Once upon a time there was a lie with seven towers. Seven, one to make each of Xerneas' antlers, spreading out to shelter all Kalos within their light. Below patrolled the knights of the realm, glowing with Xerneas' power, enforcers of the life-giver's will during his long slumber. And so the realm was happy, and so the realm was free.
And it was beautiful, like all lies, in that sweet golden era when it could be mistaken for the truth. But even the most enduring falsehood can't withstand the truth forever, and even Xerneas' chosen were after all only people. The life-giver's proud fellowship fell, the seven-branching towers emptied and now stretching over the land like the hooked claws of the doom-bringer, who some whispered had turned knight against knight himself.
In the shadow of the towers roamed one of those lost knights, sableye partner on her shoulder and sword sheathed at her side. She passed by waterwheels that had ceased to turn and fields that had lain fallow even before some beast tore through them, leaving gaps like knocked-out teeth amidst the buildings crowding in along the stream.
Caelia knelt down by footprints, craters in the mud two hand-spans wide. "Look at these, Tenebrae," she said to her partner, and the sableye peered down with interest, gemstone eyes flashing in the sun. "Do you think it's a tarasque?"
That was what the rumors claimed. Tarasque, six-legged beast in blood-colored armor, master of fire and water alike. It slumbered in some hidden cave and woke ravenous, setting out on clockwork legs to consume sheep and shepherd alike until its hunger was sated. It was precisely the sort of beast that knights were meant to defend against, and here in Calanthe there had been none to do so.
Tenebrae chirped and glanced behind him, and only then did Caelia hear hoofbeats. She barely had time to rise, gritting her teeth against the pain in her right leg, before a rapidash hurtled into view. It was a fine courser, bedecked in ribbon and pageantry, and on its back a fine knight. She wore no armor but what Xerneas had given her, ridges of stone visible even through her fine blue tunic, eyes bleached to pale blue and cropped hair to white, a frisson of winter on this mild summer day.
Here was a knight that Caelia knew well, and before she could stop him Tenebrae let out a delighted trill. The knight whooped in answer, turning from the road to thunder across the field. Her rapidash pulled to a halt in an ostentatious spray of mud, and the knight grinned down at Caelia, teeth flashing snow-white as the rest of her. "I thought it would be you," she said. "I'd heard rumors of a black knight about. Who else could they be speaking of?"
Caelia thought of herself as more indigo these days, deep purple bleeding across her skin from the crystals that marked her knighthood. She scowled and moved stiffly to put herself between Tenebrae and the knight—quickly, before the two of them could fall into the conversation they looked so keen to have. "Lunete," she said shortly. "What are you doing here?"
Lunete had the easy smile of a knight who still believed the towers' lies. "Are you really questing the tarasque?" she asked. "Do you and Tenebrae intend to take it alone?"
"We do." Caelia hadn't expected anyone else to take interest in this out-of-the-way place. But it was a tarasque, after all, a powerful and magical beast. It was bound to attract the glory-seekers who wouldn't otherwise care about the sleepy villages it attacked.
Lunete laughed. "I should have expected that. If I had to pick any knights of the realm to fight a tarasque in single combat and win, it would be you and Tenebrae. There's no need for you two to fight alone, though. I would be happy to join you."
"No," Caelia said simply.
The pause that followed was long enough to allow Lunete's own partner to catch up with her. The glalie swooped down from the road to hover behind Lunete like an ill-omened moon, blue eyes narrowed. Before Glace could admonish his partner for leaving him behind yet again, Tenebrae leapt up, cackling, and engaged the glalie in lively conversation.
Meanwhile Lunete's rapidash could clearly sense the tension in the air, tossing its head and stamping. "If you feel it would impugn your honor, of course I'll stay my hand," Lunete said, but a shadow had fallen over her smile. "Forgive me, but the tarasque is a fearsome beast, and the cause of much misery. It would be faster for us to drive it off if we worked together, and I would have it gone as soon as possible."
"Why are you here, Lunete?" Caelia asked again.
"This is Calanthe," Lunete said. "These are my lands. I won't have some beast tearing them apart."
"Your lands?" Lunete asked. "By what mandate is Calanthe yours?"
When Lunete spoke again, it was with bald confusion. "I'm a knight of the realm, and I've a duty to Calanthe. You know this, Caelia. Or has something befallen you that you've forgotten?"
"What realm?" Caelia spat. "Where have you been these past three years?"
Lunete's confusion settled into dismay. "Regardless of what happened to the fellowship, you can't expect me to abandon my duty."
No amount of truth could get through to some people. Caelia barked an unhappy laugh and turned away. Tenebrae muttered something to Glace and came running after, no doubt intent on scolding his partner for her lack of manners. Caelia ignored him, and Lunete, too, until the both of them had given up on their lectures.
The tarasque wasn't difficult to track. Such a beast expected to meet no resistance; if it could even conceive of knights, Caelia doubted it would have any respect for them. Caelia continued upstream, following the huge footprints and a long trail of tumbled bridges, buildings tumbledown and tumbled down, crushed beneath the tarasque's bulk. It was hot down by the stream, which soon began to simmer and steam like some evil witch's brew, but the odd cold gust of air told Caelia that Glace had been set to spy on her. No doubt Lunete was scouting somewhere ahead. If Caelia was lucky, she'd find and dispatch the tarasque herself, and then leave, and all of them would be better off.
Caelia didn't notice how much hotter the air had become, nor that Glace's icy touch had vanished, until the stream erupted in hissing fury. The current changed direction, water flowing away east, and Caelia picked up to a reluctant trot, and then a jog when a roar split the air ahead.
The mud bubbled and murmured around Caelia's boots, rot-smelling steam buffeting in alternation with frigid blasts of air. Through swirling mist Caelia caught blue flashes of Lunete's tunic—and then the red carapace of her opponent. It sprawled wider than the farmhouse Lunete had sheltered behind, each armored leg nearly as tall as Caelia, and moved with halting crablike movements, clicking and thudding and ticking like some unholy marionette. The beast advanced on Glace and Lunete, a slow-motion kept going, slow but implacable as it advanced upon Glace and Lunete.
Caelia couldn't get close enough to use her sword. The ground around the beast was a mess of steaming mud; one slip and she'd be boiled alive in muck. Tenebrae raised himself higher on Caelia's shoulder, hissing babewyn curses, and hurled a common garden rock with such force that the tarasque actually paused and turned ponderously in their direction. Caelia caught the gleam of irascible blue eyes beneath armored brows and knew this for a beast true and not merely an automaton, and then the tarasque turned a cannon like a clawing arm at Tenebrae and released a great jet of flames.
The sableye deflected the attack with a burst of magic, and Caelia dove behind the slumped corner of the farmhouse, frozen first by the pain of the sudden movement and then sudden, breathless cold. Lunete loomed out of the steam, glowing like arctic ice, with Glace behind her grown huge and horrid. For a second Caelia was transfixed with surprise and jealousy, and Tenebrae chirred, reaching instinctively for the fragment of Sangraal embedded at his shoulder.
"Come on," Lunete said in a voice that crunched like frozen-over snow. "It caught me unawares. We have to retreat."
Immediately Caelia opened her mouth to object, but squashed the impulse before it could fully form. She was no fool knight. The tarasque was powerful, and doubly so against ice-knights like Glace and Lunete. With no chance of ambush Caelia couldn't hope to bring it down alone, either.
To their fortune the tarasque did no more but howl after them as they fled, seemingly reluctant to leave the water's edge. There was a monastery atop the hill, where the monks no doubt watched uneasily the clouds of steam drifting up from what should have been their market. Caelia accepted their hospitality with grim acquiescence, and Lunete with warm enthusiasm. Enjoying her knightly place at the center of attention, clearly. How long before knightly favor frayed along with the unkept roads and shades of unchecked beasts? Caelia left Lunete to her joyful fiction, for as long as it would hold.
With the last songs of evening prayer dying on the wind Lunete found Caelia in the courtyard, looking up at the towers. "I'm sorry to have offended you," she said. "I hadn't seen you in Anistar, but I didn't realize how much you'd missed. A great deal has changed in three years, Caelia. It's not like it was right after the towers fell."
"You would have better left it at sorry," Caelia said acidly. "I have no interest in your politics."
Lunete shook her head and watched Glace wander the courtyard, blowing idle puffs of ice that turned bushes to miniature sculpture. The both of them had recovered well from the fight. Caelia was only lucky she hadn't had to do more. "I'm sorry," Lunete said again. "I shouldn't have presumed. I've heard little of you since the towers fell. How goes it with you?" When Caelia didn't respond, she went on. "Your knighthood seems to be paining you. I understand if you chose to leave service. You've done much in your day. There's no dishonor in it."
"That's not why I left Anistar," Caelia snarled, all the more viciously for realizing that her hand had gone unconsciously to her wrist, where her Sangraal slumbered in its tomb of crystal. Lunete's own knighthood gleamed at her throat like the sun through darkening clouds, gray rock now crusting over the gold band it was set in. "In case you hadn't noticed, I'm out here seeking the same beast you are."
"Yes." Lunete sat down beside her, less heavily than if she'd been wearing proper armor, but the stone Xerneas granted her wasn't exactly light. "Why, then? Have you sworn yourself to some other liege?"
"No," Caelia said. "I heard there was a tarasque that had awakened. Who else could deal with it but a knight? I made my own decision."
Lunete nodded, slowly. "You've gone rogue, then?"
"What is there to be rogue from? The towers stand empty. If there's no fellowship, there can be no exile."
"And yet the farmers plant and the craftsmen craft and the seasons still march on, fellowship or no," Lunete said. "There was chaos for a time, but there are knights in Anistar again. Geraint founded a new order."
"An order made up of the dregs of the last, which shattered in bloodshed. What's the point, Caelia? What do you expect to be different?"
"Hengist is gone," Lunete said firmly. "Igraine is gone. Dead, I hear, in the fighting. Those who brought down the fellowship have been driven out. Much has changed, Caelia. You should come back with me and see for yourself. You'd be welcome there."
"Do tell," Caelia said drily. "And when it's some other knight you all thought shining who proves to be corrupt, what will you do then? Drive her out and exalt another, only to find that they, too, were monstrous? Replace them all you like, what good is it when the next in line is as bad as the last?"
Lunete grimaced. "I know you were close with Hengist. There's no shame in that. None of us would ever have expected—you can't blame yourself for not seeing it."
"This isn't about Hengist," Caelia said. Of course Lunete wouldn't see. She was still lying to herself, enamored of the towers' glamour. "That's the point. It could have been anyone. Would have been anyone. How is the fellowship supposed to defend the realm if it can't even defend knights from themselves? How can you swear loyalty to anyone, if your loyalty only makes you complicit in their crimes?"
"There are many honorable knights within the fellowship," Lunete said staunchly.
"Show me an honorable knight, then!" Caelia snapped.
Lunete raised a hand and then hesitated. "You're a—"
"How much do you think you know about me, Lunete?"
Lunete grimaced but didn't pursue that line of thinking further. Her hand turned back to rest on her own chest, but even as she drew breath to speak, Caelia said, "Would you really be so confident as to submit yourself as an example of knightliness?"
"Would you believe me if I did?" Lunete asked. Surely the answer was plain upon Caelia's face. "There's no point, then. I suppose I don't know what to say."
"There's a change," Caelia said. "Perhaps if you kept your mouth shut more often, you'd learn a thing or two."
Glace growled from Lunete's side, and Caelia glanced at him, bored. The glalie's displeasure sheds from him in a litter of snowflakes.
Silence passed like a long, icy winter. Finally Lunete said, "It was tragic the way things ended, but that wasn't how they began. It was hard watching everything come apart. I lost a lot of people in the fighting, and not just the ones who died. I know you did, too. But you can't let the end be all you remember of it."
"The fellowship was corrupt from the start," Caelia said. "It was always a lie. All that talk of Xerneas' will, what was it good for? Of course I wanted to believe we all were special and the people I looked up to were heroes. I liked to think myself a hero, too. And all I ever did was work to prop up people who never deserved respect in the first place."
"Not all," Lunete said. "Do you truly feel you never did any good in the world, being a knight?"
"I hope I did," Caelia said. "But I don't know that it outweighs what I didn't."
"I think it did," Lunete said firmly. "So the towers have fallen. And in their place you would raise"—she held her hands up, empty—"nothing?"
"I don't know," Caelia said. "But I'm not eager to sign my life away to a fellowship that looks anything like what went before."
"That's as you will," Lunete said at last. "The tarasque, then. If you and Tenebrae distract it, Glace and I will wear it down."
"Do as you please," Caelia said. "Tenebrae and I have our own plans."
"You aren't still thinking to fight it alone, are you? Let Glace and I help. Especially if you don't want to call Xerneas' light."
"Not all of us reach for Xerneas' light at the very first difficulty, Lunete," Caelia said. "That's why we still have all our fingers. Rest assured I can handle myself in battle."
It took effort to make standing seem effortless, not to flinch at the pain in her hip, but it was worth it. Caelia left Lunete scowling down at her frostbitten hands, which were, as always, gloved.
In predawn darkness Calanthe's stillness seemed peaceful rather than ominous. Even the most bustling village would be quiet at such an hour, and lingering dark concealed the tarasque's predations. Tenebrae ran on ahead of Caelia, popping from one shadow to the next with the glee of a child stomping in puddles. Sableye preferred to hunt in darkness, and notably, glalie did not.
The tarasque's trail continued upstream, out of Calanthe proper and into wilds where river-reeds were charred black and the water trickled loud through holes torn out from bibarel dams. The beast's foul steam floated over the water like clouds promising a storm. They curdled around a sandbar where Caelia could just barely make out the toppled silhouette of the beast itself, all crooked angles like the homes it had smashed through itself.
Caelia stood on the bank and scowled at the thing. She couldn't make it out to the tarasque herself, not with the water boiling around it. Still Caelia readied sword and shield and, self-consciously, shifted her arm, the crystal growth above her wrist scraping the inside of her shield. There was a spark there, maybe—but no. The moment passed and nothing, after all, had changed. The towers were still empty.
"You know what to do?" Caelia whispered to Tenebrae instead. The sableye had been watching her, claws up at his Sangraal, but he dropped them now and nodded. "Whenever you're ready, then."
Tenebrae shot across the water, an arrow of shadow that swooped under the tarasque's body. A moment later the jerked and let out an indignant roar, and Caelia smiled to hear Tenebrae's answering cackle. The tarasque rose unsteadily, stomping in a circle with steam gushing from its joints, shadow-pricked and furious. The river boiled higher, its hissing steam seeming to whisper babewyn threats.
Caelia was ready when Tenebrae drove the tarasque her way, raising her shield to deflect a scalding blast of water and striking out with her sword. The blow struck an armored foreleg with an impact that near shivered the sword from her hand. There was a dent, she was sure, in the bloodred armor, but the tarasque barely glanced her way. Caelia swung again, aiming for a joint.
The blow struck home with a ringing clang, and this time the tarasque snapped at Caelia, only to jerk away again when Tenebrae lashed it with shadow on its other flank. Grimly satisfied, Caelia raised her sword for another blow, and a blast of superheated air knocked her onto her back. Caelia yelled, rolling instinctively with her nose full of the smell of burning. The mud around her was barely cooler than the air, and it coated her so thickly it was as though she'd been wrapped in a burning shroud. Caelia forced herself to her knees, seeking wildly for the Tarasque, for Tenebrae—Tenebrae who was flung far up the bank, sheltering behind a green magic barrier while the tarasque stomped closer, firing round after round of water from its cannons. Tenebrae leapt and twisted, trying to vanish into shadow, but another fierce pulse of heat buffeted him back to physical form.
Caelia was in motion without thinking about it, hand going instinctively to the Sangraal on her wrist. But there was no flash of power there, and Tenebrae was too far for her to reach before the tarasque's cannons swiveled, flame glaring in their throats.
There was a clatter of hoofbeats, and a mounted figure loomed over Tenebrae, shield up to deflect the fire and rapidash mount absorbing whatever spilled around the edges. The tarasque grunted, venting steam that cold only mean water was coming next, then staggered as a bolt of ice crawled up its side.
A second later Caelia found herself staring up at Lunete, sooty and draggled and serious. Tenebrae clung to her arm, with a shadowy leap transferring himself to Caelia's shoulder.
"Fall back! "Lunete yelled. "We need to coordinate!"
"We need to do nothing," Caelia spat.
"I at least need to apologize," Lunete said, "For having caused you any distress."
"Save your apologies," Caelia said, shoving past Lunete's rapidash. "We have work to do."
She didn't make it far before Lunete surged past, her rapidash's head low and straining forward, pennants flying. Blue light gleamed as she called on Xerneas power, and down at the water's edge, Glace changed. Lunete gritted her teeth and sped up as much as she could, Tenebrae leaping from one shadow to the next, no more eager than she to let someone else finish their fight.
Ahead the tarasque's steam warred with new cold, Glace rocketing back and forth above the beast, dragging a comet-tail of glittering ice and exhaling constant snow-flurries. Frost formed on the tarasque's armor and melted, formed again. Lunete shone with Xerneas' power, and a blow from her spear leaving the tarasque howling and spraying scalding water everywhere.
Caelia went grimly about her own work, here chopping at the tarasque's leg, here prying up an armored plate. Tenebrae flitted around the tarasque like an energetic gnat, stinging and stinging with needles of dark energy. More than once he caught Caelia's eye and for his Sangraal, and Caelia pointedly looked away. Let Lunete be the proper knight. She had her convictions. She had the comfort of her company, all the other proper knights. The same proper knights who'd preyed on squires, on commoners, on anyone they could dazzle with their shining reputation, and then finally fallen on each other in an orgy of blood. The shard on Caelia's wrist sat cold and lifeless, and she was glad of it.
The tarasque conjured waves of fire twenty feet high, and each one Lunete stepped in to block, her mount wicking away flames until it glowed in warm counterpoint to its rider's chill. Glace's ice froze even the tarasque's boiling water, and the earth trembled in the throes of his magic, the tarasque collapsing sideways as sucking mud dragged it down. Even Caelia's attacks were beginning to show some effect, water dribbling from places where the beast's armor was buckled and cracked. Steadily the knights drove the tarasque back into the river, but still it would not flee.
Lunete charged, driving her spear into the beast's shoulder, a blow truly struck, so the tarasque reared and screamed, then screamed again when Glace swooped with a spear of his own, an icicle formed like Électhor's piercing beak, and stabbed it into the open wound. Tenebrae struck with his claws, and Caelia sloshed forward in seething shin-deep water, trying to get into position to make good with her sword, when the tarasque roared again, and the whole of the river answered.
The water rose in shuddering, fitful starts, like a slowly-wakening giant, then crashed down with a roar. It caught Caelia while she fled, knocked her down and plunged her into searing misery. Caelia sputtered and inhaled burning water. Sword and shield dragged at her, and she thrashed with no idea where the surface was, or if she'd even have the strength to reach it if she did.
Something freezing cold seized Caelia by the shoulder and hauled her off the riverbed. She grabbed on without thinking, gagging and spitting water while the unnatural tide rolled out. Her shield was gone, sword held limp in one reddened, scabrous hand. Caelia flinched away as a shadow fell over her, and then there was a loud impact and terrible hiss—a shield, Caelia realized, deflecting another attack. The cold thing that had pulled her out of the water was Lunete, unhorsed but still shining with Xerneas' light.
Caelia wanted to push her away, to insist that she didn't need help, but in the end she was too tired to manage anything but a grudging, "Thank you."
"Don't thank me yet," Lunete said grimly. "Can you stand?" A wash of flames struck her shield, and Caelia winced, trying to cram more of herself behind it. Her scalded skin didn't even sting, but fighting the weight of the water had left her exhausted. "You should go," Lunete said. "You're injured. Tenebrae, too."
Where was he? Glace was downstream, harrying the tarasque; the beast tore aside his magic veil, claws carving chunks of ice from his side. The glalie blew a desperate, .nd a moment later its cannons were bathing him in fire. A seething chunk of darkness knocked one of them out of alignment, When the tarasque turned Caelia spied Tenebrae around its flank, dripping and drooping but still on his feet.
The tarasque shuddered when it moved now, a gear with a missing tooth. The wound left by Lunete's spear gushed intermittent sprays of water.
Caelia hefted her sword, abandoning her shield to the river. "We need to finish this."
"What do you think Hengist would do now?" Lunete asked.
"What?" Caelia was almost too surprised to be angry. "What does that bastard have to do with anything?"
"He was a bastard," Lunete said solemnly, "but his deeds were real. Whatever else he was, he found the Godswood and ended the four-years' winter in Aquacorde."
"I've no time for a history lesson," Caelia snapped. "Tenebrae!" Caelia saw the sableye reaching again for his Sangraal while he turned to look and felt another acid twinge in her chest. No. It was no good.
Lunete was watching her. "Caelia," Lunete said quietly. "You haven't forgone Xerneas' power by choice, have you? You can't call it anymore."
"Is it really so strange that I'd rather save myself the pain?" Caelia snarled. "I can fight, Lunete. Leave me to do so in peace."
Lunete traced the Sangraal at her throat, which shone as bright as sun off snow. Probably an unconscious gesture, but one Caelia resented nonetheless. "You've lost faith," she said. "Xerneas' power doesn't flow to those who don't welcome it."
Caelia ground her teeth together and spoke slowly, every word carefully controlled. "You dealt the tarasque a great wound. If we concentrate our attacks there, the beast will fall."
"We'll need better protection if we're to get close enough," Lunete said, and Caelia could almost believe she wasn't being pointed. Glace had renewed his magic screen, though the gouges across his face remained. Tenebrae was slowed but still tenacious, in and out around the tarasque's legs, ever harrying. "First, though, the towers. You called them a lie, didn't you? An illusion? Yet there they stand. What then do you suppose holds them together?"
"They are a lie!" In frustration Caelia turned full towards Lunete. "Everything they were supposed to stand for—they upheld none of it!"
"They are an illusion," Lunete said. "What held them together was Hope, Caelia, not mortar or stone. They're something to aspire to. Our world is flawed, and the illusion is perfect. If you can't believe in people, maybe you can believe in what people could be."
"It's expected that the fellowship would be corrupt, then? You're at peace to have monsters among the knights because they make for such a pretty story?"
"No," Lunete said calmly. "You don't have to forgive anyone their sins. You don't have to revere them, or call them anything but what they are. But if even they could do great things sometimes, surely you can as well. Let that be your illusion, if you'd subscribe to one."
"The tarasque, Lunete," Caelia said harshly. "If you would speak of deeds, then let's finish this one."
The tarasque had driven Glace and Tenebrae back from the water's edge, where they rippled like mirages with the tarasque searing the air around them. The beast advanced with deliberate, clunking footsteps. Glace appeared to be sweating, rivulets of water running down his rocky armor, while Tenebrae kept his claws up over his face, leaning away from the Tarasque while he stumbled backwards.
"Agreed," Lunete said grimly, raising sword and shield. "We'll have to draw it off ourselves."
The tarasque paused, head swinging back and forth while it assessed the two groups of knights. Below its armored body reeds steamed, then began to smoke. Hot, rot-smelling steam choked Caelia whenever she strayed from the cool patch of air around Lunete. The tarasque confused for but a moment, and then its cannon-arms swung out, spraying fire. Lunete ducked, cursing the pain in her hip, and barely avoided a scorching. As the tarasque swept the flames towards her again she was forced to duck behind Lunete and her shield. From the cries, the babewyn weren't faring much better.
Caelia advanced with sword ready, fuming to be hiding in Lunete's shadow. The other knight trudged grimly on ahead, skin pale with cold despite the fire raging around her. The tarasque roared, and another blistering wave of heat brought tears to Caelia's eyes.
Tenebrae cried out to her, clawing at his Sangraal again, his usual grin gone to pleading stare. Xerneas' power. What good was a knight without it, and what good was it, the supposed font of life that had been used for so much evil?
The Sangraal on Caelia's arm was as dull and dead as a useless glass bauble. Ahead of her, Lunete yelled something to Glace, and another wave of fire licked the ice-knight's shield. Caelia sheltered behind her, the same as Tenebrae was doing behind Glace, who kept the heat at bay with magic and his own peerless chill. The tarasque stomped forward again, huffing clouds of vapor, and poured out another torrent of fire before Lunete could take three steps in its direction. There was no hope for victory if they couldn't even move forward. And what was Caelia doing about it? Ducking her head and hiding?
If they didn't drive the tarasque back here, would it return to Calanthe, or would turn its attention to greater Kalos, razing its way across the realm? And who could stand against it but a knight?
Or perhaps that was the wrong way to think about it. Who could stand against it but one who wielded Xerneas' power? Knights had their Sangraal, but perhaps they didn't have to be the only ones. Even if Caelia could no longer believe herself a knight, perhaps not all power was barred from her.
Always a moment of shock, piercing cold that held Caelia transfixed while red bled down across her vision. Shadows deepened and came to fitful, wavering life, whispering in no language she recognized. This was how Tenebrae saw the world, she thought. Caelia had forgotten the ache in her limbs, couldn't worry about the crystals on them growing larger with this new surge of magic. For the moment nothing at all could touch her, and when the tarasque's fire swept at her again, she raised an unfeeling arm to deflect it, crystals flashing red. By her side Lunete yelled something, and Caelia paid it neither thought nor care.
Now Tenebrae sheltered Glace with a crystal grown huge. The sableye advanced with the implacability of falling dusk, fire and water alike breaking from his gemstone shield, laughing all the while. Glace swooped in and out of its shelter, firing ice lances that shattered against the tarasque's armor.
The beast looked back and forth between the two sets of knights and actually backed up a pace, snorting out clouds of mist. It unleashed more scalding heat, but Caelia barely noticed. The tarasque flinched when her sword came down on a leg, trailing shadow. In turning to face her all it did was give her an opening to stab the wound Lunete's spear had left before.
The tarasque staggered, then raised both cannons, golden light tinged bloody by Caelia's grail-sight gathering within. The world dissolved in the pure light of magic, a blast so powerful it scoured the earth down to bare soil, but Tenebrae was there, his gemstone glowing calmly as it absorbed the blow. With the tarasque left spent and wheezing, the knights surged forward with ice and steel, driving it at last into retreat.
The knights hung back, watching the beast go, all except for Tenebrae. The ghost clung merrily on, encouraging the tarasque on its way with lashes of darkness. "You've had your fun, Tenebrae. Let the beast sleep," Caelia called. It would be a long slumber, no doubt, to recover from those injuries. Tenebrae cackled and hissed a few choice parting words, then leapt atop his gemstone and rode it back over the water to fetch up next to Caelia. The ghost leaned casually against the gem, face split by a wicked smile.
"Are we done, then?" Caelia asked, and the ghost ignored her in favor of chattering at Glace, who had already returned to his smaller form and seemed to only be half listening.
The fragment of Sangraal shone at Caelia's wrist, its glow bloodied by its gemstone prison. Perhaps someday another knight would have to carve it free and use it anew, but for now, it was hers. Caelia blinked when the grail-fragment's light flickered and then died, a harsh moment of vertigo and a black fog that momentarily obscured her vision following a moment after. Tenebrae had stanched the flow of power. Caelia leaned on her sword, exhausted and with leg aflame, the crystal in her leg no doubt grown larger. Someday she'd lose the ability to move it at all.
Lunete had been watching the tarasque's retreat, but now she turned to Caelia. "Are you well?"
"As well as I'll ever be, I suppose," Caelia said, and for a while that was all. Both knights sagged, drenched and scalded and lost in a world gone threadbare without Xerneas' light to illuminate it. Glace and Tenebrae had thrown themselves down by the water's edge, unabashed in their exhaustion. The tips of the tarasque's cannon-arms disappeared beneath the water's surface, and in their wake its furious bubbling slowed and finally stopped. The clouds of steam hanging low along its banks would dissipate soon enough on the gentle summer breeze. Overhead the seven towers watched, far-off and silent.
"There's sure be a celebration in Calanthe," Lunete said. "Will you go?"
Caelia closed her eyes in weary resignation. "Perhaps. And you? Or will you be off on another quest?"
"There's time to celebrate, but then I must return to Anistar." Lunete turned to Caelia. "I won't ask you to accompany me. But I hoped you would at least stay for the celebration. Not as a knight, but as a friend."
A friend. All Caelia's friends had been knights, and they'd proven no better than the people she'd left to join the fellowship. Few enough yet lived. But she was, after all, still a knight herself. Would always be. It was branded into her skin, as Kalos itself was marked by the towers of its fallen fellowship.
She couldn't change that. But maybe she could try to make herself the kind of knight who rode through stories, Lunete's favorite illusion.
For now, though, she would be only human. "I may," Caelia replied, "if you can manage not one word about knights or honor or Xerneas through the entire thing."
"Difficult," Lunete said with a smile. "But I suppose there'll be time for knighting later. Celebrating, too. For now I'd rather rest."
For now. Yes. On the bank of the sluggish river, misty and green beneath the towers' gaze, Caelia could almost imagine them in some tale, a bard's invention greased by wine. Here they were on a summer afternoon that would go on forever, in a land of shining knights and their seven-colored god.