Caleb leapt high, bounding up a staircase of Mobility discs. Chelsea and Lorelei stayed low, charging forward. Will and Gwen stayed back, launching their attacks from a distance.
The man in the street didn’t move. From above, Caleb couldn’t even see the man’s face thanks to the wide-brimmed hat he wore. But those strange box-shaped things strapped to his hips and back…
What the heck are they?
Caleb found out quickly. Fire and ice shot forward, and the man reached to take hold of the box at his left hip. He grabbed something and pulled, and the sound of metal sliding on metal, along with the pale reflective light that came with it, revealed the truth to Caleb.
He’s carrying swords. Tons of them, by the size of those boxes… maybe four or five each?
What the heck does a guy need with fifteen swords?
Fire and ice parted in a single slash of the man’s long, thin blade. Silver thread came from Gwen, aiming to trap him, but two lightning-fast slashes tore the threads to tatters.
No. Not two. He couldn’t have done that much in two swings.
How fast is he?
When Energy Magic from Will pulsed around the man, Caleb entered Time-state, watching carefully with the assistance of slowed time.
The man slashed…
Caleb even had trouble counting the number of slashes in Time-state, the man was so incredibly fast. And he moved so economically, with small, calculated motions that conserved energy and took the fastest routes between the end of each slash and the start of the next.
In the span of mere seconds in Time-state – which would have been the tiniest fractions of seconds to everyone else – Caleb counted upwards of twenty sword strikes.
The man didn’t move his legs. His hips and shoulders barely moved as well. Nearly all of his movement was through his wrist and elbow.
If he were to use his whole body, with the kind of strength he’d need to move that fast…
How deadly would he be?
Caleb launched a cluster of shining chains at the man from all directions, and watched in awe as the man’s sword moved in the perfect arc to move as little as possible while slicing through and repelling every single chain in an instant.
Caleb exited Time-state, leaping down to land atop a low roof. Chelsea and Lorelei stepped back, and Will and Gwen watched carefully.
Caleb’s eyes shifted to the woman who was also here with the man. She hadn’t moved at all, and the shadows hid her face, save for slight reflections now and then which revealed one detail.
She was smiling.
“You shouldn’t push your luck,” the man said, sheathing his sword slowly, in a manner that struck Caleb as reverent. “I’m not the kind of foe you should ever take lightly. And though all of you are important, and should be spared, I am neither merciful nor skilled enough to hold back my strength. Stay where you are, and wait for further instructions.”
“As if,” Chelsea said, glaring at the man. “Who the heck are you, anyway?”
“The Master dubbed me Stride,” the man said, raising a hand and tipping his hat ever so slightly.
“And you?” Chelsea asked, looking at the woman.
The woman reached down, pinching up the edge of her long dress, and gave an elegant curtsy. “The Master has dubbed me Sieglinde,” she said, her voice melodious and bright. She stepped into the light, revealing a soft, beautiful face with startlingly bright blue eyes, framed by a cascade of blonde curls. “I am here to assist Stride in ensuring you do not escape.”
Probably means she has some way to cut us off from running. Stride is confident he can beat us in combat, but if we ran, could he keep up with us?
Stride to defeat us in combat. Sieglinde to cut off our escape.
If only we knew more about their powers. It’s fair to guess that Stride’s swords are imbued with Enchantment Magic, and if he has that many, they might each have their own individual and unique properties and purposes. Couple that with – I assume – some combination of Enhancement and Confrontation Magic, and he’s far too deadly in close-quarters combat.
So what about Sieglinde? What does she do?
Caleb chanced the slightest, subtlest glance skyward. Chelsea’s owl Summon was still the faintest pinprick in the night sky above.
Chelsea noticed, too. We can’t just push through them with force. We need to figure out who they are, what they can do, and how we can win.
“Well, your master must be an idiot,” Chelsea said, laughing. “Two against five is hardly a fair fight.”
“Certainly not,” Stride said. “You should have triple your number.”
“The Master is far from stupid,” Sieglinde said. “You would do well not to underestimate your foes, young lady.”
Stride tilted his head upwards, his one good eye peering out from under the wide brim of his hat to stare at Caleb.
What the heck is this?
He looks so relaxed, so casual, but when he locks his gaze onto me, it’s like…
He has such a presence. He says far more without words than he does with them.
Caleb leapt down from his rooftop perch and rejoined his friends.
“Cold Snap?” Lorelei asked in the faintest of whispers.
Chelsea groaned. “Please, no,” she answered. “You know I hate it, and after what happened in the Library, I don’t think you should risk it again so soon.”
“And we don’t know just how strong they are,” Will said, his eyes fixed on Stride and Sieglinde.
Chelsea nodded. “See? We can’t just whip out our last-resort attacks when we don’t know anything about who we’re fighting.”
“Stride, aren’t they interesting?” Sieglinde asked. “They think that they can strategize a way out of this.”
“They can talk all they like,” Stride said. “I’m patient.”
Will pulled out his phone, typed out a short message and showed it to the others, who huddled close so that their foes couldn’t see it:
Isla still hasn’t come back. Chances are if we hold out long enough, help will come to us.
“That might not be too difficult,” Gwen said. “They don’t seem keen on fighting unless they have to.”
“But if we don’t know enough about them, anyone who comes to help us will get caught in the same trap,” Lorelei said. “We need to fight, without getting ourselves seriously injured or killed.”
“I doubt we can get Stride to use all of his swords,” Chelsea said. “He cut through everything we threw at him with no effort at all just using one.”
Caleb’s first thought went to his Phase Step. He knew now that he could take passengers, and that they were weightless when he Phase Stepped, so it wouldn’t be at all difficult to bring four with him.
But how much can I use it? Does taking passengers put more of a strain on me?
I’m going to need my Phase Step for the end of this, when it’s time to disarm the weapon. It would be safest to not use it at all until then.
And then there’s the fact that Stride and Sieglinde knew exactly where we were. How did they find us? How can we guarantee they won’t find us again if we disappear?
It’s like Chelsea said. We can’t just go using our last-resort abilities when we don’t know for sure what we’re up against.
Perhaps I could use the…
No. Stride’s too fast and too perceptive. He’ll see right through it.
See right through…
That might work. Though it’s my weakest Step. I don’t know if I can use it effectively.
“Are you learning anything in daydream land?” Chelsea asked, waving a hand in front of Caleb’s face.
“I have a little bit of an idea,” he replied. “I don’t know how well it’ll work, but if it does, I might be able to offset Stride’s speed and give Lorelei and Gwen a chance to lock him down so he can’t fight.”
“Ah, what the heck?” Chelsea asked, turning to face Stride and Sieglinde. “Might as well try it, right?”
“Watch carefully,” Caleb said to Gwen and Lorelei. “Once you see something stop his arms, you need to act immediately to lock him down.”
Lorelei and Gwen nodded. “If this works,” Caleb continued, addressing the entire group, “then we make a run for it immediately. That’ll help us see what Sieglinde can do.” Nods all around, and Caleb turned to face Stride. He took a deep breath.
I’ve never tried this outside of training. And I sucked at it in training.
But seeing Mister Midnight use it against Valgwyn gave me a glimpse of how useful it can be. And Valgwyn was similar to Stride – he seemed to be able to see right through what his foes would do, and he was so fast.
Okay. Let’s give it a shot.
Caleb darted forward, taking several quick steps before entering Time-state. Even so, when he did slow down time, he saw that Stride hadn’t moved a muscle.
He’s really perceptive! So then… what if I try this?
Caleb sent two weighted attack chains surging out of the ground slightly behind Stride to strike him. And yet, even with time slowed to a crawl… even with no way for Stride to see the chains moving towards him…
Stride reacted. Caleb was almost too slow to keep up with the swordsman, but as the man’s arm blurred as he drew his sword, Caleb stepped sideways.
He used the Precog Step.
Step laterally into the River of Time. Take a peek into the future, and see what your foe will do next.
Caleb’s world was suddenly streaked with blue, that telltale blue of the River of Time. At once, he saw two different images, blurring together so it was difficult for Caleb to differentiate between them.
One showed Stride in the present, moving swiftly to repel the chains Caleb had attacked him with.
The other was mere moments ahead, showing Stride’s attack in full, the arc he would take, the speed at which he would strike, the impact of his defensive slash.
It’s the same as in training. It’s so hard to see between the two, and even harder to see the future image clearly enough.
Streaks of blue shot across Caleb’s vision like sapphire stars, and he found it even harder to see. The two images of Stride seemed inseparable from each other, one and the same, and Caleb found himself struggling to understand which was which. In his confusion, Caleb found the words of his teacher filling his mind.
“The future is always in motion. Stay too long in a single Precog Step, and the future will slip through your fingers.”
“Focus! Don’t lose sight of the present!”
“Discern what you need to know quickly, and act decisively.”
Caleb grabbed hold of one image in his mind, and then stepped back into normal Time-state. Chains struck out, adhesive Mobility discs formed in the air, and Caleb watched as Stride’s sword arm was caught, and his free arm was caught, and his slashing stroke was stopped.
Caleb exited Time-state, gasping at a sudden pressure in his chest. Glowing blue ice surged into being, and silver thread glittered with moonlight as it flew forward.
Stride was utterly captured.
“Let’s go!” Caleb cried, racing towards a side street closest to his friends. They all ran with him, making for their exit, though Caleb thought they were all holding a collective breath.
Waiting to see what Sieglinde would do.
Dazzling golden light burst into being before them, and the side street was suddenly completely blocked off by gleaming, golden branches that ended in glittering golden leaves.
But where’s the rest of the tree?
There was no trunk, nor roots, only a cluster of branches, jutting up out of the ground, twining with each other and splaying out to form a complete barricade against the exit.
Chelsea raised her lighter, but Sieglinde spoke in her clear voice: “I wouldn’t touch Yggdrasil if I were you. Ratatosk is very possessive, and he isn’t entirely under my control. You wouldn’t want to suffer his bite.”
As if cued by her words, a sudden vicious chattering filled the air. Caleb looked up, and laid eyes on the largest, fiercest, ugliest squirrel he’d ever imagined. The beast was bronze against the tree’s gold, and clung to the branches, glaring down at Caleb and his team. Its fluffy tail flicked back and forth, its nose wrinkled in displeasure, and bits of spittle flew from its mouth as it gnashed its vicious teeth.
“We’re being stopped by tree branches and a giant squirrel?” Chelsea asked.
“Fight the squirrel if you want,” Lorelei said. “I’ll stand back and watch.”
“Are they both Summons?” Caleb asked, stepping back from the tree and the squirrel. Both had that slightly fuzzy texture to them, and both were completely monochromatic, two telltale signs of a Summon.
But a tree Summon? Caleb had never heard of such a thing.
“Very perceptive,” Sieglinde said.
“Let’s just try a different route, then,” Chelsea said softly, leaping up to the rooftop, making to go up and around the branches.
Dazzling golden light burst into the darkness, and more branches surged up and out of the rooftops, connecting with the first set of branches. Chelsea swayed at the edge of the roof, with nowhere to go.
“There’s a gap!” Caleb said, leaping up beside Chelsea, making to go through a small opening between the branches with her.
“I wouldn’t risk that if I were you,” Sieglinde called out. “Where there aren’t branches, you might face the roots. And while darling Ratatosk rules the branches, an even more dangerous creature rules the roots.”
“Speak plainly!” Chelsea shouted, glaring at the tantalizing gap through the branches.
Caleb’s mind was racing. Yggdrasil… Ratatosk…
He knew those words, if only faintly. He’d had a brief phase of fascination with Norse mythology in high school. When Sieglinde warned about the roots, that’s when he felt a shock of fear shoot through him.
The roots of Yggdrasil…
What rules the roots?
It’s on the tip of my tongue, but I –
“I’m sick of being told to be afraid,” Chelsea muttered. She dashed forward, and Caleb reached out to stop her.
As soon as Chelsea’s foot touched a roof tile beneath the branches, new lights burst into being, and these lights came with a world-shaking roar that rocked Caleb to his knees. Silver streaks danced through the air, and up from the roof surged a serpentine beast that left Caleb gaping in both fear and fascination.
“This is Nidhogg,” Sieglinde said. “I did warn you.”
Nidhogg, the silver serpentine dragon, rose up into the sky.
Caleb couldn’t stop gaping. Ratatosk was gigantic, especially for a squirrel, but he was completely dwarfed next to the silver dragon whose wrath had been awoken. Tall beyond reckoning, Nidhogg had a thick, powerful body, mouth filled with rows and rows of sharp fangs, and twelve sets of wings along his length.
And he was turning his massive face, and all those teeth, on Caleb and Chelsea.
“Nidhogg, I do need these young ones alive,” Sieglinde called out. “Please, this once, don’t be angry.”
The dragon didn’t heed Sieglinde’s plea. He surged downward, diving towards the one who had triggered his rising.
Caleb shook off his fear and awe. Clutching his pocket watch tightly, he lunged forward, grabbed Chelsea, and stepped into Time-state.
The instant he did, he felt a shudder course through his entire body. He gritted his teeth against it, leaping backwards off the roof with the aid of a springboard Mobility disc, and exited Time-state while still shooting through the air.
While Caleb and Chelsea flew, the silver dragon tore into the roof, chomping off half of the store it had sprung from in a single bite.
“Well, that was close,” Chelsea said, clinging to Caleb. “Hey, you’ve never taken me flying before.”
Caleb laughed as he caught himself on another disc, bouncing himself back down to the street. He set Chelsea down gently. “Let’s do it again when we aren’t fighting for our lives,” he said.
Chelsea nodded. “Still…” she started, looking over to Sieglinde with pursed lips. “Honestly, you can’t even control your Summons? That’s dangerous, you know!”
“I did warn you,” Sieglinde replied. “And they wouldn’t live up to their namesakes if they followed my every command.”
“Sieglinde,” Stride said, a hint of annoyance in his voice. “Do you think you could break me out of this?” He was still frozen and bound, and he raised an eyebrow as he looked towards his comrade.
“You can break yourself out,” Sieglinde said, placing her hands on her hips. “What’s taking so long?”
Stride sighed. “Just like they don’t want to show all of their cards too early, I don’t want them to know everything I can do right away.”
“Oh, what can they do about it?” Sieglinde asked, waving a hand. “Seeing might frighten them into cooperating, if Nidhogg didn’t already accomplish that.”
Caleb noticed that Nidhogg had vanished, ostensibly returning to the roots of Yggdrasil. Ratatosk continued to chatter angrily, hopping from branch to branch, glaring at Caleb and his friends.
“And here I thought we were partners,” Stride said with a sigh. The ice covering over the boxy multi-sheath on his back shattered, and two swords flew out, seeming to move through the air of their own volition. One had a gleaming golden chain dangling from its hilt, while the other had a blade the color of blood. Both spun, slicing into the ice and bonds holding Stride in place, tearing them to pieces and setting the swordsman free. Their job done, both swords flew upwards and then thrust down, sheathing themselves in the box on Stride’s back.
Okay. He can control some – maybe even all – of his swords with Manipulation Magic. He doesn’t even need to touch them.
He hasn’t even shown us a fraction of his power, has he?
Then the same probably goes for Sieglinde. Yggdrasil’s a gigantic tree, and we’ve only seen its branches. We haven’t seen the trunk, or the roots, or even all of Nidhogg’s body.
“They look more interested in cooperating, now,” Stride said, one hand resting on the boxy multi-sheath at his right hip. “Good.”
Caleb and his team had made some progress. They’d learned more about their foes, their abilities, and what they were up against.
But that knowledge only left Caleb even less certain that this was a fight they could win.