Caleb charged at Neith, leaping over a massive spider leg. The storage room was quickly becoming cramped, but that proved a double-edged sword.
Neith’s spider couldn’t move much. The beast couldn’t even fully fit in the storage room, with only three legs and its head contesting the space. If Neith relied on that giant monster for fighting, then she didn’t stand a chance.
And yet, as Caleb sent chains lashing out at Neith, the woman smiled. She slapped the chains away contemptuously, with little effort at all, her gloves glowing.
Her Enhancement Magic is this powerful? Caleb was stunned. On top of having a giant Summon? Could he fight her?
Void was strong like this, too. I need to be more careful.
Neith seemed content to keep her distance, like she was daring Caleb to come to her. But he didn’t have to. She took a step back, and Caleb conjured up a Mobility disc behind her, intending to bounce the woman straight towards Caleb.
The disc barely made a sound, and there was no way Neith could have seen it. And yet, as if she could read Caleb’s mind, or see the future, she side-stepped past it without even looking. Her pretentious, taunting grin intensified.
Caleb called up chains from the ground and the ceiling at once, aiming to trap Neith from both directions. Her eyes flickered with a faint hint of surprise as her left foot was constricted, but that lasted for less than a second. She ducked, smashing the chains at her feet with one hand, and then stepped away from the chains above, not bothering to bat them away. Caleb’s surprise must have showed on his face, because Neith laughed.
“Is this the best you can do, Greyson?” she asked. “Midnight, I’m surprised you took someone so weak under your wing.”
“Watch your back, kid!” Midnight shouted. Caleb reacted far too slow. A massive, furry leg smacked into him, sending him sprawling. It didn’t feel like flesh and blood. Thicker than Caleb’s entire torso, Neith’s Summon’s leg was more like a stone pillar. Caleb felt the breath knocked out of him, and he was stunned that he didn’t break any bones as he rolled to his feet.
Caleb’s eyes came up, and he gasped. Neith’s face was inches away from his own, and her dark eyes peered into his own. “You really shouldn’t have tried fighting,” she said sweetly, touching his chin lightly. “You’re far out of your league.”
Caleb reached up to smack her hand away, but he was too slow. Neith lifted him up by the chin with one hand and tossed him like a rag doll. Caleb barely managed to use a pair of glowing Mobility discs to bounce him away from walls and to a safe landing on the floor, where he ducked away from a spider leg, leaving him at the opposite corner of the room from Neith.
“Constrict the spider’s legs,” Midnight said, brushing past Caleb and murmuring into his ear. “Combine your attacks when you go after Neith. You’re only any good when you think outside the box.”
And then Midnight was past him, waving his hand in an arc. Long black spikes shot out of the ground, puncturing the spider’s skin in several places and causing it to falter, leaving Midnight an opening to charge after Neith.
Caleb followed Midnight’s advice. Chains, shining dazzling white, lashed out from the ground and walls, twining around the massive spider’s legs and anchoring them in place. The chains didn’t hold for long, but they gave Caleb an opening to follow Midnight.
Midnight was engaging Neith in hand-to-hand combat. He was vicious, coming at her with fast punches and trying to get as close as possible.
Neith didn’t make that easy. Graceful and agile, she ducked and dodged and constantly slipped away, finding openings again and again in the cramped storage room. A leg that broke free from Caleb’s chains crashed down between her and Midnight, giving her breathing room at just the right moment, when Midnight had started to gain an advantage on her.
Caleb dashed in, shooting one chain directly at Neith from his watch. She stared at it for a moment, as if confused by Caleb’s pathetic attempt at an attack. Just before it reached Neith, Caleb brought in a flurry of chains from either side of her, with Mobility discs above and below her for good measure.
Despite looking completely trapped, Neith just smirked. She smacked away the chains coming for her sides, and then grabbed the chain extending from Caleb’s watch. One good yank, and Caleb was flying through the air towards her.
Dark shapes grabbed onto Caleb, pulling him out of his path towards Neith. Now Midnight was attacking Neith again, as Caleb rolled off of Midnight’s strange tendrils that had carried him to safety. In either hand Midnight held jagged, flickering black daggers, formed of magic and pulsing with energy as he spun and slashed. Neith resumed her evasive maneuvers, occasionally slipping inside Midnight’s guard and giving him a single quick jab in the stomach or chest. Midnight couldn’t touch her, and when he sent clawed tendrils from the floor and walls to slash and grab her, either Neith evaded them by the closest margin, or her spider came to the rescue, crushing and blocking attacks that came her way.
Caleb dodged a swipe of the spider’s legs, watching the duel between Neith and Midnight carefully. As he watched for an opening to help his teacher, Caleb was suddenly struck with a question.
Why wasn’t Midnight using Time Magic?
He moved in real time, and sure, he was fast and powerful, but Neith was faster than him. Caleb couldn’t use his Time Magic, but what kept Midnight from tapping into that incredible advantage?
Neith ducked in for another quick strike at Midnight’s ribs, and that’s when Caleb sprang his trap. A Mobility disc, the size of Neith’s fist, appeared in the path of her attack, shielding Midnight from the blow. Neith’s fist struck the disc, and she was bounced back several steps – where Caleb lashed chains all around her, intending to pin her arms to her side so she couldn’t keep breaking his weapons.
And then, Caleb faltered. His vision blurred, and he suddenly felt like he was falling through the floor. He gasped, reaching out for any handhold, wondering what kind of magic Neith had hit him with.
Suddenly, he was lying on his back, staring at the ceiling.
He rolled to his feet, staring at the floor. Nothing had given way. He hadn’t plummeted through the floor into some kind of abyss.
He’d just… fallen over.
The sudden whoosh of air alerted Caleb to an incoming arachnid leg, and he ducked away from it just in time. Anchoring that leg to the wall with chains gave Caleb another moment to think.
His mind struggled to search for an answer beyond “magic,” so it took him several seconds to arrive at his next conclusion.
Caleb ducked another leg-swipe, and cast a glance at his watch. It had a vibrating alarm that went off whenever it was time for Caleb to take his medicine, but just for good measure, it was also designed so that “medicine time” involved several red indicators.
Yet his watch showed him he still had twenty minutes until his next dose.
Had Neith hit him with some kind of Illusion Magic? The problem with Caleb’s training was one he’d noticed when fighting Void. He’d been trained to fight monsters – never to fight other mages. He had no idea what it felt like to have Illusion Magic used on him. He thought it was only for altering something else, making a person or item or place appear and feel different than it actually did to others. Could it be used to alter one’s own perception of self?
When I finally get home, I’ll have to ask mom. She knows all about Illusion Magic. But until then…
Caleb attempted a different tack in his offensive. Neith easily handled his individual attacks, but he’d been coming at her methodically. Not being able to use his Time Magic still hampered him, like it had against Void, making him think slower and act slower still. This enclosed space made him more cautious than usual. But he knew he could do better.
So he poured on a stream of offense. Chains came at Neith again and again. When she destroyed or evaded one set, a new set was already there to take its place. Any chains she avoided simply changed course, not allowing themselves to be one and done. Mobility discs were peppered in here and there, and Caleb refused to discard them when Neith evaded them.
Neith beat him in the short term, moment-to-moment combat.
That was fine. Caleb would just have to play the long game.
Since Caleb could fight from a distance, he was able to pour attacks onto Neith while only having to avoid her Summon’s cumbersome assault. He’d be truly frightened by the massive spider if this was a wide open space, but in these cramped confines, the Summon became more of a big, occasionally moving decoration than an active combatant.
“All that bragging turned out to be hollow,” Neith said, eyes on Midnight as she continued to escape his attacks. “And here I thought you were the master of Time Magic. All you do is fight me normally, along with your pathetic pupil. Is this really the best you can do?”
So she’s noticed, too.
“Your bragging turned out to be well-founded,” Midnight said, slashing so close to Neith’s face that one of his daggers sliced off a few strands of hair. “You’re much more dangerous than Void.”
“Is that an honest compliment?” Neith asked, laughing as she crushed more of Caleb’s glowing chains. “You’re a strange one, Mister Midnight. Equal parts gentleman and brute.”
“I’m nothing if not interesting,” Midnight said, grunting as he again and again failed to land a blow on his shifty and speedy opponent.
Two more Mobility discs, and Caleb felt he’d completed his trap. In a few more steps, Neith wouldn’t have any more room to run. And sure enough, she’d been maneuvering within a smaller and smaller space as Caleb continued to put pressure on her.
And then… Caleb faltered again. Just like before, his vision blurred, so that he could barely make out shapes, and with it came a blast of vertigo. His eyes told him he was pitching to the left, and yet his body felt like it was tipping right. The white lights that marked Caleb’s discs and chains twinkled out, one by one, as Caleb lost the focus needed to keep them active.
Neith’s gloves aren’t glowing, Caleb realized as he fell, impossibly, two different directions at once. But if this isn’t magic, then what…
Why am I falling so slowly? Am I… accidentally using Time Magic?
No, that doesn’t make sense. I know exactly how that feels, and that’s not it.
Suddenly, Caleb was laying on the floor, staring at the ceiling. Just like before, it was as if he skipped the impact of his fall. His vision was clear, and he didn’t feel dizzy anymore, so he quickly rolled to his feet.
Whatever keeps doing that, stop. Just stop. I need to focus. Now isn’t the time to fall apart.
“What’s the matter?” Neith asked. She’d ended up on Caleb’s side of the room, and eyed him with an expression that looked like completely faked concern. “I thought you were going to defend your little sister, but you can’t even stand up straight on your own? How pathetic.”
Caleb glared at Neith and charged.
“Stop!” Midnight shouted in warning, but Caleb was too slow to react. About two feet away from Neith, he was suddenly halted, like some kind of stretchy net had blocked his path. Pulling back, Caleb found he couldn’t move – he was stuck in something.
Instantly, he knew.
Right. Giant spider. So…
He looked at his arms and legs, which seemed suspended against his will. Sure enough, looking closer, he could see a silvery thread wrapping him up and holding him off of the floor. The more he struggled, the more it thickened and constricted, strengthening against his resistance.
“You were trying to set a trap of your own,” Neith said, laughing. “But you should never underestimate a spider. They’re the best at laying traps. You’re outclassed, Greyson.” Her eyes flicked to a spot past Caleb, and she stepped forward, her gloved hand glowing as she took hold of Caleb’s throat. “I wouldn’t try anything, Midnight. I’d hate for you to lose yet another precious pupil.”
“You never kill,” Midnight said, though his deep voice held a hint of uncertainty. If Caleb wasn’t so used to Midnight after all this time, he might not have noticed it, so maybe Neith didn’t. “Don’t threaten what you can’t back up.”
“I could do permanent damage,” Neith said, sneering as she lifted her hand to Caleb’s face. Two fingers slid up under his glasses to close his eyelids and then pressed against them. “Should I put out his eyes?” Caleb felt his pulse quicken, and fought the urge to squirm from her grasp – he couldn’t do anything. Neith’s hand moved down Caleb’s body, tracing a line along his skin until she took hold of his elbow. “Or maybe I should break his arm?” Caleb tried to control his breathing, but it came faster and faster. Every threat felt terrifyingly real, and Caleb was faced with something wholly unfamiliar – complete helplessness. Again Neith’s hand moved, until it rested against his chest. “Maybe I should collapse a lung? He doesn’t need both.”
“What do you want, Neith?” Midnight asked.
Neith leaned in until her mouth was right next to Caleb’s ear, her warm breaths brushing against his skin. “You’ve never actually restrained a human with those chains, have you?” she asked softly. “You’ve never had someone completely helpless against their will. You see, this is what it’s like. If you do things right, then this is how your enemies will feel. It’s terrifying for you, isn’t it? And yet, for me, it’s exhilarating. Maybe you’ll be able to feel both sides of this situation someday.”
“I asked what you want,” Midnight said.
“Are you willing to do anything?” Neith asked, pulling back from her uncomfortable closeness to Caleb.
“No one’s willing to do anything,” Midnight said. “If you have terms, name them.”
“You know,” Neith said, tapping her chin thoughtfully as she began to pace back and forth, “this is quite the change of pace for you, Midnight. Void kept a close eye on you in the early days, when he thought he still had a chance of fighting you on equal ground. And from what he said, you’ve never had anything close to this kind of protectiveness over your students.” Neith stepped closer to Caleb, taking his face in her fingers. “What makes this boy so special?”
“Terms,” Midnight said.
Neith sighed, releasing Caleb’s face. “You’re really no fun, Midnight,” she said. “Here I thought you might tell me something about yourself. You’re so secretive. Everyone wants to know the man behind the mask.”
Midnight remained silent, and Caleb tried to stare at the floor, keeping himself as still and silent as possible, knowing his life was not in his hands.
“Fine,” Neith said, shrugging. “I’m betting you know where the pathetic little messenger is. I believe her name was Mineria? Tell me, and I’ll let the boy go.”
“How will you know I’m not lying?” Midnight asked.
Neith grinned. “I can tell,” she said. “You won’t risk this boy. And that is a weakness I’m perfectly willing to exploit.”
“It won’t matter,” Midnight said with a soft chuckle. “You won’t be able to get to her, anyway. She’s in the Brig.”
Neith’s eyes widened. “They really locked her up?” she asked, genuine shock in her softened voice. “Now that is an interesting turn of events.” She smiled. “Well, my work here is done. Once I recall my Summon, the webs will vanish. But I’ll take my time. I don’t want you following me.” She leaned down to look into Caleb’s eyes. “You, little Greyson. You should be very careful. But for your sake, I’ll give you a small bit of hope – I don’t know where you sister is anymore. Neither does anyone. She vanished somewhere into the Dominion with her friends, but we don’t know where. And let me tell you, that is quite the feat. It seems your little sister is more capable than you.” She laughed, walking away and out the door onto the busy street.
It was several minutes before Caleb was suddenly released from his sticky bonds, collapsing to his knees. He stood up slowly, stretching his muscles that were sore from being stuck in an awkward position for too long.
“You okay?” Midnight asked, eyeing Caleb with concern.
“I don’t know,” Caleb said, staring at his hands. “Something… something really weird happened twice.”
“Take your medicine,” Midnight said sternly. Caleb started to check his watch, but Midnight smacked his hand away. “Doesn’t matter if it’s time yet. Take your medicine.”
Caleb obliged, grimacing once again at the awful taste. “You know something,” he said. “You don’t want to tell me?”
Midnight hesitated, looking away and out the window for a moment. “It’s a bit of a ways to Alexandra,” he said. “There’s somewhere I want to stop on the way.”
“Where is it?” Caleb asked, following Midnight as he left the storage room. The cacophony of the busy street was almost calming to Caleb after the intense fight.
“Let’s talk about that fight,” Midnight said, and Caleb wanted to groan with frustration.
“What about it?” he asked, resisting the urge to point out Midnight’s constant subject-changing.
“Do you know why she was so skilled? Why she was able to avoid your attacks so easily?”
Caleb shrugged. “Because she’s really powerful. Why else would the Radiant King employ her?”
Midnight shook his head. “It isn’t power. Sure, she has that, but she isn’t much stronger than you, honestly. It’s experience. Remember what I said about the Eternals?”
Caleb’s eyes widened. “They can live forever.”
“And they’ve all been alive for hundreds of years. Multiple lifetimes. Think of the experience that comes with that. The Radiant King’s agents are constantly training and bettering themselves, and they have plenty of experience fighting mages and Enchanted. Neith was so fast and capable because she didn’t have to think. Muscle memory, drilled actions, and reflexes honed not through raw speed but through experience and rigorous training means she appears nearly precognitive.”
“So we never stood a chance,” Caleb said, stunned at the revelation.
“You’re taking away the wrong lessons here,” Midnight said. He pushed his way through a crowd blocking a side street, making a path for Caleb to follow through to the clear road beyond. “You need that kind of training. You need more than just to learn how to use Time Magic. You need to learn combat techniques and strategies for use against the Radiance, and you need to drill them into your mind so that you can act without needing to think. I could practically hear the cogs of your brain turning in that fight, and they turned way too slowly.”
“Speaking of Time Magic,” Caleb said, his eyes drawn to a fourth floor window at the sound of jazz music playing from it. “Why didn’t you use any?”
Midnight sighed. “It’s complicated,” he said.
“Uncomplicate it for me,” Caleb said.
The side street opened up to an arched bridge traveling over a wide, rushing river. Below, running along either side of the river, were walkways where children played, but guard rails kept them from easily falling into the racing rapids.
“What does it feel like for you when you use a lot of magic?” Midnight asked. “How’s your body feeling after a long night of fighting Hollows back in Grimoire?”
Caleb mulled it over for a moment. “Exhausted,” he said. “Using magic is like exerting myself physically and mentally at the same time.”
Midnight nodded. “Exactly,” he said. “I’m loathe to admit it, kid, but I wasn’t actually prepared for a fight with Neith.”
Caleb blinked. “What?” he asked.
“Are you deaf?” Midnight rolled his eyes. “Think about it. Remember what it takes for you to have your Time Magic training back at the Bridge?”
Understanding dawned on Caleb. “You have to use locational Time Magic,” he said. “And you have to sustain that all the time. Even when I slept, you…”
Midnight nodded. “That’s right. It may have been all fun and games for you, but that training takes a toll on me. It took hundreds of years for me to even be able to use that technique – I spent a lot of time training students the old-fashioned way. To be perfectly blunt, Caleb, I won’t be able to use Time Magic for at least a few more days.”
“So this break from training was for you, too?” Caleb asked.
“Then why were you so excited to fight her?”
“Because I didn’t think she was that strong,” Midnight said with a sigh. “I could tear Void apart on my worst days. I wasn’t expecting Neith to have that much of an advantage over him.”
Across the bridge, the city was much more open. Large parks and greenery filled the space, with occasional small clusters of buildings forming little neighborhoods. Their path wound away from the sunset, so that golden rays splashed ahead of them, making their shadows long and imposing.
“So where is it we’re going?” Caleb asked.
Midnight groaned. “You’re awfully impatient,” he said. “Don’t you like surprises?”
Caleb chuckled. “After that surprise beatdown, I’m not too keen on them.”
“There’s a place not many people go in this city,” Midnight said. “Not since the war. But for me… it’s special. And I think it may be important, or at least informative, for you. I want to show you the place where I found Ingrid.”