Caleb watched in awe as Chelsea, wreathed in emerald flames, tore into Valgwyn as if he were nothing. After all of Midnight’s efforts to defeat the beast, after seeing so many wounds heal and restore themselves, after seeing Valgwyn escape from so many deadly situations…
Watching Chelsea go to work was nothing short of amazing.
Valgwyn was pinned to the floor, screaming in agony as Chelsea blasted away at him with tireless abandon. Armor and clothes were torn apart, hair and skin burned and melted, and Caleb almost couldn’t watch for just how violent and grotesque the encounter was.
“How?” Midnight asked, pushing himself to his knees and watching in stunned amazement. “She shouldn’t be able to harm him at all.”
Caleb didn’t fully understand what Midnight meant by that, and he knew there was more for him to learn, but for now, he just smiled. “But she is. That’s a good thing, right?”
“I will not die here!” Valgwyn roared, his melodious baritone warped into a frightening, desperate scream. His body shifted, wreathing itself in darkness, and Midnight cried out.
“Don’t let him escape!” He tried to rise to his feet but faltered. Caleb stepped forward, firing chains at Valgwyn to trap him…
But to no avail. Valgwyn suddenly sank away, as if being sucked into a pool of dark water, and vanished.
All was suddenly silent for a moment, save for the crackling of the flames that still surrounded Chelsea.
And then she slammed her fists against the floor and screamed. Fire poured out of her, blasting upward and outward to coat the entire ceiling, stretching out and down the outer walls so far away.
And then, with a gasp, all of Chelsea’s flames faded away, and she collapsed.
“Chelsea!” Caleb ran forward, kneeling at Chelsea’s side, rolling her onto her back and holding her in his arms. The sleeves of her jacket and shirt had been burned away, and what Caleb assumed had once been long pants were now very short shorts, yet somehow Chelsea’s flames had left much of her clothing intact and, unlike an incident Caleb knew about quite well, hadn’t touched her hair.
Chelsea was pale, and her breathing came shallow and weak. Caleb lifted her up, holding her close against him, tilting his head down so that his forehead touched hers. “Wake up,” he said softly.
Chelsea’s eyes fluttered open, just barely. Her green eyes shifted this way and that, before meeting Caleb’s, and widening a little more. “Caleb?” she asked softly.
Caleb smiled. “Yeah. Been a long time, huh?”
Chelsea’s lips turned upward in a small smile, but then she drifted away into unconsciousness again. Her breathing came peaceful this time, and holding her, Caleb smiled.
“It’s okay,” he said softly. “You’re gonna be fine.”
Delilah couldn’t get herself to move. Shadow-Hollows were coming on faster and stronger, from multiple major entrances through the ice wall, and though Delilah and Chelsea’s Summons, along with Gwen, fought bravely…
Delilah had broken. Her hope was gone, and after fighting so desperately for so long, even the desire to protect her sister wasn’t enough to make her move.
It was all over.
“Delilah!” Gwen cried, racing to her side. “Delilah, please! Don’t give up now!”
Delilah looked up at Gwen, staring into the woman’s golden eyes. There was still hope there, still fervor and determination.
Gwen hadn’t given up. She wouldn’t give up until she died.
Just like Lorelei, encased in her own ice.
Just like Chelsea, consumed by her own fire.
Why couldn’t Delilah keep going? Why wouldn’t her legs work?
Then she saw, past Gwen, a Splicer slip past the Felines and owl. It raced forward, bladed arms raised, swinging them to strike at a vulnerable Shana.
“No!” Delilah cried out, raising a hand, willing herself to move.
How could I abandon my own sister?
Yet she couldn’t move fast enough, and Gwen was turning too slowly. The Splicer’s arms came down.
Yet just before they reached the golden barrier, a sudden burst of white light flooded the room. It came on so fast, so bright, that Delilah couldn’t see anything. She was stunned, her ears rang, and for a moment all was still, silent, and bright.
The light slowly faded, but not back to the dim darkness of the Library of Solitude. The crystal lights all throughout the large chamber in the very center of the Library shone brighter than before. The walls, floor, and ceiling weren’t a dull grey, but glittering white, and spheres of white light, like fairies out of a dream, floated in the air.
Delilah stared. The shadow-Hollows were gone. They had vanished completely and utterly, as if they had never been there before. Where claws had rent the stone, surfaces were now smooth and untouched.
In the center of the room, standing around the Dream Forge, were Shana and the three Princesses. All were conscious, all were alive, and the golden barrier blocking them off from their allies had vanished. The Forge, once dull and lifeless, now sparkled and gleamed with white and blue fire.
And Shana, who had moments before looked so hopeless, turned towards Delilah. Tears streamed down her cheeks, but on her face was a brilliant smile. She nodded to Delilah, and said three words that made Delilah’s heart swell.
“I did it.”
Caleb rejoined Delilah and Isabelle, and was shocked to find more had added to their number.
Most of all, he was shocked to see Shana.
Their reunion was one with very few words. Shana could barely speak, just hugged Caleb tight and cried. But through all of the tears, through the shaking and weakness, Caleb was heartened to see that Shana never stopped smiling.
Isabelle was delighted to see Caleb, racing up and hugging him even as Shana kept holding onto him. “You kept your promise,” the little redhead said, beaming up at Caleb. “You got me back home.”
Caleb blinked at Isabelle. “But I left you guys,” he said. “I didn’t do it on purpose, but –”
“You brought Chelsea to me,” Isabelle said, reaching up to Chelsea who Caleb held in his arms and gently stroking her hair. “And you brought Lorelei and Delilah to me. You made sure I wouldn’t be alone. You made sure that I’d get home, even if you had to go away.”
Caleb’s heart swelled, and his eyes stung with sudden tears. He’d missed this little girl far more than he’d realized. Her unshakable faith in the ones she loved, her innocence and kindness…
“Thank you,” he said, nodding to Isabelle, doing his best to at least offer the slightest touch to the little girl, and to Shana, as they hugged him while he held Chelsea.
Strangely, Delilah didn’t have anything to say to anyone. She cried, and she walked with them as they headed towards somewhere more comfortable to rest, but she didn’t want to talk. She was dealing with something, and Caleb had a feeling she wouldn’t be able to talk about it easily. While Caleb carried Chelsea, Isabelle’s older sister Maribelle carried Lorelei, who had collapsed after Shana and the Princesses had finished their work and saved the Library.
It was strange, being a part of this group and knowing that he hadn’t done all that much to aid in their battle. Isabelle acted as if Caleb had shown up with some grand heroic entrance and saved the day (which, if Caleb was being honest, was what he’d hoped to do). But Caleb had been stopped one floor down, and had only survived thanks to the timely intervention of his girlfriend.
It was also strange not having Mister Midnight with him. His teacher had quickly left after the Library had been restored, not even coming up to the next floor to meet everyone else. “I’ll recover faster back at Midnight Bridge,” he’d said. “These are your friends and family. You belong here, but I don’t. And having seen how close darkness came to overcoming one Daylight Bastion, I want to ensure the safety of my own. But take these.”
Midnight had bestowed Caleb with gifts. The first was a small, black, leather-bound notebook. “This has everything I know about the Radiance,” Midnight explained. “Some of it might be out of date, but I’m sure it will be of use to you. I can’t come with you to Grimoire, but if I find out anything else about their plans for your city, I’ll find a way to send word to you. This information should help you to properly prepare to defend your home from the fool’s gods.”
The second was a whistle, jet black with little pinpricks of starry silver. “That’ll call the Goodnight Express to you, anywhere you are, instantly,” Midnight had said. “If you ever need me, or need to come back here, make use of that.” He’d smiled and then looked away, hiding his face from Caleb. “You’re a true friend, Caleb. I hope this isn’t the last we see of each other.”
Caleb had smiled. “We’ll see each other again. You can count on it.” Midnight had nodded, and then left, heading down below to the door from whence he’d come.
Now Caleb and the large group of all those who had fought so valiantly to save the Library arrived at their destination, a hub hallway that had doors to ten bedrooms, for the ten Princesses of Solitude. Some shared rooms to rest. Chelsea, Lorelei, and Delilah were all given their own rooms – Chelsea and Lorelei so they could recover in peace; Delilah because she asked to be left alone. Both Caleb and Shana wanted to help her, wanted to cheer her up, but their efforts did no good.
“What do we do for her?” Shana asked, sitting with Caleb on the floor against the wall outside of Delilah’s room.
“I don’t know,” Caleb said. “She may just need time.”
“But why can’t her own siblings help her?” Shana asked. In her arms she held Altair, and she hugged him tighter as she asked her question. “I don’t understand. We saved the day. She protected me until the very end. Why is she acting like we failed?”
“I wish I knew.”
Someone else had come up silently, sliding down to a seat next to Shana.
“You’re okay?” Shana asked, staring at Lorelei in shock. Lorelei didn’t look okay – she was pale, and clearly weak and disoriented. Yet she offered a calm smile.
“I’ll come around,” she said. “But I overheard, and I thought I might have a solution.”
“For Delilah?” Shana asked hopefully.
Lorelei nodded. “I think, once Chelsea wakes up, she should be the one to talk to Delilah. The two of them have gotten really close over all this time, and they’ve been fighting together a lot, too. Delilah looks up to Chelsea like a big sister. You should see if Chelsea can help.”
“You think it’ll work?” Shana asked.
Lorelei looked past Shana to Caleb, smiling. “I do.”
Caleb nodded. “Then that’s what we’ll wait for.”
“And until then…” Lorelei said, leaning her head back against the wall wearily. “Could you two help me back to my bed? It seems my legs haven’t gotten their strength back yet.”
They did as asked, and Lorelei swiftly fell asleep once she lay down. Together Caleb and Shana went over to Chelsea’s room, sitting beside her bed and watching her sleep.
“She really gave it her all, huh?” Shana asked, gazing at Chelsea.
Caleb smiled. “She never does any less.”
Chelsea drifted between sleeping and waking for so long that she started to wonder which was which. She had hazy memories, a blurred recollection of events.
She remembered very clearly Lorelei suddenly being encased in her own ice.
She remembered very clearly charging down a floor, finding Valgwyn and tearing into him.
And then things got hazy. She thought she’d seen…
He’d held her, and smiled at her.
Was that real? Or was it just a dream?
If it was a dream, it was a good one. I’d like to go back to that.
There were other blurry impressions. She’d seen Delilah sitting beside her, as if Chelsea was in a bed and Delilah was watching over her.
She’d seen Gwen, sewing what appeared to be another of Chelsea’s favorite jackets.
She’d seen little Isabelle, happy and healthy, reading a storybook on Maribelle’s lap.
But how could all of this be?
I abandoned them. I abandoned the Forge, and the defenders.
Did they win? Did Shana succeed? Is the fighting over?
Or am I just dreaming?
If I’m dreaming, I really need to wake up. I can’t leave them like that, and…
Chelsea hadn’t seen Lorelei, in all of her blurry memories, her strange maybe-dreams. Her best friend, her sister, was unknown and unseen.
Panic gripped Chelsea’s heart, but it faded like many of her other maybe-dreams. She couldn’t hold her emotions or her thoughts in one place. She felt heavy, even in her mind, as if the slightest thought was too much effort.
And then, slowly, she came to the realization that she was awake. The line between waking and dreaming became clear, and Chelsea’s eyes fluttered open to stare at a familiar sight.
She was in one of the Princesses’ rooms, lying in bed, staring up at the cloth canopy above her. In the darkness of the Library before she’d never noticed that it was blue. Everything was much brighter now, but not in a painful way.
It was how it should be.
Chelsea wanted to leap to her feet, to find out everything about what had happened, but just like in her sleep, she felt heavy. All she could manage was a slow roll to face the door from the bedroom.
That wasn’t all she saw. Seated in a chair next to her bed was…
He was real. He was here.
Caleb looked up, and his eyes brightened, his easy smile flashing on his face as he saw Chelsea was awake. But before he could say a word, Chelsea spoke first.
“Are you really Caleb?” she asked.
Caleb blinked, staring at Chelsea as she sat up in bed, her strength returning. “What do you mean?” he asked. He stood up, spreading his hands as he stepped in front of Chelsea. “I’m real. Touch me, I –”
Chelsea swung her closed fist, punching Caleb in the stomach hard enough that he doubled over, wheezing. He dropped to his knees, then rolled onto his side, coughing.
“I’m so sorry!” Chelsea suddenly said, waving her hands. “I didn’t – I mean – I just –”
But she stopped, staring at Caleb in puzzlement.
He was laughing.
“Why are you laughing?” Chelsea asked.
Caleb coughed, still clutching his stomach, and then laughed some more. “Because that really hurt,” he said, barely able to get the words out between side-splitting laughter and painful coughing. His smile was wide and nonsensical, grinning like an idiot the way he often did.
“Then why are you laughing?” Chelsea repeated.
Caleb only laughed harder. “I don’t know!”
Chelsea started laughing then. “You’re so weird.”
And in Chelsea’s heart, she felt like a massive weight had been lifted from her. Without realizing it, she had carried some of the darkness with her out of the strange place she and Gwen had walked. She had carried with her the fear of the Caleb doppelganger she’d met, the frightening, hateful Caleb that was nothing like the man she knew and loved.
But this man, giggling like a silly little boy on the floor in front of her…
That was Caleb. He was real, and he was here.
Chelsea knelt on the floor, pulling Caleb up until she could rest her forehead against his. One hand held one of his, while the other stroked his hair.
“I missed you,” she said softly.
Caleb’s free hand went to Chelsea’s hair, and he nodded slightly. “I missed you, too.” He sniffed, and Chelsea laughed.
“Are you crying?” she asked.
“You’re crying too,” Caleb shot back, sniffing again. Chelsea nodded, letting her tears fall.
These were happy tears. There was no need to hold them back.
“Don’t go disappearing on me like that again, okay?” Chelsea asked, meeting Caleb’s eyes.
Another slight nod. “You got it.”
Chelsea pulled back a little bit, staring at Caleb and pursing her lips. “You got new glasses.”
Caleb smiled. “Yep. You like ‘em?”
Chelsea bobbed her head from side to side for a moment in thought. “They’ll take some getting used to.” She looked him up and down, then poked him in the ribs, which made him giggle. Oh, how she’d missed that sound. “You’ve gotten skinnier.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“You know you need to eat, like, a million calories a day or you waste away, right?”
Caleb laughed. “Yeah, I know.”
Chelsea cocked her head to the side. “You’ve had a rough go of it, huh? Seems like you’ve been through a lot.”
Caleb nodded. “Yeah. Seems like you’ve been through a lot, too. How are you feeling? You kind of overdid it there at the end, before you collapsed.”
“So you really were there?”
Another nod. “Me and my teacher came to try and help you guys out in saving the Library. We… didn’t really do a great job of it, I guess. Sorry about that.”
“No, I… I think your arrival helped pull Valgwyn away from us. Speaking of him… is he dead?”
Caleb sighed. “No. He escaped.”
Chelsea gritted her teeth, but she couldn’t stay frustrated for long. Especially not when Caleb ran his fingers through her hair.
“You cut your hair,” he said.
Chelsea eyed him carefully. “Do you like it?”
Caleb smiled. “I think so. It’ll take some getting used to.”
“Just like your glasses. I guess that’s fair.” Chelsea, heart overflowing, pulled Caleb close, hugging him tight. For a moment, she couldn’t speak, struggling through words and feelings she’d been thinking about a lot ever since Caleb left. “I… I have a lot to talk to you about. I know you’ve been really patient, and you’ve stuck with me longer than I ever deserved, but it’s time you know everything.”
Caleb shook his head against Chelsea’s neck, laughing softly. “It’s not about deserving. I love you. And I’d stick with you forever.”
Chelsea’s heart soared, and she hugged Caleb tighter. “I love you, too. Let’s talk soon. Also… thanks for letting me have Delilah for so long. I think I may have adopted her as a little sister.”
Caleb laughed. “I’m glad.”
“And I hate to break this up here, but… I have to ask…”
Chelsea smiled. Of course he knew. She nodded.
Caleb stood, pulling Chelsea to her feet with him. “She’s waiting for you. Next room to the right.”
Chelsea nodded, heading over to that next room while Caleb waited in the hub hallway that connected all of the bedrooms. In that short walk, Chelsea realized that someone – likely Gwen – had changed Chelsea’s clothes while she was unconscious. No wonder, since she vaguely remembered ruining her clothes with her fire. Now she wore a simple white shirt and pants, with no socks or shoes. They were loose and comfortable, and that was enough for now.
Inside the bedroom, Chelsea saw Lorelei sitting up in a chair, reading. Her red hair was undone from its braid, instead pulled aside with a loose ponytail. When she looked up, Chelsea was relieved to see that her eyes didn’t glow with a strange light. They were just their usual cool blue.
Chelsea crossed the room, and Lorelei set aside her book and rose to meet her. The two held hands, leaning their foreheads together, eyes closed.
“I thought I’d lost you,” Chelsea said softly.
“Not yet,” Lorelei said.
“And not for a really long time, I hope.”
Lorelei nodded. “That’s the plan.”
“And you can’t die before me,” Chelsea said, staring meaningfully into Lorelei’s eyes. “You have to wait until after I’m gone.”
Lorelei laughed. “You always were selfish.” Chelsea noticed Lorelei’s hands were shaking, and she looked at them in concern. Lorelei sighed. “I’m just weak, is all. Defending Shana and the Princesses took a lot out of all of us.”
“So we succeeded?” Chelsea asked.
“We sure did. You should talk to Delilah, though. She…” Lorelei faltered for a moment, then went and sat back down in her chair. “Sorry. Just a little dizzy. I’ll recover. Anyway, Delilah feels like she failed, even though she didn’t. She could use a good word from you.”
Chelsea nodded. “Will do. But what happened to you? You were overtaken by your own ice.”
Lorelei shook her head. “I had to encase myself. I was about to collapse, and if I fell unconscious, the ice would disappear, leaving everyone else defenseless. That was a last resort to make sure our defenses didn’t fail.”
“But…” Chelsea sighed, sitting on the bed across from Lorelei. “Were you in control? Was that your choice?”
Lorelei didn’t speak for a long moment. “I don’t know.”
“It seems like there’s a lot we don’t know about Elemental Magic,” Chelsea said.
Lorelei laughed softly. “Looks like we’re both a bit of a mess, huh? We’ll have to learn more about our magic, since it seems to have a mind of its own sometimes.”
Chelsea nodded. “As long as you’re okay –”
Lorelei waved her off. “I’m fine. I’m weak and tired, but that’ll all work itself out with time and rest. Probably the same for you. Go make your rounds, check up on everyone. They’ve been waiting for you.”
“How long was I out?”
“Well, time’s weird inside the Library, but Gwen and Maribelle both thought it’d been about a week. That was yesterday.”
A whole week? No wonder I’m freaking starving.
Chelsea left Lorelei, walking with Caleb to the next room. Inside, the pair of them found Delilah. The girl lay face-down in bed, her mass of blond hair unruly and wild all around her, hiding her face from view. All of her Felines were there. Nekoma stood by the door, and Felix sat in the chair by Delilah’s bedside. Redmond, ever watchful, was crouched atop the four-poster bed, while Reginald, the smallest of them sat on his knees on the bed next to Delilah, watching her.
“Hey, sis,” Caleb said, sitting down on the bed and laying a hand on Delilah’s back. “You doing better today?”
“What’s it look like?” came the muffled reply.
Caleb nodded. “I get it. But I brought someone who wants to talk to you. I’ll leave you guys to it.” He rose and left, and once the door was closed, Delilah shifted just enough to peek through her hair with one eye at Chelsea.
“Hey, kid,” Chelsea said, smiling. “You had a rough go of it, huh?”
Delilah let out a long breath, but then Chelsea realized it wasn’t a sigh.
It was a sob.
Slowly, Delilah pushed herself up, sliding over to Chelsea so she could hug her, burying her face in her chest. “I’m sorry,” she said softly, shaking her head. “I’m so sorry. I couldn’t hold on like you. I couldn’t –”
“Hey, now,” Chelsea said, stroking the girl’s hair. It’s hard to remember sometimes with how strong she is, but Delilah’s only fourteen. She’s too young to have gone through so much. “You did great. And before you protest,” Chelsea held a finger to Delilah’s lips as the girl pulled back to speak, “just listen. The Library’s saved. Shana did it. Lorelei and I are okay. In the end, what are the results? The Dream Forge was restored, and light returned to the Library. And you know why?” Delilah stared up at Chelsea wordlessly, hope flickering in her big blue eyes. “Because every single one of us held out as long as we possibly could. We bought just enough time for Shana to succeed. And in the end, I’m the one who should be sorry. I left you and Gwen to fight alone. I got caught up in my anger, in all the stress and confusion and pain, and ran off to fight a battle of revenge, instead of fighting to protect Shana. But you didn’t leave. And in the end, it doesn’t matter how hopeless things got. It doesn’t matter if you were scared, or even if, at the end, you thought we’d lost, and you’d given up. You know why?” Delilah shook her head, and Chelsea smiled.
“Because you didn’t give up when it mattered the most. I saw how hard things were on you. And yet you kept on fighting. You didn’t give up before it was too late. You didn’t give up in a way that defeated Shana. If you’d given up earlier, if you’d stopped fighting earlier, then we would have lost. You and Gwen were all that was left, and without you, there’s no way Gwen could have defended the Forge alone. But you held on just long enough. Even if it was just barelylong enough, you held on. And no matter how it feels or seems to you…” Chelsea smiled, tapping Delilah on her little nose. “We won because of you.”
Delilah buried her face in Chelsea’s chest again, crying, but this time Chelsea noticed the difference. Delilah wasn’t closed off anymore, she wasn’t hiding away.
She was relieved. She was restored. And two small words from the girl confirmed it: “Thank you.”
Shana was just glad to get her sister back. Delilah apologized profusely for her behavior, but Shana had only hugs and love to give.
“Stop apologizing,” she said, laughing as she held Altair up to lick Delilah’s nose. “Just next time you get all depressed like that… try and let me in?”
Delilah nodded. “I’ll try.”
“So… we have to figure out what’s next,” Chelsea said. She’d changed, back into an identical version of the outfit she’d worn into battle before. Apparently Gwen was a tailor – a magical tailor (how cool was that?) – and made the original outfit for Chelsea, so making it again wasn’t difficult at all. “The Library’s saved. What do we do now?”
“I know what I have to do,” Caleb said. “But I realize there are a lot of people here, with a lot of different goals and responsibilities. So I can only speak for myself and, maybe, the others from Grimoire.” His expression became very serious, a rare enough occurrence for Caleb that Shana was intensely focused on every word he would say. “There are these horrible people called the Radiance –”
“We know of them,” Gwen said, eyes flashing with rage.
“All too well,” Maribelle added, her expression similar to Gwen’s.
“What about them?” Shana asked.
“They’re planning to go to Grimoire,” Caleb said. “I don’t know what their plans are for it, yet. But the last place they went to was the Crystal Palace, and they’ve taken that over and made it their own. Since Grimoire is where they came from, and they fashion themselves as gods…”
“You think they’re going to take over our city,” Chelsea said.
“That’s so strange,” Annabelle said. “Hestia doesn’t want to go back. And a lot of the others have said the same thing. They’ve been away from Earth so long, they see the Dominion as their home. There’s nothing left for them on Earth.”
“A messenger from the Crystal Palace escaped,” Caleb said. “She said they were planning something for the next Lunar Festival. She and several others thought it very likely they’d go for Grimoire.”
“In the end, it doesn’t matter what his subjects want,” Maribelle said. “The Radiant King is in charge. And his designs have never shifted, his goals have never faltered. The only thing that’s kept him from establishing his rule in Grimoire so far is the magic the Crystal King worked on him and all other Eternals to prevent them from ever returning to Earth. But if the Crystal Palace is overthrown, and the Crystal Family lost to us, then it may well be he has found a way to break that spell, leaving him and his forces free to go where they wish.”
Shana’s eyes widened. “Shias,” she said suddenly, and Caleb stared at her.
“What about Shias?” he asked.
“He would have come here with me, but he didn’t, so that he could stop me from being followed,” Shana said. “It was one of the King’s subjects – Void.”
“Void?” Caleb asked, his eyes now wide as well. “You’ve met him, too?”
Shana nodded. “And Shias and my friends stopped him from following me, but… I think I know where they took him.”
“You saw the door that Shias was going for?” Maribelle asked.
Shana nodded. “It looked like the front door of our house. I think they took Void home. To Grimoire.”
“Then their banishment must be ended,” Gwen said, hands clenched into fists. “Void is there now, and the rest are soon to follow.”
“The Lunar Festival’s so close,” Shana said. “It was barely a month away when I last left Grimoire, and I don’t know how long it’s been since then.”
“Well, it’s a good thing so many of you know about the Radiance,” Caleb said. “Honestly… I think we’ll need all the help we can get. I’m going back to Grimoire, and I’m going to do my best to let everyone know that danger is coming. We need to prepare.”
“You’re not going alone,” Chelsea said. “Obviously I’ll be coming with you.”
“Me as well,” Lorelei said.
“And me,” Gwen said, surprising Shana and, from the looks of it, Caleb as well. Yet Chelsea smiled, nodding to her friend, so she must have known that was coming.
“But how are we getting home?” Delilah asked. “It took so long, and quite a bit of luck, just to get here.”
“I can help with that,” Maribelle said, a mysterious smile on her face. “With the Library restored, we have access to a number of powers and tools we didn’t before. Getting you back to Earth should be far easier than your journey here.”
Caleb and Delilah looked at Shana, and she knew why. She still hadn’t said that she was going back home.
Of course she wanted to. And she probably should, at least for a little bit. But…
“Find me. Find the ones who can save me.”
Those words echoed in Shana’s mind, along with the image of the owl she’d seen at the end of her journey through Nightmares. She had a new quest before her now, and she’d only just finished what she’d thought was her one and only mission, her big heroic quest before going home.
Now she was faced with a new task. And she wasn’t certain she could go home just yet.
“I…” she started, not knowing what to say. She missed her parents, and Shias, and her friends. She even missed school, as she often did, though she hadn’t thought of it for some time.
“If you have something to do, let’s talk about it,” Caleb said, flashing his easy smile. “If you can’t come home yet, then you can’t. But if there’s any way I can help you, I will.”
“We all will,” Annabelle said, standing by Shana and taking her hand.
Shana smiled, and felt hope spring anew within her.
She’d been through so much, and a part of her had hoped it was over. But now, surrounded by friends and all those who loved her and were willing to support her…
For the moment, at least, she wasn’t afraid of what was to come.
Fae descended into the Deepgrave, following Gerick’s lead. The steep, black stairwell spiraled around and around, the descent only illuminated by small lights brought into being by Gerick and Neptune, little floating orbs of white light that hovered above the group’s heads.
Their journey passed in silence. The disquieting atmosphere fell upon the girls and their guide with sudden, oppressive power, and they likely couldn’t have spoken if they wanted to.
Somewhere in the back of Fae’s mind lay a warning.
We should not have come here.
But she couldn’t support that warning. This was one of the Locations where Collapse might be. This was Fae’s quest. She couldn’t not come here. She needed to know the truth.
Strangely, her thoughts went to Shana.
Then again, perhaps it wasn’t so strange. Shana had always loved the idea of a grand, fantastical adventure, fraught with peril and danger at every turn.
You might not like such an adventure if you were actually living it.
But if I’m honest, Shana…
I do wish you were here.
Shias stepped through the door and found himself exactly where he expected – inside Greyson Manor’s entrance hall.
With him were Kathryn, Ben, Rae, and the villainous Void.
Immediately, far more suddenly than Shias had expected, he felt the absence of his sister. He’d done this for her. He had no regrets. And yet…
When would he see her again?
Icy laughter pulled Shias’ thoughts from his sister to his current problem: Void. The pale man’s mouth was still covered by one of Kathryn’s ribbon wands, but he laughed all the same, his eyes full of mirth.
“That’s a strange attitude for someone who’s a prisoner,” Shias said, glaring at Void. At a look from Kathryn, he nodded, and Kathryn released Void’s mouth so he could speak. There shouldn’t be any worry of the man escaping – he still had one of Kathryn’s ribbon wands wrapping him tight around the arms and chest, and Brutus had both hands pinning his arms and legs together.
Void was trapped.
Yet he still laughed. “You don’t realize it, do you?” he asked. “You don’t know about the Eternals? About our banishment?”
Shias’ eyes flashed.
The Radiance… they were banished from Earth. They shouldn’t be able to…
“So you do know,” Void said, grinning. “If I can be here…”
He trailed off, because everyone in the room could have finished the question for him.
If Void can be here in Grimoire, then there’s nothing stopping the rest of the Radiance. Or even…
The King himself.
“Was this your plan all along?” Shias asked. “To come back to Grimoire? For what? What could you want here when you already have a palace all your own?”
Void laughed. “You’ll see in time, children. You’ll see in time. It won’t be long now, I promise you that. And when they come, this city will be my King’s to rule.”
“He’ll never succeed,” Kathryn said. “There’s us, and hundreds of way more powerful mages, to stop him and all of your friends.”
Void kept on grinning. “How many powerful warriors do you think protected the Crystal King? How many powerful warriors do you think I’ve killed? And that’s just me. If even half of our forces come, you won’t stand a chance. But it won’t matter who’s here.” His expression turned to one of almost ecstasy, and a knot of dread tightened in Shias’ stomach.
“If my King comes,” Void said, “and He will… all will fall. None can stand against him. Rally all the power you like. Grimoire will be what it was always meant to be: the land of the Radiant King!”
“You’re already back!” Ingrid said, staring up at Midnight with wide eyes. “That was so fast!”
Midnight chuckled, ruffling the girl’s dark hair. “I had some surprising help.”
“You look like you needed it,” Ingrid said, silver eyes flickering.
Midnight sighed. “That obvious, huh? Well, I do need to rest. It seems I overdid things again.”
“You have a nasty habit of doing that to yourself.” Ingrid took Midnight’s arm as they walked through the crystal cavern to the stairs leading up to Midnight Bridge. “You have a visitor.”
Midnight frowned. “A visitor? It better not be another hopeful student. Or one of Madame Chronos’ –”
“It’s someone you’ll actually be happy to see,” Ingrid said. “But don’t spend too much time. She’ll understand that you need to rest.”
When they reached Midnight’s home and stepped out into the small living room, Midnight understood.
Seated on the couch by the fireplace was Mineria.
She was as beautiful as ever, like precious stones and metals brought to life, coppery skin shimmering in the light of the fire. She turned at Midnight’s arrival, sapphire hair shining, emerald eyes glittering. She stood, cocking her head to the side, eyes closing as she smiled. “It seems you’ve overdone it once again, Lancelot.”
Midnight pulled free from Ingrid and crossed the room to Mineria, kneeling before her. “As my apprentice so often reminds me, I have a nasty habit of doing so.” Behind him, he heard Ingrid whisper in shock “apprentice?” “It’s an honor to see you again, Mineria. But why are you here? Shouldn’t you stay with Alexandra?”
Mineria laughed, her musical, wonderful laugh that never failed to set Midnight’s heart at ease. “It was very safe and comfortable there,” she said. “But Alexandra said it would be just as safe here, and Adelaida helped me find my way. I only saw you for a very short time, after all. And how long had it been before that?”
Midnight stared at the floor in thought. “I think –”
“Too long,” Mineria said, taking Midnight’s chin gently and tilting his head up so that their eyes met. “Far too long, my dear Lancelot.”
Midnight touched Mineria’s hand with his own and closed his eyes. Warmth seemed to radiate from her, and he smiled.
I don’t deserve this.
Midnight thought about Ingrid, how he’d finally told her the truth, and she had reacted in exactly the way he hadn’t expected – and exactly the way that surprising student of his had predicted. He thought of Alexandra, and how, surprisingly, she hadn’t been angry with him, but had instead wanted to spend time with him, wanted to be near to him.
He thought about how he likely wouldn’t have heard anything about Mineria and the Brig if he hadn’t been in a very specific place at a very specific time.
All thanks to that surprising, obnoxious, reckless student of his.
You made this possible, kid. And I’m forever grateful.
Later on, after greetings were through and the three had eaten dinner together, Midnight headed back down into the crystal cavern.
“You aren’t going to rest yet?” Ingrid asked.
Midnight shook his head. “Soon. I have some things I need to think about.”
Down he went, until he stood before his Light Catcher, staring into the silver-framed mirror. It shone with light, and there were no signs of darkness taking it over.
For the moment, Midnight Bridge is safe. But if the Library can be taken over so completely like that… I have to be far more cautious.
Now I have enemies on two fronts. The darkness is moving. Valgwyn and his brothers won’t stop just because the Library was restored.
But I need to keep my eyes on the fool’s gods, too. I still feel that whatever that self-made king is planning may prove to be worse for the Enchanted Dominion than anything the darkness can muster.
In that case…
“You’ve grown awfully fond of your most recent student, it seems,” Mineria said. She’d come with him, and stood silent with him for a long time. Her hand brushed lightly against his. At Midnight’s silence, Mineria looked at him, puzzled. “Do you want to be alone?”
Midnight shook his head. “Just thinking. You’re right. He’s… more than a student. He’s a friend.”
Mineria’s eyes closed as she smiled. “I hope you see him again.”
Midnight smirked. “Oh, I will. But for now, he can head to Grimoire. It’s about time he went home, and he has work to do. I’ll cover his back. And hopefully, when the fool’s gods do come knocking on his door, there’ll be a lot less of them than he expected.”
He clenched his hand into a fist, eyes steely with determination. “We’re separated for now, kid. But let’s still fight them together. Let’s defeat them together.”
To the east of Grimoire lies the great, rocky mountain Erebos. It is difficult to climb, but on its western edge is a high cliff that offers a perfect view of the entire city. Despite the beautiful view, however, few make the climb.
Fewer still climb from the far side of the mountain, beyond Grimoire, and stop at this cliff.
Yet on the same day that Shias returned to Grimoire with Void his prisoner, there was such a man, standing atop the cliff with the sunrise at his back. Having crossed not just Erebos, but the great forest Treklarn beyond, and farther still beyond that, he stopped to look out over Grimoire. Garbed in only a simple linen shirt and pants with a belt of rope, he seemed not to feel the icy chill of winter on the way, seemed to delight in the feel of his bare feet against the frigid rock. His hair, long and silver, was tied back in a ponytail that hung down past his waist. In his right hand he held a staff, taller than himself, topped with a metal loop, from which hung silver bells in the shape of rings.
The man smiled, tapping his staff against the rock, relishing in the clear, chiming sound of the bells atop his staff.
He looked out upon Grimoire, and though his heart and mind were at peace, he felt the storm coming. He could sense the danger in the air.
Grimoire will soon be beset by foes from many places, in many ways. Evil brews not just from far beyond the city, but within it, as well.
“Well,” he said, ringing his staff once more. “It seems I’ve come back just in time.”