“Phil, do you think you could—”
“I’m busy, Mona,” Phil said, still powerwalking through the halls. It was the closest they had come to being stopped. He was wearing his keys on his belt so that they jangled, lending him an air of authority that had thus far gone unquestioned.
“How long have you worked here?” Leonas asked, trying to sound casual.
“I get my twenty-five year longevity raise next month, assuming I don’t retire,” Phil said.
“Ah,” Leonas said, slightly strained. “Good to know there’s not too much, ah. Turnover. In that. Department.”
“Oh, no,” Phil said, “we’re always having to fire guys for trying to bring their own swords. We try to tell them, you know, you’re not knights. You’re a castle guard. Leave the swords to the knights. Some guys just don’t listen.”
“Great!” Leonas said. “Great. Good to know. Now. And not sooner.”
Minnow patted his arm. The grip of Karzarul’s body kept tightening around her, scales pressing into her skin. She wished she could ask him if everything was okay.
“Your timing is great,” Phil said. “All the enchantments and everything look so cool at night. You’re gonna love it. You’ve seen it, right, Your Highness? I know they do a whole birthday thing.”
“I am typically preoccupied,” Leonas said.
“Right,” Phil said. “The partying.”
“Right,” Leonas said.
“It’s kind of sad,” Phil said, “how when something’s right in your backyard, you always mean to check it out, but you figure you can put it off and go whenever.”
“Right,” Leonas said.
“It’s one of the reasons I’m thinking I might retire,” Phil said. “Spend more time with the kids.”
Karzarul’s grip around Minnow loosened, lightened. She stopped, alarmed, as she realized light was filtering out of her clothes. “Ari?” she asked, trying to grab at some of the formless light with a rising sense of panic. “Ari!“
“Whoa, what is that?” Phil asked.
“Phil, I need your keys,” she said quickly.
“Okay,” he said, holding them up. She snatched them and started to run down the hall, chasing the light.
“Oh, fuck me, we’re running,” Leonas said before chasing after her.
“Good luck with whatever that is!” Phil called after them, waving down the hall.
Minnow chased after the darting moonlight faster than the length of her legs should have allowed, her heart pounding in her throat. She skidded around corners, running into walls and jumping off of them to reroute herself as quickly as possible. Anyone with the misfortune to be walking through the halls who didn’t move when they saw a bright light zooming past was in danger of being run over.
She ran out the double-doors to the Folly Gardens, stopping before she stumbled down the stairs. She watched as Ari, nothing but shapeless moonlight, disappeared into the still dark water of the canal.
She looked up at the moon, hanging full in the sky. She looked at the empty night sky reflected in the canal.
“What happened?” Leonas asked between gasps, having finally caught up to her.
“Why does it look like that?” she asked, pointing at the canal.
“The ward,” Leonas said, coughing. “Moonlight can’t get in so it doesn’t—that’s why they put all the candles, when they open the gardens. So it doesn’t look like that.”
“How do we get in?” Minnow asked, grabbing his arm. “Do you know where the door is? I didn’t ask Phil.”
“Down to the left of the stairs,” he began, yelping as Minnow suddenly and without warning lifted him and threw him over her shoulders. She held him by one leg and one arm as she ran. “Minona put me down right this instant,” he demanded, his voice two octaves higher than usual.
“You’re slow,” she explained, stopping at a door barely visible behind rosebushes. “This it?”
“Yes,” he said, “I can—” He had a coughing fit, because his lungs still weren’t happy with him. Minnow started to flip through Phil’s keys and immediately gave up, tossing them aside and unsheathing the Starsword. Leonas tried to flinch away, but it was hard when he was draped over her shoulders like a stole. Sparks flew as she hit the padlock hard enough to shatter it, kicking the door in to run inside. He had to cling to her since she only had one free hand now to grip his leg, the other holding her sword.
She descended the stairs three at a time, lower and lower, deep as the catacombs. None of the doors at the bottom were locked, but she kicked them open anyway. Her patience for doors was at an all-time low as she made her way toward whatever was underneath the canal.
She stopped inside the last door, finally letting Leonas go enough that he could slide down to his own feet.
“It—it didn’t look like that,” Leonas said weakly. “The enchantments I put the Sunshield into, that’s not what it looked like.”
The bottom of the canal was glass. The entire massive construct, enough water to boat in, all of it sitting on a thick layer of glass that let the light through. The cavern, its walls chipped away and unfinished, was massive. It had to be, to span the canal from one end to the other, the length of the entire Folly Gardens.
Down the center of the entire cavern was the enchantment mechanism, as big as anything Minnow had ever seen. A sideways column of roiling white light, it looked like a single piece of etched crystal. She could not imagine a stone so large. Rings of glass tubing surrounded it, ring after ring spaced evenly down its length, pulsing with sunlight. The only illumination came from the sunlight tubes; the column itself, despite the light inside it, had no glow. The whole cavern hummed.
It was so large Minnow couldn’t actually locate the Sunshield on it.
She made her way down the last flight of stairs, moving closer to the mechanism. She realized that her sense of scale had been off. The enchanted suits of armor used to move heavy equipment, littered throughout the room, were at least as tall as a Tauril. The mechanism dwarfed them. She looked closer at the armor, the harness and controls in the chest, the glowing glass tubes and crystals embedded in the arms.
This wasn’t what Leonas had agreed to, when he’d given up his Sunshield. A legendary weapon was meant to be too heavy for any mortal to use. They should have needed his permission.
“They can move it,” Minnow said. “Without you.”
“Great,” Leonas said, taking deep breaths. He was walking after her, not bothering to try keeping up. “Love not being needed.”
“It’s not a ward,” she said.
“Yes, I can see that, thanks.” Every time he looked at it he looked away, trying not to see whatever it was he could see in all the etchings and moving parts. None of it meant anything to Minnow, because she knew nothing about enchanting. “It’s a prism light,” he said, “one of those little—the ones you use instead of candles. Except instead of taking in any light and spitting it back out it only takes in moonlight and never lets it leave.”
“Moontrap,” Minnow said.
“It’s not trapping the entire moon,” Leonas said.
Minnow ignored him, moving closer to the Moontrap. “If we turn it off, what happens? Can Ari get out?”
“I don’t know,” Leonas admitted. “I—I assume so, but he’s mixed in with every other monster and scrap of moonlight that’s caught in there. I don’t know how he works, if he could get… tangled.”
“He doesn’t die like we do,” Minnow said.
“He hasn’t,” Leonas corrected.
Metal clattered against the stone floor, echoing through the cavern. Enormous, armored footsteps. Minnow put herself between Leonas and the direction of the sound, but Leonas pushed her out of the way. Tried to, at least. “Find the Sunshield,” he hissed. “You’re the one who can run.”
His logic was sound, even if she didn’t like it. She bolted toward the underside of the Moontrap, and told herself it would be fine. No one was going to hurt the Prince of Astielle. Even if they did, he could protect himself once he had the shield. And Ari could help them, once he was free. Standing in front of Leonas and flailing with a sword was the least useful thing she could do.
Even if it was what she wanted to do.
The glass tubes surrounding the Moontrap were big enough that she could have fit inside one. They connected to smaller pipes, and she tried to follow them to find where they led. Etched gears slowly rotated on the pumps close to the floor.
“I see you decided to come home,” Leland said, nothing to absorb his voice, only metal and stone to carry it. He was using one of the suits of armor, thin pale limbs all wrapped in copper with sunlight veins. His legs disappeared into the armored boots, but the rest of the suit rose up behind him like a second torso, a second set of arms. “I’m sure you feel terrible about all the trouble you caused. Fortunately, there wasn’t much. Most people never even noticed. So that’s one less thing to worry about.”
Leonas scratched at his wrist, his eyes in the middle distance toward the wall to the right of his father. “Clever,” Leonas said. “With the armor.”
“You noticed?” Leland held his arm up, the armor following his movement so he could admire his handiwork. “It seemed easier than asking your for help, what with how busy you always are. Is your girlfriend here?”
“You’re going to have to be more specific,” Leonas said.
“We both know that’s not true,” Leland said. He reached out with the armor and used it to tousle Leonas’ curls, the metal hand as big as Leonas’ chest. “Tell her to be careful,” he said, raising his voice to carry better. “The enchantments holding this together are very complicated, if you’re going to take the Sunshield out of it there’s a procedure that needs to be followed. Otherwise you’re going to end up leveling the city with monsters before you go on your little adventure.”
Minnow finally reached the center point of the Moontrap, where all the pipes converged into a hole in the floor. Above them was the Sunshield, set into the enormous glass ring around the crystal. Pipes all around it fed into the glass tube, the Sunshield pulsing with the light all around it. Minnow got on her knees to try and stick her head through the hole to see where the pipes were going. There was a tank underneath the floor. She couldn’t see what was inside it, but she could guess. More troubling was that, turning her head, she couldn’t see where the tank ended to determine how big it was.
She sat back up. “That doesn’t seem good.”
“This isn’t what I agreed to,” Leonas said haltingly.
“You agreed to help protect Astielle,” Leland reminded him. “It’s okay if you changed your mind. You don’t need a reason.”
“I don’t think this is protecting Astielle,” Leonas said.
“You think you can do better?” Leland asked. “Nothing but you and a shield. It ought to work out better this time, right?” Leonas bit his tongue. “It’s a kind of brave,” Leland said, “that you’d still want to try that again, after I already did all of this so you wouldn’t have to.” He gestured around the cavern, at the Moontrap, with both his arms and the armor’s.
“I never asked you to do that,” Leonas said.
“Would it kill you to at least pretend to be grateful for once in your fucking life?” Leland snapped, and Leonas flinched. “Sun above, you’re just like your mother sometimes.”
“Good,” Leonas said.
“Hey.” Leland and the armor bent down toward Leonas, and before Leonas could back away the hands of the armor had grabbed him by either side of his head. Leonas tried to push them away, or at least turn his head, before giving up. Leland disengaged the sleeves so that he could gesture without the armor letting Leonas go, pointing a warning finger in his face. “She left you,” Leland said.
Leonas swallowed. “She—”
“She left,” Leland repeated, “because she didn’t want you. She did not want you. I wanted you. I’m the one who kept you. I have done everything for you. Find me another father who loves his son as much as I do. There’s no one who’d put up with as much as I do.”
Minnow had been trying to figure out if there was some kind of switch or knob leading to the Moontrap. Anything that might let her start to shut it down slowly, to make sure nothing blew up.
“Actually,” Minnow said, “fuck this.” She gripped the hilt of the Starsword with both hands, and started to hit the glass next to the Sunshield. It cracked immediately.
“What is she doing?” Leland asked, slipping his arms back into the sleeves to let Leonas go and stand the armor back upright. “She’s going to get you killed, you realize that.”
Minnow kept hitting the same spot until it gave, shattered open to let sunlight-colored magic come pouring out of it. The force of the spill cracked it open further, up through the ring and back down to the Sunshield. The light of the Sunshield dimmed, the crystal core of the Moontrap growing brighter. The moonlight seemed to push outward with a physical force, and all the glass rings started to crack, starting from the middle and moving outward in bursts of shattering glass. As the enchantments fell apart, the moonlight started to consolidate, shooting upward in a massive beam of light. An alarm started to sound, a great ringing gong.
The heavy glass under the canal cracked.
“… oops,” Minnow said.
After only a moment’s delay it broke through, cutting a hole through the glass big enough to see the shape of the moon through. Water started pouring into the cavern, a waterfall onto what had moments before been the Moontrap.
Once the magic had breached containment, it hadn’t stayed where it was. It had started to rush, instead, back to where it belonged. It was a small enough amount at first, but soon light was pouring into Leonas from all sides, more than he could imagine had ever been inside of him. He tried to focus on breathing, tried not to think about exploding, tried not to think about anything at all that could result in something happening.
More of the moonlight coalesced inside the room, shone onto the floor and consolidated into a bone-white Bruteling. It stumbled on gangly, child-like limbs, tufted ears pinned back as it shook its head. More moonlight kept pouring into it. Instead of staying inside the monster it shot back out in pieces like comets, back into the stream of light pouring upward through the water pouring down. “Oh—oh, this is weird,” the Bruteling said, its voice high and grating like a blade against rough stone. It looked at its hands, rubbed its stubby fingers over its wrinkled feline face. “Why would I do this one?” It looked up to try to identify the location of the ringing gong.
It changed suddenly, turned into a Howler and shook its head. “What?” it said, that same grating voice through its snout. It turned in a circle, looking at its own tail and at all the moonlight filtering in and then shooting out of it. It seemed like the light was moving faster, hundreds of balls of light leaving its body in quick succession. It turned abruptly into a Slitherskin, and had to raise its head to stay out of the water now pooling on the cavern floor. It kept rising, took to its wings as a Misthawk, too many eyes on its head and one great wide eye on its stomach. Then it was an Entboar, a great porcine forest unto itself, before shrinking back down into the familiar roundness of a Rootboar. “Wait, is this—” It became a Shadestalker, a Shimmerbat that practically exploded with moonlight, expanded all at once into an Ursbat. Its massive bear paws splashed in the water, its little wings flapping uselessly. “We cannot be doing this.” Then it was a Bullizard, standing on two legs and looking at its hands again. It was wearing the Moonbow on its back this time. “Oh, I hate this.”
Karzarul drew in more moonlight than left him for the first time, expanding into the familiar shape of a Tauril. “Okay, this one’s good,” he said, sounding for the first time like himself as he shifted his front hooves, his arms held up like it would stop him from moving. “This is a good one, let’s keep this one.” All the moonlight of him collapsed like gravity into the water, and he was an Abysscale, comets of light shooting out of him at a rapid pace once more. “Shit,” he said around a mouth full of shark teeth, using a hand to rake his hair out of his face. The massive length of his finned tail wound and unwound, splashing in the rising water. Then he rose up into an Impyr, his edges unsteady. Only a few points of light left him this time as he caught his bearings. “Oh! Okay. So we skipped—okay. Makes sense.”
Magic, an impossible amount of magic, was still pouring into Leonas as the alarm rang. He was glowing bright enough to make him difficult to look at. Leland grabbed him with the massive hands of his armor, lifting him into the air. “What did I tell you?” he asked, before slamming Leonas flat on his back onto the ground, submerging him in the still-shallow water. Leonas dimmed as all the air was knocked out of him, fighting the reflexive desire to inhale. “She’s getting you killed, because you would rather free the Monster King than do as you’re fucking told.”
“Ari!” Minnow shouted, pointing at Leonas and Leland with her sword. She knew she couldn’t get there in time, knew she didn’t know any of the magic that would let her sword reach that far.
“Right!” Karzarul said, changing back into a Tauril to charge toward Leland. He drew the Moonbow, nocked an arrow and loosed it as he ran. Leland had to let Leonas go to move out of the way, the arrow embedding itself into stone before vanishing. Leonas sat upright, coughing up water. Karzarul nearly overtook the Prince, stopping with his hooves on either side of him. He roared.
“He can’t control that much, you moron!” Leland shouted, gesturing at his son. “You’re not saving him, you’re just killing everyone in range.”
Minnow shoved the point of the Starsword underneath the edge of the Sunshield now that it was dim, using it as a lever to crack it away from the glass. She caught it one-handed and tossed it away from the tank pit, yelping as it burned her fingers. She waded to where she’d tossed it, shoving the sword’s blade through the straps under the back of the shield to pick it up. They clattered, the two weapons whining and shaking in protest. “Bring him here!” she yelled across the cavern.
Karzarul bent, picking Leonas up by the back of his shirt and rearing up on his back legs to pivot back to Minnow. He’d only run to the halfway point between them when, without warning, Minnow swung her sword and launched the shield toward them at high speed. Not wanting to get burned, he held Leonas up in front of him reflexively, before he could consider why this was actually a terrible idea. Leonas screamed, but did manage to catch the Sunshield, though it hit him directly in the stomach when he did.
“Ow,” Leonas said, fumbling to try and get the shield onto his arm while hanging from his own shirt.
“It can’t hurt you!” Minnow called. “It’s yours!”
“It can’t reject me!” Leonas snapped. “A brick isn’t going to reject me either, that doesn’t mean you can throw it at my head.”
Karzarul set Leonas down next to Minnow. Leonas’ glow hadn’t dimmed, had instead only entered the Sunshield so that it glowed to match him. Sunlight magic in the water was still flowing into him in currents. He could feel the change of it, how it evened everything out into a single electric feeling. He could hear a bright high note emanating from the shield and into the hum of his skin. He tried to channel some of the feeling through the shield, thought about safe things.
Trees started sprouting out of the water, trunks bursting up out of nothing with roots cracking the stone, willow trees with spiraling pink leaves.
“The trees were an example,” Karzarul muttered, rubbing his forehead. “You don’t always have to do trees, you’re so bad at trees. Look at a tree. One tree.”
Knights were joining Leland at the far end of the cavern, forming a protective barrier that would soon be an offensive front. Some were climbing into enchanted suits of armor.
“Can you fly us?” Minnow asked, sheathing her sword to grab Karzarul by the arm. “Like, a monster that can carry us through that. Is there one of those?” She pointed at the hole in the canal, water still pouring through it in one direction while light poured out through the other.
Karzarul stared at the waterfall. “Yeah,” he said, “I can do that.” He took a few steps backward, still looking up at it. “Big enough to carry, small enough to fit, fly through water.” He swung his arms, still backing up, like he was trying to build up momentum. “Yeah, I can do that. I definitely have something for that. Easy, no problem.” When he’d put enough distance between them, he ran right for them, grabbed them off the floor and jumped.
Karzarul was briefly formless again, but Minnow slammed into his chest, curled up against him and held on for dear life as they rose off the ground. He had an arm behind her back as well as somehow underneath her legs, and she could barely see one arm around Leonas. She reached out to grab Leonas by the arm not clinging to Karzarul. The Sunshield touched enough of her arm to burn, but she ignored it; her hair all stood on end, magic thrumming over her skin. A trail of sunlight was still following Leonas. She had enough foresight to jam her eyes shut and hold her breath as they entered the falling water, fighting the current to rise up through it.
When they emerged she inhaled with relief, looking down at the ground getting further away from them. Their flight path was wobbly.
“Oh, this is weird,” Ari said. She tried to get a better look at him, but it was hard when she was so close. All she could see was skin and a fluttering of feathers. She looked up in time to see four more comets of moonlight shooting out from him into the sky. “Oh, no,” Ari groaned.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“It’s fine,” he said. “It’s been a long time since I—I’m going to try something else.” With a burst of moonlight his arms turned into enormous claws, vast and leathery wings stretching out on either side of them.
“Are you a dragon?” she asked, excited. She didn’t even mind the wind, colder since she’d been drenched in canal water.
“Drakonis,” he corrected. “A dragon is a magical creature, not a monster.”
“A dragon has fewer legs,” Leonas said. “And eyes.”
“Do you remember,” Karzarul asked, “how I said that it felt like a normal amount of moonlight?”
“Yeah,” Minnow said.
“That was stupid,” Karzarul said. “I wouldn’t have been able to do this, before.”
“You didn’t think that was notable?” Leonas asked.
“I was dead,” Karzarul said. “You’re useless for almost twenty years after you get back. Excuse me for assuming I needed time.”
“Are you okay?” Minnow asked Leonas, the countryside passing at high speed underneath them.
“Y—no.” He leaned out away from Karzarul’s claws, and dandelion fluff came retching from his mouth.
“Hm,” Minnow said. “Seems bad.” She tapped at the scales on Karzarul’s wrist. Some of the scales on his chest and his arms opened, three enormous silver eyes rolling in her direction. She tried not to recoil, because she thought that might hurt his feelings. “There’s a cave under that hill,” she said, pointing. “It has a Rainbow Door in it.”
The eyes that she could see closed, and Karzarul brought his wings in to dive, spreading them out at the last minute to land without crashing into the ground. He set them both down, transitioning back to his Tauril form. Leonas sank down into the grass, barely upright on his knees, his clothes all soaked through. The dormant wildflowers all around him started to bloom, spreading outward into the field, growing in thick as carpet. Minnow looked back toward Astielle, where a pillar of light still reached toward the sky.
“… that’s probably fine,” she said.
“This is,” Leonas said, “a lot.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
He bent forward to curl into a ball, his shield to his right, fingers sinking into his wet curls. “My head hurts,” he said. “I can hear it.”
Since she was still wet, it took her a minute to realize the ground beneath the grass was turning into mud. Water was surging upward through the groundcover, from where she did not know. “Leonas?” she asked cautiously.
He looked up, still curled on the ground. Sunlight was dripping out of his eyes, streaming down his face.
“Hm.” Minnow wondered what the Faewilds would look like, if the Faewilds were a lake that used to be a field. “The excess magic is going to be a problem,” she said. “Maybe the mountains?” If they were going to make a new Faewilds, a mountain that no one ever visited felt like the place to do it.
“I know a place,” Karzarul said. He picked Leonas up, slinging him over his shoulder. She led him around the hill, and Karzarul had to shift to Impyr form to fit inside. He was still hauling Leonas like a leaky bag of flour. He took Minnow’s hand, and pulled her through the Rainbow Door.