Mister Midnight stacked the unsigned Contracts carefully, making sure he had them all.
“Now we just have to find a way to get these into the hands of the Radiance,” he said.
“Should we do that before or after confronting the Gold Knight?” Maribelle asked. She continued to read over the Contract pertaining to the Knight.
“Do you see a way to undo the Gold Knight’s contract?” Midnight asked.
Maribelle nodded. “It’s awfully complicated, and… strangely specific. Look at this.” Midnight read with her, and was surprised at the process. Step-by-step, it ran down a very particular order of events that must transpire in order for the Gold Knight’s Contract to be undone.
“And it seems like some of his powers are specifically granted to make this even more difficult,” Midnight said. “This won’t be easy. And there’s no other place to do it than on the fool’s gods’ turf. If that’s the case…” Midnight held up the other Contracts, “it’s probably a better idea to get these around before. Sow confusion and discord, and then we’ll have less opposition when we go to the Gold Knight.”
Out of the vault they went, carefully crossing the bridge back into the main building of the Palace. Now Maribelle led the way, for she’d been to just below the Radiant King’s throne room. For whatever reason, he’d established his throne somewhere different than the Crystal King’s throne, so Midnight’s own knowledge of the Palace wouldn’t help them reach their next destination.
They’d ascended nearly twenty floors, and traveled perhaps a mile horizontally, when Midnight suddenly pulled Maribelle aside, hiding behind a wall outside an atrium.
For the first time, they were not alone.
Watching from their hiding place, Midnight saw two Royal Guards descend the stairs on the far side of the atrium. He recognized them both, and his stomach curled at the sight of the one in the lead.
Galahad. His honey-blonde hair was combed to the side, not a single strand out of place. He was certainly conventionally attractive – he could easily pass as a celebrity among Humans by looks alone, with those stupidly perfect teeth that shone brighter than the walls of the Radiant Palace. But Midnight knew – behind those cheerful blue eyes resided a monster.
He’d seen what Galahad was capable of.
To Galahad’s left was Hestia, a mystery to Midnight. He’d only seen her once before, and she’d seemed… distraught. That impression of her didn’t change today. Her youthful complexion and bright eyes were marred with confusion and distress.
“You were right, dear Hestia,” Galahad said, his expression grim. “And I can bear this no longer. We must –”
“Please, we mustn’t talk about this here,” Hestia said in a hushed voice. “You never know who could be listening.”
“And I don’t particularly care,” Galahad said. He stopped, turning on his heel, and drew his sword. Holding it aloft, he stared at the gleaming white blade, his eyes…
Were those tears?
“I have seen this beautiful sword marred by innocent young blood too many times,” Galahad said. “I have killed enough for a thousand lifetimes for the sake of my King. And I have had enough of it.” With a swift motion, he sheathed his sword. “You aroused my guilt, dear Hestia, and for that, I thank you. My conscience is restored. I cannot abide this place, or my role, any longer.”
“Please, don’t speak so –” Hestia started.
“You feel the same way,” Galahad said. “You feel such guilt and disgust with this organization, even though you never killed for our King. You have a soft heart, dear Hestia, and an innocence that I hope is never stolen away.” He turned from her, gazing out across the atrium. “My time here is ended. But if you wish to stay, I will not stop you. Perhaps you can change things from within. But that is something I cannot do.”
How dare you?
Midnight’s hands were clenched so tightly into fists his knuckles had turned white.
I saw you in Sunset Square. I walked through the orphanage you slaughtered. I saw children bleed to death on your blade, begging for mercy, and you just smiled.
And now you want to run away? You think you can repent of so much blood?
How dare you?
“I can’t leave,” Hestia said softly. “Not without… not without Athena.”
“Ah,” Galahad said. “Of course. She is like a mother to you, after all. Well, I wish you luck. Now, I will be taking my leave.” He bowed with a flourish, turned on his heel, and then stopped in his tracks.
“You aren’t going anywhere.”
Midnight would recognize that cruel voice anywhere. Platina, captain of the Royal Guard, had arrived. She stood at the exit Galahad had been eyeing, her metal weapon in hand, her silver hair framing vicious, angry eyes. Next to her was a man with spiky, fiery-red hair. He had sharp, angular features, and his dark eyes smoldered like coals.
“Hello, Captain,” Galahad said with a tight smile. “And Ignis, you’re here, too. After failing in the trap we set for the Dreamer and her friends, I thought you’d never show your face again.”
The redhead stepped forward, but Platina put out an arm to stop him. “Peace, Ignis,” she said. “You did fail. And I accepted your penance, so forget about it. Don’t be provoked by a traitor.”
“But Captain, being provoked is Ignis’ specialty,” Galahad said.
“What’s going on here?” came a calm, serene voice. Athena had arrived, tall and fair, and surveyed the situation with a commanding presence.
Five. Half the Royal Guard. This is probably the best chance I’ll get.
Midnight Phase Stepped, stopping time entirely and phasing through the wall out into the atrium.
All of the Contracts, or just theirs?
Let’s go with all of them. And… here. This spot should do.
Midnight placed the Contracts into a flowerbed, situated in just the right way. They were in view for Galahad and Hestia, and yet laid in such a way that it wouldn’t look as if they had just appeared, but rather as if someone had placed them there in a hasty attempt to conceal them.
Back through the wall to his hiding place, Midnight exited Time-state.
“I was confronting a –” Platina started.
“What’s this?” Galahad asked. Midnight smiled as the man retrieved the Contracts from their hiding place.
Faster than I’d hoped.
“What do you have there?” Platina asked, approaching. But Galahad stepped back, reading over the Contracts carefully. His eyes widened with every passing moment, until finally, he looked up.
“Did anyone know about this?” he asked. His voice was hollow as he held up the Contracts for all to see.
“Contracts?” Athena asked. “For what? For who?”
Galahad handed some of them to Hestia, and her eyes went wide.
“They have our names on them,” she said softly, hands shaking. “Here’s me… and Neith… Nyx… Artemis…”
“Artemis?” Athena asked.
“Captain,” Galahad said, holding up the Contracts. “Did you know about this?”
“What do they say?” Platina asked coolly.
“They’re from the King,” Galahad said. “Each is a Contract for a member of his Guard or Enforcers… granting minor powers… in exchange for absolute loyalty. Have we not been loyal enough? Have we not –” He stopped short at Platina’s frustrated sigh.
“I told the King to destroy those,” she said, shaking her head.
This is going to be more interesting than I’d hoped.
“You…” Galahad started, staring at Platina in shock.
Platina shrugged. “Yes, I know all about the Contracts. When we were being made into the gods we now are, the King approached me with His Contract for me, while also telling me of His plan to have all of us sign one. I refused. I told Him even if I did sign, there was no way anyone else would. I knew even then, when we were just beginning, that such a method to obtain absolute loyalty would backfire. So I told Him to destroy them. We had already pledged our loyalty to Him, and we’ve been loyal ever since. If things held steady, He’d never have need of Contracts.”
“You knew all along,” Hestia said. Her face was pale. “And the King… He… He never destroyed them. He kept them… but… why?”
“That’s what I’d like to know.”
The new voice was Artemis, standing on the balcony above the atrium. She hopped down, landing lightly, and strode to Galahad, holding out her hand. Galahad handed her a single Contract, and she read it quickly. Her eyes flashed, and she crumpled half of the Contract as her hand closed in a tight fist.
“What a farce,” she said, shaking her head. She stared at Platina with a fierce glint in her amber eyes. “You knew about this from the beginning, and you never said a word.”
“I told Him to destroy them,” Platina said. “I told Him it was a foolish idea, and that it would backfire. Now I see I was right.”
Artemis stretched out her left hand, and the golden bracer along her arm flashed. A tall, curved bow appeared, and she took aim at Platina, pulling on the string. A verdant arrow sparked to life.
“Sister!” Athena said suddenly, stepping forward. Artemis turned her aim on her, and Athena stopped in her tracks.
“Would you have signed?” she asked. “You, who so dote on the King, who so believe in absolute loyalty. Would you have given up your free will for His sake?”
Sisters stared at each other, and for a long moment, the atrium was silent.
“You know I would have,” Athena said, looking away.
“You’re a fool,” Artemis said, her voice hushed and pained. She lowered her bow. The magical arrow fizzled out. She looked at Galahad. “Well? You were planning on leaving. But now with this revelation, what will you do?”
“The rest need to know,” Galahad said. “Guards, Enforcers… the truth must come to light for us all.” He stared at the Contracts. “We’ve been wondering about our mysterious Knight. I think now we know what brought the newcomer into our midst, what keeps him silent. He signed a Contract. That’s all too telling about our King’s desires.”
A flash of silver metal, and a sudden flash of white to meet it. Sparks flew, and Galahad stepped back, sword in hand.
Platina had struck first, Galahad barely blocking her extending, warping weapon.
“You will do no such thing,” Platina said. “You are a traitor, and you will be brought before our King and found guilty of your crimes. No one will believe a traitor.”
“I do,” Artemis said. “Everyone in this room already knows he speaks the truth. I can understand arresting a criminal, but you can’t bury this.”
Platina’s weapon flashed, and this time it struck for Artemis.
But Athena stepped in the way. The shield on her arm gleamed, and a barrier of golden light repelled Platina’s weapon.
“You dare protect her?” Platina asked. “You, who have been most loyal?”
“She is my sister,” Athena said gravely. “If anyone will take her into custody, it is me. And I will not see anyone bring harm to her.”
Ignis stepped forward, silent all this time. Even now, he said nothing, but simply raised his left hand. On it a golden ring, inlaid with rubies, gleamed scarlet. Burning red flames roared to life, swirling in the air. And when they surged forward to attack…
They targeted Platina.
Platina’s reflexes weren’t dulled by the shock of the sudden turn. She leapt away, extended her weapon in a stabbing strike towards Ignis, which he sidestepped.
“Even you?” she asked, voice rising in fury.
“I don’t much care who I fight for,” Ignis said, his voice low, smoldering like the flames he wielded. “But I won’t be bound by Contract. Don’t stand in the way, Captain.”
“Traitor!” Platina cried.
“If our King will agree to destroy the Contracts,” Ignis said, “and never again think of binding us through magic, then I have no complaints.” He turned his blazing eyes on Galahad. “I don’t share their ideals. Or their cowardice.”
“This looks like our best chance,” Maribelle said in the barest of whispers. Midnight nodded, and they slipped away, taking a different route than originally planned, bypassing the large atrium where the Royal Guards fought amongst themselves.
Six. Six Guards already know. There’s no burying it now. And most are opposed to the Contracts. Artemis could probably be persuaded to join Galahad and Hestia in opposition to the King, and if Artemis goes, there’s the slightest chance that her sister will abandon her loyalty and follow her.
I never expected Ignis or Platina to turn against the King, so that’s all right.
This seed of doubt and conflict will grow, and fester, and spread.
The Radiance will come out of this much weaker than it started. Especially if we can also release the Gold Knight from his Contract.
Up they went, climbing many stairs as they wound their way through the Palace’s labyrinthine halls. Only once more was a Royal Guard seen, racing in the direction of the atrium.
Word’s getting around. Good.
Finally, they reached the highest floor of the Palace. But Maribelle paused at a turn.
“What’s she doing?” she asked in a soft voice, peering around the corner.
Midnight looked with her, and…
They looked into a large intersection, a sort of waiting room before the stairs that led up to the roof and the Radiant King’s throne. In the center of the floor was a large hearth, glowing with coals. Around the waiting room was furniture, and in the far corner was a grand piano.
In the center, kneeling over the hearth, was the only person in the room.
The Gold Knight.
“I don’t understand,” Maribelle said softly. Midnight didn’t either. The Gold Knight wasn’t at the King’s side, for one thing. For another, his sword lay on the floor next to him, looking almost forgotten.
The Knight knelt over the hearth, staring down into the coals, the glowing embers reflecting off of his golden armor. Such a hulking, massive warrior in such a small, contemplative stance…
It was a strange sight.
“Are you ready?” Midnight asked.
Maribelle paused, then nodded. “Please don’t fight the Knight with me,” she said softly. “Just watch around me. Don’t let anyone interfere.”
Midnight nodded. “That’s always been the plan,” he said.
A brief pause, and then Maribelle rushed out. Midnight followed more slowly, surveying the waiting room and each of its branching halls. There were three halls that led into the room, and then the stairs that led up to the throne room.
This waiting room had once been a party entrance, with the stairs leading up not to a throne room, but to a wide, beautiful rooftop garden. Many guests had been entertained there throughout the centuries.
It’s a big space, with lots of entrances and exits. Not easy for one man to defend, but, well…
I’ll figure something out.
For now, they were alone, so Midnight kept one eye on Maribelle. She raced towards the Gold Knight, and opened her mouth to speak, but…
She didn’t. There was a sorrow in her eyes, mingled with hope, and fear. Whatever she thought, whatever she hoped for, whatever was on her mind, she didn’t speak it aloud.
She needn’t have said anything, though. The Gold Knight saw her approach and rose, lifting his sword. Rising to his full height, the Knight was as intimidating as Midnight had ever imagined. All over his golden armor glittered and shone, with not a single hint of the person beneath showing through. The helmet had only the barest slit to see through, and through that, Midnight couldn’t see the Knight’s eyes.
He was a total mystery. But if Maribelle succeeded – if she could do what seemed nigh impossible – the mystery would be solved today.
Just be mindful of the third step.
Maribelle ducked under a slash, an impossibly fast attack for such a giant swordsman. Despite his bulk, the Gold Knight had amazing range of motion, too, moving with a fluidity and grace that belied his size and armor. Maribelle dodged twice, thrice, and then a new sound filled the air.
Chimes. Like wind chimes, they rang out light and clear, echoing throughout the halls.
An alarm. If the Guards aren’t completely tied up with each other, they’ll be here soon.
Hurry up, Princess. If you can’t complete even the first step soon…
Then this Contract isn’t yours to undo. I’ll protect you as long as I can, but time isn’t on your side.
Footsteps and shouting could be heard from the right hall, the one that would most directly lead to the atrium where Midnight and Maribelle had left six of the Guards behind. Midnight stepped back, adopted a fighting stance, prepared for the new arrivals.
Galahad was the first into the room, and he was followed by a flash of Platina’s silver weapon. Silver rang on white, sparks flew as Galahad blocked, and then he raced into the openness of the room.
Still fighting, huh?
“Now isn’t the time to fight each other!” came the frantic cries of Hestia. She followed Galahad, and was the first to see Maribelle and the Gold Knight, and then Midnight. She looked conflicted, and when she opened her mouth, she spoke in such a bare whisper that Midnight could only tell what she said by the movement of her lips: “Why?”
“Lady Maribelle!” Galahad called out, flashing a smile as his eyes flickered with surprise. Despite his smile, he bled from two cuts along his left arm, which usually bore a shield. “So good to see you again! Though I’m surprised to see you fighting our mysterious Knight without your trusty sword.”
Maribelle didn’t say a word, continuing to dance around the Knight’s sword swings, looking for an opening.
“Artemis, Athena, I trust you two can handle our –” Galahad stopped as he laid eyes on Midnight. “Ah. Mister Midnight. Wonderful! You’ll help us too, then? I’d like to aid Lady Maribelle –”
“Don’t speak to me,” Midnight said in a growl. His eyes flicked to Maribelle and the Knight. Galahad nodded, racing to Maribelle’s aid, while Midnight rushed towards the hall.
Artemis came leaping into the room, firing a flurry of arrows back down the hall. Her left arm, which held her bow, was bleeding from a shallow cut beneath her shoulder, and she gritted her teeth as she landed in a crouch. Athena soon followed, repelling fire and silver metal with golden barriers of light. Her eyes were filled with sorrow and conflict.
Hurry up, Princess.
Midnight spotted Platina and Ignis. He stretched out his hand, and inky black tendrils sprang from the walls on either side of the attacking Guards, slashing at them in a flurry of dark claws. Platina retracted her blade, sliced them apart, and Ignis blasted more of them with fire, turning them to ash.
Behind came a sudden cry, and Midnight turned back. Maribelle had slipped past the Gold Knight thanks to Galahad’s intervention, and now she clambered atop the Knight’s shoulders, reached down for his helmet.
The first step: reveal the Knight’s identity. Remove his helmet.
A gauntleted hand shot up, but Maribelle was quicker. She pulled, blasting at the helmet’s seams with magical light, crying out with effort, and suddenly the helmet came free. Maribelle leapt forward, turning as she hit the ground. Helmet in hand, she gazed up at the Knight’s now exposed face with a desperately hopeful expression.
Midnight was stunned. The head within the Knight’s armor was far too small for such a massive helmet, for such huge armor.
Excellent way to conceal her identity.
The Gold Knight was a girl. Her apple-red hair spilled free now that the helmet was removed, and her eyes shone blue and bright in the light. Though her face was expressionless, and though most of her was still encased in golden armor, there was no denying who she resembled.
Maribelle’s eyes swam with tears, and for a moment her lips moved without sound. Finally, she spoke.
“Sister,” she softly. “Sarabelle… after all these years… I’ve finally found you.”