Caleb wiped sweat from his brow, grinning widely. “That should about do it,” he said, eyeing the clock.
“You’re so different from last time we trained together,” Shias said, putting away his pen Talisman. “You’re so fast, so strong… and you didn’t even use Time Magic at all.”
“Well, it feels good to be as strong as I can be with normal magic, right?” Caleb asked. “You’re no slouch yourself. Grandpa may be the legendary Guardian in Grimoire, but it seems to me like you’re right up there with him.”
“No way,” Shias said, shaking his head. “I have so far to go.”
“Maybe,” Caleb said. “But I’m serious. You and Delilah both… I’m amazed at how powerful, how skilled you both are despite your age.”
“Maybe it’s because we both started young,” Shias said.
“Yeah, you were learning Guardian Magic from grandpa way back when… you were five when you started, weren’t you?” Shias nodded. “And Delilah Summoned Felix for the first time when she was… shoot, I don’t remember what she said. But she began live training against Hollows when she was just ten. That’s nuts. It’s like Chelsea. She started with Fire Magic… well, she says she was pretty much born using it. Her mother was a big influence on her. But other Hunters, even some of the strongest I know, didn’t start properly training in combat-related magic until they were in their late teens. Heck, I didn’t even really practice anything besides Time Magic until I was almost twenty-two.”
“You think age makes such a difference?” Shias asked.
Caleb nodded, taking a seat on a bench. The training room in Eventide Archive was more sparse than he was used to at home, but it had worked out just fine. And it had that homey atmosphere the rest of the Archive had. It was comfortable. “I remember hearing about it somewhere… or did I read it? I don’t remember. But it’s like other skills, right? People who start younger not only get better faster, they also generally have a much higher skill ceiling than those who start learning later in life. Musicians, athletes, artists… magic’s the same way. The earlier you start, and the more consistent your training and practice is, the better you’ll be. And the faster you’ll improve.”
Shias placed a hand on his chin, nodding thoughtfully. “That makes sense,” he said. “Grandpa has many Summons, but that’s such a rare thing, even among master Summoners. He said he Summoned his tortoise when he was just six years old, and most of his sea turtles he called in his late teens. And Delilah not only has four Feline Summons, she can also use Mobility and Healing Magic quite well…” He nodded again. “It’s a sound theory. It would explain a lot about those we know, at least.”
Caleb laughed. “I’ve missed seeing you get all analytical like that,” he said. “But hey, don’t let the fact that you started training young go to your head. Just use this theory as more motivation to keep your skills up and keep improving. You’re gonna be an amazing Hunter one day.”
Shias smiled, his usually thoughtful, hard to read eyes full of pride. Caleb pushed himself to his feet. “Come on, let’s go join the others,” he said. “It’s probably about time plans started being finalized.”
Fae planted her hands on the stones as she leaned back, kicking her feet slowly, idly in the water. Beside her sat Madeline, in a similar pose.
Fae sighed. “Just say it,” she said.
“Say what?” Madeline asked, the picture of innocence.
“You have a lot you want to say about the two new ones,” Fae said. “It’s written all over your face.”
“You’re the only one who can read it,” Madeline said with a smirk. She shrugged, staring into the pool. “I’m already used to them looking and sounding just like you, as strange as that is. I… despite how similar they are to you, I can tell the difference.”
“So what is it?” Fae asked.
“They’re really dependent on you,” Madeline said. “Olivia keeps holding your hand, and both of them try to stay close to you. They’ve relaxed here, probably because it’s so peaceful, but once we’re back out on our journey, I think they’ll be back to it again.” She looked askance at Fae. “I only notice because I know how much you like being touched.”
Fae frowned, but nodded. “It’s… weird,” she said. “I spent so much time with the triplets, and they’re all touchy-feely and stuff, but it never rubbed off on me. Even when Olivia and Sonya get close, get clingy… I have to fight my own instincts not to flinch or pull back. I don’t like being that close to anyone. But… they need me. They’re dependent on me, and after all they’ve been through, everything that still haunts them… I don’t want to be just another person who hurts them, even unintentionally. I can’t…” She sighed, shaking her head. “I’m finding there are a lot of things I want that I can’t have on this… journey, quest, whatever you want to call it. I can’t be selfish. If I had been… I never would have made it this far.”
“We’re both being pushed out of our comfort zones,” Madeline said with a nod. “Way out. But… it’s exciting at times, isn’t it?” She pulled out her paintbrush Talisman and Summoned Raven, the lavender bird trilling happily before coming to land in between the girls. Madeline smiled as she stroked her Summon beneath the chin. “And sometimes, when we put away the things we want, when we ignore our own desires… we find things better than we would have ever found just chasing our own wants.”
“It’s so easy to say,” Fae said with a sigh, laying back on the cool stones. Raven eyed her with inquisitive black eyes, and Fae stared back at her. “I’m happy about some things that have happened. But… it’s not usually a smile kind of happy. It’s… something deep, something that feels like I’m selling it short if I just smile about it all the time. Does that even make sense?”
Madeline smiled, a gentle sort of smile that conveyed the depth that Fae felt. “It makes sense to me,” she said.
“But I’m also… conflicted,” Fae said with a sigh.
“Yeah,” Madeline said. She lay back on the stones, too, and let out a slight “oof” as Raven hopped up to stand on her stomach. “Seriously?” She gave her Summon a playful shove in the chest, and Raven took off, flying around the flower gardens that surrounded the reflecting pool.
“I really just want to curl up at my desk and draw,” Fae said. “But I also know I’d be upset with myself if I did that. I want to give up. But I want to keep going. I’m excited, but scared, happy, but anxious…”
“We can come up with all the stories we want,” Madeline said, “make all the animations we can, invent all the characters in our heads… but actually going on an adventure, being part of a story we thought could only exist in fiction… it’s a mess. A crazy sort of mess, an exciting sort of mess.”
“I’m really glad you’re here,” Fae said. “All these touchy-feely types… I feel terrible saying it, but if we’d added Olivia and Sonya without you also joining, I might have already broken. I need my space. It’s… really nice to have someone who gets me. I couldn’t relax like this with anyone else.”
“I couldn’t relax back home,” Madeline said. “With you gone…”
“I noticed,” Fae said. “Running around as Royal Raven… playing a superhero…” For a few moments, both girls were silent. Then, one after the other, they burst out laughing.
“Come on, I did it for you!” Madeline said through laughter.
“And it’s so not you,” Fae said, hiding her face, self-conscious at these peals of laughter she couldn’t hold back. “ ‘Butterfly Effect!’ ”
“Shut up,” Madeline said, her laughter starting to fade into giggles.
“I never thought I’d hear you use those words for real,” Fae said, her laughter also fading. Slowly, they both stopped laughing, letting out long sighs at the release of tension. “Still… you play the part really well. And when you jumped in to save us from Olivia, you made one heck of a grand entrance. I was impressed.”
“Well, I had practice,” Madeline said. Both girls giggled at that, and it took them a little while to calm those down, too.
“So it was really Caleb who figured you out?” Fae asked after a while.
“Yeah,” Madeline said. “Imagine that.”
“And he… helped you find me,” Fae said softly. She stared up at the wheeling form of Raven, at the painted clouds on the high ceiling that moved as if they were real.
“Yeah,” Madeline said. “He… isn’t much like he used to be, the one time I met him.”
“He’s changed,” Fae said. “But… well, it’s like all our characters, right? They have layers, have depth that takes time to realize. Maybe…” She trailed off.
Maybe I never took the time to see Caleb’s layers. Maybe he’s always had that inside him. Not just the gung-ho “I love my siblings!” kind of thing that sounds so shallow, but thoughtfulness, understanding…
Maybe I never gave him a chance. Or Dad, or Shias, or Mom…
The only ones I ever really knew were Shana and Delilah, huh? Or did I even give them enough time, enough attention, to know who they really are?
She let out a long, heavy sigh. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Madeline nod.
A bell chimed, soft and pleasant. Fae pushed herself back up to a seat. “Guess it’s time to go,” she said.
“Or at least time to reconvene with everyone,” Madeline said, sitting, too. She stood first, then held out a hand to Fae. Fae stared at it for a moment before taking it, letting Madeline pull her to her feet. They both let go as soon as Fae was standing. “Ready?”
Fae nodded. Together, the girls headed back to the main library of Eventide Archive, Raven swooping down to follow.
Shana was overwhelmed.
Despite the rest she’d been able to have, despite the food and the bed and the tea, despite being around her siblings and getting to spend wonderful, relaxing time with them…
She was totally overwhelmed.
There are so many people here. And when we all get together like this to talk about things, I feel like I can’t get a word in, except…
She watched and listened as Selphine directed conversation and explained what she knew. All around the table, there was Fae’s entire group, Caleb’s entire group, Hestia and Artemis and Galahad, and Shana with her brother and three friends.
There’s so many people, and yet…
Selphine looked up.
Here it comes.
Everyone else looked the same way.
Their gazes rested on Shana.
They keep looking to me. I’m so important, and why? Because Heart came to me. Because I’ve got this giant burden, this huge quest on my shoulders.
Because I’m the one who has to fight the Radiant King. I have to face Leon, alone.
“That sounds fine,” Shana said with a nod.
“Excellent,” Selphine said. “Getting to the Library of Solitude is like walking next door from here. Daylight Bastions are very convenient in that regard. Annabelle will be able to help you reach the Radiant Palace.”
At least I get to see Annabelle again.
“And I have something to say,” Caleb said, raising his hand like a kid in school. He looked at Shana, grinning, his glowing blue eyes flashing with joyful light. “I’m going with you.”
Shana blinked, stunned into silence.
What had he just said?
“She looks confused,” Addie said, cocking her head to the side.
“I, uh, what?” Shana finally asked. “You’re…”
“Coming with you,” Caleb said with a nod, the blue streak in his hair bouncing slightly.
“Not alone, you aren’t,” Mister Midnight said. “We all agreed to it.”
“Right, right,” Caleb said, laughing. “Yeah, so, we’re all with you, Shana. You’ll need all the help you can get to keep the rest of the King’s forces from giving you trouble, right? We’ll make sure no one bothers you while you do your thing.”
Shana restrained a sigh.
There it is again. They’re here for me, they’re right beside me, except…
It’s all just to facilitate my singular quest. It’s all just to back me up.
No one can go in there with me. No one can face Leon by my side.
Shana managed a smile. She was glad that Caleb had made that decision. Having him along, however long it would last, would lift her spirits, at least a little bit.
“As for Fae,” Selphine said, “I think you’d be best off going to the Garden of Memory first. It’s easy to access from here, and you can return when you’re finished with the doorknob. Then we can start planning out the more complicated parts of your journey.”
“Visiting all three Core Locations won’t be a snap,” Mercury said. “Lots of ground yet to cover.”
I shouldn’t be so down. I just have one fight ahead of me. Fae has a whole giant adventure left, even after all she’s been through.
So why do I wish I was in her shoes instead?
“So…” Caleb said, looking around. “I, uh… guess it’s time we all got going, huh?”
A silence stretched long, as everyone started to look at each other, realization dawning on their faces.
Shana felt her heart sinking.
I don’t want this to end.
She opened her mouth to speak, but stopped herself.
I can’t be selfish.
Everyone has work to do. Everyone has places to go. No one else wants this to end, but it has to.
…just how life is.
Everyone was already standing, mingling, saying goodbyes. A nudge at her shoulder, and Shana looked up to see Shias watching her, a worried look on his face. She jumped to her feet, flashing a smile. “I’m fine, I’m good,” she said quickly.
“You’re not,” Shias said quietly.
For a long time, the twins stared at each other, Shana feeling totally on the spot, Shias’ gaze serious and watchful.
“I… will be,” Shana said, looking away.
Shias took her hand, gave it a gentle squeeze. “I’m with you all the way,” he said. “No matter what.”
Shana nodded, but her heart wasn’t in it. Her heart was just a twisted mess, jumbled and conflicted and confused.
It’ll be better when this is over, when we win…
She hurried to Fae, who looked very uncomfortable, almost as uncomfortable as Caleb did, as he tried to bid her goodbye.
“Yeah, so…” Caleb said, rubbing the back of his neck. “Take care, okay? And however it seems, and I know it’s weird a lot between us, I mean, ah…” His cheeks reddened, and he looked up at the ceiling. “I just… I’ll miss you. I always do.”
Fae nodded. “Thanks,” was all she said.
“Fae!” Shana called out, rushing to wrap her older sister in a hug. She held her tight, burying her face against her shoulder. There was a comfort in her sister’s warmth, in even the awkward way in which she hugged her back.
“I’ll miss you, too,” Fae said softly. It sounded like there was a bit of laughter in her voice.
“Be careful, okay?” Shana asked, looking up at her.
“I will,” Fae said. “Are you… um, are you okay?” She seemed embarrassed to ask, but now Shana was embarrassed, too.
She only just realized she was on the edge of tears.
“Yeah, totally, I’m good,” Shana said quickly, wiping at her face and flashing a grin. “No worries. Just emotional, you know? I’ll miss you lots.”
“I know,” Fae said. “But we’ll… spend lots of time together, when this is all over. Okay?”
Shana nodded. That was all she ever wanted, all she dearly hoped for right now.
Slowly, her group started to combine with Caleb’s and Hestia’s. A final set of waves and farewells to Fae’s group, and then they headed through the door to the Library of Solitude, Shana reluctantly at the lead.
Shias, Kathryn, Rae, Ben, Caleb, Chelsea, Addie, Mister Midnight, Mineria, Ingrid, Hestia, Artemis, Galahad.
There’s so many of us. Caleb’s probably right that we’ll need it.
Why do I feel so lonely?
Stepping into the Library of Solitude, however, was a breath of fresh air. For a moment, Shana was transported far from her worries and fears, and into a place of wonder and amazement. The sky outside the high windows was dark, but it was usually nighttime here, so that wasn’t surprising. And the lights all throughout the vast space cast a silvery glow like moonlight and starlight, ethereal and wondrous.
Before they got past the entrance hall, Shana spotted a mass of red hair, and her heart leapt in her chest. Before she knew it, she was running to meet the little girl who ran to meet her, and they both stopped in the center of the entrance hall in a warm, heartfelt embrace.
“I’ve missed you,” Annabelle said, her breath tickling Shana’s ear.
“I’ve missed you back,” Shana said, smiling. She pulled away, taking a good look at Annabelle. The girl looked just as she had the last she’d seen her, healthy and whole, physically a child just like her twin sister, but her eyes, tone of voice, and body language conveyed a maturity and wisdom far beyond Isabelle’s.
“Anna?” came a startled voice choked with emotion. Annabelle looked up, and her eyes widened.
She’d just noticed Hestia, who was staring at her with tears in her eyes.
“Hestia…” Annabelle said slowly, starting forward. Hestia was rooted to the spot, but Annabelle kept coming closer, until finally she stopped just a few feet away, staring up at the former Radiance Royal Guard. “You’re okay.”
“Yes,” Hestia said, nodding, wiping at her eyes.
Annabelle smiled, then stepped forward to hug Hestia’s legs. “I’m glad,” she said. “I’ve been worried about you ever since I escaped the Palace. I thought they might do terrible things to you for letting me go.”
“No,” Hestia said, kneeling down so she could hug Annabelle properly. She sobbed. “I’m so glad you’re safe. I’m so glad you’re home. I’m so sorry for what happened to you, for not realizing you were a prisoner, for not doing more —”
“That’s all in the past,” Annabelle said, placing a finger on Hestia’s lips. “And you were always good to me, even if you were blind to your King’s madness. So let’s put the past behind us. I’d like us to be friends, if you’re willing.”
Hestia stared at her, eyes swimming with tears, mouth slightly open in surprise. Behind her, Galahad smiled.
“A tearful, heartfelt reunion for two lovely ladies,” he said, nodding approvingly. “I’m glad we’ve stuck things out this far, Hestia, for your sake if nothing else.”
Annabelle looked up at Galahad and Artemis, watchful and uncertain. “So you left the Radiance, too, then?” she asked.
“Along with Octavian and Desmé,” Artemis said. “They’re in Grimoire, helping Jacob Crowley and the Hunters. The three of us left, because…” Her voice caught in her throat, and she looked away.
“I heard,” Annabelle said with a nod. “So Athena’s the Gold Knight now… I’ll do all I can to help you save her.” She looked to Shana. “And to help you defeat the Radiant King once and for all. He’s done so much harm to so many, and…” she clenched a tiny hand into a fist, “it’s personal for me.” She sighed. “I just wish I could do more. I can’t leave the Library, not with how things are right now. All I can do is use my magic to transport you to the Palace. But once inside… you’ll have to win. There won’t be any easy escape for you.”
“With how things are right now?” Shana asked.
“We met your sisters,” came another voice, and Shana turned to see someone startlingly familiar, and yet…
She’s changed so much since I saw her at Midnight Bridge.
“Sarabelle!” Shana said, smiling at the newly arrived Princess. “You’re looking so well. You’ve recovered?”
“For the most part,” Sarabelle said, smiling. She had such a graceful demeanor, reminding Shana of Selphine, yet there was something in her eyes…
After all she’s endured, how could there not be?
Her hair shuffled as if of its own free will, and then parted to reveal that the hair wasn’t sentient.
There was a cat riding on Sarabelle’s shoulder. She was a small thing, lithe and white with red streaks on her ears. She kept part of herself hidden in Sarabelle’s hair, crouching low and watching Shana and the others with inquisitive, pale green eyes.
“Who’s this?” Shana asked, raising her hand slowly, gently, for the cat to sniff.
“Bella,” Sarabelle said.
“She vanished, and we thought she was just gone,” Annabelle said. “But when Sarabelle returned, Bella came out of hiding immediately. Glued to her again, just like she always was before.”
“Somehow she was able to evade even the darkness that infested the Library of Solitude,” Sarabelle said, watching as Bella cautiously sniffed Shana’s outstretched fingers. “She remained in the Library even when all others left.”
“Such a faithful companion,” Shana said, smiling. After a moment, Bella leaned out farther, wet nose touching Shana’s index finger, and then…
She licked Shana’s finger. Lightly, just twice, but it tickled slightly, and Shana giggled. Bella stared at her, and though she returned to her stable perch on Sarabelle’s shoulder, she didn’t look as nervous.
“Two in a row,” Annabelle said. “She was friendly to Delilah, too.”
“So you saw Delilah?” Shana asked.
“And Alice,” Annabelle said, a mischievous smile on her face for a moment. “She and Isabelle didn’t get along so well.”
“But where are they?” Shana asked, looking around, as if Delilah and Alice would just hop out from behind a corner.
But of course they wouldn’t. Selphine had already said where they’d gone.
“We just spoke to them recently,” Sarabelle said. “They’ve reached the Drowned Palace, and are in the midst of a battle against Sen and whatever allies he’s gathered. We aren’t contacting them if we can help it — interrupting the revue would be bad for them. But Mari and Isabelle know the rules, and are quite well-trained for that kind of battle.”
“That’s why I can’t go with you,” Annabelle said. “I need to be ready with Sarabelle to reach out to them. We’re continuing to research whatever we can, searching for all the clues possible. And we need to be here to watch over the Library. We can’t allow darkness to gain even a toehold, not ever again.”
“Just being able to fast-track us to the Palace is a big help,” Shias said. “Thank you.”
Annabelle nodded, looking back at Hestia. “When it’s over,” she said, “please visit whenever you like. You’ll always be an honored guest.”
Hestia nodded, still overflowing with emotion.
“Then… I guess we’re ready?” Caleb asked, twirling his pocket watch by its chain. Next to him, Addie had out a white pocket watch, which she tried to twirl like him. But his was hooked to his belt, while hers was looped around her neck, so she didn’t have much luck.
Shana opened her mouth to speak, but stopped.
I have to do this.
This is good, right? I got to see Annabelle, and Sarabelle, and they’re okay. Delilah’s heading into a fight just like me.
There are so many people counting on me.
She looked up at Bella again, holding out her hand.
It’s a really, really heavy burden.
Bella inched forward, licking Shana’s fingertips again. Such a small, tender gesture.
But it was something beautiful.
Shana smiled at Bella, then turned to Annabelle, nodding. “We’re ready,” she said.
Annabelle explained to the large group what Shana already knew about her magic, about the portal that was about to appear. They just needed to give into it, to not resist the pull, and they’d end up safely at their destination.
And then the portal opened. Shana felt the pull.
For a moment, she did resist. Her heart hurt. She longed to stay here in the Library of Solitude, or to go back home to Grimoire.
She gave in. She let the portal take her, and closed her eyes, steeling herself for the fight ahead.
In the throne room of the Radiant Palace, the Radiant King looked upon his faithful followers.
There were far less of them than once had been. The fight for Grimoire had cost far more dearly than he’d ever expected.
But those who remained were the ones he could trust most. They had been tested. They had survived the vicious battle in Grimoire, and they remained by his side after so crushing a defeat.
Most had been with him nearly since the beginning: Void and Neith, Titan, Nyx, Platina…
The King turned his head to look at his right, at the towering and imposing Gold Knight. The one who had been with him the longest of all.
Looking back upon those who were with him, there were newcomers, as well. A Hunter from Grimoire who shared his ideals, who recognized that magic was not the tool of mere mortals, but that of gods. He was young, barely thirty years old, and he had recently served Blaise Mathers, but the King was certain of his loyalty. The boy had finally found a cause that fit his grand ideals. And by his side, an Eternal that the King had recently met after so long separated. An Eternal who had once rejected the call of his King, but now recognized where he belonged.
It was hard to ignore those who were missing. The dead were one thing, but to have so many alive, so many alive who were once under his banner but now had abandoned him…
Hestia, Artemis, Galahad, Octavian, Desmé…
And Ignis. The one he’d never been certain he could rely on, the one who craved contest and strength above all else. The fight with the Reiner girl had changed him. He’d survived and was out there somewhere, alive and well.
But he had never returned to his King.
Those who are gone, who willingly abandoned me…
They aren’t needed. They served their purpose, but the season for their service has passed. One day they may return. More likely, they will perish, filled with regret.
The ones who died in service to me…
I will never forget you. Your sacrifice is a fire within me, one that will burn bright very soon.
The King looked over his shoulder, at the one only he could see.
You are still by my side. You’ve always been by my side. You’d never leave me.
Shana is on her way. Coming with the part of you that was left behind. Soon you will be whole again, whole where you belong.
Then the Great Dream can be fulfilled.
The King sighed, and smiled, though no one could see it through the shining glow that hid his face.
All is in place. Soon, very soon, my power will be as it should be.
And then the darkness will be put to flight.
Light will fill everything. Light will gleam bright.
Light will purify all that has been corrupted.
Light will restore all that has been lost.
He raised a hand, flared light like a sun in his palm.
By my hand, the universe will be saved.