Delilah was amazed by Eventide Archive.
She’d always loved libraries, of course, but there was something just so… cozy about this place. The Library of Solitude was grand, wondrous, magnificent, but Eventide Archive felt like coming home, even though she’d never been here before.
“Well, this is cozy.”
Apparently, Alice felt the same way.
“It’s been so long,” Isabelle said with a happy sigh. “I always loved coming here.”
“Me, too,” Maribelle said with a smile.
“It can’t be…” said a voice. “Maribelle? Isabelle? And Marcus, too?”
Staring at them from the far side of the entrance hall was a woman clad in a beautiful blue-and-silver kimono, her dark hair done up with a pair of ornate hair pins. She was staring at their group with a stunned wonder, and her eyes shone with tears.
“It’s been a long time, Selphine,” Marcus said, bowing low.
“Miss Miora!” Isabelle said happily, waving. Maribelle lifted the girl from her shoulders and placed her gently on the floor, and Isabelle went running up to Selphine, hugging her tightly. “I missed you!”
“And I you…” Selphine said slowly, clearly still shocked as she gently returned Isabelle’s embrace. “But… how can this be?” She looked in particular at Maribelle.
“It’s a long story,” Maribelle said with a small smile. “Do you have time?”
Selphine paused, then laughed softly, shaking her head. “I always have time for you two,” she said, stroking Isabelle’s hair. Slowly, she seemed to compose herself. “And it seems introductions will be in order.” She nodded to Delilah and Alice, and then started towards a side room. “Shall we?”
They sat on cushions on the floor around a low table, with Selphine at the head, Marcus opposite her, and Delilah with Alice on one side while Maribelle and Isabelle were on the other. All sat on their knees, composed in their posture like Selphine – except for Alice, who kicked her legs out and lounged casually.
“Greyson?” Selphine asked after Delilah had introduced herself.
Does everyone in the universe know my family?
“I’ve met both of your sisters,” Selphine continued, smiling. “Fae has quite the journey before her, and I’ve helped her as much as I’ve been able to so far. And Shana was just recently here – I’m sorry you missed her.”
It’s been a really long time, hasn’t it?
“And now you’ve met another of her sisters,” Alice said, raising her hand. “I’m Alice.”
“So you’re a Greyson, too?” Selphine asked. Alice folded her arms over her chest, looking put-out by that wording. “My goodness, what a wonderfully large family.”
Shana and Fae both have sought her aid.
We’re definitely in the right place then, right?
“I’m sorry that we don’t come with glad tidings,” Marcus said. “But we hope, with your aid, that we can find what we seek and put an end to our enemy’s schemes.”
And so he explained the tragedy at the Abyssal Sanctuary, the strange clues left behind by Sen and Valgwyn, and – with Maribelle and Isabelle’s help – the journey and hope that lay ahead of them.
“You wish to find Lady Kodoka?” Selphine asked.
“We will find her,” Isabelle said, planting her palms on the table. “No matter what.”
“I…” Selphine started, then lowered her gaze, a thoughtful look on her face.
“Do you know anything that might help us?” Maribelle asked.
“I believe it may connect to the strange clues you brought me from the Abyssal Sanctuary,” Selphine said. “And though I know it will not stop you, I must caution you that the journey ahead… it is a dangerous one, fraught with peril. Lady Kodoka… I believe she yet lives.”
“Of course she does!” Isabelle said.
“But last I saw her…” Selphine continued, “was shortly after she’d lost the two of you, in your journey to find the other Princesses. I thought she would ask for help, but she did not. She merely said… that she was going to confront the one who had done this to her family.”
“So she knew who was behind the disappearances of our sisters?” Maribelle asked.
Selphine nodded. “She said she would pass through a place on the way, and that, should I see any of her daughters again, I should tell them of it. But… well, from all we have known, that place is mere legend.” She looked up. “The final word of your riddle: ‘Drowned.’ That is the key.”
“You don’t mean…” Marcus started in a hushed voice, “the Drowned Palace?”
“So it’s real,” Maribelle said softly. “But what is it? Why would she go there?”
“I know not,” Selphine said. “But I doubt it mere coincidence that unites your paths.”
“How can we even get there, though?” Maribelle asked. “There are Lost Locations, but the Drowned Palace…”
“The Lost of the Lost,” Marcus said softly, as if quoting something.
“You know how to get us there, don’t you?” Alice asked, looking at Selphine.
“I have clues,” Selphine said. “I know nothing concrete, unfortunately. I wish I could speed you on your way with certainty, but that is beyond my power or knowledge.”
“Do you know what the rest of the riddle means?” Delilah asked.
“Like Marcus and Maribelle, I feel echoes of something,” Selphine said. “As Alice pointed out, it is strange that so much of it revolves around a performance, and yet… ‘The First Will.’ ‘Drowned.’ Those two seem so out of place.”
“They must be putting on a performance of some kind at the Drowned Palace,” Alice said. “We just need to get there and stop them.”
“I don’t think we should waste any time if we can help it,” Maribelle said. “Sen is on the warpath, and we’ll have to move quickly to catch up to him. If we can stop him before he reaches the Drowned Palace, that would be even better.”
“Anna and Sara will be in touch,” Isabelle said. “And they’re researching all this stuff, too, so they’ll let us know if there’s anything super important.”
“But to just rush off like this…” Selphine said.
“We won’t rush,” Marcus said. “We will move with a cautious haste, and we will not leave this place ill-equipped for what lies ahead. Selphine, please tell us all you know. Ensure we’re as prepared as possible for the journey to the Drowned Palace, and hopefully beyond that, to Lady Kodoka.”
“And if you learn anything while we’re gone, you can just jump over to the Library!” Isabelle said. “Tell Anna and Sara and they’ll tell us.”
“We have some bottled Hikarescence,” Maribelle explained to Selphine’s puzzled expression.
“Ah,” Selphine said, a small smile on her face. “That makes me feel better, knowing that there will be a way to contact you even after you leave this place.”
“And there’s more than just our physical journey,” Marcus said, nodding to Delilah and Alice. “They have begun their training as Sub-Paladins. But I must accelerate their training. We’ve been seeking the Lost Bastions in order to bring them back into the fold. That’s how we found Sen’s massacre in the first place.”
“A serendipitous choice of training,” Selphine said. “For to reach the Lost of the Lost, you will need to trace a trail of Lost Locations, some of which are indeed Daylight Bastions.”
“And we need to figure out what to do about our defenses,” Maribelle said. “The Light Catchers failed twice now. The darkness is learning, and we have not changed our methods since before I was born. Merric and I developed a few new countermeasures, and I’d like to share them with you, but also, we should discuss what more we can do. What we’ve come up with so far are, I think, only a temporary solution.”
“So we can’t go save Mommy right away?” Isabelle asked, gazing up at Maribelle.
“We need to make sure Mother has a home to come back to, now don’t we?” Maribelle asked, stroking Isabelle’s hair. “And we must protect our sisters and our friends.”
“Right,” Isabelle said with a nod.
“Maribelle, after I lay out the route ahead,” Selphine said, “I’d like to talk with you about defensive measures, at least ones we can use in the short term. Then, while you’re gone, I can continue to develop on those ideas and pursue a more lasting solution.” After a nod from Maribelle, Selphine tapped the table with one finger. The wooden surface rippled, and three circles appeared, each showing a different image.
“Oh, that’s way cool,” Alice said softly. Across the table, Isabelle giggled.
“Three Bastions,” Selphine said, “each Lost for far too long.”
“Why are so many Bastions Lost?” Alice asked. “It makes it seem like Paladins aren’t very good at their jobs, you know?”
“These three were Lost by choice,” Marcus said bitterly. “In a desperate time, we struggled for lack of Paladins and Sub-Paladins. We thought these three were no longer necessary to defend the universe against the darkness – that we could manage without them.”
“Don’t pretend as if you’re complicit,” Selphine said with a sad smile. “You’re not the one who approved of abandoning them.” She sighed, pointing to the first image. Each was more like an artistic representation of their Bastion than a real look or photograph of the place. The first was a grand, pearlescent balcony curving up and over a sea of glittering stars. “The Ruby Balcony will be your first destination. I believe I can get you there directly from here, despite its Lost status.” She indicated the second painting, one of a gleaming sphere of swirling light. “The Luminescent Globe will follow from there. And finally…” she pointed to the third painting, one of a dense maze of industrial machinery, “the Adamant Factory.”
“And from there the Drowned Palace?” Delilah asked.
“Then why not just skip to the Factory?” Alice asked.
“It’s a sequence,” Selphine said. “One after the other, in this specific order. There’s no skipping a step if you wish to reach the Drowned Palace.”
“How do you know this…?” Maribelle started, but she trailed off, staring at the table. “Of course. Mother.”
Selphine nodded. “Lady Kodoka told me the sequence,” she said. “Each a piece in a larger puzzle, though she would explain none of the why, only the what. I wish I knew more.”
“We’ll learn what we need along the way,” Alice said. “Winging it’s kind of our specialty.”
“A good specialty to have when faced with so much uncertainty,” Marcus said. “But don’t forget your training. You’ll have a lot to learn in a very short span of time.”
“How far along are they?” Selphine asked.
“They have acquired Trail Sight,” Marcus said. For a long moment, all were silent, and Delilah realized Selphine had been waiting for Marcus to continue.
“That’s all they’ve learned,” she finally said in a soft voice. “I see. Yes, accelerating their training will be a challenge. It would be best if you left them in my care, where they could learn in a safer environment…”
“But we’re not abandoning the mission halfway,” Alice said, nudging Delilah. “Right?”
“Right,” Delilah said with a nod.
“And I can vouch for them,” Marcus said. “They managed to rescue Lunos, defeat a shade of Sen, decipher the workings of a Relay, plant it properly to save Grimoire, and defeat Kaohlad, all without even the beginnings of training as Sub-Paladins.” He shook his head, smiling. “How such young girls have such skill and power is beyond me, but I assure you, they are more than capable. They will not fail in their training. And regardless…” He gave the two girls a long, serious look, “if we are to have any real hope of success, we will need them.”
Delilah felt her heart soar.
Despite how bad things have been, how scary it’s all been…
We’ve really done well, haven’t we? Was I taking all of our accomplishments for granted?
“Then I will leave them in your care,” Selphine said with a smile. She rose smoothly from the floor and nodded to Maribelle. “Shall we discuss defensive measures?”
“Yes,” Maribelle said, standing as well. She smiled down at her sister. “Belle-Belle, I think you can feel free to explore until it’s time to go.”
“Yay!” Isabelle said, hopping to her feet. She rushed out of the room with Maribelle and Selphine.
“And we need to talk about our training, don’t we?” Delilah asked, looking at Marcus.
“Precisely,” Marcus said.
“Are you even gonna tell us what ‘Trail Sight’ is?” Alice asked. “Because I don’t feel any different, and I haven’t been able to use any brand new powers or anything.”
“Ah, but you have,” Marcus said with a smile. “That’s the true mark of achieving Trail Sight – you don’t even notice you’re using it, but you’ve been using it ever since you left the Moon.”
“And you’re still not explaining it,” Alice said, pursing her lips.
“Not all things are so easily packaged into a collection of clear-cut explanations,” Marcus said. “Now, I had planned a very gradual, careful instruction for you. But I have often been told my usual methods are slow and perhaps too methodical. So a bit of acceleration would likely be welcomed by the both of you. But this will be…” He sat back, gazing at the wall in thought. “Ah, it will be tricky.” He rose to his feet smoothly and came over to stand between Alice and Delilah. “Stay still for a moment, girls. This is a simple test, and won’t take long at all.”
He tapped his staff twice on the floor, and each time a different ring-shaped bell sounded with its own clear, beautiful note. A long pause, and as those notes had nearly faded away, he tapped his staff three more times.
Something magical happened then. The two notes that had nearly faded were revived, coming back to join the three new arrivals, dancing with them in the air, harmonizing in a playful, delighted way. Five notes resounded, turning back inwards, and Delilah suddenly felt very light. She looked down to see that she was still firmly seated on the floor, but she didn’t feel like she was at all.
She felt like…
Suddenly, the whole room seemed to vanish before her eyes. All was white light, pristine, clear, beautiful.
Delilah cast no shadow. The light went straight through her, and as it did she felt warm, and like she was…
The light slowly faded, and with it Delilah felt herself firmly back on the floor. The meeting room in Eventide Archive returned, as it had been before.
“Trippy,” came the voice of Alice beside her.
“That was…” Delilah started, but she couldn’t find the words. She looked up at Marcus. “What kind of test was it?”
“A Sub-Paladin kind of test,” Marcus said with a twinkle in his eye. “And I’m proud to say that both of you passed. That means your training can go much quicker than I’d hoped.” He knelt between the girls, holding out his free hand, palm upwards. The air above his palm shimmered with white light, which then coalesced into two circular shapes that dropped into his hand.
“One for each of you,” Marcus said, laying them on the table and sliding one towards Delilah, the other towards Alice. Both were silver bands of finely woven cloth. Delilah’s was interlaced with tiny gems that shone green, purple, orange, blue, and white. Alice’s had only two colors of gemstones – black and white.
“What do they mean?” Alice asked, slipping her bracelet onto her right wrist. Delilah slipped hers onto her left, and both girls looked at each other. From the look in Alice’s white eyes, Delilah could tell she felt the same thing.
Like fire, and wind, and light, all together coursing through Delilah’s veins, through her nerves, through her whole body. If she were to describe it with words, it would sound painful, and yet…
To her, it was a thrill. That thrill gently faded, but the sensations were still there, just… gentler. Subtler. A constant, enduring background presence that comforted her, strengthened her, gave her courage and confidence.
“They mean, dear girls,” Marcus said, leaning his staff against his shoulder so he could lay a hand on each of the girls’ heads, “that though you still have much training ahead, you are, from this day forth and forever after, Sub-Paladins.”