These days, Sakaki rarely tried to contact them during school hours. Akemi took some credit for that, since she’d provided the clock. So when she felt the medallion tug at her awareness during lunch, a twinge of dread went through her.
She closed up her lunch box and said, “I just need to, uh…”
Hana glanced at her, but didn’t say anything. They’d… sort of made up? It felt weird and awkward, like they’d painted over the cracks but both knew the wall was unstable. Akemi had apologised for snapping at Hana, and Hana had, at least out loud, accepted that she wasn’t dating Shoichi, but since Akemi couldn’t explain exactly why she was spending so much time with him – and why she kept ditching track and sneaking out of class – the whole thing still felt shaky and strange.
When she got to the roof – the bathroom had too much risk of being overheard, even though the roof would get her into more trouble if anyone found out – Akemi opened her locket with another little flicker of unease.
“I am sensing the presence of a shard-bearer,” Sakaki said without preamble. “One whom I have not felt before. They are already surrounded by Spectres – indeed, I believe they are trapped. I do not know why I did not sense them sooner, but we must move quickly now if we are to save them.”
Akemi swallowed hard. “How quickly? I can text Shoichi and Hikari and meet them right after school–”
“It has to be now, Sol. The Multitude will not wait for you. And it must be all three of you, I fear – the shadows that I sense are deep and dark.”
So… this was it. She’d been sort of waiting for it, really. There had to come a moment where her double life collided fully, right? She took out her phone and texted the other two: Shard-bearer in trouble right now. Get out of school however you have to and come to the shrine.
She felt particularly bad sending it to Hikari, who hadn’t even had a chance to get used to this whole thing yet, but she hadn’t forgotten what Sakaki had said. They would have killed you. This wasn’t a game, and she couldn’t risk any one of them being caught alone by the Spectres. They had to do this together.
“I’m on my way.”
When Shoichi ducked into the tent, Akemi and Hikari already had the big map of Osaka spread out. Hikari was looking at her phone and back to the map. Shoichi didn’t think she could possibly have had time to write the app she’d talked about, but then, Hikari appeared to have hidden depths, so maybe he was wrong. He put his bag down in a corner and joined them.
“We think they’re around here somewhere,” Akemi said, pointing at a section of the map. “The problem is, Sakaki thinks they’re underground.”
“Why would they be underground?” Shoichi asked, confused.
“The Spectres naturally dwell in the dark places below the surface,” Sakaki replied. “Humans have long avoided such enclaves, or brought light to them, so the Multitude must find ways to leave their sanctuaries to seek out bright souls. I sense such deep shadow around this shard-bearer that I fear they have been captured and taken to where the Multitude’s power is stronger.”
“There aren’t any caves around here,” Shoichi said, studying the map. “Are they in a basement or something?”
“Sakaki thinks it won’t be anywhere that’s used frequently–”
“Got it,” Hikari said suddenly. She held up her phone when they looked at her. “Abandoned subway tunnels. There are two that run through that area. They aren’t on the map any more but I found them on this urban exploration site.”
“How do we get in?” Akemi asked.
“The site has instructions. People like to explore places like that.”
“So much for ‘humans have long avoided such enclaves’,” Akemi said with a groan. “Did the shard-bearer just walk in there on their own?”
“It is possible,” Sakaki said, “but I would still expect to have sensed them beforehand. I… do not like this. Be careful, all of you. I fear this is a trap of some sort devised by Neikos.”
“Yeah, I thought of that.” Akemi grabbed a pen and scribbled some directions on her hand. “But we have to go anyway.”
“Be careful,” Sakaki said again. “Watch the shadows.”
“This is it?” Sol asked doubtfully. “It just looks like an office.”
“Empty, though,” Luna said, peering through one of the windows. “Everything’s dusty in there.”
“There’s a fire exit around the back,” Astra explained, leading the way to a narrow alley that skirted around the building. “Some of the other floors are still in use, so it hasn’t been boarded up, but the alarm circuit’s broken.”
“How did anyone find that out?” Sol wondered. She glanced behind her uneasily as they filed down the alley. She didn’t like the idea of getting ambushed in here. “Do they just go around trying doors all day?”
“Mostly they look at city plans and try to figure out where there might be forgotten spaces, I think,” Astra said. “Sometimes someone stumbles over something interesting.”
The fire door looked ominously solid, with a big sign in red letters warning that opening it would trigger an alarm, but Astra approached it confidently with a long, thin piece of cardboard she’d been carrying from the shrine. She slipped the card between the door and the frame, hitting some sort of release, and the door swung open. As promised, there was no alarm.
“Can you pick locks, too?” Sol asked curiously.
Astra looked horrified. “No! There were instructions on the site for this door, that’s all…”
“Pity, that could be useful.” Sol stepped inside. There were stairs going up to the other floors, and another door directly ahead. “Through here?”
“Yes. It isn’t locked.”
“This is kind of creepy,” Luna said a few minutes later as they walked through the empty offices. “Why is there so much stuff left behind? You’d think they’d clear it out.”
“I guess maybe no-one got around to it,” Astra replied, as Sol peered at a noticeboard covered in faded maps of the city. “Or they thought they were coming back. They took the computers, though.”
“There’s someone’s shoes here. Who leaves shoes behind?”
“Someone with too many shoes,” Sol replied absently. “Where are we going now, Astra?”
“Um… down the hall there. Through that door there are stairs down into the basement, and then there’s an access door to the tunnels. I think this office used to be part of the city development department.”
They followed Astra’s directions. The basement was dark, but the lights came on when Luna found the switch. Several hard hats and a reflective work jacket hung on hooks near the access door, which stood ajar. The darkness beyond felt more profound than it had in the basement, and this time the light switch didn’t work.
“Are there Spectres in there?” Astra asked nervously.
“Not right here,” Luna said, stepping back to let Sol take the lead. “The power’s just off.”
“We should have brought a torch.”
“Thought about it, but we don’t have pockets,” Luna said. “It’s okay, Sol can do her party trick.”
Sol grinned, and summoned a flame to hover over her outstretched hand. Astra said, “Ooooh,” in tones of suitable admiration.
The flame illuminated a short passage that led to more stairs down. The floor was concrete and the walls were unfinished cinder blocks. A cold draft oozed up from the depths.
“Stick together,” Sol said. “Luna, stay in between us, and if anything moves, get your shield up.”
Sol led the way down the stairs, the others obediently close behind her. Was it a good idea to put Astra at the back? She was still pretty new at this. But Luna was the one without any attack powers, and it made more sense to have him between them so his shield would easily cover all three of them…
The stairs went down a long way, the equivalent of two or three floors, Sol thought. They ended in a short corridor with another door standing open. Beyond was a big, dark space. The little flame didn’t provide enough light to reach the edges, but it did show the train tracks. It took Sol a moment to realise what was strange about them. The actual metal tracks were long gone, but all the other parts were still in place, so her mind played tricks and filled in the space with what she knew ought to be there. It was eerie, like seeing the ghost of a mundane object.
Which way now? The tunnel stretched left and right. Sol could feel the sticky weight to the darkness that meant Spectres were nearby, but the sensation didn’t come with a direction. She turned back to the others.
“Any idea where we go?” she whispered.
“Left, I think,” Luna whispered back. “Can you make the flame any bigger?”
“Not without burning my hand off.”
They turned left and followed the ghost-tracks along the tunnel. Sol caught glimpses of the curving roof and disused signal lights. Occasional splashes of paint on the wall marked off numbered sections of the tunnel. There was a wind running along with them that reminded her of the gust of air that came before a train arriving. Even knowing there were no tracks for it to run on, Sol found herself constantly wanting to glance behind her, in case she saw approaching lights…
Suddenly, bright white light flared around her, and she almost squeaked out loud before she realised it was Luna’s shield.
“What did you see?”
“I’m not sure.” Luna sounded as nervous as Sol felt. “Something definitely moved, but it might just have been a rat or a mouse, sorry.”
“I told you to do that, didn’t I? Keep it there for a minute.”
The shield had the advantage of being much brighter than the flame, although the fact that it was between them and the darkness meant that it dazzled Sol’s eyes unhelpfully. Still, she could see the whole span of the tunnel now, and further ahead than before. She squinted at the darkness. She couldn’t see any rats, but there was a sense of something just outside the boundary of the light…
“Astra,” she said softly, “can you see anything up ahead?”
“Maybe?” Astra whispered back. “I don’t know if I’m imagining it…”
“If so, we’re both imagining the same thing. Can you zap it from here? I don’t want to use my fire until we know where the shard-bearer is…”
“I’ll try.” Astra edged forward. “I call upon the stars my liege, solitary guides of twilight. Grant me the power to strike at the dark!”
A bolt of white light sprang from her outstretched hand. For a second it lit up the tunnel in front of them for a long way, and Sol caught just a glimpse of movement as a number of shadows flinched back from the light. Then it struck home, and for a moment they all saw the Spectre it hit, bigger than a car and distinctly reptilian, before the light went out.
“Did it die?” Astra asked nervously.
“I don’t think so,” Sol said, still staring at the darkness ahead of them.
“Was it a snake?” Luna asked in a very quiet, very calm voice that said more about his reaction than any amount of screaming could have.
“No,” Sol said firmly, even though she wasn’t actually sure. “It had legs. Definitely not a snake.”
“Are you just saying that to make me feel better?”
Sol clenched her fists, itching to throw fire down the tunnel and burn up all the Spectres – snakes or otherwise – ahead of them. It was slowly creeping up on her that she didn’t have a plan. Even though Sakaki had warned them about how powerful the Multitude was underground, she hadn’t imagined this overwhelming darkness, or the sense that Spectres were pressing close around them, unseen. And she had somehow expected that they’d find the shard-bearer right away – or Neikos would jump out from behind a door – and it would all be straightforward after that.
She didn’t know what to do, and the only thing that scared her more than that was the thought of letting Luna and Astra realise it.
“I can help you find the shard-bearer,” said a voice from behind them. Sol spun around with a yelp, flames leaping to her fingertips on instinct, which prompted a rather less dignified, “Don’t set me on fire! I’m not a Spectre!”
“Who’s there?” Astra demanded.
“Kestrel,” Luna answered before the voice in the darkness could.
“Yes,” said Kestrel. Sol was trying her hardest to spot him in the shadows, but even with the vague idea of where his voice was coming from, she couldn’t make him out. “Don’t get me wrong, I can’t let you have the shard…”
The image of that first shard-bearer flashed into Sol’s mind, the girl who was still lying in a hospital somewhere, and for a moment she snapped. Fire leaped from her hands in a burst, directed at Kestrel’s voice, but all it hit was the wall of the tunnel, and one small Spectre that had apparently been creeping up behind them.
“Sol!” Luna yelled. He grabbed her arm. “Stop! He’s human!”
“So are the Archdukes,” Sol snarled, but she let the flames die away, shaken by her own rage. “Why would you want to help us?”
“I don’t, particularly,” Kestrel replied bluntly. His voice was now coming from the other side of the tunnel, but Sol didn’t trust that he was actually there. “But I can’t go in there alone, and you can’t see in the dark. I have to help you if I want to get past the Spectres.”
“What, and then you just run off with the shard?”
“I won’t interfere until you’ve anchored the soul,” Kestrel replied after a pause.
“That wasn’t a ‘no’.”
“Sol.” Luna still had a hold of her arm. He looked very pale in the light of his shield. “He’s got a point.”
Sol shot him an incredulous look. Luna flinched, but met her gaze.
“What else are we going to do?”
And that was the problem. She didn’t have an answer. She shook Luna’s hand off angrily, but she already knew he was right.
“What’s to stop you switching sides when it’s convenient and making Neikos the same offer?” she demanded of the darkness.
“I would die before I helped the Multitude in any way,” came the icy response. “On that I swear my soul.”
A bolt of recognition went through her, the same eerie familiarity as deja vu. On that I swear my soul. Those words were important. They meant something more than just a flowery way of making a promise. But whatever it was, it eluded her grasp, slipping away into the depths of memory like a dream.
Even so, she knew she believed him. She hesitated for one more stubborn moment, before giving in with a sigh.
“Fine,” she said. “Come into the light where we can see you.”
There was a pause.
“Can I… get some sort of assurance you aren’t going to set me on fire?”
“Oh for… I’m not going to set you on fire!” Sol snapped. “I promise. Cross my heart. Whatever.”
Another pause, and then finally some slight movement on the edge of the circle of light, and Kestrel slipped out of the shadows. He almost seemed to fade into view. The visor over his eyes glowed faintly blue, and Sol frowned at it, wondering why they hadn’t been able to see its light before. The Spectres? Or could Kestrel manipulate the shadows as well?
It was the first time she’d seen him as more than a blur, and even now, she couldn’t make out many details. He was wearing a long, billowing cloak in shades of blue and black, with a big hood that shadowed his face. The visor cast enough light for her to get a vague impression of his features, but they weren’t particularly memorable.
“You can see in the dark?” Luna asked.
“With the visor,” Kestrel replied. “There are a lot of Spectres up ahead, but they aren’t blocking your path. He wants you to come further in.”
“Oh, good,” Sol muttered. “Fine. We’ll keep the shield up–”
“Actually,” Luna said quietly, “I don’t think I can. It’s… taking a lot out of me.”
Sol looked at him properly, and realised the pallor of his face wasn’t just nerves or the white light that lit it. She kicked herself for taking so long to notice.
“Damn it.” Sol conjured her guiding flame over her hand. “Well, they aren’t going to attack yet, right? So drop the shield now, we’ll just use this for light.” She cast a wary look at Kestrel. “I suppose you’d better come over here with us and stick close.”
“I feel so welcome,” Kestrel muttered, apparently more to himself than to them.
Sol thought she saw Luna smile wanly, but then the shield flickered out, and in the time it took her eyes to adjust to the light of the flame, the expression was gone, if it had ever been there. Luna let out his breath shakily and seemed to sag.
“Are you okay?” Astra asked.
“I think so. It’s like… holding up something heavy. To start with it doesn’t seem so bad, but then it just sort of gets harder and harder…” Luna shook himself. “I’ll be all right in a minute. Let’s keep going.”
Sol wanted to ask if he was sure, but with Kestrel there, she didn’t want to show any hesitation.
“Stay between Astra and me,” she said. She looked at Kestrel. “You can go first, since you can see where we’re going.”
Kestrel returned her gaze for a long moment, as if assessing whether he thought she was going to throw a fireball at his back, then nodded. He put a hand up to the visor, and for a second Sol thought she saw faint lines or patterns appear in the glass as he looked down the tunnel.
“There’s a door about 300 metres further down,” he said. “Probably a maintenance tunnel, or storage. I think the shard-bearer is in there. I expect Neikos plans to surround you, and block your retreat with Spectres.”
“He can try,” Sol said. She glanced over her shoulder. “Are there many behind us?”
“Not too many, but they’re gathering.”
“And the shard-bearer’s definitely in the other direction?”
“In that case…” Sol turned back to face the darkness behind them. “I call upon the sun, my liege, bright lord of the day. Grant me the power to overcome the dark!”
The flames that flew from her hands were fiercer and larger than anything she’d conjured before, fuelled by anger, frustration, and more fear than she wanted to admit. The fire raged down the tunnel behind them, incinerating Spectres before they had time to flee, and the flames leapt so high Sol had a terrible moment of thinking she’d messed up again, that the fire wouldn’t be contained…
… but there was nothing in the tunnel that could easily kindle, and the fire died away obediently as she let the power fade.
“Let’s go,” she said. She gave Kestrel a pointed look. “After you, of course.”
Kestrel returned the gaze without flinching. Sol had the sense that he didn’t exactly approve of her burst of fire. She hoped it made him nervous, and that maybe it would make him think twice about double-crossing them.
“Of course,” said Kestrel. “This way.”
Luna was glad of the darkness as they crept down the tunnel. He didn’t want Sol – or Kestrel, for that matter – to see that his hands were shaking. Holding the shield had taken a lot out of him. It couldn’t have been more than five minutes, ten maximum, but looking back, he realised that when he’d used it in battles, he’d held it up for a fraction of that time. He wondered if practice would make it easier, like lifting weights, or if there was a finite amount of power he could draw on.
He’d have to think about that later. For now, all he could do was concentrate on pulling himself back to together, and get ready to bring the shield up again if they needed it. It would have been difficult enough under any circumstances, but seeing Kestrel up ahead, leading them into the darkness, made concentration ten times harder.
That, and worrying about Sol. She’d been so quick to unleash her fire, both on Kestrel – and Luna tried not to think too hard about that, just grateful he hadn’t been hit – and on the unseen Spectres. There was an anger underneath her bravado that wasn’t like her normal fierce energy. Sol could be reckless, but not like this… not like she half-wanted to burn up the world around them until there was nothing left to fight back.
“Here,” said Kestrel. His voice was low, but loud enough to carry. “This is the door.”
“Is it locked?” Sol asked.
“I doubt it.” Kestrel cautiously reached for a handle Luna could barely see. “No, it isn’t.”
“Wait, I’ll do it.” Sol moved forward, pushing Kestrel out of the way. “Just in case…”
The fire in her other hand flared, but when she shoved the door open, there was no outpouring of Spectres. Just more darkness, and a glimpse of a narrower tunnel beyond, the walls made of rough concrete blocks.
“I really don’t like the look of that,” Luna said.
“Me neither.” Sol hesitated. Whatever she was thinking of saying, or doing, was forestalled by a gasp from Astra.
“Can you hear that?”
“Hear what?” Sol started, then broke off as the faint sound came again. It was hard to identify, distant as it was, but as they all fell silent and listened, it became horribly clear. “Is that… crying?”
“It’s a child,” said Luna, a ball of dread settling in his stomach. “A young one.”
“Why would there be a child down here–?” Sol started, then stopped as the realisation dawned. “Oh no. It can’t be the shard-bearer. Can it?”
“It is,” said Kestrel. “This way.”
He slipped into the narrow passage. Sol followed. Luna looked quickly at Astra, who took a steadying breath and nodded to him to go next.
“We have to get there before they take the shard,” Sol was saying as they moved cautiously in single file through the darkness. “Can’t you go any faster?”
“Not unless you want us to be hopelessly lost,” Kestrel snapped back. He paused to look down a side-tunnel, then continued on past it. “Besides, they won’t take the shard yet. They need the child as bait.”
“You think it’s a trap, then?” Luna asked.
“Of course it is.” They reached a junction. Kestrel took the right-hand passage without hesitation. “Neikos has finally learned to fear you. He doesn’t dare to face you openly.”
“Good,” said Sol. She glanced back at Luna and Astra, flashing them a confident smile that didn’t quite hit the mark. “Let’s give him a few more things to be afraid of.”
“There are a lot of turnings,” Astra said. Luna thought she hadn’t really been listening to what Sol was saying. “Why would the railway company make these tunnels so complicated?”
“They didn’t,” Kestrel said. “This is the work of the Multitude.”
“They built the tunnels?”
“No, it’s…” Kestrel stopped at a four-way crossroads. After looking carefully down each tunnel, he turned left. “They have a way of twisting space so it turns back on itself. Once you’re inside that pocket, it’s impossible to escape if you can’t see the true shape of the world.”
“Huh,” Sol said. “They’ve done that a few times with the shard-bearers. And the first time the Spectres came after me…”
“This is… more complex, though.” Kestrel was hesitating for longer at each junction they reached. Between his words, Luna could hear the child crying. It sounded a little closer, but it was hard to be sure. “It’s a maze built of shadow. It’s… harder to find the way… there’s very little real space here, and it’s stretched thin and warped…”
“You can see that with the visor?” Luna asked, trying not to worry about the longer and longer pauses.
“Yes.” Kestrel stopped at the next turning. “But it’s still hard to…”
He trailed off into silence, looking down the two tunnels that presented themselves.
“You had better not be lost,” Sol said. Just as she spoke, the crying came again, louder, and she turned. “There! It’s this way!”
She started to run towards the sound, but Kestrel was faster, seizing her by the arm and hauling her back. Sol turned on him with a snarl, the flame in her hand leaping higher. Kestrel dropped her arm and backed off in a hurry.
“Whatever you do, don’t take off running like that,” he said urgently. “If we get separated in here…”
“Don’t ever grab me like that again,” Sol snapped. “And I’m in charge, not you–”
“Do we go the other way, then?” Luna said quickly.
“No.” Kestrel sounded more certain now. “We go… this way.”
He walked towards what seemed like a solid wall. Just as he should have collided face first with the concrete, it shuddered, and pulled apart like a mouth opening sideways.
From beyond, the child’s crying suddenly sounded loud and clear, and instead of another tunnel, the new opening led to some sort of chamber. Sol’s flame didn’t cast enough light to illuminate it, but there was another source of light inside… a pale, eerie glow surrounding a small boy who lay on a slab of black stone. A figure in a black cloak stood over him, knife held above his heart. The pale light was twisted and wrapped around the knife like a tangle of thread. The child was crying, but weakly, as if he had been here a long time and knew that no-one was coming to help. He couldn’t be more than five years old.
Kestrel didn’t try to stop Sol this time, nor Luna and Astra when they rushed after her. He simply followed, looking quickly back and forth as if assessing the room around them. Luna could see Spectres lurking in the shadows. He wondered how many more he couldn’t see, and shuddered, even as he readied himself to summon his shield.
“Neikos!” Sol yelled. “Drop that knife!”
“Wait,” Kestrel said, “I don’t think that’s–”
The cloaked figure looked up. The shadows beneath the hood were unnaturally deep, hiding the face within, but they all heard the faint, hissing intake of breath as the figure looked at them.
“Neikos!” The voice was a woman’s, light and almost childish in its outrage. “You said there were only two of them!”
Even as she spoke, Spectres boiled out of the shadows behind her, swarming around the boy on the altar in a protective wall. At the same time, Luna summoned the shield, and the first wave of Spectres crashed into it, dissolving into dust like a breaking wave.
“There are only two of–” came Neikos’s voice from behind them, stopping mid-sentence. Luna spun around in time to see the Archduke frozen in the doorway to the room, staring at the four of them – at Kestrel, and then at Astra – and to see the naked fear that bloomed on his stolen face. “Ker! You were supposed to separate them!”
“They cheated!” shrieked Ker. “They’re working with him!”
She gestured at Kestrel with the knife. The movement yanked hard on the strings of light, and the child screamed. The walls seemed to tremble.
“Drop the knife!” shouted Sol. Fire sprang from her fingertips, scorching the nearest Spectres, but stopped short before they could hurt the child on the altar. “Get away from him!”
“What’s wrong, afraid to barbecue the baby?” taunted Ker. She turned the knife again, this time deliberately, and as the child screamed, Luna saw the room around them shift. The tunnel they had come from was swallowed up, while new doorways opened and disgorged yet more Spectres into the chamber. “Neikos! Start fighting, you idiot!”
Neikos took a step backwards, and only then seemed to realise that the tunnel behind him had closed. “What are you doing? Let me out of here!”
“Oh, no,” snarled Ker. “This was your plan, remember? You were going to crush the Celestial Guard all by yourself, weren’t you? You just needed a little bit of help from me. Just a tiny favour, really. In return for a chance to share in your glorious victory.” She laughed, spiteful and chilling. “You’re a stupid little boy, Neikos, and a coward as well. You can’t slither out of this!”
Whatever Neikos might have said was forestalled by Sol sending a gout of fire in his direction. At the same time, Astra threw a bolt of white light towards Ker. But somehow, in a split second, the room shifted again. Sol’s fire came roaring back towards them, splashing against Luna’s shield. Astra’s shot hit a blank wall in completely the opposite direction from the altar. The little boy didn’t scream this time, but only, Luna thought, because he didn’t have the strength left. The streamers of light wrapped around the knife were clearer now, and they tugged on the boy like puppet strings with every slight movement of the knife in Ker’s hand.
Neikos snarled something in a language Luna didn’t recognise. Shadows wrapped around him like armour, and Spectres rushed to protect him. Astra fired another shot. Again, the room moved around them so that it missed its mark. Luna could feel the strain of keeping up the shield creeping in on him. He tried to shut it out, to concentrate on keeping the barrier strong. Every time the Spectres crashed against it, he felt the reverberation and saw the light flicker…
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Kestrel duck down to whisper something in Astra’s ear. She looked at him uncertainly, then at Sol – who was too busy burning the Spectres that came near the shield to notice – then at Luna. Luna didn’t know what Kestrel had said to her, but he had to hope… he had to trust that it would help. He nodded at Astra.She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and held out her hand.
Kestrel took it. For just a moment they stood there, eerily calm in the chaos. Then Astra’s other hand shot out and white light sprang from her fingertips in a perfect arc. The room tried to rearrange itself, but it was as if she was aiming down some secret path unaffected by the change.
The bolt struck Ker’s knife and knocked it from her hand. As it fell, it pulled the strings of light taut. The child screamed one last time… then a bright glitter coalesced into existence above his heart, and was flung aside somewhere into the darkness along with the knife.
Ker shrieked in shock, stumbling back from the altar. The light that had surrounded the shard-bearer flared briefly bright, then vanished… and the world around them changed. The dark and cavernous room folded in on itself. The Spectres that had been pouring out of the tunnels were abruptly cut off. The altar collapsed into a stack of old cinder blocks, and in the light of the shield and the flames Luna saw the curved ceiling of the railway tunnel and the age-darkened remnants of the tracks.
“What did you do?” Sol shouted, staring in horror at the child’s limp body.
“I…” Astra pulled her hand roughly from Kestrel’s, shooting him a betrayed look. “I didn’t mean–”
“It was the only way to destroy the maze,” Kestrel said urgently. “I know Luna can return the soul from the shard–”
“Only if we get the shard!” Sol snarled. “Don’t you even think of touching it! And Luna, get over there!”
It meant dropping the shield, but the Spectres were no longer as thick as they had been. Ker was backing up in one direction. Neikos had stumbled in the other. The Guard were trapped between them, but the trap was coming apart. Luna let the shield vanish and immediately sprinted towards the shard-bearer. Behind him, red firelight flared suddenly bright as Sol let loose down the tunnel towards Neikos. Astra’s bolts of energy shot past, targeting the Spectres between Luna and Ker.
Luna didn’t even realise Kestrel had followed him until they reached the child. He was obviously looking for the shard, but when they reached the child’s limp body, to Luna’s surprise – and relief – Kestrel immediately knelt and picked him up, cradling his unconscious body protectively.
“I call upon the moon my liege, radiant lady of the night,” Luna said with renewed confidence. “Grant me the power to turn back the dark!” The shield sprang up around them again, and he shouted, “Sol!”
“Stay there!” came the reply, followed by a wall of flame so fierce that Luna flinched even behind the shield.
“Ker is running,” Kestrel said quietly. Luna turned to look, but he couldn’t see far into the shadows. “Who’s the coward now?”
Luna stood over him, trying to keep watch for any unexpected danger, but all he could see of the battle were the flashes and flares of light from Sol’s and Astra’s attacks. Spectres fled past him, some so careless they dashed themselves into oblivion on the shield.
Astra suddenly appeared out of the darkness, breathless and slightly sooty, but unhurt.
“Sol said to get under the shield with you,” she said.
Luna let her in. Astra took a few seconds to get her breath back and then shouted, “Sol! I’m safe!”
“Awesome!” Sol shouted back. There was a fierce joy in her voice that scared Luna more than a little. “I call upon the sun my liege, bright lord of the day! Grant me the power to overcome the dark!”
Fire filled the tunnel. In its light, Luna saw the remaining Spectres – far fewer than before – caught in an inescapable net of flame. They staggered, the serpentine grace gone as they caught alight. Some crumbled to ash in an instant, others burned like charcoal, and the flames only roared higher. Luna could feel the heat even through the shield. The wooden sleepers left where the railway used to be were beginning to smolder even beneath their decades of grime. The walls of the tunnel seemed to be warping in the intense heat.
Neikos screamed. There was no mistaking the pain in his voice.
“Sol!” Luna yelled desperately. The shield was beginning to feel brittle somehow, thinner than it should be. “Sol, stop! You have to stop!”
“I have to end this!” Sol shouted back.
“I can’t keep the shield up any longer!”
He thought for a moment she hadn’t heard him… but then at last the fire began to die down. Afterimages crowded his eyes and made it hard to see. He felt the shield crumbling, and was forced to let it go with a shudder. His head swam. Astra grabbed his arm as he swayed, and Luna leaned on her gratefully. Hot air washed over them, along with the smell of scorched brick and burning wood.
He could see Sol now, some way down the tunnel, lit by a ring of flame that hadn’t gone out. There was a crumpled figure in the centre of the ring, cowering away from the fire that threatened to consume him.
“Sol–” Luna began.
“Look out!” shouted Kestrel.
He must have moved almost faster than his words, lunging forward to grab Astra by the arm and pull the two Guardians to the ground in a heap. The bolt of black lightning that had been aimed squarely at Luna’s back shot overhead with an ugly tearing noise. Sol jumped aside, whipping around to stare back in their direction. The flames around Neikos faltered.
Kestrel staggered to his feet, still carrying the shard-bearer.
Astra scrambled after him, dragging Luna with her. They fled headlong down the tunnel towards Sol. From the darkness behind them came a hissing and chittering, punctuated by the scrabble of thousands of tiny things swarming… Luna risked one glance behind and saw what looked like a wave of blackness rushing to engulf them. He ran faster.
Sol was staring in horror at whatever was following them. As they ran towards her, fire raced past them in the opposite direction. Luna heard it hit the wave of darkness, or rather, heard the cacophony of pops, crackles and hisses that followed, as if Sol had turned a flamethrower on a carpet of cockroaches. He had a horrible feeling that might not be far from the truth.
They reached Sol just as the swarm caught up. Desperate, Luna pleaded with the moon for a little more power, and the shield flickered wanly into existence around them. It was only there for a few seconds, but it was just enough – just enough to deflect the first rush of insect-like Spectres, just enough for Sol to pull her fire in around them and fan the flames to a heat that incinerated the black wave even as it tried to engulf them.
The shield vanished. Sol immediately damped the flames, though Luna still felt the scorching slap of them before they subsided. For a heartbeat there was silence, and nothing but darkness, before Sol summoned a guiding flame, holding it up in a hand that shook faintly.
The flickering light showed two cloaked figures. One was just lowering a hand. The other stood silent, apparently regarding them from beneath its hood.
“Again?” said the first figure. It was Ker’s voice, filled with excitement. “Can I?”
“No,” said the second. It was a woman’s voice again, but older, sterner, and it echoed in a way that defied description. “This has gone on for long enough.”
There was a gasp from behind them. Luna spun to look, and saw that Neikos had managed to get to his feet. He was clutching one arm against him as if it was broken, and his face had changed… and as Luna looked at the terror on it, he was suddenly sure that they were seeing Neikos’s real face for the first time.
“D-Demogorgon,” Neikos stammered, backing away – not from the Guard, but from the cloaked figure beyond them.
A cold shock went through Luna. Instinctively he moved closer to Sol and Astra. Kestrel did the same.
“Neikos,” replied Demogorgon with undisguised contempt. “What a worthless piece of trash you are. Worse than worthless, for you have gone against my strict instructions out of arrogance and spite, and in so doing allowed the Celestial Guard to awaken without opposition.”
“I– I have opposed them!” Neikos protested. “I can explain–”
“There is no need. Ker has done so adequately. At least she understood the magnitude of your folly.”
Neikos turned a look of pure loathing on Ker. “You betrayed me.”
“Of course I did,” said Ker sweetly. “What on earth did you expect?”
“We can take them out!” Neikos shouted, a mixture of bravado and desperation in the words. “All of them, right now! With your power, we can–”
“Yes,” Demogorgon said. She lifted both hands from the folds of the cloak. In one was another obsidian knife, longer and more ornate than the blades Neikos and Ker had used. “We can. And I shall extract some worth from you after all.”
She thrust the blade forward and black lightning crackled around its tip. Neikos took one look and turned to run, but the bolt of lightning sprang after him faster than a thought. It struck him with a sound like an earthquake. The tunnel shook as Neikos staggered and fell to his knees. He screamed. Ker laughed.
Demogorgon’s hood turned to look at the Guard.
“Let me show you a true labyrinth,” she said, and jerked the knife back as if reeling in a fishing line.
The whole world twisted and buckled around them. Neikos was screaming and screaming, and Sol was shouting, trying to summon her fire, and suddenly Kestrel frantically grabbed Luna by the shoulder.
“You said you can anchor a soul – do it now!”
“Whose soul?” Luna gasped.
“Your own!” Kestrel shouted desperately.
There was no time to think, or to wonder if it was possible, or to ask why. Luna seized hold of the bright line in his mind’s eye, cast it away as far as he could throw…
Then the world fragmented into a thousand pieces around them.