Anastasia picked her way up a steep, rocky path in the higher reaches of the mountains west of Grimoire.
In truth, they were the mountains west of the mountains west of Grimoire, with a vast forest spanning between the two ranges. For days she had scoured the lush wilderness with Sieglinde and Doctor, until finally they’d learned of this path, and what — hopefully — awaited them at the top.
“Mind your footing, Doctor,” Sieglinde said.
“I’m afraid I’m not much for wilderness hikes,” said Doctor, short of breath, “despite all the practice I’ve been getting recently.” He let out a heavy sigh. “I sincerely hope our friends are up here.”
“They’re here,” Anastasia said, keeping her gaze forward as she climbed.
“You’re so sure, Ana?” Sieglinde asked.
“I’m sure,” Anastasia said, pausing for a moment. She sniffed the air twice. “Can’t you smell it?”
Sieglinde and Doctor paused as well. “Ah,” Doctor said, chuckling softly. “Rosehip. With a hint of vanilla.”
“His favorite,” Sieglinde said.
Anastasia nodded, continuing up the rocky path. A few more steps, and she pushed aside some brush to step out onto a level plateau.
There was a log cabin in the center, smoke wafting lazily up from its chimney. Closer to Anastasia and the others was a tall oak tree, its leaves beautifully green even with winter in full swing and snow covering its branches and the ground around it. Seated on the ground in the snow, leaning back against the tree’s trunk, was a man with a steaming cup in his hand. He sipped once at his tea, then looked up at Anastasia.
Though he didn’t wear his signature wide-brimmed straw hat, Stride was still immediately recognizable. He had that posture that looked so relaxed while hiding just how prepared he was to react to any danger. And of course, he always had his sheath-boxes at his hips and on his back, each box containing multiple sheathed swords, each one different.
Stride wasn’t wearing his eyepatch, either, revealing a pale blue eye with a glowing crimson X in place of a pupil.
“You should have called ahead,” he said, raising his mug. Just like his posture, his tone was always so casual and relaxed. “I would have made more tea.”
“I tried calling you,” Anastasia said. “You haven’t been answering.” She looked past him at the cabin. “Cozy place. I didn’t know you had a hideaway like this.”
“It’s not mine,” Stride said. “I’m just passing through.” He smirked. “Serendipitous timing on your part.”
“This cabin belongs to Bronn?” Doctor asked, adjusting his glasses as he caught his breath. “I wouldn’t have thought it.”
“It’s new,” Stride said. “Well, relatively.”
“Decades?” Anastasia asked.
“Just ten,” Stride said, finishing his tea and standing. “One hundred and two years, to be more precise.” Anastasia started towards the cabin. “He doesn’t want to see you.”
“I know,” Anastasia said, continuing forward.
I know you don’t want to have anything to do with me right now, Bronn. But after you hear what I have to say, you’ll change your mind.
At least, that’s what I hope.
She knocked three times on the door and then let herself in. There, standing in the central room as if waiting for her, was a hulking man with titanic shoulders and arms bulging with muscle.
“Hello, Bronn,” Anastasia said.
Bronn nodded, regarding her with an unfriendly gaze. “What do you want, Ana?” he asked.
“It’s about Sal,” Anastasia said.
Bronn blinked twice. “Sal’s dead,” he said, his tone hollow.
Anastasia shook her head. “Not according to Blaise.”
“You talked to him?”
Anastasia nodded. “He had a lot to say. Especially about Sal. The most interesting bit was that Sal’s the one who introduced him to Jormungand.”
Bronn had small, intense eyes that betrayed very little, but familiarity helped Anastasia see the little flicker that crossed them. “Jormungand,” he said softly, staring at the floor. “And that’s all that brought you here to me?”
“We’re going to find Sal,” Anastasia said. “You’ve seen the skies. You’ve seen the living darkness that Jormungand commanded. Sal… he must be connected to all of this somehow. If he introduced Blaise to Jormungand only to leave, then he’s planning something else. We’re going to find him before he enacts his plan and stop him.”
“Why us?” Bronn asked.
“He’s our responsibility,” Anastasia said. “We… gave up on him. And then we wrote him off as dead without actually knowing. After losing so many dear friends, to find out one of them is actually alive, and that he’s… whatever he is now… who better to find and stop him? Maybe even…”
“Save him?” Bronn asked.
“Then you don’t want me on this trip,” Bronn said. Noticing Anastasia’s patient silence, he stared at her, his eyes smoldering with rage. “He brought Jormungand into our lives. If I see him again, I’ll kill him.”
Anastasia looked outside, at Stride amicably chatting with Sieglinde and Doctor. Like so many times, she couldn’t help but see the ghosts of so many people. So many friends, so many allies, who should be here, too.
“I miss them,” she said. “All of them. That includes Sal. But… I can’t deny I’ve felt the same. My curiosity overwhelms my rage, though. I want to know why he did what he did, and what he still has planned. But…” She looked at Bronn, nodding. “If there’s no hope for him, then I’ll be glad to have you.”
Bronn sighed, looking away. “You turned against Blaise, Ana,” he said softly. “You fought him. That’s… why I’ve been so angry.”
“I know,” Anastasia said, but Bronn shook his head.
“It’s not because you betrayed him,” he said. “It’s because you didn’t betray him. You saw he was wrong and you aimed to right it. While I… couldn’t. You fought, and I walked away.”
Anastasia stepped forward and placed a hand on Bronn’s arm. “You have nothing to be ashamed of, Bronn,” she said. “It broke my heart to fight Blaise. And for too long, I saw what was wrong and did nothing. If I’d stepped forward sooner, things never would have become so broken.”
“We fought alongside each other for so long,” Bronn said. “And we’ve lost so many. I saw the darkness, I saw all that you saw, but I… I wasn’t willing to risk losing the one who brought all of us together.”
“And we haven’t lost him,” Anastasia said. “He may be a captive, but he’s coming around. He’s reflecting on things and realizing what he did wrong. One day, we’ll all be together again. The way things should be, rather than the way things were.” She managed a small smile. “Come with us, Bronn.”
Slowly, Bronn nodded. “I will. You’re right. For Sal… we should all go after him together.”
The Radiant Palace was horribly bright. Caleb shielded his eyes against the golden glare, but that barely helped.
“Not to worry,” Mineria said. “I can help with the brightness.” She went around the group, placing a magical shield over their eyes that lessened the glare, a technique that made Caleb think of tinted contact lenses. When Mineria did that for Caleb and he was able to look around properly, he was awestruck.
“It’s… totally huge,” he said, gaping.
“Overly so,” Mister Midnight said. “To an absurd degree.”
They were on an outdoor garden balcony, connecting to the primary building of the Palace by a stair-bridge. And the primary building was staggering in size. It had hundreds of floors, and stretched on to the left and right for what must have been miles.
“I never realized you can see the throne room from outside,” Shias said, looking high up. Caleb followed his gaze to a gleaming dome at the highest point of the Palace.
“Not too far from us,” he said. The stair-bridge from this garden balcony led up to a point just below the throne room. He looked back at Shana. “You ready?”
Shana had a strange look in her eyes, but she nodded. “Yeah,” she said, “let’s go.”
They started up the stairs, Shana and Shias in the lead.
“This will be a serious fight,” Midnight said, walking beside Caleb. “Probably as difficult as anything you faced in the battle for Grimoire. But it’s also an excellent opportunity to learn how your new Time Magic works. Test it. Try it out. You don’t get many chances like this.”
“Just don’t overdo it and get myself killed, right?” Caleb asked.
“No jokes about you dying,” Chelsea said, jabbing Caleb sharply in the back.
“Right,” Caleb said, wincing at both the sharp jab and how careless he was in making that joke.
“So what do we do?” Addie asked, indicating herself and Ingrid, who walked beside her. That simple question made Caleb stop in his tracks. He looked at Midnight, who raised an eyebrow.
“We’re going into a huge fight,” Caleb said. “So… why did we bring everyone?”
“Because we’re not letting you out of our sight,” Ingrid said, earning an enthusiastic nod from Addie. “We may not be fighters, but surely we can be of some use.”
“Don’t worry over the girls,” Mineria said, smiling as she placed a hand on each of the young girls’ shoulders. “I’ll watch over them.” Caleb didn’t know if that was enough — he’d never seen or heard even an indication that Mineria could fight — but Midnight just nodded, displaying utmost confidence in her.
“We may need some help freeing Athena,” Hestia said, staying close to Caleb and his group. “I know we already asked so much of you in having you bear the burden of the first few steps of undoing her Contract, but —”
“Don’t worry about it,” Caleb said with a smile. “You’ll have all the help you need.”
Before they’d left, Hestia and Artemis had gone over what they’d discovered from the Contract, detailing every step to undoing it and saving Athena. It would be a tricky challenge, much like Maribelle had experienced in saving Sarabelle, but with everyone here, Caleb wasn’t worried.
They could do it. They’d save Athena.
Up ahead, Caleb saw Shana and Shias in quiet, constant conversation. Kathryn, Rae, and Ben occasionally jumped in, but were mostly talking amongst themselves.
Soon, they reached the end of the stair-bridge, entering an atrium that Caleb found familiar just by it being described to him multiple times. He’d never been here, but he felt like he had. The hearth in the center of the floor glowing with coals, the repaired grand piano in the far corner, the wide stairs leading up out of sight to the throne room… this was where Shana and her team had fought to save Annabelle, where Midnight had fought with Maribelle to free Sarabelle.
And now we’re all here, ready to fight whatever the Radiant King has in store for us.
The last trip to the Radiant Palace, if we succeed. After this, it’ll be the Crystal Palace again.
At the foot of the stairs was the Gold Knight, her armor hulking and gleaming bright, her massive sword planted on the floor between her feet, both gauntleted hands resting on its hilt.
“Sister,” Artemis said, starting forward, but then stopped.
The Radiant King was speaking.
“Dreamer,” came his warm, powerful voice that came from all directions. “I have long awaited your return to me. Come, let us speak.”
“We’re coming with her,” Shias said.
“Ah, but we must speak alone,” the King said. “That is how it must be. Isn’t that true, Dreamer?”
“Yes,” Shana said, her voice taut. She gave Shias’ hand a squeeze, looked back at everyone for a moment, and then started forward.
“We just… let her go,” Caleb said softly, watching his sister pass the Gold Knight and start up the stairs.
“She’ll be all right,” Chelsea said. “We just need to trust her, and be here safe and sound when she’s done.”
“Be ready,” said Galahad, drawing his sword and readying his shield. “The Gold Knight isn’t all the King has protecting him.”
Just moments after Shana ascended out of sight, each of the adjoining corridors — and the stairs themselves — were alive with movement. Every new arrival was dressed in either the white uniform of a Royal Guard or the black of an Enforcer. There were Void and Neith, along with Titan, Nyx, and a horrifically burn-scarred Platina. There was a Royal Guard Caleb didn’t recognize, a boy who didn’t look much older than Shias, with honey-blonde hair and narrow-framed glasses. He carried a thick, leather-bound book, open about a third of the way in. There were three Enforcers Caleb didn’t recognize, two women and a man, and then…
“Chase?” Caleb asked, eyes wide in shock.
There, alongside Void and Neith, was Chase Fredricks. His blue scarf Talisman stood out against his black Enforcer’s uniform. He cocked an eyebrow when he looked at Caleb. “What happened to you?” he asked. “Light-up contact lenses?”
“What happened to you?” Caleb asked, gripping his pocket watch Talisman tightly. “You vanished after the Grimoire battle, and then… now you’re here? What’s going on?”
“I told you, didn’t I?” Chase asked. “Magic is no tool of mortals. The Radiant King understands that. I’ve simply joined those who see the truth — the gods of this universe.”
“This is the grandstanding you had to listen to before?” Chelsea asked. “How’d you manage it without punching him in the face?”
“Chase, you don’t belong here,” Caleb said.
“This is the only place I belong, Caleb,” Chase said. “But if you still can’t see it, we have nothing more to talk about.”
“If you two are done with your cute reunion,” Neith said, looking remarkably bored, “then I think it’s time we got to work.”
“You’re absolutely right!” Platina shouted, pointing her metal weapon Talisman at Chelsea. “Fire witch! You’re mine.”
“Everyone on your targets,” Midnight said. “Let’s go to work.”
“Shias, I’m gonna do that opener we practiced,” Caleb said, smiling. Shias nodded, and Caleb stepped forward, holding out his hand, palm upward. A shimmering ball of white light, the exact same size as a volleyball, appeared in his hand. Grinning, Caleb tossed it up in the air. Taking two steps forward, he crouched, then leapt high, bringing his arm back, lining up with the ball of light. With a sharp battle cry, he swung forward as hard as he could, a powerful spike launching the ball of light straight towards Chase.
Chase’s scarf snapped out to intercept, but on contact, the ball of light burst open.
It was actually a ball of tightly corded chains. Now bursting open, the chains flew wild in many directions. Chase couldn’t intercept them all, and in an instant he was bound and dropped to the floor.
With that opening attack, everyone else charged into action. Hestia, Artemis, and Galahad raced towards the Gold Knight. Chelsea launched her flames, Rae Summoned Brutus, and all around magic erupted to life.
The battle began.
Shana walked past five Enforcers as she entered the throne room, but she barely noticed them.
Her eyes were locked on the Radiant King — Leon.
She stopped at the base of the dais on which his shining throne sat. For a long time, both were silent. Distantly, Shana heard the sounds of battle begin, dull and faint.
She felt a hand on her shoulder and looked up in surprise to see…
“Heart?” she asked, staring wide-eyed. There was Heart, here in the physical world.
“I’m with you, Shana,” Heart said, nodding to Shana and then looking up at Leon, her eyes filled with grief.
“Finally, you can be whole,” Leon said, and Shana saw another Heart behind Leon. That Heart, however, had such a hollow, empty gaze.
She really is just a shell.
“Now, Dreamer,” Leon said. “Shall we begin?”
In that instant, the physical world vanished, and Shana was pulled into a world of Dreams.