Delilah dragged her feet.
She didn’t drag them because she was tired. She dragged them because she had no other choice. No matter how high she lifted her feet, she couldn’t get them up over the deep, deep snow.
So she dragged them, creating a trench rather than a series of footprints.
The combination of deep snow and the sharp incline made this her circumstance. If she’d been walking on flat ground, perhaps things would be different and the going would be easier, but there didn’t seem to be any flat ground whatsoever in this wild, forlorn place.
Whenever Delilah got close to the edge of one of the many rocky, sloping spires that she climbed, she looked over.
It was what she saw far below her that gave this place its name: The Howling Abyss.
There was no “ground” to speak of. Each individual spire, coated thickly in fluffy white snow, rose up out of a void below, a swirling emptiness that gave Delilah vertigo when she looked at it.
And yet, she couldn’t stop herself from looking.
She shivered. She had been covered up to her stomach in snow for the better part of an hour, and that situation didn’t look like it would change anytime soon. Though she wore waterproof snow boots, snow pants, and coat, and had multiple layers on underneath, the cold seeped in. And the longer this trek wore on, the more it would do so.
“Do you think he’d say something if I hit him in the head?”
The question came from Alice, already packing a snowball with a mischievous gleam in her white eyes. And the “he” in question was Marcus, Paladin of Earth, their teacher and guide. He strode far ahead of the girls, barefoot and in simply a loose pair of pants with rope for a belt and a loose, long-sleeved shirt. His silver hair was tied back in a thin ponytail that hung down to his knees.
He, too, drove a trench through the snow as he walked. If that were all, he’d be leaving behind a handy path for his smaller students to follow.
But the snow closed up behind him, as well. He would give them no assistance.
“I think he’d probably dodge it,” Delilah said. She reached up and held down her hat as a howling blast of wind swept over them.
That was where the other part of this Location’s name came from. Again and again the girls were buffeted by the wind, a wind which seemed to carry forlorn, anguished voices on its back.
Yet the three of them were all alone, or so it seemed. They could see around for miles and miles, and there was no sign of living soul or place to call home.
It was a wasteland.
“That just makes me wanna try even more,” Alice said, grinning. Her snowball properly packed, she stepped forward and flung it with all her might.
The snowball exploded in a marvelous spray of mist as it beamed Marcus in the back of the head. The man tilted his head forward slightly at the blow, and after a moment, turned to look at the girls over his shoulder.
“Do try to behave yourselves, won’t you?” he asked. “We still have a long way to go.”
“How long?” Alice asked. She folded her arms across her chest. “You’re not giving us anything specific to work with, you know.”
“That all depends on you two,” Marcus said, smiling. “We’re coming up on another fork. If you choose right, then we’re almost there. Choose wrong, and we’ll have an arduous trek before us.”
“You just said we had a long way to go,” Alice said. “Now you’re saying we might be almost there? You don’t expect us to choose correctly, do you?”
Marcus simply chuckled and turned forward again, continuing upwards.
“I should have Rabanastre dump him in a snowbank,” Alice grumbled, starting after him.
That was the other strange thing about this place. The girls’ Summons had vanished when they arrived, and they hadn’t been able to Summon them since.
This wouldn’t be so bad if I could ride on Nekoma’s shoulders…
I’m really cold. I love snow, but this is going on for too long, and it’s so empty. I hope there’s something nice waiting at the end. Like Mom’s hot chocolate whenever we’d come inside from playing in the snow. And a nice cozy fire, and blankets, and a good book…
I miss winter at home.
“Let me do all the work,” Alice asked, forging the path ahead of Delilah. “The cold never bothered me, anyway, you know? I can handle this just fine.”
She continues to be mysterious. There’s her strange – in some ways terrifying – regenerative powers, but then there’s this ability to not have to worry about extreme temperatures. She isn’t even wearing a hat, but her ears look totally fine!
Delilah reached into the collar of her coat and pulled out her scarf, lifting it up and tugging it back so that it formed a mask over her nose and mouth.
That’s better. I should have started like that.
Poor nose. Don’t worry. You’ll be warm, now.
Alice stumbled and slid a lot as she pushed forward. Despite her best efforts, she was still rather small like Delilah, so she couldn’t form a perfectly clear path to follow.
After a while, Delilah came up beside her, and the two pushed ahead together. Alice grinned.
“This is kinda fun though, right?” she asked. “Not exactly what I was expecting, and the old man isn’t much help, but I haven’t been out in the snow like this in… oh, probably forever.”
Delilah didn’t respond immediately, because she suddenly realized…
She doesn’t talk about her past a lot, but that’s probably true. Ever since she was taken in by Blaise and the Shadows… she’s been kept away from society. While Addie was locked up inside a shadow world, Alice was kept in a more physical prison.
Because even Blaise was afraid of her power.
So for… way too long…
Alice had no one. Even her own sister was locked away from her.
And she probably missed a lot of winters, and a lot of snow.
Seeing the way Alice smiled and laughed, even as she struggled mightily to forge a path forward, brought the truth into stark focus for Delilah.
She smiled, fighting forward with Alice.
They reached the top of the spire, and were faced with two choices: right or left. To either direction, rickety rope bridges stretched across outrageous distances to new spires. And below those bridges was only the abyss.
They’d faced these choices three times so far, and each time Marcus had made it clear that they had the ability to see the proper way forward. That Sub-Paladin ability, Trail Sight, was apparently “awoken” within them.
But at each juncture, Alice and Delilah had been stumped, with no idea how to tell which way was right.
“Left,” Alice said, pointing.
“Because we went right last time?” Delilah asked.
Alice shrugged. “Why not?”
“We need to do better than that.” Delilah shoved her hands into her pockets, drawing her arms close to her sides and her legs close together, trying to concentrate her body heat. As she did, she surveyed her choices. And then…
She closed her eyes.
“Seriously?” Alice asked. “That’s so cliché. What’s closing our eyes gonna do?”
“We haven’t tried it before,” Delilah said. “And I don’t want to keep guessing. If we have a new ability, I want to understand how to use it.”
“What if it’s just an instinct thing?” Alice asked. “We could use it without ever knowing we’re using it, you know? Not every magical ability is flashy and stylish.”
“I still want to try. How else will we know for sure?”
Alice huffed, but didn’t say anything else. Delilah kept her eyes closed, focusing as intently as she could, trying to find something within herself, some new power that she hadn’t yet recognized.
A howling blast of wind swept across her. Snow was caught up, splashed in her face, causing her to flinch.
It’s really, really cold.
“I think it’s right,” Alice suddenly said. “Forget about left. Right. Yeah, right’s the way to go.”
Delilah took in a deep breath, let it out slowly. She opened her eyes.
Nothing had changed. But she looked right, and nodded.
“Yeah,” she said. “Let’s go right.”
She didn’t know why. She was pretty sure there was no reason, and she was back to just guessing.
But she didn’t know what else to do.
If we have some new power, I can’t find evidence of it anywhere.
So the best I can do is make a choice and hope it works out.
The girls started across the bridge, with Marcus following them. This is how it went whenever they made a choice. Once they reached the other side and a new spire, Marcus would take the lead to the next juncture, but the bridge was something for Delilah and Alice to take the lead on.
As ever before, the bridge swayed mightily in the wind. The abyss yawned up at them from far below.
Delilah kept her eyes focused forward. She was at the front of the group, with Alice right behind her. Every now and then she felt a nudge from Alice, probably accidental, a side-effect of trying to stay as close together as possible.
But those accidental nudges reminded her that she wasn’t alone.
She stepped off of the bridge onto the next spire, pushing ahead several paces to make room for Alice and Marcus.
A new blast of wind assailed them, and this one was fiercer than all the others. Alice put her hands in front of her face and shut her eyes against the frigid assault, fought hard to keep her feet rooted in place as the wind threatened to toss her small body into the snow.
The wind howled and raged, and then, all of a sudden…
Went utterly still.
Delilah opened her eyes and lowered her hands. She looked up.
Before them, in the midst of the snow, was a stone stairway. It rose up the spire, wide and weathered, to a tall building of white stone. Snow fell away from stained glass windows, revealing beautiful colors that flashed in sudden sunlight.
“This is the Bastion,” Marcus said, starting up the stairs. “We call it the Abyssal Sanctuary. Though how much of a sanctuary it will be now remains to be seen.”
“What do you mean?” Alice asked, following after him. Delilah took up the rear.
“We have received no word from the Sanctuary for a very long time,” Marcus said. “Neither have any of the other Bastions. It means it’s quite likely something has gone terribly wrong.”
“Like with the Library of Solitude?” Delilah asked.
“That may well be what’s happened here,” Marcus said. “Be on your guard. I do not know what evils we may face within.”
“Just when I thought we were gonna have a chance to get cozy and relax, too,” Alice said, shoving her hands in her pockets.
They trudged up the long, worn staircase. At the top, statues of winged lions with wild, regal manes flanked the tall double-doors. Marcus tapped his staff against the ground once, and two of its ring-shaped bells rang out clearly.
He placed his hands against the doors and pushed.
Despite the many stained-glass windows, despite the sun shining in the sky, the room within was pitch-dark. Marcus walked in first, and Delilah and Alice followed.
“Put your Summons on guard,” Marcus said.
“But we can’t bring them out,” Alice said. “We’ve tried.”
“Yes, I took them away for your test,” Marcus said. “But I’ve returned them.”
“You did that?” Alice shouted, her hands balled into fists. “How dare you?” She snapped her fingers and a portal appeared, depositing Rabanastre’s glowing white form into the room. Delilah followed suit, raising her keychain Talisman and bringing out her four Felines.
Their glow helped illuminate the darkness.
Delilah wished they hadn’t.
She held her hands up to her mouth to stifle a scream. She wanted to look away, but the scene before her had her transfixed.
So much… blood…
The Sanctuary’s entrance hall was filled with bodies, not a single one moving. The tiled floor, the stone walls, the ornate furniture, the grand fireplace, the lion statues, the inside of the stained glass windows… all were painted crimson.
A horrific massacre had taken place.
Delilah stood frozen. Marcus bowed his head, the hand that held his staff shaking slightly.
Alice, however, walked forward. With a shocking nonchalance, she lifted up one of the bodies by the collar of their shirt and looked at their face. After a moment, she dropped the corpse, letting it land with a sickening slap in a pool of blood.
“Alice…?” Delilah asked in a tiny voice. Alice didn’t seem to hear her, going around to each body in turn, lifting them, turning them over, taking brief looks at each with a totally casual expression.
“Looks like it was all done by one person,” Alice said, looking at Marcus. “Someone with a fancy for blades. They’re all cut open or stabbed. Pretty gruesome, you know?”
“Alice…?” Delilah asked again, her voice just a little louder. Alice cocked her head to the side as she looked at her.
“Oh,” she said, eyes turning from black to white. “That’s right. You wouldn’t be used to stuff like this.” She frowned. “You probably should stop looking, though. I don’t want you to get scarred.”
“But you…” Delilah said.
“I’ve seen worse,” Alice said with a shrug. She looked at the body closest to her and muttered something softly, something that Delilah couldn’t make out.
Marcus tapped his staff on the floor, three of its bells ringing out, their separate tones merging and harmonizing as they hung in the air.
Their sound saved Delilah. She didn’t have to stare at the carnage. She could look at Marcus, at his staff, and that could be her anchor.
“Stay close to me,” Marcus said in a clear, strong voice. “And follow my instructions exactly. No matter what, do as I say. This is far worse than I feared.”
“We’re gonna find out who did this, right?” Alice asked. She sounded excited.
“We are,” Marcus said. “We won’t allow this tragedy to stand. And we will restore this Bastion to the way it should be.”
Delilah stayed close to Marcus, and kept her head high.
She didn’t need to look at the floor. And she didn’t want to.
That’s the right way to think of this. It’s not just horrible because it’s terrible to look at.
It’s horrible because so many lives are gone. I can’t forget that. And I have to do my part, whatever it might be, to be strong and do what’s right.
I can’t allow their deaths to have been in vain.