Arc II Chapter 61: Shifting Strategies


You will not touch my sister.

Delilah glared at the breach where Gwen and Felix, taking over for a resting Chelsea and Nekoma, were defending against the horde of shadow-Hollows. Valgwyn had fired three more arrows since his first attempt to attack Shana, and all three had been deflected, just barely.

Delilah, floating thirty feet directly over the Dream Forge, felt her heart pounding within her chest. Things had become truly intense as the battle wore on, and the still unseen Valgwyn wasn’t helping matters. Now that Felix was in the breach, it was up to Nekoma to watch for and defend against Valgwyn’s dark arrows, and she did an excellent job of it. Her specialty was in defense, so this was where she thrived.

If we could just see him, we could keep him from shooting at us. But for now…

“Lorelei, a breach to your right!” Delilah called out, directing Reginald towards the small opening in the ice wall. The butler-cat’s whip lashed out, yanking a Howler down from the hole and smashing it against the floor, destroying it in an instant. Lorelei quickly followed up Reginald’s attack, raising her gloved hand and causing ice to seal up the hole, leaving it safe for the moment.

“I gotta take the main defense again,” Chelsea said, pushing herself to her feet. She’d been sitting beside Nekoma, in front of the Dream Forge, but even with her rest, as she rose she looked shaky, sweating despite the frigid temperature.

Even so, her eyes gleamed with ferocious determination.

“Let the Felines defend the Forge,” Chelsea said, looking up at Delilah. “Gwen and I will take this for a while.”

Delilah nodded, trusting Chelsea even though she worried for her. So far Chelsea had proven to be the most effective at fighting back the shadow horde, and as soon as she stepped up to the main breach, a single click of her lighter showed why. The Hollows had gotten terribly close, only a dozen feet from the entrance, but one blast of fire forced them back a hundred feet, and Chelsea followed it up with three more spiraling tongues of flame that exploded on contact, forcing their foes back further.

“Don’t overdo it!” Lorelei called to Chelsea.

Chelsea, to Delilah’s surprise, laughed. “That’s not an option at this point,” she said. “We’re all gonna overdo it before this fight’s over.” In between blasts of flame, Chelsea looked over her shoulder at Lorelei, beaming. “I’ll be just fine. Take care of yourself, okay? You’re the one I count on most.” She then looked at Gwen, and the two nodded to each other. “Let’s hold this breach as long as we can.”

The battle at the main breach burst into fiery intensity, as Chelsea and Gwen fought back the shadowy tide. Another arrow from Valgwyn came down the icy hall, and the combined swords of Nekoma and Felix deflected the arrow easily, knocking it into the floor where it smoldered with a strangely ethereal black smoke.

Gwen stepped forward, flinging her hand outward in an arc. Delilah saw what she was doing – a small silver needle shot forward, connected to a long line of silver thread. The needle shot this way and that, weaving its way down the hall, sewing shadow-Hollows together so that they couldn’t move, thrashing and snapping at their bonds. Nodding to Chelsea, Gwen stepped back. Chelsea raised her lighter, a grin on her face, and with a click, she sent a tiny bolt of flame forward.

That tiny bolt was all she needed. On contact with the thread binding hundreds of Hollows together, the fire burst to life, roaring as it spread down the thread, consuming every single Hollow that had been sewn into Gwen’s trap. The entire breach, all the way to the far wall, flashed a vibrant green as Chelsea’s flames filled its entire length and lingered for several seconds, devouring not just the Hollows Gwen had trapped, but also those who came to replace the fallen.

Delilah stared at the green light, much of it melding with and reflecting off of the blue glow of Lorelei’s ice. A straight line to the wall…

That wasn’t right. They could do better. Well…

That all depended on one person.

“Lorelei!” Delilah called out, bringing her disc platform lower so they could talk easily. “I hate to ask this of you, but I think it will make a huge difference for us. Can you alter the breach?”

“How do you want it altered?” Lorelei asked. Patches of blue ice glowed on her neck, cheeks, and ungloved left hand, and her eyes occasionally pulsed with a blue light. Her facial expression and posture didn’t betray any sense of fatigue or pain, but Delilah worried for her all the same.

“I think a straight line is what helps Valgwyn take shots at Shana without being seen,” Delilah said. “What do you think of making it a curve, so that there’s only a little bit of space straight ahead of our entrance? If you just seal over most of the current route, while breaking open a new route that connects to the ends of the straight line we have now, I think that would give the Hollows a longer path to follow, while also making it more difficult for Valgwyn to stay hidden.”

Lorelei stared into the distance, musing over the idea. Finally, she nodded. “Okay, that’s doable.” She turned towards the opening to the breach, where Chelsea and Gwen continued to drive back the shadow-Hollows. “Hey, I’m gonna alter the breach. Get ready!”

Chelsea nodded, creating a wall of flame that swallowed up a group of Hollows as they ran towards it. “Go for it!”

Lorelei raised her hand, and Delilah saw her breath mist in front of her… wait.

That wasn’t just mist. Lorelei’s breath was like snow, little ice crystals hanging in the air and then fluttering away. Her eyes gleamed with sapphire light, and a sudden rolling crackling sound like thunder echoed through the entire chamber. Delilah watched as the icy wall glittered and seemed to ripple, showing signs and strange reflections of what was happening deeper within as Lorelei changed the path of their enemies to give her allies an advantage. As she did that, she also altered the high platform upon which Redmond stood, making it a diagonal so that Redmond could look to the right, giving him a good look into the new, curving path of the breach and the oncoming enemies.

“Nice one!” Chelsea called out, flashing a thumbs-up with one hand while her other clicked her lighter, sending a wave of flame coursing through the altered breach. Now that it curved, Chelsea’s fire made more of the ice wall glitter and shine with emerald light, melding with the blue in a beautiful way as Chelsea’s attacks bore down on their enemies.

“Don’t overdo it,” Lorelei said, her calm voice somehow carrying well over the sounds of battle.

I think you’re the one who needs to hear that the most, Delilah thought, staring at Lorelei. Still her expression and movements showed no sign of pain or discomfort, but her eyes weren’t just flickering now and then with blue light – they were glowing constantly now, and the icy patches along her exposed skin had spread.

“There’s an opening behind us,” Merric called out, cowering behind the Dream Forge’s golden dome of light as he pointed to the opposite side of the room. A Splicer had dropped down from a narrow hole, but was destroyed before it hit the ground by the valiant efforts of Reginald and Chelsea’s owl, who worked in concert to grab the blade-armed shadow-beast and slam it into the floor.

Delilah took to the skies again. She was the one who was supposed to be watching for openings.

Chelsea said it herself. We’re all going to overdo it before this fight is over, unless Shana and the Princesses work incredibly fast. I can’t worry about Lorelei. I’m sure she’s being smart about things, and managing the very best she can. For now, I should thank my lucky stars that I’m not feeling worn out yet.

It was true, and the truth of it encouraged Delilah. While Chelsea and Lorelei clearly struggled, pushing themselves to the limit, Delilah still felt fresh and energized. She had been fraying under the intensity of the onset of the battle, when the shadowy wave of Hollows had come towards them, and her Felines had been unable to do anything to stop it, but she was recovering.

If the others fall, I’ll keep standing for them.

“Chelsea, Gwen!” Delilah called out, bringing her disc platform into a position closer to them. “In a minute or two, switch out and let Felix and Nekoma hold the breach with Redmond.”

“You got it, kiddo,” Chelsea replied, throwing a thumbs-up her way.

Chelsea’s definitely feeling loopy. She’s never this cheerful. She needs a break.

Looking around, Delilah saw no openings in the ice wall, so she spared a glance down, towards her sister. Shana had said things could take ten minutes… or ten hours. How long had their fight been going so far? Delilah couldn’t say, and she knew she couldn’t trust her feelings on that question either. Even her easiest, most stress-free training battles made time seem to distort for her, and seconds stretched out like minutes. A full minute of combat felt even longer, and prolonged engagements felt eternal and unending. Delilah had heard the same sentiments from Caleb, as well as others around her who had experience in combat and spoke of that strange time-distorting effect.

Delilah already felt like they’d been at it for an eternity. But she wouldn’t have been at all surprised if someone told them they’d only been fighting for five minutes. Chelsea had jokingly asked Shana for it to not take ten hours, and Delilah agreed with the sentiment.

All we can do is just keep fighting. Valgwyn’s arrows have stopped since Lorelei changed the breach, so that helps just as much as I’d hoped. I just need to hold the fort here until the switch, and then I can put almost all of my attention on the breach.

Delilah looked at little blue Reginald, who was carefully surveying the ice wall, watching for any possible openings, and smiled.

You’re going to stay on watch for other openings. You’ve been amazing at it so far. Don’t let up.

“We’re switching,” Gwen called out, followed by a frustrated groan from Chelsea.

“Yeah, yeah, we’re switching,” Chelsea said, stepping back from the breach, launching a trio of contemptuous parting shots down the long, icy corridor. Despite her protests as Felix and Nekoma took her and Gwen’s places, when she was confident the breach was well-defended, she plopped down on her butt in front of the Dream Forge and let out a long, heavy sigh. She was drenched in sweat, and she fought to catch her breath with ragged, pained gasps.

We’re holding as long as we possibly can. Felix, Nekoma, Redmond, this is your biggest test so far. I’m counting on you.

An impression came back to Delilah, in the wordless voices of her three first Summons, and it felt like a single word: Us.

Delilah smiled, her heart buoyed by the declaration of a simple truth: Summons and their summoner were inextricably linked. Whatever the Summons did depended a great deal on their summoner. If Delilah was counting on her Summons, then she was counting on herself, too.

The shadow-Hollows came on stronger and closer than they had against Chelsea, and of course they did. Chelsea was the only one with long-range destructive power. Redmond’s arrows flew fast and true, but he was a Warden, focused on trapping and locking down enemies, not an Eliminator like Chelsea.

Thankfully, this kind of fight was what Delilah had trained for the most. Again and again, night after night, she’d taken this trio of Felines out into Grimoire to round up, contain, and then eliminate all the Snifflers roaming the city. Redmond above, Felix in the thick of the fray, and Nekoma standing unyielding at the “gate.” This was their element, and Delilah was suddenly tremendously confident in her and her Summons’ abilities.

We can hold this as long as we need to.

Felix charged into the fray, forced the horde back with assistance from Redmond, and then rushed back to Nekoma. In a practiced maneuver, Nekoma hefted Felix by the scruff of his neck, spun in a circle, and hurled the swordmeowster down the icy corridor. Felix, as soon as he took flight, spun rapidly, his twin swords buzzing around him, turning him into a gleaming orange drill that tore through the shadowy onslaught. When Felix came out of the spin and landed, Redmond had his back, pouring arrows down around him to cover his fighting retreat.

The three Felines looked out for each other, supported each other, and knew each other better than anyone else could. Chelsea and Lorelei had a sort of similar connection, a bond of trust and understanding, but in combat, the bond of the three Felines ran deeper and stronger due to experience. They had fought together since the day they were “born,” and had never spent time apart from each other. It was part of why Delilah still hadn’t integrated Reginald into their three-pronged combat style – there were years of experience and training, drilling and experimenting, that Reginald hadn’t been a part of.

That experience, albeit against far weaker foes, was paying dividends now against a truly dangerous enemy. And when threats struck too close, unexpected help arrived. Recognizing the persistent danger of Redmond’s archery from his lofty perch, the shadow-Hollows had worked together to launch a pair of Splicers, flinging them high towards Redmond’s platform. They’d caught just the right timing, and Redmond wasn’t able to shoot them out of the sky in time.

He didn’t need to. In swooped Chelsea’s owl with a hoot of triumph that also sounded a bit like he was bragging. Chain-enshrouded talons gently gripped the shoulders of the green archer Feline, pulling him up into the air and out of harm’s way. But the maneuver didn’t stop there. Chelsea’s owl carried Redmond farther out, and Redmond opened fire from the sky, flying through the air in the grip of the shining white owl. They flew to the sharpest corner of the curving corridor, and then flew back, and while the Hollows below focused their angry gazes onto the aerial duo, Felix charged in, slicing through Hollows left and right before they even knew he was there.

Placing Redmond safely back atop his perch, Chelsea’s owl gave a hoot and hovered for a moment before the Feline. Redmond smirked, doffing his cap in an elegant salute, and the owl seemed to smile as he flew back into the main chamber to watch for openings in the wall.

Not for the first time, Delilah wished Summons could speak, though her mind filled in the silent exchange between Feline and owl with words in the familiar voice of Redmond Rickenback, Captain of the Catwood Company. Her years of watching (and continuing to watch to this day) Great Feline Adventures had imprinted the voices, mannerisms, and personalities of every single Feline into Delilah’s mind, and she knew them better than her closest friends.

“We make a good team, huh?” Chelsea asked, grinning up at Delilah. Delilah smiled down at her, nodding her agreement.

How long’s it been since we took over the breach? A minute? Two? I would love for it to be longer, but time doesn’t matter as long as we keep holding. I still feel fresh and good to go. I hope that lasts.

New openings formed in the ice wall here and there, and Reginald and Chelsea’s owl were quick to defend them. However, Lorelei wasn’t in any hurry to freeze them back over, and studying the girl, Delilah wondered what she was up to. Lorelei knelt on the floor, facing the ice wall, her gloved hand glowing as she held it out towards the floor. Delilah spied a few strange blue spheres of some sort, about the size of tennis balls, but then her attention was torn away. Felix had been hurt, and although it was only a scratch, Delilah needed him in top condition at all times. She flew on her floating platform closer to the breach and held her keychain talisman aloft. Bubbles of white light flew through the air, congregating around the thin slice along Felix’s right forearm. They pulsed with light, flowing into the wound, and it quickly closed up, healed as good as new.

“Hey, Chelsea,” Lorelei said, standing up. “Can I borrow your owl?”

“Sure,” Chelsea said, receiving a brief hoot of annoyance at her swift, casual answer. “What? She’s my sister. Help her out.”

She’s my sister.

That simple phrase caught Delilah’s attention. Chelsea and Lorelei weren’t related, by blood or otherwise – though the Frosts had taken over guardianship of Chelsea, they’d never formally adopted her. Chelsea and Lorelei were the very best of friends, but that bond, to them, was sisterhood.

They were sisters.

And that phrasing brought Delilah back in a strange way – probably because of what was at stake at the moment. Below her, Shana was struggling to save the Library, and Delilah and the others were doing their very best to defend her.

But the most recent real conversation Delilah and Shana had had before being whisked away to the Enchanted Dominion and separated for an awfully long time had revolved around family – specifically their wayward sister, Fae. And at the heart of it had been a question within Delilah that she hadn’t ever properly articulated to others:

What is family?

Why is family treated so differently from other relationships? Look at Chelsea and Lorelei. They are sisters, even though they’re not. I’ve seen them together, I’ve traveled with them. They’re what sisters should be, and they’re not related.

Why do we have to put so much importance into blood? If Shana was as much of a jerk as Fae, would I care about her as much as I do?

But beneath that…

Why does Fae’s rejection of our parents make me so angry? So what if she rejects them? So what if she rejects Caleb and Shias, or even Shana and me? She’s just another person. What does blood matter?

Of course, the reason that question drove Delilah mad was because, no matter what, she couldn’t shake her feelings for those she was related to. Despite what she’d said to Shana, Delilah didn’t want to forget about Fae. She didn’t want Fae to be the way she was.

She wanted Fae to be part of her family.

And why? Because we’re blood? Because we grew up together and I actually have fond memories of her from when I was really little?

I’ve let friends fall by the wayside that I was closer to than I ever was to Fae, and I don’t miss them.

So why does Fae drive me so crazy? Why can’t I just let her go?

These questions were horribly timed, Delilah knew that, but she’d also always been good at multi-tasking. And she couldn’t help these questions when she saw Chelsea and Lorelei – sisters – give their all for each other. Even though Chelsea’s owl was her Summon, she could freely loan him to those she cared about, even those with no experience with Summons. Blood didn’t bind them. It didn’t have to.

So why did blood make such a difference for Delilah and her siblings?

Below her, Lorelei took temporary command of Chelsea’s owl, giving him several of the strange blue spheres she’d created. She didn’t seem to need to speak about them to the snowy white Summon, making it clear to Delilah that this bond between Lorelei and the owl was just the same as that of a summoner to their own Summon. And when Chelsea’s owl took off with glowing spheres in his talons, Delilah learned what these creations were.

Flying over to a small hole in the ice wall that a Weaver was wriggling its bulbous body through, Chelsea’s owl tossed one of the spheres into the hole. It vanished past the Weaver, and a second later flashed with brilliant blue light. The Weaver, and the hole it was crawling through, were instantly flash-frozen, sealing shut another breach.

“Ice bombs?” Chelsea asked, looking to Lorelei with giddy astonishment. “I didn’t know you could do that!”

“I didn’t either until I just tried it,” Lorelei said. She looked up to Delilah, her eyes glowing with blue light, a patch of ice working its way closer and closer towards her lips. “Do you think Reginald could make use of these, too?”

There were dozens of the ice bombs, and Lorelei held out her hand to make a half-dozen more with ease. Delilah nodded, sending Reginald over to the stash of new weapons. “Absolutely, thank you!”

Chelsea’s owl and Reginald made their way around the ice wall, lobbing freezing bombs at each new breach that was opened, flash-freezing it shut and cutting off another avenue of attack for the shadow-Hollows.

Each new moment brought forth new strategies, new hopeful plays to defend Shana and the Princesses just a little bit longer. And despite the odds, despite the desperate nature of their fight, the girls were hanging in there just fine.

Please, Shana. Hang in there. Do your best. And succeed. I know you can. Bring light back to this place. Cast out this darkness for good.

Delilah looked down at her sister once again, smiling at the hope she held for her. But that smile quickly turned to dread, and then panic. She cried out, pointing at the Dream Forge. “What’s happening?”

Shana still stood, hands on the sphere in the center of the Forge. But not all of the Princesses were standing. Little Isabelle had collapsed and was on her knees, eyes closed, her forehead slumped against the cylinder of the Forge. Next to her, Maribelle had fallen as well, adopting the same unconscious position. The golden dome around the Dream Forge flickered, and the expressions on Shana and Annabelle’s faces – the only two still standing – were further twisted in pain and struggle.

“Nothing slipped past us, right?” Chelsea asked, leaping to her feet, lighters in hand, scanning the area around the Forge for threats.

“No,” Gwen said, her voice filled with sadness. “The danger didn’t attack them from out here.”

Delilah realized what Gwen meant, and her heart sunk.

“Whatever trial they’re facing within the Forge…” Gwen said, “they’re losing.”


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