Rebecca froze on the topmost stair. Her visitor, it so happened, was the last person she had expected to see there, at the heart of the Shadow Web.
Yet there he stood – Merle Ambrose – just outside the Shadow Palace, complete with his pet owl, Gamma, who sat perched atop his staff.
"Headmaster, look!" exclaimed Gamma excitedly, gesturing towards Rebecca with one pearl-white wing. "There she is!"
Ambrose turned his attention away from Morganthe, at whom he had been shooting an irate glare, to Rebecca, who stared back at him, horrified. He took in her appearance for half an instant, visibly shaken by the colors of blood and darkness she wore, but he quickly recovered from the shock. "Oh, Rebecca, thank the Spiral you're all right!"
"What are you doing here?" Rebecca whispered, feeling torn in half by the two opposing forces.
Though obviously startled by the question, Ambrose answered without delay. "Why, we've come to escort you back home to Ravenwood, of course."
Rebecca shook her head at once. "No," she said as firmly as she could manage. She backed away slowly, stopping only when she had reached the outer wall of the great castle. The doors, she realized, had already been closed behind her.
Ambrose stiffened somewhat, taken aback by her refusal. "I—I beg your pardon?"
"I said… no." As painful as it was to remain here, she had a job to do. Her destiny had been woven in the fabric of the Spiral before she had even taken in her first breath; there would be no escaping it, now or ever.
The headmaster now looked quite as though he were bracing himself for a physical blow, making Rebecca cringe inside. "Why 'no,' Miss Dreamhunter?"
Before she could say a word, Morganthe stepped lower on the staircase, letting a proud smirk spread across her face. "My dear Ambrose," she said smugly, "if you've come here seeking 'Miss Dreamhunter,' I'm afraid you've come to the wrong place."
Rebecca's insides quivered fearfully as she watched Headmaster Ambrose's eyes widen in horror. "And what—exactly—do you mean by that, Morganthe?" Rebecca knew well what the Shadow Queen had meant, however; she had decided on a new surname for her new apprentice. Rebecca felt sickeningly unsure of how she should react, what with the forces of Light and Shadow both present and keenly watching her.
"Perhaps you've not yet heard the news?" chuckled the Shadow Queen. "Of course not… Ambrose, the wizard you see before you is Rebecca Shadowblade, by her own choice." She laughed harder at the heartbroken expression the older wizard wore. "Yes, I think you've finally lost your mind."
Emotionally jarred by the sound of her laughter, heartbreak swiftly turned to raw fury in Ambrose's sky-blue eyes. "How vile you've become. What have you done?" he challenged her in a dangerously low tone of voice. "You've kidnapped her… Release your captive, Morganthe!"
"I didn't kidnap her; she came to me! She will remain here as my apprentice, and I never had the need to bind her here with any magic. I repeat, you fool, she is Rebecca Shadowblade of her own free will!"
"No! I won't believe it. I cannot!"
"Very well, then. See for yourself." She turned to Rebecca. "Go home, Shadowblade. That's an order."
"I… am home." These were, without a doubt, the most painful words Rebecca had ever spoken. It was torture to see the heartache and disappointment in her mentor's eyes.
"Oh, Headmaster…" Gamma gasped. "What will we do now?"
"What, indeed? This is a tragic day for the Council of Light. The two brightest stars have I lost in my lifetime…"
"Or perhaps, you never owned us to begin with," Morganthe countered.
The lies… How they scorched Rebecca's heart! She couldn't bear it anymore. She wanted to rip her plan to shreds, beg Headmaster Ambrose to forgive her, and follow him home to Ravenwood as he had offered. But she couldn't. She was home. Until her plan was completed and the Spiral forever safe from Morganthe, this web of darkness was her home.
As she watched Ambrose depart with Gamma to return to their home, she knew only one thing for certain: she was going to be sick.
Seconds later, the headmaster teleported to his house in the Commons, where a few students of various ages and schools had gathered in the hopes that he would speak with them upon his return. When they saw the grave expression he wore, all but one of them rushed outside, confused by such a sight.
The student who remained, a sixteen-year-old Thaumaturge, wouldn't be so easily distracted. He cautiously approached the aging wizard, worried because he and Gamma had returned more or less alone.
"Sir?" A faint Marleybonian accent was paired with the handsomely gentle voice of the teenager.
"Mr. Skytamer… If I could have just a moment to myself…"
Despite Headmaster Ambrose's reluctance to speak with him, the teenager stayed put, driven by a more powerful force. "But sir," he persisted, "did you find her? Where is she?"
Avoiding the youth's gaze, the headmaster sighed mournfully. "She is… lost."
"No…" Tristan felt the world around him shatter. His mind scrambled for some tangible form of hope to cling to. What else could this mean? Still, the obvious answer crept up on him, cornering him. "D-dead…?" Tears began to sting his eyes and blur his vision.
How did this happen? he wondered. He had done everything in his power to keep her safe in Wizard City – safe from the headmaster's next quests – from the moment she had returned from Azteca, brokenhearted and exhausted. Still, she had been called away yet again, although the headmaster had sworn that he hadn't sent her, and that he had no idea where she might be. That's when he discovered that the only Spiral Key to Khrysalis the school still possessed was missing. It wasn't long before they realized that it had been stolen.
For the first time since the elderly mage had returned to his house in the Commons, Headmaster Ambrose looked straight into Tristan's face, a fierceness in his azure eyes that Tristan had never seen there before. "You don't understand. She is alive."
Before Tristan could begin to feel hopeful again, he started to shiver with dread. "Then why isn't she here?" When the headmaster seemed unable to answer, Tristan gradually cast himself into a panic. "What happened to her?"
"It appears she was… unprepared to face the Shadows directly…"
"Sir, please!" Tristan pleaded a little too forcefully. Closing his eyes for a second to calm himself, he lowered his voice. "Just tell me…"
"She refused to come back."
Tristan sank into the slightly worn chair that sat before Ambrose's desk. "What…?" he gasped. "Why?" Even as the question rose in his throat, he realized he already knew the answer.
"I suppose I had underestimated Morganthe. Somehow, she's convinced our young champion to switch sides."
Tristan stared at Ambrose through narrowed eyes, disbelieving. "There's no way that's—" he argued, shaking his head.
Before Tristan could finish, however, Headmaster Ambrose interrupted him: "It's what I saw, Mr. Skytamer. Now, if you wouldn't mind stepping outside for a moment or two… I urgently need to get my thoughts together." Then, seeing that Tristan had still made no move to exit his office, the headmaster added, "Please, Tristan, do me this one favor."
Tristan lowered his gaze to the wide wooden desk that sat between them and, grudgingly, got up to leave. Before he was out the door, however, he paused and turned back. "I don't believe it. I want to see for myself… I need a Spiral key to Khrysalis."
"No… I'm sorry, Mr. Skytamer. We can't afford to lose another Light to the Shadows."
"I won't be lost, headmaster."
"Mr. Skytamer, you must listen to me…"
"With all due respect, you can't keep me from looking for her. I can't just leave this alone. I'll port to her if I have to!"
At these words, Headmaster Ambrose looked about as fed up with Tristan's stubborn attitude as he had ever been. After glowering at his student for a moment, he sighed tersely. "If you are that intent on going after her, then don't ask me for a key. Go on, Tristan. Teleport if you must, but for goodness' sake, ensure that you understand the risk before you go!"
"I do, sir," Tristan told him. "That's why I'm going." Barely three seconds later, he was gone without a trace.
On her way back to the bedroom, Rebecca just wanted to collapse to the ground and fall asleep. The more she thought about what she had said to the headmaster, the less she wanted to think at all. But what else was there now to ponder? Nothing else seemed important, at least not until she pushed open the bedroom door.
Zarozinia had just finished making all the beds in the room, and she was on her way out when Rebecca went in. They both stopped short at the sight of one another. Rebecca tried to smile for her friend's sake, but doing so just made her feel like even more of a liar…
Zarozinia watched helplessly while Rebecca's attempted friendly smile dissolved into a teary-eyed frown. "I'm sorry, I…" the Theurgist sighed, covering her face with both hands.
"Tsssk… Who was the visitor?" Zarozinia asked uneasily.
Rebecca lowered her hands just enough to answer clearly. "Headmaster Ambrose." The mantis' eyes went wide, but she said nothing in reply, so Rebecca went on. "He wanted to bring me back with him, but… I can't leave… especially now." Letting her arms fall to her sides, she looked back up at her friend.
"Bring you back? So then, he didn't even want to you to come here?"
"It's… complicated…" Rebecca said awkwardly, unsure whether she was up to explaining it all right then. In her eyes, it was by no means a story to be proud of. Zarozinia watched her with an air of mixed curiosity and concern, and so Rebecca explained further, hoping her friend would not begin to think harshly of her once she knew the full story behind her so-called adventure.
"Actually, he didn't think I would want to come. When he came to take me home, he probably thought I'd been captured in Wizard City and brought to Khrysalis against my will… but now, he thinks I hate him." She shook her head sorrowfully.
Zarozinia's curiosity seemed to falter at the confession. "Why would he think you didn't want to come here?" she asked, sounding as though she were bracing herself for bad news.
Rebecca thought hard over how best to answer. "Well, see… before I came to Khrysalis, I was working in Azteca for the longest time, but at least there, I had someone guiding me through the whole quest, telling me where to go next, who to talk to, who to fight… And even then, I couldn't rid Azteca of the Shadow hovering over it. I couldn't save anything. I tried so hard to help them; I gave it all I had… but in the end, I didn't save a single life. Everyone – everything – was lost. It was literally the end of the world, their world. My failure cost them their home, if not their lives."
Zarozinia's gaze softened again as she listened. "Well, that doesn't mean you'll never succeed again. Everyone fails once. Most of us fail a lot more than once." The mantis' eyes flickered with a sort of humor Rebecca could clearly hear in her words.
"I hope Morganthe manages to fail sometime soon."
"The Shadow Queen fails all the time. She just doesn't feel the impact of her own mistakes – that's part of our job as her subjects – so she never learns from them. She's never felt the pain she causes every day, so she sees nothing wrong with causing it. At least, that's what many mantises say."
"You mean, there are others here who are… who are like us?"
Zarozinia's gaze softened again at the question. She leaned a bit closer to Rebecca and said quietly, "Many others."
"Not everyone," Rebecca said sadly, thinking back to the night she had first entered the palace, dragged in by her hair, her cries ignored. Zarozinia's head tilted slightly to her left in a look of cautious concern. Rebecca went on, trying not to sound as angry as she felt at the memory. "The two guards who took me inside my first night sounded perfectly eager to do Morganthe's bidding."
"Who were they? A couple of hundred-leggers, I'm guessing."
"No, they were both mantises! Their names… Well, one was Krazz – he was the more violent of the two – and the other… Vez, I think. People have such unique names here."
"Oh, Vez and Krazz!" Zarozinia exclaimed, sounding somewhat cheered up by the mention of them. "You've already met them?"
"As a matter of fact, I have," Rebecca answered tersely, hoping she wouldn't have to elaborate. Then, though, she reminded herself that this mantis wasn't like the other two she had met earlier. She didn't want to take out on her new friend any resentment she felt toward the guards, especially since Zarozinia seemed also to have been mistreated by higher-ranking Morgantine subjects. To group her with those others would be unjust and thoughtless, and those were not things Rebecca wanted to be.
Zarozinia seemed to understand clearly enough that Rebecca didn't share her obvious interest in discussing them further, so she assumed what she could and explained: "They're higher-ups. Soldiers. They can't let just anyone know they're on our side, especially strangers like you were. They have even more to lose than most of us do. But I've known them both since before we were first brought to live at the palace, back when we were still nymphs in Zha-Te-:Ke:-Zang-Zeeyun. Rest assured, they're with us to the end, but like you and I, they must keep their true alliance a secret, for everyone's sake."
Rebecca thought this over and winced. If Zarozinia was right about those two, then they were better at this acting thing than she herself was. The idea frightened her more than anything else, because she had come to do just that: to act until she knew enough to vanquish the Shadows.
Still, she was already here, she was learning, and she had survived this long without the Council's guidance. Leaving wouldn't have been an option even if she truly did want to. Even though she'd barely touched the tip of the iceberg as far as discovering Morganthe's potential weaknesses, she had gotten this far with only one friend to help her.
There was only one way to react: she would need to take a lesson or two from these mysterious soldiers. She would need to put her acting skills into overdrive.
For them. For all of them.
"I'll need to step up my game, then, won't I?"
Zarozinia glanced down at the cold stone floor. "What game?" she asked, looking back up at Rebecca, bewildered.
"It's just a figure of speech. I just meant, I'll have to give it my all. You know… try harder."
"I thought you already were."
"I've been trying… but it hasn't worked very well so far."
Zarozinia gave her an encouraging smile. "Well, as so many have said, Aquila wasn't built in a day."
Rebecca laughed quietly and nodded. "That's true."
"Yes. But it will be worth the wait. The Fifth Column has been waiting many years already for someone like you to arrive."
"The Fifth… what?"
Zarozinia chuckled. "The Fifth Column. I'm actually relieved you haven't heard of it. That may mean that Her Majesty is less threatened by our existence than perhaps she should be."
A smile spread on Rebecca's face as she guessed, "Then it's a group that…?"
"…opposes the Shadow Queen," Zarozinia finished quietly, leaning in closer as she did.
Rebecca smiled brightly, knowing that she would not be on her own here after all. "As do I," she said earnestly.
Zinia's expression radiated warmth like a beam of sunlight. "I trust you, spellbinder."
"I know you do, Zarozinia," Rebecca said gratefully. "Thank you."
"By the way… I never did catch your name…"
Rebecca's eyes widened slightly as she realized that she'd never even introduced herself to her new friend. "I'm Rebecca Dreamhunter… although Her Majesty wants to start calling me Shadowblade," Rebecca added, grimacing at the thought.
Zarozinia lowered her gaze thoughtfully. After a brief silence, her expression brightened with the light of some intriguing discovery, and she said in a careful hush, "Then I know the perfect name for you: Shadowhunter!"
Rebecca smirked mischievously. "Ooh, I like that! What about you? Do you have a nickname?"
"Well, many in the Fifth Column call me Zinia, at least in trusted company…"
Rebecca nodded, still grinning widely. "That's great," she told her.
Just then, a multitude of bright white snowflakes draped in an icy-blue mist burst out from where Rebecca stood, and for an instant, she felt like her heart had stopped short. "No… Not again…" Even as the tiny, magical crystals fell lazily to the floor, melting as they did, there was no doubt in her mind of what had caused those snowflakes to appear, for there was only one Ice wizard who would have been able to teleport to her, or who would have even wanted to…
Her heart began to break, but even so, she backed up a pace, allowing the traveler to fully materialize. "Tristan… Why?" she asked him, her voice heavy with dread.
Tristan turned to face her, bewildered – and a bit hurt – by her odd greeting. "What?" he breathed.
"He warned you, didn't he? The headmaster. He would have told you to stay away from here!"
"Hush!" hissed Zinia frantically as the sound of voices from outside came dangerously close to the door.
"What is it?" Tristan asked in a low whisper.
Rebecca clamped a hand over his mouth until the voices faded, her eyes glimmering with fear for his life. "You can't be here, Tris," she whispered back after removing her hand.
"Headmaster Ambrose was right about one thing… something has changed you. But he thinks you actually want to help Morganthe. How could someone so powerful not see the panic I see in your eyes?"
Rebecca's voice cracked with emotion as she told him, "He tried to. Morg—She did most of the talking."
"Then I was right!" Tristan exclaimed. The look in his eyes was fierce and angry. "You were taken prisoner! Of course she didn't want you to be rescued when the headmaster showed up! But she doesn't know I'm here, Becca. She can't stop you this time."
"She can do anything she wants to, Tris—" Rebecca suddenly felt colder than a ghost. Before anyone had known to call hush, the door had opened to reveal Morganthe standing there, watching Tristan as though thoroughly amused.
"True," she sighed happily. "I see we have a second visitor today; how charming." Turning briefly to look down her nose at Zinia, who stood frozen in fear, she commanded icily, "Return to your work." The mantis scurried out of the room without a backward glance.
Tristan stepped forward, unafraid. "Release her," he demanded.
The attempt was clearly feeble in Morganthe's eyes. "Ah, but I already have… and here she remains."
Rebecca gulped. Tristan brandished his sword at Morganthe, unaware that he was the one frightening his girlfriend. "Liar!" he bellowed. "You vicious snake!" A silvery-blue mist began to form at the point of his blade, and it shot at Morganthe, but evaporated on impact, no match for her protective aura.
"Tristan, don't! Stunning won't do you any good; she's too strong!"
"Let him stun," Morganthe declared in her most sickeningly-sweet voice, a chilling calm radiating from her as she moved closer to him. "In fact, I get the feeling our young friend here – Tristan, is it? – is just itching for a good duel. Let us give him what he wants, shall we?" Horrified, Rebecca shook her head, her heart pounding, but Morganthe's attention was entirely on Tristan's only slightly worried face.
"But of course, this little bedroom is no place for a proper duel."
"No... NO! You ca—Please! I beg of you, my Queen, don't harm him!" Rebecca collapsed to the floor, caring no more for her sacred plan now than Morganthe did for Tristan's well-being. She wasn't humbling herself for the Spiral's sake this time; she was begging the beast to spare her beloved's life.
Tristan grimaced and looked away. Thinking back for a moment, he pressed his left hand to the stiff cloth of his pocket, where a small center of calm heat seeped through. It was a tiny stone she had enchanted as a gift for him on their first anniversary of being together, a symbol of the love that he knew would never die.
He remembered with ease what she had told him under Bartleby's shade on that hot, summer day, three and a half years ago: "Hold it in your hand. As long as it stays warm, you'll know you have a home in my heart. As long as you keep it with you, your heart will be my home. It will never grow cold, Tris, because I'll never stop loving you. Will you keep it safe for me?"
"Till the day I die," he had promised her. The memory of the soft, summertime kiss they had shared afterward made his lips tingle. He wanted to savor the memory, to live in its peaceful comfort for the rest of his life.
But even if he could, what kind of boyfriend would that make him? In what felt like slow-motion, he turned back to the girl who had offered him a place to call "home" when she'd learned he had never really had one. Returning to the scene before him – the way she clung so desperately to the bottommost hem of Morganthe's robes, as if she were about to kiss them – he cringed sharply at the sight. Affection, vengeance and humiliation for her gnawed at his heart. He had never seen her grovel like this.
Repulsed, Morganthe kicked her away as though she were some worthless, mindless toy. "Unhand me, pest!" she snarled.
Tristan gritted his teeth at the cruelty Rebecca seemed perfectly willing to accept from Morganthe, the Shadow-obsessed woman she had spent years trying to defeat. All of this seemed so unlike her that he was beginning to wonder whether Rebecca – the only true friend he'd ever known – really had changed as drastically as the headmaster himself believed.
The very next thing either of them knew, they felt themselves being wrenched away from the bedroom, teleported elsewhere by no intention of their own. In the next few seconds, Rebecca recognized her surroundings. They were in the throne room, standing on an ominously familiar symbol that, to her, meant only one thing: the duel Morganthe had "offered" Tristan was about to commence.
Dread shook her; what could she do now to prevent this from happening? She still doubted her own ability to take on a duel against the Shadow Queen alone. How could she protect Tristan without giving up her duty to the Council of Light? How could she keep up her effort to save the Spiral if Tristan were to be killed? Oh, Tristan, she thought as helpless tears stung her eyes, why couldn't you have just gone home when I warned you?
Then, though, she remembered something crucial. "Your Majesty, I… I can't fight him…" she managed to sputter.
Morganthe stared down at her apprentice, her look of mock surprise a translucent cover to conceal something even crueler. "Pray tell, Shadowblade: why is that?" she asked.
"I-I… I don't have my wand… or my spell deck… I left them in—" she stammered, but before she could make another sound, Morganthe rolled her eyes and scoffed in exasperation, silencing the young Theurgist. She had already learned not to mention Ravenwood within earshot of the bitter mage, so she stopped herself from finishing her reply.
Tristan watched her sadly as she protested, for it was he, and not Morganthe, who had the answer. "Becca, here." Slowly, he removed the backpack he'd been wearing, took out another, rolled-up backpack and held the second bag out to her.
Rebecca turned back to look at him, but at once, she closed her eyes, blocking out the sight. He had brought her backpack, with all of her best gear, back to her. She had left it in her dorm room for a reason! Not that she had planned for him, of all people, to port to her with it and get caught…
She was shaking even harder now, but beyond that, she didn't dare move a muscle. Her plan, her inescapable destiny, the look on Zinia's face when she'd realized they were allies, her recollection of all the Spiral had to lose if she were to lose… All of this yanked at her from one direction while her love for Tristan pulled with all its strength from the other. She couldn't move.
"Becca…" Tristan sighed, continuing to hold out the bag. "it's okay. Take it."
Rebecca shook her head slowly, breathing hard. "No, Tristan…" She took a step back.
Tristan came closer and closed her hand around the bag, forcing her to take it in his own, gentle way. "Yes. I've got nothing without my Life. You know that."
My Life. That was what Tristan called Rebecca whenever the opportunity arose. To her, it was more romantic than any pet name or nickname anyone else could have thought up. In using it, Tristan wasn't trying to say Rebecca belonged to him; what he meant was that he needed her. She needed him, too, which was why she was so unwilling to allow this duel to take place. In his words, she was the warmth that had kept him alive through the darkest moments of his life at Ravenwood. Likewise, he was the breath in her lungs and the fire in her heart that gave her the strength to keep fighting for the Spiral. For years, he had been her strength… until now.
"Oh, come now!" Morganthe interjected loudly. "Just get out your deck and your wand, apprentice, and let's get this over with!"
Her hard voice sent a powerful jolt of terror through Rebecca's nervous system, and she could feel it as physical pain that left her feeling strangled. Finally, unable to think straight, she acted on instinct alone, retrieving her wand and her spell deck. Once she had them both in her shaky grasp, she let her backpack fall to the floor with an audible clump.
Perhaps I'll be killed instead, she supposed hopefully. Tristan will grieve for a while, I'm sure, but he'll survive. And before long, he'll meet someone else who'll love him as much as I do…
But then, her destiny argued from the back of her shaken mind, what of the Spiral? Exactly how will Tristan survive without a world on which to stand? There will be no more Spiral if Morganthe gets her way, and you know it! It's the reason you're here!
Oh, Tris… she thought, wishing she could say it to him out loud, you should have left when I told you to!
"That wasn't so very hard, was it, apprentice?" Morganthe said slowly, clearly mocking her hesitation. "Now, come here."
Helpless in her misery, Rebecca obeyed. Less than a second later, a great, resounding crack of Morganthe's staff filled the air as she slammed it fiercely against the stone floor. The ground shook slightly, and the faint symbol Rebecca had seen on the floor upon entering suddenly lit up like thin streaks of colored fire. Rebecca felt her entire body being pulled toward Morganthe's side of the duel circle, even as every spark of consciousness in her mind urged her to turn around and fight alongside Tristan and defend him at all costs.
To her knowledge, Tristan had never dueled outside the Ravenwood Arena before. The rules were different in such a dangerous world as Khrysalis! People here were often notorious cheaters, and she had already seen the Shadow Queen's arsenal of interrupts back in Ghost Avalon. How many new tactics had she picked up in the countless years since?
Despite her efforts to protect Tristan, she was drawn by invisible magic to the second spot on Morganthe's side of the circle. Tristan directly faced Morganthe, standing alone behind the Sun symbol. Rebecca gulped back her tears, forcing herself to continue with the plan.
Meanwhile, Tristan glanced down at the spot in the duel circle upon which Morganthe was standing and managed an amused scoff. "Thirty-five thousand health points," he taunted her with a smirk, "and you can't even manage a couple extra power pips for the first round, Morganthe?"
"Why, yes I could, if I wanted them. But you see, I'm not the one who'll be needing the power in this battle," she sneered wryly in Rebecca's direction.
"Your Majesty, please… Please don't make me—" Rebecca pleaded again.
"You will do as I command, brat!" Morganthe boomed, and Rebecca cast a frightened look across the duel circle at Tristan, whose sense of humor appeared to have fled the battle. "Now choose your spell, and hurry!" Morganthe prodded her apprentice.
Panic seemed to slow time itself, but it was Rebecca who was too slow. Thirty seconds into the duel, she had made no choice; her turn was forfeit. The seven cards in her hand disappeared before she could get a good look at them. She had noticed a few healing spells, however, including one Rebirth, which she made a mental note to discard as quickly as possible during her next turn.
"A Tower Shield?" taunted the Shadow Queen when the silver shield materialized in front of Tristan. "I hope you plan on doing something useful next time."
"Shut your mouth and focus on your own deck, spider witch!" snapped Tristan. Rebecca swallowed hard; her first instinct was to laugh in agreement with his remark, but she quickly remembered that their present situation was no laughing matter.
Meanwhile, Rebecca shuddered as a Balanceblade appeared above her head, circling around her, waiting to be activated. A sensation of added magical strength engulfed her.
That should have been all for that round, but Morganthe was too quick to allow the round to end normally, and as a cheat, she boosted Rebecca again, this time, with Spirit Blade.
At last, round two began. Rebecca's cards reappeared before her, and she hastily dropped her Rebirth spell card to the floor, along with two wand hits, each worth a meager one hundred forty-five health points in base damage. Immediately, however, realization struck her: if she had saved those otherwise useless wand spells, she could have used them to get rid of all the blades Morganthe might cast on her, leaving Tristan more or less unscathed!
She passed her turn again, this time on purpose, and even as Morganthe was growing visibly angry with her inaction, she had to do it. Gaining the vindictive woman's trust was central to her plan to defeat her, but her victory would be unbearably empty without the knowledge that Tristan was safe, too.
That turn, Tristan played a Life Shield; he looked down to see the green ward appear beside his Tower Shield, both spells swiftly circling his place on the battleground. Morganthe placed a Curse on him, then used Dark Pact on Rebecca by interrupt, somehow managing to be immune to damage from her own spell. Rebecca fought the wave of strength the new blade forced upon her, but it still managed to frighten her.
She was shaking terribly now. Round three began, and for the first time since the battle had started, Rebecca looked down just before her cards reappeared to see how many pips she had accumulated thus far. When she discovered that five power pips and two normal pips waited at the ready to drive her first spell, she turned away in horror. Had it not been for the mystical forces inside the duel circle holding her upright, she might have fallen backward in shock.
"You see that, apprentice?" barked the impatient royal nightmare. "You've had no excuse to wait this long. Attack!"
As she turned back to her deck, her mouth fell open. A shaky moan escaped her throat; in place of the three cards she had tossed down the round before, she'd drawn Lifeblade, a Colossal and, to her greatest dismay, Gnomes.
"This can't really be happening," she whispered, shaking her head.
"What are you waiting for now?" shouted Morganthe. "You have the attack! CAST IT!"
That's crazy… Rebecca thought frantically. How does she know what spells I've drawn?
Only three seconds remained of the allotted thirty when the Theurgist, having hastily drawn the Life symbol in the air with her weapon, pressed the tip of her staff into her Gnomes card, pushing it towards Tristan while her entire being opposed the decision. Her hands were shaking so badly that she almost selected Satyr instead. A lot of good that would have done, since she couldn't have healed him even if he had needed it… but it would have been a far less grievous mistake than the one she had just made.
The tremors in her hands and arms spread throughout her body until only the mysterious forces inside the duel circle were keeping her upright and on her feet. In all her experience, it would take more than luck to save an Archmage from such a heavily boosted spell. Once her turn began, and her spell activated all of those blades, the Feint and the added boost from her new Shadow gear, Tristan would need every bit of protection his own armor and shields could provide.
It appeared Tristan had chosen to use a Treasure Card for this round, for he had cast Leviathan, which every wizard knew was only trainable to students focused on Storm magic. However, he had not chosen to cast it at Rebecca.
All eyes were fixed on Morganthe as the great sea serpent prepared to attack, glaring into its soon-to-be victim threateningly, but Morganthe's face softened into a thoughtful smile, as if she were trying to will the huge beast to attack Tristan instead. Her lack of fear only served to anger the leviathan further, for its eyes narrowed and it sank below the surface of its round pool, signaling that it was ready to attack. Its tail then rose from the cloudy water and slammed down onto the Queen.
To his disbelief, Morganthe didn't even bat an eyelash. As the aquatic monster and its pool of water vanished from the center of the duel circle, she let out a slow chuckle. Rebecca and Tristan shared a look of alarm. Tristan had just used all of his pips on a relatively powerful spell—probably the strongest spell he'd had—and Morganthe had resisted it completely. Was the Shadowmancer immune to every spell of every school?
Rebecca had only seen such an occurrence once before: on Xibalba, just before the cursed comet had destroyed Azteca. An undead, undying Malistaire had appeared there at Morganthe's command, and Morganthe herself had granted him universal immunity. Surely, to give such a seemingly impossible ability, the Shadow Queen must have had to possess it herself! How could she possibly be defeated now, whether by her assumed apprentice or anyone else? All this struggle—for nothing. And now, Tristan would surely be killed for his bravery, in order for Morganthe to ensure the destruction of the Spiral Rebecca had come all this way to defend! He would die… The thought pierced through her heart like a sword, and she found herself wondering if she could go on fighting for the Council of Light's heroic cause if he were lost to her forever.
Grinning in her classic air of cruel overconfidence, Morganthe suddenly struck the floor with her staff, just inside the central portion of the duel circle, jamming the spinning arrow just as it was moving towards her, and effectively delaying her own turn. Tristan gave a sudden, startled outcry. Neither he nor Rebecca had ever seen such a tactic used before.
"Clever fellow, isn't he?" Morganthe asked Rebecca, smug laughter ringing in her words. Rebecca didn't look at her, for fear that her eyes would betray her worry that all of this would be in vain. Morganthe spoke again, as slowly as if she were addressing a badly-behaved toddler. "Know this: I will not… be defeated… by a student… of Merle Ambrose."
"You were his student, remember?" Tristan argued without a moment's pause, gritting his teeth at the thought of her treachery during her final years in Avalon. Rebecca had told him all about what had happened there upon returning to Wizard City with the Sword of Kings safely in hand. "He taught you everything you know!"
His words elicited an unexpectedly emotional reaction from the Shadow Queen. Her dark eyes flared with hatred; her breathing, calm and even just seconds earlier, now came in audible shudders; her hand loosened its grip on her staff somewhat, but then abruptly tightened around it again…
"You little vermin…" she breathed. "How dare you speak to me about my past! In a few moments – when you are dead – and for eternity, I will never let you rest!" By now, her voice had grown loud and shrill as she swore unending vengeance for Tristan's heinous "crime."
Tristan did his best to keep still, but he could feel himself shaking uncontrollably against his better judgment. Morganthe had started out as a Necromancer, after all, before Shadow magic had seized her interest. He had heard what she had done to Malistaire years after his defeat, twisting his soul beyond repair; would she do the same thing to Tristan himself? It was already clear to him that regardless of which attack Rebecca had chosen, his chances of surviving this duel were next to nothing; even if he managed to survive this next spell, he would not last much longer afterward.
Tormented by the threat, Rebecca gasped for air, as if she had been drowning in the frigid waters of her living, waking nightmare. "Tristan…" she moaned.
"Quiet, slave!" Morganthe hollered. Raising her staff once more, she brought it down in front of her with a loud CRACK, releasing her hold upon time within the duel. The instant the arrow had come to a stop in her direction, the Myth symbol formed before her, and the ground beneath them began to shudder. Several large cracks erupted along the battleground, spitting jagged bits of earth and stone into the air, the most powerful of these explosions crashing directly into Tristan. His Tower Shield activated, along with the Curse. The blow forced him backward a little, hitting him for just under two hundred damage.
Stepping back into his spot on the edge of the circle, he shuddered. As far as he could tell, the point of casting Earthquake was rarely to injure one's opponent, but rather to strip them of all defensive spells and offensive boosts. Sure enough, his Life Shield shattered, unused, leaving him protected only by his armor, which he had acquired about thirty levels ago.
But that wasn't all Morganthe had up her sleeve for him… It appeared that she had used an interrupt early to cast her Earthquake; her actual turn was only just starting. This time, she replaced the Curse she had used up with a Feint. He looked up at her, horrified, but unlike before, there was no mocking smile on Morganthe's face—only the intense hatred he had kindled, the tender nerve he had struck.
Don't let her see your fear, he told himself, but all he had to hide it with was sadness. He had come to rescue his girlfriend, to bring her home safely… and he had done no such thing.
When the first gnome appeared, Rebecca closed her eyes, but she couldn't block out the high-pitched voices and laughter as more and more gnomes joined the first in the center of the duel circle. She knew what was happening – she had cast that spell many times before, and had seen it in action. She could see it in her mind even as it was happening only a few feet away, but she didn't want to see it at all.
She opened her eyes just in time to see hundreds of the tiny creatures combine into one giant gnome, whose form towered over her head and shone golden for an instant. Having seen that glow many times before, she knew exactly what it meant… It was the identifying mark of a Critical. "Tris…" she whispered feebly, feeling very lightheaded.
The gnome's roar echoed through the Theurgist's mind. One by one, her blades activated, followed by the Feint, and all the while, she prayed he would block her Critical, but when the gnome raised his gigantic fist, she knew it was already too late.
With a sharp crunch, both the gnome and the duel circle slowly disappeared. Without the circle holding him upright, Tristan's head fell to one side, his tightly-shut eyelids relaxed but did not open, and his knees buckled under him.
Once the back of his head had landed on the unforgiving marble floor, he faded from view amidst a hum of mana.