Delilah emerged from the silent, ethereal glow of the Luminescent Globe into the loud, cramped confines of the Adamant Factory. Machines towered high and spread wide, complex connections of pipes, tubes, gears, pistons, axels, conveyor belts, crane arms, and so much more machinery Delilah couldn’t name. Numerous caged lamps shed blue light, casting long shadows in the dense mazework of magitechnology.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s having too tough a time in the absence of people,” Alice said. “The whole place is humming.”
“It was an experiment,” Maribelle said, “in the possibility of a fully automated Daylight Bastion. Despite the looks of things, it didn’t quite succeed.”
“The Factory is alive with motion doing busywork,” Marcus said. “Meanwhile, its Daybreak Engine lies silent.”
“So we’ll restart that one too, right?” Alice asked.
“We probably shouldn’t take the time needed,” Maribelle said. “It was helpful for you two to see how they work in the Globe, but now that you know, it’s time for us to hurry onward. What comes next after this place…”
“Is the Drowned Palace!” Isabelle said. “The final stop in finding out what happened to Mommy.”
“Where do we go?” Delilah asked. “It’s so dense in here.”
“And most of the structure of the Factory is made up of machinery, not by mapped out corridors,” Maribelle said. “Keep close, no matter how many distractions are around us. It’s easy to get lost in here.”
“And easy to miss the danger,” said Marcus in a suddenly hushed tone. All turned to him, and he held up a hand in warning. “Stay quiet. I’ll go in front, Maribelle will protect our backs. Delilah, have your Felines around us, please. Alice, is Rabanastre ready?”
“Not yet,” Alice said, flicking her wrist so that her strange scissors appeared in her hand again. “But I can fight. He should be ready soon. Is Sen here?”
“Undoubtedly,” Marcus said softly. “Come now. Close and quiet.” He started ahead, and Delilah went behind him, followed by Alice, then Isabelle, then Maribelle. She Summoned her four Felines to defend their left and right, but that was hardly necessary for a while, the paths between giant machines were so narrow that no attack could possibly come from the side.
They turned left, then right, and then climbed a set of stairs that ended at the first somewhat open space of the entire Factory. A circular chamber, about fifteen feet in diameter, was empty. Three halls shot off from it, one of which rose higher while the others stayed at the same level.
Marcus paused for a moment here, looking at each path in turn. He closed his eyes, and tapped his staff once on the floor. A pair of bells chimed faintly, so they could barely be heard.
Marcus opened his eyes.
Forward he went, up the next set of stairs, and the rest followed. At the top, they were in another maze of machinery, and Delilah found herself almost hypnotized by the steady thrum of pistons firing, gears whirring, and conveyor belts chugging along.
Who knows what the machines are actually doing, but it’s not unpleasant to listen to.
It was Reginald, lightly tapping Delilah’s shin with his cane, who brought her back to the present.
Right. Stay focused.
Sen’s here. Valgwyn too, most likely.
We can’t let our guard down for a second.
Another turn, then another, and another, and Delilah thought they’d gone in a circle — and then again. They kept turning, left, left, left, left, and then she realized that they weren’t just doubling back on their path.
The floor was every so subtly rising. They were climbing in a spiral, up and up, round and round.
Suddenly they reached a four-way crossing, with each path shooting off into deep shadows and endless distance.
“Left is the exit,” Maribelle said softly.
Marcus nodded slowly, but said nothing. For a long time they stood there. Delilah could feel her heart beating in her chest, in time with the steady thunk of mechanical arms hammering pieces into metal boxes going by on the conveyor belts.
Alice came up alongside her, rested an elbow on her shoulder. Neither girl said a word, but something about that simple gesture, that closeness, made Delilah smile.
Her smile didn’t last.
A chilling voice, languid and detached, marred by a raspy quality, filled the air, echoing through the vast network of machinery: “The time is not yet right for your arrival.”
“We aren’t part of your show, Valgwyn,” Marcus said, his voice clear and strong. “Come out from hiding, won’t you? I’d like to get a better look at those scars of yours. Burned, were you? And yet not by a Paladin. How curious.”
“You need not see them,” Valgwyn replied. “You will soon see all that you need to see, and nothing more. That is the way of things. Inevitability encroaches on us all, and while you people scrape and claw at its inexorable embrace, my brothers and I embrace it with our Lord.”
“We could stand here and wax philosophical,” Marcus said, “but unfortunately, time is short for those of us who scrape and claw against your supposed inevitability. We’ll be going, now.”
Valgwyn didn’t speak, but the next sound out of place in the Factory was a familiar one to Delilah — the whispering sigh of Valgwyn’s bow loosing an arrow. She ducked, pulling Alice down with her, but it was unnecessary.
Marcus shifted his staff with a simple, steady grace, batting aside the dark arrow that whistled out from the shadows with ease.
“You’re no fighter, Valgwyn,” Marcus said. “And you certainly can’t contend with me.”
“There’s no need for contest,” Valgwyn replied.
“So where the heck is Sen?” Alice asked under her breath. “He’s the fighter. Unless he’s already —”
“Most likely,” Marcus replied softly. “Let’s continue on, but cautiously. Stay close, everyone.”
Maribelle stepped forward, though, ahead of the entire group, raising her hand, palm outward toward the hall from whence the arrow had come. “Out of hiding, you filth,” she said. Her palm blazed with white light, and white light surged forward, a bright blast that surged down the great distance of the hall, purging all shadows, putting to flight all darkness.
In that blaze of light, one shadow lingered a moment longer, the shadow of a man, tall and gaunt, face half-ruined by burns.
And then that shadow dropped into the floor, vanishing like a rock sinking into a pool of water.
“Full alert,” Delilah said, barely a whisper. She didn’t need to speak loud, for those words were only for her Felines, who each spread out, adopting well-practiced stances, ready for what might come next.
“Have you forgotten your bargain, Princess?” Valgwyn’s voice asked, coming from all directions. “Have you forgotten the price you agreed to, the price that must be paid?”
“Will you extract it from me?” Maribelle asked. “I’d like to see you try.” After a moment, she turned right, raising her hand and blasting light down the rightward corridor this time. There again, the shadow of Valgwyn lingered a moment longer than all other darkness, before sinking into the floor, vanishing.
“I am not the one you must deal with,” Valgwyn said. “I have my own roles, my own purposes. Ones that I am best suited to.”
Felix sent a warning to Delilah’s mind, and she lunged for Alice along with her Felines.
Danger was coming for her sister.
Valgwyn’s bow whispered, and a pitch-black arrow shot out from the darkness.
Delilah and her four Felines, the only ones who reacted to the danger, were too slow.
The black arrow pierced Alice’s heart.
Protruding out her back, the arrow of living darkness writhed and twisted. Delilah stared in shock, frozen for a moment. And then she dashed forward, a hand on Alice’s shoulder, staring at the arrow, trying to figure out if there was anything she could do.
Alice’s eyes were black, and she winced, groaning in what sounded like…
The arrow writhed, twisted, and then seemed to… panic? It flickered and flared, thrashing as if it were trying to pull itself free from Alice, as if…
It feared her.
The dark arrow suddenly collapsed inward, into Alice’s chest, vanishing into the small hole it had formed. Blood trickled slowly from it. Four motes of darkness emerged from the wound, and then dissolved in the air.
The wound closed.
Alice cocked her head to the side, wincing as she seemed to swish something around in her mouth. Then she spat, and made a face of disgust as she stuck out her tongue.
“Tastes like metal,” she said. Her black eyes faded to white. “But a bit sweet, I guess.” She shrugged, staring into the dark corners of the mechanical maze. “What are you aiming at me for? Is Maribelle too tough for you?”
“What… are you?” Valgwyn asked, shock evident in his voice.
Alice placed a hand on her hip, twirled her scissors in the other. “Are your eyes broken?” she asked. “I’m a girl, obviously.”
“But you… that should have…” Valgwyn said, trailing off into incoherence.
“His arrows spread the darkness,” Maribelle said softly. “Striking any living thing with them… should corrupt them into darkness themselves.” Her eyes were wide as she stared at the unharmed, unchanged Alice.
“Guess we found an exception,” Alice said, her eyes lighting up, a smile spreading across her face. “Hey, this is way cool! I always did like being the exception to the rule!”
“That’s not possible,” Valgwyn said.
“Oh, give it a rest, hide-and-seek dropout,” Alice said, pointing with her scissors at a dark, far-off corner. “I can see you just fine, you know? You’re not hiding from anyone.”
“You aren’t at all what you claim to be,” Valgwyn said, his voice still coming from all directions. “Girl, Human… no. You are some sort of… cosmic accident. You should not exist.”
“As far as insults go, that’s scraping the bottom of the barrel,” Alice said. “I’m just a weirdo. Universe is full of ‘em, you know? Got a bunch of weirdos right here with me, and I have an annoying sister off somewhere else, who knows where, and she’s a pretty big weirdo, too.”
Delilah couldn’t contain a small laugh, and Alice looked back at her, grinning.
For a long time, no one said anything.
“Oh hey, he’s gone,” Alice finally said. “Didn’t even say goodbye.”
“Then let us continue onward,” Marcus said. He was smiling at Alice. “Well done.” Alice shrugged, but she couldn’t quite wipe the smile off her face.
While Marcus led the way, the rest fell into their usual positions in line, but this time with Alice ahead of Delilah. Delilah put a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “You okay?” she asked.
“Never better,” Alice said. “Oh, hey, forgot to say, but Rabanastre’s back.” The white, muscular bunny who walked on two legs suddenly appeared, standing taller than anyone else. Isabelle gasped in awe, gazing up at him.
“He looks mean,” the little Princess said. “But kinda cool, too.”
“Just you wait,” Alice said. “He’s super cool.” She raised a hand, bumping fists with her mean-eyed Summon. Softer, she spoke to Delilah. “I know I’m not normal. But that’s okay, you know? Addie has weird magic, too, that no one else has. It’s just Birthright Magic, right?”
“Yeah,” Delilah said. But internally, she wondered at that.
I think Valgwyn saw something, recognized something, knows something more about her power.
Maybe I’m just overthinking it. I’m not so freaked out by her anymore, and her having whatever power she has just saved her life. I’m grateful.
It’s her eyes. The white, the black, the changing back and forth. And it’s how she not only recovered from what should have been a killing blow — she did the same against Kaohlad, and that was a much more horrific wound — but that she also totally negated the corrupting power of the living darkness.
And she seems to have more up her sleeve that she hasn’t shown off. Not only that, but she doesn’t fully understand, or even know about, all of her powers.
She’s a mystery. And maybe not every mystery needs to be solved, but…
Delilah’s thoughts kept going back to what Caleb had relayed about Duo’s house, about the strange hall of portraits that showed strange artistic renditions of part of Adelaide’s life. Alice was tied up in that history as well, but…
There had been a lot of gaps. And many of the later portraits had been destroyed or marked up.
Both of those girls have a strange, unknown history. And I think… before all this is over…
We’re all going to need to know the unknown.
But until then…
Delilah managed a smile as Alice looked back at her.
I’m going to support her with everything I have.
She’s my sister.