Delilah touched down in the midst of the writhing, roiling darkness that covered the Doomed Beast’s entire body. Nekoma and Redmond immediately struck, attacking swiftly to clear a small space.
Delilah raised her keychain Talisman, calling forth a floating Mobility disc platform…
But the platform couldn’t fly at the speeds the Doomed Beast was walking. It appeared in the air and then immediately fell far behind, vanishing from sight.
I didn’t… think about that.
Fear clutched Delilah’s heart, and she stayed close to her Felines as they formed a protective circle around her. Reginald arrived to join them, and then Felix with Adelaide. When the Swordmeowster put Adelaide down next to Delilah, he immediately went right to work with his twin swords, turning into a whirling orange blur that sliced apart all horrifying beasts that attempted to harm the girls.
“Guess I’ll stay close to you guys,” Alice said, riding atop Rabanastre’s shoulders. The white rabbit was almost twice the height of Nekoma, the tallest Feline, and his powerful arms swept away the living darkness as if they were but scraps of cloth in the wind. “Do you have a plan?”
“We need to find somewhere to use this,” Delilah said, holding up the crescent moon key on the chain around her neck. She was struck by how clearly she could speak. Just like everything else in this strange realm, all was silent save for speech. The vicious battle raging in a tight circle around her was full of light and motion, but the lack of sound left it eerie, strangely lifeless.
“Guess we gotta clear all this away,” Alice said, grinning. “Let Rabanastre show you how it’s done.”
Somehow Alice kept perfectly balanced in her seat atop the rabbit Summon’s shoulders as he launched into a series of punches, lariats, kicks, leg sweeps, and spinning motions, clearing darkness away with speed and power.
“What the heck is all this stuff, anyway?” Adelaide asked, watching all of Delilah’s Felines with awestruck eyes.
“Living darkness,” Delilah said, glaring at the writhing mass around her. “But I’ve never seen it like this before.”
She’d seen the darkness take on recognizable, individual shapes. In the Library, that had mostly amounted to shadow-Hollows, but there had also been strange, pulsing globules that seemed to feed the darkness in some way. And there had been the wave of darkness brought on by Valgwyn, but that had been a singular attack that she’d never seen again.
The darkness on the Doomed Beast seemed equal parts individualistic and collective. It moved like liquid, a viscous ooze that moved with surprising speed, lashing out in tentacles, splashing up in spiky bursts, and swirling around like miniature whirlpools.
But every bit of darkness was always connected to the rest, the collective. When it was ever severed, the smaller bits that were cut free vanished in dark smoke.
The Doomed Beast’s body made their progress difficult to gauge, because the gigantic Summon’s skin was black as well. Though it was a different sort of shade than the living darkness, and it glowed with its own light, here in the midst of so much darkness it could be difficult to discern the difference at a glance.
It didn’t help Delilah that she wasn’t very tall, and had to stay surrounded by her Felines or risk being taken by the darkness.
If only I could fight for myself somehow.
It had been a long time since Delilah had thought that. The plan and fighting style she’d conceived of had been perfect for her youth and the circumstances into which she was entering. Fighting Hollows in the streets of Grimoire was what she’d trained for, and there, she never had to worry about the ground moving faster than her Mobility platform could fly. She could always perfectly position herself to understand the battlefield and direct her Felines appropriately.
But here, she was on the ground, barely able to see a dozen feet in any direction, her Felines fighting against an unfathomable mass of darkness. How was she supposed to direct a fight like this? Her Felines were doing great because of their previous training, and knowing to protect Delilah and Adelaide.
But what could Delilah do in the moment? What use was she?
Why am I here?
Why was I chosen for this?
“Hey!” Alice called out. “Do you think this is important?”
Delilah looked where Alice indicated. Rabanastre fought back the darkness that continually tried to reclaim a singular spot, where a large silver box gleamed. Delilah stared for a moment, then realized it wasn’t just a box.
It was a padlock, about five feet wide, and it was connected to a massive intersection of silver chains. Four separate chains intersected at the lock, creating eight silver pathways stretching out in different directions.
“Over here!” Delilah said, ushering Adelaide to follow her as she moved towards the padlock, her Felines moving with her to keep her protected. Alice and Rabanastre continued to keep the space around the lock clear, but it was easy to see that the darkness didn’t want that to happen. Where in other areas the roiling mass of darkness was slow to reclaim ground it had lost, it raged and foamed, lashing out desperately as Rabanastre valiantly defended the lock and chain.
“This is what they’re protecting,” Delilah said, reaching the lock. With her Felines bolstering Rabanastre’s defense, the darkness was forced back farther, giving Delilah room to work. She pulled out the key and fitted it into the lock, turning once.
The first non-verbal sound she had heard since arriving in this place echoed all around her for several seconds. Slowly, the lock began to dissolve, turning into silvery motes of light that flew up into the sky, vanishing in the distance.
And suddenly, Delilah was somewhere else entirely.
Sound rushed at her from all sides. There was wind, rushing through grass and leaves. There were footsteps, crunching along gravel. Birds sang in the distance.
Delilah turned, looking across the landscape devoid of color. She couldn’t see far across the grassy terrain, dotted here and there with small trees, as if the plains simply vanished less than a mile in any direction.
A gravel path cut through the plain, and along it walked two men. One, Delilah recognized. He was the fierce-looking man, one of the Lunar Architects she’d seen in the visions the White Whale had shown her.
Alongside him walked a man with stark white hair and a long scar across his face. He was dressed all in black, and had a serious, piercing gaze. Delilah had never seen that man before, but instantly she recognized him, thanks to how he’d been described by Isabelle.
The man was Jormungand.
“The Doomed Beast plan cannot succeed without your help,” the Architect with the fierce eyes said. “We have built the prison and the chains, but to keep him chained is not enough.”
“You are certain of this?” Jormungand asked. His voice was low and soft, his words coming forth like honey. “Are the other Architects in agreement with you?”
The fierce-eyed man shook his head. “They will never go this far,” he said. “To keep the two beasts apart is enough. To ensure they stay that way – even if it means killing two of their own – is also enough. But they see the Doomed Beast as inviting destruction. They will not do it.”
“So you act alone,” Jormungand said. The fierce-eyed man nodded. “You are wise. As you have said, one can only know the true nature of the world by walking in both light and darkness.”
“Too many see light and darkness as good and evil,” the Architect said. “It’s a simplistic, foolish metaphor. Comforting for the souls of the small-minded, but ultimately a farce. It’s why my colleagues cannot see what must be done.”
“Destruction can yet yield a better world in its wake,” Jormungand said. “Grimoire already dies slowly from below.”
“So we accelerate that end. Destruction from above and below. A swift, merciful death to a once wondrous land. And after, we build a better land atop the ruin.” The fierce-eyed man stopped, looking to Jormungand with reverence in his gaze. “You have been a great friend and mentor to me all these years. Without you, none of this would have been possible. Thank you.”
Jormungand smiled. “You are most welcome, old friend.”
Delilah was back atop the Doomed Beast.
It seemed as if no time had passed at all. The last motes of silver light that had once been a lock holding onto the chains still floated in the air for a moment, before being whisked away. With it, one of the four chains vanished, leaving three chains to intersect with each other.
“So why are the other chains still here?” Alice asked. Rabanastre cleared the space around him with a powerful spinning kick, then knelt and grabbed the chains, heaving with his muscular arms.
The chains didn’t budge.
“There must be more locks,” Delilah said, recovering from her disorientation.
And with them, more visions of the past. More answers about how things came to be…
…and the true nature of the danger Grimoire is in.
“This guy’s huge!” Alice said, looking from her perch atop Rabanastre in every direction. “Where do we start looking?”
“Why don’t we follow the chains?” Adelaide asked. “There are probably three more locks, right?”
Delilah nodded. “That’s the best lead we have,” she said.
“Well, if you guys get tired, let Rabanastre clear the way,” Alice said, grinning. Rabanastre responded to her confidence with a flurry of punches and kicks, bursting apart the living darkness in every direction. Alice’s eyes kept switching from black to white and back again, but one thing remained constant.
She was alive, her eyes seemed bursting with light, her face filled with excited energy. In the midst of the protective circle, Adelaide gazed up at Alice, and her face was alive, too. She smiled widely, calling out to cheer on Alice and “Mister Rabbit.”
Delilah looked around at the vast expanse of darkness, at the seemingly insurmountable foe before her…
And she began to smile, just a little bit, too. Her determination growing, she grabbed hold of her wild mass of blonde hair that kept flying in her face thanks to the wind. Keeping it steady, she reached in her pocket, pulled out a hair tie, and in one swift motion tamed her unruly locks in a tight ponytail.
“Let’s go!” she cried out, choosing one length of chain and beginning to follow it. Felix and Rabanastre were the vanguard, charging forward to clear a path. Redmond supported them, while also firing arrows to the sides and behind, blasting away at the darkness. Reginald and Nekoma were on defense, holding tight the protective circle around the girls with all their might. While Nekoma stood tall, swinging her spiked flail and giant sword in wide arcs to clear as much space as possible, Reginald leapt to and fro, lashing out with his cane-whip in precise attacks to shore up weak areas.
Delilah’s heart lifted. Here in the midst of foes she had been terrified of, she was finding courage and strength. She’d thought of this fight as a battle she’d face alone, but…
She’d been wrong.
I don’t have my siblings. I don’t have my friends.
But I was wrong to discount the strangers alongside me.
They fought forward, Felines and Rabanastre clearing the way. Delilah, though she couldn’t see as much as she’d like, kept an eye on the chain to make sure they continued to follow it, and helped keep her Felines together. She directed them, keeping Felix from straying too far ahead, or Nekoma and Reginald from being caught too far behind. When they took hits – always small ones, nothing too serious so far – from the roiling mass around them, Delilah held up her Talisman and poured Healing Magic towards their wounds, keeping her Summons fighting fit at all times.
I’m not just dead weight.
It was a fear Delilah had been struggling with ever since she’d been tossed into the Enchanted Dominion against her will. She’d been carrying guilt and inadequacy, sluggishly trudging along under self-imposed guilt for the failures of all those around her.
For the first time, Delilah felt she could really breathe. She could really walk, and stand tall, and give her all.
She couldn’t fight the way she normally did, high above the battlefield, far from the danger. But that was okay. She wasn’t useless.
Why did it take me so long to realize it?
And as she fought back against the darkness with her Felines, she finally let the heaviest weight go.
I didn’t fail Shana and the others at the Library.
I held out long enough.
Gwen, Chelsea… they were right. I never failed. If I’d given up any sooner, everything would have been lost. As much as it stung to end my fight the way I did…
I was important. And the Library of Solitude wouldn’t have been saved if I wasn’t there, if I hadn’t fought as hard as I did.
And now, because of it, my Felines and me…
We’re so much stronger.
Delilah raised a hand, wiped stray tears from her eyes, and grinned. Beside her, Adelaide called out support, continuing to smile.
We all recognize the danger, but being scared won’t get us anywhere.
And when we choose not to be scared, when we push forward with the best we have…
It’s exciting. And even when it’s this dangerous and serious…
It’s kind of fun, isn’t it?
It’s fun to let everything out, to see just how amazing our Summons can be.
Delilah even found herself laughing at times, marveling at the amazing maneuvers her Felines executed, or the incredible, improvised teamwork between Felix and Rabanastre, or the way that Reginald, for so long kept a secret, so easily integrated himself into what had once been a three-Feline team.
They knew they had reached the next lock before they saw the lock itself. The living darkness had taken measures to further protect its prize, forming a large, pulsing globule of darkness over the spot where it rested. All around it, the darkness was thicker and deeper, and the pace of their Summons slowed, taking more time with each step to clear a path forward and make sure it stayed clear. Felix’s swords flashed. Redmond’s arrows flew true. Rabanastre, largest and strongest of them all, was the first to find an opening, stepping forward and thrusting his fist into the globule of darkness. It rippled, a web of white light forming across its surface, and then burst outward, exploding in a flash of light.
They had exposed the lock.
Summons moved forward, establishing a circle around this newest lock which connected to three chains, all crisscrossing beneath it. Delilah’s path clear, she rushed forward, inserting her key into the lock and turning it.
Delilah, once again, was someplace else.
This someplace else had the edges of its landscape cut off, as if a stage had been cut out from the world and placed in a colorless void.
But this stage was one Delilah recognized.
She was standing in Lunar Plaza.
It was different from the Lunar Plaza she knew. There were no tracks for the trolley, and the surrounding city was lower, made up of smaller buildings spaced farther apart from each other.
But the twin fountains were the same as they were in Delilah’s time. And what really clued Delilah in were the many lunar lanterns, paper spheres aglow with light, floating in the wind, tethered to booths and poles by silver thread.
It was the Lunar Festival, a very long time ago.
In the middle of the Plaza, two teenagers were walking – a boy and a girl. Something about the girl struck Delilah, and she followed the pair.
“Do you ever wonder why we celebrate the moon?” the boy asked.
“It’s not a celebration of the moon, silly,” the girl said. Something about her voice seemed oddly familiar. “It’s a celebration of the founding of the city by the Lunar Architects.”
“But why ‘Lunar’?” the boy asked. He stopped at a metal post in the ground and looked up at the lunar lantern attached to it. “What’s so important to them, and now to us, about the moon?”
“Who knows?” the girl asked. She turned, and Delilah gasped.
Against a backdrop that was completely devoid of color, the girl’s eyes gleamed violet.
It can’t be.
But as the girl spoke, and as Delilah saw her face, there was no denying it.
She was looking at Anastasia as a teenager, perhaps only a year or two older than herself.
But this is…
Hundreds of years ago, isn’t it?
How is that her?
“You think too much about what’s beyond this place, Blaise,” Anastasia said. Delilah bristled at the name.
There’s just no way.
“And you’re too focused on yourself, Ana,” the boy said. He turned so that Delilah could see his face, but she couldn’t be sure. He was so much younger than the Blaise she knew. But every moment, she became more and more certain that the girl could only be Anastasia.
“Do you blame me?” Anastasia asked. She adjusted her scarf as a frigid wind swept through the Plaza. Ducking her head, she gazed about nervously at the crowds of people. “If they knew what I was…”
“They’ll understand, one day,” Blaise said, smiling. “What’s there to be ashamed of? You’re a child of two worlds.”
“One of those worlds is a secret to everyone here,” Anastasia said.
“Except me,” Blaise said. “And I’m not afraid of you, or suspicious of you, or anything else.”
“That’s because you’re different,” Anastasia said. She let out a heavy sigh. “And I’m not only focused on me. I’m just focused on places that matter.” She lifted her head, looking out across the Plaza with sadness in her eyes. “There will be war, won’t there?”
Blaise nodded, his expression grim. “Father thinks we have a few years, at best. And then… well, we can’t let Leon do what he plans to do. Grimoire isn’t a place for a king. And we’re all mortals – not gods.”
“You’ll fight, won’t you?” Anastasia asked.
Blaise nodded. “I’ll do anything to protect my city.”
Anastasia sighed, then stepped closer, bumping her shoulder against his. “Don’t leave me out of it. I care about this city as much as you. And don’t forget the others.”
“I won’t,” Blaise said, smiling. “Thank you, Ana. Your support means more than you know.”
“I would know if you weren’t so secretive,” Anastasia said, rolling her eyes. “But either way, I’m on your side, no matter what. You can count on me, Blaise, for as long as we live.”
Blaise chuckled. “That’s a much shorter amount of time for me than for you,” he said. “And I know. I’ll need to count on you, Ana.” Blaise’s eyes took on a far-away gleam as he stared into the distance. “Grimoire’s secrets were entrusted to my family. If this fair city is to survive, I must take action. And I’ll need all the help I can get.”
Delilah was back atop the Doomed Beast.
As the lock dissipated into motes of silver light, Adelaide rushed forward, grabbing hold of the chain that was rapidly disappearing. “I just had a great idea!” she said excitedly.
The chain held fast in her hand, stopping its disintegration. Adelaide grinned, and then focused on the chain, glaring at it with determination in her expression.
Suddenly, the chain transformed. What was once thousands of feet – perhaps even miles – of hulking silver chain was now a small, silver device that fit neatly in Adelaide’s hand.
“You finally decided to use your magic, huh?” Alice asked.
“I didn’t know if it would work outside my house!” Adelaide replied, pursing her lips. “It’s very fussy anywhere else.” She looked at her accomplishment, though, and grinned.
“What is it?” Delilah asked.
Adelaide spun the cylindrical device in her hand once and then pointed it at Delilah. “Guess!” she said.
Delilah smiled. “It’s a flashlight,” she said.
“Not just any flashlight!” Adelaide said, turning to face the darkness. “It’s an original invention, a flashlight like the world’s never seen before – and isn’t ready for, anyway. I call it the super-bright flashlight!”
Alice snorted. “You should work on your naming skills,” she said.
“Shut it, you!” Adelaide said. She flipped a switch, and…
Delilah, though she wasn’t in the path of the flashlight, found herself squinting against the brilliant white beam of light that shot forth into the roiling mass of living darkness. Delilah’s flashlight was super-bright indeed, and somehow it could focus that light incredibly well.
At contact with that light, the darkness recoiled, rising up and folding back onto itself, retreating from Adelaide’s brightness attack.
“Not bad,” Alice said with a smirk. “Just don’t drop it.”
“If I do, it’ll be on your head, meanie!” Adelaide retorted. She turned the flashlight off, pointed at a new section of the darkness, and turned it back on. A wide grin spread across her face, and her eyes sparkled with delight, as the darkness was once again forced back.
“Let’s push on ahead!” Delilah said, looking at the two remaining chains. There were four directions she could choose from, so what…
She felt a sudden tug, like a string had wrapped around her heart and pulled her towards something.
“We go this way!” she said, pointing and starting ahead. Alice and Rabanastre led the charge, Felix close behind. Around Delilah, the three remaining Felines, and now Adelaide with her super-bright flashlight, held the defensive line, ensuring no darkness broke through.
Their progress was even faster this time, and Rabanastre once again burst a pulsing globule of darkness that shielded the next lock. Delilah stepped forward, inserted the key, and turned.
A door slammed open, and Anastasia raced into the darkened room. She was clearly older than the last vision, looking to be in her twenties now, with some of the fierce gleam in her eyes that Delilah recognized from the present day.
In the center of the room was Blaise. He seemed to have aged much more than Anastasia, looking to be pushing sixty with grey hair and a mildly weathered face.
He was weeping. Slumped on his knees on the floor, he sobbed, tears streaming from his eyes. His hands were splayed out in front of him, and he seemed to be staring at his palms.
He wasn’t wearing a shirt. And starting from his hands, working up his arms, and then across his back and chest, were tattoos. From his right stretched white, elegant lines, swirling and curving beautifully. From his left came jagged, harsh black lines, bursting in sudden, violent shapes here and there.
In the center of his chest and his back, white and black met, intertwining, becoming one.
“Blaise!” Anastasia cried out, rushing to his side. She knelt next to him, pulling him close in an embrace. “What is it? What’s happened?”
“It’s…” Blaise started, his voice catching on a sob. He coughed, ragged and weak, and shook his head. Holding up his trembling left hand, his thumb caressed the golden band on his ring finger. “She’s… she’s gone, Ana. My wife… my dearest Elizabeth…”
“Gone…?” Anastasia asked, her voice hollow, her eyes wide. “How?”
“I…” Blaise said softly, pointing repeatedly to himself. “I… I killed her…”
“What…?” Anastasia stared at him, shaking her head. “Blaise, you aren’t making any sense.”
“We did it, Ana,” Blaise said, a smile flashing on his face and then vanishing. “We unlocked the secrets of Celestial Magic. Life and Death itself!” He bowed his head, his voice coming out in strangled gasps. “So then… then why did… why did it take her?” He shook his head. “It backfired on her, but left me alive! Why? Why didn’t it take me?”
“Blaise…” Anastasia said softly.
Blaise bowed down, touching his head to the floor. He took in a raspy, ragged breath.
And then he screamed.
It was the hopeless, desperate cry of a man who’s lost everything. Delilah’s heart broke at the sound. Tears flooded Anastasia’s eyes.
Blaise’s scream went on, and on, and then suddenly cut off in a whimper. He grasped at the floor, his fingernails scraping across the wood.
“You still…” Anastasia said softly, choking back a sob. “You still have much to live for, sir. The city needs you. I –” She shook her head. “We need you, Blaise. All is for naught if you give up now.”
“I know that,” Blaise said, his shoulders trembling. “That’s exactly what Elizabeth would say, too. I know. I just…” He shook his head. “Ana. How have we lost so much, and are still so far from saving our fair city?”
“We have made progress,” Anastasia said. “And with your new knowledge, we may finally have the key we need. The White Whale remains docked in her harbor. While the Pit continues to expand, Doctor is learning more and more about it every day.” She stroked Blaise’s hair, pulling him closer. “All is not yet lost.”
Blaise nodded. “I see,” he said softly. “Ana, I… I will need time. For now… I trust you to hold us together. Give me one week. Then I’ll return to lead.”
“Only a week?” Anastasia asked. “Surely –”
“We’ve barely that long to spare,” Blaise said. “I will grieve. And then I will return.”
Anastasia nodded, slowly standing up. Blaise remained on the floor. “I understand,” Anastasia said. “I won’t let you down.”
She strode to the door. Before she left, she took one last look back at Blaise, her eyes filled with tears.
Delilah was back aboard the Doomed Beast.
One thing had taken a startling turn, however.
There was sound.
Delilah covered her ears instantly against the sudden cacophony all around her, but she didn’t stay that way for long.
I need to hear! Sound is good! I just…
This is really…
Loud. And scary. And…
Delilah looked at Adelaide cheering on her sister, and smiled.
“You turned the volume on, I see,” Alice said. “Thanks. It makes it easier to know what’s going on, and I don’t have to keep looking all over the place for every little sign of danger.”
That’s right. Sound is important information in combat.
“There’s only one left!” Adelaide said, Shining her super-bright flashlight at a frothing bubble of darkness that was making for a gap between Felix and Nekoma. The darkness shrank back with an eerie, distant shriek – a sound Delilah was hearing a lot now. Every bit of darkness that was beaten back, severed, destroyed… all of it cried out in a high-pitched but surprisingly distant scream that set Delilah’s teeth on edge.
“It’s nice to hear the screams of your enemies, isn’t it?” Alice asked, grinning. “Oh, this just gets me way too fired up!”
Okay. There’s still hope for her, but…
She’s gonna need more work.
“Which way should we follow the last chain?” Adelaide asked.
“To the right,” Delilah said. Something tugged at her heart when she looked at the chain, leading her to the right. She smiled, clutching the key around her neck tightly.
You’re helping show me the way. Thank you.
They fought forward, the wild wind rushing all around them. Rabanastre’s punches and kicks landed with powerful bursts of energy. Felix’s swords sliced through the air, ringing beautifully as the swordmeowster cut into the darkness. Redmond’s bow twanged and his arrows sang in the wind. Nekoma’s sword whooshed through the air. Reginald’s whip snapped and cracked.
The sound was intense and brought upon Delilah similar feelings to her battle in the Library. Noise made battle more frightening.
But sound was also beautiful. Encouraging cries from her allies, the song of swords and arrows in the wind, the rhythm of punches and kicks, all came together to lift Delilah’s spirits.
The sound clearly gave them energy, and they pushed through the liquid, writhing darkness quickly on their path in pursuit of the final lock. And for the first time, their path took them where they could clearly see the White Whale, still flying alongside them. Delilah stared at her for a moment, and she stared back, one rainbow-colored eye seeming to lock right onto her.
Don’t worry. We’re almost done.
Soon, you’ll be properly reunited.
“Ooh, something’s happening,” Alice said, pausing in her forward progress. Delilah and Adelaide looked, and saw that the darkness ahead was rising, coalescing into a more familiar shape.
It was a man.
Or at least, Delilah thought it was. He was as inky black as the darkness around him, with no facial features, eyes, anything to identify him. But he was tall, and his whole body was muscular and imposing.
In one hand he held a long, broad sword. He raised it high, and then pointed it at the girls.
“You will not pass further.” The voice seemed to come from the man, even though no mouth could be seen to move. His voice was strong, firm, commanding. It was the voice of a man who regularly commanded absolute obedience. “My father entrusted this lock to me. None shall reach it. None shall breach it.”
“You have a name, tough guy?” Alice asked.
“I am Sen,” the man said, “the greatest of my brothers, and the last foe you will ever face.”