Delilah lay back on the smooth, cold, stone floor, staring up through the skylight.
It looks close enough to touch. And yet…
She reached up with one hand, gazing between her fingers at the blue-and-green beauty of the Earth.
I know Addie told everyone where I was going. But I…
I really should have said something myself.
And now it’s been…
The question came from a familiar voice, and Delilah didn’t sit up. She just tilted her head back slightly, looking up at the approaching form of Alice. The girl’s eyes flickered black briefly before settling on white. She sauntered over, hands casually tucked in the pockets of her white pants. She stopped to stand over Delilah, tugging at her loose white shirt, frowning as she stared down at her bare feet.
“I can’t get used to these clothes,” she said.
Delilah laughed. “They’re initiate’s clothing,” she said. “We only have to wear them until our training’s complete.”
“I don’t get that at all,” Alice said, pursing her lips. “Why do we have to dress a certain way for training? Heck, why do we have to be barefoot? Can’t we at least wear shoes? I get that Marcus goes barefoot everywhere, but most toes get cold walking around on stone floors all day.”
Delilah wiggled her toes, which were buried in soft, glowing blue fur. “I bet Rabanastre would help keep your feet warm.”
Alice looked up at the skylight. “I don’t want him to burden himself.”
There was a bit of a wistful tone in Alice’s voice, and her expression seemed a bit sad. Delilah smoothly rose to sit cross-legged, hands on her knees as she looked up at her –
She’s my sister.
It’s still weird to think that. I shouldn’t tell her it’s weird, though. And I mean, there’s no paperwork or anything, but…
Yeah. She’s my sister, now.
“Missing Addie?” she asked. Reginald Feline Meowmont the Third, who she’d been burying her toes in, now stood beside her, hands resting on his cane.
Alice scoffed. “As if. It’s nice having some quiet moments to think, for once. She’s too noisy. And clingy. And annoying. A total pest, really. I’m glad she stayed on Earth.”
Delilah smirked, pushing herself to her feet. “You know, I can be a total pest, too.”
Alice eyed her warily. “And I’m glad you’ve chosen not to be so far.”
“So far,” Delilah echoed with a grin. “Come on. Next lesson starts soon.”
With a weary sigh, Alice followed as Delilah led the way. “You know, he really shouldn’t disappear on us when we don’t have lessons.”
Delilah couldn’t argue with that. She’d felt the same way. Marcus had established it as a rule from the very first lesson – outside of scheduled lessons, they would not see or hear from him.
“What the heck’s up with that?” Alice had asked. “You’re gonna just abandon us outside of classes? We’re just kids, you know!”
Marcus had simply smiled, replying in his usual calm, collected voice. “In your time outside of lessons, think on what you’ve been taught. And most importantly, explore the Bastion. Learn its layout and secrets for yourself.”
He’d been true to his word. Despite searching high and low for him, Delilah and Alice had so far completely failed to find Marcus when he wasn’t teaching them.
“This’ll be our fifth lesson,” Alice said with a sigh. “And it’s really hard to keep track of the time in here, you know? With how the Moon revolves around the Earth, while the Earth revolves around the Sun, and both the Earth and the Moon are rotating at different speeds, it’s just a total mess. Why aren’t there any clocks around here?”
“Probably to encourage us to adjust on our own,” Delilah said. “He wants us to gain a ‘sense’ of this place and our duty. That probably includes getting some sort of sense of time’s passage, even if we can’t directly measure it.”
“You’re taking this way too calmly, you know,” Alice said. She was leading now, descending a spiraling stone staircase lit by silver lanterns to the left and right. At the bottom, they emerged into one of the Moon Bastion’s many wondrous surprises: a garden.
Its grass was a blue-green, and whenever the blades moved, they became translucent. Trees with white, spiraling trunks rose about eight feet into the air before bursting outward in a wild display of branches, each bearing shimmering scarlet leaves. Flowers bloomed in bushes, each bush coming in color pairs – one was pink and yellow, the next blue and orange, another red and green.
A winding stone path branched in many different directions, and the girls went left towards a tall, arching doorway with a symbol above it that looked like a pair of crossed arrowheads.
They’d come to discover that such symbols were used throughout the Bastion, and denoted entrances and exits to and from specific areas of the Bastion – what Delilah and Alice had taken to calling “Sectors.” There was an open book symbol that marked the Library Sector, a leaping fish symbol that marked the Aquatics Sector, and the crossed arrowheads marked the Training Sector, where the girls had taken all of their lessons so far.
It’s totally different from the Library of Solitude. That was a series of concentric rings, with a pretty symmetrical, easy to understand layout. That helped especially because it was just so completely gigantic, but here on the Moon…
I’m having a hard time getting a sense of the size of this place. Every hallway, every staircase winds here and there, making strange and sudden turns. Some rooms are really low and stuffy, but others have ceilings three or four stories overhead, so it’s hard to figure out exactly how tall the entire Bastion is, too. It’s vertical, it’s horizontal, it’s sprawling all over the place, and if we didn’t have these symbols to mark each Sector, I’d get totally lost. Too many places look the same – the garden we just left has, like, five doppelgangers throughout the Bastion, or at least it seems that way. The only difference in each of them are the symbols, so each one leads to different Sectors, but that’s not very helpful for understand where I am…
Marcus wants us to get a sense of this place, and we’ve had the run of the place with no restrictions at all, but it’s so difficult. I thought I had a really good sense of direction, and I know my way around a bit, but this place is totally confusing.
“It’s here, right?” Alice asked, ducking through a small, circular doorway into a domed exercise area. She nodded to the vast array of weapons lining the walls. “Kinda weird having so many, right? He never has us even practice fighting, and he doesn’t use them. Doesn’t seem like the place needs so many weapons.”
“You’d be surprised by the needs of a Daylight Bastion,” came the voice of Marcus, accompanied by the clack of the metal base of his staff on the stone floor, and a light chime from one of the ring-shaped bells atop the staff.
“Right on cue,” Alice said, rolling her eyes. “Where do you even come from?”
Marcus smiled back at her silently.
“You know the drill,” Delilah said, nudging Alice.
Review what we were taught in the last lesson.
“The duties of a Paladin and Sub-Paladin are one and the same,” Delilah said. “To understand, maintain, preserve, and protect their Daylight Bastion. Also to seek out, intercept, and eliminate any instances of living darkness infesting their Bastion or the lands that Bastion protects.”
“And the difference between a Paladin and a Sub-Paladin,” Alice drawled, not for a second hiding her boredom, “are that the Sub-Paladins can come and go as they please, while Paladins are bound to their Bastion for life. Also, Paladins are stronger or something.”
“He’s never said that,” Delilah interjected.
“But it’s gotta be true, right?” Alice asked with a shrug. “They’re not called Sub-Paladins for no reason.”
“That’s an oversimplification,” Marcus said, “but you aren’t entirely wrong. We’ll cover that more in-depth in the future, however.” He nodded to Alice. “You seem discontent with your current situation. Are you regretting your choice to come here?”
Alice sighed. “No,” she said, drawing the word out, her tone dripping with annoyance. “But you gotta give us more to work with, here. The whole ‘mysterious lessons’ trope is really old, and it’s even less interesting when you’re living it. I’ll keep it locked to fiction, thanks.”
Marcus smiled. “Then perhaps you’d like an answer to one of your earliest questions.”
Alice perked up ever so slightly. “Which one?” she asked. “I had a ton.” Under her breath she added, “still do, by the way.”
“Why you?” Marcus asked. “Perhaps the first question you asked in our first lesson. You asked it of you and Delilah both, and it’s fair for you to know.”
“So you save it for days later, or however long it’s been,” Alice said, rolling her eyes.
“I chose the two of you because I don’t think either of you realizes just how incredible of a thing you’ve done,” Marcus continued. “Or rather, how incredible multiple things you’ve done are. You rescued Solla, and then went with her and saved Lunos. And then, without any prior knowledge or training, you learned how to use the Light Catcher’s detection systems to locate a cancerous malignance in Grimoire, and successfully planted a Relay in order to eliminate it. Even better, you destroyed a Dark Relay without even knowing they existed until you were on the scene. These are feats that dozens of Sub-Paladins – and even myself – failed to accomplish. Yet the three of you, for we mustn’t forget Adelaide, managed all of this on your own, with no proper guidance or training. It’s utterly, beautifully remarkable.”
Alice didn’t say a word, and Delilah smiled at the girl’s reaction. She stared at Marcus, her mouth moving without uttering sound, as if she was trying to smile but struggling to make her facial muscles work properly. Her eyes were shining with light. After a few moments, she seemed to realize what she was doing, and ducked her gaze, shoving her hands in her pockets, her cheeks turning a slight shade of pink.
“That is why I offered you the choice of training to become Sub-Paladins,” Marcus said. “And, to my delight, you said yes. And you’ve been wonderfully patient to keep it up so far, Alice. I’m proud of you.”
Now Alice frowned. “You’re starting to lay it on a bit thick, you know?” she asked. “Anyway, what’s today’s lesson?”
“Today’s lesson,” Marcus said, a twinkle in his eye, “is a preparatory lesson. For the first phase of your training – let’s call it ‘Initiation’ – is coming to a close. And for you to progress to the next phase, we’ll have to go on a journey.”
“You mean beyond the Bastion?” Delilah asked. “Are we going to a different Bastion?”
“Indeed,” Marcus said with a nod. “And you’ll need to be prepared for the trip. For while it is possible to travel directly from Bastion to Bastion, for the sake of your training we won’t take the easy route. We’ll be able to fly part of the way thanks to Solla, but we have a long, cold trek after that.”
“Cold?” Alice asked, perking up again. “Are we going somewhere with lots of snow?”
Delilah grinned at Alice’s excitement. There was one more thing the two new sisters had in common.
“I’d hate to spoil the surprise more than I already have,” Marcus said. “But you’ll need to dress more warmly, that’s for sure. And you’ll need to grasp the first of your Sub-Paladin abilities – Trail Sight.”
“Trail Sight?” Alice asked.
“It’s the ability to see what others cannot,” Marcus said. “And the task today, in order to unlock that ability for the two of you, is a more active one than any previous lesson.” He raised his hand and seemed to pull from thin air a silver sphere about the size of a golf ball. “The two of you will need to work together to catch this sphere. It will do its utmost to escape you. You can use any means necessary, including the aid of your Summons. And you have as long as it takes you to catch it. More than that, I can guarantee it will never leave this room.”
“You make it sound like it’s gonna be difficult,” Alice said, raising an eyebrow.
Marcus chuckled, and there was something Delilah had never seen in the man’s face – a glint of mischief. “I wish you the best of luck, budding Sub-Paladins in training.” He raised his hand, and let go of the sphere…
Which promptly vanished.
“What… the heck kind of game is this?” Alice asked, looking all around the room. The sphere was nowhere to be seen. “Are you playing some kind of tr—”
Delilah gasped. A silver streak slice through the air, striking Alice directly in the forehead. The girl stumbled backwards, dazed for a moment, and then collapsed onto the stone floor, unconscious. In the center of her forehead was a golf-ball-sized bruise.
“Ah, I forgot to mention,” Marcus said, his smile not wavering. “The sphere does have a tendency to fight back.”