“So where do we find your sis-” Caleb started, only for Midnight to cut him off with a glare.
“Her name is Alexandra,” Midnight said. “You’re having far too much fun right now, Greyson.”
“Fun is what I do best,” Caleb said, grinning. “So? Where do we find Alexandra?”
“She has a sort of headquarters past Sunset Park,” Midnight said. “Also, we’re being followed.”
Caleb started looking around for their pursuer, only for Midnight to smack him on the back of the head. “Don’t be so obvious,” he said. “We’ll lose her.”
“Are you worried?” Caleb asked.
“No,” Midnight said. “As long as we stay in public, we’re safe. But I’d like to lose her before we get close to our destination. I don’t like her knowing where we are. Just follow my lead and act normal.”
“Why don’t we just go west?” Caleb asked.
Midnight grinned. “It’s a bit of an obvious trick, considering this city, but it’s worth a shot.”
Midnight led the way, turning west at the next intersection. Caleb kept his eyes down and hand up against the bright golden glare of the sun on the horizon.
“Don’t lose track of me,” Midnight said. “We’ll enter a building on the left in ten paces. Ready?”
Caleb nodded, tracking Midnight’s steps and turning at the same time as his teacher. They climbed a short set of steps and walked through a green door that rang a bell as it swung inward. Inside, Caleb found himself in a clothing store, and a rather high-end one from the looks of it. It had an expansive selection, and there was even a staircase that led up to a second floor with more merchandise. Midnight led Caleb to the right, ducking behind racks of clothes near a side door that led out into an alley. He nodded towards the door from which they’d entered, and the pair waited.
A few moments later, the door opened again, and a woman entered the shop. It took Caleb an effort of will not to gasp. The woman could have been Void’s sister. She was pale-skinned, with dark hair and dark eyes that intensified her already severe expression. She had a lithe, athletic build, and a preference for black clothing, even wearing dark gloves despite Sunset Square’s pleasantly warm climate.
The woman scanned the store, her fierce gaze piercing the very air. Caleb wouldn’t have been surprised if she could see through walls and racks and clothes, leaving him and Midnight with nowhere to hide.
Her gaze passed over Caleb and Midnight’s hiding place, and Caleb lowered his eyes. It was easiest for someone to see you if they could see your eyes, he’d learned in his training as a Hunter. Even the best hiding places and greatest camouflage could be undone by the one in hiding looking the wrong way at the wrong time.
But it was absolutely maddening for Caleb to not look at his pursuer while she was right there in front of him. He couldn’t study her expression, and he had no idea if she could see him or not.
After several long, tense seconds, her footsteps once again sounded on the wooden floor. Midnight tapped Caleb on the shoulder and nodded forward. The woman had walked forward, climbing the stairs, rather than approaching the pair’s hiding place.
Out the side door they went. Midnight did something to the bell to prevent it from ringing, a sort of magic that Caleb didn’t recognize. In the alley, Midnight led the way, turning out of it as soon as possible, and taking many more quick turns from one street to another, one alley to the next.
Finally, they turned onto a major, bustling street, and stayed on it for a long time.
“Who was that?” Caleb asked.
“Neith,” Midnight said, and Caleb recognized the name from Midnight’s interrogation of Ingrid’s “parents.” “She’s an agent of the Radiant King – one of his foremost Enforcers. Void’s an Enforcer as well. They’re the King’s agents who work out in the field, gathering information and openly silencing the King’s enemies through whatever means they choose.”
“And she’s just strolling around Sunset Square?” Caleb asked. “What’s she doing here? And why’s she following us?”
“The Radiance aren’t all that fond of me,” Midnight said, sidling through a narrow gap between food carts. “Void especially, but he isn’t the only one. And if Mineria’s escaped, then of course the King will be wanting to track down the Crystal Family’s messenger and make sure she’s permanently silenced. It’s no wonder she’s here.”
“Why does the Radiance have it out for you specifically?” Caleb asked.
“It’s a long and terribly boring story,” Midnight said with a weary sigh. “I’m sure I’ll tell you about it someday. It’s not important. What’s important – and interesting – is that Neith is the one who’s here.”
“What’s special about her?”
“Neith is actually charming, in her own way, despite her appearance.” Midnight grinned. “She refuses to kill anyone, no matter the circumstances. Her magic and her fighting style are designed around restraining her targets and foes without fatalities. But in a large public space like this, she can’t fight. She relies on a very large Summon.”
“So that’s good for us.”
Midnight nodded. “You got that right.” He clicked his tongue disapprovingly. “I didn’t think she was that good. She’s on our tail again. Keep walking.”
“How?” Caleb asked, resisting the urge to look back.
“She’s incredibly good at her job,” Midnight said. “And now she has a strong hunch that we’re onto her. Losing her will be even harder now. If we could split up…”
“Why not?” Caleb asked. “Point me in the right direction and I can find my way.”
“First of all, you can’t,” Midnight said. “I appreciate the confidence, but this city’s denser and more complicated than you think. Secondly, and more importantly, you need to stay by my side because of your unique condition. If someone pulls a crystal on you and I’m not around, you won’t have any protection. You’ll end up in the Brig or a protected zone, neither of which is appealing to me.”
Being human sucks right now, was the conclusion Caleb came to.
“So what do we do?” he asked.
“The way I see it, we have a few options,” Midnight said. “We could keep trying to lose her. It’s not like that’s impossible. Or we could try and turn the tables on her – flip things around so that we’re the ones following her. I’m very curious to know where she would go if she thought she’d lost us. Are there more of the Radiance here, and does she he have any other objectives in the city? Alternatively, we could just go to our destination without worrying about whether or not she knows where we go. Though, that would likely put us on a time limit for freeing Mineria, and I don’t much like the idea of having a strict deadline when trying to break into one of the most secure prisons in the universe. And then…” Midnight grinned. “Well, my favorite option is we lure Neith into an abandoned building or alley, and knock her unconscious. I’d just as soon kill her, but, well… I figure you’d object.”
Caleb hesitated. Was he that easy to figure out? Of course he’d object to killing someone who isn’t out to kill them, but…
Why did he hesitate?
Neith is part of the Radiance. Could Caleb fight against them without killing any of them? How would he ultimately thwart their evil plans?
“Huh,” Midnight said. “I wasn’t expecting silence.”
Caleb shook his head. “I like the first two options the best,” he said. “Either lose her, or reverse the situation and make us the ones following her. But whatever happens, I don’t think she should find out where we go, so if you think the final option is the best, let’s do that.”
“Kill her?” Midnight asked.
“No,” Caleb said, not hesitating this time. “We knock her unconscious and then hurry to Alexandra.”
As they walked, Caleb found himself watching a pair of police officers arresting two teenage girls. Both of them were glaring at the officers, who held up crystals that had turned red.
Those girls are just kids, Caleb wanted to say to the officers. Have they really committed a crime just by being human?
“Get involved and you’ll just get yourself dragged away with them,” Midnight said, watching Caleb. “You talked to some of the people in the protected zones, so you should understand. There are people doing their best to change things here. And I’d be shocked if they failed at their goals. It’s just going to take time. The Enchanted here have been scarred for centuries. It doesn’t go away overnight.”
“I understand that,” Caleb said, gritting his teeth. Understanding something mentally was different from accepting it emotionally.
“Get ready to run,” Midnight said, leading Caleb towards the far right of the street, until they were nearly brushing against the walls and entrances of buildings and houses. “One quick bid to try and lose her. If that doesn’t work, then we’re onto plan B.”
“Got it,” Caleb said.
The crowd grew thicker, until Midnight and Caleb were bumping against men, women, and children every few seconds without any other option. Caleb’s instincts didn’t do him any favors. He was so used to making room and stepping aside for people when walking the streets of Grimoire that he only pressed on because Midnight pulled him along whenever he hesitated. Looking around, no one else seemed to mind the constant contact and jostling through the crowd.
People can get used to anything, I guess.
Wait. Midnight said to get ready to run? How the heck are we going to run through all of this?
“Look left,” Midnight said. Caleb did as instructed, and he understood. A small gap was coming up in the crowd, where owners of food carts and stalls were cleaning up their wares, while pedestrians tried to give them as much space as possible. “Run when I do.”
Midnight barely finished that sentence before he took off at a sprint. Caleb raced after him, and soon they were jumping over boxes and ducking under canopies at a breakneck pace. Midnight led the way, and had no qualms about causing a ruckus – he violently shoved people and objects out of the way if they were even slightly obstructing his path. Caleb followed along, offering apologies every speedy step of the way.
“Don’t you think you’re overdoing it?” Caleb asked.
“No!” Midnight called back. “Just shut up and run!”
Their race through the closing food stalls took them to the opposite side of the street, and then they cut down a short alley before turning on a diagonal to dash across another busy major street. This time they dodged cars along with people, and Caleb’s heart pounded in his chest. On they ran, never staying on one road or alleyway longer than a few seconds before sharply turning onto a new one, often doubling back the way they’d come before shooting out in a new direction. Once, Caleb stuck his hand into his pocket, intending to grab his Talisman and use a bit of Enhancement Magic as his stamina started to flag. Midnight spotted him and slapped his arm hard enough to yank it out of his pocket.
“Don’t!” he said harshly, offering no explanation.
Finally, as Caleb was running out of breath, they slowed to a quick walk, taking several turns one after another, doubling back and then re-doubling the previous direction before heading off in a brand new direction.
“No Talismans,” Midnight said softly, walking alongside Caleb. “Even if they don’t see you holding it outside of your pocket, running with a hand in your pocket is a bit of a giveaway as it is. Talismans are only used by humans.”
“They’re –” Caleb was shocked, but only briefly. He’d never seen Midnight use a Talisman, after all. He’d assumed, but that had clearly been a mistake.
“Enchanted have a closer connection to magic than humans,” Midnight said. “We don’t need an item to help us channel it.”
“So I can’t even use magic while I’m here,” Caleb said.
“You can, as long as no one sees you. Also…” Midnight sighed as the pair stepped out onto another busy street. “We didn’t lose her.”
“You’re kidding.” Caleb took in a long breath, then let it out. “Now what?”
“Plan B, of course. Come on.”
Midnight strolled casually now, leading the way into a small park with a fountain in its center. Several people were walking their dogs here, and squirrels chased each other under the trees, crashing through fallen leaves. The park was wedged between two major intersections, so it was small and rather loud, but it offered a bit of a reprieve from the constant stone and glass and metal all around the city.
They walked straight across the park, veering to the right at the last minute and entering a building through a drab, run-down door that creaked on its hinges. Inside, Midnight pulled Caleb to the right of a wide room with wooden floors. It looked rather like an empty storage room.
“When Neith enters, wrap her up with your chains,” Midnight said softly. “Then I’ll knock her out, and we can move on safely.”
“Just like that?” Caleb asked. It sounded far too easy.
“Don’t doubt me,” Midnight said, pretending to look hurt. “My plans are simple, yet effective. Just keep your eye on the door, and be ready to wrap her up instantly.”
“What if someone else walks in?” Caleb asked.
Midnight gave Caleb a half-lidded stare that said “are you serious?” “Then don’t touch them, obviously,” he said dryly. “Watch the door. I’ll be ready.”
Caleb did as he was told, hand in his pocket, gripping the cool metal of his watch. His whole body felt tense. This would be the first time he’d used magic since failing out of Midnight’s training and being put on medicine.
Speaking of medicine, it’s probably almost time for my next dose, Caleb realized. We’d better handle this quick.
The door creaked open, and in walked Neith. Caleb instantly reached out with his magic, calling white, glowing chains into being from Neith’s every side, offering her no avenue of escape.
To Caleb’s shock, Neith actually smiled. She raised her hands, displaying that each of her gloves was glowing. Before Caleb could wrap her up with chains, Neith slapped them all aside like toys.
“Honestly, is that the best you can do?” she asked. Her voice wasn’t at all like Void’s, carrying a warmth underneath a strong, stern tone.
Midnight stepped out from beside Caleb, not bothering to attack at all yet. “You’re stronger than the last time we met,” he said.
“Oh, we haven’t met for ages, Midnight,” Neith said, leaning against the wall casually. “Honestly, though, I’m disappointed. I didn’t think you’d stage an obvious trap. Your standards have sunk rather low of late.”
“How’s Void?” Midnight asked. “I gave him quite the fright recently when he trespassed in my domain. Again.”
“Your domain,” Neith drawled, sounding out the word like it was a joke. “It’s just a bridge. Don’t act so high and mighty. And Void’s fine. He avoids fights with you too easily, though.”
“Well surely you know why,” Midnight said, chuckling. “We only fought once, but that was enough, after all. He’s only alive because I was far too nice back then.”
“I see you’ve turned over a new leaf,” Neith said. “So? Do you want to fight? Because honestly, I’m not looking for violence. I happen to know the owners of this building, and even though they aren’t currently using it, they are looking for renters, and I’d hate to mess up the place.”
“I don’t mind a little property damage,” Midnight said. “But you don’t want to fight? Then why are you following us?”
“So I can find out where you’re going, obviously,” Neith said. She looked at Caleb, and her eyes gleamed. “I see your taste in companions has improved.”
“All you want is to see where we’re going?” Caleb asked. “What are you going to do with that information?”
Neith shrugged. “Maybe nothing,” she said. “I’m not in Sunset Square to observe you two. I just saw you while I was in the middle of a mission, and thought I’d follow along.”
“Since you seem to be in a sharing mood,” Midnight said, “what’s the Radiant King up to these days? I hear he isn’t a prisoner anymore. It’s a shame. Confinement suited him.”
Neith glared. “I can change my opinion on violence if you insist on insulting my liege,” she said.
“You know you wouldn’t last,” Midnight said, laughing. “You didn’t come in here for a fight. You came in here to talk. So what do you want to talk about, really?”
Neith raised her hands innocently. “Nothing dangerous or worth worrying about,” she said. “I just wanted to warn you not to poke your nose where it doesn’t belong.”
“And I’m guessing you’re the one who decides where my nose belongs?” Midnight asked, rolling his eyes.
“I think you know exactly what I’m talking about,” Neith said. “If you chase down that thread, I can’t be held responsible for what happens to you.”
“Why warn us?” Caleb asked. “Why not just let us fall into whatever danger or trap you have prepared for us?”
Neith studied Caleb for a moment, and then her eyes lit up. She held up a finger as if she’d realized something. “That’s why you look familiar,” she said, grinning. “You’re a Greyson, aren’t you?”
Caleb’s blood turned to ice. “How do you know that?” he asked.
Neith’s smile widened. “I met dear little Shana,” she said. “Your little sister, I presume? Oh, she has quite the heroic spirit. But you know…” Neith tapped her chin thoughtfully. “She isn’t all that good at keeping herself hidden. I know exactly where she is right now. I’d really hate for something bad to happen to her because her big brother failed to toe the line…”
“You won’t lay a finger on my sister,” Caleb said, gripping his watch tightly.
“Of course not,” Neith said. “As long as you be a good little boy and –”
Neith suddenly leapt aside, dodging a flurry of chains shooting straight at her chest. Caleb pulled out his watch, letting it glow brightly in his hand as he tracked Neith’s movements, sending chain after chain chasing after her.
“Poor move, Greyson!” Neith called out, laughing. “This room simply isn’t big enough for the three of us.”
Suddenly a shadow fell over Caleb. Midnight crashed into him, knocking him to the floor and pushing him towards the door, but their path was blocked by a…
Was that a leg?
It was. Caleb’s eyes grew wide as he realized what he was looking at. A giant, fuzzy spider’s leg had crashed into the floor in front of him, blocking his path. And that leg was attached to an enormous spider that couldn’t even fit entirely in the storage room – half of its body was still inside the strange portal that Summons came through when they were called.
But half of its body was enough. There was no room to move anymore.
“I really didn’t want it to come to this,” Neith said. “But you forced my hand. Really, when your darling little sister is threatened, your first response shouldn’t be violence. That wasn’t very brotherly of you.”
“I’ll cut a path through so we can escape,” Midnight said.
Caleb shook his head.
“No,” he said. “If she goes free, she goes after Shana.”
“So we’re fighting, I take it,” Midnight said, excitement apparent in his voice.
“That’s right,” Caleb said. “And we’re taking her with us so I can make sure she doesn’t go after my sister.”
Neith laughed, and the now very cramped storage room was suddenly filled with motion. The spider Summon swiped its legs at Caleb and Midnight. Midnight held up his hands, working some kind of magic to fight against the spider.
Caleb left the spider to Midnight. He fixed his eyes on Neith and charged.