Callum lay flat on his back in the Grimoire Manor training hall, staring at the ceiling. For a few moments, it was out of focus, but his vision soon cleared.
“Again!” Oscar called out, tapping his cane once on the floor. “You can’t be done yet!”
“We’ve been at it for three hours,” Callum said with a groan, sitting up. Sitting up brought his father’s massive tortoise Summon into focus. The gleaming blue creature was staring down at Callum, awaiting his next move.
“You’re telling me you’ve never trained like this before?” Oscar asked. He stood by the doors, eyeing his son with a fierce glint in his eyes.
“Not since I was preparing for my Hunter exam,” Callum said, massaging a kink in the back of his neck.
“You’ve gotten soft!” Oscar said sternly. “And you know that, or you wouldn’t have come asking me for help with your new training regimen.”
“I didn’t think you’d be so tough so fast,” Callum said. “I thought maybe in your old age you would’ve softened up a bit.”
“Commenting on my age is a poor attempt at changing the subject,” Oscar said. He tapped his cane firmly on the floor. “If after all these years you’re still no match for your father, you need more work than I thought.”
He’s not wrong about that.
“Again!” Oscar said.
“Right,” Callum said, pushing himself to his feet.
I can’t say anything about age. I’m still young. And Dad’s not all that old, either.
I don’t have any excuses. Both the older generation and the younger generation are far beyond my skills.
If I’m to have any hope of protecting my city, of protecting my family…
I need to step up.
I really shouldn’t have waited this long, though…
I didn’t realize just how hard it would be to get back into a training routine. I really did get soft. Too soft. Unbelievably soft.
Another effortless deflection on the part of Oscar’s tortoise Summon sent Callum sprawling, stopping on his back next to an empty weight bench.
I thought I stood as an equal alongside Deirdre, alongside Jacob, alongside all the other Guild Heads and Council Members.
But I’m not even as good as some rookie Hunters.
Dad’s been retired for seven years and he’s still throwing me around like a rag doll.
His thoughts went back to the fight for Grimoire, and the final struggle against Blaise Mathers.
There were so many of us. We all fought together.
I was utterly useless.
Take me away from that fight, and it would have gone exactly the same.
Oscar’s cane clicked and clacked on the floor, growing louder as it approached. After a moment it stopped, and Callum was looking up into his father’s eyes.
“It’s been an awfully long time since you wallowed in self-pity,” Oscar said.
“It’s been an awfully long time since I realized how pitiful I am,” Callum said with a faint chuckle.
Oscar sighed and held out a hand. Callum took it, and was pulled to his feet.
“ ‘Pitiful’ isn’t a word I’d use to describe you,” Oscar said. “But I’m seeing something different. I’m seeing fear.”
Callum looked away.
“Ah, so it is that,” Oscar said. “I thought as much. This is about your other magic, isn’t it?”
“I locked that away,” Callum said softly.
“And it was a noble gesture on your part,” Oscar said. He laid a firm yet gentle hand on Callum’s shoulder. “But your inability to control yourself, and to control that magic, was not due to a lack of skill.”
“It’s because I was unworthy of it,” Callum said, his voice tinged with bitterness.
“And you let that stop you?” Oscar asked. Callum looked up at him, surprised to see his father smiling. “Become worthy of it.”
“But it’s –”
“It is not an evil magic,” Oscar said. “You were overly ambitious and overly fearful. How long has it been since you locked it away?”
“Seventeen years,” Callum said.
“You are not the same man you were then,” Oscar said. “And you have me with you. You have Deirdre. You have other friends among the Guilds and the Council. You kept it a secret before, thought you could bear it alone. But whether you can or not, the important thing is…” Oscar smiled warmly. “You don’t have to.”
“I…” Callum started, then bowed his head. “To go back there…”
“Shall we talk about it?” Oscar asked. “With Deirdre, as well. Together, you will see. Your magic isn’t something to fear. And it can be a great ally.” He chuckled. “So let’s call it quits to training for today. But I’ll expect you to be ready to dive right back in like this tomorrow.”
Finally, Callum smiled. “Yeah,” he said. “I’ll be ready.”
Lorelei stood in the gentle snowfall, staring out across wide fields. Big, fluffy white flakes danced lazily in the air, and one came to rest on Lorelei’s nose, melting slowly.
“It’s hard to tell in all this snow,” came Gwen’s voice. She stood a bit of a ways to Lorelei’s right, examining a different stretch of field.
“Chances are we won’t be able to know for sure until spring,” Lorelei said.
“And we don’t have that long,” came the soft monotone of Will. He was to Lorelei’s left, looking over a different area.
Lorelei sighed. “I know,” she said.
“But they’ve used magic to grow their crops here, right?” Gwen asked. “They said they usually can keep growing and harvesting all through the harshest winter.”
“Yeah, but that kind of magic isn’t exactly refined,” Lorelei said. “We still don’t fully understand it. This could just be a fluke year.”
“If you thought that, you wouldn’t have let Chelsea go without you,” Gwen said.
Lorelei rubbed some new snowflakes from her nose. “I’m just trying to entertain all of our options,” she said. “It’s possible that I was wrong. I just had… a feeling. Like things aren’t over in Grimoire.”
Will’s boots crunched in the snow as he came over to the girls. Holding up his phone, he relayed a message:
“Both Kaohlad and Jormungand escaped, and we don’t know where they are.”
“That’s what worries me most,” Lorelei said with a nod. She knelt in the snow and shoveled out a small depression in the snow with gloved hands, revealing the ground beneath. She touched the hard, crumbly dirt and the shriveled, brittle stalks of wheat that hadn’t managed to grow more than a few inches before dying out. “I just hope we’re looking in the right place.”
“Can you clear the snow away?” Gwen asked.
“I don’t like to,” Lorelei said. “Manipulating existing moisture always gives me a strange sensation. But…” She stood up, gazing across the fields. “That’s probably the best way.”
She tugged her right glove, her Talisman, a little tighter on her hand. It flashed once, and the snow across dozens of acres started to swirl and roll away.
Yeah, there it is.
She felt that strange feeling, like voices she could only hear in her heart. They called out, not in pain, but in…
It was a swirl of things that Lorelei didn’t fully understand. There was joy in there, and excitement, but also something like… embarrassment? And confusion?
And despite how well she handled the cold, there was that shiver, the same shiver that ran through her every time she worked with existing moisture in the world.
I wish I could understand what that means.
Well… if I really wanted to understand, I wouldn’t shy away from it so much.
But the work was soon done, leaving a vast swath of farmland – for the moment – clear of snow, surrounded by tall walls of the white, frozen substance.
“Let’s hurry,” Lorelei said, watching as the huge flakes in the air seemed to double. “I’m not keen on doing that more than once.”
The three of them spread out across the fields, examining soil and stalks as they went.
It didn’t take long for Lorelei to spot a pattern. She moved more quickly now, checking and rechecking to see if the pattern held.
Over, and over, and over again, it did.
“Gwen, Will,” she called out. “Check the height of every stalk you see. Compare them to each other.”
Soon she received the reports she expected.
“They’re all exactly the same,” Gwen said.
“Here, too,” said Will.
“Exactly the same,” Lorelei said with a nod. She knelt down to look over the stalks nearest her. “The same size, same shape, same thickness… everything’s identical. That often happens with magically-enhanced farming. But the trick goes deeper. They all died at once. They’re all dead, all exactly the same… whatever killed them didn’t come as a wave, or spread from one spot to another, or localize somewhere while other plants escaped it.”
“It hit the entire field all at once,” Gwen said.
“Like an attack,” said Will.
Lorelei nodded. “Not what I’d hoped,” she said, standing. “But it’s what I was beginning to expect.”
“Now we need to track down the assailant,” Gwen said.
“And gather more evidence,” Lorelei said. “But this is good. We have our first major lead.” She looked out into the steadily increasing snow, so thick she could barely see the silhouette of Grimoire’s perimeter.
“So the battle for Grimoire isn’t over yet,” Gwen said.
Lorelei shook her head. “It’s just entered a new phase,” she said.
And we already have other pieces of evidence. More people calling in sick, yet with a sickness no one’s been able to identify. This field and a few others dying off despite so much consistent success in past winters. Young evergreen trees dying too suddenly. Food, even frozen food long before its expiration date, going bad out of nowhere.
We’re being attacked.
Despite how dangerous things were, Lorelei felt a spark of hope inside her.
I didn’t stay for nothing. I was right.
Chelsea, you don’t need to worry about a thing. We’ll handle things here. When you come back with Caleb and Addie, you’ll be able to come home to a city that’s as safe as you believed it was when you left.
Pain lanced through her, penetrated deeply, permeated every part of her being.
Platina was in pain.
She opened her eyes, and found darkness.
No. Not total darkness.
It took her eyes a moment to adjust, but there was dim light that flickered against the stone ceiling, accompanied by a crackling sort of sound, and a…
The sound, the smell, the flickering, it sent a shock through Platina. Not a physical one, but something…
She tried to sit up, but the slightest movement sent vicious, unbelievable pain tearing through her flesh. She groaned, gritting her teeth against crying out.
The voice was one she instantly recognized. Deep, rich, and surprisingly gentle.
“Titan?” she asked.
“Mm,” was Titan’s wordless reply. “Don’t move. I’ve done what I can for your injuries, but they will take time to heal.”
“Injuries…?” Platina lay in a daze for a moment, but slowly the fog over her mind lifted.
Fire. Emerald fire.
The girl. That girl burned me!
She hissed in anger. “That girl attacked me from the back,” she said, gritting her teeth against even the pain of moving her jaw. “A coward’s way. And with fire!”
“As I recall, you’re well-known for favoring the same tactic,” Titan said.
“Don’t debate me,” Platina said. She was silent for a moment, taking stock of her physical state. “What is this… liquid? Am I bleeding?”
“I applied a salve to your burns,” Titan said. “Some could be bandaged, but the worst need to remain exposed to air, as I need to reapply the salve every hour.”
“I didn’t know you had such skill with anything other than weapons,” Platina said dryly.
“I haven’t had need of these skills in a long time. You should rest. You’re lacking in moisture, and yet you can’t drink much until you heal further.”
“What happened?” Platina asked. “At least tell me that. Why are we in some sort of… cave?”
“It is a cave,” Titan said. “We’re in the mountains, half a mile east of Grimoire.”
“Grimoire?” Platina asked, raising her voice in shock and regretting it as pain coursed through her neck and shoulders.
“You were dying,” Titan said. “And I knew not where our allies were. I did what I could for you in the street and then carried you. The Labyrinth soon unwound itself, and I was able to find a way out of the city. I came to the mountains to survey things from above, but I could find no sign of our King. I’ve investigated as much as I could, and it appears our King was forced to flee. There are no signs of any of our comrades, save for graves. Many Enforcers were slain, but there are no signs of other Royal Guards. They either escaped with our King or have been imprisoned, though I have no way of knowing which.”
“Fled…?” Platina asked in a thin, hollow voice.
But he couldn’t have been defeated. So then what? What part of the plan changed? Is Grimoire no longer necessary? Did he have other plans, plans he kept secret from us, and managed to succeed in that and so left the field victorious?
My King… if only I knew your mind…
I will rejoin you soon, my King. I will not remain a failure.
Platina hesitated, though, to ask her next question. Slowly, she drew the words out. “Tell me… do I… have any hair?”
Titan was silent for a moment before responding. “Your hair has all been burned away. Some of it may regrow, though I cannot be certain. I have never seen burns as vicious as yours. Your legs and feet are fine, but… while your skin will regrow… your head, your face, your arms, your entire torso… all of it will be forever scarred. And though I could be wrong on this note, it appears there was severe nerve damage in your right hand. You may not lose the use of it entirely, but at least the use of your thumb.”
“Silence!” Platina shouted hoarsely, coughing. “I will not be useless! Surely you can heal me, Titan. Do your duty for your captain!”
“I have done all that is in my power to do,” Titan said. “And will continue to do so. But there are things neither magic nor medicine can fully heal or cure. You know this.”
“Don’t patronize me!” Platina winced, and then felt a shiver run through her entire body. “Why am I… so cold? What nonsense is this? I’ve been burned, how can I be freezing?”
“It’s time for me to reapply your salve,” Titan said. “Lie still. It may also help warm you.”
Platina hissed out a pained, angry breath.
I must not give into this. Not the pain, not the fear – as if I would fear! – none of it.
I must remain calm. At least for now. My King lives, and he has achieved a great victory, a victory the fools in Grimoire know nothing about. Yes. That must be it. And soon his great captain shall rejoin him, stand at his side, and make his victory complete.
Platina closed her eyes. Sudden exhaustion gripped her, and sleep arrived to bring a momentary reprieve from her pain.
Deep beneath Grimoire lay the magical prison known as the Cove. Constructed by the Lunar Architects, it has existed as long as the city itself. And yet in its multi-century lifetime, it has held only a scant dozen criminals in its great swath of cells. It has only ever held two prisoners at any one time.
It is a place for only the very worst, the most dangerous, the most unreasonable of criminals.
One of these cells has never been used before. Lying deep within the darkest parts of the Cove, it is a place for absolute existential emergencies, when a villain must be contained who cannot be contained anywhere else.
It had never been used…
Until Blaise Mathers was brought to the Cove.
Through dozens of layers of security, descending deeper and deeper along the path to the cell, walks the one person who has visited Blaise Mathers more than once. The final door opened, and into the barred-off visitation area in front of the cell strode Anastasia.
With a soft grinding of stone, the door slid shut behind her.
“Ana,” came a thin, soft voice from the corner of the cell. There were no shadows – nowhere to hide – in the cell itself, a stark white box with layers of magical wards invisible to even the most trained eye, and one wall constructed in a grid of silver bars. The one in the corner who spoke sat facing the corner wall, his back to Anastasia.
He wore only a simple pair of white pants. His torso, and the dual dragon tattoos that covered it, were plain to see in the stark lighting of the cell.
“Hello, Blaise,” Anastasia said. She pulled up a chair to the barred wall and sat down.
A long, heavy silence passed between them.
Slowly, Blaise pushed himself to his feet. He had a simple bed situated in the very center of the cell, like an island, and he sat upon it, facing Anastasia but not looking at her. “Has Callum taken over the Council?” he asked.
Puzzled by his choice of a first question, Anastasia didn’t immediately respond. “No,” she finally said. “I don’t know all the details, but the Council of Mages has been restructured. All of the Guild Heads have been added to the Council’s number, and there is no longer one Head of the Council. They function as a coequal body. And while Deirdre Greyson has stayed on, Callum resigned from the Council entirely.”
Blaise’s head snapped up, his eyes wide for just a moment before he calmed himself. “I see,” he said, looking down at the floor. “I shouldn’t be surprised. I… have been thinking a great deal about the past, you see. Given my solitude, it seemed… appropriate.” He folded his hands together. “You saw things I never saw. You saw the darkness in a way I never did.”
“You never traveled to the Dominion,” Anastasia said. “That’s what I kept seeing in my journeys there. The living darkness.”
“You stopped speaking to me of it,” Blaise said. “When I enacted the final plan for Grimoire, when you came back last… I could see you wanted to object. And yet you said nothing.”
“You stopped listening to me a long time ago,” Anastasia said. “So I…”
“Gave up on me,” Blaise said.
And it breaks my heart every day.
“I don’t blame you,” Blaise added. Anastasia looked up, stunned. “As I said… I’ve had a great deal of time to reflect in here. Though I know not how much time has passed outside these walls, in here… there is nothing to do but think. I realize that I… I failed all of you. I lost my friends.” A bitter laugh escaped his lips. “We were friends, weren’t we? And yet I threw that all away. Certainly some remained loyal to me, but loyalty alone… is of far lesser worth than I appraised it to be. I’m beginning to think I made terrible mistakes, Ana. Not just what cost me Elizabeth. I… may have lost my way. I’m not entirely sure, to be honest. I remember my old goals. My old dreams were…”
Anastasia couldn’t bring herself to smile. But she could remember those old dreams.
Those beautiful dreams came from the heart of a young boy. A young boy who would soon be embroiled in a war he couldn’t avoid.
The war changed us all, Blaise.
“I have regrets,” Blaise said, puzzlement apparent in his voice. “I think, perhaps, I was blind to them for a long time. But I still fear for Grimoire, Ana. The danger has not yet passed, and the new danger will take a form none of us were prepared for.”
“You thought you were prepared for the first danger,” Anastasia said. “And yet, though your own preparations ended in failure, the danger was conquered. By a pair of young girls, at that.”
“When children do what adults cannot,” Blaise said wistfully. “Perhaps you’re right. Perhaps… perhaps I am more blind than I ever realized. Ana, I… my greatest regret is that we lost him.”
“Him?” Anastasia asked.
“I shouldn’t say ‘we’ lost him,” Blaise said, shaking his head. “I lost him. I lost Sal.”
Just the mention of that name sent a fresh spike of pain through Anastasia’s heart.
It’s been so long. But even so…
“What if we’d never lost him?” Blaise asked. “I’ve been wondering that a lot lately. If he’d never been there to witness that horrific tragedy… or if we’d been there for him when he needed us most… perhaps he never would have fallen away. And if he’d been with us all this time, then how different would things be? Would I have still lost your trust? Would I have still lost my faith in my friends? It feels as if losing him was the catalyst that set us down this tragic path.” He shook his head. “Questions that can never be answered. Tell me, Ana, when did you last see him?”
“Not since he left us,” Anastasia said, a bitter taste in her mouth. “I thought… he might be dead.”
“Far from it,” Blaise said. He had a strange look in his eyes. “Sal… is the one who introduced Jormungand to me.”
Anastasia’s heart seemed to stop for several long, slow seconds.
You’re the one who…
“He was so different,” Blaise said. He steepled his fingers, perching his chin on his thumbs and pressing his index fingers against his lips. “I can’t imagine what kind of life he’s led.”
And he’s alive…
“You’re sure it was him?” Anastasia asked, finding her voice. “You’re sure it was Sal who introduced you to Jormungand?”
Blaise nodded. “He’s like you, after all, changing little with the years. And I wouldn’t ever forget him.”
Of course not. None of us would.
Anastasia stood up abruptly. “I’m sorry, Blaise,” she said. “I’m afraid that’s all for today. I’ll be back again as soon as I’m able.”
“That’s quite all right, Ana,” Blaise said, a faint smile on his lips. “Thank you for visiting me. Truthfully, I never expected you would. I thought I had burned too many bridges.”
Never. Not with me.
But Anastasia said nothing, leaving the way she’d come, ascending through all the layers of security to the mid-level of the Cove, where Jacob Crowley was waiting.
“Anything new?” he asked, studying Anastasia’s face.
“He says he’s been reflecting,” Anastasia said, putting on her best façade of calm over her troubled mind. “And that he has a great deal of regrets.”
“If we could be so lucky,” Jacob said, turning his intense gaze on the door that led down to Blaise’s cell. “You weren’t down there very long. It will be some time before you’re allowed again.”
“I know,” Anastasia said.
“Well, if he does give you any important information that might help us, do let me know,” Jacob said.
“I will,” Anastasia said. She made her way up through the rest of the Cove, emerging beneath The Gate in Grimson Bay. Outside in the frigid winter air, she moved swiftly on her way to a house overlooking the Bay. Inside, Doctor and Sieglinde were both seated in the drawing room as if they’d been waiting for her.
“What news of the Ma—” Doctor started, before shaking his head, “I mean, Blaise?”
“There’s something wrong,” Sieglinde said, studying Anastasia’s face.
“Do either of you have any idea where Bronn and Stride went?” Anastasia asked.
“Not in the slightest,” Doctor said. “They didn’t say, and I didn’t ask. They wanted to leave the city, and I thought we agreed to let them.”
“So then what’s this about?” Sieglinde asked.
“We should all be together for this,” Anastasia said. “But…” She took a deep breath, then let it out.
It’s been so very long.
“It’s about Sal,” she said. “Apparently, he’s alive. And I – and I’m sure all of you – have a great deal of questions for him.”