Chelsea breathed a strained sigh of relief as Titan’s offensive was slowed by Lorelei’s icy defense. Titan couldn’t keep sure footing, and that made it harder for him to evade Chelsea’s fiery blasts.
Meanwhile, Chelsea and Lorelei were keeping enemy attention off of Gwen as she worked to weave a trap.
And we need to keep it that way. Just a little longer!
At least we dealt with Platina early.
Chelsea couldn’t bear to look at the unconscious Royal Guard captain. The only reason she could tell she was unconscious and not dead was by the shaky, inconsistent rise and fall of her stomach.
Fire… can be an ugly thing.
Titan, for all his strength, and the power of his weapons, seemed to be only half-hearted in his attacks. He used the spear in his right hand as a sort of ice pick and crutch to help him stay on his feet and go where he wanted to on the icy ground Lorelei formed beneath him, and the axe in his left destroyed any attacks that came his way.
But Chelsea had seen his vicious power around the golden stage, and none of that was on display here.
It’s too easy. I don’t understand.
Suddenly, Titan stopped moving, standing tall and confident, but not attacking. Chelsea and Lorelei both stepped back, watching warily, waiting for what might come next.
Slowly, Titan let out a frustrated hiss of breath. He fixed his dark gaze on the girls, and then pointed to the side at the unconscious Platina.
“Let me take her to safety,” he said.
Chelsea stared in shock.
“Don’t!” Gwen cried out.
Titan glared, but there was a worried tint to it. “She’ll die,” he said. “I can see that some of you don’t want that.”
If you’d asked me before I torched her, I would have said I was fine with killing her.
Chelsea chanced a glance at Platina, but she couldn’t stomach looking very long.
“Gwen,” she called out, looking past Titan to her golden-eyed friend. “She shouldn’t suffer like this.”
“So finish her,” Gwen replied, her expression wild, desperate.
I know where you’re coming from. I saw your past, I saw what they did to you.
Chelsea gritted her teeth.
If she was the one who killed my mother…
What would I be doing right now?
“Chelsea,” Lorelei said softly. The two girls locked eyes, and Chelsea saw so much that couldn’t be conveyed with words in the stare she received.
Slowly, she nodded. “Gwen,” she called again. “There will be another chance at them. I promise. But right now, let them go. Please.”
“You –” Gwen started, but she stopped as she met Chelsea’s resolute stare. For a long time, no one said anything.
Slowly, as if the strength had drained out of her, Gwen bowed her head. “Go,” she said softly.
Chelsea nodded to Titan, who nodded back to her. Saying nothing, he dismissed his weapons and rushed to Platina. He scooped her into his arms with surprising gentleness, and then rushed off, vanishing around a corner.
“I’m sorry,” Chelsea said, looking to Gwen. But Gwen had already crossed the distance between them, and by the time Chelsea finished speaking, Gwen had hugged her, burying her face in Chelsea’s shoulder. Her hands gripped Chelsea’s jacket tightly, her knuckles pressing hard against Chelsea’s back.
“I’m sorry,” Gwen replied, her voice shaky and pained. Chelsea hugged her back, letting out a sigh that ruffled Gwen’s hair.
Stride halted his dashing attack, leaping backwards as a burst of shimmering, highly pressurized water blasted straight for him. He evaded, leaping away twice as two more jets of water shot towards him, until he was far from Jacob and Callum. When he moved to advance again, the ground beneath his feet rippled, and then shot up in a wall, surrounding him and cutting him off not just from Callum and Jacob, but from Galahad as well, who still desperately clung to life.
Callum turned, gasping for breath, and smiled in relief as he saw the new arrivals. Standing in front was Desmé, her eyes staring with focused determination at the battlefield, changing color from blue to a deep green. On her shoulder was the golden field mouse Summon that served as a communicator from Octavian, and in her hand she held a golden…
Callum stared in surprise at Desmé’s Talisman, so similar to his son’s.
And behind Desmé was Deirdre. The right lens of her glasses was cracked, and her right sleeve was torn in places, though she showed no signs of injury. She looked at Callum, and the pair smiled at each other.
“Looks like we’re just in time,” Deirdre said.
“Showed up at the very last possible second,” Callum said, laughing as a release of the tension he’d felt earlier.
“Desmé,” Jacob said, staring at the former Royal Guard member. “Octavian said you have Healing Magic. Can you save Galahad?”
Desmé looked at her fallen ally, her expression grim. But she nodded. “Just make sure I’m not interrupted,” she said. “It will take time, and I won’t be able to fight alongside you.”
Callum started to object, but then stopped himself.
Stride’s powerful, and we need all the help we can get.
But saving others comes first.
He stared at Jacob with a strengthened sense of respect.
Even in the face of death, he’s got his priorities straight.
The wall that blocked Stride burst apart as red and silver blurs of light sliced the warped road to pieces. Through the shrapnel, Stride charged.
“I’m on point,” Jacob said, rushing to meet him. He raised his key-style sword, and it gleamed with white light. He met Stride’s attack, struggling against the vicious strength and speed of his opponent. Stride broke through his guard, slashing for Jacob’s stomach.
Callum raised his hand, launching forth shining blue falcons as Jacob leapt away, narrowly avoiding what would likely have been a killing stroke. Stride slashed in a blur of motion, tearing Callum’s Energy Magic attack to ribbons. The ground rippled at his feet, and he leapt backwards just as roof tiles, sandy debris, and concrete swirled together and shot upwards in the form of long, sharp spikes.
The ground rose up to attack Stride again, and he dashed forward past it. A sword sprang out of the sheath-box on his back without Stride touching it, its glimmering bronze blade slashing through the air as if an invisible hand wielded it. Jacob blocked it, and Callum’s barrage deterred Stride from following through with a deadly attack from the swords in his hands. The ground warped and shifted again, launching its own attacks at the bidding of Deirdre’s Manipulation Magic, and Stride leapt here and there, never for a moment looking like he was tiring. He moved more than anyone else, with more intense bursts of energy than any of his foes, and yet he looked as fresh as he had at the start of the battle.
All the while, the black padlock that Jacob had placed on Stride’s left hand pulsed softly with silver light.
We can’t win by exhausting him. If anything, he’s exhausting us. So how do we defeat him? He’s fast, he’s strong, and he can wield swords without even touching them.
And what does Jacob’s lock do? I always knew about his sword, but that’s something new, isn’t it? It doesn’t seem to be doing anything.
What’s your plan, Jacob?
Callum, Deirdre, and Jacob maneuvered steadily towards Desmé and the wounded Galahad so they could more effectively defend them. Desmé’s Talisman glowed in her hand, but it was hard to see how well Galahad’s wounds were healing – there was just too much blood for Callum to notice a difference at a glance.
Even if she can close up his wounds, he’s lost too much blood to be able to keep fighting.
The best we can hope for is that she keeps him from dying. And then it’ll be up to us all to keep him that way.
“Trouble’s approaching,” Desmé said. “Octavian’s spotted three others moving towards us. It seems they are all among Blaise’s strongest forces.”
“Not what we need right now,” Callum said, gritting his teeth as he fired away at Stride, feeling like he was the most helpless and useless in this battle. His attacks were just torn apart by Stride’s swords with casual ease.
It’s perfectly strong enough for Hollows, but against this man…
Do I resort to that?
But even earlier, in what seemed to be the face of certain death, Callum hadn’t rushed to his true “last resort.”
I swore I’d never use that again.
The path it took me down… I can’t go back there.
So I persevere. I keep up the fight, even though my attacks seem useless.
Maybe I’ll be more effective against our incoming foes, whoever they are.
“Stay the course,” Deirdre said softly, stepping beside him. “Push the limits of your Energy Magic. Don’t let fear push you down dark paths. Remember the promise you made.”
Suddenly, a loud click! resounded in the air. Stride disengaged from Jacob, leaping high and away to give himself a moment.
The lock on his left hand had tightened. And with it, Stride’s left arm now hung limp and useless, the sword in his hand clenched in a grip he couldn’t release.
“I see now,” he said, a flicker of admiration in his eye. “Some sort of timed-release Containment Magic? Very clever. Not as effective as you would hope, I’m sure, but worth at least some praise.”
“Save your words,” Jacob said, flicking his sword through the air in challenge.
Stride chuckled. “Very well.”
He charged forward, a new sword leaping from the sheath-box on his back, its serrated lavender blade joining the bronze sword in the air, floating around Stride. He slashed first with the red blade in his right hand, and then the floating swords came down. Jacob blocked the first, dodged the second, and a sudden shield of rocky debris surged up from the road to deflect the third. Stride stepped forward undeterred, but a wave of gritty earth forced him stumbling backwards. Quickly regaining his footing, he easily evaded another burst of sharp, rocky protrusions that Deirdre attacked him with.
“I’ve done all I can,” came Desmé’s voice. Callum looked to see Galahad unconscious, but he looked as if he was sleeping, his head tilted back against the wall, his breathing coming steady and calm. Desmé stepped forward to join the others, her eyes flickering from crimson to lavender as she stared at Stride. “Let me aid you.”
Callum’s ranged attacks were now joined by powerful pressurized blasts of water from Desmé, which Stride seemed less confident about simply slicing his way through. The first one that he did, the water split apart and still jetted at him, leaving a long, shallow cut along his right cheek.
With that added support, Jacob was more able to charge right into the fray. In another exchange of slashes, Jacob left a new padlock on Stride, this time attached to his left knee. For now, it did nothing, but Callum realized it was a ticking time bomb, waiting to cripple Stride when he least expected it.
“To our left!” Desmé cried, turning. Callum looked, and his heart plummeted.
Sieglinde had arrived to join the battle.
“It’s nice to finally have some friendly company,” Stride said, nodding at Sieglinde. She nodded back at him with a steady smile, saying nothing.
“And – !” Desmé started. But she was too slow.
From the other side of the street leapt a new combatant. When she landed in the street, Callum stared.
So this is Anastasia.
She was dressed fairly simply, with a long black coat, collar popped, buttoned partway up over a white shirt, and black pants tucked into black heeled boots. She didn’t look all that imposing at first glance. She had a slender figure, and was rather tall, and wearing black pants and boots made it seem at first that her legs weren’t as muscular as they actually were.
But Callum remembered Chelsea’s report of fighting her, and the power she commanded.
Watch out for her kicks.
Callum stepped back, watching the battlefield to try and decide who he should focus his efforts on.
But the strange thing was, with Anastasia’s arrival, her compatriots had stopped, as if waiting for her to speak.
“These are not our enemies,” Anastasia said, loud and clear. Though she spoke with solid determination, her eyes betrayed a sorrow in her.
“What are you talking about?” Stride asked, taking a step forward. Anastasia held out her hand for him to stop.
“Ana?” Sieglinde asked.
“Blaise…” Anastasia said slowly. “He hasn’t told us everything.” She looked each of her allies in the eye. “The White Whale is gone.”
“Gone?” Stride asked, raising an eyebrow. “Are you sure?”
“Very,” came a voice from behind Sieglinde. A man rounded the corner, dressed in a white lab coat with golden buttons. His hands bore black gloves with a circular sort of silver symbol on their backs. Thick auburn hair, combed back with only a few strands hanging down on his forehead, made way for narrow-framed glasses that reflected the light in a way that made his eyes hard to see. He stuck his hands in his pockets, his expression grave. “I watched the White Whale fly out of her harbor, and Blaise watched with me. And that was before he planted his Relay.”
“But then he’s still…” Sieglinde started, staring in confusion.
Anastasia nodded. “He’s enacted both plans to advance Grimoire’s demise,” she said. “But now… we have no clear way out. And no way to save all of those he chose.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense,” Sieglinde said.
“Even the Master can’t stop the weapon he made,” Stride said, his expression hardening. “There’s no turning back.”
“But we’re trapped here!” Sieglinde said, eyes flickering with fear. “If we don’t hurry –”
“Then everyone dies,” Anastasia said, her voice wavering. “We have a choice to make.”
Stride made a tch noise, sheathing all of his swords. He stared at his left leg, where the padlock had tightened, and it was clear he now put his weight on his right leg. “We need to reach the center of the labyrinth before the Master does,” he said. “End this farce and then make a run for it.”
“And leave everyone else behind?” Sieglinde asked.
“What else would we do?” Stride asked. He looked across the street at Jacob, Callum, Deirdre, and Desmé. “It’s a truce for now, at least. That is, if you’re willing to accept it. We have survival to worry about.”
“Sieglinde, you can help transport people out with Yggdrasil, can’t you?” Anastasia asked.
“Not with Ratatosk,” Sieglinde said, frowning. “He’s too fussy. And Yggdrasil’s too slow to move people fast enough for him to avoid his wrath.”
Anastasia smirked, just for a moment. “I can play with Ratatosk,” she said. “How much time would you need?”
“Hours,” Sieglinde said. She stared up at the clock in the sky. “We’ll need to move quickly.”
“My son can stop Blaise’s weapon,” Callum said, stepping forward. “If we can end the labyrinth, and fast, he’ll have all the time he needs to make sure he gets in position to stop it.”
“You’re certain he can do it?” Anastasia asked, staring at Callum in shock.
Callum nodded. “But we don’t know where he is. He probably doesn’t know where he is, considering.” He gestured at the vast, wild labyrinth around them. “But if we end the labyrinth, he’ll be able to find his way.”
“Mind letting me walk?” Stride asked, eyeing Jacob as he gestured at his padlocked leg.
Jacob stared back at him, unmoving. “What will you do afterwards?” he asked.
“Help get us out of this labyrinth,” Stride said. “And then run for the hills. If the boy can save Grimoire from the weapon, that’s fine, but there’s more evil going on beneath the surface. Grimoire isn’t long for this world either way.”
Jacob’s eyes flashed with recognition.
“So you’ve seen it,” Stride said, nodding. “I can’t promise you anything in the long term. But I doubt I’ll stay in Grimoire, even if by some miracle it’s completely saved. And…” He looked at Anastasia, and smirked. “I don’t think she’ll let me fight you if I wanted to. Ana’s not one I’ll ever cross.”
“Enough talk,” Anastasia said. “If we’re going, we need to move now.” She looked at the unconscious Galahad. “Can anyone carry him?”
“You won’t need to worry about that,” came a smooth, confident voice. Everyone’s eye turned towards the speaker, and most of them knew before they looked who had arrived.
Blaise stood at the far side of the street, leaning casually on his cane. “I’m shocked to see how easily the loyalty of age-old friends is tossed away,” he continued. “But no matter. No one will stop what I’ve set in motion.” He glanced at Callum, and there was a flicker of sadness in his eyes. “I’m sorry it came to this.”
At his left side pulsed black lightning. With a sudden roar, up from the ground rose a pitch-black dragon, jaws crackling with power, eyes flashing with rage.
The dragon roared once, and then charged forward.
Caleb leapt from Mobility disc to Mobility disc, desperately dodging the rolling onslaught from Nyx’s beastly Summon. He fought back with chains, but the weighted attack ones were easily sundered, and the ones that attempted to ensnare her were shattered.
She’s way too strong!
But at least she wasn’t directing her attention at Will. And, for the time being, Will was holding out just fine. Bronn marched forward, continuing to overcome the effect of massively increased gravity, but he was too slow so far to do anything to harm anyone.
Let’s hope it stays that way.
Caleb also found his secondary plan ripped to shreds as he tested the speed and range of Nyx’s Summon. No matter how powerful a bounce Caleb gave himself off of a disc, no matter how much Enhancement Magic he used to run faster, Nyx’s Summon was always right on his heels.
So I can’t just grab Will and run, as preferable as that would be.
I have to fight – but how?
What do I do against her?
Caleb didn’t have the strength and abilities for fighting foes of overwhelming power. Chelsea and Lorelei had been able to contain Nyx’s Summon, but Caleb by himself didn’t stand a chance.
If Will could direct his gravity stuff at her, that would be all the help I need, but I don’t want to pull his attention away from Bronn. And I know that’s one of his last-resort moves, and he hates using it because it’s way too dangerous to his enemies.
Push it too far…
And their bones will shatter under their own weight.
He’d probably need to push it that far for this wild beast.
If I could get to Nyx herself…
But the writhing Summon completely enveloped her, so that Caleb couldn’t even tell where in the roiling mass she might be.
A Phase Step might help me grab her, but that’s out of the question.
How the heck do I fight this thing?
Caleb wasn’t even fighting at this point, not really. He launched his best attacks at the Summon, but the way in which they were so easily destroyed made it look as if he was just lobbing toothpicks at an avalanche. He spent most of his focus dodging, bouncing here and there, leaping and diving, fleeing the beast that pursued him.
Despite the cold, despite the wind rushing at him, Caleb was drenched with sweat.
Most of that was from anxiety.
Twice already, he’d felt that strange feeling, that feeling of falling, of the world giving way beneath his feet.
Twice, he’d managed to shake it off, something he didn’t realize he could do.
But can I do it a third time?
How long until I black out? And where will that leave Will?
We have to stop this fight as fast as possible, but how?
What can I do?
Caleb gasped as a sudden idea came to his mind. On his next bounce away from a vicious barrage of spiky claws, Caleb formed a few extra Mobility discs, far from the battle he waged with Nyx.
With each new bounce, with each new dodge, Caleb formed new discs, creating a pattern that led away from the fight.
Just a few more, and then it’s time.
Just hang on a little longer!
Caleb sprang away from a scything blade of darkness, backflipping up to his highest disc, and letting that one bounce him down, rocketing towards the ground where Will stood. He slowed his momentum only the most necessary amount, and winced as he landed with shocking force.
“Time to go,” he said quickly, patting Will on the shoulder. He formed a springboard disc before Will could reply, and it launched Will away to the right, out of this street and towards the carefully laid series of springboard discs that would carry them far away from this battle.
Or at least, Caleb had planned to go with Will.
But as he started to form a disc behind himself to launch him forward, his whole body shuddered. The world before him blurred, and his eyes swam with strange shapes and silhouettes.
He called upon his magic. But his magic didn’t answer.
Caleb dropped, and he kept on falling, as blackness took him.
Hestia clamped her teeth down over a cry of pain as she slammed through a wooden door, rolling across a street cobbled together from carpet, indoor tile, and hardwood flooring. Groaning, she pushed herself to her feet and charged on forward.
We have to keep running!
A little farther ahead of her was Artemis, who kept stopping to turn and shoot back at their unyielding, unstoppable pursuer.
Both women sported many cuts and bruises. Worse still, their endurance was failing.
We’re too tired to keep this up.
But still – !
In Hestia’s right hand she clutched a piece of shimmering paper tightly.
In their battle with Athena, now the Radiant King’s new Gold Knight, Hestia and Artemis had managed to wrench away the Contract that she’d just signed. And that Contract carried with it the only hope the pair of them had.
“Don’t falter now,” Artemis said, slowing to match Hestia’s pace. She placed a hand against the middle of Hestia’s back, and then sped up, pushing Hestia along with her. They turned a corner just as a powerful shock wave dug a trench through the street behind them, exploding with shrapnel. “We have to reach the King.”
Hestia didn’t reply out loud, not wasting precious breath on words.
But I don’t know how long I can last. If we don’t find him soon –
“I’m not leaving you,” Artemis said, her tone deathly serious. “So if you fall, that’s it for us both.”
I don’t need that kind of pressure!
But in truth, she did. Realizing more clearly what was at stake, Hestia ran faster, her spirits lifting at the steady push on her back from Artemis.
Just keep running.
Find the King.
That’s our only hope! Our slim, threadbare scrap of hope, but the only hope we have.
There’s still a chance to save Athena!