Chelsea watched as the Dream Forge appeared, and watched as Shana and the Princesses took their place.
What was going to happen to them? Shana seemed subdued ever since reading through Lady Kodoka’s journal, and not being able to tell anyone else about what she read left Chelsea uneasy.
Are they gonna be all right? I’ll do all I can to protect them from here, but…
I get the feeling that the greatest danger to them will come from where they’re going. Somewhere I can’t protect them.
Shana touched something, and the Forge began to glow. As it did, Chelsea felt something, her Hunter instincts kicking in, and she turned away just in time.
The walls, the floor, and the ceiling were moving.
Darkness on a scale Chelsea hadn’t seen before suddenly surged towards them in a massive wave. This wasn’t like the wave that knocked them into the outer gardens – that wave had been more like a powerful gale of wind, more force than substance.
This wave of darkness was writhing, foaming, filled with horrifying monsters that seemed to meld into and on top of and out of each other. There weren’t individual shadow-Hollows charging towards them – these shadow-Hollows were connected, fused to each other in disgusting fashion.
And there were millions of them.
“Surround the Forge!” Chelsea shouted, pulling both of her silver lighters out and immediately blasting emerald flames at the wave of monsters. “Don’t let them touch the others!”
“Felix, Nekoma, go!” Delilah shouted, but Chelsea didn’t have any chance to look and see what was happening. She had to focus on her own battle, as the wave of monsters rushed towards her at frightening speed. She poured flames into the wave, and monsters and darkness tore apart, exploded, and disintegrated.
And yet it wasn’t enough. There were so many that it was entirely possible Chelsea and her friends could be overwhelmed by sheer numbers, no matter how powerful they were in comparison to their foe. The monsters roared and howled, their mass rumbling against the stone as they came on, their claws and jaws and other deadly appendages snapping and scratching at the air. It was a hideous cacophony, nearly drowning out Chelsea and her companions’ shouts and calls. The roar of Chelsea’s flames were dull and muted against the vast horde charging towards her.
“Thank you,” came the voice of Valgwyn, that melodious baritone that Chelsea had come to hate, seeming to come from all directions at once. “I’m glad to see my patience has paid off. I thought you might attempt to come here.”
“Oh, screw you!” Chelsea shouted, letting loose with her fire, forming a wave of her own that crashed into the darkness. Her flames towered high, reaching from the floor up to the ceiling, and she poured more and more fire into it, willing it forward into the monsters surging against her.
In the corner of her eye, she saw the Felines dash around. Felix and Redmond, the speediest of the Felines, were racing around the perimeter in opposite directions, keeping on the move and fighting their hardest to hold back the tide. Felix’s swords flashed faster than Chelsea’s eyes could follow, and Redmond poured arrows into the horde.
None of it was enough. The horde of darkness surged, seemingly unabated by the efforts of the valiant Summons, and Felix and Redmond were steadily giving ground. Gwen’s needle-sword flew through the air, silver thread trailing behind it, weaving nets and barriers that sliced Hollows apart as they pushed against them.
It still wasn’t enough. Chelsea pushed more fire into her towering wave of emerald flame, the glittering green light changing the complexion of the entire chamber. What had once been dark with little silver lights, like twinkling stars interspersed here and there, was now tinted a crystalline green, glowing and flickering with the roaring strength of Chelsea’s fire wave.
“Can you get that all around us?” Merric asked, hunkering behind Chelsea.
Chelsea hissed out a breath, already feeling the strain of her desperate attempt to curb the darkness. She knew now she hadn’t fully recovered from the fight against Valgwyn, and she wasn’t entirely sure how much she could do. Sure, she’d unleashed an inferno on Hollow Island, but she’d barely been able to control that. Her training and experience were in fighting small groups of Hollows at most.
“Get towards the Forge!” Chelsea called out. “I’m gonna try something, but the closer together we are, the better a chance I have of not burning us alive!”
“Oh,” Merric said with a small voice. “That’s… comforting.”
Chelsea backed towards the Forge, expanding her towering wave of fire as she went. Chancing a glance over her shoulder, she saw the Forge was still dozens of feet away.
“I have a better plan,” Lorelei said, standing beside Chelsea. She stretched out her glowing gloved hand, forming icy spikes and barricades to hold back the tide of darkness. “Cold Snap.”
Chelsea gritted her teeth. “Doesn’t look like there’s a better choice,” she said, bracing herself for what she knew was to come. “Can you do it on this scale?”
Lorelei stepped forward. “I’m hurt that you feel the need to ask.” She raised her gloved hand, placing her middle finger against her thumb.
Then, she snapped her fingers.
The snap resonated throughout the entire vast chamber, as if it came from the hand of a giant, not from Lorelei. Sound seemed to vanish aside from that snap, and faster than Chelsea could blink…
Everything was frozen.
A massive wall of blue, glittering ice, spiky and jagged, formed a perimeter around the Forge and its defenders. The ice wasn’t just a wall, though – it had consumed the darkness beyond. In spots in the ice, the frozen, hideous faces of Hollows could be seen, encased by the sudden, inescapable freeze.
Snowflakes hovered in the air, drifting lazily to the ground. All was eerily quiet.
And Chelsea was freezing. Each breath she took misted in the air, and then hung there, as if the particles of moisture were freezing in place, before slowly drifting upwards and vanishing. The inside of her nose had frozen shut, and her ears felt as if they’d popped twice over.
“That should hold for a while,” Lorelei said. Not only did her breath come in a misty frost, but areas of exposed skin on her face and left hand had a thin layer of ice over them. Her eyes, normally a pale blue, seemed to glow with the deeper, glittering blue of her ice. She breathed deeply and slowly, and when she looked towards Chelsea, for a moment it was as if she didn’t recognize her. But when Lorelei smiled, her eyes stopped glowing, and she seemed like the Lorelei that Chelsea knew. “Is everyone okay?”
“I’m all right,” Gwen said, seeming unperturbed by the cold.
“I’m f-fine,” Delilah said, pulling her jacket tight around her as she shivered. Even so, she was smiling, and she looked up and around in awe at the ice. “This is s-so c-cool. I didn’t mean as, like, a p-pun. I mean really. The c-coolest use of magic I can think of.”
So she’s just like her brother in that respect. Chelsea smiled, despite her discomfort at the sudden dramatic drop in temperature. Caleb absolutely loved winter and snow, and it was nearly impossible to get him indoors when there was a heavy snowfall or sudden ice storm. The smile on Delilah’s face, and the way her blue eyes went so wide and amazed, were just like Caleb.
“Truly impressive,” Merric said, staring at the ice around them with a more analytical sort of awe. “Thank you. I was worried we were done for.”
“I’ll tell Isabelle on you,” Chelsea said, walking past the librarian towards the Dream Forge. Her owl came down from the sky, perching on her shoulders. The pedestal was now surrounded by a glittering golden dome of light, but Chelsea could see Shana and the Princesses within it.
They looked like they were struggling.
All of them had their eyes closed, hands placed on the edge of the cylinder. And all of them had their faces scrunched up in concentration at best, but Chelsea thought it looked more like they were in pain.
“And we have no idea how long it’s going to take them,” Lorelei said, looking at the girls.
“Shana said it could take as l-long as ten hours,” Delilah said. She’d started bouncing on her feet and pumping her arms, working to get warmth back through her body. Nekoma came up behind her, putting her armored arms around the girl to warm her.
“Let’s hope it doesn’t take that long,” Chelsea said, turning back towards the ice. “How long do you think this’ll hold them?”
“If I shatter it, it should destroy everything it consumed,” Lorelei said. “But we don’t know how much more will take their place.”
Chelsea nodded. Lorelei could only use her Cold Snap once per day at best. She’d never fully explained all of its effects to Chelsea, but Chelsea felt she didn’t need to know. Seeing power like that – freezing so much, so fast that the time span in which the cold devoured its targets was imperceptible – told Chelsea all she needed to know.
More than that, the bluish patches of ice on Lorelei’s neck, cheeks, and left hand worried her. It was as if the cold had, at least a little bit, rebounded back on her.
“Do you think they’ll break through it?” Gwen asked.
“I think they can in time,” Lorelei said. “Especially if there’s more. We saw what this chamber was like when we got down here. There wasn’t a trace of darkness at all. It’s like it came straight through the stones themselves.”
“Our enemies keep coming up with new surprises for us,” Gwen said.
“So why aren’t they just popping up from under us?” Chelsea asked, tapping the stone floor with her foot.
“I think the Dream Forge may have something to do with that,” Merric said. “I was… well, quite terrified, I’m sure you could tell. But I noticed that the horde of beasts started their charge much faster than they finished.”
“The closer they got to the Forge, the slower they went?” Chelsea asked. Merric nodded. “So they had to start from far out. Luck was on our side. If they’d started closer, we might not have had time to stop them.”
“I would have,” Lorelei said. “I just wouldn’t have warned you.” She smirked at Chelsea, who shook her head.
“So what’s our next play?” Chelsea asked. “We can just wait, but I kind of hate that.”
“You’ve always been too impatient,” Lorelei said.
“If Lorelei destroys them all, we don’t know how many will take their place,” Gwen said. “And if we wait for them to break through, that could have a similar effect.”
“They could surround us,” Delilah said, nodding thoughtfully. She’d started doing jumping jacks to ward off the cold, and Reginald and Nekoma were doing them with her, so her speaking so calmly and analytically at the same time was quite funny to see. “Lorelei, can you destroy just a small section of it?”
“So we create a small space for them to come through, and hold them at the breach,” Lorelei said, nodding. “I can do that.”
“We’ll still need to keep our eyes on the rest of the ice,” Chelsea said.
“I can do that,” Delilah said. “My Felines are trained for different combat-focused Hunter roles, and I’ve trained to be Overwatch. I can keep an eye on the entire battlefield and call out any unwanted breaches. I don’t have to fight directly, so that’ll be easy for me.”
“If they break through areas I don’t want them to, I can refreeze and seal those back up,” Lorelei said.
“Nekoma can hold the breach if it’s small,” Delilah said. “And Redmond can use the surface of the ice as platforms to shoot down from.”
“Mind if I stand with the armor cat?” Chelsea asked. As Delilah opened her mouth to protest, Chelsea laughed. “I know, armor Feline. I got it.”
“Maybe we should have a rotation,” Lorelei said. “Chelsea, you and Gwen can trade off with each other, and Delilah, how about Nekoma and Felix trade off?”
Delilah nodded. “That should work. And Reginald can stay with me and help scout out and defend breaches.”
“Those who aren’t actively defending, stay as close to the Forge as possible,” Chelsea said. “Watch it like your life depends on it. If the slightest bit of darkness gets close to those girls…”
“We won’t let that happen,” Gwen said, smiling.
“I’ll stay close to the Forge as well,” Merric said. “I do have some magic, and a bit of a self-defense training, though I’ve never actually used it. I’ll do my best.” He looked at the Forge. “It’s the least I can do for them.”
“All right, hurry up and open a breach,” Chelsea said, hopping from one foot to the other. “I’m gonna freeze to death if I don’t start fighting.” Chelsea’s owl hooted at her questioningly. “You help plug up surprise breaches, okay? Your chains will come in handy for that.” He took off from her shoulders, flying high so he could see all around.
“Right here,” Lorelei said, pointing straight ahead. “Ready?” Chelsea and Nekoma stepped up to the breach, both nodding at Lorelei. “Okay. Three… two… one.”
With a deep cracking thunder accompanied by a high-pitched whine that grated on the ears, the ice wall split and then shattered in a section about ten feet wide. At the same time, some of the ice about thirty feet up grew and shifted, forming a platform above the breach for Redmond to stand on.
The destruction of the wall revealed just how devastating Lorelei’s Cold Snap was. She hadn’t just walled off the monsters, but had frozen all of the darkness in its entirety as far back as the wall of the chamber. When the ice shattered for the breach, the long hallway it formed was filled not just with shards of ice, but also with the wispy, disintegrating clouds of darkness revealing the destruction of thousands of shadow-Hollows.
The quiet of the chamber slowly faded as the howling, gnashing calamity of the living darkness and its monsters came to being once more. Hundreds of feet ahead, at the far wall, Chelsea saw the darkness gathering and then surging forward. Dozens of Hollows became hundreds, and then thousands, and then they were halfway to Chelsea and Nekoma.
Chelsea grinned at the narrow breach, smiled at the knowledge that her fires couldn’t melt Lorelei’s ice. She raised her lighters, as if in a salute to the oncoming horde. “Let’s bottle these freaks up,” she said.
With a click of each lighter, Chelsea sent torrents of spiraling flame racing ahead towards the horde. When they struck the lead Hollows, they exploded in emerald blazes of light and heat, blasting further back down the hall to consume hundreds of Hollows at a time.
“This is much better than trying to cover the entire room!” Chelsea called to her allies as she fired twice more, blasting through more and more of the shadowy foes. When a Hollow here or there managed to force its way through the flames or sneakily slip around Chelsea’s blasts, Redmond’s glittering green arrows fired down with pinpoint accuracy, eliminating them before they took more than a handful of steps.
“My brothers will be so disappointed with me,” came the voice of Valgwyn. “I put so much effort into constructing this trap. You’re cleverer than I realized. Though perhaps I can still turn this around.”
Not being able to see where Valgwyn’s voice came from was frustrating. He hadn’t spoken at all while the ice covered all of the darkness, so Chelsea had a suspicion that he was somewhere along the hallway breach before her, commanding the monsters to attack. She fired a few lobbing balls of fire that arced up and over the shadow-Hollows, striking closer and closer to the far wall of the chamber, exploding in bursts of verdant light.
Please tell me I hit him with one of those.
“Don’t overdo it,” Lorelei cautioned, her steady tone a calming presence. “Pace yourself. You’re the most likely to burn out.”
She has such a calming voice, and then she goes and throws a fire pun at me. Rude.
But Chelsea dialed it back, spacing out her spiraling blasts, taking heart in the knowledge that the bottlenecked Hollows struggled to gain ground at the same speed as the overwhelming wave from before. They crawled forward rather than sprinting, gaining ground steadily but slowly, and at great cost.
How long can they sustain this? How much darkness is there in the Library?
Then Chelsea realized something. She and Gwen had faced effectively impenetrable darkness before. The only way to eliminate it was to enter the strange shadow world that Chelsea still didn’t understand. Merric had spoken of there being more darkness like that ahead, but in their entire journey here, they’d seen nothing like it. There were many monsters, and Valgwyn’s blast-wave that sent them into the outer gardens, but…
He’s been pulling back the darkness ever since Gwen and I purged that corridor. He’s been spinning this web longer than I realized.
All along, he’s known we had to come here. I’ve seen how big the Library is, how much space can be covered by darkness. And yet I’ve only seen little bits of this place. I’ve seen a couple of halls and rooms of the first, second, and third rings, even though those are gigantic.
I’ve seen maybe… five percent of the entire Library? And there was so much darkness in all of that. If he still has ninety-five percent of it to command – if he called back all of the darkness from the Library to this one room…
Well. Let’s hope those girls finish their Dream Forging thing quickly. If I did my math right, then everyone defending the Forge will use up all of their strength long before we defeat Valgwyn’s hordes.
We can’t win. All we can do is hold out long enough for Shana and the Princesses to succeed.
“Don’t you ever tire of fruitless combat?” Valgwyn asked, still frustratingly hidden.
“Don’t you ever tire of –” Chelsea started, but a familiar sound made her duck.
Valgwyn had fired an arrow.
It shot like a black lightning bolt through Chelsea’s fire and down the breach, narrowly missing Chelsea as she avoided in the nick of time. A sudden cry from Delilah, however, made her turn back towards the Forge, only to see…
The orange swordmeowster had stepped in the way, in the nick of time deflecting the arrow with one of his swords. Chelsea had expected the worst, from the way that Delilah had cried out in panic, but she was relieved to see the fierce gaze in Felix’s eyes, now standing…
Chelsea understood, now.
That arrow hadn’t been meant for her. Because where Felix stood was in the path of the arrow, right in front of the Dream Forge.
Valgwyn had fired at Shana.
“Keep the breach as tight as you can!” Chelsea called out, firing a vicious blast of fire down the icy corridor. “And don’t you dare let any other spots open up! Valgwyn’s gunning for Shana and the others. We need to keep them safe until we can find him and lock him down.”
“Once you spot him, let me know,” Lorelei said. “I’ll make sure he never fires another arrow again.”
The fierceness in her tone was accompanied by a strange sound, and Chelsea spared a glance at her best friend. Lorelei’s breath was misting in the air, far more than anyone else’s. And the ice on her neck and cheeks and hand… it had spread.
We can’t put too much on her. She’s struggling more than any of us already.
If I spot that Valgwyn freak, I will find a way to destroy him for sure this time. I don’t care how much fire it takes.
I won’t let him harm anyone dear to me.