“They’re just so cute,” Kathryn said, grinning as she watched Shias and Shana sleep. The twins were sitting up — there wasn’t enough space to lie down and sleep with all five of them in a single train compartment — with their heads leaning against each other’s, mouths slightly open. Between them was squeezed Altair, the little blue pup a big fan of snuggly places to squeeze into, particularly between two people.
“I’m glad she can sleep,” Rae said. “After what she said… and the way she looked…”
“Yeah,” Kathryn said.
Shana’s simple “I want to go home,” at the Radiant Palace — now the Crystal Palace again — had been spoken with such a hollow voice.
And Shana had gotten just what she asked for. All of them — the Dawn Riders, Caleb and Mister Midnight’s group, Hestia’s group with the now freed-from-her-Contract Athena — had escaped the Palace along with numerous captives, all of which Mister Midnight and Hestia’s groups had handled.
And then Mister Midnight had called up the Goodnight Express and gotten the five teens a fast-track trip to Grimoire, no stops on the way.
Rae giggled softly. “Shias never looks that expressive when he’s awake,” she said.
Kathryn laughed with her at Shias’ relaxed expression. “He’s always working so hard for her,” she said.
“For everyone,” Ben said. “He just keeps carrying everything on his shoulders without making a fuss. He went without sleep a lot during all these adventures.”
“And carried the team a lot,” Kathryn said, thinking back to their rescue mission for Annabelle, and how Shias had singlehandedly, for a lot longer than Kathryn would have ever thought possible, held back four Royal Guards and the Gold Knight so everyone could escape safely. And he’d gotten himself out alive, too.
“We’ve gotten a lot stronger though, haven’t we?” Rae asked. “I was so surprised in that last battle… I know we had a lot more help, but we also had many more enemies, and yet we did so well.”
“I’m proud of us,” Kathryn said, beaming as she wrapped an arm around Ben to one side and Rae to the other, pulling them close to her despite Ben’s protestations. “We’re a really great team.”
“But what happens to us now?” Ben asked, wriggling for a while in Kathryn’s grip before surrendering to it. “Shana… she…”
“She looked exhausted,” Rae said. “But more than that, she looked like her heart had just… shattered. Like she couldn’t do anything anymore.”
“Nothing’s gonna ‘happen’ to us,” Kathryn said. “We didn’t start out as some fancy team out to save the world. We were friends before, and we’re friends still. That’s all we need.” She took a deep breath, slowly letting it out as she stared at the sleeping Shana. “She’s gonna need us as friends. Not as teammates or fellow heroes or whatever — as friends. More than ever.”
“So our journey’s over,” Ben said. “It feels… strange. I mean, I know this was our last big thing, and we took out the entire Radiance, they’re done, they’ll never attack Grimoire or anything else ever again. But… somehow it doesn’t feel like we’re done. Or maybe it just… hasn’t hit me yet?” He sighed, leaning his head back against the seat. “I don’t know. I feel more empty and tired than I do triumphant.”
“Just shows how hard you worked,” Kathryn said, grinning. “Maybe this is the end for us, the end of our adventures, but even if it is, there’s still lots of life left to live, right? And it’s good we don’t have a pressing mission or something waiting for us right now. If anybody else needs the Dawn Riders, they’d better just keep it to themselves for now, until Shana fully recovers.”
“Somehow…” Rae said softly, fiddling with her keychain Talisman, “I… don’t think this is the end.”
Well, I wasn’t gonna be the one to say it.
Shana, you’d better not be pretending to sleep. You don’t need to hear all this and get stressed out about what’s to come.
“Well, whatever comes next, we’ll all need to step up,” Kathryn said. “Give Shana a break.”
“She’s earned it,” Ben said.
“And then some,” Kathryn said with a nod. She looked aside, past Rae to the wheeling universe speeding by outside the window.
Rest, Shana. Rest and recover, however long it takes.
You’re not alone.
“They’re just way too cute,” Addie said, giggling.
“Shh, we don’t want to wake them,” Ingrid said, pressing a finger to her lips.
“I kinda want to,” Addie said.
Mister Midnight sat by the fireplace, watching the two girls and the two they were staring at: Caleb and Chelsea. The couple were asleep sitting up on the couch in Midnight’s home, Chelsea’s head on Caleb’s shoulder, Caleb’s head on hers, their fingers intertwined. Perched on the back of the couch, Chelsea’s owl Summon served as a pillow for the pair, and was also asleep, cooing ever so softly as its feathery chest rose and fell.
“Leave them be,” Midnight said. “They need the rest. And you girls do, too. Go to bed.”
“Don’t wanna,” Addie said, sticking out her tongue teasingly.
“We’re not the ones who had to fight or struggle,” Ingrid said. “That’s why we’re not tired. If anyone should sleep, it’s you.”
“Yeah, go take a nap,” Addie said. “We’ll watch over you.”
As if I’d even consider it when you say it with that mischievous look on your face.
But Midnight’s mind was only partly on the present, and the more time passed, the more his thoughts went back to the Radiant Palace’s audience chamber, and his duel with Nyx. As Mineria stepped in and chatted with the two girls, Midnight gritted his teeth in frustration at letting his foe escape.
We took all the others prisoner. The Radiant King is dead.
And yet one — just one! — slipped through my grasp.
In the end, our score remains unsettled. And without her precious King, without the Radiance, I have no idea where she’ll go.
Maybe I’ll never see her again. Maybe…
But he wouldn’t ever be content if Nyx went on living.
Nor would he be content if she died somewhere far away from him, by another’s hand, or in some freak accident.
Hestia and her group convinced me to let their former allies live, to be prisoners for them to pass judgment on.
But not Nyx. Never Nyx. Void was very nearly a step too far, but at least he’s harmless in the right hands.
He would never forget that horrific day. The first day he’d met the Radiance, the first he’d ever even been aware of their existence.
The day he met Nyx, and let down his guard because she had the body and voice of a child. Who would ever expect the monster she truly was?
And for so long fighting the Radiance, she’s eluded me. Always somewhere else, always on different missions, apart from her comrades.
Then I finally find her again, after all this time, and get to fight her properly, with all the ways I’ve grown so much stronger since that day…
And I couldn’t defeat her. I couldn’t even lock her down for someone else to take her prisoner, as humiliating as that would have been.
I could cast aside my pride for that semblance of a victory.
All I could do was lock her into a stalemate, fight her to a draw. That’s worse than defeat.
“Lance,” came the musical, one-of-a-kind soothing voice of Mineria. Her hand held his, her skin smooth and warm to the touch.
Midnight’s attention returned to the present. “Where’d the girls go?” he asked.
“Upstairs to bed,” Mineria said with a light laugh. “They didn’t realize how tired they were. They went upstairs to play in Ingrid’s room, but it wasn’t two moments later that I checked in and found them fast asleep.”
Midnight managed a small smile. “Good.”
“Meanwhile, you’re battling dark thoughts,” Mineria said. “Not that I’m surprised, but you shouldn’t continue to do so alone.”
“Do you remember their faces, Lancelot?” “Can you still hear their screams?” “Come, then! Come and claim your revenge!” “What’s holding you back?” “Surely you’re stronger than this after all this time!”
Nyx’s cruel voice, her giddy laughter, still rang in Midnight’s ears.
“She escaped,” he said softly, bitterly. “And now she’s more lost to the wind than ever, with no allies or power structure to keep her somewhere. I may never find her again.”
“You will,” Mineria said. “Or she’ll find you. It seems to me the hatred you feel towards her is mutual.”
“Yet she only hates me because I survived. She’s petty. While I…” Midnight clenched his free hand into a fist.
“One way or another, one day, she will pay for what she did,” Mineria said. “But know that you aren’t alone, Lance. And you needn’t fight her alone next time.”
Midnight said nothing, turning his head to stare into the glowing embers of the fireplace.
I hear all that you’re saying, and I recognize the truth in your claims.
He turned from the fireplace to look at his sleeping student.
You rushed to my aid and I told you to leave. You listened.
But if you hadn’t…
Together, we could have beaten her. Couldn’t we?
And would it really be so bad to not defeat her alone?
All he could do was contemplate these questions. At the moment…
He didn’t have any answers.
Caleb dreamt of the Radiant Palace.
He dreamt of Athena being freed and falling to her knees, her face grief-stricken.
He dreamt of how it only got worse when Shana won, when the Radiant King vanished and the Radiant Palace turned from blinding gold to cool blue crystal. How Athena, and Platina with her, had wailed in anguish, the sounds of their mournful cries burned into Caleb’s mind. How they had so loved their king, and how they were so broken with him gone. How they couldn’t even bring themselves to resist when they were bound and put into the care of Hestia’s group.
How Nyx had escaped, breaking away from Midnight and leaping into the air, freefalling for thousands and thousands of feet, to disappear into the swirling blue clouds so far below.
How Midnight had said, despite what all others thought, that there was no way she was dead. How he had said it with an expression of such shame at letting her escape.
How Shana hadn’t said a word after her “I want to go home.” How she couldn’t even bring herself to look at anyone when she and her friends left on the Goodnight Express.
How Chase had been placed into Hestia’s care as well, still unconscious, to be passed on to Grimoire and Jacob Crowley’s jurisdiction for imprisonment.
How it had all felt so…
Empty. They had won, and yet that victory came with such weeping, such sadness. That victory had left his sister unable to raise her head or speak another word beyond her desire to go home. That victory had left Midnight with a dark expression of rage and guilt. That victory had left so many without a leader, without a cause to live for, without their oldest and dearest friend.
Slowly, Caleb’s dreams drifted, drifted into places of beauty and comfort that he wouldn’t remember clearly when he woke up. And when he did wake up, feeling Chelsea’s soft hair against his cheek, her hand gently holding his, he was able to push aside the pain of the victory and look ahead to what was next.
It wasn’t long after waking that Caleb and Chelsea were gathered with Midnight, Mineria, Ingrid, and Addie down below in the crystal caverns, heading through the door to Eventide Archive.
“You’ve returned,” Selphine said, smiling at the sight of the new arrivals. “I heard from Hestia all that transpired at the Radiant — or I suppose I can now say, the Crystal Palace. She and her group were at the Library of Solitude for a short time, but have now returned to Grimoire with their captives.” She bowed her head. “I wish Shana was doing better. I’m glad she was able to succeed, but… well, perhaps it was too much to ask of one so young.”
“She’ll get through it,” Caleb said, surprising himself when he had to force a smile. “She’s got Shias, after all. And she’s back home. It’s the perfect place for resting and recovering.”
Selphine smiled. “Yes, you’re right,” she said. “So I suppose your return means you’re prepared to travel to Clockworks.”
“That’s right,” Midnight said. He didn’t sound — or look — at all happy about it.
“How do we get there?” Addie asked. “Is it through your special door?”
Selphine laughed. “No, unfortunately, you won’t be going through there,” she said. “But don’t worry. You still get to travel through a special door.”
“You mean you have one?” Midnight asked, staring. “I… guess I shouldn’t be surprised. You have just about everything.”
“And yet there are still things I wish I had,” Selphine said, a faraway look in her eyes. “But yes. I have a clockwork door.”
“Only one, I’m guessing?” Midnight asked. At Selphine’s nod, he sighed. “Well, I didn’t think we’d get that lucky.”
“What’s a clockwork door?” Ingrid asked.
“A special mechanism for entering and exiting Clockworks,” Midnight said. “At one point there was regular access to the city, but that was long ago, before it was sealed.”
“Sealed?” Chelsea asked. “What, is it under some kind of quarantine?”
“Nothing like that,” Midnight said. “And not that dangerous. It’s… complicated. Better to explain when we’re there, when you can see it with your own eyes.”
“Just the way you like to teach,” Caleb said with a grin.
“We just might have some trouble getting out once we’ve gotten in,” Mineria said.
“We can’t use the door we come in through?” Addie asked.
“Each clockwork door is only one-way,” Selphine said. “I’d been hoping to get a return door, but I haven’t come across one. I only have a departure door.”
“I can get us out,” Midnight said. “So? Where’s the door?”
“Ever to the point,” Selphine said with a soft laugh. “Come with me.”
She led them through the Archive’s main room, the library, and out down a hall Caleb hadn’t explored when he’d been here last. The hall descended slightly, the floor a plush carpet, the walls decorated sparsely with landscape paintings. Caleb recognized one as being Hollow Island, the view from the shore, and it was like stepping into a memory, seeing the Island just as he had first seen it so long ago.
All along the way, they carried their shoes, save Mineria, who never wore any. There was no wearing shoes in the Archive, but they wouldn’t be going back to the entrance when they left, so they’d need their shoes at their point of exit.
The slightly sloping hall eventually led to a small chamber that Selphine unlocked before entering, and locked behind them once they were inside. It was nothing more than a storage closet, and in the far corner was a mechanical door, its seam at the center horizontally, as if it opened from the center outwards. All around its edges and along its face were gears, dials, various implements of clockwork machinery. When Selphine gripped the lever at the top and pulled, a hiss of steam emitted from the top of the door before, and as Caleb suspected, it slid up and down from the middle to open. What lay beyond the opening was obscured by a grey mist.
“Let’s go,” Midnight said, starting towards the door. Just before he went through, he nodded once to Selphine. “Thank you.” Then he stepped through and was gone. Mineria followed him, then Ingrid.
“Well come on, let’s go,” Addie said, tugging on Caleb’s hand.
“Yeah, okay,” Caleb said, nodding absently.
“Clockwork nerd,” Chelsea whispered teasingly. Caleb laughed, pulling his attention, finally, away from the mechanisms powering the door, and starting forward with Chelsea and Addie.
“Thank you,” he said to Selphine.
“I’d say be careful, but there’s little to fear with Mister Midnight guiding you through the city,” Selphine said. “So I’ll simply say I wish you well.”
And then Caleb, Chelsea, and Addie were through the door, emerging into…
Well, at first it didn’t seem like they emerged into anything. There was just fog, a steamy mist that swirled around them, obscuring all in sight.
“Just keep walking forward,” came Midnight’s voice. Caleb did as instructed, one hand holding Addie’s, the other holding Chelsea’s.
They finally did emerge from the fog, to look out across a vast cityscape that Caleb instantly recognized.
“It’s from my trial,” he said softly, staring.
“What?” Midnight asked.
“I saw those quick glimpses of different places near the end,” Caleb said. “This was one of them.”
A great clockwork city centered around a mile-high clock tower… Caleb had seen it in paint, but now he saw it as it really was. The city was impossibly vast, an endless skyline of beautiful, amazing mechanical towers, mechanical bridges extending between many of them, operated by massive gears and clockwork contraptions. Steam rose constantly from all over, its vapors flowing and changing like ghostly dancers in the wind. The colors were steel and brass, copper and silver, with brief splashes of red here and there. Metal of all sorts with wood as needed, the occasional glimpse of stone providing flair and style for specific paneling. Far below, in the streets proper, there were trees lining the lanes, and Caleb spotted a park far off in the distance, halfway to the great clock tower at the city’s center.
“Well, now you see it for real,” Midnight said. There was a strangely distant tone in his voice, something almost nostalgic. Mineria held his hand and looked at him with sympathy.
“What’s the matter?” Chelsea asked.
Midnight took a deep breath, then let it out, nodding towards the city. “Welcome to Clockworks,” he said, “the city of my birth.”
Deep in the marvelous clockwork tower, Sal paced back and forth. In his hand, he held a black envelope, stamped with a dark blue seal with a spiraling silver pattern in it.
“Where to put it…” he kept muttering as he paced, back and forth. “Or should I even leave it at all?” He stopped then, looking out the circular window. A smile crept up on his face. “They’re already here, are they? Hmm… to invite them or not… do I give them that much? Or should I…”
He sighed, twirling the envelope in his fingers. “The old gang’s likely to pick up too many of them. I’m not so sure Caleb and his band actually need one, but… ah, but why not?” He grinned. “Yes, it’s far more interesting this way. Especially knowing the younger ones won’t be able to make it. But as long as those two are there… yes, that should be enough. They’ll spread the word.”
He strode confidently now, up the stairs, through a mechanized hatch that was supposed to be locked, and carefully over an obscured form, watching his step to avoid the liquid pooling around it.
After all, it wouldn’t do to leave tracks.
“Here should do nicely,” he said, smiling as he tucked the envelope into a guard’s hand. “Yes, that’s perfect.” He turned, flapping his coat out behind him with a flourish. He was feeling theatrical lately. But then, was there any wonder?
“You seem set on your path already, Caleb Greyson,” he said as he departed Clockworks. “But just in case… there should be no way you miss the big event, now.”
Anastasia knelt, picking up the black envelope and staring at it in disgust.
“Why would he leave it in a place like this?” Sieglinde asked behind her. “This is…”
“Who would even come here to retrieve it?” Doctor asked. “After what’s happened…”
The sound of twin waterfalls could be heard distantly. Despite the horrific sight that lay ahead, despite all the destruction wrought here…
The waterfalls hadn’t been stopped.
“He knew we’d come,” Anastasia said, standing. Stride held out a hand, so she passed the envelope to him. Opening it, Stride raised an eyebrow.
“He’s got it all planned out,” he said, passing the envelope’s contents — the invitation — to Bronn, who then passed it around further.
Anastasia didn’t need to see it. By the time it reached her hands, what it said was no surprise at all.
After all we’ve seen… of course.
“I don’t think there’s even any point in letting him speak now, once we find him,” Bronn said. “He’s no longer the man we knew.”
“To be fair, none of us are who we were back then,” Stride said.
“But… he’s the one who did this, isn’t he?” Sieglinde asked. She couldn’t stop staring down the stairs, at the black morass through the mist, between the waterfalls.
“But how?” Doctor asked.
“His new best friend, no doubt,” Anastasia said. Her face was set in a hard, grim stare.
“But if Jormungand could do this much, then surely Grimoire would be swallowed up already,” Doctor said.
“We won’t know everything until we can ask him ourselves,” Stride said. “Hate to say it, Bronn, but I think we ought to let him speak. Figure out how he’s done what he’s done. Once he’s said enough, then we can cut his throat and be done with him.”
“But if there’s any way to reach him…” Sieglinde said, trailing off. Her heart wasn’t in it.
“I think we know by now there isn’t,” Anastasia said softly. She took a long look at the place below, the infested ruin that had once been something so magnificent. Then she turned on her heel and started back up the stairs.
“Where to next?” Stride asked, keeping pace alongside her, idly adjusting his eyepatch.
“We just go where the invitation said, right?” Doctor asked.
“No,” Anastasia said. “It isn’t the appointed day yet. If we can… we find him before then. We stop this whole farce from happening.”
“But if he can do what we saw down there, can we really face him alone?” Sieglinde asked.
Anastasia’s heart was heavy, but it was also set firmly on what must be done.
“We’re the only ones who can,” she said.
He’s our responsibility.
She led the way onwards, continuing the path she’d started them on. They’d begun as friends just trying to find and save a wayward, old friend. But now…
Now they were hunters.
Sal was their prey.