“We have four days left,” Callum said, staring around the Greyson Manor family room.
Assembled were all those who knew about the Shadows, about the Underground, about Marion Reiner’s death, and about the soon-arriving Radiance. Callum and Deirdre Greyson. Caleb, Chelsea, Lorelei, Gwen. Will and his parents. Isla and her fox Summon Dama. Oscar. Marcus.
Adelaide, much to her chagrin, had been left alone at her house. She wasn’t a part of this fight – her powers were mostly confined to her home, so outside she was too vulnerable if a battle broke out. Furthermore, if she knew everything about Caleb and this group’s plans, she would absolutely insist on being part of the battle. She was awfully stubborn like that. For the meantime, Caleb had agreed with his parents’ suggestion that he relay information to Adelaide outside of these meetings, and do his best to keep her from running off on her own or trying to be part of the battle.
It had taken a lot for Caleb to convince her, and he had to make quite a number of promises in order to get her to finally agree, but now he was here, and the tone of the entire room was deathly serious.
“The endgame approaches,” Isla said, her flowing, hypnotic voice pulling Caleb in. She brushed her fingers idly through the ends of her long white hair, and upon her lips was a mysterious smile. “Much has yet to be revealed.”
“That’s our biggest obstacle,” Callum said, and he sighed bitterly, staring at his feet. “I suppose it’s finally time.”
“You knew you’d have to confront Blaise eventually,” Hagan Rook, Will’s father, said. “Better to do it, and learn the truth, before the final trap is sprung.”
“And while the two of you deal with that, we should divide the rest of our duties,” Oscar said.
Deirdre nodded. Her glasses glowed softly, and a small portal appeared in the air. She reached in, and pulled forth a sheet of paper which she placed on the table in the center of the room. “We need to determine the truth of their leadership – is Blaise in charge?” she asked. “Callum and I will handle that. We also need to learn about Jormungand. Is he in Grimoire, overseeing things, or is he elsewhere? We need to go over Caleb’s notes from Mister Midnight about the Radiance – their forces, their strengths and weaknesses – and use that information to prepare a defense. After Gwen’s investigations, we now know there are stairs leading deeper below the Underground. What’s down there? What’s beneath The Gate, that they defend so carefully? What is the enemy’s attack plan, and what is the makeup of their forces? And finally…” She looked around the room. “Who else can we trust?”
“We’ll need more on our side if we can’t stop the fight before it starts,” Oscar said with a nod.
“Claire,” Chelsea said. “She’s a friend, and a Hunter, and she knows a bit about what’s going on. She’s incredibly trustworthy.”
“And we have a few friends and allies we can call upon,” Oscar said. “Mina Shoto, for one.”
“We’ll put a list together,” Callum said.
“So, who will do what?” Mercedes Rook asked. “I think those of us who are Heads of Guilds or on the Council of Mages are best equipped to investigating the command structure and total strength of the Shadows.”
“I’d like to have another chat with your prisoner,” Marcus said to Callum. He sat on the floor, as always, with his bell-topped staff draped across his legs. “Void, I think, will be an important key in preparing for the Radiance.”
“Which really only leaves the most troublesome questions,” Callum said. “What lies beneath the Underground, and what’s beneath The Gate?”
“Are we sure they aren’t the same thing?” Mercedes asked.
“With the way they defend The Gate specifically, I doubt it,” Deirdre said.
Chelsea nodded. “Gwen and I have checked out other entrances into the Underground, and no one’s guarding them so zealously. The entrance – or whatever it was – that Delilah found must lead to something separate.”
“And something probably much more important to the Shadows,” Gwen said.
“But if we start investigating either of those places,” Callum said, “we’ll alert the Shadows to our plans, and to how much we actually know.”
“Strength in numbers?” Isla suggested. “Or…” she stroked Dama’s fur, and the little fox’s ears perked up, “Dama and I could go on a little adventure. We’re especially good at passing through secret places unnoticed.”
“I would go,” Marcus said, “but I believe it unwise. Though I’m confident I would return unharmed, I would not be able to pass undetected. And if I poke around too much, our foes will be certain to increase their security.”
“I don’t like the idea of strength in numbers,” Deirdre said. She looked at Isla, resting a hand on her shoulder. “But I don’t like the idea of you going alone, either. We don’t know what they’re capable of.”
Isla laughed softly. “Hidden strengths are simply delightful,” she said. “What does logic dictate, dear friend? When dangerous trials provide a test, the ones most capable surely are best.”
Deirdre sighed. “Logic dictates that when you start rhyming, there is no dissuading you.”
Isla laughed. “I’m so pleased you see my point.”
“Aren’t some of the Underground’s more obvious entrances and tunnels often used by the more adventurous youth of the city?” Oscar asked. “Surely those wouldn’t be so heavily watched or guarded, and if any of us trod on those paths, it would be less likely to raise any serious alarm.”
“That’s right,” Chelsea said. “The one by Rose Lane was like that. And there’s a lesser-known but still occasionally used tunnel by Shore Park.”
“The Shore Park one could be especially worthwhile,” Lorelei said. “Gwen, you could use your powers to get a better look at what might be under The Gate if we got you that close.”
“Will and I can check out the one by Rose Lane,” Caleb said. Will nodded his agreement.
“But before that,” Marcus said, “Caleb, I’d like you to speak to Void with me this time. He claimed to know you.”
“Oh,” Caleb said, nodding. “Yeah, he sort of does. We fought once.”
“Ah, that explains it,” Marcus said. “He seems to hold a bit of a grudge. But since you’re the one in this room who knows the most about the Radiance, I’d like your input when I talk to him.”
“If you want someone with knowledge of the Radiance,” Gwen said, “I think I’m the one most qualified here. I…” She bowed her head. “I was there when they destroyed Sunset Square. And I’ve pursued and investigated them for much of my life.”
“Then you can both come with me,” Marcus said, smiling. “It would be a great help.”
“So Callum and I will confront Blaise,” Deirdre said. “And we can also use our connections to feel around more for others who might be Shadows. Chances are, they’re all right under our noses.”
“Mercedes and I will do the same,” Hagan said.
“Dama and I get to go traipsing through the Underground,” Isla said.
“I’ll touch base with our other allies and old friends,” Oscar said.
“And we’ll leave the Underground exploration primarily to the younger ones,” Marcus said. “Although I suppose, Gwen, you aren’t so young, are you? I apologize.”
“It’s quite all right,” Gwen said, smiling. “I’m still on the younger side, as Enchanted go.”
“That just leaves Jormungand,” Callum said, staring at the list.
“Leave him to me,” Marcus said. “I’m the only one with nothing else to do after talking to Void. I’ll handle him.”
“Do you want any help?” Callum asked.
Marcus shook his head. “No, I’ll be quite all right, old friend.”
The meeting adjourned, with Oscar, Hagan, Mercedes, and Isla leaving first. Chelsea and Lorelei stayed to wait for Gwen, and Will stayed to wait for Caleb, while Caleb and Gwen went with Marcus downstairs, into the Greyson Vault.
Caleb hadn’t been down here in a very long time. It was the one place in the vast Greyson Manor that was kept off-limits to the children, only open at certain times, on certain occasions, and then only under watchful parental supervision.
Apparently Marcus was trustworthy enough to accompany Caleb and Gwen without Callum or Deirdre along. He was even trustworthy enough to know the secret to unlocking the magical wards over the Vault.
I can’t deny that kind of bothers me. Mom and Dad keep things secret from their kids, but not from Marcus? I know he’s a close friend, but…
Ah, forget it. And don’t get nosy. Just focus on what you’re here for.
Caleb was, as usual, struck by the plainness of the Greyson Vault. Of course, that plainness was only part of it. There were numerous doors on the far side of the Vault that led to what Caleb assumed were the real secrets. This first room of the Vault was almost like a small library. There were two bookshelves down the center of the room, and to the right were shelves built into the wall with books displayed prominently, spaced apart with special stands and lighting on them to highlight each title.
To the left were special chambers. Rather than doors, there were wavering, glowing screens between the “library” room and the chambers to the left. Each one was meant to contain something important.
At the moment, only one of the three was occupied.
Seated on a bench on the far side, almost like a prisoner in a jail cell, was Void.
His dark hair was longer than Caleb remembered, hanging down to his shoulders, his long bangs shading his dark eyes. But otherwise, he was exactly as Caleb remembered him. Pale skin, harsh angular features, dark eyes burning with intense focus. He was still dressed in his Enforcer’s uniform, all black with silver buttons and trim.
As Marcus, Caleb, and Gwen approached the cell, Void slowly looked up. A thin smile spread across his face as his eyes focused on Caleb.
“Finally,” he said, that cold, icy voice like frozen nails down Caleb’s spine. “You’re looking better than we last met. I assume Mister Midnight’s training deserves credit.”
“I’m surprised you remember me,” Caleb said.
“I never forget a foe I fail to kill,” Void replied. “You. Mister Midnight. A small handful of others. I’m glad to see you’re still alive, boy. I’d hate for someone else to finish you off before I get another chance.”
“Why?” Caleb asked, staring at the frightening man.
Void stared back at him, blinking slowly. His smile widened. “Oh, I see,” he said softly. “You’re one of those. The kind who sees a vicious murderer, and thinks ‘he must have a reason for what he does. If I try, maybe I can save him from himself.’” Void laughed bitterly. “My King is not. He saw my value, saw past the judgmental self-righteousness of the rest of the world, and put my unique skills to use. Don’t try that idealistic tack with me, boy. I live for combat, for the thrill of battle, for the euphoria of complete victory. You can’t understand me.” He cocked his head to the side. “It’s disappointing. Fighting your kind… there’s a certain thrill to it, but it fades so quickly. You’re too serious. Too… sympathetic.” He sighed. “So focus on what you really came down here for. You want information, not banter.”
“And here I thought we had come to an agreement last time, dear friend,” Marcus said, leaning on his staff and eyeing Void with a wry smile. “You wanted to talk to Caleb before you answered my last question. Or have you forgotten?”
Void laughed. “You’re something else,” he said. “Of course I didn’t forget. You wanted to know how many other Enforcers there are. The Royal Guard’s easy – ten Guards and the Gold Knight.” His eyes flicked to Caleb, and he grinned. “A deal’s a deal, ‘friend.’ Including myself, there are twenty-four Enforcers. Or, I should say, were. None of the Royal Guards have fallen in battle, but during the height of our war with the Crystal King, four Enforcers were killed. When we escaped from the Fault Line Dungeon, three more were felled.” Void’s grin widened, and his eyes took on a manic look. “The Glorious Seven. The greatest of our number, who brought the most honor to the Enforcers and our Radiant King.”
“So seventeen remain,” Marcus said.
“Not bad,” Void said with a chuckle. “You can do basic arithmetic. It seems your mind hasn’t dimmed with age.”
Marcus chuckled back at him. “Do I truly look so old to your eyes? I’ve been told I look incredibly young for my age.”
“And how many people know your age, old man?” Void asked with a sneer. “I’ve asked you twice, and you’ve never told me. So? How old are you?”
“Age is but a number,” Marcus said, waving his hand as if to brush the question away. “You should know that better than most. When did you lose count of how many years you’ve lived?”
“Thirty-two,” Void said. “The day I accepted my King and became an Eternal, numbering my years became meaningless. I am Eternal, infinite, ageless, just like my brothers and sisters of the Radiance.”
Dad wasn’t kidding when he called this guy a ‘true believer.’ I’ve barely dealt with the Radiance at all. How many of them are just like him, totally committed to their King and his cause?
We can’t reason with him…
Caleb watched the back-and-forth banter between Marcus and Void and sighed.
Marcus, I’m sure this is some tactic of yours. But I can’t stand around with this guy all day.
“What details do you know of your King’s plan to come to Grimoire?” Caleb asked. Void’s dark, burning eyes turned to him, slow, unsettling. “And what do you know of his battle plan when he’s here?”
“Now why would I go and tell you all of that?” Void asked. “Of course, there’s no point in telling you the when of it all. Marcus over here already figured that out.”
“Just before midnight, at the end of the first day of the Lunar Festival,” Marcus said with a nod.
At the end of the first day?
Why not come at the very start of it all?
“Do you know about any members of the Radiance who might have gotten caught up in something in Sunset Square?” Caleb asked.
Void let out a hiss of breath, glaring at Caleb. “Neith was taken into the Brig because she spent too much time chasing you around needlessly.”
Doesn’t sound like she’s been freed yet, either.
Unless… the King and his forces plan on busting her out before they come to Grimoire.
“Anyone else?” Caleb asked.
Void tilted his head back, but kept his eyes on Caleb, creating the illusion of looking down on him despite his seated position. “Why don’t you guess?” he asked. His eyes flicked to Gwen, who’d remained silent so far. “How about you? Your golden eyes see more than you let on, don’t they?”
Gwen stared back at Void for a long time, her eyes smoldering with anger. Suddenly, she turned on her heel and walked towards the stairs.
“Gwen!” Caleb shouted, rushing after her. “Where are you going?”
“I’m sorry, Caleb,” she said softly, her voice taut. “I can’t see beyond my anger and hatred. I can tell you what I know separately from him. But I’m useless to you here, with that man in my sight.”
Caleb was taken aback by the rage from someone he’d so far only known as calm and collected, but he nodded. “Okay. I get it.” He turned to Marcus. “Sorry, Marcus, but it looks like we’re done here.”
“You don’t have to –” Gwen started.
Caleb smiled. “We’re in this together. And we learned plenty just now. I’m sick of talking to him, too, anyway.”
“You don’t wanna say goodbye to me?” Void called, out of sight to Caleb.
Marcus smiled. “It seems you aren’t very good at making friends, Void,” he said.
“Yet you insist we’re friends,” Void said.
Marcus chuckled, walking away. “I make friends with everyone.”
Up the stairs they went, leaving the Vault behind. Back in the family room, Caleb looked around, puzzled.
“Where’s Will?” he asked.
“He left,” Chelsea said. “Said he’d scout out the Rose Lane tunnel ahead of time. He texted you.”
“He –” Caleb started, pulling out his phone. “Oh. I had my sound turned off.”
“Well what the heck did you do that for?” Chelsea asked.
“We were having an important meeting,” Caleb said, sending a quick reply to Will. “It would have been rude if my phone went off in the middle.”
“Who would’ve texted or called you?” Chelsea asked. “All the important people were in the same place.”
“Addie,” Caleb said, scrolling through a series of grumpy, impatient texts from the ten year-old. He laughed. “I really should not have bought her a phone.”
“Always so generous,” Chelsea said, standing. “Gwen, you ready to go?”
Gwen nodded. “Absolutely.”
Chelsea took Caleb’s hand, pulled him close, and kissed him on the cheek. “Be careful, you.”
“I’m always careful,” Caleb said, grinning.
“You’re always reckless, you mean,” Chelsea said, rolling her eyes. “Let’s grab dinner afterwards.”
“You got it,” Caleb said. He bid goodbye to Marcus and his parents, and then headed out into the streets. Instantly, he was shoving his hands in his pockets, tucking his arms close against his sides. He was bundled up, but the frigid breeze shocked him.
Winter’s coming on faster and harsher than normal. We might get our first snowfall before the Lunar Festival.
Four days, huh?
Guess we’d better hurry. We’re still not ready, in too many ways.
Rose Lane was a strip of stores on the west side of the city, one of several major, locally-oriented shopping hubs that continued to find great success even with a giant, modernized shopping mall in the Crater District. On the way there, Caleb passed by the public library, and took a moment to lean out over the railing above the basement courtyard. His eyes were drawn to the frog statue that held the hidden key, and the door into the maintenance tunnels beneath the library.
For some reason…
Ah, forget it. I have more than enough things to focus on right now.
Caleb continued on. He reached Rose Lane and navigated his way through the thick crowd until, halfway down the street, he ducked down a dark side alley. It was a bright, nearly cloudless afternoon, but because of the angle of the sun and the tight confines of the alley, sunlight swiftly faded here.
Up ahead, after a few narrow twists and turns, he found the rickety metal door that led to the secret stairs down into one of the tunnels of the Underground.
Come to think of it, I’ve passed by this door a thousand times on patrol. I was always so curious, but I never came down here.
Well, it’s nice to know this city still has surprises for me.
Down Caleb went, pulling out his pocket watch and using it like a flashlight, shining a beam of white light ahead of him.
The staircase soon widened, though it also became much more ruined. Caleb had to jump the last few steps to avoid noticeable gaps in the stairs. Down here, he shone his watch-light up and around, awestruck by the size of the chamber he was in.
For it was a chamber – an underground station – rather than a tunnel, that he ended up in. That station connected to a tunnel running to the left and right, but Caleb first had to take in the vast, pillared space around him.
This really could have fit hundreds of people easily.
Like the ruined, unfinished station wasn’t in ruins at all, Caleb could see before him the ticket stations, the turnstiles, and hundreds of passengers waiting for their train. Lights shone from the ceiling, and the stairs behind him were broad and polished, leading up to a bright, open exit high above.
But the imagined hustle and bustle vanished, leaving behind the ruins of reality. A pipe in the ceiling to Caleb’s right must have had a crack in it, because water was drip-dripping into a puddle on the floor at a steady rate.
But as Caleb got a grasp of the space, he also got a grasp of the thing missing.
That singular question sent a sudden pang of fear through Caleb’s heart. He rushed to the edge of the ruined station, leaping down to the tunnel below. He shone his watch-light left, then right.
There was no sign of anyone else. As far as he could see, he was completely alone.
Caleb pulled his phone from his pocket, nearly dropping it in his haste, and quickly sent a message:
In the tunnels. Where are you?
He kept one eye on his phone as he looked left and right, heart pounding in his chest.
Footsteps to his right pulled Caleb’s attention that way. A figure approached, and soon became clear in Caleb’s light.
“Don’t blind me,” came the soft, deadpan tone of Will.
“Sorry,” Caleb said, lowering his watch. He let out a breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding at the sight of his friend. “Where were you?”
Will jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. “Found something.” He turned, walking back down the tunnel, and Caleb followed. The emptiness yawned around them, as if they trekked through some giant dragon’s gaping maw, and the occasional splotch of mold or puddle from dripping water didn’t help dispel the image from Caleb’s mind.
They turned leftward at a slow, gradual pace, until finally, Will stopped.
The tunnel ahead of them was blocked by a rough, solid stone wall. It was clear that this was where active excavation had come to a sudden halt, as there were many scrapes and abrasions indicative of tools working away at the stone.
“Over here,” Will said, approaching the left wall of the tunnel. Caleb followed, and they stopped at a rounded metal door. While it was flush with the wall, something was clearly not quite right.
The wall was moldy, cracked, and worn.
But the door was clean, smooth.
“It’s new,” Caleb said, running his hand across the cool metal. “And well-used, from the looks of it.” He gripped the vertical bar handle. He pulled, then pushed, but either way, the door didn’t budge. “And, of course, it’s locked.”
Will nodded. He pulled out his phone, tapped out a message and showed it to Caleb.
We should have Gwen pulse around here from above. See if it’s one of those rooms with stairs going down.
Caleb nodded. “Sounds good.” He looked back and forth, up and down the tunnel. “Man, it sure is freaky being here, though. We shouldn’t linger.”
We should check down the other way before we leave. No point coming down here more times than we have to.
Caleb felt a sense of urgency, a desire to leave, but he pushed it away. Will was right, and his fears were wrong.
Sorry, Mister Midnight. Even after your training and pep talks, I still haven’t fully conquered fear.
They headed back down the tunnel, their footsteps echoing uncomfortably loudly off the stone. The tunnel went much farther in the opposite direction before coming to a sudden stop. Before them weren’t signs of unfinished delving, however, but instead rocky debris piled high and haphazardly.
“A collapse?” Caleb asked, staring at the ceiling. “No, that doesn’t look right.”
Someone must have piled them on purpose.
Caleb nodded. “Seems that way.” Closer to the debris wall was an improvised fire pit, black with soot. A card table was folded up, leaning against the wall, and there were decks of cards, comic books, and board games scattered here and there, along with crumpled up soda cans. “So this is what kids do for fun these days, huh?”
They looked here and there, but didn’t find anything else of interest. Caleb eyed the piled up debris once more before they turned away.
At one end, a special door. And at the other, a fabricated cave-in to block progress.
This tunnel’s important to the Shadows, one way or another. We’ll need to keep an eye on it.
“All right, let’s get out of here,” Caleb said, leading the way back to the ruined station.
They were halfway back when a sudden shadow crossed their path. Caleb and Will both came to a complete halt, staring at the dark figure before them.
That’s just like…
The shadow. The one that killed Chelsea’s mom.
It’s… it really is exactly like that.
Caleb opened his mouth to speak, but found he couldn’t make a sound. The shadow didn’t approach, didn’t seem to move at all. But it exerted some force, some influence over the very air itself, it seemed, that kept Caleb from doing what he wanted.
It was Will who acted. He pulled from his pocket a pen, his Talisman, and held it aloft. It glowed with light, and Will traced lines through the air. The lines lingered, glowing blue in the darkness, and when he was done, he lowered his pen.
The lines spelled out a single word:
Beams of blue light burst from the word, shining all around them. Shadows fled at their brilliance.
With a breath, the shadow that blocked their path vanished.
Caleb and Will wasted no time, racing ahead, leaving the Underground behind as quickly as they could. Even when they’d climbed the stairs back up into Grimoire proper, they kept running until they’d left the dark alleys behind and exited onto the bright, crowded bustle of Rose Lane.
Catching their breath for a moment, Caleb and Will both looked back at the alley that led to the Underground’s entrance.
But no shadow pursued them.
“Nice call back there,” Caleb said.
I think the shadow let us go. I don’t think my light actually did anything to frighten or harm it.
“Let’s hope you’re wrong,” Caleb said with a chuckle, but it was a hollow sound.
For now, they were safe.
But the time would come for them to return to the Underground. Would the shadow let them escape so easily next time?