Caleb stepped through the gleaming light of the doorway and into a new space entirely.
The first thing that struck him was size. Midnight Bridge wasn’t particularly spacious, but the crystal cavern beneath it had awed Caleb with its size and grandeur. While the place he stood now wasn’t nearly as beautiful and intricate, its size dwarfed the crystal cavern. The floor, walls, and ceiling were made of impossibly smooth, dull white stone. Metal posts and pedestals here and there held silver crystals that gleamed with faint light, like stars in a dark sky. The chamber was a perfect circle, and in its center was a staircase that led up into the ceiling to the next floor.
“We’re on the bottom floor,” Midnight said, striding ahead of Caleb and towards the stairs. “Your friends are fighting on the fourth. Let’s hurry to their aid.”
Caleb followed after him wordlessly, focusing his energy on the upcoming encounter. He didn’t know what he was in for, and Midnight wouldn’t explain, except for one thing: this was going to be a fight of endurance.
Caleb’s worst kind of fight.
However, Caleb wasn’t as worried about that as he was about his attire. The entire time he’d spent since departing Chronoshin, he’d only had very nice, formal attire. Madame Chronos had even taken his more casual clothes away when she fitted him with a new wardrobe, saying, “you deserve so much better.”
Maybe so, but I can’t say I enjoy fighting dressed like I’m going to a dinner party.
He’d gotten used to the shoes and pants the fastest. Despite their polished sheen and clear quality, Caleb’s shoes didn’t just look good. They had excellent traction, and once he’d broken them in they’d turned out to be quite comfortable. His slacks, too, offered a surprising range of motion, once he wasn’t afraid of tearing them and allowed himself to push their limits.
The weirder parts were his collared shirt, waistcoat, and – especially – his tie. Out of respect for Madame Chronos, he remained dressed up, and had only slightly loosened his tie and unbuttoned the top button of his shirt. He wanted to roll his sleeves up, but as they started climbing the stairs, the temperature swiftly plummeted.
Lorelei’s really going all out. I’ve never seen her able to make as much ice as I saw in the Hikarescence, or have this kind of effect on the temperature from such distance.
They reached the second floor and continued without incident, but as soon as they stepped out onto the third floor, Midnight stopped, putting an arm in front of Caleb protectively.
Before the two of them stood a man. Next to the stairs to the fourth floor, the man was all alone, and dressed all in black. He was dressed even nicer than Caleb, his suit jacket impeccably tailored, and gleaming black cuff links caught Caleb’s attention. Something was odd about how they caught the light.
Looking the man over again, Caleb got the distinct impression that this man wasn’t human. He looked human, and was a perfectly ordinary build, but his suit seemed tailored from impossible materials, as if it had been woven out of darkness itself. His hair was similar, and both hair and clothes contrasted with the man’s frighteningly pale skin, and the cold eyes that stared at Midnight and Caleb.
Cold, but also… bored? The man had a certain expression of laziness, as if he didn’t want to do whatever it was he was preparing to do. And he was probably preparing to fight, considering the long black bow in his hand and the quiver of arrows slung over his back.
“You should not have come,” the man said, his voice a melodious baritone that, at first listen, seemed warm and inviting. But there was an undercurrent that Caleb caught, likely because he was already on guard against this stranger, of icy disdain. “I would prefer to switch places with my pets upstairs, but unfortunately those foes have shown a surprising ability to overwhelm me. I should be able to handle the two of you well enough, though. Of course…” the man cocked his head to the side, sniffed the air once. “You could simply leave. I only need the Princesses. I’d prefer it if outsiders would stop getting in my way.”
“What’s your name?” Midnight asked, his voice surprisingly on edge.
“Valgwyn,” the man said, cocking his head to the other side, his strange eyes focused on Midnight. He sniffed the air once again. “Have you, perchance, met my brothers?”
Midnight tsked. “One of them,” he said.
“And you survived,” Valgwyn said, eyebrows lifting ever so slightly. “Then I truly wish I could trade places with my pets. I am not the fighter that my brothers are.”
“Then I’ll make short work of you,” Midnight said, sliding one foot back and raising his hands in a combat stance. He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Caleb, get above. I’ll handle this one alone.”
“But –” Caleb started.
“This foe is beyond you, kid,” Midnight growled. “When I move, you move. I’ll go for him, you go for the stairs. Help your friends.” He winked, though his expression remained tense. “I’ll be fine.”
“Are you –” Valgwyn started.
Midnight didn’t let him finish. He dashed forward, a burst of speed that, unassisted by Time Magic, was truly impressive to Caleb. Caleb followed, charging forward with the aid of Enhancement Magic, but his teacher reached Valgwyn in an eyeblink, long before Caleb could have. A jagged black dagger in either hand, Midnight slashed, slicing across Valgwyn’s face twice before the man could react.
Caleb ran past, knowing his teacher had things well in hand, and was nearly to the stairs when –
A concussive force sent Caleb flying through the air. Disoriented, Caleb regained his senses only just in time to flip, turning his feet upwards against a Mobility disc inches from the ceiling over a hundred feet above. For a moment it held him, absorbing Caleb’s momentum, and he had a chance to look at what had happened.
His heart dropped. The stairs to the fourth floor were now blocked by a wall of darkness, so thick that Caleb couldn’t see any opening. And where Valgwyn and Midnight were…
Midnight had stopped attacking. He now stood fifteen feet away from Valgwyn in a guarded stance, staring intensely at his foe.
Caleb could understand why. Midnight had gone straight for the face, and yet Valgwyn was completely untouched. No cuts, no bruises, no blood.
Midnight’s vicious preemptive strike hadn’t had an effect on Valgwyn at all.
Caleb bounced off of his Mobility disc, leaping from one to another as he formed them in the air until he landed neatly next to his teacher. “Looks like I’m with you on this fight,” he said, adopting a combat stance, pocket watch in hand.
Valgwyn moved to attack, and Caleb stepped slowly to the side, preparing to react. He was following one of the combat forms Midnight had taught him: Reshna, Watchfulness.
Watch what your opponent does. Decipher what they want to do, and how they want to do it. Gather information.
Once you’ve done that, do everything in your power to prevent them from doing what they want to do.
Against an unfamiliar foe, and one that was completely unhurt by Midnight’s opening attack, Caleb thought this was the best approach. Gather information. Understand your foe, and you can shut them down.
Valgwyn’s movements were strange – languid, almost lazy. His bow came up slowly, while his free hand smoothly, but dreadfully slowly, went up to pull an arrow…
“Duck!” Midnight suddenly shouted, and Caleb did as he was told.
In the nick of time. An arrow zipped over his head, missing him by centimeters. Caleb stared in shock at Valgwyn. When had he drawn the arrow? Hadn’t he been moving slowly? Yet there’d been no blurring of motion, no sudden increase in speed.
“Forget watching him,” Midnight said. “He’s practiced that method of attack for uncountable years. You’ll never be able to evade just by sight. Listen and feel. You’ll barely have a chance to evade, but that’ll be enough.”
“Or we just stop him from shooting,” Caleb said. “He mentioned the others were able to overwhelm him. We should be able to do as much.” Caleb dashed to the side, raising his gleaming Talisman to send forth dozens of shining chains that illuminated the darkened chamber. While some anchored Valgwyn’s legs to the floor, and others pinned his arms to his side, Caleb sent two weighted attack chains straight for the mysterious archer’s face. Both chains struck true, slamming into exposed skin with loud, powerful force.
Valgwyn didn’t even flinch. His cheek was uninjured, his skin unblemished.
All he did was cast a lazy, bored glance Caleb’s way. But a second later, his focus was back on Midnight.
“So…” Caleb started, “what the heck is this guy?”
Midnight was silent long enough that Caleb looked to see if he’d heard, and the expression he saw on his teacher’s face made his blood run cold.
Mister Midnight looked frightened.
“I shouldn’t be here,” Midnight said in a low whisper. “You’d have a chance against him alone, but with me…”
Valgwyn sniffed the air again. “Ah,” he said, cocking his head to the side as he stared at Midnight. “I see. I thought I recognized that scent. Yes… you’re one of the Bastions’ defenders, aren’t you? You’re a Paladin.”
Midnight glared at Valgwyn, staying in his guarded stance. “Since you noticed, maybe you’ve heard of me?” He flung his hand out, his long coat billowing out and around him like the cape of a knightly hero. The air around his right hand swirled, a spiral of twinkling darkness. A sudden pressure came and then passed, and Caleb’s ears popped. Wind rushed through the chamber, and the spiraling darkness transformed into a long, two-handed sword. The hilt, crossguard, and blade were black, twinkling with little white lights like stars. Running up the center of the blade was a silver streak, pulsing with a light of its own. “Lancelot Noctis Caliburn Relentes, Master of Midnight Bridge.”
“Relentes?” Valgwyn asked. “I see. But Midnight Bridge… well. That’s a relief. I was worried you were one of the dangerous Paladins. I might have a chance against you after all.”
“Mister Midnight?” Caleb asked. “What’s going on here?”
“I’ll explain if we get out of this alive,” Midnight said. “Here’s the short version: I’m the only one in this building who can kill him. But my presence also makes him exponentially more powerful than he was before. Don’t engage him directly. Leave that up to me. Support the best you can. And if something happens to me, Phase Step up to the fourth floor. Don’t even think about fighting him alone.”
“It’s been a tremendously long time since I’ve been in the presence of a Paladin,” Valgwyn said, his voice taking on a hint of delight. His lips, constantly set in a thin line, curved up the slightest bit. “Finally, I can show my true form. It’s so difficult fighting like this.”
Caleb’s chains that still bound Valgwyn shattered, though the man hadn’t moved a muscle. Now free, he closed his eyes and spread his arms out wide. The ground at his feet swirled with a deep, impenetrable darkness, and tendrils of darkness slithered their way up Valgwyn’s body. Wrapping around him, they seemed to absorb into him, until all but his face was wrapped up in darkness. Valgwyn rolled his neck, as if working out kinks and cramps hundreds of years in the making. Then, he opened his eyes.
Eyes that were once cold but bored now blazed like darkened stars. The blackness entwining his body burst in a million directions, wild and writhing, before settling into different forms.
In Valgwyn’s left hand, his bow had transformed, now longer than he was tall, with a bowstring that sparked like a pulsing bolt of black electricity. His suit turned into armor – smooth and segmented over vital areas, while more flexible and loose around joints. And from his back sprung black wings, massive and imposing, stretching out to either side for dozens of feet, and rising up above him, pale talons spiking up out of them at the top.
“Are you prepared to face your doom, Paladin?” Valgwyn asked, breaking out into a full grin. “My brothers will be very impressed to hear the weakest of them slew a –”
Valgwyn’s speech was cut short by the blur that was Midnight, speeding through the air even faster than before. His sword flashed out, like the night sky itself turned into a sword, a streak of silver moonlight at its core. In an instant, Midnight was on the other side of Valgwyn, while Valgwyn…
It was a slim cut, barely a scratch, along the winged archer’s left elbow. A small, almost imperceptible spot was exposed, and Midnight had seen it and struck true.
“You think –” Valgwyn started, but Midnight was a blur again, and when he stopped, Valgwyn was bleeding from a slim cut below his right shoulder.
“You talk far too much,” Midnight said, turning to face Valgwyn. “And here I thought you were powerful.”
Valgwyn’s expression contorted into a grimace, and with a flap of his massive wings he took to the sky. Raising his bow, he drew an arrow. His movements were still slow and languid, deceptive to the eye, and Caleb looked away, feeling and listening for the shot. It came, and Caleb instantly slowed time, casting about for the arrow.
Valgwyn had fired at him, not Midnight.
But of course he had. Caleb saw Midnight racing toward him to intercept the attack, a desperate attempt to defend his student.
Don’t worry. I’m okay for now.
Caleb formed a Mobility disc to bounce the arrow back at Valgwyn, but the arrow shattered it on contact. Caleb took a different tack, racing towards Midnight so they could both evade the arrow. He exited Time-state, hearing the arrow pierce the stone where he’d just been standing.
“I can defend myself!” Caleb said, racing past Midnight and pointing to the airborne Valgwyn. “Fight him, don’t worry about me. I won’t get touched, I promise!”
Midnight tsked. “You’re far too generous with promises, kid.” He raised his free hand, and spiked black tendrils shot out of the ceiling to attack Valgwyn. Their targets were the man’s wings. Valgwyn turned over in midair, facing the attack from above, and beat his wings once. With a sound of rushing wind, a black vortex swirled upward, tearing Midnight’s dark tendrils to shreds.
That was what Midnight and Caleb had been hoping for. In the small moment where Valgwyn turned his back, Caleb created a series of Mobility discs for Midnight to climb, dashing up to fight his foe in the sky. Before Valgwyn could turn around, Midnight’s starry blade flashed twice, sending dark droplets of Valgwyn’s blood scattering through the air. A third slash was blocked by Valgwyn’s bow, which already had an arrow set to the string, aimed straight for Midnight.
“Watch out!” Caleb cried. But there was no need. Midnight blurred in the intangible, unclear manner of one using Time Magic, and deftly evaded the point-blank shot, turning to attack again and again. Now locked in close-quarters combat, Valgwyn blocked the sword strikes with his bow, fitting arrows to the string as he did so and firing at Midnight every chance he got. The Time Magic Master was untouchable, but he also couldn’t land a solid hit on his winged foe. A scratch here, a slice there, little initial spatters of blood that dried up quickly. No deep cuts. No lasting damage. Valgwyn was resilient and swift, and Midnight’s beautiful sword failed to strike true time and again.
Caleb wasn’t just standing on the ground watching. He was keeping his distance, zipping around the vast chamber using his bouncing discs, conserving energy by having them fling him to the next disc. Periodically, he created chains to lash around the wings, arms, or legs of the deadly foe above.
But nothing he did worked. His magical chains, several times stronger than they’d ever been thanks to Midnight’s training, shattered with the slightest movement from the one Caleb attempted to restrain. When he formed a Mobility disc as a shield for Midnight, Valgwyn’s attack destroyed it and went through with ease.
Am I useless in this fight? After all my training, my first battle is against a foe I can’t do anything against?
He’s gotta have a weakness, a flaw, something that I can exploit. And if nothing else, I’m sure having to cast off my chains at least distracts him the tiniest bit. And a tiny distraction can make a difference.
Hundreds or thousands of tiny distractions? Those’ll add up. I have to stay persistent.
Caleb sorely wanted to try out the Pendulum Step in a practical scenario, but it was useless against a foe he couldn’t effectively fight. He was doing just fine not getting hurt so far. The fanciest tricks that Midnight taught him were irrelevant in this fight, but Caleb didn’t need to be fancy.
I just need to be smart, and not give up.
This is mainly Midnight’s battle, and that’s okay. It’s pretty cool seeing him go all out like this, using power I didn’t even know he had. I’m the support.
I’ve always been the support, come to think of it. Every night with Chelsea, she was the one who went on the attack. She’s the one who destroys our enemies. I just make it easier for her.
Thinking of Chelsea, who was just one floor above him, made Caleb’s heart hurt. But at the same time, it gave him hope. Teaming up with Midnight wasn’t the same, and their foe certainly wasn’t the same, but the same principles applied.
I’ll do everything I can to make this easier for you, Mister Midnight. Just kick this guy’s sorry butt. Don’t make this a fight of endurance. You’re better than that. I know you are.
Get rid of him. Show him you’re stronger. Show him you’re better. Show him you aren’t to be messed with.
Caleb bounced off a wall and then climbed an improvised disc-staircase, perching a dozen feet above, and a hundred feet away from, the main battle. Now and then he’d create a new Mobility disc to expand Midnight’s battlefield, give him more room to move, and he reacted to where his teacher wanted to move – whenever Midnight came close to the edge of the overlapping discs, Caleb formed new ones to help him stay in the fight.
Despite his warnings and fear from earlier, Midnight looked heartened by Caleb’s presence. While the fight was intense, with Midnight and Valgwyn trading dozens of blows every second, Caleb saw the same thing every time Midnight stepped out onto a newly created disc, and every time a chain briefly snatched a limb or wing of his foe: Midnight smiled. It was a brief expression, but just like Caleb hoped the constant tiny distractions to Valgwyn would pile up, the constant smiles and moments of support that Caleb gave to his teacher seemed to pile on top of each other, strengthening him and giving him hope.
Living darkness had taken over the Library of Solitude. One floor above, a valiant group of friends were battling hordes of deadly monsters. And here, just below them, two warriors were facing off against the one who commanded the monsters.
Into the darkness, light shone, bright and unyielding.
The darkness would not overcome it.