Mister Midnight sat across from his surprising visitor, pondering the story she’d just shared with him.
“So, in a nutshell,” Midnight said, “you want the two of us to single-handedly assault the Radiant Palace?”
Maribelle, Princess of Solitude, nodded. Her red hair was worn in a long braid, and a golden silver flower pin was above her right ear. She was dressed plainly, a pale blue dress over loose white pants. Her feet were bare.
What stood out most were her eyes. Dark brown, they shone with fire and determination.
I can tell she’s serious about this. But…
“What’s your real reason for wanting to do this?” Midnight asked.
Maribelle stared back at him, barely betraying her conflicted thought process. Finally, she looked down. “When I was there with Shana and the others to save Annabelle… I fought the Gold Knight.”
“Yes, I’ve seen him. A mysterious figure, and a relatively new addition to the fool’s gods’ forces.”
“I’ve always thought it strange,” Maribelle said. “After being composed entirely of Humans, a new person suddenly joins them. They had to be an Enchanted, because this was while their exile was still in effect. They couldn’t interact with Humans if they wanted to – and joining forces with a Human who wasn’t an Eternal like them wouldn’t fit.”
“What else?” Midnight asked.
“When we fought… my sword wouldn’t work against the Knight. Takina, my sword, is made as powerful as she is by Covenant Magic. One of the rules that governs her power is that she cannot be wielded against an ally, a friend, or a family member.”
“So you didn’t know who the Gold Knight was,” Midnight said. “No one does. Maybe she was protecting you from striking someone whose identity was a secret.”
Maribelle shook her head. “I’ve been in that sort of situation before. Takina can sense beyond whatever guises they use to conceal themselves.” She looked up. “Which means Takina identified the Gold Knight as someone who isn’t an enemy.”
“And that look in your eyes tells me you think you know who he is.”
Maribelle’s eyes flickered with emotion. “I… would rather not say. I don’t want to get my hopes up. But whoever they are… I need to know. And if the Gold Knight isn’t our enemy, then they shouldn’t be serving the Radiance.”
Midnight nodded. “You think he was enslaved somehow. Made the King’s bodyguard against his will.”
Maribelle nodded. “Can you help me?”
“You’re in luck,” Midnight said. “I’ve recovered quite nicely from the fight in the Library, and more than that, I promised Caleb I’d do what I could to weaken the fool’s gods before they make their move on Grimoire. If the Gold Knight is an unwilling pawn in the King’s game… then that’s all the more reason to act quickly. He’s incredibly powerful, if the stories are to be believed. Releasing him from the King’s control is a good objective.”
“Thank you,” Maribelle said, standing. “When can we leave?”
“Not before lunch!” came the voice of Ingrid, who had quite obviously been eavesdropping, judging by how quickly she came into the room. “It’s almost ready.”
Midnight smirked. “You heard the girl,” he said. “Let’s eat before we go. But I don’t see any reason to delay any longer than that – we’ll leave right after lunch.”
“I wish you wouldn’t leave so soon, Lance,” Mineria said as everyone gathered around the table. “But I understand. Ingrid and I will hold down the fort until you return.” As they sat to eat, she reached across the table and took his hand in hers. “Do be careful.”
“I’m always careful,” Midnight replied.
“No you’re not,” Ingrid said. “You’re incorrigibly reckless.”
“Well, maybe I’ll tone down the recklessness a bit,” Midnight said. “Just this once. The Princess and I can’t very well take on all of the fool’s gods by ourselves. We’ll get in, do what we can, and get out. Simple.” He looked across to Maribelle. “I’m assuming you know a good way to enter the Palace?”
Maribelle nodded. “The Goodnight Express runs to Tier Town, doesn’t it? We can take the Winding Stair from there.”
Midnight grinned. “Right, it has a back entrance into the Palace. Not likely they’d guard that – they probably don’t know it exists, considering where it comes out. It was a secret even the Crystal King forgot, after all.”
“So how do you two know about it?” Mineria asked. “I know my way around the Palace – at least, when it was the Crystal Palace – and I didn’t know there were any back entrances.”
Midnight grinned. “I can’t speak for the Princess, but I was a precocious child. When I was apprentice to the former Master of Midnight Bridge, we visited the Crystal Palace often. And while he got up to official business, I got up to –”
“Trouble,” Mineria finished with a wry smile. “Of course you did.”
“While most of the Crystal Family forgot about it,” Maribelle said, “the youngest Princess discovered it on her own, and used it as her own secret exit when she wanted a break from all the pomp and circumstance of her status. She and I were good friends, so she shared her secret with me.”
“So we just need to hope the Radiant King never got his filthy hands on her,” Midnight said.
“He shouldn’t have,” Mineria said. “I… well, I don’t know what’s happened to most of the Crystal Family. But the Crystal King seemed to sense danger was coming. I didn’t realize it at the time, and thought it was just an ordinary royal missive, but knowing the timing… he sent the Crystal Queen and the youngest Princess away, I know not where, less than a day before the Radiance attacked.”
“Let’s hope they’re still hidden from the fool’s gods, then,” Midnight said.
After lunch, Midnight and Maribelle bid Ingrid and Mineria farewell as they boarded the Goodnight Express, heading off towards the Final Frontier.
“How’s the Library holding up?” Midnight asked.
“Very well,” Maribelle said with a smile. She gazed out the window as the universe streaked by. “It’s… very empty. I’ve never seen it like that. There’s only Merric, and Anna, and Belle-Belle, and me. It’s never been so quiet. But we’ve been making do. Checking the Light Catcher multiple times a day, of course, and there are no signs so far of any darkness creeping back in.”
“You’re sure you’re okay with leaving your sisters behind?” Midnight asked. “From what I heard, you’ve spent an awful long time on the Westward Plains. You’ve been separated from them for so long, and you’re ready to leave again so soon?”
Maribelle’s smile faded, and her face took on a stony, unreadable expression. “This is… important.”
Important enough to leave so much behind?
I wonder what she’s trying not to get her hopes up about. Who does she think the Gold Knight is?
Well, it’s none of my business. I just hope she doesn’t come out of this disappointed.
I knew Lady Kodoka fairly well, but the Princesses of Solitude… I think this is the first time I’ve had an actual conversation with any of them. She’s not much like her mother. There’s a warrior’s spirit in her, and a fire in her eyes.
“Well, I’m gonna catch some shut-eye,” Midnight said, leaning back and closing his eyes. “It’s a long way to the Final Frontier.”
“Why do you hate the Radiance?” Maribelle asked.
Midnight opened his eyes. “There are a lot of reasons,” he said, staring out the window. The Goodnight Express was slowing as it passed through Sunset Station, but it didn’t stop. No new passengers to pick up. “I’d rather not get into the whole story.”
“Is it because of the Crystal Family?” Maribelle asked. “Because they took the Palace and –”
“I hate the Crystal King almost as much as I hate the Radiant King,” Midnight said. He clenched his hands into fists, then relaxed them. “And that’s another story I’d rather not get into.” He sighed. “I’m not originally from Sunset Square, and I’ve never lived there. I was never very…” he chuckled, “welcome in those parts when I was a kid. But due to… circumstances… my sister lives there. When we were young, I visited a lot. When the fool’s gods brought their war to the city… it was all I could do to keep my sister alive. Our parents were a different story.”
“So you…” Maribelle started, then looked down. “I’m so sorry. You’ve lost far more than I have because of them.”
Midnight shook his head. “Don’t feel sorry for me. Or for my parents. Unlike Sunset Square’s citizens, they at least went down fighting.”
A long stretch of their journey now passed in silence. Midnight dozed here and there, and whenever he woke he saw Maribelle gazing out the window, that same focus and fire in her eyes.
She won’t sleep at all. Not until the return journey.
The glittering, blurring form of the Celestial Shore shot past, letting Midnight know they were getting close. He closed his eyes, took in one long, slow breath, let it out. In one instant, using a trick his own master had taught him, his awareness passed throughout his entire body.
I really have recovered well. I think I might be better than ever, actually. Guess that fight against Valgwyn did me some good. I’m a slight bit stronger, at least. Heart’s fine, lungs are fine, muscles and joints are fine…
Yeah. I’m ready for a fight, if it comes to that.
Opening his eyes, he saw Maribelle doing something similar. She opened her eyes, meeting his for a moment.
“Ready?” she asked.
The train slowed, then stopped, and the pair disembarked into Tier Town. The sky above was the telltale cracked, fragmented field of the Final Frontier, white and black, with yellow orbs hanging here and there, like many dull suns struggling to provide the land with light. Houses were all around, and people were hard at work on their daily routine.
But Midnight and Maribelle weren’t here to linger. The Winding Stair beckoned.
“What’s the plan inside?” Midnight asked as they walked. “We need to do something about the Gold Knight – but what?”
“I’ll handle the Gold Knight myself,” Maribelle said. She looked down guiltily. “I’m sorry. I… I only really came to you because I hoped you would watch my back. All of this is just my own selfish quest, and if I could do it by myself, I would.”
“No need for apologies,” Midnight said. “I figured that much before we even got on the train. This is personal for you. That’s fine. Like I said, I was planning on coming here anyway. But you need some kind of plan. If you couldn’t fight the Gold Knight before, what are you going to do different this time? How are you going to find out what’s binding him to the Radiant King, and how are you going to undo that? You can’t just go in blind, not for something like this.”
“That’s why I want to investigate, first,” Maribelle said. “Sorry, I didn’t explain anything, did I?” She laughed, but there was hesitation in it. “I want to investigate, and if I can, watch the Radiance. Follow them around, listen, look into their records, their journals, whatever they have. I want to learn what I can, and I have a few hunches, so I have an idea of what to look for.”
“Care to clue me in?” Midnight asked.
“Have you ever heard of Contract Magic being enacted without the signee’s consent?” Maribelle asked.
Ah. So that’s what she thinks. It’s a good hunch, but if she’s right…
“I’ve heard rumors,” Midnight said. “It’s not as simple as forcing someone into a Contract. But under duress, with the right pressure or leverage… yes. It’s been done before. I’m fairly certain that was the last straw that made Humans ban Contract Magic entirely. People being forced to sign Contracts that were absolutely not in their favor, with the lives of their loved ones on the line if they refused. There are other possibilities along that line of thinking, but… those are rumor and hearsay, speculation at best.”
Maribelle nodded. “I thought so. That’s what I’m primarily looking for: Contracts.”
“And how do you plan to undo one if you find it?” Midnight asked.
Maribelle glared ahead as she walked. “I’ll figure that out when I get there.”
Well, you can’t say she lacks determination.
They reached the door to the Winding Stair and entered. Golden light bathed the entire space, and Midnight was instantly reminded of where they were going.
Golden light’s supposed to be a good thing. Light itself is supposed to be a good thing.
But that King and his fool’s gods have perverted all of that. Villains disguising themselves with light and beauty.
Sorry, kid. If I could fight them all myself, I would.
“While I’m dealing with the Gold Knight, what are you going to do?” Maribelle asked, leading the way down. She had to talk loudly, as there were many staircases that were swiveling back and forth, booming with a steady rhythm.
“Watch your back until you act,” Midnight said. “Maybe along the way, if an opportunity presents itself, I’ll take out one or two fool’s gods. But I’ll try to save my fight for when yours starts. Even if we have somewhat different goals, we can still work together.”
Maribelle smiled. “I’m glad you think so.”
Several hundreds of feet down, having wound around the perimeter stair four times, they stepped off onto a branching staircase. It descended steeply to a wooden landing with a single door. Wordless, the duo entered, passing from the loud, shining Winding Stair into the cool blue interior of a storeroom. The blue, crystalline walls and ceiling were further signs that this entrance was still unknown to the Radiance – if it was, they would have covered it over with the gaudy, blinding golden panels the King favored, like they had for the rest of the Palace.
“How well do you know your way around here?” Maribelle asked.
“It’ll take time to reorient myself,” Midnight said. “But I can find just about anything you want to see. I’ve seen the whole Palace dozens of times over.”
Maribelle stopped at the door that would exit into the servants’ baths, and lifted a glowing hand. “I can protect our eyes from the glare out there,” she said.
“Good call. Thanks.” Midnight blinked after she passed her hand over his eyes, noticing the slight filter that now covered his vision. When they exited the storeroom into bright, golden light, he noticed it even more.
The Palace wasn’t anywhere close to blinding. Without the glare that he’d expected from the intense light, he’d be able to find his way around the Palace much more easily. As soon as he stepped out, he stepped into Time-state, quickly looking all around.
No signs of anyone. So far, so good.
He exited Time-state, and Maribelle gestured for him to lead the way. “I want to find any records rooms,” she said softly. “Anywhere they might keep particularly sensitive information or documents.”
Midnight nodded, walking ahead of her. He took the hall to the right, winding around several turns before exiting into an intersection. To the front and either side were halls with doors to servants’ quarters, while in the center was a staircase leading upwards. They ascended, coming out into a wide atrium. Keeping close to the walls, they kept wary eyes out, but…
No one. It’s like the place is completely empty.
Of course it isn’t. That’s just how big the Palace is. There used to be tens of thousands living and working here, but now that the fool’s gods have taken over, there are only a few dozen. And since most of those are Enforcers, the number inside the Palace is probably fifteen at most.
Fifteen, in a place made for tens of thousands. Of course it feels empty.
Up two more flights they went, and along a suspended, outdoor bridge that led to a separate building. Here was Vault 1, one of a series of vaults separated from the main building, designed to hold items of special value and importance. Normally, the path to it would be heavily guarded, but likely the vaults had been raided when the fool’s gods arrived. And why spare the manpower to guard vaults when you could just guard the entrances and ensure no one enters your Palace at all?
At the vault door, Midnight tested it. Locked, of course. But with a little trick of magic and ingenuity, Midnight bypassed the lock and swung the door outward.
Inside wasn’t much. Despite the size – three floors in all, each more than a hundred feet on either side – the shelves were mostly bare.
“Should make our search simple,” Maribelle said, going left while Midnight went right. The items seemed to follow a theme. On the top floor, where they started, were weapons, no doubt Enchanted with various magical properties. Knives, swords, axes, lances, bows, arrows, shields… the top floor was a sparse armory, its inventory gleaming and glittering with light and color.
Not that they’re likely to see any use, if they’re stowed in here. Most likely trophies pilfered from their victims.
The middle floor had a few books – records originally kept by the Crystal Family. There were family trees, architectural records and blueprints, financial records…
Nothing of note to Midnight and Maribelle.
The bottom floor seemed interesting, though. The shelves were completely bare. But in the far corner, something seemed off. Midnight felt along the shelf, and he could feel the magic pulsing within it.
“Something’s hidden behind here,” he said. Maribelle examined it, too, and after a while she nodded.
“I can move it,” she said. “There don’t seem to be any traps, but… it’s subtle.”
“Like someone didn’t bother to trap it because they were looking for stealth more than anything else,” Midnight said. He stepped back while Maribelle ran her glowing hands along the middle shelf. In a few moments, there was a soft hiss, and the shelf melted down the middle, rolling away to either side like the tide, fusing to the other shelves so that a small space was revealed.
In that space was a dark corner, and as Maribelle shone a magical light into it, they saw a box. It was a classically-styled records box, made of leather, with a golden clasp at its lid. Maribelle took out the box and placed it on a shelf, opening the lid.
Inside was a small stack of papers, weathered with age but glistening with a subtle magic that would keep them preserved for thousands of years. What struck Midnight immediately was the top of the first sheet of paper. In golden lettering, it spelled out: Contract.
“They’re all Contracts,” Maribelle said, lifting out the entire stack and leafing through it. “But… none of them are signed. Wait.” She stopped at the last Contract, holding it up. “This one is.”
“But just a single letter,” Midnight said, staring at the single, curving, golden S on the signature line at the bottom. Reading it over, there was no indication of a name for the one Contracted, but it did mention something that made clear who this Contract corresponded to:
The signer of this Contract will henceforth be the GOLD KNIGHT.
Personal guardian and loyal protector of the RADIANT KING.
Granted the powers listed below, and also, and most importantly…
To be the GOLD KNIGHT is to abandon your previous self.
“That explains a lot,” Midnight said. “And confirms your theory.”
“Now, to figure out how to undo it…” Maribelle said, reading it over carefully. Midnight turned his attention to the other Contracts, but as he started reading, his eyes went wide.
“Now this is interesting,” he said, laying the Contracts out on the nearest shelf. None of them were signed, but…
“Athena,” Maribelle said, looking at one Contract. “Ignis… Platina… Galahad… Void…” She stared in shock as she read the rest of the names – the ones the Contracts were intended for – in silence.
“These are…” she said softly.
Midnight nodded, a grim smile crossing his lips. “It seems the Radiant King didn’t intend his fellow fool’s gods to be ‘gods’ like him,” he said. “I wonder if his followers know about these.”
“You think…” Maribelle said, staring at him.
Midnight nodded. “Oh, yes. I think we’ve found more than we bargained for. He planned to bind them all to him. Look at these pledges of ‘complete loyalty.’ None of them are signed, but they still exist, hidden away here. So he doesn’t want them to know they exist. He doesn’t want them to know what he actually planned for them, what he desired from them. As much as I hate them all… this might be far better than fighting them.”
Maribelle nodded. “We can turn his followers against him. We can tear down the Radiance with just a few sheets of paper.”