In the tunnels of Grimoire’s Underground, Isla walked with bold confidence. Her noble fox Summon Dama walked alongside her, tails flicking this way and that, ears perked up to show his enjoyment.
“Do you think our friends are worried, Dama?” Isla asked. Her Summon flicked his tails forward once. “Yes, you’re probably right. Though it can’t be helped. The Underground’s a much bigger place than any of us gave it credit for.” She smiled, opening a round metal door and strolling into the room beyond. “Empty. No surprise. Though this is another of those with stairs… hmm… what do you think, Dama? Shall we descend to the next level?”
Down they went, and Isla ran her hand along the cramped, dark walls as they went. Her gloves came away from the surface with nothing – no dust, no debris, no mud or grime or moisture.
“Very dry,” she said. “And drier as we go. Above it’s so wet, but down here, dry as a bone. Intriguing.”
They descended for many long minutes, down a stairwell that was barely wide enough for the slender Isla to fit through. “Big Bronn wouldn’t even fit in this staircase,” she said. “Very inconvenient.”
Suddenly, the steep, straight stairs leveled out, with the path opening up into a vast chamber. Isla’s eyes lit up at the sight.
She stood on a walkway at the top of the chamber, and sprawling out before and below her was what could only be described as an underground city. Lamps all over shed magical light of warm colors – orange and yellow and red – throughout the stony city. Each layer bore many domed, metal-and-stone buildings, and it was clear that the top layers had been constructed first, with the city growing and developing as the ones behind it dug deeper. The upper levels were simplistic, rudimentary, their buildings rugged structures that had been constantly reshaped, added onto, demolished, rebuilt, and remodeled to fit ever-changing needs and desires. The farther down the city went, the more refined the domed buildings were, with those at the bottom layer – the sixth layer down – including marble, silver, and gems into their construction.
“Simply fascinating,” Isla said, eyes sparkling as she leaned over the railing, gazing out at the city. “And over there – that must be under the Bay.”
Far beyond, to Isla’s left, was a massive, circular shaft that ran down through the center of the city. It made it abundantly clear just how incredibly huge this subterranean settlement was, as the shaft itself must have been a mile in diameter – and yet it was just the centerpiece of the city, with the city expanding around it for more than another mile in every direction.
“So The Gate guards something special. Shall we see if there are any doors from here, Dama? Or should we just check in on the residents?”
Dama gave a squeaky bark in reply, and Isla turned. On either side of the entrance they’d just come through, there were two guards. Unlike the Shadows Isla had heard of and seen during their attacks on Grimoire, these men weren’t hooded or cloaked, their identities clear for anyone to see.
They were also staring past her, at attention, as if she wasn’t even there.
Isla chuckled, waving her hands in front of their faces. “Oh, I do love how compliant all of you sentinels are. Just like the ones up in the Underground – that’s a fun turn of phrase – you’re being so polite, letting me go wherever I wish without so much as a question.” She curtsied, using her long coat in lieu of a dress. “I humbly thank you for your cooperation.” She turned away, laughing as she strolled down the walkway. “Come, Dama. Let’s check on everyone while we’re down here, shall we?”
Hagan Rook stroked his beard, each of his rings glittering as they caught the light of the setting sun.
“Darling, you’re not going to have a beard much longer if you keep that up,” Mercedes said, tugging gently on his arm. “What’s the matter this time?”
“It’s Isla,” Hagan said. “She should have been back by now.”
“She never said when she’d return,” Mercedes replied.
“But the Festival is in two days. We’re running out of time.”
“So we continue working on our jobs. Things are going perfectly well on our end.”
Hagan had to agree with that. All around the city, he and the Guardians he trusted were going to work on preparing Grimoire for attack. There were many old barriers, sentries, sentinels, and wards that could be made use of by those with the knowledge, will, and power to do so.
Hagan and Mercedes had all three of those traits in spades.
So here they stood, at the crumbled ruins of what was once Grimoire’s inner wall, overseeing a group of Guardians waking up the dormant defenses of their beloved city.
“Besides, the primary worry for us and the other Guardians is the Radiant King and his army. Whatever’s going on in the Underground, we’ll have to trust the others can handle it.”
Hagan nodded, but his heart wasn’t in the agreement. Something didn’t feel right, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. It was like…
His phone buzzed in his pocket, pulling him out of his thoughts. “It’s Callum,” he said, raising the phone to his ear. “Any news?”
“Tons of it,” Callum said. His voice was grim, grim like Hagan had never heard it.
No. I’ve heard him like this once.
To go back to that place again…
Tread lightly, old friend.
“Isla’s back,” Callum continued. “We’ll meet tonight. Isla told Marcus, I’ll let the others know.”
“Right,” Hagan said. “We’ll be there.” He hung up, slipped the phone back in his pocket.
“I suppose this will be our final meeting,” Mercedes said. “Before…”
Hagan nodded. “Before the war.”
Athena strode up the stairs to her glorious King’s dazzling throne room, and stopped just before the dais upon which the Radiant Throne sat. She knelt, bowing her head. “My King,” she said. “I have assembled our forces.”
“You have done well, Athena,” came her King’s voice, washing over her. It was the ocean itself, the one true ocean, pulling her into its relentless tide. She was captive to it.
And she was deeply honored to be such a captive.
“Our numbers have not dwindled as much as I’d feared,” her King continued. “We still have half the Royal Guard, and most of our Enforcers. You succeeded in rescuing your allies from the Brig. I am most pleased.”
Athena felt tears stinging her eyes, as marvelous emotions of gratitude flooded her very soul. “I am honored to serve You, my King.”
“Yet I see that you are grieved,” the King said. “Raise your eyes, Athena. What stings your heart so deeply?”
Athena hesitated. To look upon her glorious King’s radiant face…
But He had granted her the privilege of doing so. She would gladly obey.
Looking up, even with the Enchantments woven into her eyes to protect them against the bright light of the Radiant Palace, Athena was nearly blinded.
For her King was the brightest, most radiant source of light in all creation. He alone shone brighter than any sun.
“Please do not be concerned over my grief,” Athena said. “My sister… and Hestia… they… they made their choice. They forsook the One who made them who they are. I wish they could have seen reason, but since they could not, it is only natural to forget them. To move on.”
“Never move on,” her King said softly, warmly, beautifully. “To grieve is to be alive, dear Athena. We all have suffered loss in our eternal existence. Do not forget those you lose. Never let the grief leave your mind. For in that grief, you will find clarity. In that grief, you will find the will to do great things.”
Athena bowed her head, not daring to let her King see her tears. “I understand and obey, my King.”
“Are you prepared for what comes next?” the King asked.
Athena nodded. “We must establish Your perfect seat of power,” she said.
“And from there, we can finally fulfill our glorious destiny. Though we have suffered losses and setbacks, though our most effective plans have failed, we have endured for this. From Grimoire, we can finally do what we have set out to do. And what is that, dear Athena?”
“Destroy the darkness. Prevent the Endless Night forever.”
“Yes. Soon… very soon… all of creation will be bathed in radiant light. I am pleased that you will be with me on that glorious day, Athena. You have helped make this possible. Never forget that, dear one.”
Athena, speechless with gratitude and joy, simply nodded as she wept.
“Is it time yet?” Artemis asked.
“Soon,” Hestia replied, staring intently down at the atrium.
“Do try to be patient, lady Artemis,” Galahad said. “You agreed to this plan, after all.”
“It looks as if they’re gathering,” said the fourth member of their group.
“Good eyes, Octavian,” Galahad said, clapping the man on the back. “Indeed, our patience has paid off.”
Octavian slipped forward to look with Hestia down at the atrium. Hestia was glad for his presence. Octavian was not only a fellow Royal Guard, but also a scholar and a brilliant inventor. He appeared to be the oldest of the Royal Guards, with dark, greying hair and a few wrinkles in his wide-eyed, thoughtful face. He was short and slight, and didn’t look like anything more than a scholar, but – as his fellow Guards knew – he was a Royal Guard for good reason.
Of course, none of these four were Royal Guards anymore.
“If only fair lady Desmé were with us,” Galahad said sadly.
“We’ll rescue her soon enough,” Hestia said. “But right now, we need to observe. I think they’re getting ready to depart.”
It was the greatest gathering of the Radiance since their attack on the Crystal Palace. Every surviving Enforcer, save Void, was present, their black-and-silver uniforms standing out starkly against the white-and-gold of the Palace and the Royal Guard uniforms.
Before them stood five Royal Guards: Platina, Ignis, Athena, Titan, and Nyx. Ignis had, unfortunately, come to some sort of understanding with the King, and so he stood alongside his fellow Guards, ready to do their King’s bidding.
Titan hadn’t been in the Palace for a long time, having been assigned to a secret mission by the King long ago, so seeing him again reminded Hestia of just how imposing he appeared. In the absence of the Gold Knight, even more so. He was tall and bald, with impossibly broad, brawny shoulders, along with arms and legs that were bulging with thick, powerful muscle. His expression was dark and fierce, his eyes glinting with focused energy.
Next to him, further contrasting Titan’s massive figure, was Nyx. The shortest and thinnest of the Royal Guards, she had been remarkably young when the King had turned her into an Eternal. The sight of her grieved Hestia more than any other.
Children shouldn’t be turned into soldiers.
Yet Nyx stood with a lazy smile on her face, her long raven curls framing soft, pale features. In her right hand she bore a staff dark as the blackest night, twice as tall as she was and topped in a ring around a silver star.
And before all of his soldiers – his manipulated, manufactured servants – sat the Radiant King. Upon his throne, as he always was, his face shining so bright that no detail could be seen of eyes or nose or mouth.
Hestia used to love that face. She used to see the impossibly bright, marvelously shining visage of her King as the most beautiful, purest gleam of hope in all creation.
Now she saw it as a lie – so bright, so blinding, all in order to more ably hide that lie.
There were many things Hestia wrestled with, now that she was free of that King. After her worries and fears about her once allies and friends, she worried for herself, on one specific point:
I will never die.
Forever she would last, ageless and immortal, unless some villain came upon her to claim her life. That had never bothered her before. But now…
So much had changed.
Below, the King spoke, and Hestia focused in on the words that mattered, past the flowery speech, past the platitudes and all the once wonderful things that she had come to oppose.
The King had gathered his forces for a journey to Grimoire. Apparently, Void was there, and there were several shouts of excitement when the King pronounced that they would free Void and see him joined to their force for the battle. The battle was oriented towards a singular goal: to take the city for him, to set his throne there. Then, the endgame would begin.
His plan was to eliminate the darkness. Prevent, forever, the Endless Night.
Hestia loved that goal. But she no longer had faith that the King would do that goal justice. He had tried to kidnap, coerce, manipulate, and enslave. Now that those plans had failed, he was doing what he had done so well for so long.
He was taking his forces to Grimoire to enact “glorious” war upon them.
Many, many innocent people would die.
Unless we can stop him. Or, at the very least, weaken him and his forces enough so that those on Earth, the ones Mister Midnight and Annabelle have so much faith in, can finish them off.
None of us can touch the King. His power…
No. We don’t need to worry about him. Leave the King to the ones in Grimoire.
For us, the task is simple.
“We still have time,” Artemis said as the King concluded his speech. “And they’re splitting up. Who are we focusing on?”
“Enforcers,” Hestia said. “Even if all four of us could isolate one of the Guards, I don’t think we could defeat them quickly enough before reinforcements arrived. But we can handle Enforcers.”
“Pick them off when they’re alone or in small groups,” Galahad said, nodding. He grinned at Octavian. “Your skills will come in very handy, old friend.”
“I’m prepared to do my part,” Octavian said, his expression grim as he nodded.
Hestia took a deep breath, let it out. She looked down at herself, no longer dressed in the uniform of the Royal Guard.
No, she and her three allies had left those behind. They had donned the dark uniforms of Enforcers, but had made their own modifications to them. The insignia of the Radiance was gone. In its place, on the back of their gloves and their right shoulder, was a silver eye, half wreathed in shadow.
They were shadows, shadows who knew the truth, fighting their own hidden war against their former allies. Hestia had tried to leave – had intended to run away, to find peace and quiet and solitude.
But I can’t leave them. I was able to keep some of my dearest friends. If I can save Athena, that would be wonderful. And we must save Desmé from her imprisonment.
But if I can use my powers, my skills, and my will to defeat the evil I now know has been all around me for so long…
Then the peaceful life I desire can wait. Annabelle… dearest Annabelle… can wait.
I will not simply run. I will be a shadow, if that is what I must be.
And I will fight, for those I hold dear.
Anastasia stepped through the door…
And onto the soil of Grimoire.
Finally. After so long…
She looked out at the darkened streets before her. Night had fallen, and only one more remained before the Lunar Festival.
Only one more before her Master made his move.
Anastasia walked, lifting her phone to her ear as she went. It rang twice, and then her Master picked up.
“You’re finally back,” Blaise Mathers said, the relief evident in his voice. “When your letters stopped, I wondered –”
“You never need to wonder or worry for my sake,” Anastasia said. “Where do you need me?”
“Meet Bronn at The Gate,” Blaise said. “He’ll tell you what we have planned.”
“Are you truly planning to use her, sir?” Anastasia asked.
Blaise was silent for a long while. “Yes,” he said slowly. “I am confident that she’s ready.”
I sorely disagree. But…
“Understood. Is there anything else I should know?”
“Duo was compromised,” Blaise said.
Good. I never much cared for her. But –
“Does she know?”
“No,” Blaise said. “There’s more to it than that, but I’d rather tell you in person. The Shaft is almost complete – it’ll be done in time. I’d like you to see it after Bronn gets you up to speed. Sieglinde’s returned, so you’ll be able to work with her.”
Good. It’s been too long.
There was a long pause. “Sir?” Anastasia asked. “If you don’t mind me asking, are you all right? You sound… different.”
Blaise sighed. “I had hoped things would be better,” he said. “But my troubles are personal, and have no bearing on our plans or our performance. I appreciate you asking, but I’ll be all right.”
I told you. I told you there was no use hiding it from Callum. I told you when he found out, he’d turn on you.
But… I understand. And I’m sorry that had to happen now.
“Where are you?” Blaise asked.
“Just passing the University. I’ll be at The Gate shortly.”
“Good. I’ll meet you, and we’ll talk after Bronn explains things. And, Anastasia?”
Blaise sighed, but this was a sigh of relief. “Thank you. I’m glad you’re back.”
Anastasia smiled. “So am I, sir.”
Yet as Anastasia hung up the phone, she found herself stopping, her smile fading. She stood upon the cliffs overlooking the Bay. Icy cold wind whipped at her, carrying with it the scent of the salty ocean beyond.
In the darkness, Anastasia found herself uncertain.
I spent too long in the Dominion, too long with Alice. She’s a dear friend, so it was good to visit, but…
This happens every time. Every time I’m gone too long, I come back with these doubts.
Anastasia turned, continuing her trek down towards the Bay.
And just like every other time, they will fade.
He truly intends to use her.
All these years of warning. All these years, I’ve said we should wait. Surely it doesn’t have to be this year.
It’s too soon. She isn’t ready.
Anastasia shook her head. Frustration coursed through her, at herself, at her hesitation.
Unlike other times, she hadn’t come back from the Dominion as soon as possible. She’d lingered of her own free will, spending many nights talking long into the wee hours of the morning with her dear friend.
But even if the Master was flawed… even if I was right all along…
It’s too late now.
Yes. Considering the timing, it’s now or never. And given that, the Master’s plan is the only plan that makes sense.
Besides… I can’t abandon him. Not after all we’ve been through.
Anastasia held back a heavy sigh. Holding her head high, she walked towards The Gate.
After that horrible war we fought so long ago, now we finally see our dreams fulfilled.
Bells rang into the night. Each had its own individual sound, its own unique tone that couldn’t be heard anywhere else. Together, they made beautiful, enchanting music.
Those bells rang from atop Marcus’ staff, and they rang against the darkness that swirled around him.
“I understand your plan,” Marcus said, eyeing the darkness all around him with a wry smile. “Eliminate me, and no one can truly stand in the way of your goals. But it seems you made a terrible error.”
The darkness writhed, pushing inward. Marcus tapped his staff against the ground, and the bells rang out.
The darkness retreated.
“You sorely underestimated me,” Marcus said. “You must be rather desperate.”
The darkness swirled, breaking behind Marcus so that it no longer surrounded him. Rather, it focused itself on a point in front of Marcus, writhing and whirling, until it coalesced into the form of a man.
“Finally willing to show your face, Jormungand?” Marcus asked.
The darkness pulsed, and a whispering voice rode on the air to Marcus’ ears.
“I know very well what’s coming,” Marcus replied. “And I will not allow it to claim victory. Your confidence is sorely misplaced.”
The darkness pulsed, and the voice spoke again.
Marcus chuckled. “I’m afraid I can’t do that. Is there anything of value you’d wish to discuss? Or can I be on my way? I’m a very busy man, ever since I came back to Grimoire.”
The darkness pulsed, swaying from side to side. Its voice called out a question, and Marcus smiled.
“I would hate to ruin the surprise for you. And if you depart from this place, you’ll never have to find out.”
A long silence stretched between Marcus and the shadow before him.
Then, with a breath, the shadow vanished.
Light broke through the boughs of pine trees above. Marcus looked out, beyond the forested slopes, to Grimoire.
“Well, it seems I won’t quite be back in time to assist you, old friend,” he said softly. “But I pray your operation is a success.” He started walking, but stopped as something floated in front of his face. He smiled. “Ah. It’s very good to see you. Early, as I thought you’d be this year. And a good thing, too.” He looked out across the city beyond, to the point where he knew his friends were gathering.
“Callum always loved snow.”