The night after the council, Caleb went on patrol with Chelsea and Lorelei like usual. Hollows were thick in the streets of Grimoire, and it was constant combat with every step…
But there were no Shadows.
Caleb also found out that Chase had disappeared, and Jacob Crowley and his Investigators had no leads on his whereabouts.
The next day was the first day of school for Shana, Shias, and Delilah since they’d been gone. Delilah, after Marcus talked to her the previous evening, showed little fear as she left with Shana and Shias. Callum and Deirdre assured Caleb that his younger siblings would be perfectly safe, constantly watched in secret.
That didn’t stop Caleb from spending the entire part of the school day in Lunar Café, a quaint establishment just across the street from Grimoire Academy.
“We’re going to investigate,” Chelsea had said, heading off that morning with Lorelei and Gwen to explore the city.
Will joined Caleb at Lunar Café, steadily typing away at his novel while Caleb stared out the window at the large hill that housed Grimoire Academy.
“Hey, Will. You’ve been here while we were gone. Have you seen any super weird people around town lately?” Caleb asked.
Will tapped away on his phone, held it out for Caleb to see.
Yeah, there’s one sitting right next to me.
Caleb laughed. “Well, even mom and dad said they’d never seen any of these people except Jormungand. Your dad saw Jormungand last week, but other than me seeing Bronn yesterday, and Shana and Kathryn eavesdropping on him a while back, it’s like these people never even existed until recently.”
And Duo threatening Delilah.
Caleb glared out the window. “Yeah.”
Even if you see her, be careful. She seems like someone who would provoke her enemies into making mistakes.
Caleb nodded. “You’re probably right.”
You sure we should just sit around here? I’m getting work done, but you could be looking for entrances to the Underground.
Caleb sighed. “I’m getting another latté.” He took his empty mug to the counter, ordered another drink. While he waited, he leaned back against the counter, staring out onto the street. People were constantly walking by – no surprise, as many adults were getting their lunch breaks around now, and there were many mages who worked odd hours and traveled all across town for their jobs. Any time of day, Grimoire could be incredibly busy, but with how sprawling it was, with so many little places to go, there were few shops or businesses that ever got busy to a hectic degree, except for places along the main street, like Murphy’s pizzeria.
Everyone who walked by looked so… normal. Now that Caleb had seen the hulking, impossibly large Bronn, and had heard the strange description of Duo from Delilah – not to mention his foray into the Enchanted Dominion, where he’d met a wide variety of strange individuals – being home felt almost too normal, the people walking by looked almost too normal.
I hope this makes the bad guys stand out more.
“Here you go!” came the pleasant voice of the barista. She smiled as she slid Caleb his drink, and he returned to his table to watch the street next to Will.
I’m surprised you haven’t had to pee yet. How many is this now? Five?
“I can’t afford to pee right now.”
I can watch the street while you go. Your bladder’s totally about to burst, isn’t it?
Caleb glared out the window, frowning in thought for several moments. Finally, he shot up to his feet. “Be right back,” he said quickly, rushing off to the bathroom.
Four minutes later, he was back, and Will reported that there had been no strange activity whatsoever in his absence. Caleb sat, letting out a heavy sigh. Blowing away vapors of steam, he took a sip of his piping hot latté. He swished it around in his mouth a few times before swallowing, and pursed his lips.
“I think I’ve had too many. They’re starting to taste funny.”
They do have water, too.
“I’m trying to be a respectable patron,” Caleb said.
You’ve spent sixty dollars and it isn’t even noon.
Caleb sighed. He opened his mouth to reply, when a voice behind him turned his blood to ice.
“Yeah, what’s that all about, Mister ‘I Don’t Want to Spend Money, I’m Trying to Save Up’?”
Caleb knew that voice from the phone call the previous day. So he knew, even before turning to see that the woman matched Delilah’s description of her, that Duo was here. Long purple hair on the right, pink-white buzz-cut on the left. Several small earrings in her left ear, a long chain one in her right. Left eye blue, right eye green. Everything about her attire changed color from left to right.
And that smile… she looked like someone who had been taught how to smile, rather than someone who smiled naturally, as if she didn’t know how to express happiness – or didn’t actually know what happiness was.
Will, to Caleb’s surprise, gave Duo only a cursory glance before typing out a message on his phone, tilting it towards Caleb in such a way that Duo couldn’t see it.
She worded that title exactly the same way that Chelsea did yesterday.
Caleb’s eyes went wide, and though he’d thought his nerves, his muscles, his entire being were on high alert before, now it ramped up further.
She didn’t start with watching Delilah. She’s been watching all of us. For how long? Where? How did we never notice her? How much does she know?
“Aww, is that any way to react to a new acquaintance?” Duo asked, pouting. “We don’t even know each other yet, and you’re already judging us.”
“I think I know enough,” Caleb said. The way his voice came out, low but soft, dripping with anger, was foreign to him.
Duo jerked back, eyes wide. “So scary!”
But Caleb saw through it. Every one of her movements, every phrase, every expression…
It was all fake. All a lie.
So what was she really thinking? How did she really feel? What did she really want?
Duo leaned forward, grinning at Will now. “We like your headphones,” she said teasingly. Will met her gaze with a flat, deadpan stare, and Duo pouted. “You boys are no fun at all!” With a giggle, Duo rose and sauntered over to a chair next to Caleb, scooting it closer to him. “You know, Caleb, we could have fun together. Maybe if we had enough fun, we’d be willing to leave little Delilah alone. It would be difficult, but we might be able to bear it if –”
“You’re wasting your efforts, young lady.” Caleb, Will, and Duo all looked up at the sudden voice, and upon seeing the speaker, Caleb’s eyes lit up. “As charming and beautiful as you are, my grandson is already spoken for.”
“Grandpa!” Caleb said, grinning. It had been too long.
Oscar William Greyson III, former head of the Guardian Guild, had arrived in the café unnoticed, and now strolled over to the three of them with a wry smile on his face. His hair was snowy white, his eyes pale blue, and his mouth and eyes were touched at the edges with many laugh lines. He had a similar stature to Callum, with a softness belying his musculature, but he was shorter and stockier than his son. Dressed in an olive green blazer over a burgundy waistcoat, grey slacks, and black shoes, the spiraling, silver cane in his right hand clacked on the floor as he walked. He stopped just a few feet from the trio, and offered Caleb a wink before turning his gaze back on Duo.
“Well, if he’s spoken for, then…” Duo started, sliding her chair towards Will.
Oscar clucked his tongue, waving his hand gently. “Ah, he isn’t your type. You’d be better off searching elsewhere if romance is what you’re after.”
“What about you?” Duo asked, rising from her chair and sidling up to Oscar. Oscar chuckled.
“I’m flattered, but as you can see…” he held up his left hand, on which a golden ring glittered, “I’m married.”
“It’s common knowledge that your wife died six years ago,” Duo said. “’Til death do us part, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but, as you can see, my dear…” Oscar’s eyes glittered with light, “I’m still very much alive.”
Duo sighed, plopping back down in a chair. “You’re all so boring,” she moaned. “We thought we’d find a better playmate than Delilah, but it seems we were wrong.”
“You’ll stay away from my sister,” Caleb said, rising to his feet.
Duo turned slowly, eyes narrowed in a strange mixture of mischief and malice as she looked up at him. Her left eye gleamed with unnatural light. “Oh?” she asked, drawing out the single syllable in her lower voice. “Is that what you think? Well here’s what we think.”
Duo vanished, and Caleb’s eyes went wide as he felt her chin rest on his shoulder. She spoke in his ear, still in her lower, less childish voice. “We think you’re too afraid to do a thing about us. And we think we’re going to have all the fun we want. Try and stop us.” She chuckled softly, and a shiver ran down Caleb’s spine. “We’re glad you stood up to us. We’re glad you have such a fire in your heart. This will be a very exciting game.”
The sudden absence of pressure made Caleb wheel around, but…
Duo was gone.
“Where’d she go?” he asked, looking at Will and Oscar. Both shook their heads, not knowing.
“I’m not sure what magic she could have used to vanish like that,” Oscar said, fingering the knob at the top of his cane. “But there are others watching Delilah, Shana, and Shias inside the school. If any harm or disappearance befalls them, we’ll be the first to know.”
The way Oscar said we brought Caleb to immediate understanding. If anything happened to the youngest Greysons, the rest of the Greysons would be the first to know.
“I heard about this ‘Duo’ from your parents, but I must say, she comes across a bit more charming in person,” Oscar said, taking a seat. “And I hear you’ve been on quite the adventure, Caleb.”
Caleb smiled, but his heart wasn’t in it. “I’d love to tell you all about it, but…” he turned to look at Grimoire Academy, “shouldn’t we be taking action?”
“I have a plan,” Oscar said. “So in a way, we are taking action. She did just openly threaten Delilah, but the question becomes – when will she act? We mustn’t be too hasty, Caleb. We know nothing about this woman’s abilities, and that can be fatal if we make the wrong move.”
“What’s your plan?” Caleb asked.
Oscar smiled. “We’re going to watch how she plays,” he said. “Observe, analyze, gather information. We want her to think she’s playing on her terms, on her field, with all the advantages. With luck, she’ll overplay her hand, show off her abilities, give us the information we need to properly counter her.”
“So Delilah’s bait?” Caleb asked.
“No, nothing so drastic,” Oscar said. “Come now. I wouldn’t risk my granddaughter like that. If something happens to her, then we will have to change the plan. But I hope you aren’t underestimating my wealth of allies, experience, and intellect.”
“I hope we aren’t underestimating her,” Caleb said.
Oscar nodded gravely. “So do I.”
If she can vanish and reappear like that, I think she can take Delilah any time she wants, and no one in Grimoire will be able to stop her as long as we still don’t understand her magic.
Caleb and Oscar stared at Will’s message, pondering it for a moment.
“There should be limitations to how far she can go,” Oscar said. “I won’t say too much, but…” His eyes flashed, and he stood. “Caleb. Will. Stick close to each other. Don’t travel alone. Ever.”
“What’s going on?” Caleb asked, standing as well. Oscar shook his head.
“Stay here,” he said softly. “Watch the street, and the school. I need to be elsewhere. I hope you won’t need to act, but if the need is there… you will know.” He nodded. “I trust you, Caleb. Trust me, and trust your friend. Don’t go off on your own, no matter what happens.”
Oscar strode from the café, tipping the baristas generously even though he hadn’t ordered a thing. Once he was outside, he headed east, vanishing into the crowd.
What are we watching for?
Caleb stared at the street, at the crowd, at the school beyond. “I’m not sure,” he said softly. “But I think we’ll know when we see it, as long as we’re paying attention. Something tells me that we’re not part of his main plan, though.”
We’re the backup?
Caleb frowned. “More like the last resort.”
I’m with you, whatever happens.
That got a smile out of Caleb, and he nodded. “Right back at you.”
For minutes, they watched the street. People passed, and minutes turned to hours. Caleb saw a few of his fellow Hunters walk by, and there were the Freis walking their dogs. Lunar Café filled and emptied, noise and chatter came and went.
Caleb ordered a glass of water.
Will kept writing away on his laptop.
What are we waiting for? Why are we waiting here, or waiting at all? What’s grandpa doing?
Is Duo somehow still watching us, listening to us? Did she misdirect us all, only to somehow stick around and watch us here?
This is why we need to know more.
But can we risk Delilah to find out more?
Then, suddenly, Caleb sat up. His eyes widened, and he followed the sight. The crowd outside the café was thick, but Caleb watched that trail move along, bobbing here and there.
Caleb shot to his feet, and Will immediately followed suit, shutting his laptop and tucking it into its case in a swift blur of motion.
“Hurry,” Caleb said softly, heart racing as he charged out into the street, following the colors. He made it a block, and there was a break in the crowd, revealing enough for Caleb to know.
It was definitely Duo.
And she had Delilah with her.
Caleb would recognize that mass of blonde hair anywhere. He ran, and then, heedless of the crowd that undoubtedly included non-magical people, he shoved his hand into his pocket, gripped his watch, and stepped into Time-state.
Not normal Time-state, either.
He Phase Stepped.
Time completely stopped, and Caleb raced straight through the crowd, reaching Duo in four steps. He briefly exited Time-state, grabbed Delilah, and then re-entered Time-state, slowing time rather than using Phase Step, taking Delilah with him into slowed time, running as fast as he could, as far away from Duo as he could.
Sorry, Will. I’ll trust you to cover my back.
Caleb’s heart pounded in his chest, his ears popped, and he frantically looked for a brief place to slip out of sight and exit Time-state without causing a commotion.
There! An alleyway!
Caleb ducked into it, exited Time-state, and then ran back out into the street, tugging Delilah along behind him.
“You’re okay now,” Caleb said, gasping for breath. “Just hang on until we find a safe place. We’ll go to Miss Shoto’s, that’s closest.”
Delilah’s hand that held his squeezed gently with understanding. Caleb nodded, running onward.
Turn right. Descend the stairs, two at a time. Left, around Daphne’s bakery. Sidle through an alley. Go through the gardening shop, Well-Tended, and out through the “Employees ONLY” back door.
Just a few more blocks…
Caleb’s heart caught in his chest. He felt something, a presence, similar to when Duo had stood behind him. He ducked into an alley, panting for breath, cursing his diminished stamina.
“If anything happens, I’ll protect you,” Caleb said, his free hand in his pocket, fingers clasped around his Talisman. “Just stay with me, no matter what.”
Delilah squeezed his hand again. Caleb nodded, managing a brief smile.
All this time, she hadn’t spoken a word. And her breathing was coming just fine, despite their long sprint.
“Delilah?” Caleb asked, turning to face his sister.
A hand reached up, pulled away the blonde hair, revealing pink and white beneath. Two eyes, one green, one blue, gazed up at Caleb, accompanied by a wild grin.
“Wrong!” Duo chanted, giggling. Caleb pulled back, but Duo’s hand gripped his tighter. He Phase Stepped…
But ended up somewhere else entirely.
Darkness surrounded him. Disoriented, Caleb stumbled to the right, coming up against an uneven stone wall. He stopped, quieting his breathing as much as possible. For long, long moments, he just listened.
He didn’t hear the slightest sound, save his own shallow breaths.
Out came his Talisman, and Caleb lifted it high, shining bright with magical light.
But its light went no further. Caleb looked up, and he was nearly blinded by the intensity of his Talisman’s light. And yet…
The light didn’t go beyond the Talisman. It illuminated nothing except itself, cast no rays beyond it, did nothing to dispel the crushing darkness.
Caleb turned, putting his back to the wall, wrapping his watch’s chain around his wrist and gripping the watch itself even tighter.
I could phase through the wall. But I don’t know how far it goes, or if there’s anything on the other side at all. Same for the floor, and the ceiling – if there is one. Am I underground?
Gather information. Think. Observe.
But Caleb struggled to do so. He was gripped with a crushing guilt, and a desperate, frantic panic. He’d left Will behind. Worse still, he’d fallen for a trap, failed to save Delilah. Now that he had failed, had Duo successfully abducted her? Was Delilah okay? What could Caleb do for his youngest sister?
What can I do for anyone now?
There wasn’t much of an odor in the air, and Caleb could hear nothing except any sounds he made himself. The wall and floor were stone, uneven, rough, not like a natural cave or tunnel, but like rock that had been hastily carved open.
So it’s unlikely I’m in the Underground, since they finished those tunnels properly. Most likely I’m underground somewhere, though. Or am I in the mountains?
But how did I get to such a place so quickly? And though the walls and floor may be something I can come to grips with, analyze, understand…
What’s with this darkness? Why can’t I penetrate it?
Caleb caught his heartbeat rising, took slow, careful breaths, quiet as he could, to steady himself.
What are my options?
One: he could wait. Help could potentially arrive on its own.
That seems extremely unlikely. Everyone has so many problems already, and this place… it doesn’t seem like a place that would be easy to find. With no food or water… I won’t last very long here.
Two: he could explore. Groping around in a darkness that he had no hope of illuminating could be dangerous, and wouldn’t at all be easy, and if he picked the wrong path…
What other choices do I have? Phase Stepping’s no good. Oh!
There’s no way that’ll work.
Caleb pulled out his phone, and wasn’t at all surprised to see he had no reception.
What did surprise him was that, somehow, he had received a text message.
I don’t recognize this number.
Caleb’s heartbeat sped up once more as he opened the message.
You fell into our trap, silly! It’s hard to believe you could be so stupid. But then, stupid ones make for the most fun.
If you can find your way out of the Dark Place, we can play the second part of the game. You’ll need to find a KEY and a DOOR. There’s only one of each. Put them together, and you’re free!
Please don’t disappoint us. It’s been so long since we had a good playmate.
But if you fail, at least we’ll have Delilah. Our little sister’s dying to meet her.
We should probably mention. If you don’t find the KEY and get through the DOOR within twenty-four hours, it’s very unlikely you’ll ever see Will again.
Caleb glared at his phone, then shoved it back in his pocket. Of course Will was in danger. Oscar had told them to stick together, and Caleb had run off alone. He hadn’t just doomed himself to this horrible game, but Will, too. And Delilah would be next if Caleb didn’t figure this out.
Stay calm. Solve this, save your friends.
That’s all he needed.
Time to get to work.