It took Caleb several seconds to realize he was awake. The darkness that surrounded him was a dark room, not the darkness of unconsciousness.
For a moment, Caleb was reminded of “The Dark Place” in Duo’s playhouse, but when he held up his hand close to his face, he was relieved. He could see its outline, just barely, and as his eyes adjusted, more details became clear, though it was all still shadowed and obscure.
Caleb had a list he went through in times like these. That list had, for a long time, been a hypothetical, a sort of “what do I do if I’m unconscious and wake up somewhere I don’t recognize?”
He had a vivid imagination for worst-case scenarios.
First, he listened.
All was dark, all seemed quiet, and Caleb didn’t know where he was. He couldn’t just leap to movement when he couldn’t see all of the walls around him. There was no immediately apparent danger.
So he listened.
At first, this dark place seemed completely silent, save for Caleb’s slow, quiet breaths. But he kept on listening, and slowly he noticed a few details.
One: there were very faint sounds that didn’t follow a rhythm or pattern. A scrape here, a thump there, these noises were almost imperceptible, and they came in many different tones, types, and intervals. They were too faint to truly discern, but Caleb thought that some of them were footsteps.
Two: there was a steady undercurrent, a thrumming of some sort. Faint, but the more Caleb listened, the more it became apparent. It gave him the impression of machinery at first – like some giant mechanism of gears and pistons constantly in motion. But the more he listened, the most that didn’t sound quite right. He couldn’t put his finger on it.
With how everything sounds, I must be in an enclosed space. If there’s a door or windows, they aren’t even the slightest bit open. Yet I can breathe just fine, so it isn’t airtight.
Everything feels like stone so far, so I’m probably still in the Underground – or deeper below that.
Listening had yielded slight clues, but the things he didn’t hear gave him hope. There were no other breaths, no other sounds within the space he found himself in.
He was alone. And while he’d rather be with his friends, right now alone seemed a lot better than in a dark, unfamiliar place with someone.
Next: how’s my condition?
Caleb didn’t move at first, just taking stock of his feelings and perceptions mentally. Nothing hurt, nothing throbbed, nothing stung. When he did start moving, everything moved as it should. Though he felt rather stiff, he wasn’t injured or wounded.
Or restrained. It seems like I’m probably a captive somewhere, but… why are my limbs free? You’d think I’d be chained to something, or at least have my hands or feet bound.
Caleb shoved his hand into his pocket in a panic. And that’s when he knew he was truly in danger.
His pocket watch was gone.
That makes things incredibly clear. Anastasia and Chase somehow succeeded in capturing me.
Which means they wanted me alive, so… that’s something. But it also means I’m a prisoner, and I don’t know where.
Did they get anyone else? Are Chelsea and the others in similar isolated cells?
That seemed unlikely. Caleb could remember how the battle was going, and there were very strange details about it. The mages who attacked focused their efforts on everyone but Caleb – and they attacked to kill. Meanwhile, Chase and Anastasia had solely focused their efforts on Caleb, as if the rest of his team hadn’t existed.
Though if they’d only wanted to take him alive, Chase probably wouldn’t have started dropping lightning bolts in such a small space.
But they ended up taking me alive, anyway.
Did Chelsea and the others get away? Or were they…
Caleb couldn’t even bring himself to think of the alternative to them escaping or being captured.
They’re fine. Which means I need to figure out how to get out of here.
Caleb sighed, but then steeled himself. For now, he was alone. He wouldn’t stay that way – if they wanted him alive, they’d need to have someone bring him food and water.
I need to be ready for when that happens.
Caleb stood, stretching his stiff joints, and then started walking around the room, feeling his way along the wall. It was curved inward, and turned sharply, making it clear before Caleb finished his circuit that he was in a very small circular chamber. He found a metal door across from where he’d awoken, but push or pull, it wouldn’t so much as budge. Reaching up, he found a low ceiling, and doing a few more laps around the chamber feeling all over the place, he didn’t find any windows or other exits. There was a small grate about the size of his fist in the center of the ceiling. A faint breeze wafted through, cool and dry.
Only one way out, then. I’ll have to wait for someone to open that door.
When they do…
What the heck do I do?
With his Talisman, Caleb could just enter Time-state and slip past whoever was there. Or even right now, he could just Phase Step, ignoring the door and walls entirely.
But without any magic…
Caleb managed a slight smile.
I’m not as helpless as I used to be.
He had several options, thanks to Mister Midnight’s training. He’d still be at a huge disadvantage against an enemy mage, but with the element of surprise, he’d have a chance.
So now, I wait.
Caleb spent more time examining the chamber and taking stock of everything he had available to him. Slowly, he formulated a plan.
And then he waited.
It was several hours before Caleb was alerted to approaching footsteps. He steeled himself, swiftly going over his plan and its several contingencies if things didn’t follow his ideal outcome.
Here we go.
The door opened, swinging outward.
Light flooded into the room, dull grey rays that shot past Caleb’s hiding spot against the edge of the doorway.
But no one entered.
Still Caleb waited. He’d heard footsteps approach. But he’d heard nothing else since the door opened.
Which meant that person was still there.
Tense seconds stretched on like hours. Caleb barely dared to breathe, staying as still and silent as possible, all senses on highest alert.
They would enter at any moment. Or they’d rush away to report that Caleb wasn’t in his cell.
They wouldn’t just wait for him to make a move, would they?
A sudden exhale outside the door sent a shudder of anticipation through Caleb. He waited. Surely they’d make another noise, or some movement.
They did. One foot slowly dragged across the stone floor.
Whoever was outside had anticipated Caleb’s moves. They couldn’t see him by the light from the hall. The chamber was small, so there was really only one option.
Caleb hadn’t escaped. He was waiting just inside, on one side of the door.
So? Which side will you choose? Which side do you think I’m on?
Another foot dragged slowly forward. Thanks to Mister Midnight’s training, Caleb had an idea of what that type of careful movement meant.
They’re maintaining a combat stance with every movement forward.
Though if that’s what they’re doing, it means they don’t have the kind of magic that could flood me out of here. If they have large area attacks, it’s the type of magic that could potentially kill me, and they want me alive.
So what type of magic will they use? If they’re sticking to a combat stance, then probably Confrontation. If they spring Containment Magic on me, I’ll have nothing to do.
Caleb listened as the one outside came the slightest bit closer. A shadow loomed in the grey light.
Hooded and cloaked. So they’re just a grunt.
Another slow movement forward.
Caleb steeled himself. It was time to act.
To his right, his cellphone lit up. A silent alarm.
That slight added light caught the grunt’s attention. They entered, spinning into a kick towards the right side of the doorway.
Caleb wasn’t there.
With his opponent’s back to him, Caleb sprang into action. He spun into his own kick, his heel connecting with the side of his would-be attacker’s knee. A slight popping sound, and the way the grunt’s leg collapsed beneath him, showed Caleb had struck true. As the grunt moaned in pain, Caleb clamped a hand over his mouth, and then quickly stabbed with two fingers into one of the pressure points Mister Midnight had taught him.
The grunt collapsed into unconsciousness.
Caleb waited for two beats, and then stepped cautiously out of the cell, checking both directions.
He didn’t see anyone else. But what he did see left him stunned.
He hadn’t left his cell into what he’d expected – some sort of prison with straight hallways and lines of other cells. No, this place was…
Caleb’s cell was part of a narrow stone tower that shot up hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of feet above, vanishing into a hazy mist. While Caleb stood on a metal walkway, just a few feet to his right and left the walkway gave way to empty air, and a drop of tens of thousands of feet into a hazy mist far below.
All around were more of those stone towers, smooth and grey, coming up from somewhere beneath the mist below, and vanishing into somewhere in the mist above.
There were hundreds of towers. Caleb’s walkway was one of many, each about fifteen feet above or below the next, branching off to the sides in a web of metal, joining to hundreds of towers, out and out, to misty boundaries that obscured any actual boundaries to the vast, hazy prison of towers.
The grey light gave a sense of muted quietude, a dampening pressure that made Caleb feel unsettled.
And then Caleb swayed, placing his hand against the open metal door for balance. Nausea ran through him and then vanished. Caleb’s eyes flicked to the unconscious form of his would-be attacker, and he shuddered.
It’s one thing practicing moves like that against dummies, or going over the theory with Mister Midnight.
I’ve never fought someone with my bare hands before, not outside of Mister Midnight’s training. I’ve never knocked someone unconscious with my own hands and feet before.
He isn’t dead, and I didn’t cause any long-lasting damage.
Caleb shuddered, averting his gaze as he stepped back into the cell and retrieved his phone. He checked one more time and, seeing that he still didn’t have any service in this unreal prison, tucked it into his pocket.
Feeling very uncomfortable about doing so, Caleb went about the ugly process of checking the unconscious Shadow for keys or some other clue of how to get around this place.
But try as he might, Caleb didn’t find any key, or a facsimile thereof.
Puzzled, Caleb stepped out of the cell and examined the door. There were no signs of silver tracery that would denote a magical code be entered. The door was flat and featureless, and though Caleb couldn’t know for certain even with his Talisman since he couldn’t use any Divination Magic, the way it felt and sounded and looked said to Caleb that this door wasn’t the least bit magical.
He swung it closed, and heard a click as if it locked. Pulling on it from outside, the door swung open easily.
Oh, I get it.
The doors are designed so they can only be opened from the outside. Clever. No need for keys, and no way to open from the inside. And as long as they take away their prisoners’ Talismans, there’s no danger of magic being used to break out.
Now came the next step, which was much more difficult than Caleb had originally expected.
He had to figure out how to get out of here.
I heard regular sounds from inside, so other guards will be by eventually – sooner rather than later, I’d guess. Though with how open this place is, I should be able to see them from a long ways off.
Which means I need to take special care that they don’t see me.
As Caleb stood thinking, he heard that steady thrumming below him. It was only the slightest bit more noticeable than it had been within his cell. But looking down, all he could see were walkways and towers, eventually fading away into mist.
What’s down there?
Spying movement ahead of him, Caleb closed the door to his cell, slipping around the side of the tower where he’d been confined.
Getting free is great and all, but forget even getting out of here…
Where do I even start?
Every tower looked the same. The metal walkways traveled in such strange patterns that it would be easy for Caleb to walk in circles and not even know it.
Wasn’t there anything that could help him get his bearings?
And what in the world was that thrumming sound coming from below?
Maybe I should just head down. Even though heading up makes sense, since I’m probably still – as weird as it seems – underground…
I’m pretty sure Mister Midnight said something about this. Something like “Your curiosity is one of your greatest traits. It’s also likely to get you killed if you keep giving into it without thinking.”
Considering that happy warning, I should try going up, not down.
So, naturally, when Caleb saw a staircase, he took it down to the next level.
Information’s a good thing. If I can get out of here, great. If I can get out of here with information about our enemies to share with my team, that’s much better.
It’s not curiosity. It’s pragmatism. Strategy.
And, well, maybe a little bit of curiosity.
Just a little.
Caleb ducked here and there around the slim towers as he saw cloaked Shadows walk to and fro. They never spoke to each other, and even if they managed to pass by each other on the same walkway, they never so much as acknowledged each other’s presence.
It’s all business down here.
Caleb descended ten more levels, but still thousands of feet – and hundreds of levels – remained between him and the mist below. And that was just the mist. Stairs continued to descend into that hazy fog, so Caleb had no idea just how much deeper this prison went.
Maybe it just goes on forever. Magic is crazy, and I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of magic being worked on that kind of scale, but…
After the things I’ve seen, I’m fairly confident that anything’s possible.
Yet as Caleb descended, the thrumming from below grew louder. It was still no more than faint background noise, but with Caleb aware of it, he noticed the slightest changes in its volume.
On and on it droned, never changing in tone or pitch. All it did was get the tiniest bit louder as Caleb descended.
He was getting closer, however slowly. And the closer he got, the farther he descended, the more he was unwilling to turn back.
A few times, Caleb stopped at the doors to other cells in other towers. He could probably open any of them, if they were all like his cell.
But who would he find? How many people were imprisoned in here, and why, and who were they? If he started freeing one, how could he justify stopping there?
Let’s go to the bottom, first. Find out what I can, and maybe find some clue as to where they took my Talisman.
If I can, I’ll try freeing people. But…
You really never know who you’ll get when freeing prisoners. And while I was wrongly imprisoned, and the Shadows are really bad people…
Caleb tilted his head back, staring up at the towers, at what must be hundreds of thousands of cells.
If every cell holds a person right now, there’s bound to be some bad apples in the mix, right? Who knows who they’ve locked up in here? I can’t just go in blind and start a prison break.
Caleb found his heart sinking as he continued his descent.
Pragmatism is depressing.
After many hours of descending, evading detection, Caleb reached the fringes of the mist. He walked down into it, and it enveloped him on the stairs. He slowed – the stairs, like the walkways, didn’t have any guardrails, and he didn’t much like the idea of accidentally plummeting into a bottomless pit – carefully continuing his descent.
Here in the mist, he could barely see a thing.
And the thrumming was much louder.
There was nothing like this in Isla’s investigations. Even the central shaft, while totally crazy huge, didn’t have anything like this.
Where were they hiding this prison of towers?
And what on Earth am I going to find at the bottom?
Caleb stumbled slightly as the stairs leveled out onto a flat walkway. This one was different, feeling…
Well, it wasn’t the metal of above, but it wasn’t stone, either. What kind of material was this? Caleb knelt, running his hand along the surface. It was cool, and smooth, slightly wet to the touch. The air here, too, had gone from cool and dry to cool and damp, but that was somehow refreshing. Mist collected in droplets on Caleb’s clothes and skin, and matted his hair to his forehead.
Caleb stood, wondering how to proceed. He really couldn’t see anything at all down here, now. Even the silhouettes of towers had vanished. When he turned back the way he’d come, he couldn’t see even the faintest outline of the stairs.
It was as if he stood on an island in a vast, endless ocean. All around him was unknowable emptiness. One false step, and he’d be completely adrift, lost to the inexorable tide.
Caleb closed his eyes. Something was different here in the mist. Above, among the towers, it was sterile, dry, empty.
But here in the mist, there was life. There was motion, and a fullness that Caleb could only grasp with fleeting, intangible impulses.
There was magic here.
Caleb didn’t know how he could tell. He didn’t have his Talisman. He should just be a human, with dull perception of magic at best, and yet…
He could feel it. All around him, the air was alive, the mist was alive, the ground beneath his feet was alive with magic.
Chelsea said Gwen talked about magic like it was life itself, infused into everything. And Alexandra said that to be fully Fractured – fully disconnected from magic – would lead to a painful death.
Magic must be really thick down here, in a way that’s totally different from what humans know. We always talk about magic as if it’s this tool, an energy source to be harnessed, but otherwise, it’s nothing. It doesn’t even exist until we use it.
But that’s not right at all. I’ve been able to see it in the Enchanted Dominion. I’ve been able to hear about it.
Now I can really feel it.
A new sound joined the constant thrumming, and Caleb opened his eyes.
Like gentle waves flowing in and out against the beach, the mist before Caleb parted with a whoosh. The path before him was revealed, a path running along the strange white material beneath Caleb’s feet. He followed it, and the mist steadily parted ahead of him and closed back in behind him as he went.
He arrived at a new set of stairs, and down he went. These stairs went much farther and deeper than previous stairs, eventually looping back around to go the opposite direction as they descended.
When they stopped, Caleb wasn’t on a narrow walkway, but on a rounded platform that came to an end not far ahead of him, an elaborate, curving guardrail marking its edge. Caleb stepped up to the edge, placing his hands on the rail.
Before him, the mist parted, farther and farther. The thrumming grew much louder, and yet it wasn’t unpleasant. As the vastness beyond came into view, Caleb started to understand.
But starting to understand was a far cry from actual understanding. For the…
What is that?
The being before him defied explanation or description. At least, it seemed that way to him. It was just so… so huge. Caleb couldn’t conceive of words that could describe such enormity, and more incredible still…
It was alive.
The thrumming, the constant undercurrent Caleb had been hearing during his descent, was coming from this being. It was smooth, and white, and slowly expanded slightly, then contracted slightly.
Breathing. It’s breathing.
All along its white body were silver lines curving in complex patterns that seemed to have no pattern or order to them, but they were beautiful and captivating. On the large portion that Caleb could see, there were a few small holes, maybe the size of his fist, that seemed to emit a whisper of air whenever the creature contracted.
What… what is it? Why is it here, at the bottom of a prison? And why is it…
Caleb saw, then, that the creature also had massive white tendrils, snaking up from its body to connect to the bottoms of the prison towers with ends that expanded and opened into many-fingered hand-looking appendages. Those tendrils pulsed steadily, at a different rhythm than the creature’s breathing.
“Magnificent, isn’t she?” asked a voice. Caleb turned, and saw that next to him, standing at the rail, was a man.
Has he been here this whole time? How come I didn’t notice him?
The man was dressed in a white lab coat that, oddly enough, had golden buttons. His hands bore black gloves with a circular silver symbol on the backs of them. His thick auburn hair was combed back, with only a few strands hanging down on his forehead, and his eyes were obscured by narrow-framed glasses with lenses that seemed awfully fond of reflecting light. He turned to Caleb, and the reflective glare of his lenses vanished, revealing pale blue eyes that shone with an amused sort of light. A small smile crossed his lips. “Hello, Caleb.”
“You know me?” Caleb asked.
The man continued to smile, looking back out at the creature. “There’s nary a mage in Grimoire who doesn’t know of you,” he said. “Though we haven’t met, if that’s what you mean.” He glanced over at Caleb, and then back out at the creature. “If you wish to know my name, I won’t provide it. Though I do have a different name you can use: Doctor.”
“Doctor?” Caleb asked.
“Yes.” Doctor pushed up his glasses. “It’s what you might call a ‘code name.’ All of us – the high-ranking Shadows, the ‘inner circle,’ if you will – have one.”
“You’re with Blaise,” Caleb said, taking a step back. “What have you done to my friends?”
“Nothing,” Doctor said, his smile widening just a bit. “Out of all those who tried to attack our forces, only you were taken. Everyone else is alive and well, safe aboveground once more.”
“You only wanted me?” Caleb asked.
“Yes,” Doctor said. “It’s all rather complicated, but we can get into everything in time.” He glanced over at Caleb, then back out at the creature. “Now that you have one of the Shadows right before you, perfectly willing to talk, isn’t there something you’re dying to know?”
Caleb stared, still working through his shock. Slowly, he nodded. Doctor gestured with his hand, as if to say “ask away.” “Why are you doing this?” Caleb asked. “Why the attacks? Why the giant weapon in the shaft? Why the threats? Why do you seem prepared to destroy Grimoire?”
Doctor turned to Caleb, his eyes taking on a serious glint. He pushed up his glasses, and reflective light hid his eyes from view. “You misunderstand us. We aren’t trying to destroy Grimoire. We’re trying to save it.” He paused for a moment, and his small smile returned. “Didn’t you know? Grimoire is dying.”