Caleb was swimming.
The water was dark, but shafts of silver light pierced through from the surface high above.
So high above…
The surface seemed far too high, too high for Caleb to ever reach. He reached out his hand, and silver light played across it, giving his skin a shimmering, incandescent glow.
The moonlight was, strangely, so warm.
How do I –
“Ah, so you’ve returned to us.”
The voice belonged to Oscar, and it took several moments for Caleb to realize that he wasn’t drowning, but was lying on a cushioned surface.
It was warm, but that’s because he wasn’t outside at all. He was in…
Caleb sat up, staring at his grandfather in surprise.
“Greyson Manor,” he said.
Oscar smiled, nodding. “Indeed.” He stood at the controls in the Manor’s observatory, and Caleb could feel the steady, swaying rumble that told him the Manor was transformed and in motion. “Thankfully, it wasn’t incorporated into the architecture of Isla’s labyrinth. I was able to repair the Vault wall as well. Just a patch job, but it’ll hold well enough for now. Especially with my lovely turtles keeping us safe.”
Caleb stood, and for a moment, he was unsteady on his feet. As he swayed, someone caught him and he saw that Will was here as well, letting him lean on his shoulder. They nodded to each other, and Caleb smiled at the relief in Will’s eyes.
“So all went well, then,” Caleb said with a relieved sigh.
“Not entirely,” Oscar said. “We only barely saved you from your foes, but, well, take a look outside.”
Caleb and Will stepped out to the balcony. Down below, railing against a swarm of flying sea turtle Summons, were Nyx’s Summon and Bronn.
“As you can see, I can’t entirely repel them,” Oscar said. “I can keep them from entering the Manor, but since we can’t shake them or go fast enough to escape, we’re stuck with them until we can find more of our allies and defeat them properly.”
“You haven’t found anyone else?” Caleb asked.
“No, I’ve been alone ever since Isla created this labyrinth,” Oscar said. “Though I’ve seen evidence of the feats of others. We seem to have the upper hand.”
“But we have no plan for defeating the Radiant King,” Will said. “Until then… I don’t know how we can win.”
“We need to see him again,” Caleb said. “We need to see him use his powers. We don’t have enough information, and that’s what we need the most to figure out how to win.”
“Either way, you may not be a part of that fight, Caleb,” Oscar said. “Keep an eye on the time. If we can’t escape the labyrinth before it’s time for the weapon to go off…”
Caleb nodded, staring up at the clock in the sky. “Right. I’ll have to see if I can get to the weapon anyway.”
“That’s too dangerous,” Will said softly, staring at Caleb. “We don’t even know if the weapon’s chamber is part of the labyrinth. And how would you find it? You can’t use the Phase Step for very long, right?”
Caleb stared out at the rolling, wild landscape of the labyrinth, silent for a long time. Slowly, he smiled. “We’ll just have to get out of the labyrinth quickly then, right?” He turned, rushing back into the control room. “Hey Grandpa, let me help you control this thing! I’m great at mazes, you know. We’ll get to the center in no time.”
Anastasia stared in shock and grief as Blaise prepared to attack every single one of the mages gathered here. Seeing her childhood friend standing alone against many he once called friends broke her heart.
And I can’t…
I can’t fight him.
Everyone else was moving. Jacob took away the padlocks weighing Stride down. Deirdre and Desmé took up defensive positions in front of Callum, who hoisted the sleeping Galahad onto his back.
Doctor and Sieglinde came to stand beside Anastasia.
“You know I’m not much for fighting,” Doctor said nervously, pushing up his glasses. “But it doesn’t look like any of us will have a choice.”
“Ana,” Sieglinde said, her steady voice soothing. “We have to save the people of this city, right?”
Anastasia clenched her hands into fists. Slowly, she nodded.
Blaise tapped his cane on the ground, and his black dragon raced forward.
Golden branches shot out of the ground, and the black dragon slammed into them. Quickly, he began to tear them apart, but as he did, a vicious roar shook the earth.
Up from the ground burst a massive silver serpent, gargantuan against Blaise’s black dragon, towering over him and glaring with a vicious, predatory gaze.
Nidhogg dove, jaws open wide.
The black dragon rose to meet him.
Two dragons clashed, and black lightning cracked across the sky. A shockwave burst forth from their impact, knocking all save Blaise to their knees.
“I can’t hold him long,” Sieglinde said, her voice taut with effort.
“We should run,” Jacob said. “Our priority is escaping the labyrinth, not fighting him.”
“Suit yourself,” Stride said, stepping forward. He drew one sword, then another. Suddenly his whole body was aglow, as if with a translucent silver flame. One by one, the remaining twelve swords sheathed on his back and at his sides slid free, floating in the air all around him. “If he wants a fight, I’ll give it to him. And it might help the rest of you get enough time to find the center.”
“You can’t win,” Anastasia said, desperately, hopelessly.
Stride grinned. “Your concern is touching. But my place is on the battlefield. That’s how I’ve always served Grimoire best. That’s how I’ll serve her now.”
“There is no escape for any of you,” Blaise said, his voice carrying a solemn, melancholy air to it. The black dragon roared. Lightning streaked across the sky.
Nidhogg, mighty though he was, was thrown back. From the ground burst the golden roots of Yggdrasil, and they caught the great serpent before he could cause any damage in his fall. Slowly, gently, they carried the silver dragon beneath the earth to rest and recover.
“Can you carry him?”
The question came from Callum, and was directed at Doctor.
“Pardon?” Doctor asked, staring as Callum nodded to the unconscious Galahad on his back.
“You said you weren’t much for fighting,” Callum said. “So I thought maybe you could carry him. I’ll need my hand free.”
“Callum –” Deirdre started.
“He was my friend,” Callum said, turning a sharp gaze on Blaise. “And I feel responsible for not seeing the monster beneath the man.” He turned his back to Doctor. “If you’re gonna take him, please make it quick.”
“R-right,” Doctor said, handling the awkward trade as best he could. Callum, free from any burdens now, stepped forward, glaring at Blaise’s black dragon.
“If you stay, you know I stay as well,” Deirdre said, stepping beside her husband.
“Take good care of Galahad, please,” Desmé said, nodding to Doctor. She stepped forward, joining those united against Blaise.
Jacob tsked, shaking his head. “Your words have merit, Greyson,” he said. “If you’re responsible for not seeing who Mathers really was, then so am I.” He slashed his sword contemptuously through the air, glaring at Blaise. “Come, then. You seek to destroy Grimoire. I serve as the leader of her defenders.”
“Everyone’s a hero in their own story,” Blaise said with a heavy sigh. He stepped forward, tapping his cane on the ground.
The black dragon raced forward at frightening speed.
Yggdrasil’s branches rose to block him, and Stride charged forward, his swords flashing through the air as they assailed the dragon. Jacob followed Stride, while Callum and Deirdre launched attacks of their own from a distance.
Meanwhile, Anastasia kept rooted in place, staring at all that was happening.
“Make a choice, Ana,” Sieglinde said. “I won’t fault you either way. But you and I have both known things might come to this. We only desperately wished it wouldn’t.”
Anastasia stared at the ground, gritting her teeth in frustration.
We did see, didn’t we?
How many nights did we talk about how Blaise had changed? How many times did we speak in vain, desperate hope that he would come back to us?
Why didn’t we do more? Why didn’t we truly try to reach him, to change him, to save him from himself?
Why did we fool ourselves?
Why now, when it matters most, am I nothing more than a statue, a spectator to a battle I should be a part of?
Anastasia raised her head, staring through the light and the fury at Blaise Mathers.
My oldest, dearest friend.
She let out a long, slow breath. “I am so sorry,” she said softly.
She charged into battle.
The battle raged, and it did was not going well for those allied against Blaise.
Callum cried out in pain as he slammed against the street, skidding on his back across the stones to a rough stop. Up above him, he saw the clock in the sky, saw its counter of the days remaining in the Lunar Festival turn over from 2 to 1.
We’re too short on time! For Caleb to succeed, we need to finish this!
And yet Blaise was simply too powerful.
Stride’s swords which had cut through everything that had been launched at him in previous battles seemed to have no effect on the black dragon. Jacob’s magic couldn’t leave timed-release padlocks on the dragon, putting him entirely on the defensive. Anastasia was much the same, dodging adeptly with her strong legs, but unable to fight past the raging beast.
Deirdre and Desmé fought with shifting stone and blasts of powerful water, yet their attacks were barreled through by the vicious beast that Blaise wielded.
Callum, once again, was utterly useless. Words came to him, so many criticisms he had heard from so many people.
“All you’re good for is fighting Hollows.”
“Don’t you want to aspire to more?”
“I can’t believe someone so highly praised has such a limited range of combat Magic.”
“You’re disciplined and efficient. But you can only go so far on those qualities.”
“You only have such a strong reputation because you’re paired with Deirdre. She’s too good for you.”
“Your son’s a far better Hunter than you ever were.”
It had followed him all his life, and he’d accepted it. Embraced it, even.
Because it was largely true.
All these years, I never thought I’d face so many true challenges.
I got complacent. I worked hard, and was rewarded for it, and then…
I let my most valuable mentor and closest friend hatch a plot to destroy my city right under my nose.
I let my children face dangers and trials so far beyond anything I’ve ever faced that…
…I shudder to think of what evils would have been unleashed on the world had I been entrusted with their tasks.
I thought too highly of myself. And I let others think too highly of me.
Now, when my city and family need me most…
I’m the least fit to save them.
Callum struggled to his feet, watching as his allies were tossed here and there. He rose up and charged back into the fray. He watched his wife, so beautiful, so fierce, so calm, so creative, create all sorts of elaborate attacks and defenses using just the stones beneath everyone’s feet.
He watched his friends, his family, and his new allies bleed and bruise and keep on fighting.
He watched through the chaos and confusion at Blaise, perhaps only forty yards away but looking like he was miles away to Callum.
How did I never know?
Why were you so good to me and Deirdre? Why were you so good to this city?
Why would you turn that around and enact multiple plans to destroy it?
Callum raised his gloved hand. Shimmering blue falcons, each the length of his forearm, burst forth, streaking through the air like brilliant cobalt rockets.
Blaise’s black dragon swallowed them all up.
“Jacob,” Blaise said, his smooth voice carrying over the din of battle, no matter how fierce the fighting became. “Do you remember when you came to me with allegations against the Greysons, so many years ago?”
“What purpose do you have in bringing that up now?” Jacob asked, grunting as he struggled to his feet. He held his sword in his left hand now, as his right arm was badly slashed, dripping blood at a worrisome rate.
“You’re about to die,” Blaise said. “I thought, in your last moments, you should at least hear the truth.”
Callum stared in stunned anticipation. Jacob, too, froze, staring warily at Blaise.
They both knew what matter Jacob was talking about: the identity of Marion’s killer.
“You know who killed her?” Jacob asked, his voice low and threatening. “And you never said?”
“I knew what would happen if I did reveal the truth,” Blaise said. “And I couldn’t risk such chaos. The Council would fall apart, and this city with it.”
“Speak plainly!” Jacob shouted. “If you know who killed Marion Reiner, then say it or say no more!”
“The name of Marion’s killer is Jormungand,” Blaise said. “But you wouldn’t be so interested in that. What would interest you is that he asked permission, first. She knew too much about our plans, and there was no way she would join us. But he deferred to me.”
“And you…” Jacob trailed off, staring in stunned silence.
Blaise nodded. “Yes. I gave the order to kill Marion Reiner.”
Time seemed to come to a complete and utter standstill. Callum felt as if the world had simply dropped out from beneath his feet.
Blaise Mathers gave the order to kill Marion Reiner.
He saw Marion’s face, the night she died. She smiled, a clearly forced smile, but her eyes shone so brilliantly.
She was determined not to die.
And he saw her face, the moment he and Deirdre found her. Cold, unmoving, and yet she stared up at the moon that bathed her in silver light.
She wore a smile on her face at the very end.
And that smile should have lasted so much longer.
A scream, filled with vengeful fury and heartbreaking grief, filled the air. And as Blaise watched his dragon fight in front of him, a storm of emerald fire engulfed him from behind, erupting skyward, a beacon of light and fury radiating heat that singed Callum’s face from a hundred feet away.
Chelsea Reiner had arrived. Her eyes burned with wrath, and emerald flames swirled around her in a fiery tempest.
Vengeance had come for Blaise Mathers.