Chelsea didn’t want to speak to anyone else about seeing the other. It took some time to convince Gwen to maintain silence with her, but she eventually agreed.
“I don’t want to get everyone worried,” Chelsea said. “I want to be sure that what we saw was real before we start freaking out to everyone. Besides… the voice, the good voice, told us not to be afraid. I feel like running to everyone else in a panic is exactly an act of fear. Until we can come at this calmly, and bravely, I think we should keep it to ourselves.”
“I suppose that’s fair,” Gwen said, staring out the bus window.
“But?” Chelsea asked.
“But… why do you think she appeared at all?” Gwen asked. “Why now? And more importantly, why outside of the shadow world?”
Chelsea sat back in her seat, staring ahead. She didn’t have any answers.
But in her mind, that was more reason to not say anything to anyone else.
Naturally, that meant she told Lorelei everything as soon as she got back to Grimoire.
“She’s the reason you cut your hair,” Lorelei said, eyeing Chelsea’s self-made haircut that was starting to grow back into its original shape.
“That’s the first thing you say?” Chelsea asked.
Lorelei shrugged, leaning back on the couch in the Reiner Manor lounge. “You didn’t tell me about the shadow world and the other until after you cut your hair, and I only just now put the pieces together. But seeing her here in the real world… that really is strange. Well, maybe it isn’t so strange.”
“What do you mean?” Gwen asked.
“We don’t know much of anything about the shadow world, about Valgwyn and his brothers, about the ‘Lord of Night’ that Caleb found out about, about the darkness itself, about the Endless Night…” Lorelei held up fingers as she listed off all the things they knew too little about. “So it might not be strange at all for your doppelganger to appear in Grimoire. Valgwyn and Dullan existed outside of the shadow world, and we now know that Kaohlad’s been in Grimoire for decades. We don’t know all the rules, we don’t know how everything works. Until we do, who are we to say if something’s strange or not?”
“But we don’t have the luxury of investigating all of that right now,” Chelsea said. “We need to deal with the Shadows.”
Lorelei held up a finger. “Don’t you think that’s interesting?” she asked. “You enter into a shadow world. Deal with ‘shadows,’ like the other. Our enemies from the Library are all about darkness, and night. And now a mysterious organization here in Grimoire calls themselves ‘Shadows.’ I think they might be linked, somehow. Especially after what we saw with your mother.”
Chelsea remembered, and things started to make sense to her, too. Marion Reiner had been murdered by a shadow, a person or being completely shrouded in darkness.
And yet her investigations and clues – the very knowledge that made her a target – had been centered on the Shadows, on the people working to tear apart Grimoire.
“It would be absurd if they weren’t connected, I think,” Gwen said. Lorelei nodded.
“So then what do we do next?” Chelsea asked.
“I think if we keep pushing closer to the Shadows, we’ll eventually find out everything we need to know,” Lorelei said. “Tomorrow we should check out Libra Vale, and then we need to decide on the best way to explore the Underground itself. We have maps, but we’ll never know how accurate they are until we’re down there ourselves.”
Chelsea nodded. “The maps we have are based on official plans, and might not reflect what was actually finished.”
“And that’s not even counting what the Shadows might have changed to form their base of operations,” Gwen said.
Chelsea’s phone chirped, and she checked the message. It was from Caleb:
Addie finished her house, and she wants you to come see, too! Bring along Lorelei and Gwen, if they’re not busy.
“Addie?” Chelsea asked, staring at her phone. They were already using nicknames for each other?
Adelaide’s house had been made from a dilapidated, abandoned Manor near the eastern mountains, on the very edge of Grimoire. The lot itself had nearly been forgotten – there was a long walkway up to the Manor itself through dense woods, and in the many years since it had gone into disuse, it had become so overgrown that most didn’t even notice it existed.
So when Chelsea arrived at the gate marking the walkway and saw the stonework was pristine, white, and free of all overgrowth and debris, she was shocked.
“Who do you think they called in to help?” Lorelei asked as they walked the winding path to the Manor. “Caleb doesn’t have any Manipulation Magic, so he wouldn’t have been able to do any of this.”
“I think Adelaide probably did it herself,” Chelsea said.
“Her magic is quite strange,” Gwen said. “And she never properly explained it.”
“I guess we’ll find out all about it now,” Lorelei said.
The woods parted, and they saw before them a wide, flowering courtyard. The path narrowed as it reached steps up to the front door. The Manor itself was mostly made of white stone that shone when the sun hit it just right, and there were many large windows. At the top of the stairs, the front door stood open, and the three girls walked in.
“Hold on a second,” Chelsea said, stopping just inside the front door, gaping. She stepped out, looked up and around at the Manor’s exterior, then stepped in again. “No way. That’s not right.”
“It’s…” Gwen started.
“Bigger on the inside,” Lorelei said with a faint smile.
“That’s right!” Caleb said, grinning as he came into the entrance hall. “Cool, isn’t it?”
“But how?” Chelsea asked. This entrance hall alone should have been taller than the Manor itself, and extended far beyond what the Manor could contain, and yet…
It fit. The Manor itself, at least from the outside, was only two stories tall, and probably in total about a quarter the size of Reiner Manor. But this entrance hall alone could have swallowed up Reiner Manor and the grounds around it and still had room. It stretched up four stories high, with many winding stairs and rounded balconies. To the left was a set of bowling lanes, and to the right was an entire miniature arcade filled with glowing, beeping and booping game cabinets. And ahead, in the center of the hall, was a gigantic indoor pool. It was circular, with two “wings” stretching off to either side, and connected via stairs to a hot tub on the far side.
A sudden splash in the pool, and a girl’s head with purple hair on her right, pink-white hair on her left, popped up out of the water. Her blue and green eyes glittered with delight as she grinned. “You finally made it!” she called out, with all the excitement a ten year-old with her own indoor swimming pool should have.
“So, this is the time you explain your magic,” Chelsea said, hands on her hips. “What the heck is all of this? How’d you buy all of it?”
Adelaide cocked her head to the side, staring in confusion. She giggled. “I didn’t buy it, silly. I made it.”
“Okay, what?” Chelsea asked, glaring.
Adelaide came up out of the pool via stairs. She was wearing a skirted one-piece that changed colors from right to left, matching either eye. “That’s my magic!” she said, grinning.
“Check it out,” Caleb said, grinning along with the girl. He grabbed a baseball off of a shelf and lobbed it to Adelaide. She caught it, held it out, and…
It transformed into a beach towel, the colors of Adelaide’s hair. She tousled her hair with it, then draped it around her shoulders. “Do you get it now?”
“You can… transform things?” Lorelei asked.
“But that’s not possible,” Chelsea said. “It’s Illusion Magic, right? On a huge scale?”
“It’s Birthright Magic,” Gwen said.
Adelaide pointed to Gwen. “Ding-ding-ding! We have a winner!” She grinned. “My magic’s special. I can make stuff into other stuff, and I can pretty much make and do whatever I want.”
“Within limits,” Caleb said.
Adelaide nodded. She spread her arms, twirled in a circle, and her swimsuit changed into a dress with a pleated skirt, the towel around her shoulders vanishing entirely. “That’s why I needed to make my house! As long as I have a home that I’ve claimed for myself, I can do whatever I want.” She stopped, staring out one of the numerous windows. “Out there, I’m super limited, though. That icky shadow-man could do a lot more, because of that stupid Contract, but I’m just me. So I needed a house!”
“This is… kinda overkill, though,” Chelsea said, staring up and around.
“Well I’ve been locked up in a shadow place for, like, forever!” Adelaide said. “I’ve been dying to play properly! I’ve never actually had my own house, you know? Mama and Papa, they…” She pursed her lips, turned around. “They didn’t let me play. And then Kaohlad came and locked me up.” She turned back around, grinning. “So I finally get to really see what I can do! Isn’t it cool?”
“But how can you fit all of this inside here?” Chelsea asked.
“I think she can…” Caleb started, then paused. “Well, this sounds weird, but… I think the reason Kaohlad came to her, and the reason Blaise wanted her powers, was because of just how strong she really is. I think she can manipulate reality itself, to an extent.” He picked up a clock, stared at it. “Only physical things, though, and space – like fitting bigger things into smaller places. She can’t manipulate time, and her powers don’t work directly on people. We’ve been testing her magic and experimenting with it a lot since we started working on this place, so we’re both starting to get a firm grasp of it. There are limits, but, well…” He spread his hands, looking around at the entrance hall of the house with a silly grin on his face. “As you can see, the limits aren’t so limiting when you just want to play.”
“Caleb isn’t freaked out by anything!” Adelaide said, rushing over to Caleb, taking hold of his arm and hugging it tight. “I get to use my magic however I want, as long as I don’t hurt anybody. And!” She reached into Caleb’s pocket, pulled out his wallet, wagged it in the air. “I’m not allowed to make money, or change money, or transform money into anything else. I’m…” She paused, thinking.
“Not allowed to upset the economy,” Caleb whispered.
“Right!” Adelaide said, nodding, sticking Caleb’s wallet back in his pocket. “I’m not allowed to upset the economy.”
“You’re giving her way too much leeway,” Chelsea said, sighing at the opulent entrance hall. What else was there to this house? How big did it get? How far did it go? How much more total insanity had this little girl cooked up?
“So?” Adelaide asked, eyeing the girls with big, hopeful eyes. “You guys came over to play with me, right? I have all kinds of games we can play!”
Chelsea bit back a refusal, and sighed. “Yeah, kid. We came here to play.”
“Yay!” Adelaide spun in a circle. “So? So? Where should we start?”
Two men sat in a dark room, lit only by the low embers of a fireplace. Dark shadows covered their faces, and for a long time, neither spoke.
Their meetings often went like this. There was little to say, after all, when one knew everything about the other. Though they’d only known each other for a short time, the older man knew all there was to know about the younger.
It had been unnerving, at first. But the younger man had, as he often did, found the silver lining in that situation. Their time could be used much more efficiently. And his plans could be brought to fruition much faster than he’d originally calculated.
The younger man’s phone rang, and he swiftly answered it.
“Stride,” the younger man said. “What is it?”
“You’ve said nothing about Duo, sir,” came the voice over the phone. Low, smooth, to the point. “I just wanted to report. The girl –”
“The girl isn’t Duo,” the younger man said. “Don’t concern yourself with her.”
A long silence. “So Duo’s gone, then.”
“For now. He’ll be back.”
“You’ll understand in time. For now, we have all the pieces we need. Duo was too brash – things will be different, now that the girl is free.” The younger man looked at the older man. All that could be seen in the fire’s glow was a faint glimpse of white hair, and the long scar down his face. The older man nodded. “Once the King moves, we can let her free.”
“So you’re committed to the timeline?” Stride asked.
“That’s right. You sound worried.”
“Reiner and her strange friend found the Rosewood Park entrance.”
“As long as they continue to avoid The Gate, they can’t touch us. Let them explore the Underground. They won’t find what they think.”
“Sir, about her.” Stride paused. “Are you sure it’s wise to let her loose? Considering –”
“If she wanted her freedom, nothing could keep it from her,” the younger man said. “She’s in agreement about the timeline. And she’s anxious to do her part. What is it, Stride? You aren’t one to fear power.”
“Not her power, sir,” Stride said. “It’s her… personality.”
The younger man nodded. “Ah. Of course. She is… well, I’m sure you’ll come to understand. As long as we all do our parts, she will continue to be a weapon under our control.”
“So we wait?”
The younger man stared into the glowing embers. His free hand pushed his glasses up. “I have a few cards to play. I don’t want our foes going into the Lunar Festival at full strength. Don’t be hasty, Stride. Your part is reserved for the main event – you’re far too valuable to risk until then. I’ll leave the preliminary activities to those who have yet to prove themselves.”
“A test.” The younger man could practically hear Stride grinning on the other end of the phone. “That’s more like it, sir.”
“I thought you’d appreciate that.”
“One more question, sir. Has Anastasia returned?”
The younger man sighed, turning his attention to the desk in the corner, upon which sat three unsealed envelopes. “She has not.”
“… I see.”
“As long as she returns in time for the main event, we need not worry. And as long as the King does his part… what is it?”
Stride let out a hiss of breath. “It appears the King has taken a severe blow. Some of the… other players have moved. They did far more damage than we expected.”
The younger man looked askance at the older man. The older man nodded. “It’s all right,” the younger man said. “Things are still progressing according to plan. We needn’t worry. Even if the King crumbles… we have a different hand we can play.”
“Say no more,” Stride said. There was that tone again. The younger man could hear the smile in Stride’s voice. “I’ll keep watching, and waiting. Until the main event.”
The younger man hung up, stared across the room at the older man. “You still haven’t told me one thing.”
“What’s that?” the older man asked. He spoke in a whisper, yet there was a power in it. With each breath, the shadows in the room seemed to grow larger.
“What was your purpose with the children?” the younger man asked. “What was the purpose of the Pipers? The children have all been returned, and yet –”
“There were complications,” the older man said. “An unforeseen arrival. I didn’t expect him to return so soon. He knows more than I predicted.”
“Shall I deal with him?”
The older man offered a rare smile. “You? You and your forces can’t touch him. If he becomes too much of a threat… I will handle him.”
“Yet you let the children be –”
“The children served their purpose,” the older man said. “Keep the Pipers ready. Send a few out now and then, during Hollow Hour. Keep Crowley’s Hunters guessing. But make sure they don’t steal away anyone – especially children. The time for that purpose is past.”
The younger man paused, then leaned forward slightly. “Are you worried? Even slightly?”
The older man leaned forward, too, so that one of his eyes gleamed in the glow of the embers. “Never. Not as long as I have you.”
The younger man sat back, satisfied. The older man sat back, and the shadows fell into a cloak around him.
With a breath, he vanished.
The younger man stood, walked over to his desk. He picked up one of the envelopes, opened it, removed the letter within, the most recent one sent. He read the bottom few lines again, twice. Slowly, he caressed them with his thumb.
“What’s taking you so long? If you don’t return soon, I…”
He placed the letter back into the envelope, and put it back on his desk exactly where it had been. Turning to face the shadows of the room, he stretched out his hand.
The shadows answered his call. Swirling, melding, dancing where he directed them.
He stretched out his other hand, and light answered his call. The light and the darkness whirled around each other, touched here and there.
But they could not join together.
The shadows parted, and light illuminated the far side of the room. There, on a shelf, was a single photograph. The man stared at it, but he dared not come closer.
He dropped his hands. The fire went out, and the entire room plunged into darkness.