I’ve found you.
Chelsea stared at the flames that engulfed Blaise Mathers, and she felt a wild storm of emotions blazing in her heart.
There was elation, for finally she had found what she’d sought so long: the truth.
There was fear, for the vengeful rage she’d thought she’d let go had come roaring up in her like a wildfire.
There was grief, for the memory of her mother taken far too soon by vicious villains, and the memory of her father who lost his own life to grief because of it.
And above it all, there was rage. Blinding, burning, overwhelming fury that blazed through her very marrow, penetrating to her core and bursting back out into the world, roaring like a wildfire but focused like a laser at a singular target.
In the midst of the fire that engulfed Blaise, a new roar was heard. A streak of white lightning rent the cloud of emerald fire in two, and up from the ground surged a white dragon, its form like that of the black dragon – more raw energy than any solid substance – and yet this dragon was smooth and beautiful, and it did not attack after it cast aside the fires that threatened to consume its master. Rather it stayed, its tail coiling in a protective perimeter around Blaise.
Blaise stretched out a smoking, charred hand to the white form of his second dragon. On contact, the skin healed and restored, and that restoration worked up and along his entire body.
Blaise Mathers was as whole as he’d been before Chelsea had launched her assault.
“I am sorry for your loss,” came the smooth, lying voice of the accomplice in Marion Reiner’s murder. “But I cannot be destroyed now. There is still something I must do.”
“I am sorry for your loss.”
You’re sorry for me?
How dare you?
Chelsea raised her lighters, clicked each of them twice. Flames rolled forward, blasting against the white dragon.
Behind her came Lorelei and Gwen, and each added their strength to hers. Gwen sent forth small silver needles that carried silver threads with them. Lorelei made the ground burst forth with gleaming sapphire ice.
On her right, Lorelei placed a hand on Chelsea’s shoulder.
On her left, Gwen placed a hand on Chelsea’s shoulder.
Coming down to perch on both shoulders came the soft, warm form of Chelsea’s owl.
You’re not alone in this.
That simple realization gave Chelsea clarity. It did not steal away her grief, nor her rage, but it brought her thoughts, and the truth, into stark focus.
I don’t need to fight this demon alone.
And I don’t need to be consumed by my own fire, no matter how hot it burns.
Together, the four of them fought against Blaise, and further down the street, the others who had already been fighting him rallied.
Anastasia stared in stunned silence at the incredible power that Chelsea wielded.
Next to her, Stride let out a low whistle. “I don’t know where that power came from,” he said, “but I’m glad she didn’t unleash it when Sieglinde and I were tasked with keeping her and her team from reaching the Grimoire Guard. Those are flames I wouldn’t be able to cut through.” He looked aside at Anastasia. “She’s Human, right? Fully Human?”
Anastasia nodded. “She is,” she said softly.
Stride stared on in awe. “You ever seen strength like that in anyone even close to that young?”
Anastasia shook her head. “Never.”
“Well,” Stride said, twirling the pair of swords in his hands, as the floating blades around him followed suit, “let’s not have her fight alone, huh?”
He charged into battle. Around Anastasia, so many others did, as well. Jacob, Callum, and Deirdre all displayed rage and grief of their own – less intense than Chelsea’s, but just as powerful of a rallying cry now that they knew the truth of their dear friend’s death.
I should have been here. When you were faced with that choice…
I should have been here to tell you it was wrong.
Anastasia sighed bitterly.
I should have told you so many things were wrong.
I stood by and watched far too often. I showed only the weakest, most fleeting dissension far too often, just enough to feel like I’d done the right thing, when really I’d done nothing.
I failed you.
As a friend, I failed you utterly.
I wish I could save you, Blaise.
Softly, she uttered: “I’m sorry.”
And she leapt into battle.
The tide had turned. Blaise’s twin dragons were fierce and loyal, with power the likes of which no one mage could ever hope to counter, be they Human, Enchanted, or Eternal.
But as the numbers of those allied against the dragons grew, and as many of them were stirred to feats beyond themselves by fierce, powerful emotion, the dragons began to falter.
Anastasia, whose kicks could rend stone and snap steel, had been completely ineffective against the black dragon. Her attacks even seemed to rebound on her in a small way, causing her pain while leaving her target uninjured.
But now, as she leapt in a spinning back kick, and that kick connected with the roaring maw of the black dragon…
She felt no pain. And the dragon was knocked aside, wavering slightly. Stride and Desmé capitalized on that, forcing the black dragon even more off-balance. And then in came Jacob, Callum, and Deirdre, who sent the dragon flying, slamming into the far wall. Marble tiles, cobbled stone, and gnarled tree roots cracked and splintered with the impact.
“Enough!” Blaise shouted. He tapped his cane on the ground, the sound echoing along the street. His dragons rose up, roaring with great fervor.
But, as if to fight back against the rallying cry, a series of loud explosive bursts sounded. Streaks of white light shot over the wall, slamming into the black and white dragon, exploding on contact. The dragons fell back, and from around the corner came the many-legged mechanical form of Greyson Manor.
With the Manor, though, also came Bronn, and fighting alongside him, the roiling darkness of Nyx’s Summon.
“Bronn!” Anastasia called out, racing forward to her ally, the last of her friends now accounted for.
“Ana,” Bronn said, seeming only the slightest bit surprised. He jumped back from the swirling sea turtle Summons who defended the Manor, and eyed Anastasia, and then the battle with Blaise, cautiously. “What’s happening here?”
“Blaise failed to tell us that the White Whale is gone,” Anastasia said. “He’s still enacting his plans, quickening the destruction of Grimoire, but now there’s no way for us to save all the ones he vowed to save.”
Bronn stared at Anastasia with hard, emotionless eyes. Slowly, he turned his gaze on the besieged Blaise, silent for a long time.
“Ana,” Bronn said softly. “If we had more time, I’d ask questions.”
“I know,” Anastasia said.
Bronn nodded slowly. “I’ll leave you to it, then,” he said, his voice flickering with a subtle undertone of emotion that Anastasia couldn’t read. He turned away, walking in the opposite direction of the battle. “I will not lift a hand against the Master. But if you are determined to fight him, you must have your reasons. So I will not lift a hand to aid him, either.” He cast a sharp glance over his shoulder. “I’m trusting you, Ana. Don’t do something we’ll both regret.”
Anastasia stared in shock as Bronn walked away from the battle. His broad, massive shoulders seemed slumped, and his feet dragged ever so slightly.
“Sorry we’re late!” Caleb called out from the balcony, waving down to everyone on the street. “But we bring good news!”
“It better be good!” Callum called up. He pointed at the clock in the sky. “You don’t have much time left!”
Caleb grinned, then pointed to the spot of the wall where the black dragon had smashed some of its surface. “We’re pretty sure the center of the labyrinth is straight through there! So everyone just stay away from it, and we’ll blast a path through!”
“Not yet,” Jacob said, staring up at Caleb with a dark, serious gaze. “There’s someone we need to catch in the crossfire.”
Caleb watched as he and the others charged Blaise, and he understood. He looked back into the control room, nodding to Oscar and Will. “Hold down the fort, will you guys? I’m gonna go help them out. Once we’ve got Blaise in the way, that’s the time to fire.”
“Make sure you signal us quickly,” Oscar said. “And get everyone else out of the crossfire.”
Caleb flashed a thumbs-up, and then leapt off the balcony, running down a widely-spaced staircase of Mobility discs. Nyx’s Summon lashed out at him, but he bounced away, flipping through the air and landing on the street between Nyx and the battle with Blaise. As Nyx’s Summon lashed out to attack, a large, bright blue Summon stepped in the way, repelling the attack.
Oscar’s giant tortoise Summon, his greatest defensive ally, would keep Nyx and her Summon pinned, here between himself and the Manor’s defensive wall of flying sea turtles.
Caleb grinned, sending up a silent thanks to his grandpa, and then raced to join the battle.
It was a sight to behold. So many mages were all fighting together against a singular target, unleashing powerful magic of such a wide variety. Lights flashed, colors bloomed, and people dashed and leapt here and there, giving their all towards a common goal.
Caleb added his own strength to that unified battle. Gleaming weighted attack chains shot forth from many places in the air, railing against Blaise’s twin dragons. Combined with the efforts of all of his allies, the dragons fell back, and Blaise moved with them, staying within the protective coil of his white dragon’s tail.
Not much farther now. And it’s a good thing, too.
Caleb looked up at the sky. It was already past noon on the final day of the Lunar Festival.
Less than seven hours – and by that clock and the way time’s been warped here, that could be as soon as seven minutes.
The problem with the time in Isla’s labyrinth was that it wasn’t constant. An hour could dash forward with minutes passing by in a second apiece, but then suddenly slow to normal time, and then accelerate to minutes passing in seconds.
So Caleb needed to keep looking at the sky, ready for his time.
Because if we don’t escape this labyrinth by then…
I’m just gonna have to wing it somehow.
Caleb didn’t like the thought of that, but he liked the thought of the consequences if he failed even less.
Blaise kept moving back with his dragons, and then…
“Now!” Caleb shouted, flashing a large Mobility disc in the sky, its inner pattern shaped like the letter G. “Everyone back!”
His allies leapt aside just as Greyson Manor’s cannons let loose. A wild barrage slammed against Blaise, his dragons, and the wall behind them, hiding everything in a series of loud, swirling explosions. On and on the cannons boomed, and Caleb found himself jittery as he waited, staring at the clock in the sky.
Why is time moving so fast now?
Slow down, just a little bit. Give us a chance! We’re so close!
The cannons stopped, and Chelsea didn’t even wait to see what lay within the smoke. Her fire shot forward, and she followed, blasting emerald flames into the swirling mists.
The mists parted, and Caleb and the others followed, racing after her. Blaise had taken a beating from the Manor’s cannons, and while his white dragon seemed capable of healing him, it was going slow, and it protected him desperately while the black dragon reared up to attack in front of them.
Far sweeter to Caleb’s eyes was what lay beyond Blaise. There, in the center of a wide, circular clearing, was a pedestal. And upon it was a lock, with a golden key inserted into it.
The key! It’s our ticket out of the labyrinth!
But they were not as close to victory as it seemed.
A sudden concussive force blasted outward from the clearing, golden light flashing, a deep thrumming noise filling the air. Caleb was tossed end over end, catching himself on multiple Mobility discs only to see them shatter one after the other.
The Radiant King was here, guarding the key.
“I will be the one to turn the key, when the time is right,” came the warm, authoritative voice of the Radiant King. The shockwaves stopped, just in time for Caleb to right himself and land properly. He stared at the center of the clearing, where a golden throne sat upon the grassy floor. In it was the King, his face shining.
But the throne looked strange, now that Caleb saw it so close, without the splendor of the golden stage and its gleaming shield to protect and disguise it. For the throne sat low, and if it weren’t for the King’s shining face and the soft golden glow of the throne itself, Caleb could swear it wasn’t a throne at all. The King’s feet seemed propped up in some fashion, and large vertical circular shapes protruded slightly from the left and right.
And the King seemed less radiant, less powerful than he had up on the stage. He seemed to slump, almost as if it was a great effort just to sit up straight, and coupled with the small size of his golden throne, it made the King’s splendor seem far less impressive.
The King raised a finger, and the blast of energy returned. But as he did so, Caleb saw a form, ghostly and flickering, appear behind the King’s throne.
It was a woman. She had magenta skin, and gripped narrow protrusions on the back of the King’s throne with her ghostly hands. Her golden eyes seemed sad, a kind of deep, lifelong sorrow that Caleb could scarcely imagine.
And then the wave of energy hit Caleb, and he was flying through the air, slamming against rubble and tumbling to the ground. He stumbled to his feet, clutching onto the wall for support as he looked up.
The ghostly woman was gone, but the King had also stopped attacking.
Why did she seem…
Not familiar, but…
Like I’ve heard of her somewhere…?
“This need not be a battle,” the King said, tilting his head to the side. “Please. Do as I say, and no one will be harmed again.”
“As if,” Chelsea spat, raising her lighters. She blasted forward with emerald flame, but her attack wasn’t even aimed at the King.
It was aimed at Blaise.
Blaise looked exhausted. But he sprang out of the way, his white dragon following him, taking for him the parts of Chelsea’s blazing attack that he failed to dodge. When his black dragon charged forward to attack Chelsea, sapphire ice shot out of the earth to repel it, and Lorelei stepped forward, her gaze cool and steady.
“The key!” Callum shouted. “We need to turn the key! The rest can wait!”
“My Knight will stop you,” the King said coolly. And as Callum charged forward, a powerful shockwave came from the opening in the wall, carving a trench in the earth and sending Callum spinning through the air, to land unmoving at the far side of the clearing.
“Dad!” Caleb shouted, starting forward.
“Watch it,” came a voice. Thin, strong arms wrapped around his midsection, and he was carried into a jump as the ground where he’d been standing split apart. When he and his carrier landed, he saw that he’d been saved by Artemis. Though her face was covered in cuts and smeared blood, and her uniform was torn in many places, she still turned towards the clearing’s opening and pulled back on her bowstring, bringing a sparking green arrow to life.
Caleb stared at who she was aiming at. Into the clearing came…
The Gold Knight?
But Hestia said she was defeated, and that she was actually Sarabelle, and –
“Hestia,” Artemis said, and Caleb realized that Hestia was here with her, standing beside her, looking just as bad as she did. She nodded to Caleb. “This is the Time Mage.” She glanced back at Caleb. “You are, right?”
Caleb nodded. “But what –” he started.
“Take this, please,” Hestia said, holding out a golden sheet of paper. Caleb took it, staring. “It’s a Contract, one that binds Athena to the King and turns her into his new Gold Knight.”
“We need you to undo it,” Artemis said.
“But how am I supposed to –” Caleb started.
“Caleb, time!” Deirdre called out. Caleb looked up, eyes widening as he saw.
It was 6:30 PM on the final day of the Lunar Festival. And the minutes were passing by in seconds.
“It needs Time Magic to undo,” Hestia said quickly. “When it touches the waters of the River of Time beneath the Radiant King’s throne, the first part of the Contract will be undone.”
I’m not sure I can do that – I’ve only been in the River properly once. But…
“What’s the rest?” Caleb asked.
“We can handle the rest of it,” Artemis said. “You’re short on time, right? Can you still help us?”
Caleb stared at Hestia, at Artemis, at the Gold Knight, at the key to escape the labyrinth, at the clock in the sky.
I don’t have –
I have all the time in the world. But only once.
So I just need…
He fixed his eyes on the clock, watching its hands tick forward. Absently, he nodded, gesturing with the Contract in his hand. Voices shouted. Attacks were launched.
Caleb blocked it all out.
And when the clock’s hands turned so that it was 7:00 PM on the final day…
Caleb Phase Stepped.
He’d intended to immediately race to the key, then the King’s throne, and then down towards the weapon deep beneath the earth…
But what he saw now gave him pause.
What is this?
The world around him was swirling with blue light, light that curved and bent, spun and twirled.
The same blue of the River of Time.
And that’s when Caleb realized that the lights were marking currents. The River of Time was all around him.
Softly, as if calling out from a great distance, Caleb heard a steady sound.
Tick… tick… tick… tick…
Slow, quiet, distant.
Caleb took off running.
He raced to the key, turning it in one swift motion. But time was stopped, so whatever effect it might have, he would have to wait and see.
Then he ran to the King’s throne.
But what he saw shocked him. For though all around him was frozen still…
The Radiant King turned his head. He lifted his finger, and the ghostly woman appeared behind his throne.
Caleb’s heart caught in his throat, and he dove under the ground, racing through darkness with the Contract clutched tightly in his hand, holding it forward. Slight blue trails showed him a path, and he followed it.
Suddenly, the Contract burst with bright golden light.
That better be the sign that it worked!
Caleb reached up, just to get the hand with the Contract up above the earth, and let it go, hoping it would reach those who might still need it.
And then he ran. Through the earth itself, choosing when and where to bounce off of solid rock or pass straight through it, propelling himself ever onward, ever deeper.
Tick… tick… tick…
The currents flowed around him, creating a path through the darkness, and he followed it, racing after the only clue he had of where to go.
He’d long since already passed his past limits for the Phase Step. He knew that. He also knew that the lights, the ticking, all of this was…
Like nothing I’ve ever seen.
I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t understand it at all.
But I can’t stop. Not even if I see the end of this crushing blackness and have a space to breathe, to recover.
Caleb shuddered. He couldn’t finish that thought.
And there’s no time to stop! That weapon can only be disarmed now.
This is what I have to do. What no one else can do.
Let me make it!
The currents suddenly widened, and Caleb left the suffocating darkness of solid rock to find exactly the sight he wanted to see.
The underground city.
He formed a Mobility disc, springing him forward like a rocket to the central shaft. He dove into it, emerged in the middle, and rolled to a stop on the metal walkway that surrounded the grotesque, pulsing weapon.
Four spots. Four Talismans.
Caleb went from one spot to another, following the instructions Alice had given him. Each time, he reached into the weapon and pulled out a strange item. Though they shouldn’t seem so strange. Anything could be a Talisman.
Tick… tick… tick…
First there was a baseball, worn and yellowed and tearing from age and use.
Next was a spool of crimson thread.
Third was a child’s shoe, blue and small with Velcro fastenings rather than shoelaces.
Finally, Caleb reached into the last spot and pulled out a small spiral-bound notebook. Its edges were frayed, its pages yellowed, and even just the slightest glance told Caleb that it had been extensively used.
That’s it, then.
Nothing’s indicating that the weapon’s disarmed, but…
That’s all I know to do. I just have to see if it worked.
Caleb left the shaft onto the metal bridge leading out into the city, and exited his Phase Step.
He tried to.
Caleb’s heart beat faster in his chest as he realized nothing was changing. Time wasn’t unfreezing. The currents of the River of Time, blue and beautiful, still filled the air.
Tick… tick… tick…
He felt the pressure of the River building, pushing him down. He’d been here too long.
But I’m trying to stop! Just let me escape this! I’ll never Phase Step again, just let me…
The world gave way beneath Caleb’s feet.
He fell into deep waters.
I can’t… move my arms… or my legs…
He could only watch helplessly as the surface grew farther and farther away, as he sunk deeper and deeper in waters that faded from blue to deep, dark black.
In the black depths, sparks of blue lightning flared here and there, shooting this way and that, briefly illuminating the endless, inescapable expanse. He felt a throbbing pain behind his eyes.
Thoughts flashed through his mind. Memories of joys, of sorrows, of victories, of defeats. Faces of so many whom he loved. And, for some reason, certain faces kept repeating. He saw Isabelle, her apple red hair so distinct, her wide, curious eyes gazing at him, her big, bright smile that lit up the room.
He saw Adelaide, lost in the shadow world, a longing, hopeful, desperate expression on her face as she clung to the promises Caleb gave her.
And he saw Chelsea. Again and again, he saw Chelsea. The moment they met, such a silly scene at high school. The moment they started dating, at their first Lunar Festival together. Training as Hunters and then becoming Hunters together, and always being a team, again and again.
At the graves of her parents, where she’d told him the truth behind so much.
Inside Reiner Manor, holding her as she wept after watching her mother die through the Memory Gem.
Again and again, he saw Chelsea, and every time she was shining like a million suns, blazing and beautiful beyond compare.
Words, too, echoed in his mind. Things others had said to him, phrases and moments that clung to him in these heavy waters, that called out to his thick, clouded mind.
“Will you stay with me? No matter what?”
“You’re far too generous with promises, kid.”
“Will you stay with me even after we get out of here?”
“I’m counting on you, you know.”
Caleb tried, feebly, to grasp at the waters. But nothing would move. He was utterly helpless.
And then he heard a new voice. His own voice.
Let me move!
But still, he was helpless. Helpless as he heard himself speak, the same words he’d spoken with Chelsea before her parents’ graves.
“Thank you, both of you, for bringing Chelsea into the world. I promise I’ll do right by her, and love her the very best I can.”
Caleb felt like he was reaching, like he was clawing at the waters, like he was pulling desperately upward.
But he saw that he was going nowhere.
Here in these deep waters, tears stung Caleb’s eyes.
He couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe.
All he could do was surrender.