The sounds of people shouting back and forth at each other, combined with the rise and fall of their stomping feet, woke Danny from his sleep. He didn’t think much of the liveliness outside, still waking. However, reaching his arm over to the space beside him, expecting to find Arras, he found no one. Only then did what the people outside were saying sink in. They were moving, mobilizing—something was happening. And Arras was gone. Though he had no idea what this could mean, he wrestled back into his clothes and ran outside.
Several of the men were walking out of the commons together, some of them armed. Among their ranks were even some of the younger men, boys who looked no older than sixteen or so, some of them carrying weapons. Grabbing one of the passing men, Danny asked what was going on. His answer was brief though pointed: they were assembling at the meeting hall, likely to be deployed. But he knew nothing more than that. Though he wondered why Arras would go on ahead without waking him, Danny guessed he would find her where everyone else was headed, so he followed the stream of men and boys on their way to the center of the rebel settlement.
Waiting outside the meeting hall, beside the entrance where well-equipped soldiers were funneling into the building, Danny found both Valiya and Endriss.
“Can either of you tell me what’s going on?” he asked as he approached, breaking away from the rest of the men. “And have you seen Arras?”
A handful of the men over Danny’s shoulder stopped to glare at the mention of her name, but Endriss glared daggers back at them, prompting them to move along. Catching on to the exchange, Danny was even less sure than before of what was going on.
“Val,” he asked directly, “what’s going on?”
“I’m sorry, Daniel,” Val said, trying to find the words. “But… This morning, Arras was spotted boarding a Reded transport.”
“They captured her?” Danny asked, though neither Val nor Endriss needed to speak for him to know he was way off base.
“There were eyewitnesses,” Endriss explained. “They all say the same thing, that she was seen boarding the ship; it didn’t look like the enemy had to struggle to get her aboard.”
Endriss gave Danny further details, but he wasn’t listening to the rebel leader. Resisting the urge to hit something—or even someone—his mind sprinted from one thought to the next, trying to find a simple explanation for why Arras would have left, but he could think of none. Instead, he thought of the night before, of Arras and the last time he had seen her—he could remember her smile, her touch, her warmth. Bowing his head, bearing the weight of this news, Danny wondered if last night had been her way of saying goodbye.
Time and time again, when she had been in any sort of trouble, he had come running. He didn’t want this time to be any different. But now he didn’t have anything he could use to rescue her, assuming she even wanted to be rescued. He didn’t have Ridarin—Truth did—and Arras knew that.
He then felt something he had not felt in some time, at least not in this way. It was very familiar to him now, having felt it many times before—this presence. His eyes drawn from Endriss and Val, he could see her. He found a young girl with snow-white hair sitting on the ground, hidden among the trees skirting the meeting hall. With her braided hair over her shoulder and running down the front of her body, its black-ribbon tail wafting gently in the breeze, she watched him as he watched her. Danny knew she was waiting for him.
Not saying a word, he left the one-sided conversation by the meeting hall, and ran to Ila. When they saw who was sitting among the trees, Val and Endriss both followed.
Danny was prepared to demand answers from Ila, but once he reached her, he realized how bad of a condition she was in. She was leaned against the tree because she could barely hold herself up; she looked as if she could keel over at any second as she tried to smile up at him.
“Ila,” Val exclaimed when she saw for herself. “Ila, what’s happened?”
“She definitely didn’t look like this last night,” Endriss muttered, remembering when he had found Ila and Arras in one of the medical tents.
“Please, don’t worry,” Ila told the three of them, though her voice was weak. “In spite of how I must look, I’m fine.”
Though neither Endriss nor Valiya knew what she could mean by that, Danny remembered their conversation from the other day. “Ila,” he asked, dropping down to a knee at her side, “what’s going on? If you’re like this, then…”
“We need to hurry,” Ila whispered back to him. “Do you still remember the way?”
Revisiting Ridarin’s shrine in his mind, Danny nodded. “I remember. I’ll take you there, Ila.”
Lifting her hand, Ila pointed to Val then Endriss. “Both of you, you need to come with us.”
“Come with you where?” Endriss asked, caught between sympathy and bewilderment. He turned to Danny, hoping to get some answers. “What’s happened to her? And where is it you’re taking her?”
“I’m going to give you everything you need,” Ila replied for herself, “to win your war and destroy Rededication. But Danny has to lead the way…”
Ila’s eyes seemed vacant then, and she was no longer looking at anyone. As she fell from the tree’s support, Danny caught her, letting her head rest on his shoulder as he put his arms under the backs of her knees and behind her shoulders. He lifted her from the ground as he stood up again.
“We’ll go now,” Danny said firmly, turning to Val and Endriss. Perhaps they trusted Ila as well, or maybe they were fueled by his own certainty, but they both nodded their agreement.
“You know the way, then?” Endriss asked.
“I do,” Danny replied. “But we’ll need a ship.”
Endriss took a moment to delegate the assembly in the meeting hall to Tromas and Aklus before leading Valiya, Danny, and Ila to a heavily guarded shipyard toward the edge of the settlement. Within a few minutes, they acquired a New Pact gunship—something like an upgraded version of what Danny and Val had been flying in for the past few months—which Endriss himself piloted. Together, limiting their party to just the four of them, they took off.
Danny gave Endriss directions, watching the scenery below through the canopy, as Ila continued to rest in his arms. The entire way to the small island, Ila did not move and her eyes remained closed, though she was still breathing. Out of reflex, he tried to scan her with his nano-net to determine her condition, but he remembered then that his net had been taken from him. It was the oddest sensation, having known both what it was like to have a net and what it was like to not have one; the absence of the net he had used so much these past six months felt like a phantom pain. Yet he knew what he felt paled in comparison to whatever state Ila was in.
“You really weren’t kidding,” he murmured to her, remembering what she had told him in the shrine before. Though he was still unsure of what she meant at the time, he wondered if this was something that had happened to her before, if she had ever come this close to losing her hold on any of the other possible timelines she had lived through. “You really are falling apart, aren’t you?”
His mind still racing, Danny adjusted his grip on Ila and took another look into her face. Though he could only think of Arras, he knew the only key he had to decoding whatever was going on was this young girl.
“You go ahead and rest for now, Ila. I’ll get you where you need to go.”
Though the way Ila had taken him before had been far more involved on foot, Danny managed to spot their destination from the sky easily enough, despite its relative camouflage among the dark surface of the island. Their gunship touched down in the clearing where the mound of stacked river stones stood. Landing several yards away from the shrine, Endriss locked down their ship and opened the hatch, with Danny and Ila the first to disembark.
By the time they reached the foot of the steps leading into the shrine, Ila began to stir.
“We’re here,” Danny told her, looking down into her opening eyes.
She smiled up at him, still worn out, and said, “I knew you’d remember. Let’s go inside, to the chamber I showed you before.”
With Danny leading the way, Valiya and Endriss followed closely, taking their time on numerous inclement steps. As they entered the main entranceway of the shrine, proceeding into the narrow cave, Ila spoke to all three of them.
“You’ve all been through so much, and it’s all led to this moment. It’s almost over, but I must ask a little more of you.”
“You said you knew how to destroy Rededication,” Endriss reminded her, following Danny into the naturally lit chamber, among the shattered statues and cracking pillars. “If you know anything at all, Ila, we can put your intel to good use.”
Danny sat Ila down on a large stone, leaning her against a pillar so she could see Val and Endriss.
“There are a few things you need to understand,” she told them. “Arras has surrendered herself to the Infinitude of Truth, and they have the Ridarin suit my parents built. Rededication has never been more powerful than it is now.”
“Why would Arras do that?” Danny asked, not caring if he sounded frantic. “Why would she give herself up like this?”
Ila looked back at Danny, her smile sinking. By the look in her tired eyes, he could tell she knew everything he had gone through, and all that was now on his mind.
“It’s because she realized what Truth wanted,” Ila told him. “She realized that all Truth wanted was her. Truth only wants what Arras wants. And Arras thought she could use that to stop Truth. What she didn’t realize was that it wasn’t Truth she had to stop—it was herself.” Resigning herself to the story she had experienced countless times before, Ila closed her eyes in thought. “But this is what had to happen… And now it’s our turn to make a move.”
Opening her eyes once more, with enough life to shift herself against the pillar, Ila turned to Val. “I need you to give Endriss and the rebels the coordinates to Earth.” She then turned to Endriss. “Mobilize every ship you have, and all your people. This will be your final battle, over Earth.”
“But if Truth has Arras and Ridarin,” Val added, “that would make them unstoppable, wouldn’t it? How will the rebels stand a chance now?”
“She’s right,” Endriss agreed, keeping his eyes on Ila. “If we didn’t stand a chance against Rededication before, how could we have a chance now?”
“That’s why I’ve brought you all here,” Ila replied peaceably. “Every last moment of your journeys, ever last second you shared together and every one you went through alone, all of it—it was all to prepare you for this.” She looked off toward the large painting of Ridarin, with her three iridescent wings stretched toward the chamber’s ceiling and the pale blue sky. “Hidden within this shrine is the only weapon that can stand a chance against Arras and Truth—the very method by which Ridarin herself killed the gods.”
Staggering at the thought, Endriss stared at the same painting. “You can’t possibly mean the real Ridarin…”
Turning back to her three companions, Ila replied, “Arras may be powerful, but Daniel will have everything he needs to face her. But in order to ensure the safety of Earth and everyone on it, the resistance must take on the New Pact fleet and Rededication platforms above the planet.”
Studying Ila, Endriss felt nearly possessed by the certainty this young girl exuded. Exhaling his doubts and fears, he asked, “How much time do we have to move into position?”
Turning to Val again, Ila replied, “Valiya, you can find Danny’s cell phone in your tent. At this moment, it should be about noon on the American east coast, on Earth. The resistance will have until four p.m. to get to Earth.”
“Will that be enough time?” Danny asked Endriss, looking up from Ila.
“We’ll make it enough time,” Endriss replied squarely before turning back to Ila. “But what are we supposed do once we jump into the system?”
“Hold your position and wait,” Ila replied.
“Wait for what?”
With a smile, Ila said, “The signal. Then the battle will begin.”
A strange collision of emotions occurred within Endriss then. He was whelmed by her ambiguity, especially with an operation of this magnitude. Yet looking down at Ila, who only smiled back up at him, he felt as if he was seeing something of Savin Visk. It struck him then that he had served aboard a warship that carried this young girl’s name, a vessel which took as its mantra a quote which Visk held dear, words which Ila Enqelin herself had spoken.
“We can create a world where people are free to be what they are. Until then…”
With a small smile of her own, as if to tell him he already knew where she stood, Valiya waited for Endriss to deliver his own response. With a deep breath, the rebel leader nodded to her.
“You can count on us,” he told Ila. “Just… don’t be late.”
“Certainly,” Ila said with an even brighter smile. “Now please, go and prepare. We’ll do the same.”
Though he intended to waste no time, Endriss hesitated to leave. Rather than confusion or anxiety, however, he was held back by one last thing he wished to do. As he had done before Commander Visk had left on what would be the last mission of his life, Keitimas Endriss faced both Ila Enqelin and Daniel Eick, standing bolt upright and at attention, before delivering them a salute. Holding position for a heartfelt beat, he then fell at ease and left the chamber without another word.
Valiya took a few steps after Endriss, but she stopped, lingering before turning back to Danny. Looking into one another’s eyes, neither of them spoke for some time. Though she had seen this coming for a while now, Val still found it difficult to accept. Even if neither of them could explain how, they both knew this would be the last time they would ever see each other again.
“Thank you, Daniel,” she finally sighed to him. “For everything.”
“Same to you, Val,” he replied, flashing a reassuring smile. “And good luck.”
Holding his glance for one moment more, Val then turned again and followed after Endriss, disappearing into the tunnel out of the shrine. When their footsteps ceased to echo back through the tunnel, Danny turned back to Ila.
“Alright,” he said, almost nonchalantly. “What now?”
By then, Ila was again captivated by the illustration of Ridarin on the wall. As if on instinct, Danny picked her up from her stone seat and carried her closer to the image.
“When we were last here,” she told him, “I told you that the Great Schema and generations of the prime family after them only ever made it partway into what Ridarin had hidden here. Her security system never let them in any further—she didn’t consider them worthy to enter the shrine’s deepest precincts.”
“You’re going to do what they never could. You’re going to take Ridarin’s method. And my role will be to give you the opportunity.”
Still taken aback at the idea of wielding whatever the historical Ridarin had left behind, Danny looked back down from the illustration to Ila, who still had her eyes fixed to the tall, dark figure with rainbow wings. “How do you plan to do that?” he asked her before turning back to the painting.
“Like I told you before,” Ila answered, though her mind seemed elsewhere. “A long time ago, someone I loved very much brought me here.”
Closing her eyes for another moment, Ila thought of her face again, now able to smile the very same way she used to. She thought of the one and only time they had come to this shrine together—and she thought of the secret she had shared with Ila that day. Opening her eyes once more, Ila stretched her hand toward the image of Ridarin; as she did, veins of luminescent nanites flared across her arm, running to her hand and fingers.
“She told me that only those who know the secret name of Ridarin’s method could ever unlock what she left behind,” Ila said as her hand ignited. “She brought me to this place, and she taught me that name.”
The circles behind the image of Ridarin lit up one at a time, starting from the outermost ring, until they reached the dark figure herself. The rainbow wings, which before had only been colored in paint, glowed like solar flares in all their colors. The chamber began to shake, and dust sprinkled from the ceiling. And in the brisk process of activation, Ila clearly spoke the name Ru had shared with her over two hundred years ago.
A sudden rush billowed from the tall image of Ridarin, as what had been stone softened into something else entirely. A bright, bluish white light overtook the entire wall, which was no longer flat and solid, but wafting and waving in place like a veil. The chamber was no longer shaking, but a soft sound, something like rushing water, came from beyond the veil.
As Ila tucked her head back against his shoulder, Danny knew what to do. Taking a few steps forward, carrying her with him, he stepped through the veil and into what Ridarin herself had left behind before her death.