I need to know.
Delilah clutched a book tightly in her hands. It was opened to a page that explained how to use the Light Catcher to scan the Bastion for anyone else who might be there.
I need to know. Before we do anything else…
I need to know if we’re on our own.
She stood before the Light Catcher, while Alice and Adelaide remained in the library, reading about the bottom-left crystal being dark, what that meant, and what to do about it.
So I just… touch here.
Delilah followed the instructions, reaching out for the X-shaped star on the top of the mirror’s frame. Her hand shook, and she stopped for a moment.
An orange, furry hand rested atop hers. Delilah looked up to see Felix Feline Felinosis, First Swordmeowster of the Twelfth Circle, looking down at her. His hand was warm, as was his expression, as if he was smiling with his eyes.
A purple hand, and then a green hand rested on Delilah’s as well. Nekoma and Redmond looked at her with the same encouraging expression.
And finally Reginald, too small to reach Delilah’s hand from the floor, leapt gracefully to the top of the Light Catcher, and joined his hand to the others.
Delilah smiled, feeling a swell of emotions as tears stung her eyes.
“Thank you,” she said softly.
Together, Delilah and her four Felines touched the X-shaped star symbol. Following the instructions, they traced a +-shaped pattern atop the X, and then tapped the center of the Catcher’s mirror. It rippled, like a liquid, and then began showing images. There were rooms and stairwells that Delilah had seen in this Bastion, but many others that she hadn’t. The place was vast, with smaller individual spaces than the Library of Solitude, but a great number of them, so that it might come close to the Library in size.
But Delilah’s heart slowly fell as she watched the images flash by.
No one else here.
Finally, the image stopped, for a moment, on the library where Alice and Adelaide were reading.
And then the mirror rippled, showing a reflection of the room it was in.
We’re really on our own.
Delilah took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. She squeezed her Feline’s hands tightly, and then let go, turning around to make her way back to the library.
If we’re on our own, we need to make the most of it.
We saved Solla. We saved Lunos.
What comes next won’t be impossible for us.
It wasn’t long before Adelaide thought she found something. She had trouble reading it – earning plenty of mean-spirited teasing from Alice – so Delilah took over. This page had a picture of the “Relay” – an item they needed to plant within the darkness, wherever it was – which was a silver sphere that popped open with four metal posts, forming an X-shaped symbol like the one that seemed to be the insignia of Daylight Bastions.
“Okay, it tells us where we can find a Relay in the Bastion,” Delilah said. “And it also says how we can tell where the darkness is. ‘Touch the Relay to the darkened crystal. The mirror will show you the location of the infested area, and will also impart that information to Solla and Lunos. They will be able to take you there, but planting the Relay will be up to you.’”
“That seems awfully simple,” Alice said, frowning. “Why hasn’t anyone else done it? What the heck happened to this Bastion’s Paladin? Or anyone, really. These places are supposed to be heavily staffed, right?”
“Seems that way,” Delilah said, nodding as she thought about the Library of Solitude, what they’d seen in the Moon’s Bastion, and also what they’d read. There should be hundreds of people here.
“Maybe they died,” Adelaide said. “And there wasn’t anyone to take their place.”
“It might have happened when they tried to save Solla and Lunos,” Alice said. “Those two seem really important to this place, but they were both imprisoned. And it wasn’t exactly easy to free them.”
“We might never know,” Delilah said. “But we do know how to find the darkness, and how to stop it.”
“It’s all up to us,” Adelaide said, a strangely mature look in her eyes.
“So let’s get to work,” Alice said, hopping to her feet. She looked up at Rabanastre, who looked down at her with his constantly fierce eyes. “Be ready, Rabanastre. We might need to fight again.”
“He looks grumpy,” Adelaide said.
“That’s just his face,” Alice said. “He’s actually smiling.”
“How can you tell?”
“Because he’s my Rabanastre,” Alice said proudly.
They didn’t have to go far to retrieve a Relay, finding them in a storage room just off from the hall leading to the room with the Light Catcher. The sphere was only about the size of Delilah’s fist, but surprisingly heavy, so that she held it close to her body to make it easier to carry. In the room with the Light Catcher, she touched the Relay to the darkened crystal. The mirror rippled, and soon showed a shocking sight.
“It’s the city under Grimoire,” Delilah said, staring at the multi-layered subterranean city. The image zoomed down, soaring into the darkened pit below. For several moments, there was no light.
Then, slowly, they began to be able to see.
A small tunnel shed the slightest bit of light into the cavern. There was a stone walkway that ran around the circular perimeter, and stairs ran down from it, but…
They couldn’t see where the stairs led.
Darkness – living darkness – filled the cavern. It flooded over the stairs, bubbled and swirled, frothing and roiling like boiling tar in a cauldron. Occasional glimpses of animal faces and forms could be seen, jutting up from the murk before vanishing into the depths, and Delilah recognized each of them.
“Shadow Hollows,” she said softly.
“That looks so much thicker than what was covering Lunos,” Alice said with a low whistle. “We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
“But we just have to throw the Relay in, right?” Adelaide asked.
“And the Light Catcher does the rest,” Delilah said. “But it does caution that certain forces can damage or even destroy the Relay. The living darkness itself won’t do it, and neither will shadow-Hollows, but…”
“We need to watch over it until its job is done,” Alice said.
“Well, what are we waiting for?” Adelaide asked. “Let’s get going! I wanna hurry up and save the world!”
Off they went, descending through the Bastion and out to the vast chamber where Solla and Lunos waited. Coming into it from the staircase, Delilah thought it looked rather like a port or harbor, with Solla and Lunos two massive ships docked, ready to depart.
Solla and Lunos sang for them as they returned and climbed aboard Solla. Feeling her skin as she sang, Delilah understood the song more fully.
“She knows where to go,” she said. “Everyone ready?” Nods went around, and Delilah sat down, both hands against Solla’s back as a protective dome formed over her, Alice, Adelaide, and the Summons.
And then they were flying. Solla sang, and Lunos sang with her, a song of hope as they left the Moon’s Daylight Bastion behind.
Such a lonely place. At least it isn’t taken over by darkness.
But once we’re done with the Relay…
What comes next?
Do we go searching for the Paladin? Do we –
“Oi, deep thinker,” came Alice’s voice, as her finger poked Delilah’s cheek. “Speak your mind.”
Delilah laughed softly and then conveyed her questions to the others, while adding onto them. “If we can’t find the Paladin, do we try and fix up and protect the Bastion ourselves? Is there a way to find and appoint a new Paladin? What are we…” Delilah sighed. “What are we supposed to do?”
“Why don’t we just figure that out after we do the Relay thing?” Alice asked. “Maybe we’ll learn something while we’re there.”
“And we can enjoy the view better if we aren’t so worried about stuff,” Adelaide said. She was looking all around with amazement clear on her face as they left the Moon behind and found themselves in a sea of twinkling stars. The protective dome on Solla must have protected the girls’ eyes, too, because Delilah was amazed when she realized she could look directly at the Sun, a swirling ball of fire so very far away, and not even have to squint.
But their trip from the Moon back to Earth was a short one, and the amazing views couldn’t be savored for long. Once they pierced through a mass of thick, snow-laden clouds and saw the world below…
“We’re going back to Grimoire,” Delilah said softly. She recognized where they were, even from so high, and their trajectory couldn’t possibly take them anywhere else.
“Small world,” Alice said. “Oh, hey…” She had a thoughtful look on her face. “I think I remember Blaise and the others talking about a place called The Pit. They sometimes called it the Dark Place, too. Maybe they knew something we didn’t.”
“The darkness is beneath Grimoire, isn’t it?” Adelaide asked.
“Seems that way,” Delilah said. But when they were close enough to really see Grimoire, her thoughts of the darkness and what lay beneath the city were, for the moment, dismissed.
“What the heck happened to our city?” Alice voiced everyone’s question.
Grimoire was where it should be, but…
It wasn’t Grimoire. Or rather, some kind of dome had formed over and around it, blocking the city off from anything, even sight.
Jutting up and out of the dome was an impossibly large clock tower – something Grimoire had never had. And atop that clock tower…
“That’s Isla,” Delilah said, gaping.
Isla stood atop the tower, arms folded across her chest, a pleased-with-herself smile on her face. Next to her was Dama. But the fox Summon wasn’t small like Delilah had always seen him. Dama was now the size of Greyson Manor, looming over the city atop the tower, and had his eyes fixated on the dome and, presumably, whatever was happening within it.
“What the heck’s going on?” Adelaide asked.
“Doesn’t look like we’re gonna find out,” Alice said, as Solla flew down on the outside of the city, straight towards the waters right outside of Grimson Bay and The Gate. They splashed into the ocean, and Delilah’s view of the domed city was gone.
“But we…” Delilah started, her heart sinking. “Is everyone…”
“Solla seems to think they’re okay,” Alice said. She was kneeling down, one hand against Solla’s back as the White Whale sang her song. Delilah listened and felt more closely, and she felt a small bit of relief.
“It’s more… up in the air,” she said. “But… there’s hope. And Isla’s the one who put that dome there.”
“And Isla’s with the good guys,” Adelaide said, smiling.
“So they had to play some kind of trump card,” Alice said. “Not surprising. They’ve got a serious fight on their hands.”
Delilah stared through the dark waters at a city she could no longer see. Slowly, she let out a long sigh. “So do we,” she said softly.
It was hard to tell direction and movement in such dark, disorienting water, but they seemed to have started to go forward instead of down. Soon, they saw shadows of rocks, and then came upon a sheer underwater cliff face.
In that wall of rock was a massive cavern. Solla flew into it, while Lunos stopped at the entrance, and they sang to each other.
“There’s only room for one,” Delilah said softly.
“And from what we saw, eventually we’re getting off and walking,” Alice said.
“That tunnel was way too tiny for Solla,” Adelaide said with a nod.
They flew forward through the water a little farther, and then ascended slightly. The waters gave way, revealing an underwater cave with a stone walkway leading towards a narrow tunnel. Solla came up alongside the walkway and the protective dome vanished.
“Time for us to do our thing,” Alice said. She stepped next to Adelaide, and then Rabanastre came along and scooped both girls up in his powerful arms, carrying them in a leap to the walkway below, accompanied by Adelaide’s echoing squeals of delight.
Delilah placed her hand against Solla’s back, sharing a silent thank you, and then followed with her Felines.
“Summons up front, as usual,” Alice said, striding through the tunnel with a casually relaxed posture. “Too dark to see in here, otherwise.”
Rabanastre lit the way up front, with Felix close behind. Reginald walked among the girls, while Nekoma and Redmond took up the rear.
“Do you hear that?” Alice asked.
“Yeah, it hurts my brain,” Adelaide said, covering her head with her hands.
Delilah could hear it, too – a steady, deep thrumming in the earth. It was a faint sound, so deep that she felt it more than heard it, and it hurt her head, too. The farther they went, the louder the noise became.
When they exited the tunnel into a vast, circular cavern, they understood why.
Before them stretched the bubbling cauldron of living darkness. But they also saw something they hadn’t seen in the Light Catcher.
“That’s…” Adelaide started, staring.
“A Relay, isn’t it?” Alice finished.
In the center of the cavern, floating above the darkness, was what looked remarkably like the Relay the girls had brought with them. But…
“It’s not the same,” Delilah said. “It’s… wrong.”
The Relay wasn’t silver, but black. Its spindles that came out from the sphere didn’t form an X, but instead two pointed down towards the darkness in a V, while the other two pointed upwards, forming a triangle with the sphere as the base.
The darkness was clinging to the black Relay, and a thin tendril of that darkness shot up from the top of the triangle to a rocky ledge high above.
The darkness that came from below was climbing that tendril, forming up on the rocks above.
The darkness was being carried upwards towards Grimoire.
“Looks like we have to take care of that before we can plant our own Relay,” Alice said, looking up at Rabanastre. Her Summon nodded, and crouched down to jump.
“Don’t be so hasty,” came a voice. Cold, calculating, cruel was the tone, and when Delilah looked at the figure who carried that voice, a chill ran down her spine.
He looked just like Valgwyn at first glance. All of his clothes – suit, shirt, tie, pants, shoes – were the deepest, darkest black, as were his hair and eyes, offsetting his pale skin. But he wasn’t Valgwyn. His face was more sunken, his entire frame skinnier, as if he was malnourished.
But his eyes burned with an energy that belied his frame, an energy that Valgwyn’s lazy eyes never had. And rather than Valgwyn’s bow, he bore in each hand a long-handled, twisted sickle, each crackling with dark electricity.
“You!” Adelaide cried, pointing at the man. Her eyes were wide with a mixture of fear and anger.
“I would say ‘how dare you show your face’,” Alice said, stepping towards the man. Her eyes were stark white and seemed to glitter with light of their own. “But I’m actually glad to see you, Kaohlad. It means you’re not dead yet – and that means I can kill you myself.”
“I never took you for the hero type,” Kaohlad said, taking a step forward, brandishing his sickles. “You kill because it’s fun, do you not?”
Alice looked like a cat ready to pounce, all coiled, barely constrained energy. “Then you don’t know me so well, do you? Because you really should know: I’ll do anything for my sisters.”
“Let’s not be so hasty,” came a new voice, low and soft, the words coming forth like honey. Delilah felt another, more frigid, chill run down her spine. On the far side of the chamber, a white-haired man with a wicked scar along his face stepped into the dim light.
“Jormungand,” Delilah said softly.
The man’s eyebrows lifted slightly. “So you know of me.”
“Your place isn’t here, old man,” Kaohlad said, shooting a glare at Jormungand.
“Are you so sure?” Jormungand asked. “If I weren’t here… you would have to contend with him all alone.”
“Ah, so you noticed me,” came a voice.
“Okay, seriously, how many people are gonna pop out of the shadows before we can get to work here?” Alice asked, glaring.
But when the newest man stepped into the light, accompanied by the clack of metal on stone and a series of beautiful ringing notes, Delilah smiled wider than ever.
Marcus was here. And he didn’t look the least bit worried.
“What do I have to fear from him?” Kaohlad asked, sneering.
“Oh,” Marcus said, a bemused smile touching his lips as he leaned on his staff. “You don’t know?”
“Know what?” Kaohlad asked.
Marcus’ eyes flashed with a sudden fierce light. “I am Earth’s Paladin.”