“How did he get loose?”
The question was shouted by Callum, who was already racing back towards Greyson Manor with Deirdre. Neith, the only Enforcer still standing around the golden stage, was being handily beaten back by Oscar and his giant tortoise Summon.
We need to deal with Void and Ignis now, before they join the others!
But Callum and Deirdre were stopped by Hestia’s voice.
“Let us handle them!”
She came running with Galahad, Artemis, and Desmé. All four still looked in tip-top shape, having handled their batch of Enforcers with ease.
“You should join your son and his team,” Hestia said. “We would, but…”
“It seems we’d be an unwelcome distraction for the Lady Gwen,” Galahad said.
“Right!” Callum replied, nodding.
How did Void escape? We took away his Talisman. He was securely locked in. And that explosion at the Manor wasn’t Ignis’ doing – it came from the inside.
“We need to defend the Manor,” Deirdre said, continuing on towards Void and Ignis. “With that explosion, anyone can get in. We can’t allow that.”
“But how did he even get free?” Callum asked, following.
“It seems Void has a second Talisman,” Deirdre said, her glasses shimmering as she used her Divination Magic. “We shouldn’t have taken him at his word when he said he wouldn’t dare to use more than one Talisman.”
“So he’s an excellent liar,” Callum said, gritting his teeth. “And he hid it and waited for just the right moment.”
“Still, he’s only an Enforcer,” Deirdre said. “Even with Ignis, he shouldn’t present too much of a challenge.” She cast a sideways glance at Callum. “How quickly do you think we can repair the Manor?”
“I think repairing it completely is out of the question right now,” Callum said. “We can patch it up, though. And there’s a system in place for sending it straight back to where it started, to turn back into a home. That’ll put up its stronger magical defenses, as well.”
“And leave us without an effective escape route if we need one,” Deirdre said.
Callum smirked. “I wasn’t all that interested in an escape plan to begin with.”
“So reckless,” Deirdre said with a sigh.
They charged forward alongside Hestia’s team, as Void and Ignis came rushing to meet them.
“What the heck was that?” Caleb asked, only chancing spare glances back towards Greyson Manor.
The bottom exploded. But how? Did Void escape? What’s going on?
“Our job’s right here!” Chelsea called out, blasting Nyx’s swirling Summon with a roaring wall of flame.
The beast roared back, its dark claws, blades and spikes tearing the fire to ribbons. Chelsea leapt back, while Mobility discs and sapphire ice formed to defend her from the Summon’s counterattack. Caleb’s chains railed against the Summon’s body, but bounced away ineffectually or were shattered by the beast’s attacks. Ice was shredded, flames were dispersed. Not a single attack seemed to harm the Summon.
We’re doing just fine against the other Royal Guards. But if we can’t figure out how to fight Nyx, we’ll never be able to break through to the King.
Caleb chanced a glance towards the golden throne, and the shining-faced man who sat upon it.
We still need to figure out just how powerful you are. All you do is sit and watch while your soldiers fight for you.
Are you really as powerful as they say? And if so, why wouldn’t you just end this fight right here and now? Why watch your allies struggle?
Nyx’s Summon swirled, and barbed tendrils shot out in all directions. Caleb threw out as many springboard discs as he could to bounce them back, and Lorelei’s ice went to work on defense as well. In the midst of that, Caleb saw a flash of movement, and a group of fluffy tails flicker in the air.
Isla’s helping us, too.
Outside of the stage, things seemed under control from what Caleb could grasp. Oscar’s tortoise Summon, standing two stories tall, was nearly dwarfed by the absolutely massive spider Summon Neith commanded. Caleb had only seen the frightening creature in part within a confined space, or in flashes on a darkened rooftop. Seeing it here in an open space and the light of day was truly terrifying, as the creature sprawled out to nearly the size of a football field, moving with surprising quickness, weaving its webs and striking forward with powerful legs.
And yet the much smaller tortoise Summon was forcing the arachnid back. Oscar had Neith completely beaten, and she continually retreated. All other Enforcers lay unmoving on the ground. The battle at Greyson Manor was too far away for Caleb to get a good grasp of it, but seeing the blue Energy falcons his father commanded flash through the air was enough for him to feel confidence in them.
Soon, they’ll join us up here. And then we’ll be able to properly push forward. For now, we just need to keep up the pressure.
Anastasia stood atop the old watchtower, looking down at the battle unfolding around the Radiance’s base of operations.
Heavy footsteps sounded behind her, soon accompanied by the deep, gravelly voice of Bronn. “Ana,” he said. “The Master says it’s time.”
“Impressive, aren’t they?” Anastasia asked. Bronn came to a stop beside her, following her gaze. “I never knew Greyson Manor could transform in such a way. And though they’re just humans… and so young… they’ve managed to defeat so many of the Radiant King’s Enforcers. They’re even giving a good fight to the Royal Guard.”
“That’s why we’re here,” Bronn said. He paused, and Anastasia felt his gaze on her. “You’ve changed.”
“You’re wavering. I’ve never seen you so doubtful. The way you confronted the Master…”
“Was necessary,” Anastasia said. “I understand his aims. But to unleash the power of the Pit? After we’ve fought so long to keep it contained, now he wants to let that evil loose?”
“It is not evil,” Bronn said. “Darkness is not evil, as the Master has said.”
Right. I know what he’s said.
The things I’ve seen…
“Our role is not to question,” Bronn continued. “It is to obey.”
“And now we are to join forces with those we worked to banish from this world,” Anastasia said bitterly, staring at the Radiant King atop his lofty throne.
“It is a temporary alliance,” Bronn said.
Even now, there’s no hesitation in his tone.
Am I the only one?
Stride… Sieglinde… Doctor…
All of you…
Do you not see it?
Or do I alone see it because I’m the one who’s in the wrong?
Flashes of emerald fire caught Anastasia’s eye.
You’ve grown since I fought you last, Reiner.
I wonder what you would do if you learned the truth?
“Ana,” Bronn said.
Anastasia took in a deep breath, then let it out slowly. “Right,” she said softly. She looked up at Bronn, and placed a gentle hand on his massive arm. “Know that, for all our differences, I always have – and still do – consider you a precious friend.”
Bronn’s face, stony and impassive as always, flickered for the briefest moment with something Anastasia couldn’t read. “And I you,” he said. He stepped forward, and then, with a softness belying his size, leapt from the tower, plummeting to the street below.
Anastasia clenched her hands into fists, staring out at the battle unfolding around the Radiant King’s stage.
And then she followed Bronn into battle.
Caleb dove, blasting chains out at Nyx and Titan both, aiming to outright attack them and also to separate them.
Isolate them. That’s how we beat Athena and Platina. It’s how we’ll beat the rest of them.
Titan was far too strong for Caleb’s chains, but thanks to Will’s clever applications of Energy Magic, the Guardsman was constantly on the back foot, and so he retreated even further at Caleb’s sudden barrage.
But in that attack, Caleb lost his focus on someone he’d chained down.
Platina’s metal weapon flashed, its blade extending rapidly towards Caleb.
High above, a shrill cry pierced the air. White chains, not of Caleb’s making, surged down, gripped Platina’s weapon, and wrenched it out of its trajectory towards Caleb. Platina grimaced, her weapon flicking back and forth to shatter the chains that held it, but she had to recover for a moment, drawing her blade back to her.
Down swooped Chelsea’s owl, the chains in his talons reforming. He came to a stop next to Chelsea, joining her fiery attack against Nyx’s Summon with a chain lashing of his own. Neither attack worked, but just the presence of the shining white owl raised everyone’s spirits.
Chelsea smiled, though she rolled her eyes ever so slightly. “I know, I kept you waiting,” she said. “Nice timing. Stay with us from now on, okay?” Her owl flapped his wings in a frustrated pattern, and Chelsea sighed. “I know, and I’m sorry. Now come on, we’ve got a freaky Summon to beat.”
When Platina’s weapon flashed again, Gwen rushed to meet it, deflecting the metal with her needle-sword. She raced ahead, closing the distance between her and Platina in a few swift bounds, and they met sword against sword up close and personal.
“Caleb, help her out,” Lorelei said, joining Chelsea. “Athena’s on ice. I’m all-in on Nyx now.”
“Got it!” Caleb said. He bounced upwards, smiling as he saw another brief flash of Isla’s fox Summon.
But his smile swiftly faded. For as he bounced upwards, he saw more of what lay beyond the multi-tiered stage.
New enemies had arrived.
The golden tree Summon, Yggdrasil, was surging from the ground, its golden branches forcing Oscar and Neith apart and now putting Oscar into a fighting retreat. Sieglinde could be seen, standing far away from the battle atop a rooftop.
On the ground, racing towards the stage, were three other warriors. In the center was the hulking, impossibly muscular form of Bronn. To his right was Stride, running with a light step in his wooden sandals, a sword drawn in either hand. To his left was Anastasia, her violet eyes easy to spot even from a distance.
And behind them, moving at a much slower, steadier pace…
Mister Mathers, isn’t it?
I’ve only met him once, but he made an impression then. And now…
He’s here? But what about his other plan? Did he already enact that plan?
Blaise Mathers walked with a slight limp, using his cane for support as he went. But he somehow walked tall and strong, and though he was fairly average of build, he had a powerful presence. Dressed ordinarily and with no special light show about him, he nonetheless seemed to steal the spotlight from the ostentatious, shining Radiant King.
Blaise opened his mouth, and his voice carried even from a great distance, as if it was coming from all sides and all distances. “Leon,” he said simply, shaking his head. “You’re not at all putting up the fight I expected. Has the strength of you and your soldiers lessened of late?”
Leon? Who’s –
“You speak a name that no longer exists,” came a deep voice that managed to be both warm and commanding at once. Caleb stopped on a Mobility disc, staring as the Radiant King turned his shining face towards Blaise. “And we are no weaker than we were before.”
Blaise seemed to smirk. “And how am I supposed to believe that?”
The Radiant King sat back in his throne. For the first time since Caleb had seen him, he moved more than his head.
He raised a single finger from the arm of his throne.
Caleb gritted his teeth against a sudden deep, powerful thrumming that filled the air. It was just sound, but it penetrated to his very bones. Caleb grabbed his head, plugged his ears, but he couldn’t block out the deep, resonant waves of sound that rolled over and rushed through him.
Golden light flashed. Caleb was tossed through the air against his will, flying outside the golden pillar surrounding the stage.
He stopped himself, but only for a moment. Because in the midst of the Radiant King’s overwhelming attack, a wave of pure power…
Caleb felt his consciousness slipping.
No! Not now!
The world swam before Caleb’s eyes, and he felt the sudden, familiar grip of vertigo. The world was falling, and taking Caleb with it.
He barely managed, through instinct honed by training, to generate discs to shield and guide his fall.
And then Caleb’s world went black.
“Caleb!” Chelsea screamed. She’d been flung away by the King’s attack, and as she lay in a pile of rubble, struggling to stand, she watched as Caleb suddenly fell from the sky.
Mobility discs formed around him, but the wave of energy rolling out from the throne shattered the discs before they could catch him.
Grasping at the rocks, Chelsea fought to stand. But power – sheer, immeasurable power – forced her down.
I have to…
Somebody has to…
Caleb continued to fall. A wave of power rolled through the air, and Caleb’s limp form was tossed back, spinning end-over-end. He was going to crash right into a tower!
A gleaming blue sea turtle swooped in, caught Caleb, and set him onto roof tiles just before the King’s power sent that Summon flying away, vanishing out of sight. Caleb rolled to a stop against a chimney.
Wake up, Caleb.
This power has to…
“Desperate times,” came a soft voice, barely audible above the constant, bone-rattling thrumming.
“Isla?” Chelsea asked, looking around.
“Shall I?” Isla’s voice asked.
“Do it!” came the cry of Deirdre.
Isla chuckled. “Desperate measures,” she said softly.
Suddenly, Isla appeared next to Chelsea. She stood tall, despite the waves of power rolling off of the King. Next to her stood Dama, tails waving in anticipation. Isla raised a hand, her middle finger pressed against her thumb.
“Total Labyrinth!” she shouted in a clear voice.
She snapped her fingers.
Dama suddenly grew to immense size. First he was the size of a house. Then the size of Greyson Manor.
The multi-tailed fox Summon was the entire world. Chelsea could see nothing else. And atop the fox’s head stood Isla, a surprising amount of fire in her eyes.
“Good luck, everyone,” she said. “Find the center, and turn the key, before our enemies do. I will do all I can to facilitate your success, but…” she chuckled, “it wouldn’t be a proper labyrinth if I could just show you the way out, would it?”
She no longer lay in rubble, but stood in the middle of the street, her owl perched on her shoulders. All around her was Grimoire.
It wasn’t Grimoire. At least, not…
It’s not the same.
She stood on what would normally be the main street, its distinctive oval stone recognizable anywhere. To her right was Murphy’s pizzeria, as it should be.
But to her left, where more cafés and restaurants should be, was a fence made out of many, many doors ripped straight from the girls’ dormitory at Grimoire University. In front of Chelsea, the street sloped up, and then twisted on its side, as lunar lanterns bobbed here and there, and half of a fountain sprayed water down towards the ground, only for that water to loop back up, defying gravity to return to the half-fountain’s basin. Behind Chelsea, lamp posts twisted and warped, while a flower garden from Ring Park intertwined with tables and chairs from Renaldo’s café.
Grimoire’s been totally twisted and mashed together.
“A labyrinth,” came a voice. Chelsea turned, and found herself facing Lorelei. Lorelei tugged her Talisman glove, ensuring it was on tight, and then looked up. “That’s what Isla said. ‘Total Labyrinth.’ She turned the entire city into a giant maze.”
Chelsea looked up at the sky, and stared in shock.
There were no clouds, no blue sky, no rays of morning sunlight.
There was a deep blue void encrusted with spiraling yellow stars. And in the center of it all, ten times the size of any full moon…
Was a giant clock.
It wasn’t an ordinary clock, though. While it had twelve numbers, and three hands that spun at different speeds, it also had a circle inset into its face, which had a message: 5 DAYS REMAINING. The 5 suddenly rolled upwards, changing to a 4.
“What the heck…?” Chelsea asked, gaping.
“It’s the Lunar Festival,” Lorelei said. She pulled out her phone, glanced at its screen, and nodded. “Time’s changed. It’s moving faster, and not at a constant pace.”
“How’s that…” Chelsea started.
“Possible?” Lorelei asked. She stared in thought for a moment. “I’ve heard before that certain types of magic, when pushed to their utmost limits, can warp the fabric of reality. Illusion Magic… neither of us studied it enough. But it’s one of the strangest types of magic, isn’t it? And Caleb’s Time Magic… how does stopping time let him walk through walls? Magic is… a lot stranger than we ever realized.”
“So we have less time until the Festival ends,” Chelsea said. “And…” she looked around the wild space surrounding her, “we’re all alone. We were separated from everyone else.”
“That’s probably why Isla used it,” Lorelei said with a nod. “We were about to be completely overwhelmed, even if the King didn’t use his powers. We couldn’t have fought the Royal Guards and Blaise and his Shadows. Splitting us up… and she said something about a key, right? I guess there are rules to this place. We find the key, and it undoes the Labyrinth, or something.”
“Not a lot to go on,” Chelsea said. She watched the skyline as best she could, but didn’t see any signs of the transformed Greyson Manor or the pillar of golden light. “Where do we even start? And how would ending the labyrinth help right now? We haven’t defeated anyone.”
“So we should take advantage of this,” Lorelei said. “Divide and conquer. Let’s try and find isolated Royal Guards and Shadows, and defeat them before they can join their allies. It may be our best chance at victory.”
Chelsea clenched her hand into a fist.
And while we’re at it…
Let’s find Caleb.
Caleb’s eyes snapped open.
He was staring at a giant clock in the sky.
“Oh, no,” he said softly. “I’m really losing it, aren’t I? I haven’t even used Time Magic in a long time. I can’t go to a Chronolytical Location, not now.”
“You haven’t,” came the soft, reassuring voice of Will. Caleb saw that his friend was sitting beside him, against…
“Is that Greyson Manor’s front door?” Caleb asked, sitting up. “Attached to… the university’s swimming pool?”
“Sure looks that way,” Will said. “You okay?”
“Uh…” Caleb started, looking around at a twisted, warped, chaotic version of Grimoire. “I’m not confident in answering that question right now.” Before him, the street was formed of a mishmash of roof tiles, window frames, and metal grating. On either side, walls were formed out of doors, fences, rose bushes, and ruined pillars that came straight from Grimson Bay. Far off in the distance, Caleb could see one half of The Gate, rising up powerful and imposing beyond several rooftops.
“Isla used her trump card,” Will said, pushing himself to his feet. “We’ve all been split up. Now’s our best chance to find the Royal Guards and Shadows and take them out, while they’re separated. Also –” he pointed up at the clock, “keep an eye on that thing. Time’s moving faster and more erratically in here. You need to be ready, in case the Labyrinth is still up when it’s time for you to go stop the weapon.”
“I don’t know how I’d even find it, the state everything’s in,” Caleb said, standing up. “But… yeah. I guess we just have to make do with what we’ve got.” He grinned. “I always was good at mazes. We’ll figure this out in no time.”
“You’ll try,” came a cold voice that Caleb instantly recognized. He pulled out his pocket watch, looking up as two figures rounded a corner.
Void and Neith were both here. And at the sight of Caleb and Will, the two Enforcers charged into battle.
Gwen pushed her way through the narrow alley, with many curtains, hanging table cloths, and laundry out to dry blocking her view of what lay beyond.
And then she emerged into a wider street, and beheld the true might of Isla’s power.
Incredible. To think one mage could do so much.
After spending time in Grimoire, Gwen even recognized some of the landmarks. There was the circular fountain of Ring Park, dried up earliest of all the fountains in preparation for winter.
But it was on its side. Embedded into the wall of Lunar Café. And that one wall didn’t connect to the rest of the café, but instead fused with large, rounded windows from Grimoire University’s botanical gardens and doors pulled from a dozen different houses.
Walls formed of all sorts of things. And the path ahead doesn’t afford much visibility.
I’ll have to keep my wits about me, and remember where I’ve been, if I’m to find my way to the center of this labyrinth.
And especially if I’m going to find Chelsea and the others.
Gwen started ahead, but she didn’t get far. For round the corner ahead of her came a member of the Radiance’s Royal Guard.
Platina was here. She turned her fierce, wicked gaze on Gwen.
Gwen glared right back.
Both women drew their weapons and charged at each other with wordless cries of rage.
Jacob Crowley seethed with anger. Just moments ago, he’d found it.
He’d found the key behind Blaise’s plan. The key behind the supposed “death” of Grimoire.
Deep beneath the city, in the depths of the chasm where Blaise was building his subterranean city…
There was darkness. Darkness that Jacob couldn’t fathom. And encouraging its spread, a terrifying device.
Right when I leave to reach my allies, to unite all our strength to go back there and find a way to purge the darkness…
Isla uses her forbidden technique. After the last time…
I thought she’d learned her lesson. I thought she’d never use it again.
But the evidence didn’t lie. Jacob stood on a tower in a sea of towers. Below him, in the gaps between towers, was an endless thicket of rose bushes, their thorns prominently displayed.
But it had to be worse.
I had to be thrown in with him.
“Don’t look so grumpy,” Callum Greyson said, hopping to the next tower and turning back to Jacob with a strained smile. “I know you don’t like me very much. But we could at least try to work together, right?”
Jacob gritted his teeth, glaring at Callum.
We’ve been able to work together so far because we haven’t had to work together alone.
Now I’m not at all sure what to do with you.
“Just stay out of my way,” Jacob said, leaping to a different tower, heading the opposite direction of Callum.
“Isn’t that counterproductive?” Callum asked, annoyingly following Jacob. “And besides, haven’t we put the past behind us? You wanted the Hunter Guild’s leadership, and now you have it. I know you were angry when Deirdre and I were appointed before you, even though we’re younger, but –”
“It has very little to do with politics,” Jacob said. Callum stared back at him with a deer-in-the-headlights looks of total ignorance. Jacob scoffed, stopping at the edge of their shared tower. “You truly don’t know?”
“I think…” Callum said softly, his expression turning somber, “I have a bit of an idea. After all this time, your mind is still made up?”
Jacob clenched his hands into fists. “Of course it is, Greyson. Nothing will change that.”
Callum shoved his hands into his pockets and let out a weary sigh. “All right. Then consider this a truce. We’ll prioritize finding the others and ending the labyrinth, right? And once that’s over, we never have to be alone together again.”
Oh, if I could be so lucky.