Chelsea was exhausted.
She hated admitting it. She’d been a Hunter, patrolling nearly every night, for over a year now. She’d had rough nights, she’d had times when she got tired or worn out from overuse of her unique magic.
But she’d never been pushed this far. She’d never felt like she was completely spent, with nothing left to give.
Here in the Library of Solitude, defending the Dream Forge, Chelsea had felt that way for a long time now.
And still she kept going. Still she kept finding she had a little bit left. Again and again she wondered, as she clicked one of her lighter Talismans, “is it going to work this time, or am I at my limit?” And again and again, so far, she’d managed to unleash a little bit more fire.
She knew it was freezing cold around her, and yet she was drenched in sweat. Her internal temperature couldn’t decide what to do – one minute she was burning up as if an inferno was blazing within her very soul, and the next she was so frigidly cold she thought she’d never be warm again.
She also knew she was becoming less stable and less aware with every passing minute. She was a bit loopy, flashing thumbs-ups to people, slapping on a stupid grin for no reason like Caleb, feeling giddy in the midst of her exhaustion.
Yet the fight raged on, and Chelsea could do nothing else but continue. Behind her, the Dream Forge was a sorry sight. First Maribelle and Isabelle, and now Annabelle, had collapsed. Shana was the only one still standing, and something had changed on her face. It was a change that threatened to shatter the willpower of the team so desperately defending her.
Shana looked like she’d lost all hope.
Whatever was happening in Shana’s trial, Chelsea couldn’t know. But if Shana gave up, then this was all for nothing.
Don’t you dare surrender on us now, kid. I don’t know what you’re going through, but please hang in there. We’re all doing our best – more than our best – to protect you.
But we’re also completely dependent on you. If you fail, it’s all over.
For all of us.
Chelsea wasn’t just fighting shadow-Hollows and her own battered, exhausted state of being. She was also fighting distractions.
Lorelei worried her.
Chelsea’s best friend, her sister, continued to stay steady, projecting calm focus in her voice and posture.
But Chelsea wasn’t fooled.
Lorelei’s eyes shone with the same blue light of her magical ice, something Chelsea had never seen them do before. And on her face, neck, and ungloved hand, ice continued to spread across her skin. Nearly the entire left half of Lorelei’s face was encased in ice, and her braided red hair had gone rigid from frost. Her breath didn’t just mist in the air like everyone else’s, but came out in snowflakes and ice particles that hovered and fluttered in the air.
And the look in her eyes…
Chelsea had never seen that look before, but she’d felt it in herself. It was the same look that she was certain she’d had on Hollow Island, when she’d let her flames loose after Caleb collapsed.
Lorelei looked like she was possessed.
She continued to fight on, continued to talk like the Lorelei that Chelsea knew, but if this fight kept going on for too long, what would happen to her? Would she become completely frozen? Would she ever unfreeze if that happened?
Don’t you dare fall apart, Lorelei. I don’t know if I can hold myself together if something happens to you.
And right now, I really need to keep holding myself together, as much as I can.
Chelsea had been forcibly taken away from main defensive duties, since Delilah had noticed her physical state. The three large Felines defended the main breach, with Gwen backing them up now and then. Reginald and Chelsea’s owl continued to dash around, defending the miniature breaches that opened up, and Lorelei’s ice bombs continued to come in handy.
Chelsea backed everyone up. The main assault had grown in intensity, and there were times when three Felines and Gwen together couldn’t hold back the shadowy tide, so Chelsea stepped in, blasted them back, and then backed off to try and recover. Smaller breaches were opening up more frequently as shadow-Hollows did their best to dig through Lorelei’s ice wall, and Chelsea occasionally had to cover those, too, burning apart the sneaky invaders and then lobbing an ice bomb to refreeze the opening.
She was utterly spent. How she kept going, she’d never know. But if she could keep this up, despite how she felt, that would be enough.
If I can just keep going, it doesn’t matter how I feel. One foot in front of the other. One click, one blast of flame, after the other. One second at a time. Seconds turn into minutes. Minutes turn into hours. I make it one more second, and I can make it through the next, and the next.
I feel like I’m about to die, like there’s nothing left in me. But I can keep going.
It doesn’t matter how I feel. I can keep fighting forever.
Chelsea found herself grinning stupidly again, feeling an emotional high almost definitely caused by a body and mind that had long ago used up their normal stores of energy and were now running on fumes.
Hey, if I can keep grinning like an idiot, that’s a good thing, right?
If my brain keeps telling my body that it’s okay to keep fighting, I have no complaints about how I feel.
Despite Chelsea’s state, her owl seemed fine. How did that work? Weren’t Summons connected to their summoner? Chelsea really should have had a long sit-down with Delilah for some “Summoning 101.” There was too much she didn’t know, but she was glad to see her faithful Summon keep up the fight. His chains were invaluable, wrapping up, anchoring, and flinging around shadow-Hollows again and again. Sometimes he lifted up Reginald, the two smallest Summons in the fight flying around together, sealing up breaches and taking out monsters as if they’d been a team for ages.
The other bright spot in the battle was Gwen. She must have endless stores of stamina, because she just kept going, again and again, barely breaking a sweat, hardly out of breath. Her fighting style wasn’t the best suited to handling massive hordes of enemies, but working in concert with Chelsea or the Felines, she was an effective and, most importantly, reliable, supporting presence. Whenever she and Chelsea looked at each other, she flashed a smile. Despite how short a time they’d known each other, the two knew each other so well already, owing to bonding under the most intense and emotionally vulnerable of conditions. A look, a glance, a step or a gesture, and Chelsea knew what Gwen meant, Gwen knew what Chelsea meant.
When this is all over, though, I’ll be glad to be able to sit down, relax, and properly talk to her. We still have a lot to learn about each other.
So let’s not fail in this fight.
“Chelsea, use some of these,” came the voice of Lorelei. Chelsea rushed over to her worrisome friend and stumbled, managing to keep upright. She was more light-headed than she realized, and walking a straight line wasn’t a simple matter anymore. But she made it to Lorelei, bracing a hand against the ice wall for momentary support. Lorelei handed over several ice bombs. Her ungloved hand was shaking, and she quickly tucked it away in her pocket as Chelsea took the offered weapons.
“Hey,” Chelsea said, placing a hand on Lorelei’s shoulder. Their eyes met, and they held a long, wordless stare. “Don’t die on me, okay?”
Lorelei nodded, her expression, for one of the first times in all the years Chelsea had known her, unreadable. “Same to you,” Lorelei said. “You look the worst of us all.”
Chelsea laughed, though she couldn’t feel any joy. “You’re one to talk.”
Lorelei sighed, snowflakes fluttering in the space between the girls. “We’re quite a pair, aren’t we? But –”
“I know. We have to keep going.” Chelsea stared at the Dream Forge, at Shana, whose expression of hopelessness hadn’t changed. “I just hope she keeps going.”
“We can’t worry about her. There’s nothing we can do for her except keep her safe. Whatever she’s facing… she’s facing alone.”
Chelsea squeezed Lorelei’s shoulder and returned to the battle, lobbing an ice bomb up at a mini-breach, flash-freezing it shut. A click of a lighter, and a swift streak of flame exploded against a stampeding rush of shadow-Hollows, incinerating them for dozens of feet back and giving the main breach defenders some much needed breathing room.
A swift, sudden shock of pain lanced through Chelsea’s arm, from her fingertips to her shoulder, and then vanished. She clicked her other lighter, and the same thing happened with that arm.
Weird what your body does when it’s far past its limit.
Chelsea was more fascinated than frustrated, more determined than defeated. She’d fought more battles than she could count, and while many of them had been laughably easy, she’d struggled before. She’d pushed herself before.
Every time she did, the pain and exhaustion was almost exhilarating. She’d never rejected pain, never rejected fatigue. Every time she pushed herself, every time she hurt, she ended up stronger afterwards.
How much stronger will I be after this battle?
Chelsea stumbled, tripping on nothing and falling to a knee. A shriek alerted her to a Howler diving towards her from a mini-breach high above, and Chelsea blasted it into oblivion. She sat back, sweat stinging her eyes until she wiped it away with her sleeve. Her chest hurt, and breathing came in pained, challenging gasps. From the left came a Splicer, its bladed arms scything through the air as it charged towards the Dream Forge. A lighter clicked, and the beast was no more.
I’ll fight sitting down if I have to. But I won’t stop. Not for anything.
Chelsea heaved herself to her feet, swaying in her light-headedness. Her vision swam, and Felix and Nekoma blurred into one orange-purple super-cat for a moment, before returning to their normal form. A click of her lighter, and a fiery spiral missed a Howler by a few inches. Chelsea fired again, hitting this time, relishing the howl of pain as the monster disintegrated. She lobbed an ice bomb, sealing that breach, then tossed another at a second opening, but missed it by a few feet. The bomb burst in a flash of blue light, icy spikes jutting out from the ice wall, catching a leaping Weaver by surprise and slicing it to ribbons that dissolved into dust. Reginald came leaping past, sealing the hole that Chelsea had missed, and landed only for a brief second to procure more ice bombs from the stash that Lorelei had created near her feet.
As she watched the blue butler-cat leap past, Chelsea’s eyes met Lorelei’s. For a moment, they shared a look. Lorelei, for the first time in quite a while, smiled.
And then, the ice on her body spread.
It didn’t spread in tiny increments anymore, but suddenly and completely enveloped Lorelei’s body, until she was completely immobilized, a frozen statue. The blue lights of her eyes gleamed under a thick layer of ice, but they didn’t move.
“Lorelei?” Chelsea asked, her voice barely a whisper. She walked towards her friend, her sister, the sounds of battle fading around her, drowned out by a ringing in her ears that grew louder with each step. “Lorelei?” The next time she spoke her sister’s name, Chelsea couldn’t hear her own voice. When she reached Lorelei and placed a hand against her icy prison, she found no relief.
Thoughts swirled, but there were no words. Emotions flared, and confusion turned to anger, as rage and pain blossomed within Chelsea’s soul. Fire came unbidden from her hands, her sleeves burned away as flames burst from her arms, from her neck, her face.
Chelsea felt none of it. Her own fire didn’t harm her.
But it would harm the ones that forced Lorelei to go this far, to push herself beyond what she could bear.
Thoughts vanished. Words were meaningless. Chelsea turned her eyes on the main breach as an emerald inferno swirled around her, gathered and grew. She opened her mouth and screamed, though she couldn’t hear her own voice.
With that scream, Chelsea leapt forward, surging past Gwen and the Felines who held the main breach, charging down the curving hall that Lorelei had formed, fire destroying everything in her path.
Her thoughts were on one being, one monster who had done all of this.
She would find him, and she would destroy him. For pushing her sister too far. For threatening her closest friends. For inciting a battle they couldn’t win.
Valgwyn would burn this day.
Delilah watched in fear and disbelief. She’d seen Chelsea’s inferno before, on Hollow Island, but this time it was different.
This time, Chelsea was focused. And that made things more frightening, as flames gathered around her, surrounded her, burst forth from her, until Chelsea was gone, replaced by a beautiful, terrifying woman made of emerald fire, eyes shining with fierce intensity.
And then she flew.
She flew past Gwen and the Felines, soaring down the main breach, vanishing from sight. Fire blasted apart thousands of Hollows, not only clearing the entire main breach, but also flashing through dozens of tunnels dug by the monsters, clearing every single section of the ice wall, of the entire floor the girls fought on, in one fell swoop. Her emerald flames glittered, casting green light that reflected again and again through the many shifting facets of the massive ice wall.
And then her flames vanished.
Delilah knew where she’d gone, judging by the motion of the green lights. Chelsea had gone down, vanishing to a lower floor.
Valgwyn. She’s hunting Valgwyn.
Delilah didn’t know if she should hope for Chelsea’s success. What had Chelsea become? Would she survive pushing herself this far? Looking at Lorelei, who’d been imprisoned in her own ice, Delilah’s heart raced.
Was Lorelei still alive in there?
Was Chelsea still alive inside her inferno?
Worse still, would Delilah, the Felines, and Gwen be able to hold on without Chelsea or Lorelei? There were still a few dozen ice bombs, a final gift from the now incapacitated Lorelei. Would that be enough?
Delilah felt herself slipping over the cliff’s edge, teetering above the ocean of fear.
Annabelle had fallen. Shana was alone within the Dream Forge, and from what Delilah could see, her sister wasn’t doing well at all.
Is this it? Is this where it ends?
“Hold together!” Gwen called out, staring up at Delilah, her golden eyes glittering with fierce determination. “We have time before the shadow horde regroups and comes again. Let’s seal up the smaller breaches and see if we should change our strategy.”
Delilah nodded, tears stinging her eyes. She wiped them away, nodding again. “Right,” she said, turning around in a circle, analyzing the icy wall that had defended them so well. It was jagged and cratered, far less smooth than it had once been, signs of hundreds of smaller breaches that had opened and been hastily sealed shut over… how long had this battle worn on? There were six holes open, and Reginald swiftly sealed them shut with ice bombs, as did Chelsea’s owl.
Chelsea’s owl was still here, fighting with them, defending the Forge. How did he feel about Chelsea? How was he still focused and able to carry on with Chelsea in her current state?
Delilah wished she knew more about Elemental Magic. She’d never heard of it being self-destructive, and yet she’d seen examples twice now that suggested Elemental Magic was, in some ways, similar to Summoning.
It had a mind of its own.
“I’ll weave traps,” Gwen said, racing down the main breach. That brought Delilah back to the present, and she set to work making traps of her own. Through Redmond’s eyes she could see Gwen’s progress, and had her archer-Feline fire trapping arrows into higher locations that Gwen didn’t reach, or firing them into places that overlapped with Gwen’s, creating double-traps that would hopefully prove doubly effective.
But what could they do about the main breach? Without Chelsea’s fire, they wouldn’t last long – they simply didn’t have the power to push back the horde, and constant combat in close quarters was wearing on Felix and Nekoma.
And then, Delilah had an idea.
She brought her disc platform low enough to step off onto the floor, and then flipped the platform vertically, like a circular wall.
Or, in Delilah’s mind, a very big shield.
Gwen returned and eyed Delilah’s improvised shield, nodding her approval. “Think it’ll hold?” she asked.
“I don’t know how long,” Delilah said. “It’s withstood Howler attacks a few times before, so it should hold at least a little bit. I can only make one at a time, so I can’t overlap them, but just replace it when it fails.” She floated her shield forward, and it fit into the breach nicely, providing just enough room for Felix, Nekoma, and Gwen to attack around the edges, but not enough space for Hollows to slip around. They’d have to jump over it or, more likely, break through it.
Delilah hoped it would hold against at least a few attacks. To be careful, she positioned Nekoma directly behind it, so that if it failed, the armored Feline would be able to hold the line long enough for Delilah to reform her disc shield.
“Sounds like they’re coming,” Gwen said, standing sideways, needle-sword raised in a fencer’s salute. “Let’s keep holding until it’s over. For Shana’s sake.”
Delilah nodded. “For Shana’s sake.”
For a brief moment, she felt a surge of confidence. That vanished in the space of a breath, though, as a warning came from Reginald. Delilah turned, staring through the golden light that surrounded the Dream Forge to the opposite side of the room.
A new breach had been formed.
Not like the small tunnels along the wall, barely big enough for a single Hollow to wriggle through. This breach was similar to the one they’d focused so much of their efforts on defending. While the battle had worn on, Hollows had been slowly, carefully carving a large tunnel on the opposite side of the room, creating a second avenue by which to reach their destination and interrupt the trial of the Dream Forge.
Ice fell away as the wall shattered, and a dozen Hollows – Howlers, Weavers, Splicers – surged forward. Reginald dashed into their path, whip flashing as he desperately tried to hold them off. Chelsea’s owl dove down, chains surging forward to block the new attackers.
Delilah ran to their aid, passing by Lorelei to grab some ice bombs, but…
The stash was gone.
They’d used up every ice bomb left. They could no longer seal this new breach.
Hollows raced in from the first breach now, too, and quickly destroyed Delilah’s improvised shield-wall, crashing now against the combined, waning might of Nekoma and Felix. Redmond’s arrows flew down, traps were sprung, but the shadowy offensive came on.
They were facing attack from both sides, and were spread far too thin without their strongest defenders. And finally, as if a dam burst within her heart, Delilah dropped to her knees. Tears fell from her eyes, and she shook her head as her whole body trembled.
After all this fighting, after so much stress and pain, with exhaustion heavy and painful within her…
Delilah had lost all hope.