Fae and Olivia helped Sonya out of her cell and across the bridge, but it was slow going. Sonya was very thin, clearly weakened from her imprisonment, and her feet were bloodied and bruised. She struggled to hold her own weight, limping along as best she could with Fae and Olivia to support her, but it wasn’t going to be enough.
Sirens were blaring. Guards were sprinting, focusing on making their way up, higher and higher to defend the Fault Line Dungeon against the unnamed threat. Lairah stood at the end of the bridge, talking hurriedly with Krios. She looked over, watching the slow progress of the girls.
“You need to go faster than that if you have any hope of escaping this,” she said over the din.
“I’ve got this,” Jupiter said, stepping in front of Sonya and turning her back to her. She crouched down, gestured. “Climb aboard.”
“You’ll… carry me?” Sonya asked. “But I couldn’t —”
“You don’t have to worry,” Jupiter said, smiling. “I’m plenty strong enough. This is how we all get out of this alive.”
Sonya looked at Fae, who nodded. Fae and Olivia helped her climb on Jupiter’s back, and the redhead stood comfortably under the girl’s weight, flashing a grin. “We’re good to go here.”
“The danger isn’t just from the Cloud Gate,” Krios said, now in earshot as the girls approached. “That’s the worst of it, but… it’s coming from below, too. From the abyss.”
“Below?” Lairah asked. She looked at the girls, then up and back in the direction they’d come. “All right. Krios, man the defenses. Fight them with everything you have and then some. Rolling defense. I’ll close the gates as you go.”
“But what about you?” Krios asked. He seemed to have regained his composure, asking his question steadily.
Lairah gave Fae a serious stare, her fiery eyes smoldering a deep red. “I’m getting these girls out of here,” she said.
“But they —” Krios started.
“Are too important,” Lairah said. “You know what to do. Go! And kill that monster if you can.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Krios said, nodding and then racing away, up a set of stairs, calling out commands to guards as he went.
“Come on,” Lairah said, starting off at a jog. The girls followed, and as they started up the first set of stairs, Fae noticed that most of the staircases were no longer rotating. They had locked themselves in place, and others were in the process of locking themselves into place, creating reliable paths to where people needed to go.
“What’s happening?” Neptune asked.
“We’re under attack,” Lairah said, anger thick in her voice.
“He made it sound like it was just one man,” Neptune said.
“It is,” Lairah said, eyes flashing. “But he’s never alone.”
A deep, resounding boom shook the entire Dungeon, solid stone quavering, water splashing up and out of chutes and canals onto walkways. High above, Fae faintly heard frantic yells, determined battle cries…
And panicked, terrified screams.
“Faster, if you can,” Lairah said.
“We can handle that,” Jupiter said, picking up the pace. She glanced over her shoulder at Sonya. “Right?”
Sonya nodded, holding on tighter.
“You said you were going to close gates for them,” Mercury said. “How can you do that if you’re stuck helping us?”
“This is my prison,” Lairah said. “I control everything, here. I don’t need to be at the gates to close them.” A staircase that had locked into place ahead of them suddenly swiveled, moving in the opposite direction of its usual rotation before locking into a different location, just in time for their group to head upwards.
“Have you ever been attacked like this?” Mercury asked. “You seem… kinda worried.”
Another boom shook the Dungeon, almost loud enough to drown out more, and closer, screams and shouts. Mixed in with the cries of guards battling an unknown enemy were faint snarls, growls, and roars.
Monstrous noises clashed against the cries of people fighting for their lives.
“We’ve been attacked before,” Lairah said. “But, though we’ve anticipated this kind of attack for some time… this is the first anyone like him has attacked.”
“Who is he?” Neptune asked.
“Would that I knew,” Lairah said. “He’s a shadow, an enigma. And a monster capable of commanding the living darkness.”
Fae’s thoughts turned to the tales in Maxwell’s journal, the living darkness that he saw, confronted, even walked through.
And she’d faced some of it herself, when she’d gone to that dark place to destroy Collapse.
That’s what’s attacking this place?
What will happen to the Dungeon? What will happen to…
Fae couldn’t help but look at the hundreds of dangling stone cubes, cells that contained prisoners, as she ran with the others.
They’re helpless to do anything.
But if Lairah’s words are anything to go by, even the guards trying to defend this place might be helpless.
Is the darkness really that powerful?
“Ma’am, you mustn’t go that way!” cried out a guardsman as Lairah led the girls up another staircase. “It’s seeping through already. They couldn’t hold it!”
“Get to the Cloud Gate and help the main force!” Lairah shouted back. Softer, so that only the girls with her could hear, she muttered, “This is the only way out.”
Another boom shook the Dungeon, hard enough that all but Lairah stumbled, staggering as they kept themselves from falling. Jupiter managed to stay upright, still carrying Sonya without any sign that she was weakening.
A sudden hideous, inhuman snarl sounded behind Fae. She wheeled around…
And saw a monster.
It was like a Howler, the wolf-like Hollows that roamed Grimoire’s streets during Hollow Hour. But this wolf was twice as large, its scarred and eyeless face as large as Fae’s torso, its pitch-black body gleaming with scarlet tattoos. Black drool dripped from its fang-filled maw, each drop coalescing on the ground and slowly expanding, webbing outward in the stone it touched.
The shadow-Howler leapt, pouncing at Fae…
And was promptly smacked by a rotating, warping staircase, yelping as it careened off of the walkway and down several floors to splash into a canal.
“How’d they get this far?” Lairah muttered, and Fae saw there were three more monsters in front of the group, blocking their path forward. One was another massive Howler, but the other two were beings she didn’t recognize: pulsating globules of darkness suspended on three spindly, spiked legs, numerous black tentacles reaching up from the globule bodies to hold a strange fan-shaped half-disc of living darkness.
From the right, a staircase completely detached itself, flying through the air like a battering ram to carry and crush all three beasts against a far wall.
But the path ahead was still blocked — blocked by the living darkness itself. Inky webs of darkness spread outward, inching along the walkway and up and down staircases, creeping along walls and ceilings.
“This way,” Lairah said, a staircase detaching from a far walkway and flying towards them, attaching to their walkway and leading up to a different one. The girls raced up after Lairah, just as another boom shook the Dungeon. Dozens of stories up and to the left, Fae saw a pair of guardsmen flung from a walkway, to flail helplessly in the air as they fell down, down, down.
She wrenched her gaze away just before they hit the ground.
“How can we help?” Olivia asked. “I can fight if you need it.”
Lairah gritted her teeth, not responding for a moment as she ran on. “If there’s only one of those monsters by itself, take it out,” she said. “I’ll handle groups. Just don’t separate from us. Whatever happens, know that you girls are more important than anyone else here.”
“Why’s that?” Mercury asked.
Lairah didn’t say anything, just continued leading the way. Up another staircase, they were confronted by a menacing Shadow-Hollow. Olivia’s scythe materialized in her hand, and she leapt forward, swinging the alabaster blade in a swift arc. The Hollow blocked it with its claws, though the blade bit in a few inches. Olivia spun, batting the Howler in the face with the base of her scythe, bringing the blade around to follow up with a spinning slash. The Hollow was ripped in half, blasting apart and dissolving into darkness.
But the monster wasn’t what they needed to worry about. Once more, their path was blocked by an encroaching darkness, bubbling and oozing its way across every surface it could find, spreading at a faster rate than below.
“If he’s already blocked the…” Lairah started, then shook her head. “Up here!”
“Wait,” Fae said, stepping towards the darkness. She reached into her bag and pulled out the candlestick bell.
Hope. Hope that we can escape. Hope that lives can be saved.
Hope that the darkness can be destroyed, that it can’t win.
Fae lifted the bell high and rang it with all her will.
The beautiful tone filled the air, lifted her heart, brought a startling clarity to her thoughts. She smiled, despite how dangerous things were.
Because hope was here. And hope would…
She felt as if she was being pulled forward, down a speeding conveyor belt. Darkness swirled around her, a mist, a cloud. And in that cloud, coming ever closer…
He was wreathed in shadow, cloaked in darkness. In one hand he held an open book.
He commanded the darkness.
The tone of the candlestick bell, the musical peal of hope, blasted through the dark clouds, the mist, the flood. It charged against this man, the core of the threat that faced the Dungeon and all within.
And it bounced right off.
Light flickered, but it didn’t hold. The man didn’t move, stood unfazed by the music.
Hope could not touch him.
Fae was suddenly back where she’d rung the bell, back with her friends and Lairah. The man was gone, and she stood on solid, un-darkened ground.
But the darkness ahead, the darkness she’d tried to dispel, continued to come ever closer.
“Fae?” Madeline asked.
Fae looked back at her, stunned to silence for several long moments. Slowly, she shook her head. “It… didn’t work,” she said softly.
“Hope isn’t lost,” Lairah said, yellow fire blazing bright in her eyes. “Follow me!”
She charged ahead, up a new staircase, and the others followed. Fae forced her feet to move, forced herself to run with them. She couldn’t stay behind. And she couldn’t let herself be frozen by fear.
If there’s someone in charge of the darkness, someone commanding it like an army, then unless the bell’s hope can touch him, I can’t do anything to the darkness. Is that how this works?
Why was he completely untouched by hope? If he’s immersed in the darkness, then he must be so lost, so broken, so in need of hope.
Fae’s eyes widened as a terrifying realization dawned on her.
Does he want to be there? Did he choose to be within the darkness, to command it?
Is that why hope can’t touch him?
They climbed one staircase, then another, and charged down the next walkway, Olivia slicing through one of those spindly-legged globules while Lairah commanded the Dungeon to clear the way through larger groups, slamming them with staircases, rerouting walkways, the entire Dungeon’s layout and construction at her command.
And Fae saw, despite how her bell hadn’t touched the darkness…
Hope had arisen in her friends and allies. They were even smiling at times as they evaded the darkness, discovered new paths, and fought forward.
Hope hadn’t completely failed her. It hadn’t done what Fae had expected, but it hadn’t failed her or her friends.
We’re going to make it.
But the Fault Line Dungeon seemed doomed to fail. Even with hope full in her heart, Lairah still didn’t do a thing to even try to challenge the darkness. She’d fight the monsters that arose from the darkness, but the actual substance itself she did everything she could to evade and escape.
“Through here,” Lairah said, ushering the girls through a doorway. She went in last, slamming it shut behind them.
The door vanished, leaving just a smooth stone wall behind.
They stood in Lairah’s office, and made their way down the cramped corridor beyond, a steel door visible far ahead.
“Fae Greyson,” Lairah said, at the back with Fae. “You destroyed Collapse. You saved the Vessels from a tragic fate. Though you failed today, all is not lost. You are key to defeating the darkness. Whatever happens, you must survive. You must not fear for what happens to those left behind here. Do you understand?”
“I…” Fae started, wanting to protest in a million different ways.
This wasn’t how she wanted things to go. She didn’t want to escape with just her and the others, leaving this place to be consumed by darkness.
She wanted a victory, not a retreat. After destroying Collapse, saving Olivia, saving Sonya…
Was that as far as her successes could go?
Slowly, though, she nodded.
Perhaps it was the effect of the bell still lingering within her. Or maybe hope was starting to grow on its own inside her, independent of magic’s assistance.
I can’t see this as a failure. I can’t lose hope now.
“What will happen to you?” she asked.
“I’ll fight,” Lairah said. “As will Krios and the rest of us. And… I’ll wait for you, Fae Greyson. Night is coming. But I do not believe it will be endless.”
Placing all her hopes on me…?
“Go,” Lairah said, giving Fae a push. She turned around, heading back into the Dungeon, back towards the fight.
Fae watched her go, the final glimpse of her eyes sticking in her mind: orange, flickering bright with light, with hope.
Fae followed her friends to the exit, and raced out into the open, towards the stairs leading up and away from the Dungeon.
“It’s gotten so dark,” Madeline said, looking up at the sky.
The skies in the Enchanted Dominion were all so strange, and the shift from day to night often very sudden, so Fae couldn’t be sure if this was unusual. But…
It did look ominous. Whorls of darkness spun among a grey, stormy sky.
“Oh no…” Mercury said, turning and looking back. The rest looked as well.
The massive Fault Line Dungeon, the impressive stone fortress between two roaring waterfalls, was being overrun. Bubbling, grasping, inky black living darkness dripped down the sides, webbed out across the surface, covering the entire building.
“Don’t stop to look!” Neptune shouted, reaching out and pulling each of the others in turn.
Fae stared, eyes wide.
One of the places Maxwell saw the living darkness…
Was deep in the canyon beneath the Fault Line Dungeon.
And there it was, a rising river of darkness flooding up over the stairs. It was coming very fast, frothing and splashing.
“That’s an awful lot of stairs,” Jupiter said, staring up the way they’d come.
Fae shoved her hand in her bag, frantically grasping for their escape.
Cool metal touched her hand, and she pulled out the doorknob. “Come on!” she said, rushing up a dozen steps to get some breathing room from the rising tide of darkness. She slotted the doorknob into the air, turned.
Into the door they went, Jupiter and Sonya first, then Olivia, Mercury, Neptune, and finally Madeline.
Fae took one last look at the horrific consumption of the Fault Line Dungeon.
Then she ducked through the door into Eventide Archive, pulling the door shut behind her.
Atop the Fault Line Dungeon, liquid living darkness bubbling at his feet, stood a man. His gaze was fixed far below, on the outer stair that was being slowly consumed by the rising tide.
“Clever girls…” he said softly, a lazy smile on his lips. “It would have been fascinating to spend time with you. But the time will come. Fae Greyson… perhaps it’s better this way.”
The man held a book in his hands, and he opened it, flipping towards the center until he found what he sought. The book’s pages were hollowed out, and in the hiding place was an ornate key. Wrought of crystal, with a clock face embedded in its circular handle, it shone slightly blue even in the enveloping darkness.
The man lifted the key, turning it over and over in his hands. His smile deepened. “Yes, I do believe it may be better this way. Keep that hope alive, young lady. Keep burning the candle, ringing the bell. The longer it lasts… the more astonished you’ll be when it fails you in the end.” He looked up at the blackened sky, nodding approvingly. “So continues the upending of the natural order.”
The man turned from the edge, walking calmly through the darkness. It didn’t part at his steps, making way for his path. It didn’t need to.
No, it embraced him, like the dearest of friends.
A Hollow came to him, a Howler, drenched in the living darkness, transformed from the weaker version the Hunters of Grimoire knew so well. The man placed his hand on the beast’s head, stroked its dark skin with a tender gentleness.
The man stopped, turning back to look down at the stairs.
On second thought, it wouldn’t do to completely swallow up this place in darkness. There needed to be a little bit of an opening.
He nodded once, and the rising tide abated. Half of the staircase had been swallowed up, but that would be enough. What mattered was the Dungeon.
The man reached into his jacket, tucked two fingers into the pocket of his waistcoat. Out came a black envelope, stamped with a dark blue seal with a spiraling silver pattern in it. A flick of the wrist, and the envelope darted forward and down, sticking into the stairs just above the roiling river of darkness.
“There we go. Another invitation sent. I do hope you’ll come, old friends.”