Caleb was sweating, despite the frigid air.
In numbers, he and his team should have their foes beat, five to two. And Caleb, Chelsea, Lorelei, Gwen, and Will were no slouches in combat, either. Four of them had fought in the battle for the Library of Solitude, facing foes likely no other mage in Grimoire had ever seen. Four of them were skilled Hunters, defending Grimoire from danger nearly every single night.
We’re completely outclassed here.
Caleb knew it seemed strange to think of other mages as “superhuman.” All mages were, with their incredible abilities born of magic.
But the gulf between Caleb’s team and the duo of Stride and Sieglinde was something Caleb couldn’t fathom.
We threw everything we had at Stride right at the start, and he was left untouched. Even when we managed to tie him down, he cut his way free, able to control those swords with his mind and not just his hands.
And then there’s Sieglinde, and her trio of incredible Summons. How does she have a giant tree as a Summon? How does that work? How can it only show parts of itself while hiding the rest? And Nidhogg… what a dragon.
How are they so massive, though? Summons generally start small and grow with age – though there are exceptions, like Shana and Isla, who choose to keep their Summons small, I’ve never heard of any sort of accelerated growth.
So then how…
“They seem to be cooperating,” Sieglinde said, brushing some of her auburn curls out of her face.
“Finally,” Stride said, each hand on a different sword hilt, ready to draw at a moment’s notice. “Though it’s slightly disappointing, it’s better this way.”
“Oh, you’re always looking for a fight,” Sieglinde said, smiling. “You really should see the appeal of a peaceful life.”
“Everyone has their purpose,” Stride said.
Lorelei brought their group together, staying close while keeping their eyes on their foes. She spoke in a soft voice so that she wouldn’t be overheard. “I think we should focus our efforts on Sieglinde.”
“Oh yeah, let’s slay a dragon that could probably gobble up the whole city,” Chelsea said. “Seriously? She’s probably the more dangerous of the two.”
“But she’s a Summoner,” Lorelei said. “If we can get to her, she’d be defenseless. Figure out what her Talisman is, get it away from her, and she’s helpless. Then we can work on escaping.”
“If it’s about relieving one of them of their Talisman, why not Stride?” Gwen asked.
“Because of his fighting style,” Lorelei said. “He’s an Armorer. Mages who use multiple Enchanted weapons like that generally have each weapon, as well as any tools or accessories linked to them, serve as a Talisman on their own. We’d have to get rid of every single one of his swords, and he’d probably still have a Talisman or two hidden to allow him to use Manipulation Magic to control his swords remotely.”
“And we won’t need to take Sieglinde’s Talisman away if we can get to her directly,” Will said. “We might be able to knock her unconscious.”
“And then our escape route is open,” Chelsea said.
“How do we do it?” Caleb asked, watching their foes carefully. The two were still amicably chatting, though they kept a close eye on Caleb and his team. “I can slow time and attack faster than anyone, but if we coordinate, that gives us a better chance of success.”
“Give us some kind of signal,” Lorelei said. “You charge, then send up a signal, and we attack then. Gwen and I can focus on locking her down, while you knock her out.”
“Will and I can deter Stride for at least a second or two if he tries to stop you,” Chelsea said.
“Probably,” Will added. “He’s fast. Faster than anyone I’ve ever seen.”
“Let’s give it a shot,” Caleb said. “All of us can fight from a distance, so we have a bit of a safety net. I’ll put up a Mobility disc as a signal, it’ll have a big ‘G’ in the center of it.”
“What’s the ‘G’ for?” Gwen asked.
Caleb grinned. “Grimoire.”
He turned and leapt forward, entering Time-state as he launched himself off of a Mobility disc, sending him hurtling towards Sieglinde. The ground rushed beneath him, the buildings blurred past around him…
But he didn’t attack.
I get it, now.
Caleb stopped two-thirds of the way to Sieglinde, bouncing himself up and back, landing right back where he started. He exited Time-state, letting out a sigh of relief as the tight pressure that had gripped his chest released him.
“What happened?” Chelsea asked.
“She’s not stupid enough for that kind of attack to work,” Caleb said. “I couldn’t see it until I slowed down time and got closer…”
Caleb explained what he’d seen. All around Sieglinde’s feet, in a tight circle around her, were faint pinpricks of golden light. They were so tiny and cleverly placed that Caleb couldn’t see them from back with his friends, even when he looked carefully.
“Roots of the tree?” Chelsea asked.
“Yggdrasil,” Caleb said, nodding. “Roots, branches, I don’t know which. But…” He looked around the wide street, at the many side streets and alleys leading off of it, and at the one street that Yggdrasil’s branches still blocked. The dark squirrel Ratatosk was nowhere to be seen. “We’ve only seen a few branches. We haven’t seen the trunk at all, or the roots where Nidhogg waits. If you think about it that way, then her giant Summon…”
Lorelei nodded, staring down at her feet. “It’s all around us,” she said, her voice taut. “Ready to spring up when needed, where needed, but otherwise… hidden.”
“We were trapped long before we ever realized it,” Gwen said, clutching her hands into fists.
“If that’s the case, I… I have one way to get us out of here,” Caleb said hesitantly.
“You sound awfully confident,” Chelsea said, fixing him with a penetrating look. “What’s the story?”
“I can take passengers when I Phase Step,” Caleb said. “I can take us all through walls, through buildings… if I’m fast enough, we could make five or six blocks in an instant. I doubt she’s got Yggdrasil out that far. There has to be some limit to it.”
“Just like there’s a limit to you,” Chelsea said, gripping Caleb’s arm. “Don’t do it. You’re already overdoing it with your Time Magic, as much as you try to hide it. And you need your Phase Step for the weapon in the shaft. Save your trump cards.”
“Maybe we can just wait it out?” Gwen suggested. “Eventually they’ll get bored or tired or impatient, make a slip in judgment, let their guard down. Then we strike or run.”
“The longer this goes on, the more likely they are to receive reinforcements,” Chelsea said.
“I doubt that,” Lorelei said. “If we’re right about the Crater hostage situation being partially a diversion for Blaise and his main Shadows to go do something even bigger, then Stride and Sieglinde are the only ones left behind. If anything, we’re the ones who’ll get backup.”
“So we just freaking wait,” Chelsea said, sighing heavily. She clicked one of her lighters, and a spark of emerald flame leapt to the ground, bursting to life and forming a warm fire in the middle of the street. “Might as well keep warm.”
“Considering the nature of Yggdrasil, hoping for reinforcements might not be a good idea,” Will said. “We don’t know how far it spreads. She might be able to sort of see and gather information from everywhere the tree touches, and if she can, she’ll know our allies are coming before we do.”
“Are you so sure about that?” asked a voice. Everyone in the group jumped, looking around, but they didn’t see the speaker anywhere.
“Where the heck are you, Isla?” Chelsea asked. “Stop playing games.”
“I’ve brought assistance,” Isla said, her disembodied voice carrying a flowing, ethereal tone. “They wish to inform you to make for Stellaria Boulevard. From there, you’ll be able to travel safely. Watch for the signal.”
“And what’s the signal?” Caleb asked. His eyes tracked across the Plaza, to Stellaria Boulevard. It was directly past Stride.
Isla chuckled. “Be prepared to fight. Good luck.”
“She’s so helpful,” Chelsea said, rolling her eyes. She held her hands out to her open fire in the street for a moment, and then readied her lighters, watching the street carefully. Caleb spun his pocket watch once by the chain, and it clinked softly as he caught it in his hand.
Many seconds passed, and Stride shifted his stance, his grip on his swords tightening, his one exposed eye wary.
A sudden burst of bright, white light shone from behind Caleb and his friends, and that was a blessing. Had they been turned the other direction, they likely would have been blinded, as Stride and Sieglinde appeared to be. Before the light had faded, a voice shouted out for Caleb and the others to run.
“Let’s go!” Chelsea called out, leading the way, Caleb racing alongside her. Blasts of sapphire light streaked through the air towards Stride and Sieglinde, shaped like diving falcons, whistling loudly as they passed. The ground before Stride and Sieglinde rose up in places, rippling like water as it reformed itself into a wall separating Blaise’s warriors from Caleb and his team.
But Yggdrasil had no boundaries. Golden branches burst into life all throughout the street, from walls of shops and roofs of houses. Gwen was struck by one such branch and was sent spinning through the air. Caleb bounced off a Mobility disc and caught her, carrying her to the ground.
“You okay?” he asked.
Gwen was already back on her feet, running after the others. “I’m fine, let’s go!” she shouted.
But more of the golden tree was surging to life all around them.
Their path was being blocked off.
Chelsea blasted the branches with fire, and they recoiled only slightly, springing back into place, seemingly undamaged. New branches burst into life right beneath Caleb’s feet, and he was tossed, buffeted, knocked this way and that, carried higher and higher into the sky. With the aid of an adhesive Mobility disc he caught his footing, sticking his feet to one branch that continued to rise. As he looked around to get his bearings, he heard a sudden, vicious chattering behind him.
Caleb turned, and saw the giant squirrel Ratatosk racing towards him through the constantly shifting and growing branches. The bronze squirrel looked even more massive this close, and Caleb realized it was easily more than twice his size, and its vicious fangs looked particularly deadly now.
Caleb leapt backwards, sending a spiraling barrage of gleaming white chains at the squirrel. Ratatosk roared – something Caleb didn’t know a squirrel could do – and darted around them with shocking speed for its size, using sharp claws and a long, bushy tail to maneuver deftly over, under, and around branches.
And each movement, though it was evading Caleb’s attacks, also brought it closer to Caleb.
Okay, new plan: just run.
Caleb turned and ran, leaping from his giant branch to another below him, stumbling as he landed. The branches were continuing to move, as if growing, twisting, and shrinking on demand, and it was hard to keep his footing. Ratatosk didn’t have such a problem, and was swiftly gaining on Caleb.
So Caleb took to the skies, leaping from one Mobility disc to another, trying to find a way out of the golden cage that was forming around him. It took him several seconds to even figure out where he was, and once he did, he was shocked. He was dozens of stories up in the air, higher than any building or hill in Grimoire, and the street where his friends were running and fighting was so far below him that people looked like specks. Chelsea’s fire and Lorelei’s ice looked like thin threads of green and blue weaving here and there.
We’re not making much progress here.
Caleb pivoted, intending to dive towards the street as fast as he could, but then came Ratatosk, bounding through the air, and Caleb’s heart skipped a beat as he caught sight of the leaping beast, its claws extended, its maw wide open.
Caleb shot towards the earth like a rocket, shooting chains and forming discs behind him by instinct rather than sight. Branches surged around him, their glittering golden light disorienting at the speeds Caleb was diving at. He used Mobility discs to adjust his trajectory, wincing as he bounced off of them with his arms and back and sides, not daring to stop and reorient himself with his legs.
Speed was of the essence here. Pain was a small price to pay for it.
Suddenly, the branches parted, and Caleb was in open air, with a better view of the unfolding battlefield.
Chelsea and Lorelei led the way to Stellaria Boulevard, with Gwen and Will close behind. They didn’t fight much, though Stride tried to reach them – the swordsman was blocked off by a tortoise Summon the size of a house, glittering a deep blue. Pulses of light flared into the space between Stride’s slashes and the Summon’s bulk, repelling the man’s attacks. When Stride tried to maneuver around the larger Summon, numerous smaller sea turtle Summons in every shade of blue imaginable flew through the air, darting at him and blasting back his attacks with Guardian Magic.
Caleb grinned. He knew those Summons and who they belonged to, and the sight of them made him feel immediately safe.
Ratatosk’s chattering rage was far behind now, and Caleb bounced himself forward, slowing as he drifted over his allies, descending in a smooth arc to finally hit the ground running alongside them.
“You okay?” Chelsea asked.
“Yeah,” Caleb said with a nod. He looked at Chelsea, and saw a thin line of blood along her cheek. “You?”
Chelsea grinned. “It feels good to be free,” she said.
They ran without stopping, going down many different streets on their southwestern journey, finally crossing Lunaria Bridge and arriving in Libra District. There, they saw Hagen and Mercedes Rook manning the bridge, and many other Guardians surrounding the place, putting up wards and watching for enemies. Tents and tables were set up, and dozens of Hunters ran here and there, carrying messages and coordinating with different leaders. Jacob Crowley stood at the center of it all, dark and imposing, his eyes fixed on a large map spread out over the central table. A pair of mages were with him, and they were conversing with him and forming faint, glowing forms along the map, representing the happenings within the city and the constantly changing nature of it all.
“Mister Crowley!” Caleb said, stopping with his group at the center table. “We’re here and ready to help in whatever way we can.”
Jacob looked up, nodded once, and then looked back down at his map of Grimoire. “The five of you should stick together as a team,” he said. “New girl – Gwen, is it? – you follow their lead, back them up as you see fit. I don’t know you or your abilities well enough, so I’ll trust you and your team to make the best use of you.” He let out a slow, steady breath. “The situation isn’t what I’d hoped, but we’re making due. Gather round, let me brief you.”
Jacob walked them through what had happened and was currently happening, showing it all on his map with the aid of the mages that showed people and events with moving, glowing figures.
It had all begun when Jacob, Callum, and Deirdre had brought all of their strength to bear against the Pipers in Crater District. But they hadn’t been able to do much. “We’d lost the fight before it ever began,” Jacob said. There were too many innocent bystanders who they couldn’t afford to bring to harm. It had been a short engagement, and then the Hunters and their allies had backed off, intending to return to the Hunter Building and make that their base of operations.
“They expected that,” Jacob said. “The man you just escaped from – Stride – was there, along with Sieglinde and two others. Just the four of them were enough to push us back, forcing us to rethink our strategy. All around the city, too, our Guardians were being targeted and picked off. Hagen, Mercedes, and Oscar helped round them up and pull them back, but the consequences are dire.”
“We don’t have any defenses against the Radiance,” Caleb said, his heart sinking as Jacob nodded.
“Libra District is fortified now,” Jacob said. “But we can’t afford to spread any further. They have strength and numbers beyond what we expected.” He lifted a hand, pinching the bridge of his nose. He shut his eyes. “So far it seems more than half of all my Hunters were actually working for Blaise and his Shadows. There are perhaps two dozen unaccounted for, so they’re either dead, on the run, or among the ranks of the enemy. We lucked out with Hagen and Mercedes.” He looked up, nodding towards the Heads of the Guardian Guild at the bridge. “Their entire Guild is pure, untainted by the Shadows. I don’t know how they managed it, but…” he sighed, “the Guardians are perfectly trustworthy, while the Hunters – even some of my Investigators – are not.”
“Who are all of these?” Caleb asked, pointing to different small groups roaming the city, mostly on the streets near Crater District.
“We’ve broken up Hunter groups into squads, as we always do,” Jacob said. “Four minimum, for safety’s sake. Most of them, I’ll caution you, are Hunters I’m unsure about. The most trustworthy are all here, coordinating our efforts and preparing for the real battle.”
“The real battle?” Chelsea asked.
“We don’t know where Blaise is,” Jacob said. “And his strongest Shadows – aside from Stride and Sieglinde – have also vanished. If they’re not at Crater District, then they have plans elsewhere. We need to know what, and where, and how to stop them. So far we have nothing. And the Radiance is expected to arrive in less than twenty-four hours.” He sighed, shaking his head. “There are too many foes whose magic, fighting style, and strength we know next to nothing about. How Blaise hid his strongest fighters, I’ll never know.” He looked up at Caleb. “That notebook from your teacher has helped us, though. We know about every member of the Royal Guard, and many of the Enforcers. So at least we can prepare for that better than what we’ve faced so far.” He leaned back from the table, raking a hand through his hair. “This has been an utter disaster so far. Reiner, Frost, Greyson, Rook… I’m counting on you four. I don’t say it often, because you should be self-aware enough to know your strength and abilities, but… the four of you are some of the very best Grimoire has. I’m glad you’re on our side.”
“They made it back!” cried a voice. Caleb turned, and his heart lifted as he saw who was coming across the bridge. There was Isla, along with Oscar, Callum, and Deirdre. Isla looked perfectly fine, as she seemed to always look, and while Caleb’s parents and grandfather looked tired, they didn’t appear to be injured in any way, and they all smiled at the warm welcome they received.
“I hope we didn’t bother you five too much by saving you,” Callum said as he and his group joined Caleb and the others at the central table. “If we did, you can blame Isla. She’s the one who said you needed saving.”
“And we did,” Caleb said. “Thank you.”
“What happened to Stride and Sieglinde?” Lorelei asked.
“As far as we can tell, they didn’t try to follow us at all,” Deirdre said, adjusting her glasses. “Once you five were free, it was easy for us to follow. We took a different route just in case, but they went elsewhere.”
“And unfortunately, we don’t know where ‘elsewhere’ is,” Oscar said with a weary sigh.
“We might,” the mage to Jacob’s left, a middle-aged woman with long, thin fingers said as she tapped away on her phone. “Virgo Squad is following them at a distance. They’re heading northwest… ah.” She shook her head, looking up. “They lost them.”
“Where?” asked the mage to Jacob’s right, a young man with a thin, bony face.
“Just past the old watchtower, Taurus District,” the woman said. A ring on the man’s index finger glowed, and a pair of tiny gleaming figures appeared where the woman had indicated on the map.
“Well, we’ll keep a closer eye on that general area,” Jacob said. He checked his watch and sighed. “And it won’t be long before we need to contend with Hollow Hour, too. How we’ll protect the entire city, I don’t know.”
“At least we’ll get a run at it before the Radiance arrives,” Callum said. “As things currently stand, Hollows might be manageable, if only just.”
Suddenly, the eastern sky burst with brilliant golden light, so bright that the darkness of night became a distant memory. Everyone in the Libra District camp shielded their eyes against the glare, struggling to comprehend what was happening.
But Caleb already had a pretty good idea. And judging from the expressions he could see on the faces of those near him, he wasn’t the only one.
Slowly, the golden glare faded, until night had returned, and on the eastern edge of town was a shining golden pillar of light piercing the night in that small area.
“They can’t already be here,” Callum said in a hushed voice.
“What are they doing here already?” Jacob asked.
“I’m afraid that’s our fault!” came a voice from the bridge.
Dozens of mages were instantly on alert, surrounding the new arrivals. On Lunaria Bridge stood five strangers – three women and two men. Caleb stared at them, but he didn’t recognize them whatsoever.
The youngest of the group, a woman with dark brown curls and a soft, kind face stepped forward, holding both hands up innocently. “Please, we aren’t your foes,” she said. “Is Shana Greyson here? She can vouch for me.”
“Shana?” Caleb asked, rushing forward. “You know my sister?”
The woman stared at Caleb for a moment, and then slowly smiled. “Yes, I do,” she said. “Is she here?”
“No,” Caleb said. “But you’re…” he paused, and then came to a slow realization. To her right, a man with a golden sword at his hip and a gleaming shield on his back. To her left, a fierce-looking woman who carried a tall, golden bow. “Are you Hestia?”
“You know of me?” the kind-looking woman asked. She sighed in relief. “Oh, thank goodness. I was worried, we didn’t plan this out very well, and I wondered what might happen if Shana wasn’t here, but –”
“You’re one of the Radiance,” Gwen said, stepping forward. “One of the King’s Royal Guards. And you say you aren’t our enemy?” Her tone was sharp, and her eyes blazed with fury.
“I…” Hestia started, raising her hands slightly higher, her eyes pleading her innocence.
“Shana didn’t say any others helped her,” Caleb said, eyeing Hestia’s companions. “What happened? Tell us your story, and –” he glanced worriedly to the east, “make it quick, if you can.”
Hestia nodded. “Right. Mister Midnight and Maribelle came to the Radiant Palace not long ago,” she said. “They had come to fight the Gold Knight, for they had discovered some truth about her, a truth we didn’t know. But they ended up discovering more than they expected, chancing upon a series of Contracts drawn up by the Radiant King, each one intended for one of his Guardsmen or Enforcers, to bind us to him and enforce our loyalty through a magical Contract. When Mister Midnight and Maribelle brought this truth to light, some of us –” she indicated her companions, “decided that this was our final straw. We had all had our misgivings about the King and what he had made us do, but hearing what he had planned for us, that things could have been far worse… it was too much to bear. We aided Mister Midnight and Maribelle in their battle, and once they escaped, we worked our own insurgency attempt within the Palace.”
“It didn’t go as planned, as you can see,” said the man with the sword and shield. “We did some damage to the King’s forces – he’ll be operating with far fewer Enforcers than originally planned – but he also ended up accelerating the timeline.”
“We did that,” said the woman with the bow. “We were cornered, with nowhere left to turn except…” She sighed, looking around at the mages in the Libra camp. “Well, we already knew they planned on coming here, and we knew that you were preparing for them. So we thought…” She stopped, looking away.
“We thought we could join forces,” Hestia said hopefully. “We cannot defeat them alone, and neither can you. But together, we may stand a chance.”
“Why would we ever trust you?” Gwen asked.
“She helped Shana and Shias,” Caleb said. “And Mister Midnight and Maribelle too, from the sound of it.”
“She isn’t lying,” Deirdre said, two fingers lightly touching the frame of her glasses. “At least, not that I can tell.”
“And no one’s ever been able to hide a lie from this one,” Callum said proudly.
Gwen sighed, turning away and walking deeper into the camp. Chelsea and Lorelei followed.
“We’ve had our share of traitors,” Jacob said, striding forward, eyeing the five former members of the Radiance’s Royal Guard with his dark, intimidating stare. “If you cross us, or even seem to intend to cross us, in any way, I will not hesitate to cut you down myself.”
Hestia gulped, nodding. “We won’t betray you!” she said. “We betrayed the King, but only because he betrayed the faith we’d placed in him. We’ve never betrayed our ideals, our morals, our hopes. And we never will.”
Jacob stared them down for many long seconds. No one spoke.
Finally, Jacob turned on his heel, his long coat flapping around him like a cape. “Very well,” he said. “Welcome to the Grimoire Guard.”