Caleb looked to Will, each giving the other an encouraging nod just before they opened their doors and charged through to Duo’s next challenge. They were on a timer, they couldn’t spare even a moment to communicate more with each other, but Caleb was heartened to see that Will looked healthy and whole. For the moment, Caleb didn’t need to worry about his friend.
He only needed to worry about succeeding at Duo’s next challenge.
Through the door, Caleb found himself in a simple hallway, stark white on all sides, with a narrow window on the left side through which he could see Will in a red hallway. The hall went about twenty feet, then stopped. At the dead-end was a pedestal, on which was a large round button.
“Whoever presses their button first, survives,” came Duo’s “shadow” voice, low and menacing.
Caleb stopped in his tracks.
“What happens to the one who doesn’t press their button?” he asked.
A low chuckle. “They die, of course.”
Caleb didn’t move, and for a moment it was as if he couldn’t think, either.
It’s a straight up death-game, with no frills, no tricks. Just push a button, and you live… while your “opponent” dies.
Caleb looked through the window, and his eyes met Will’s. In that single, simple moment, clarity flooded through Caleb. He smiled, and Will smiled back at him. Neither of them stepped forward.
“What kind of stupid stunt is this, Duo?” Caleb asked, grinning. “You honestly think either of us is willing to kill the other to save our own skin?”
Duo’s low chuckle came again. “If neither presses the button in one hour, then you both die.”
Caleb looked at Will, and his smile only widened at seeing the smile on his friend’s face. “Fine by us. I won’t kill him to save myself. And he won’t kill me to save himself.”
“T-then you both lose!” Duo shouted. “You both die!”
Caleb shook his head. “You’re the one who loses in that scenario, Duo.”
“What in the world makes you think that?”
“Because you want someone to play with, right? You want to play games, but if we both die, the game ends. And if even one of us dies, the other one will be a lot less motivated to play along with your games. You need us alive and well.” He grinned, placing his hands on his hips. “Besides, the best games are ones where everyone has fun, right? Fear is a poor partner to fun.”
There was a long pause, and it was difficult to tell what caused it, as Duo wasn’t visible, speaking to her “playmates” through some sort of intercom system. Finally, she spoke, but she did so in her childish voice.
“You’re not having fun with this game?” she asked.
Caleb shook his head. “Not at all. The first two games were interesting. You tasked me with figuring out complex situations and finding answers based on minimal information. But this?” He gestured to the buttons. “This isn’t a game. It’s a threat, and it’s killing the mood, you know? I’m sure you can come up with something better than this.”
Duo’s childish voice giggled. “We certainly ca–”
Suddenly, Duo’s shadow voice broke in. “You will play this game, or you will both die.”
Caleb sighed. “Didn’t I just say that’s fine by us?”
“Come on, Duo,” Caleb said. “You can be more creative than this. What did you enjoy more? Us standing here refusing to play this part of your game? Or me taking on and completing the earlier challenges?”
A long pause, and then Duo’s shadow voice spoke. “It seems we misjudged both of you. We took it as a given that people would do anything to save themselves. The two of you are… surprising.”
Caleb grinned. “What are friends for?”
Caleb felt a pressure in the air, and then it passed. When he turned around, the button on its pedestal was gone, and his hallway continued farther to a set of stairs ascending into darkness.
And, frustratingly, the window to his left was gone. He couldn’t see Will anymore.
It’s okay. Trust that Will’s okay.
And don’t lose your cool.
Caleb wiped his sweaty hands briefly on his pants. He took a slow breath, let it out to steady himself.
You got through that one okay, right? Keep smiling.
His phone chirped, and he pulled it out to see a new text from Duo:
You completed the next challenge! It’s time for something new. Head up the stairs and see what awaits.
If you can complete that challenge, then we will meet face-to-face for a break. The halfway point has almost arrived. Good luck!
Caleb put his phone back in his pocket. No clues, no hints, no apparent rules. Or perhaps she was saving those for when the challenge up the stairs started.
Still, he was making progress.
The halfway point, huh? Somehow I doubt that.
If she has her way, the games won’t end, ever.
If I have my way, the games won’t go on much longer.
Who’s going to win? Not just between me and Duo, but…
Between her and her shadow.
Caleb stepped to the bottom of the stairs, looking up. The staircase was completely dark, save for a tiny pinprick of light high above.
Is that an exit? Or just some trick to confuse us?
There’s no helping it. I have to play. As long as she doesn’t try to force us to do anything we won’t do, then I can keep playing. I get the feeling that being cooperative, while also being surprising, is what she wants to see the most.
Will, I hope you can catch on, too. And I hope we can properly meet up soon.
Caleb ascended, climbing as quick as he dared as darkness pressed in around him. Curiosity took hold of him, and he looked back.
Only darkness. The hallway he’d come from had vanished.
I think I’m starting to understand her magic. It seems like Birthright and Contract Magic are both involved. Duo had reality-warping, transformative powers before she signed the contract that – I think – gave her this playhouse, a home in which her powers are, I’m guessing, enhanced. She probably couldn’t completely alter a house’s structure like this before the Contract, and my guess is that she also isn’t as powerful outside of it.
She could seemingly vanish and reappear at will, ignoring the limitations of Blinking, the only real “teleportation” magic there is. Now I’m more sure than ever that it isn’t Illusion Magic, and I think if she had Time Magic and the ability to Phase Step I would have been able to figure that out.
But there’s the issue of the shadow. Is it part of her Birthright Magic? Time Magic is a form of Birthright Magic, but I don’t have a shadow controlling my body and mind.
At least, I hope I don’t.
The shadow kind of reminded me of the living darkness, especially hearing how Chelsea and the others described the many forms it could take in the Library of Solitude. And Chelsea talked about the weird shadow world she walked through, and how she encountered a doppelganger of herself. I don’t know enough about how the darkness works, but…
Could it do that to Duo? Could it be a parasite, with Duo the host?
Where does Duo’s power come from? Is it from the shadow, or is the shadow just using her power for its own gain?
If I separate the parasite from its host, can either survive? And if the shadow survives apart from Duo, does that mean we’ll have to fight it? Will it be stronger or weaker than it was with Duo?
Too many questions. But I think I’m starting to learn more, starting to put pieces together.
I need to win this game, in more ways than one.
The stairs suddenly ended, and Caleb blinked at sudden brightness, stumbled at sudden flat ground. His eyes adjusted, and he found himself…
On a beach.
Sun shone down from a clear blue sky above. Sand shifted under his feet. The tide came in, and went out, and the sound of waves washed over him.
Far in the distance was an island, and on it there seemed to be… a door?
His phone chirped, a new text from Duo:
Reach THE DOOR!
Do it any way you can, as fast as you can. We didn’t provide a boat. But we think you can manage without one.
“Well, that’s awfully simple,” Caleb muttered, staring out across the water. It was perhaps a mile or two from him to the island. The water seemed bright, clear, inviting.
So what’s the catch?
Looking around, Caleb didn’t see Will.
He must have his own challenge to deal with. I’d like Duo to let us team up, but I guess that’s not in the cards yet.
Will… good luck. Don’t you dare fail. I’m counting on you to make it out of here with me.
Caleb took a few steps forward, eyeing the water and sand more closely. Nothing seemed amiss.
So what was the catch?
Thinking it might be best to avoid touching the water, Caleb formed a staircase of Mobility discs up and out over the surf, climbing and then continuing forward, creating discs as he went to form a comfortable, breezy pathway to the island beyond. The wind whipped his hair, the smell of salt tickled his nose.
It would have been a pleasant experience, if he wasn’t preparing himself for an unexpected, and unpleasant, surprise.
He’d made it no more than a hundred yards before the water exploded beneath him. Instinct and reflexes took over, Caleb bouncing himself high into the air in an instant, avoiding the salty spray. Sticking himself to a disc hundreds of feet in the air, he gazed at the subsiding blast.
He saw nothing amiss. Just water.
Guess I should hurry.
Caleb leapt free of his sticky-disc, bouncing horizontally off of a bounce-disc, hurtling towards the island. Another bounce, and then –
The water exploded beneath him, and Caleb bounced upward just in time to avoid the blast. Keeping his eyes downward, he saw it this time.
There was something alive in the water. It was beautifully camouflaged, blending in with the water, and the sky, and the sandy bottom far below.
But when it moved, it couldn’t completely hide its existence. And it was gigantic. Hundreds of feet long. Caleb couldn’t make out its shape, but the glimpse of its size was enough.
I’m fighting a freaking sea monster. Great.
Well, let’s hope it doesn’t come to an actual fight. I’m fine with dodging. Let’s keep it that way.
Caleb didn’t want to waste any time, bouncing himself towards the island once more.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
Consecutive explosions sent water flying into the air, and Caleb dodged laterally, soaring in a zigzag pattern towards his destination. A low rumble sounded beneath him, and he saw the camouflaged sea monster keeping pace with him, moving tremendously fast despite its size and the resistance of water.
More explosions followed, and Caleb was forced to bounce upward, but –
Caleb twisted, formed a crisscrossing wall of chains, and bounced out and then up again.
The monster had jumped, so fast and so silently that Caleb had nearly become food for it. And now, as Caleb bounced this way and that, the monster followed, its nearly invisible shape rippling through the air as it no longer swam, but flew.
Great. It was fast enough underwater. How fast will it be in the air?
Dodging became difficult, because Caleb needed to keep his eyes on the beast as much as possible. It was too easy to lose track of it, and it moved so shockingly silently that it could attack without any warning.
The water exploded beneath Caleb again, and his eyes went wide as he dodged in the nick of time.
There were two monsters. One was airborne, the other underwater.
Hey, let me just prepare for things to get progressively worse. My guess? There are a hundred monsters. There. I’m prepared for anyth–
But Caleb wasn’t prepared for anything, he realized.
The air all around him, the sea all below him, was alive with nearly invisible motion.
There weren’t two monsters.
There weren’t one hundred monsters.
There were hundreds. Perhaps thousands. The sky and sea were thick with the camouflaged beasts, so thick Caleb was momentarily paralyzed with indecision.
Where could he go? What openings were there now?
Explosions rocked the sea, and Caleb was bouncing away, hurtling through the air on instinct, thought vanishing in his frantic evasion. The air rippled here, there, above, below, and Caleb ducked, dodged, bobbed, twisted, spun, and still he barely made any forward progress. The air itself exploded, an invisible, concussive blast of sound and fury that Caleb, only on the very edges of, was sent flying from. He slammed against and then rolled across an invisible, soft substance that must be the hide of one of the camouflaged monsters, and he leapt free just as another air explosion sent him tumbling, careening skyward in a wild spin that he struggled to put a stop to, failing as he hit and rolled across yet another of the airborne creatures.
Jump. Duck. Bounce. Step. Shield. Twist. Leap. Spring.
Caleb pulled out every tool in his Mobility Magic arsenal, creating hundreds, thousands of discs of every kind, doing his best to stay in motion, move forward in unpredictable motions while finding the tiniest openings in the crowded sky. It still wasn’t enough, as air explosions rocked him, passing monsters formed walls to block him, and Caleb was stuck in a frantic, spiraling battle in an isolated pocket of the sky, unable to progress further. Unable to go back.
Fear clutched his heart, and Caleb thrust it out, grasping desperately at Mister Midnight’s lessons.
And suddenly, he felt like a complete fool. He’d been caught so unawares, and had, through Midnight’s training, conditioned himself not to resort to Time Magic, that he’d momentarily forgotten , in the heat of this unexpected and dangerous moment, that he even had Time Magic.
Time instantly slowed to the slowest crawl, and Caleb stuck himself to a sticky-disc, desperately gasping for breath. He looked up and down, all around him, and…
His world was completely changed.
The monsters, camouflaged as they were in real-time, suddenly became starkly visible to Caleb in his moment of slowed time. They were huge, that was true, but…
They were beautiful.
Blue and shimmering, they reminded Caleb of the waters he’d seen in the River of Time. Such a strange blue. Such a deep blue. Such an otherworldly color, beautiful and impossible and wonderful.
Were they born from the River of Time? Did they exist in a perpetual state of slowed time? Caleb had no idea. He’d have to ask Midnight about them someday.
But for today, he was awestruck. Their sleekness, their rounded bodies, their incredible grace in the air. They never touched each other, not once, even though many were mere inches apart. And Caleb realized, as he stared even longer…
They weren’t monsters at all. And they weren’t attacking him.
They were dancing. And the giant blasts in the air and the sea were their songs, sung with such power and in such tones that Caleb’s human ears and human body couldn’t comprehend, perceiving them as attacks.
However these monsters existed in Duo’s playhouse, Caleb didn’t know. Had she transported Caleb to this strange place, outside of her playhouse, with a single door leading back into it?
Caleb watched as the creatures in the air and the creatures in the sea slowly came together, singing, dancing, creating a beautiful sight that could only be seen through Time Magic.
He’d never be able to describe this to anyone. Words failed him. What he was seeing was something beautiful. Dangerous, but only to him, only because he was so tiny, so frail, compared to such creatures. They meant him no harm, but they also meant him nothing at all. They wouldn’t part to give him space, because they barely acknowledged his existence.
They’re busy. Busy with music and dancing.
I’ll get out of their way.
Caleb picked his way through the dancers and singers easily now that he had slowed time. In open air, he didn’t take any chances, rocketing himself off of several bounce-discs towards the island and its door, not exiting Time-state until he’d turned the handle and opened the door.
Time back to its normal state, Caleb turned to look back out over the water. He could barely see the dancers and singers, rippling through the air. He heard and saw the force of their songs, as water sprayed upward, as explosive sounds boomed through the air.
But now, knowing what he knew, Caleb thought he could hear a tiny bit of their true song. It was melancholy, longing, lonely. Like travelers far from home, lovers long parted, parents and children who desperately missed one another.
But hanging underneath it, a constant undercurrent, was joy.
They had found each other. They sang of long journeys in lonely skies and seas, but that was only a prelude before the true song.
Because now they were home. Now, after so long, they had found each other.
Tears stinging his eyes, Caleb entered the door, leaving the dancers and singers to their dance and song.
The transition back to Duo’s home was more startling than ever. The sound of the waves, of the song, of the wind all vanished, leaving a sudden emptiness in the air as Caleb closed the door behind him. Before him now was an auditorium, and far beyond, past hundreds of rows of chairs, was a stage. Upon it stood Duo, and she was smiling at him, though whether it was the true Duo or her shadow, Caleb couldn’t tell.
Whoever it was, Caleb felt a sudden sense of finality. This wasn’t the halfway point.
This was the final act.
This was his last, best chance to save Duo from herself.