Caleb stood at the entrance to Grimoire’s Underground in the narrow alleys by Rose Lane. With him were Chelsea, Lorelei, Gwen, and Will.
Caleb’s phone chirped, and he checked it. A message on Re-Code, to a group created for all those who were together in their knowledge of the Shadows, the Radiance, and the threat coming to their city.
“Everyone else is in position,” Caleb said. “Two minutes, then we go in.”
“We do this right, and all we have to worry about are the Radiance in two days,” Chelsea said.
“And even if it doesn’t go right,” Lorelei said, “we have that handled, as well.”
Caleb nodded. When Isla had returned with her news of what lay within the Underground – and even better, what lay below it – they’d combined her information with some more above-ground pulses from Gwen to thoroughly map the area. They knew what they were getting into, and they had a good idea of the forces they’d be facing.
Caleb and his Hunter friends were assigned to the Rose Lane entrance. Caleb’s parents, along with a few of their trusted friends and allies, were at the Shore Park entrance. Two trios stood ready at the distant entrances from Rosewood Park and Libra Vale. They were diversionary forces, used to lure out as many Shadows as they could into the many traps Gwen had woven into those tunnels.
And all around Grimoire, standing by in the city itself, was the defensive force. Hagan and Mercedes, along with their most trusted Guardians, as well as Oscar, were focused on defense – against the Radiance, when that time came, but also against Shadows, in the event that they changed their plans, or this offensive failed.
Our group’s talents are divided between offense and defense. This was a good strategy.
But many things were bothering Caleb. Something didn’t feel right.
We never did find out about The Gate itself. Why would they guard that entrance so desperately if we could get at whatever they’re hiding from another entrance?
And Dad is so… hasty. He isn’t himself, at least not what I know him to be. He seems rushed, and when people rush things…
Well, that’s for most people. This is Dad. He’s got things under control.
He always does. And if he didn’t, Mom would make sure he did. They might struggle individually sometimes – even if I’ve never seen it – but together, they’re unstoppable.
But Marcus isn’t here. I know he said he had important, pressing business to focus on. That’s understandable – he’s a busy, mysterious guy. But him not being here feels… wrong.
And there was one strange omission from Isla’s report that worried Caleb the most.
She never saw that shadow. She never saw any of the living darkness.
That shadow Will and I saw… the one that killed Chelsea’s mother…
What is it? Where is it? And if it isn’t in the Underground…
Should we be focusing our efforts elsewhere?
Will tapped Caleb on the shoulder, holding up his phone to show the time. 3:12 PM.
Just one more minute. Mere seconds, likely. That was confirmed when Caleb saw the time tick over to 3:13.
“Time to go,” Chelsea said, stuffing her phone in her pocket and pulling out her lighters. Her eyes glinted with anticipation.
“Right,” Caleb said with a nod. Will gave him a look, but Caleb smiled at him.
I know you can see I’m worried. But there’s no time to talk about that now.
Let’s just stick to the plan, and do it right.
Chelsea led the way, with Caleb close behind her. Gwen and Will filled out the middle, while Lorelei stuck to the rear. All of them – save Gwen, who didn’t need one – had their Talismans at the ready.
The ruined platform at the end of the stairs was empty. As they started down the leftward tunnel, they encountered no one.
So far, so good. Hopefully the distant groups can pull away a bunch of Shadows, too. That’ll make our approach really easy.
Through the debris wall. Turn right, then left. Door on the right, head down those stairs, into the city.
Everyone head for the central shaft. Take out Shadows along the way. Others will follow to grab defeated Shadows and take them into custody.
We go for the center, to their main plan.
Even Isla hadn’t been able to describe it. But from what she was able to discern about it, combining records and plans in offices with close observation, she had determined that the thing in the shaft was some kind of weapon.
It seemed poised to destroy the entire Crater District.
That’s another thing. We still don’t know why they want to destroy the city. There haven’t been hints that they wanted to destroy it, either. Chase… he talked about becoming a god, like the Radiance believed they could and did. The plans that Chelsea’s mother uncovered, even though those were only fragmented snippets and vague insights, pointed to a “purge” of some sort, but not of land or structures.
It was a purge of people. And that makes sense with Chase, the whole idea of non-magical folks being useless, and mages being gods that don’t need to bother with ordinary humanity.
But why the underground city? Why the hidden, destructive weapon?
Why the Lunar Festival, come to think of it?
“Snap out of it,” Chelsea said softly, nudging Caleb gently. “Gotta stay focused, right?”
Caleb nodded. “Right.”
If we stop them here, all of those questions don’t matter, right?
Trust your parents. They’ve never failed before, at anything. Trust the plan they devised.
It’s going to be okay. We can do this, as long as we don’t make mistakes, as long as we give our very best.
The debris wall was easily bypassed, thanks to Will’s Energy Magic. Energy Magic had always been fascinating to Caleb because, while it was often used in very simplistic, rudimentary forms – like shooting beams of destructive energy in a straight line – it could, at its best, be the most creative form of magic. “Energy” was a concept that covered more than most people thought about when they heard that word. In a way, energy governed every single thing in existence – probably even time, Caleb thought.
For those who could tap into Energy Magic, who could push it to its limits, who could be truly creative with its applications…
They could do amazing things.
Will used Energy Magic through writing. In his hand was a pen, one of his Talismans, and at the debris wall, he wrote in the air, glowing lines appearing in his handwriting.
One word: DOOR.
Those words floated to the rocks and gravel, melted into them, and a change occurred. The debris shifted, morphed, and then smoothed out.
Suddenly, there was a door made of rock. Will opened it, and the group stepped through.
On they went, shedding light thanks to Chelsea’s spheres of emerald flame, and her owl who hovered overhead, shedding his own white light in the darkness.
They turned right.
Still, they were alone.
“The door’s just a little ways ahead,” Chelsea said, leading the way. Sure enough, they reached the round, metal door after a few paces, and continued to be…
“Wanna peek inside ahead of us?” Chelsea asked.
Caleb nodded. That wouldn’t take more than half a second of a Phase Step – well within Caleb’s limits, so short that it wouldn’t even bother him. He took a few deep breaths, let them out.
Quick and clean, in and out. Here we go.
His watch glowed softly, and he Phase Stepped.
Immediately, he stepped forward, letting his head and shoulder phase through the door.
The room within…
Caleb came back out, exited his Phase Step, and time started up again. “Empty,” he said softly. “We’re clear.”
The door opened silently when Chelsea gave it a pull, and in they went. In the floor in the center of the room loomed a dark, narrow, steep stairwell.
“It feels like we’ve been slow,” Chelsea said. “Let’s hurry it up a bit.”
“That’s just because we haven’t gotten into any fights,” Lorelei said. “We’re moving quickly. Just stick to the plan, and stay cautious.”
Chelsea nodded. “Right. Okay. Here we go.”
Down she went, and Caleb followed after her, Gwen behind him, Will behind her, and Lorelei in the back. They could only walk single-file, and this was the most dangerous part of the journey. If they were spotted from below, they’d have nowhere to dodge from incoming attacks. The farther they went, the less feasible it was to run back up.
If a fight began, it would be up to Caleb to take care of his team.
First sign of attacks from the bottom and I slow time, rush ahead, and take out the attackers. Clear the way, let the others get down safely.
They kept descending without the barest sign of an attack. Darkness was close around them, confining even with Chelsea and her owl’s light. There was a heaviness to the air, and Caleb also noticed what Isla had described.
The air was getting very dry. His tongue clung to the roof of his mouth. His lips grew chapped.
In their steady, quiet descent, Caleb began to wonder.
What if all of the Shadows cleared out? What if they knew we were coming, and all of the stuff down here was a diversion?
Pretty strange to build an entire city as a diversion, though. So that’s no good.
Either our plan worked better than we hoped, or the real fight will take place entirely in that city. Just assume all of your enemies are waiting for you there.
Chase is waiting for you there.
Caleb steeled himself for another confrontation with his once friend and mentor.
“We should see light ahead by now,” Chelsea whispered. “From the city. But it’s all dark ahead.”
“Maybe they’re sleeping,” Caleb offered.
“Funny,” Chelsea shot back.
That tiny bit of banter gave Caleb a tiny bit of relief, but it didn’t last.
Chelsea’s right. This doesn’t feel good at all.
“Hold on,” Chelsea said, coming to a sudden stop. She slid her foot forward, felt around here and there. “It’s… leveled out.”
“The stairs have stopped?” Caleb asked.
Chelsea nodded. She sent an orb of flame ahead, and followed after it, with the rest of the group following her.
The emerald glow, followed by the gleaming white glow of Chelsea’s owl, made things starkly apparent to them.
They hadn’t reached the city.
They’d reached a dead-end.
The stairs ended at a domed chamber about fifty yards in diameter, and it was completely empty, with no entrances or exits save the stairs that the five of them had just descended.
There was no city at all.
“What…” Caleb started, looking around in shock.
“These are the same steps that Isla came down,” Lorelei said, staring. “This doesn’t make sense at all. You can’t move an entire city.”
“It could have been –” Gwen started, but suddenly leapt aside. Caleb, Chelsea, Will, and Lorelei followed suit, for they’d all noticed the same thing.
They weren’t alone after all.
Forms leapt down from the dark ceiling high above, lashing out with a variety of magic. Light burst in the darkness, in many different colors and forms. The opening volley by their enemies was returned by Chelsea, always the one with the quickest reflexes, and emerald fire blazed with life and light, exploding in a vertical roar that engulfed the entire upper half of the chamber.
In that brief flash of light, Caleb had counted eight attackers. The number of attackers who fell through the flames to the floor was eight.
The number of the ones who got back up was four. One of those four fell back down again, and didn’t rise.
Chelsea’s owl chained one of the remaining three, and Caleb chained another. Gleaming blue ice burst from the ground to encase the third.
The battle was already over.
Caleb’s eyes suddenly widened, and he leaped towards his friends. “To the stairs!” he shouted, his voice reverberating in the domed chamber.
The eight that had sprung from the ceiling had been a ruse. There were Shadows against the walls, concealed by the darkness and perhaps by Illusion Magic atop that. But now that their allies had failed, they had sprung their own trap. Two forms blocked the stairs, and when Chelsea blasted fire at them, they flung up gleaming magical portals, swallowing up the flames.
Guardians at the only exit.
Caleb raced towards those Guardians, giving Will a look. Will nodded, turning away from the exit to engage the foes surrounding them, and Caleb entered Time-state.
I can handle you two just fine.
He leapt over the two Guardians. In midair, he called forth chains to burst from the walls on either side of the exit, wrapping around the two blocking the stairs and yanking them aside, anchoring them to the wall. Caleb exited Time-state, landed on the stairs, and hit each Guardian in the face with a weighted attack chain.
Those two were out, and his companions were ably fighting the rest. Lorelei’s ice rose up as barriers to block attacks, and shot out to freeze attackers in their tracks. Chelsea’s fire lanced through the air as precise, flaming darts to strike at faces, hands, feet, and joints to disable and disarm foes that her owl constricted with his chains. Silver needles flew through the air, trailing silver thread that tied enemies to each other, and when Gwen dashed in close and touched an attacker’s clothing, that clothing suddenly constricted, pinning the attacker’s arms to their sides, or rapidly expanded, covering them in many tangling folds of fabric.
In the midst of it all stood Will, pen aloft, writing with a graceful elegance that disguised just how swiftly he wrote. Words appeared and faded in a flash, and their effects took form. Kinetic energy was turned back on an Enhancer who charge ahead with a spinning kick, sending him spinning back the other way to crash against the wall. Darkness burst into flashes of light right in mages’ faces, blinding them for a moment.
Caleb saw, though, that their attackers’ numbers weren’t dwindling. Where he saw two mages fall, three more took their place. A mage was encased by ice, and another came up behind him to fill the role he’d just vacated.
So where are they coming from?
Sounds and movement behind him spurred Caleb into motion, leaping high into the air onto a gleaming Mobility disc. The stairs were blocked once more, now with half a dozen mages who poured out of the entrance that Caleb had just vacated. He leapt away from their attacks, and brought forth chains to tie them down, formed adhesive discs beneath their feet or bounced them into each other with bounce discs, disorienting and rooting his foes to the spot. When they fired back, he launched a volley of weighted attack chains that pummeled and subdued them.
But when those six fell, new ones stepped over them to join the fight.
Only these new arrivals weren’t cloaked and masked, hiding their identity like the other Shadows.
In the lead was Chase. His blue scarf Talisman glowed at his neck, and with a flourish he unraveled it, snapping it out like a whip as he entered the chamber.
Behind him was a mage that Caleb didn’t recognize…
And then he saw her eyes, and he knew.
Chelsea, Lorelei, Gwen, and Will were very busy with the constantly increasing number of surrounding attackers. If they were going to win – or, more likely, escape – they needed the stairs to be clear.
It was up to Caleb to fight Chase and Anastasia.
Apparently, Chase and Anastasia were thinking the same thing. They didn’t even spare a glance for the other members of Caleb’s team. As soon as they saw Caleb, they struck.
Chase’s scarf lashed out like a whip, extending on its own through Manipulation Magic. Behind it came Anastasia, leaping into the air faster than Caleb could imagine.
So he entered Time-state.
In that moment, watching how fast Anastasia moved even as time was slowed, he remembered.
She was the same at the library. Chelsea said she fought with kicks, so she must use a crazy amount of Enhancement Magic all focused on her legs. To jump like that, with that much power and speed…
Well, I’d better take her out of the fight quickly.
Only Lorelei had tried that when they’d fought her at Grimoire’s public library. Yet even completely encased in ice, Anastasia had been able to Blink away, a maneuver that shouldn’t be possible when fully constricted like that.
Some kind of Mobility Magic too, then. Okay.
Use your training. Make smart choices, kick their butts, and don’t rely on Time Magic any more than necessary.
Caleb created a field of Mobility discs for him to maneuver with, bounced off of one, summoned a dozen chains from the floor, and then exited Time-state while in mid-bounce.
The chains quickly caught Chase off-guard, and he was temporarily out of the fight, battling his own restraints.
But Anastasia didn’t even miss a beat, or even spare a glance for the chains coming her way. She spun in midair, a single kick not only repelling Caleb’s magical chains, but shattering them in an instant. She flipped, directly into one of Caleb’s bounce discs…
Which bounced her straight towards him.
Caleb formed chains out of thin air, but Anastasia spun and twisted in midair, dodging them effortlessly. Caleb leapt from the disc he was on, bounced off another, and hurled weighted attack chains at Anastasia.
She shattered them with a spin kick, effortlessly following Caleb’s trajectory, shadowing his movements.
So the next disc Caleb bounced off of, he immediately dismissed. There was nothing for Anastasia to pursue him with.
But she spun, as if kicking. Only there was nothing there for her to…
The air at her feet shimmered, forming something rather like a thin veil of translucent fabric. When her feet touched it, the fabric stretched a little, and then immediately snapped back.
It functioned just like Caleb’s bounce discs, and sent Anastasia hurtling towards him at impossible speed.
Chains flew at her, discs formed before her as a shield, and Caleb frantically bounced himself up towards the ceiling, then away as Chase’s scarf snapped out towards him. A rumbling sound of thunder filled the subterranean chamber, and suddenly the air grew terribly hot and humid.
And then it was raining.
Caleb bounced off of another disc, only to be blinded by a sudden flash of tremendous light. The light was immediately followed by a resounding boom. An explosion shattered stone, sending shrapnel flying through the air. Caleb was struck on the chin, and he spun in midair, dazed.
His sense of spatial awareness somehow remained, and he formed discs by feel rather than sight to catch him, bounce him, slide him around, keeping him always in motion.
That’s what Mister Midnight had singled out as his best trait, his greatest asset. That’s what he’d been trained to do more than anything else.
That was how Caleb fought. Stay in motion, unless that was absolutely impossible.
The spots left his eyes, and he was grateful that his magical glasses repelled the rain, keeping his vision clear.
Anastasia was in hot pursuit. Caleb barely bounced himself away, lashing dozens of chains towards Anastasia that she shattered with a single spinning kick, immediately bouncing after him.
Struggling for room to maneuver in the limited space of the chamber, Caleb had no chance against Anastasia’s speed, and against what was a clear gap of both power and experience between the two of them.
He entered Time-state.
For a brief moment, Caleb grinned. It had been a long time since he’d slowed down time in the rain, and doing so here, even though it was underground, was breathtaking. The thousands of water droplets falling from the sky glistened with the multi-colored light of so many different magical attacks and guards, slowly spinning or rotating or morphing on their brief drop to the ground below.
They were beautiful, a kaleidoscope of tiny, glistening lights all around him. And above, in the ceiling, two arcing beams of impossibly bright white light moved at rapid speed, even with time slowed, to meet each other. In that meeting, they burst all the brighter, and then began to shoot down from the ceiling towards the floor.
Lightning. And it was headed straight for Lorelei.
Even with time slowed to a crawl, Caleb had to move as fast as he could to race against the lightning. He bounced down, then out towards Lorelei, picking her up under her arms and carrying her a dozen feet to an unoccupied spot near the wall of the chamber, taking care to turn her head away from the blinding streak of light.
And then Caleb leapt away, lashing chains all across Chase, using a weighted attack chain to – though Caleb winced at the brutality of it – break Chase’s wrist, severing his hold on his precious Talisman. Another chain grabbed the scarf, pulling it as far away from Chase as possible.
Turning in midair, Caleb saw…
It wasn’t possible.
And yet there Anastasia was, coming straight towards him, eyes locked on Caleb. How much had he moved since he entered Time-state? And he wasn’t nearly in the same place he was when he entered it, so…
What was going on? Anastasia was clearly affected by the Time Magic, moving much, much slower than anyone else. How could she keep pace with him even now?
It doesn’t matter. This’ll end it.
Caleb sent out chains from every single direction, a swarming chain prison that would completely surround Anastasia, capturing her long enough for Caleb to strike her in such a way to render her unconscious.
Caleb’s vision blurred. His ears popped, and then started ringing. He felt heavy. Everything felt heavy, like he was falling, and there was no escape from it.
But Caleb couldn’t resist the pull. He was blacking out, whether he liked it or not.
Desperately, calling on his training, Caleb willed chains and Mobility discs to life. But he never saw if he succeeded.
His whole world went dark.