelsea’s flames didn’t melt Lorelei’s ice, and Lorelei’s ice didn’t extinguish Chelsea’s flames. They could attack and defend in tandem, overlapping their attacks to devastating effect.
All around, Chelsea saw the impacts of Maribelle and the Felines. Maribelle blasted shadow-Hollows into oblivion with her bright white light. Redmond rained glowing green arrows on their foes, somehow always managing to find a high perch from which to safely attack. Felix’s orange form was often a blur, dashing this way and that, slicing with his twin swords at impossible speed. Nekoma’s purple glow was the stalwart defender. When shadow-Hollows thought to dance outside the reach of her large sword, she lashed out with her chain weapon, taking them by surprise and reeling them in for the final blow.
Delilah seemed like she was being very careful with Reginald. He was the smallest of the Felines, so it was likely he was the youngest, and lacked combat experience. Despite that, he’d been a reliable and much-needed ally in Chelsea’s battle with Valgwyn. Here, Delilah used his speed and whip weapon sparingly, having Reginald dart in to attack lone shadow-Hollows, or target injured beasts, or otherwise having him team up with other Felines or the girls, lashing and restricting Hollows to present them as easier targets.
All the while, the little blue dog Altair was a ball of energy, racing to and fro, barking and wagging his tail and seeming, hilariously enough, to be doing nothing. But that was only at first glance. When anyone received so much as a scratch, Altair was there, and glowing blue tendrils of light flowed from his nose to the wound in question, healing it completely. And otherwise, there was always someone in their group who had a blue glow around them that matched the blue of Altair. When that blue glow came to Chelsea for a short while, she felt lighter, faster, stronger than ever before. Flames came out faster and with more control and power than she could normally muster. Everything was so easy, it was unbelievable. The feeling never lasted long, as Altair moved to aid a new target, but it was Chelsea’s first ever brush with Support Magic, and she loved it.
Caleb, we really need to re-evaluate our two-person-only team. When we’re back to being Hunters, we have got to find us a good Support mage. Preferably one who will focus all of their efforts on me.
Chelsea was also glad for Lorelei’s help on her arm, as she could now wield both of her lighters at once, pouring fire into her enemies at a faster rate than she’d ever managed against Valgwyn. Hitting that creepy archer man as fast as she had, as long as she had, with only one lighter at her disposal had taken a huge toll on her. Never once had she pushed herself that hard, which was strange to think, considering it had been a fight against a man who rarely fought back.
Some people – a lot of people, actually – had told Chelsea that using two lighters was overkill. No one needed that much firepower all the time.
Those people were wrong, obviously. Somehow they’d lived their entire lives without ever hearing the phrase “two are better than one.” That simple truth of life was one that Chelsea was perfectly happy to live out every day, in the hopes that she could enlighten more and more poor souls who still got by with one, when they could (and should) have two.
Chelsea was also glad to have her owl. He fought very much like Caleb, glowing chains shooting forth from his talons, snaring foes so that Chelsea could pick them off with ease. His efforts were unconscious to her, as if he were acting alone, and she wondered how much that was true. She was very new to the whole Summon business, and had never actually studied Summoning Magic before, so she was going in blind at every turn.
I really should have asked Delilah about… well, a lot of things. But I’m glad I have my owl, and I’m glad he can do so much without me having to micromanage his every move. That would be tiresome.
In fact, her owl seemed almost entirely autonomous to her. While the Felines and Altair appeared to be totally in sync with their summoners, reflecting their attitudes and following their instructions perfectly, Chelsea’s Summon was a free spirit. When Chelsea was frustrated, sometimes he seemed to laugh at her. When she laughed at him for missing a Hollow with his chains, he seemed to get offended. There were times when they were perfectly in sync, when their emotional state lined up just right, and things exploded into amazing combination attacks and fast-paced teamwork. But those times weren’t often.
Maybe that’s because I’m such a…
Chelsea glared at her owl as he swooped by.
I feel like that word came from you, mister, and I’m not happy about it. I’m not a punk, just a rebel. And looking at Delilah and Shana, well… they’re not so much like me. So maybe my personality rubs off on you, and you just do your own thing. Not that I mind. You do a lot of the right things, and we work well together. Just… maybe stop being so sassy with me.
I’ll think about it.
Chelsea couldn’t help but laugh. Most of what she got from her owl were impressions and feelings, but now and then, though she couldn’t actually hear them for sure, she felt like she got the message loud and clear in words she could understand perfectly. Of course, whenever she did get those crystal clear messages they were, predictably, sassy and rude.
The girls, Felines, owl, and dog worked their way up the second ring, floor by floor. Each floor, Chelsea was glad they didn’t have to wander around too much within the second ring. She caught glimpses here and there of seemingly impenetrable walls of darkness – no doubt entrances to the strange world of shadows that she and Gwen had escaped – in halls and rooms branching off from the climbing staircase. While she was confident she could go back into that world and succeed once again, she knew it would take a lot more time and effort than fighting shadow-Hollows and destroying globs, blobs, and tendrils of the living darkness.
Besides, Chelsea was a fighter. It was in her blood, and it was what she was best at. Even as she sweated, even as her strength waned, she knew that here, blasting away shadow-Hollows, was where she could serve her team the best.
And then, before she knew it, they’d reached the top floor. Maribelle blew apart a crisscrossing network of dark tendrils to reveal the path beyond, through a windowless corridor. Shadow-Hollows were suddenly absent, and the silence was unnerving after so much fighting.
Of course, it wasn’t all that quiet. All of the girls – except Maribelle who, annoyingly, seemed to never grow weary in the slightest – were breathing heavily, sometimes groaning in relief and pain from the exertion. They were alive and safe, but it hadn’t been easy getting that far in such a state. Now that the fighting was, for the moment, over, all of them felt the effects of it.
“How much farther from here?” Shana asked. She wasn’t as exhausted as her companions, but Altair’s constant activity took its toll on her. Sweat dripped down her face and plastered her bangs to her forehead, and her breathing came faster and heavier than normal.
“Just to the end of the hall!” Isabelle said excitedly, pointing at the imposing corridor before them.
“There’s a hub there,” Maribelle explained. “All ten of our rooms are there. I’d be surprised if they weren’t overtaken by darkness, though. Best to rest here for a moment before we go on ahead.”
“That hallway worries me,” Merric said, standing at the entrance to the corridor, hand on his chin, lips pursed in thought. “There’s something not right, something eerie that I haven’t felt since before you girls ended my time alone here.”
Alone in the Library of Solitude. Ironic.
“Do you know what it means?” Annabelle asked.
Merric shook his head. “I can’t be sure,” he said, his voice tight with frustration. “It feels, perhaps, like aftershocks, as if the effect of the darkness ahead of us is so strong, that its presence, while invisible, is being felt this far away from it.”
“I can scout ahead,” Shana said.
“Don’t,” Chelsea said, shaking her head. “Where the darkness is thickest, if you’re not careful, it can swallow up anything, even magic.” She looked up at her owl, who was perched on her shoulders. “I’m assuming that includes Summons, though I’ve never been brave enough to try for sure.”
“We won’t know what’s ahead until we face it,” Gwen said, looking to Chelsea with a smile. “Right?”
Chelsea felt herself relax. She nodded. “Right. Let’s move forward as a group and take our time. Don’t get separated.”
“Hey Mari,” Isabelle said, sitting on top of Maribelle’s shoulders. She pointed to Lorelei. “Let’s stick by her. She’s my buddy.”
Lorelei laughed. “I’m glad I haven’t been completely forgotten.”
Forward the group walked, and every moment Chelsea was prepared to be faced with a wall of darkness, much like she had when she and Gwen had found that hallway and disappeared into the strange shadow-land. But every step brought nothing new. There was something strange in the air, Chelsea could feel it. But no shadow-Hollows attacked them. No waves of darkness forcibly separated them.
It was just… unsettling.
And then they came to the end of the hall, and the space opened up into, just like Maribelle had described, a hub. There were three hallways branching off from it, including the one their group had come from, and there were also ten doors.
“We made it!” Isabelle said excitedly. “I hope my bed’s okay. I haven’t seen it in so long. I hope it didn’t get lonely.”
“This is very strange,” Maribelle said, turning around in a circle in the center of the hub. “It feels like the darkness is all around us, thick and oppressive, but…”
Lorelei nodded. “Right. I don’t see anything.”
“Let’s check the rooms,” Chelsea said. Maribelle nodded, and the girls went around the circle while Merric hung towards the back of their group. Checking each of the ten doors, the Princesses of Solitude did the most investigation. Since they knew the rooms best, they’d know if things were out of place.
One by one, they announced that the bedrooms were clear and safe.
“That’s a relief,” Shana said. “I’m exhausted.”
“We should have a watch,” Maribelle said. “And no one should stay in a room by themselves.”
“We won’t need a watch if we have Summons,” Delilah said. “There are only three hallways. My Felines can guard them easily.”
“Excuse me,” Merric said, raising his hand. “I just… well, I seem to be the only male member of our group. And it would be… rather inappropriate for me to…”
Chelsea laughed. “Yeah, you’ve got a point there.”
“I can leave a Feline with you,” Delilah said. “Any one of them can contact me instantly, even when I’m sleeping, if there’s trouble.”
“But won’t that drain you if you keep your Summons out while sleeping?” Merric asked.
Delilah smiled despite her clear weariness, and shook her head. “As long as they aren’t actively using their magic, just keeping Summons out and about doesn’t drain a summoner at all. Don’t worry. As long as you stay safe, I’ll be able to sleep soundly.”
Chelsea once again found herself amazed at the girl. How old is she again? Thirteen, fourteen, something like that? I know I was skilled at that age, but I wasn’t as well put together and mature as her, that’s for sure.
“I’m sleeping with Mari and Anna!” Isabelle said, raising her hand.
“All three of us in one bed?” Annabelle asked.
Maribelle laughed. “Come on, you know our beds are huge. There’s plenty of room for all of us.”
“I want my sister!” Shana said, wrapping her arms around Delilah. Both girls smiled.
Chelsea looked at Lorelei and Gwen and shrugged. “Guess that leaves the three of us together.”
“You don’t have to say it like that,” Lorelei said, laughing. She wrapped an arm around Chelsea. “It’ll be like a sleepover party. We haven’t don’t that in so long.” She looked at Gwen. “And this time we’ve got a new friend to join us.”
Gwen smiled, her golden eyes glittering in the dim light. “I’d be glad to join the party,” she said happily.
Chelsea grinned. Finally, in the midst of all the darkness and fighting, she had a chance for rest.
Lorelei, I’m so glad you’re here. And Gwen, I’m so glad I’ve found a new friend in you.