Anastasia leapt forward, spinning into a powerful kick as she grabbed Doctor around the torso. Though she’d angled it just right, she still felt pain lance through her right leg as her attack barely deflected Blaise’s roaring black dragon away from her and Doctor.
The dragon roared, pulling back to Blaise and waiting at his left side. Blaise stared at Anastasia with a wild whirlwind of emotions on his face.
But chief among them was betrayal.
“Ana…?” he started softly.
Anastasia stared back at him, fighting back tears. She tested her legs lightly.
I can still run.
“What have you done?” she asked, struggling to keep her voice from shaking. “The White Whale is gone, and still you…”
A mask of cold seriousness formed over Blaise’s betrayed expression. “We cannot stop Grimoire’s death,” he said. “We must stay true to the plan, Ana.”
“Did you know?” Anastasia asked. “Before you planted the Relay?”
Blaise nodded. “I did,” he said. “This is our only true chance, Ana. The weapon cannot be stopped. Even if the White Whale is gone, our plan is already in motion, and there is no turning back.”
“But the chosen ones,” Anastasia said. “So many will now die, when you promised they would live!”
For a long time, Blaise was silent. When he spoke again, his eyes were on the ground, his expression weary. “It will still be far more merciful than the alternative,” he said. He looked up, stretching out a hand to Anastasia. “Please, Ana. Don’t leave, not now, not at the culmination of all we’ve worked for.”
This is not what I worked for.
“I’m sorry,” Anastasia said. She turned and dashed away, carrying a stupefied Doctor in her arms. Behind her she heard the black dragon snarl, but the sound became more distant with every step she took. She turned one corner, then another, and another, racing even past Hunters who moved to fight her.
“Anastasia,” Doctor said, his voice shaky. “I think… you can put me down now.”
Anastasia came to a stop, putting down Doctor lightly and then taking a few steps past him, staring out across the vacant, twisted street.
Tears stung her eyes. Her breaths came rough and ragged.
She clenched her hands into fists.
“He truly planted the Relay, then?” Doctor asked. He was regaining some of the usual calm in his voice, but he still quavered slightly. “I don’t understand what’s going on.”
“He knew,” Anastasia said softly. “He knew that our salvation was gone, and still he went forward with the original plan. So many more will die now…”
“But why?” Doctor asked. “Surely he must have an alternate path for us, or –”
“No,” Anastasia said. “He would have said if he did. He deliberately hid the truth from us. More than that, he told us, shortly before we went with him to fight the Grimoire Guard, that the White Whale would save us, and there was nothing to fear.”
“The Grimoire Guard.”
That’s what we were supposed to be. We were supposed to defend Grimoire – and we did.
And then we were supposed to save Grimoire.
And then we were supposed to revive Grimoire after she died.
All of this…
Blaise… how did it come to this?
“But that was…”
Anastasia nodded. “After he saw the White Whale leave.”
“But he wouldn’t abandon all of the chosen!” Doctor insisted. “And yet how else will they escape the coming doom? There are too many to save without the White Whale, and –”
Anastasia turned and saw the horror on Doctor’s face. “He doesn’t intend to save all of the chosen anymore,” she said softly. “He’s lost himself. And in doing so, he’s lost…”
Doctor’s expression changed to one of fear, and he stepped forward, reaching out tentatively. “Anastasia… you can’t mean you’ll leave the Master…”
“His name is Blaise Mathers,” Anastasia said. “Surely you remember that. Surely you remember how once we were his friends and allies, rather than his soldiers and servants.”
“But he…” Doctor’s extended hand dropped to his side, and he stared at the ground. “What will become of us? What will become of Grimoire?” He sighed, shaking his head, a hopeless laugh escaping his lips. “I can’t go back to the way things were even if I wanted to, could I? He tried to kill me. The Ma– …Blaise tried to kill me. After all we’ve been through together.”
“Now we have to decide what to do,” Anastasia said, looking up at the giant clock in the sky. “Time is running short. And we won’t be able to escape Grimoire unless we undo this labyrinth.”
“Just like that, we leave it all behind?” Doctor asked. “Anastasia, you can’t… be serious…?”
I wish I wasn’t.
I cannot fight him. That would probably be the right thing to do.
“I don’t like it any more than you,” Anastasia said. She clenched her hands into fists, fighting against the tears that threatened to pour forth. “But we don’t have the time for sorrow or despair. We don’t have the time for indecision. Do you know of any way we can stop the weapon and the Relay? If we can, I’ll be glad to help. But otherwise, our only recourse is to flee.”
“I don’t… know of any way to stop them,” Doctor said. “But what do we do after the destruction?”
Anastasia let out a heavy, mournful sigh. “We find our own path forward.”
“What of the others?” Doctor asked.
Anastasia sucked in a quick breath.
Sieglinde. Bronn. Stride.
How will you respond?
I could guess, but…
That would be wrong.
“We need to know where they stand, don’t they?” Anastasia asked, hanging her head. She was suddenly exhausted, and not from physical exertion.
“How are we to find them in all of this?” Doctor asked.
Anastasia looked up, taking a deep breath. Slowly, she let it out, and started walking.
“We’ll just have to look,” she said softly.
Gwen leapt back, parrying a series of twisting, vicious blows from Platina’s metal weapon.
I just need to get close to her!
She’d been trying to for several minutes, but Platina was simply too adept at keeping her at bay, extending her metal weapon into a thirty-yard-long flexible sword that struck with ferocious speed. And in the midst of that, as Gwen tried to weave traps and send out thread to tie down Platina, her foe retracted her blade with incredible swiftness, slicing away potential bonds, and returning to the offensive before Gwen could gain any ground.
All the while, both women glared at each other with rage in their eyes.
Twice they had met, though Gwen doubted Platina would remember.
I was only a little girl then. But you…
Whenever that lying King with his honeyed words came to talk with my father, deceiving him, softening him and Sunset Square for the Radiance’s eventual horrific rampage…
Always you were there with him.
Gwen had also seen Platina from the wreckage of her home, as the woman charged through the streets, face full of wrath as she cut through every single person – man, woman, or child, armed or unarmed – that crossed her path.
To you, commander of the Royal Guard, I direct much of my wrath.
But you are only a stepping stone to my primary foe. So I need to end this quickly!
And yet the fight dragged on, a stalemate neither woman could break. And as it wore on, Gwen’s arm grew tired. For all her training, she wasn’t a direct swordsman. She’d trained to strike from the shadows, to fight in less orthodox ways. A protracted duel against a superior warrior left Gwen with few options.
Save retreat. And I will not flee! Not with her right before me, not with my greatest chance right here, in the palm of my hand!
But just as Gwen thought she still had a chance, around the corner behind Platina came a new arrival.
Titan was here. And as he turned his dark gaze upon Gwen, she felt the hope drain right out of her.
I can’t flee. Not now…!
Titan stretched out his hand, and from a small portal in the air came two weapons. In one hand, Titan held a long-handled spear with a long, golden blade. In the other, a thick-hafted axe with a broad, obsidian head.
“Platina,” Titan said, his voice low and stern. “Let me assist you.”
“If you insist!” Platina replied, her voice taut as she pulled back her weapon. For a moment, the two Royal Guards stood there watching Gwen, and Gwen took a moment to catch her breath, and to think.
The path behind is still open to me.
And if I run, I can more effectively weave a set of traps…
Gwen stood tall, saluting her foes with her silver needle sword.
I will triumph.
Platina laughed. “Oh, how delightful! I love it when they fight to the very end.”
The captain of the Royal Guard stepped forward…
…directly into a torrent of emerald fire.
Platina screamed, leaping back, but the damage was done. All she could do was roll unceremoniously on the rugged ground, batting at her clothes and hair, desperately fighting to put out the fire.
Sapphire ice gleamed and rose up to attack Titan, but he was more wary, shattering the frigid burst with his axe and leaping away from a second blast.
Around the corner on the far side of the street, behind Platina and Titan, came Chelsea and Lorelei. Chelsea looked at Gwen and beamed, and the sun came out through the dark clouds over Gwen’s heart.
“Sorry we kept you waiting!” Chelsea called out.
Gwen shook her head, smiling. “You’re right on time,” she said, too softly for anyone else to hear.
She charged forward, joining Chelsea and Lorelei in the fight.
Caleb and Will continued onward at a steady jog. Will wasn’t very fast, and while Caleb could normally run much quicker for longer with the aid of Enhancement Magic, he had his diminished stamina to consider.
I’m no good for protracted fights anymore, like Mister Midnight said.
And yet here I am, in a giant maze with tons of foes. I might be fighting for a lot longer.
He glanced at the clock overhead.
Well, hopefully not much longer. Time’s ticking down way too fast.
They rounded a corner and came to a sudden stop.
Coming the opposite direction down the next street was Nyx.
It was the first time Caleb had gotten a good look at her, and he was astonished. Despite Mister Midnight’s notes warning him of the fact, he couldn’t get over that she was just a child.
Not a child. She’s thousands of years old in a child’s body.
But that child’s body makes it all the more difficult to even think about fighting her.
“Ah, more foes,” Nyx said, her voice the voice of a child, and yet carrying with it the soul of someone much older. She leaned against her staff, eyeing the two boys with a strange smile. “Shall we begin?”
“We don’t need to fight, do we?” Caleb asked, holding up his hands. “I mean, you… you’re just…”
“A child?” Nyx asked. She laughed. “Come now, you should know enough about me and the Radiance to know I am not what I appear.”
“But you would have undergone their experiments when you were just a child,” Caleb said. “And from what I’ve heard, they were horrible. So many died. And you…”
“Survived,” Nyx said. “As they say: whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Don’t play games with me, boy. I’ve seen your ilk a hundred times, all hoping to ‘save’ me. Save me from… what, pray tell? I am forever young, something so many would kill for. I am tremendously powerful, something so many more would kill for. I have all I could ever want.”
“But –” Caleb started.
“Please stop,” Nyx said with a bored sigh. “You’d think someone in all these years would be creative about how they try to talk to me. But no. You see a child, and you feel protective, and you follow that instinct with shallow words and desperate tones. If you’ve said all you have to say, then let’s begin. I’m trying to find my allies, and you are currently standing in the way of that endeavor.”
Caleb gritted his teeth.
I didn’t even have a chance?
Do we just have to fight everyone? Can’t we just…
Heavy footsteps sounded, taking Caleb and Will’s attention off of Nyx. From the other side of the street walked a hulking man whose silhouette alone was instantly recognizable.
Bronn was here.
“Greyson,” Bronn said, his focused gaze resting on Caleb and Will. “Rook. Stand aside. The coming battle will only bring you pain. And you were chosen by the Master. You will not die with Grimoire.”
“See, that’s the rub,” Caleb said, pulling out his pocket watch and twirling it once. “We’re not going to let Grimoire die, either.”
Though personally, looking at this current situation, I think our chances of victory are about…
“Let me handle him,” Will said, stepping between Caleb and Bronn. “You’re on Nyx.”
“You really want to split up like that?” Caleb asked. Will gave him a look, and Caleb’s eyes lit up. “Ooh, are you gonna do the super crazy thing?”
Will nodded, his expression unchanging. “I’m gonna do the super crazy thing.”
Caleb grinned. “Okay, you got him, I got her.” But he watched as Will stepped forward, stylus Talisman in hand.
Will started writing, forming three glowing blue letters in the air: GRV. Over them, he traced a sideways figure-eight: the sign for infinity.
He pressed his stylus in the center of the symbol, and the letters and symbol vanished.
Bronn suddenly grunted, and the stones and roof tiles beneath his feet cracked. He seemed to be struggling just to stand under some heavy, invisible burden. All of his muscles flexed, and his legs quavered as he attempted to stand fully upright. He stared at Will, clearly the wheels spinning his mind. Then, slowly and with effort, he nodded.
“I see,” he said. “You’re amplifying the effects of gravity on me. Clever.” He took several slow, steady breaths, his brow furrowing in concentration. “But you’re not nearly strong enough.”
To Caleb and Will’s astonishment, Bronn managed to raise his left foot, step forward, and put it down. The road cracked and indented beneath his foot, and his stance wavered for a moment before he righted himself.
“I can go stronger,” Will said softly, so only Caleb could hear him. “But if I push it too far…”
Caleb nodded. “It’s okay. Just keep him slowed down as much as possible, and we’ll be able to handle him eventually.”
“I can’t help you while I’m doing this, you know,” Will said, his eyes never leaving Bronn.
“I know,” Caleb said, turning back to Nyx. He let out a heavy sigh. “Just keep him under control. That’ll give us the best chance of getting out of this one alive.”
Caleb sprang into the air, and Nyx tapped her staff against the street, unleashing her beastly Summon.
Callum stopped next to Jacob as they turned the corner.
Ahead of them was Stride, a cobalt blue sword in his right hand. Slumped against a wall made of tree roots and broken glass, bloody and barely conscious, was Galahad. His own sword was on the ground at his side, his feeble fingers trying and failing to lift it.
“I admire your fighting spirit,” Stride said, tipping his wide-brimmed straw hat towards Galahad. “But you knew before the fight began that you couldn’t win.”
“How are you…” Galahad said softly, coughing twice, eyes fluttering. “How are you so strong? What are you?”
Stride smiled. “I am the same as my fellow Shadows, the ones who have served the Master faithfully for all these many years,” he said. “But don’t you remember me? The battle for Grimoire, when your King tried to establish his throne here the first time – you and I were both there, you know.”
Galahad looked up, his weary face showing flickers of shock. “But that… you’re only Human… aren’t you?”
“Enough of this,” Jacob said, striding forward. “You won’t kill him, Stride. Not unless you can contend with both of us.”
Callum followed, though less confidently than Jacob.
It took Deirdre, Isla, Dad, and myself just to slow him and Sieglinde down for Caleb and the others to escape. And now just two of us are going to fight him for a win?
Stride eyed the newcomers from his one good eye. In a swift motion, he sheathed his cobalt blue sword in the box of sheaths on his back. His hands went to either side, to the many swords at his hips, and each drew a new blade. In his right hand, a short, blood-red sword. In his left, a longer, curved sword whose blade sparkled with silver light.
Callum stepped back instinctively, stunned at how swiftly Stride crossed the gap of forty yards between them. He raised his gloved hand, but he was already too slow.
Jacob Crowley was not.
He stepped in Stride’s path, raising his key-styled sword. Metal flashed – red, silver, black – faster than Callum’s eyes could follow, the clash of magically Enchanted metal ringing out in an intense song of battle.
Jacob leapt back, and Stride slid one sandaled foot back on the street, recovering his stance.
How many times did they slash in that brief exchange?
The soft, slow sound of dripping liquid caught Callum’s attention. From the sleeve of Jacob’s dark coat, right above his left elbow, blood was dripping down to water the street.
Stride, standing across from his foe, was unhurt.
“Do try to back me up next time, Greyson,” Jacob said softly, casting the briefest of glances back at Callum.
Of course he won’t beat him alone. We need to work together.
Shake off your fear. It doesn’t matter that you’ve never fought a foe like this.
Be hopeful. Be courageous.
Like your son.
Stride charged again. Callum leapt to the left, to Stride’s blind side, raising his gloved hand and firing a barrage of deadly Energy Magic manifested as gleaming blue falcons. They shot at Stride so fast, and yet Stride’s red sword flashed in the space between them and him, tearing them all apart.
He doesn’t even need to look?
All the while, his silver blade engaged Jacob, its slashes too swift for eyes to follow. Jacob strained under the speed and strength, gritting his teeth, his gaze intense and defiant.
Suddenly, Jacob’s sword whipped around in a spinning slash. He struck against the base of Stride’s silver sword, and instead of the sound of metal on metal…
Stride suddenly disengaged, leaping back a full twenty yards in a single bound. He raised his left hand, staring. Around his wrist was a massive black padlock, glittering with silver light. Raising his eyebrow in confusion, he swung that arm around experimentally. He seemed unhindered. A slash against the padlock from his red sword resulted in a loud clang of metal accompanied by the hiss of magical energy bristling at contact.
The padlock held steady.
Stride looked back at Jacob, studying him warily.
Jacob stared back, his expression as focused and steady as always.
But the blood from his left arm dripped faster now. And he had several slim cuts, bleeding ever so slightly, on his face and neck.
We can’t keep this up. Unless that padlock does something good, and soon…
We won’t last.
Stride smirked, and then dashed forward.
Jacob and Callum raised their Talismans and continued the fight.
Hestia and Artemis raced through the wild maze, with no time to waste.
We have to find the others.
Hestia couldn’t believe what had happened when Grimoire had been turned into this topsy-turvy, wildly elaborate labyrinth, but she understood its necessity.
She only wished her team hadn’t been separated.
Galahad, Desmé… please be safe. We’ll reach you as soon as we can.
She was glad to have Artemis with her, though. She was the one whom Hestia trusted and looked up to more than anyone.
But I can’t see her the way I did before. She’s fully given herself up to the Radiant King.
I only wish…
Artemis flung out her arm for Hestia to stop. Both women stared ahead at the solitary figure in white uniform blocking their path forward.
Athena looked over the pair with a serious, unwavering expression. “Turn back,” she said firmly. “I will not allow you to proceed further this way.”
“Which means your King isn’t too far, is he?” Artemis asked, glaring at her sister.
Athena remained silent.
“Athena, please,” said Hestia, “don’t fight us. You saw the truth about the King. How can you still serve him?”
“How can I not?” Athena asked. “How can you not? He gave us these lives. He gave us a proper family. He is the only family we have.” She turned her eyes on Artemis. “And how can anyone betray their family?”
“Family?” Artemis asked, scoffing. “We have each other, sister. And we once had more. Don’t you remember? Mother, the way she sang us to sleep each night when we were children. Or father…” She laughed softly, a nostalgic tone to it. “You always said he –” She looked at Athena.
Athena stared back at her, her expression blank, her voice silent.
“Or our brother,” Artemis continued, her voice catching with emotion. “We survived the Eternity Experiment, while he…” She closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them. “Don’t you remember his name?”
Athena continued to stare back, blank and silent.
“Don’t you remember your family?” Artemis asked, voice rising as she stepped forward, staring desperately at Athena.
“I know my family,” Athena said. “My fellow Royal Guards. My King. And, if you can repent of your rebellious ways, then you as well, dear sister.”
Hestia watched as Artemis’ expression changed, from one of desperate hope to one of pained despair.
“Athena, please!” Hestia cried out. “You can’t just be the King’s pawn! You’ve seen what he does to those under his command. He’ll create Contracts in hopes they’ll sign over their very willpower to them, or even force others to sign Contracts to turn them into mindless slaves. You can’t support such horrific practices.”
Athena’s gaze turned to the ground, and for a moment, she was silent. Slowly, she spoke. “Artemis, you told me that perhaps I should join my King completely. You said that if I was so beholden to Him, I should sign this.”
Then she reached into her pocket.
Out came a single sheet of paper, unfurling in the wind.
Hestia and Artemis gasped.
In Athena’s hand, she held the Contract that the Radiant King had formed for her. At the bottom, it remained unsigned.
In her other hand, she held a pen.
“Sister!” Artemis cried out, raising her bow. She pulled back, and a glittering green arrow was set to the string. She fired.
But she was too slow. As Athena finished signing, the Contract flared with golden light. Artemis’ arrow spiraled away in the wind, and she and Hestia were forced to their knees at the blast of power that emanated from the Contract.
Slowly, the light and power subsided. When Hestia looked up…
Her heart broke.
Standing in her way now was Athena, resplendent in golden armor from head to toe, her shield shining all the brighter on her arm.
Before Hestia and Artemis was the Radiant King’s new Gold Knight.