“Sister… Sarabelle… I’ve finally found you.”
Maribelle couldn’t believe her eyes. She’d expected this, hoped for it, and hated herself for expecting and hoping. What were the odds? What were the chances that one of her sisters, lost for centuries, should still be alive?
But Shana had given her hope. Being reunited with Annabelle and Isabelle, the precious twins, had given her hope.
And fighting the Gold Knight had awoken a fire within her. Seeing Takina refuse to battle the Knight had been her first clue. Knowing that the Knight was always silent, always so encased in armor that “his” identity couldn’t be discerned, had been a hopeful second clue.
But that had still been so little to go on.
She couldn’t abandon her hope. It had wormed its way into her heart, and it wouldn’t let her go.
And now, against all odds, her hope had been rewarded.
“It’s not over yet!”
Mister Midnight’s voice broke into her thoughts. He was right. Revealing the Gold Knight’s identity was only the first step. And, in some ways, it was the easiest.
That, and the final step.
Between those, however, were two more steps that were viciously difficult. The third step especially so.
First, reveal the Gold Knight’s identity.
Second, disarm the Gold Knight.
Third, remove the entirety of the Gold Knight’s armor.
Finally, bring the Gold Knight face-to-face with a family member.
Essentially: defeat the Gold Knight in battle, and then confront her with someone from her family. Remind her of who she is.
Brilliant choices. The Gold Knight’s powers… they make the second and third steps nearly impossible. Granted magic to make her the ultimate warrior. She never has to sleep, or eat, or drink. Her stamina never wavers – you can’t wear her down. She has strength and speed that no Enchanted can match, and only a Human with centuries of stringent focus on Enhancement Magic can hope to counter.
But nearly impossible is not impossible. Focus on disarming her. Then remove the rest of her armor.
And make sure to do it in that order.
Maribelle leapt aside as Sarabelle’s sword came swinging for her. Galahad narrowly deflected the next slash off his own sword. Both leapt away as Sarabelle strode forward, not letting up in her attack.
“So she turned out to be your sister,” Galahad said. Maribelle was shocked at his voice. All the time she’d known him, he’d never wavered in presenting a confident, elegant, bright demeanor.
But now, his voice was serious, his face set in a grim expression. Despite Maribelle’s expectations, having seen Galahad do his King’s bidding so many times, it seems that all those centuries of killing, coupled now with the truth about the Contracts and the Gold Knight’s identity, had taken their toll.
Galahad was through with the Radiant King.
“What must we do to break the Contract?” Galahad asked.
“The next step is disarming her,” Maribelle said, ducking a slash, jumping over another, diving aside and rolling to her feet. Galahad stepped in front of her, intercepted a slash with such force that it sent him crashing into her, and both scrambled to get up just in time to avoid another vicious slash that crumbled glittering marble, revealing blue crystal beneath.
“I would prefer a different step,” Galahad said. “But of course a Contract must be followed to the letter – even by those who wish to undo it.”
“She’s your sister?”
The question came from Hestia. While Maribelle and Galahad fought the Gold Knight, and Athena, Artemis, and Midnight fought Platina and Ignis, Hestia stood still, in the empty space between each group. Her youthful eyes were wide, her expression distraught.
She was good to Anna. Now I can see it.
She isn’t like the others. She’s far too kind-hearted to be one of the King’s slaves.
Why did it take her so long to wake up?
“Dear Hestia,” Galahad said, grunting as another slash was narrowly deflected off of his sword, “you should get out while you can. This is the perfect distraction! More of our ex-comrades will be coming along soon, no doubt. Your exit is clear.”
But Hestia didn’t move. Maribelle evaded a slash, slipped inside her sister’s guard, and blasted at her sword-hand with magical light.
But Sarabelle seemed to not even notice the surge of power. Her sword came back, Maribelle ducked, and then leapt away desperately. Her eyes met Sarabelle’s, and her heart broke.
She knew that beautiful face, soft and youthful, with a hard edge underneath, barely visible save to those who knew her well.
But she didn’t know those eyes. They were hollow pits, dark mirrors in which Maribelle saw everything but the rebellious sister she knew.
This is what the worst of Contract Magic can do – turn people into mindless, soulless slaves.
I’ve never seen something like this enacted before.
What did the King do to buy your signature, Sara? What did he hold over you to convince you to sign? Signing with just an “S” – that wasn’t your wholehearted approval.
What did he threaten you with? What did he break you with?
Whatever it was…
Maribelle sidestepped, placed her hand briefly against Sarabelle’s gauntleted arm. A pulse of magic, and Maribelle understood the composition of the armor – how many pieces, how they fit together, what they were made of, what magic they were infused with.
A few brief clues. A few tiny snippets of hope, mingled with fear.
Fear that Maribelle wouldn’t succeed.
Forgive me, sister.
It took many more precious seconds of dodging, dancing, weaving around Sarabelle’s attacks and Galahad’s noble defense, for Maribelle to be able to finally touch the Gold Knight’s gigantic sword. A brief touch, a pulse of magic, and Maribelle understood that, too.
There’s hope, here. Barest whispers of it, but…
Of course. The Radiant King used Contract Magic for all of this. And while it can give extraordinary powers, there always has to be a way out.
And a Contract cannot be given impossible terms of breaking. Power comes at a cost, and it comes with conditions.
He made it incredibly difficult, but now I think I understood that final step.
He never expected anyone to discern her identity. He never counted on us sisters finding her. We were vanishing so quickly, after all – six were already lost before Sara vanished.
In the Radiant King’s mind, that final step was impossible.
I’ll make you pay. You vicious, horrible coward. Manipulating, deceiving, lying, backstabbing monster.
I hated all of you. But now I see that it’s just you, Radiant King, who deserves my ire. You wronged all of your servants, tricked them, lied to them.
Now watch as it all crumbles beneath your feet.
“Do you have any ideas?” Galahad asked.
Maribelle tapped her hand against the floor. A burst of light pulsed outward, and she and Galahad were flung high into the air, out of Sarabelle’s reach. As they fell, Sarabelle moved to intercept. Maribelle waved her hand in a circle, and a door appeared between the sisters. When it opened, Maribelle and Galahad passed through from their side, and Sarabelle from hers.
But in between, neither came into contact with the other. Galahad, clearly disoriented by the experience, dropped to his knees, while even Sarabelle, who shouldn’t be fazed by anything while still the Gold Knight, stumbled a moment.
It gets everyone every time – at least the first time.
Now that I know it can even bother the Gold Knight, I can get a little trickier.
“Keep her attention off of me!” Maribelle said, dashing away. She passed Hestia, and the two shared a brief glance.
“I –” Hestia started, but stopped.
Swords rang against each other. Flames billowed. Arrows sliced through the air. The battle at the hallway between Midnight, Athena, Artemis, Platina, and Ignis seemed to be a stalemate, but a quick look said otherwise. Platina and Ignis had gained ground.
I need to be faster.
Maribelle found Galahad desperately fending off Sarabelle alone, and, as Sarabelle stabbed forward, Maribelle made her move.
A door appeared, swinging wide open. Sarabelle’s sword passed through. She stepped forward to follow.
But a second door appeared. And while Sarabelle stepped straight through to the other side of both…
Her sword came out the way it had come.
The Gold Knight’s sword clattered to the ground. Step two was complete.
“Don’t let her pick it back up!” Maribelle warned, forming a new set of doors that turned Sarabelle back around as she went for the sword. Galahad went to lift the Gold Knight’s sword, but ended up being able to do little more than unceremoniously drag it.
“I can’t believe she could swing something so heavy so fast,” he groaned, dragging it away while Maribelle formed more doors to keep her sister at bay. “How long can you keep doing that?”
“As long as I need to,” Maribelle said. “But it won’t help us with the third step.”
“Removing her armor.”
Galahad grunted. “Every single piece of it?”
Maribelle nodded. “Every piece. There are forty-seven in all.”
“And we have to remove them in a specific order.”
“Do you know the order?”
Flames blossomed past the hallway, and sparks fell near Maribelle. She nodded. “Yes. Right arm, then left arm, working from fingers to shoulders. Then it’s top to bottom for the rest.”
Galahad reached the hearth in the center of the room and lifted its metal grating with his foot. He shoved the Gold Knight’s sword into the glowing coals, and then dropped the grating on top. “That should keep her sword away. Let’s work on that armor, shall we?”
“How dare you?” came Platina’s cry from the hall. She bled freely from a long slash down her left arm, her venomous glare directed towards Midnight. In his hand he held her metal weapon, her Talisman, the very thing that made her so deadly.
This should buy the Princess plenty of time.
Behind him, Midnight saw the battle taking an optimistic turn. Maribelle and Galahad had managed to disarm Sarabelle, and now worked to find an opening in her defenses, a way to start on removing her armor. It would be the most challenging step of all, but the glint in Maribelle’s eye, the change in her complexion, told Midnight that she had a plan.
With Platina out of the fight, Ignis paused his fiery assault, staring at Athena.
“Are you prepared to confront the King?” he asked. “That’s all I want. And if I’m reading your convictions right, you’re fighting the wrong battle, anyway.”
Athena lowered her shield, staring back at Ignis. She looked around – from the disarmed Platina, to the injured Artemis, to the battle with the Gold Knight, to the distraught Hestia.
Everywhere she looked, her eyes said it all. The solid, unwavering composure of the Royal Guard’s master of Guardian Magic was crumbling.
“I’m sure our King has His reasons,” Athena said softly, turning her gaze back on Ignis. “And He is too important to –”
“Oh, wake up!” Artemis shouted, glaring at her sister. “Have you no mind of your own? You’re nothing but a pawn for the King, just like he would have made us with those Contracts. Why don’t you go ahead and sign your Contract, if you’re so mindless in your loyalty?”
“Sister…” Athena said slowly, staring wide-eyed at Artemis.
Artemis stood, ignoring her bleeding left arm. “You know what you remind me of?” She nodded towards the unmasked Gold Knight. “Just like her, you’re a mindless slave to a powerful mage. I joined the King because I believed in his promises. But he’s continually pushed us too far. He’s continually showed that he doesn’t have our interests or desires at heart.”
“His mind is higher than –” Athena started.
“Don’t give me that!” Artemis shouted. “He isn’t a god. He hasn’t made us into gods. We’re just humans who can live forever. Stop looking at him as a deity and look at him as a man.”
“He –” Athena started.
“You used to ask me one question whenever I wondered what course to take,” Artemis said. “So I’ll ask you now. What is the right thing to do?”
Athena stared back at Artemis, but it was clear that she had no answer for her.
“Athena, you can’t possibly waver,” Platina said. “I’m surrounded by traitors, but surely you can’t be one, as well.”
Athena turned to Hestia, who was watching the battle against the Gold Knight. “Hestia?” Athena asked. “What… what do you think? What will you do?”
Hestia turned back to Athena. “We should help Maribelle,” she said softly.
“What?” Athena asked, eyes widening.
“We didn’t want to believe it with little Anna,” Hestia said, “but she turned out to be a captive of our King. And now we find another of her sisters – another of the Princesses of Solitude, who are so vital to the defense against the darkness – is a captive of our King. How can we not help her? How can we stand for this?”
“Hestia, don’t –” Athena started, reaching out.
Hestia closed her eyes, turned away. “I’m sorry, Athena. I must do what is right.”
Hestia ran, away from Athena and towards Maribelle.
Artemis stood, eyeing Midnight – in particular the bloody weapon he held in his hands. “It looks like you have the defenses well at hand,” she said. She cast a bitter glance Athena’s way, and then turned towards Maribelle. “They’ll need all the help they can get. And besides…” she looked up and around at the Palace all around her, and sighed, “it seems I’m through with this place.”
Athena called for her to wait, reached out for her sister…
But Artemis ran the other way.
Ignis shrugged. “If no one else is interested anymore, I suppose I’ll be the only one to confront the King about those Contracts.” He cast a glance at Midnight, and a flicker of a smile crossed his face. Then he turned away, walked towards the stairs up to the throne room.
“Athena!” Platina shouted, taking a step forward. Midnight stepped in her path, twirling her Talisman in his hand.
“Run along, little Captain,” he said. “Unless you think you can fight me without magic?”
Platina sneered. “I thought you were burning with hatred for us,” she said. “Burning to kill us.”
Midnight’s eyes flashed. “If you stay here much longer, you’ll find out just how right you are.”
Platina glared, for a moment. But then her eyes dropped, and she turned on a heel and ran.
“Well,” Midnight said, surveying the entire room. “I’m sure more reinforcements will come, but until then… what will you do?”
Athena stared at him, and then turned to face the same hall she had been defending. “I won’t allow my sister to come to harm,” she said softly.
Midnight nodded, turning his attention to Maribelle. The Princess had come to this place intending to free the Gold Knight entirely alone. But now Galahad, Hestia, and Artemis all fought alongside her.
Members of such a hateful group, who Midnight and Maribelle both saw as enemies, were now their allies.
Maribelle was making progress, thanks to her growing number of allies. Galahad was excellent at retaining Sarabelle’s attention, dashing around her, striking her impenetrable armor here and there with his sword. Artemis backed him up, firing trap arrows to bind Sarabelle’s feet. With the Gold Knight’s powers, she could break free from those traps in an instant, but the effort still slowed her by the slightest amount, and that made a world of difference.
Meanwhile, Hestia managed the hearth. What kind of magic she commanded, Maribelle didn’t understand. She simply knelt at the hearth, held her hands over the coals, and… things changed. A warm glow filled the room, taking the edge off of the harsh, bright glare of the Palace. Sarabelle seemed calmer, slower, less aggressive. Artemis’ wounds closed up. And in the distance, the chiming alarms became quieter, until they vanished entirely.
Meanwhile, Maribelle worked at her sister’s armor. Now that she understood its composition, and how each component fit together, she could target weaknesses at every joint. So far, she’d completely disassembled the right and left arms, and the breastplate and backplate.
We’re getting so close! The arms are the most complex, and those are finished. With all this help, we’ll be fine.
Sister… you’re almost free.
“I wonder why the King hasn’t come to protect his bodyguard?” Galahad asked.
In the momentary breathing room Galahad found, he’d turned his attention to the stairs to the throne room. For a moment, Maribelle couldn’t understand why he’d ask such a question at such a time.
But suddenly she was wondering the same thing.
What was the Radiant King doing?
He didn’t do anything to us when we came to save Anna, either. His Guards fought, his Knight fought…
But he never even showed his face.
The mystery took hold in Maribelle’s mind, but she pushed it towards the back. She needed her focus here and now. For the moment, at least, she should simply thank her lucky stars that the King himself hadn’t come to interfere.
Hope burned bright. Maribelle broke down more of the Gold Knight’s armor, working down her legs. Past the knees. Now her feet.
The last pieces of armor clattered to the floor, and Sarabelle, now fully revealed, stood suddenly still. She wore plain, loose white clothing. Her feet were bare. After seeing her fight around the room in the massive armor, she looked suddenly very small.
“Sara,” Maribelle said softly, staring into her sister’s eyes. “Do you recognize me?”
Sarabelle’s dark, hollow eyes changed to the brilliant blue Maribelle remembered. They were clear, and bright, and when they focused on Maribelle, they rippled with tears.
“Mari?” came the soft, parched voice. Sarabelle stepped forward, swayed on her feet. Maribelle rushed to catch her, cradling her slender frame.
“It’s okay now, sister,” Maribelle said. Sarabelle looked up at her, eyes fluttering for a moment, before she lost consciousness. Maribelle held her close, fighting tears.
I can’t cry here. She’s safe. Now we need to escape.
“Well done!” Galahad said, smiling at Maribelle. But she saw something in his smile, a change in his entire complexion. It wasn’t his usual pasted-on, forced grin.
Galahad seemed, as strange as it was to Maribelle, sincerely happy.
“If you’re done, it’s time to get out of here,” Midnight said, rushing to the Princesses’ side. “I can get us to the exit in an instant. Reinforcements have arrived, and while Athena’s holding them off, she can’t last forever.”
Maribelle nodded. “Let’s go,” she said.
“What about –” Hestia started, but withered under Midnight’s stare.
“We’re leaving as well,” Galahad said, nodding to Midnight. “But don’t burden yourself with us. We’ll find our own way.”
Artemis placed a hand on Hestia’s shoulder. “Let’s go,” she said.
“I just…” Hestia started, trailing off.
“Annabelle, right?” Maribelle asked. Hestia looked surprised, but nodded. “My sister trusts you. I’ll try to do the same. If you find your way to one of the other Daylight Bastions, you can contact me at the Library of Solitude. You can see Annabelle again.”
“Truly?” Hestia asked.
Maribelle nodded. “Truly.”
“And now, we should go,” Galahad said. “Until we meet again!”
Midnight knelt, placing a hand on Maribelle’s shoulder. “Are you ready?” he asked. Maribelle nodded, and Midnight focused.
This… is going to be very tricky.
He Phase Stepped. The world around him swirled blue, the incredible blue unique to the River of Time. And now, with Time at a standstill, with the rules of physics and reality warping and bending to Midnight’s will, he held the Princesses tight and stepped through the floor beneath him. Orienting himself at a diagonal, he stood on the ceiling of the room below, crouched down, and pushed off. No air whipped at his face as he soared through the halls of the Palace, slipping through one wall after another. No sound touched his ears.
Time had stopped.
The whole universe stood still, save for Midnight and the Princesses.
And in his mind, Midnight counted.
I should be fine for a count of fifteen.
I just hope that’s enough to reach the exit.
Knowing one’s limits was the most important part of using Time Magic, and was even more important for the Phase Step. Staying in this distorted, impossible state of defying Time completely was only possible for a very short amount of…
Well, whatever units of measurement one should use when Time itself was stopped entirely.
There were familiar halls, and familiar stairs, so Midnight flipped, let his feet contact marble, and came to a stop. He exited the Phase Step, and felt a sudden spike of pain touch his heart.
And then it vanished.
“How…” Maribelle started, staring around in shock.
“I’ll explain when we’re safe, if you’re still curious,” Midnight said, scooping Sarabelle out of Maribelle’s arms. “We have a little more of a walk to the storage closet.”
Sarabelle was about the same height as Maribelle but, whether due to the unknowable years of being the Gold Knight and going without nourishment or rest, or because this was her normal build, she was much slimmer and lighter than her sister. Midnight was shocked after the first few steps, as the young woman in his arms felt more like the weight of an infant, and was easy to carry even at a quick jog.
“The world around us…” Maribelle said softly as they hurried to their exit. “That blue… what was that?”
Midnight very nearly stopped in his tracks.
“Explain,” he said shortly. “Everything you saw, felt, experienced. All of it.”
Maribelle seemed taken aback, but continued. “The whole world turned this strange blue color, I’ve never seen before. Like we were in a vast ocean, but… the water wasn’t moving. And it didn’t feel like water, but more like… like an embrace. Like some vast, impossibly large woman was wrapping her arms around me, and it was strong, but… gentle.”
Gentle, huh? Not what I experienced.
“And she whispered something to me, but I…” Maribelle shook her head. “I couldn’t understand the words. Then the embrace ended, the blue vanished, and we were hundreds of rooms from where we’d started.”
Midnight said nothing, rushing along ahead of Maribelle. But his mind was racing.
So many mysteries. I knew there were strange things about Lady Kodoka and her daughters when it came to Time. I should have thought about that before attempting to use Time Magic with them. It worked out all right, but…
Now I’m left with many more questions.
More questions to add to what I already don’t know about Time.
The talk of a woman, of an embrace, brought up strange thoughts in Midnight’s mind. He remembered something, something from long ago.
Something he’d tried to forget.
But it had a way of coming back to him.
Maybe the Lady Kodoka and the Princesses hold the keys to that place. If there’s ever a chance…
And if Lady Kodoka ever returns…
I’ll have to ask. I’ll have to explore.
For curiosity’s sake, of course. But for Caleb’s sake, too. I have a feeling, whatever that place holds, it’s going to be important for him. And he’ll need to know everything he can about Time before the end.
That means I need to start finding answers to the long list of questions I’ve been building up for centuries.
“Mister Midnight?” Maribelle asked. They’d reached the storage closet, but Midnight had paused outside the door.
“Oh,” he said, shaking his head. “Right. Let’s go.”
“Not that,” Maribelle said, following him through. “I just… do you know anything about what I said?”
“No. But I’m going to try to find out.”
Together, Midnight and Maribelle, with the unconscious Sarabelle, left the Radiant Palace behind – hopefully for the last time.
Athena watched as Mister Midnight, Maribelle, and the girl who had been the Gold Knight suddenly vanished through the floor.
She had fought back her fellow Guards for now. And so her attention had turned to the ones she should be taking captive, but they vanished right before her eyes.
Now she was faced with her sister, and Hestia, and Galahad.
“Farewell, fair Athena,” Galahad said, saluting her with his sword. “It pains my heart that you seem resolved to stay. But I can bear this place, and our King, no longer.”
“Athena,” Hestia said, her eyes pleading. “Won’t you come with us? You don’t have to –”
“How can you say such a thing?” Athena asked. “This is our home. We… we are all family, aren’t we? The Radiance… we are…”
“The Radiance is a farce,” Artemis said, glaring at Athena. “Cling to your King if you wish. I have no more words for you.”
“Sister!” Athena cried out as Artemis turned away. Artemis glanced over her shoulder, and Athena saw they shone with tears.
“Living with a man who calls himself King and treats his allies as slaves is no family,” Artemis said softly. “Wake up, sister. When you do… then come find me.”
Galahad raced ahead. Artemis gave Hestia a gentle nudge, and Hestia followed. Heaving a sigh, Artemis took up the rear.
The three vanished down the stairs outside.
Athena was left, heartbroken, abandoned, betrayed, isolated.