Chelsea followed Gwen, and Lorelei with her, leaving Caleb and the others to discuss things with Hestia and the newly arrived traitors from the Radiance.
“What’s wrong?” Chelsea asked, placing a gentle hand on Gwen’s shoulder.
“They’re monsters,” Gwen said bitterly, turning around. Her golden eyes burned with rage as she looked past Chelsea towards the new arrivals. “You know about the war, about the Radiance’s destruction of Sunset Square. I watched Galahad laugh – laugh – as he cut down people who refused to fight back. I saw Athena put down scores of soldiers who rose against her. Desmé and Octavian? They brought buildings down on people, and were the ones responsible for most of the strategies that caused such destruction.”
“We heard about Hestia from Shana and Annabelle,” Lorelei said. “It seems she’s had problems with the King’s ways for a long time.”
“I don’t know anything about her,” Gwen said. “Perhaps that’s true. But the others… I know them. I watched the atrocities they committed. I cannot abide them. I cannot accept them here.” She raised a trembling hand. “It’s all I can do not to kill them where they stand.”
Chelsea stared, shocked. Not shocked by the declaration of Gwen’s intentions…
But shocked by how much of herself she saw in those golden eyes.
That was me. Every time I looked at Caleb’s parents… every time I thought they were the ones who killed my mother…
Chelsea took Gwen’s trembling hand in her own, and then pulled her into an embrace. “Vengeance won’t heal your heart,” she said softly. “We both know… we’ve both walked down that path… and we can’t do that anymore. We know the right way.”
“But I never thought…” Gwen started, slowly hugging Chelsea back. “I never thought… that I would have to see them…”
“I know,” Chelsea said. “But we need to direct our efforts where they’re actually needed. There are real villains – the rest of the Radiance – for us to fight. But if there are those among them who would betray the King, who would leave his cause behind… isn’t that something to celebrate?” Chelsea swallowed a swell of emotions. “For someone to see the error of their ways… to say ‘no more’ to the evil path they’re going down… to turn around and walk the other way… if they are sincere, and they stick to that… well then…” Tears stung her eyes, and she hugged Gwen tighter. “We should forgive them.”
Gwen trembled in Chelsea’s embrace, and then sobbed. She nodded against Chelsea’s shoulder, and then pulled away, holding Chelsea’s hands in her own, looking into Chelsea’s eyes as tears swam in her own. “I cannot fight alongside them,” she said softly. “Not yet. But you’re right. And I will work towards forgiving them.”
Chelsea smiled. “Until then,” she said, “nothing really has to change. Stick with us, fight with us.” She looked at Lorelei. “The three of us make a pretty great team.” A sudden sharp stab of emotion struck the back of her mind, and she turned her eyes skyward, glaring. “Four of us.”
“He just wants to be included,” Lorelei said, chuckling.
“He’s just bored of being a reconnaissance owl,” Chelsea said. “He wants to be a fighting owl.”
“He just misses you,” Lorelei said sweetly, and then laughed at Chelsea’s glare.
“It looks like…” Gwen said slowly, “Caleb is getting along well with… them.”
Chelsea looked towards Moonstone Bridge, where Caleb, his parents, Jacob, and other leaders were still talking with Hestia and her band of renegades. Caleb was smiling and laughing – no surprise there – as he spoke with Hestia and Galahad.
He knows a little of what they’ve done. He’s read Mister Midnight’s notebook, like we all have.
Some of us are perhaps too quick to forgive.
“Caleb can play with his new friends,” Chelsea said, shrugging. “Come on, let’s see what we can learn about the situation. We should start doing something. Hollow Hour isn’t far away, and we’ve a big batch of new foes to deal with.”
They headed over to the central map table, where Jacob’s two assistants – Chelsea recalled their names as Trevor and Grace – continued to create glowing representations of the major players throughout the city.
“Any news on Blaise and his crew?” Chelsea asked.
“It seems likely – though unconfirmed,” Trevor said, “that they’ve gone into Mathers Manor. We have a few scouts outside it, but the magical defenses aren’t easily breached.”
“And even if we managed to succeed, all we’d do is alert the entire household,” Grace said. “For now we’re watching and waiting.”
“And what about the new arrivals?” Lorelei asked. “Is anyone around to watch the Radiant King?”
“The squad closest…” Grace started, then shuddered. Trevor looked at her, and she nodded to him.
“They were blown away in that burst of light we saw when the King arrived,” Trevor said, his face grim. “They’re being brought here by a second squad for medical attention. We have two more squads nearby, but they’re moving much more carefully. We don’t have much information yet, except that they seem to be establishing a sort of base camp in Ring Park.”
“That’s not all that far from Crater District,” Chelsea said.
“Or…” Gwen started, trailing off. She was gazing eastward.
“Gwen?” Chelsea asked.
“It’s awfully close to… Greyson Manor, isn’t it?” Gwen asked, her voice hollow.
Chelsea’s eyes widened. She took off at a run, racing to join Caleb and his parents.
“They’re going after Void!” she cried out.
“Void…?” Caleb started, and then his eyes widened.
“Of course,” Callum said, gritting his teeth.
“We can’t charge blindly after them,” Jacob said, just as Callum began to walk away. “We barely understand their strength. And if they reach your home before you can – which is highly likely – you won’t have any defenses to bear against them.”
“Just a few of us,” Callum said. “We’ll take a small team, see what we can do. If it’s too much, we back off. But we have to try.” He looked to Deirdre, who nodded.
“Greyson Manor has ample defenses,” Deirdre said. “But left alone, it won’t last against a brute-force assault. If we can get there – and get inside – fast enough, we can turn the house itself into a weapon. They’ll never be able to breach it if we make it in time.”
Jacob frowned, looking away. “Who would you ask for?”
“No one,” Callum said. “Myself, Deirdre, Dad, Caleb…” He smirked. “The Greysons will go to defend Greyson Manor. Everything else, we’ll leave to you.”
“You’re asking for one of my best Hunters,” Jacob said, eyes flicking towards Caleb. He sighed. “Be swift. And don’t take unnecessary risks. I’m trusting you to retreat if it’s remotely possible that you’ll lose.”
“I’m going, too,” Chelsea said. Caleb stared at her in surprise, for a moment. But when she met his gaze with a determined stare of her own, he relented, smiling.
“Honestly, Reiner,” Jacob said with a sigh, “you know that if you leave –”
“We go with you,” said Lorelei. She stood with Gwen, having come over to join the conversation.
“You just have a sixth sense about these things,” Chelsea said, smiling. She looked up at Jacob. “Don’t worry. We’ll be back before you know it. This’ll be a good chance to figure out what we’re up against with the Radiance.”
“Go,” Jacob said. He looked to Will as well and nodded. “I told all of you that you should be a team and work together from now on. Hold to that. Make sure you come back alive.” He stepped past Will and the others, shifting his attention to Hestia and her group, discussing medical attention first and foremost. As Chelsea followed Caleb and his family, she looked back at the Radiance traitors.
They looked terrible. She hadn’t noticed that before, but they were in really bad shape. All had dark circles under their eyes and had their skin and clothing stained with soot. Mottled bruises showed on Hestia’s neck. Galahad’s left sleeve was torn open, and the bandages that wrapped his forearm were darkly stained. Artemis favored her right leg, and let her left arm hang at her side, her fingers splayed at odd angles. Octavian’s glasses were cracked and the frames bent, leaving them askew no matter how he tried to adjust them. Desmé had a nasty forehead wound that had scabbed over, matting some of her hair to it.
They could have just run away. But they decided to fight back, and put themselves through so much to do it.
Knowing what we know about Hestia from Annabelle and Shana, and seeing how they are now…
I think we can trust them.
Then her group was off into the night. Silent as shadows, they dashed here and there, focused on reaching Greyson Manor as quickly as they could without being detected along the way. All except Oscar and Gwen were Hunters or former Hunters, and that showed in how well they knew the streets, how naturally they spread out in different formations on the fly to ensure they were always able to alert one another if danger struck.
Distant pops and cracks echoed in the night, and bursts of light penetrated the shadows briefly. Skirmishes were going on, scattered across the city, but Chelsea knew the real battle would be very different.
Right now is the calm before the storm. I guess Jacob, Callum, Deirdre, and all the rest saw a storm already, but… this is the calm before the real storm. A bit of flashes here, some rumblings there. And tension is thick in the air.
Really soon, it’s all going to burst.
They rounded a corner, and Greyson Manor loomed in the darkness before them.
“We made it,” Callum said, relief thick in his voice. He raced forward…
“Wait!” Chelsea shouted. Callum came to a skidding stop, and Chelsea stepped forward. Raising a lighter, she clicked it once. Spiraling emerald flames surged forward. When they reached the empty space right in front of Callum, they suddenly caught, spreading upwards and outwards in a wide pattern.
Chelsea had just barely seen the silvery threads before Callum ran headlong into them. Watching as her fire spread, turning the sticky threads to ash, she turned to Caleb, their eyes locking.
“It’s a trap,” Caleb said. As soon as the air above him was clear, he launched himself skyward with a bounce disc. Callum, Deirdre, and Oscar fanned out, while Chelsea, Lorelei, and Gwen stepped cautiously into the street.
“So there’s a Fire Elementalist here, too,” came a low voice that smoldered like embers in a hearth. Chelsea turned, and saw a red-haired man step into the fading emerald light of her fire. He had sharp, angular features, and his dark eyes were like coals. He wore the white uniform of the Radiant King’s Royal Guard, its golden buttons and ornamentation gleaming. While his right hand bore the white glove that matched his uniform, his left hand was bare, save for a golden ring that glittered with rubies. The man smiled, and Chelsea felt an intense, overpowering pressure from the man. For a brief moment, she felt like a small, helpless animal caught in the gaze of a massive predator.
The feeling passed as Chelsea stepped forward, glaring back at the man. “You’re Ignis, right?” she asked, remembering information from the notebook Mister Midnight had given to Caleb.
He wields fire, too.
Ignis grinned, holding up his left hand, his ring glowing softly. “Neith!” he called out. “You and your Enforcers handle the rest. But leave this one to me.”
“As you wish,” came a woman’s voice from the darkness.
Ignis’ grin widened, and his ring flashed. Scarlet flames exploded to life, roaring forward like a blazing dragon racing to gobble its prey.
Chelsea raised both of her lighters, clicked each of them. Blasts of emerald fire slashed through the air, splitting the dragon in half, then swirling around the split halves. Emerald and scarlet infernos took on a life of their own, as if they were dancing, and then burst into vertical explosions of light and sound. Heat scorched Chelsea’s face, but she held her ground.
When the light faded, Ignis continued to smile. “This is everything I’ve ever wanted,” he said.
“You’re already enjoying this?” Chelsea asked.
Ignis nodded. “You understand, don’t you? Fire begs to burn bright and powerful, and it can do that best in the midst of the most heated battles. How can we not enjoy the thrill of battle? It’s the same for all Fire Mages. It’s why the Fire chose us.”
“Chose us?” Chelsea asked.
Ignis cocked his head to the side. “You don’t even know about your own magic?” he asked. He scoffed. “The Elemental chooses the Elementalist. But if you don’t understand that much, I’m not going to spare time to enlighten you.” His grin returned. “This is why we’re here, after all.” His ring flashed, and roaring scarlet fires burst forth once more.
Chelsea blasted them apart with her own verdant fire, but Ignis’ scarlet fire took on a life of its own, snaking around and coming at her from the side. Chelsea held up her lighter to intercept…
But smiled as a shimmering wall of blue rose from the ground, blocking the flames from reaching her. Lorelei stepped forward, tugging her glove Talisman tightly onto her hand. “You didn’t expect to fight him alone, did you?” she asked, shooting a sideways glance at Chelsea.
Chelsea grinned. “Of course not,” she said. She held up her lighters and fired back at Ignis. Around her, she could hear the sounds of battle being engaged on the rooftops and in the streets around Greyson Manor. But her fight was here, against a member of the Radiant King’s Royal Guard.
Fire exploded in the space between the two Fire Mages, emerald and scarlet intertwining, colliding, clashing, dancing, bursting with light and sound. When Ignis’ fire threatened to get around Chelsea’s attacks, Lorelei’s ice walls were there to stop it.
I can see it, a little bit. Maybe I’m not warmed up yet, but I think…
I think he’s stronger than me.
Chelsea felt a pang of frustration.
How many fights have I had recently against foes stronger than me?
I lost against Anastasia.
I kept reaching stalemates with Valgwyn, until the end.
I couldn’t touch Stride or Sieglinde.
How well can I fight this? I have Lorelei. We can fight him together. But somehow…
I feel like this is my fight. Fire against fire.
I do enjoy this. I won’t deny that.
But I’ll enjoy it a lot more if I win. And for some reason…
I feel like this isn’t just my fight. I’m not just fighting for me.
I’m fighting for Mom. The only other Fire Mage I’ve known. The one who taught me about my fire, how to harness it, how to respect it, how to properly wield it.
If I fail here…
Chelsea smiled, shaking her head.
Emerald fire and sapphire ice fought back against scarlet fire. Color lit up the street and sky in front of Greyson Manor, so that it didn’t even seem like it was night anymore. Heat did away with winter’s frigid chill.
Two Fire Mages clashed, and the world transformed around them.