Caleb shot high into the sky. As he slowed, and finally stopped, he hovered in the air for a moment, looking far down to the beginnings of the battle in front of Greyson Manor. As he began to fall, he stopped on a Mobility disc, gleaming white in the sky. He knelt, looking down at the beautiful bursts of emerald and scarlet that filled the street in front of his old home. Not too far from that he saw the brilliant blue falcons, Energy Magic streaking through the air, that marked his dad in combat. And alongside him the ground and walls of nearby buildings shifted and molded into new shapes, his mom’s Manipulation Magic at work.
At the front gates of Greyson Manor, a massive tortoise Summon rose up, its bright blue glow illuminating Oscar behind it, both hands on his cane, standing like the “Iron Wall” that had been his nickname as the Head of the Guardian Guild.
Bursts of shimmering, reflective blue light rose and fell here and there to meet blasts of scarlet fire, showing Lorelei fighting alongside Chelsea. Glowing words traced in the air, and occasionally illuminated Gwen as well, showing she and Will were guarding Chelsea and Lorelei’s backs.
But Caleb only saw all of that for a brief moment. His focus was on the dark corners and shadows that were only lit now and then by flashes of color.
I know you’re there somewhere, Neith. And your giant spider Summon, too. Those webs had to be yours, and I heard your voice.
But you couldn’t have arrived much more before we did, or you’d have done more than create that web. We wouldn’t be able to fight to defend Greyson Manor – we’d be fighting to take it back.
So where are you?
Dark forms were visible in the streets and on rooftops, fighting the duo of Callum and Deirdre, or trying to break through Oscar’s stalwart defense.
But none of them are Neith. And…
I know Hestia said her group had been able to cut down on the number of the King’s Enforcers by three quarters, but I’m shocked to see it in person. If they’re going after Void, they’d send all their Enforcers, most likely.
So far, I only see… a half dozen? Oh, there’s a few more. Okay, so not quite ten.
Or it would be ten, if they added Void to their number, and if I could find Neith.
The slightest flash of deep purple light caught Caleb’s attention, and he flipped his Mobility disc upside down, pushing off of it into a swift dive. The frigid air rushed across his skin, flapped through his hair, and froze him to his core.
But he barely felt it. That was partly due to Midnight’s harsh training – Caleb could still hear his teacher’s voice barking out “It’s not cold if you don’t think about it!” and other rousing phrases of encouragement – but also due to the swelling feelings within Caleb. He brushed off the cold with the warmth of love for his family and friends and the burning determination to save his city.
Just a dozen feet from the rooftop where he’d seen the light, Caleb flipped so that his feet were oriented towards the ground, and used a trio of Mobility discs to slow his momentum and let him land softly on the rooftop. He stood up, a chill gust suddenly sweeping over him.
Before him was Neith. In the flashes of light from the street, Caleb could see she was smiling.
Her spider isn’t around. Which means I need to be ready for it – or its threads – at all times.
“I see you’re more suited to an open battlefield,” Neith said. “Maybe you’ll actually put up a fight this time around.”
“Turn back now,” Caleb said. “You won’t get to Void. Fighting here now is a waste of time for you and your King.”
“So noble,” Neith said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “But you may find we’re more resourceful than you expect. And besides –” she lifted a hand, brushing her hair out of her face, letting it toss in the wind as her expression turned serious, “I’m not leaving without freeing my brother.”
Caleb blinked, staring in shock. “Brother…?” he asked slowly.
Neith smirked. “Indeed,” she said. “You care so much about family. Surely you can understand.”
Caleb could understand. And internally, he was kicking himself.
Of course some of them would be related. But Mister Midnight didn’t write any of that in his notes. And…
Well, they’re my enemies. I have to fight them. But…
She’s trying to save her brother.
Caleb was so lost in his own thoughts that he didn’t notice the trouble he was in until he felt a slight pressure on his ankle. He instinctively stepped away…
Looking down, he realized his folly. Several strands of silver thread were wrapped around his right leg, locking it in place.
Caleb looked up, eyes widening. Neith was dashing towards him. And behind her loomed her massive spider Summon.
Chelsea’s eyes narrowed slightly as heat blasted her in the face.
But as she clicked her lighters again and again, she was smiling. Across from her, twenty yards away, her foe was grinning, too.
Flames roared between them. Explosions burst upward and outward. Heat filled the air, banishing the winter cold.
Chelsea wasn’t just smiling because of the thrill of battle, though. She was also smiling because she wasn’t fighting this alone. Beside her was Lorelei, constant and steady, covering the gaps in their defense and occasionally pushing an attack towards Ignis. Behind her were Will and Gwen, battling Enforcers, keeping Greyson Manor safe.
Occasionally, Lorelei stepped forward, waving her hand in an arc. The air misted and then crystallized, and thousands of tiny ice shards shot forward.
It was a new attack Lorelei had developed during their joint training sessions: Diamond Dust. And while Ignis’ fiery conflagrations could banish the ice storms easily, every time he was forced on the back foot, just for a little bit.
He’s much more powerful on offense than we are. But when we actually manage to press an attack, he struggles with defense.
Chelsea thought about her own new technique she’d developed during training. But something within her told her it wasn’t time yet.
“You need to warm up more.”
So said a voice in the back of her mind, and yet Chelsea didn’t flinch at the presence. It wasn’t like the ugly darkness that plagued her mind with evil thoughts and lies.
This voice felt like it had been with Chelsea for a lot longer. And it sounded, in a small way…
…like her mother.
So Chelsea kept fighting as she had been, blasting away at Ignis’ fiery onslaught, measuring the differences between herself and her opponent. Both used Fire Magic, but stylistically, they were different in many ways.
Ignis used fire that writhed and twisted, moving here and there, growing and shrinking as desired. It was like a living thing, and there was never not scarlet fire moving in the space between him and Chelsea, as if he never turned off the flow of his magic. Perhaps that was a reflection of the raw power difference between himself and Chelsea, but Chelsea didn’t think that was entirely the case.
She preferred quick blasts, fire that shot forward, hit its target, and then faded. Part of that, she knew, was trained. There wasn’t a Hollow she knew that required more than a blast or two to dispatch. Her quick-burst style also was effective as a disruptor, throwing groups of Hollows out of formation. And her precise accuracy came from fighting in the streets of Grimoire. Collateral damage was heavily frowned upon among Hunters, and those whose magic ran rampant could face serious disciplinary action.
Chelsea had known from the very beginning just how dangerous fire could be if it went out of control. For other Hunters, collateral damage was something to try to avoid as much as possible.
For Chelsea, it was absolutely forbidden.
One stray spark, one errant blast, and a single scorched roof tile could turn into an inferno that swept up an entire District.
All of Chelsea’s experience had developed her style. Her emerald blasts of fire came out in a wider variety of shapes and forms compared to Ignis’. Her flames were smaller, more contained, making the duel of the Fire Mages look like an army of smaller green soldiers battling against a massive scarlet dragon. Streaks of emerald slashed through the dragon’s skin like swords. Darts of green shot holes through the beast like arrows. Spiraling torrents, twisting pillars, and bursting plumes batted against fiery red, bolstered by shimmering blue walls of ice.
This was a team effort, and Chelsea was glad for it.
Seeing an opening, Chelsea fired several pinprick-thin darts of fire at Ignis’ face. He sidestepped them, smirking. “You think such tiny flames would harm a fellow Fire Mage?” he asked. The scarlet dragon surged, blocking its commander from view, and Chelsea and Lorelei fought back against it.
Another opening burst wide, and Chelsea fired a new dart, this time for Ignis’ feet. He sneered at it contemptuously, not even moving to dodge.
The dart struck the stones before Ignis’ toes, and rather than scorching a tiny hole in the street, it exploded forward, swallowing Ignis up in a cloud of roiling verdant fire.
Scarlet flames roared angrily, ripping apart the cloud, and Ignis was revealed to be mostly unscathed. Ends of his hair here and there were lightly singed, and his uniform was marked with soot, but he smiled, showing no signs of pain.
“You’re a crafty one,” he said. “I could learn from you.”
I’d rather you just lose.
The scarlet dragon roared, charging forward. Emerald flames and sapphire ice rose to meet it.
Caleb raised his pocket watch, its open face shining brilliant white. Chains burst from the air in a wide net around Neith and her spider Summon, but also shot straight from the watch’s face. Normal chains surged to grab, snare, and trap. Weighted attack chains shot forward faster, more direct, aiming to pummel Caleb’s targets into submission.
Neith ducked and sidestepped, occasionally raising an arm or spinning into a kick to knock aside the chains that came her way.
Right. She’s got some incredibly strong Enhancement Magic.
Still, when in their previous fight Neith had directly attacked and shattered Caleb’s chains, this time she was more mobile, dodging and weaving, striking at the chains from angles rather than head-on, deflecting rather than shattering.
And that’s a good sign that I’ve gotten a lot stronger.
Caleb formed an adhesive Mobility disc beneath Neith’s feet, but that only slowed her down for an instant. She pulled hard while a leg of her Summon slammed down, and the disc shattered.
Despite Caleb’s efforts, the distance between Neith and him closed quickly. That had started more than ten yards apart.
Now it was less than ten feet.
Neith leapt forward, spinning into a kick aimed at Caleb’s head.
The kick sailed over his head, and he rose, using some Enhancement Magic of his own as he struck Neith’s back leg with his palm. She was tossed, turned it into a flip, and landed lightly to Caleb’s right. Immediately, she attacked again.
I can’t move my right foot. But Mister Midnight trained me specifically for a fight like this.
Even though my strength is fighting at a distance…
For some reason, I feel really confident about this.
Neith kicked, and Caleb ducked. He came up, and blocked a punch with a Mobility disc shield attached to his arm, deflecting it high rather than take the full force of the attack. Caleb leaned this way and that, dodging even though his feet were glued. When attacks came low, he combined chains, Mobility discs, and Enhancement Magic to block and deflect, defending himself. And he managed to keep the spider Summon at bay with a constant barrage of chains from the air, pummeling and snaring the beast, particularly focusing on its large abdomen to keep it from spinning more thread.
But he wasn’t just on defense.
Caleb struck back with weighted attack chains, forming them behind Neith out of empty air to surprise her, but also flinging them straight at her from the pocket watch in his hand. Quickly, Neith took up a pattern. The chains that came at her from thin air she deflected, but the ones from his watch, after deflecting the first few, she only dodged. When one finally struck her, glancing against her shoulder, she reeled, leaping back.
“I see,” she said. “The chains that come directly from your Talisman are stronger than the ones you form away from it.”
I think she’s the first person to ever notice that.
Even if my secret’s out…
“And you learned a lot from our last fight,” Neith continued. “I underestimated you, Caleb Greyson. Then again… perhaps I shouldn’t underestimate a Greyson. They’re known to be quite surprising.”
Caleb stared at Neith, puzzled. He didn’t let himself become completely distracted, keeping up his attack on her spider, but he didn’t attack Neith herself for the moment. “What do you mean by that?” he asked.
Neith smirked. “I know a Greyson,” she said. “And he’s been a friend, an enemy, an enigma, a stranger, and something of a mentor, all at different times.” She paused for a moment, then shrugged. “Sometimes at the same time.”
“What’s his name?” Caleb asked.
A streak of silver light shot through the air, and Neith leapt away. Even then, the sleeve of her uniform ripped open, and blood scattered into the air. The silver streak of light flashed again, and Caleb’s bonds were torn, leaving his feet free. Leaping free, he blasted a series of chains at Neith. She dodged away from them, but she wasn’t just evading Caleb’s attacks now.
Gwen had leapt atop the roof, and was slashing and thrusting her silver needle-sword at Neith, forcing the Summoner back across the tiles. When a spider leg came crashing down, Gwen sidestepped it and slashed, slicing off a full four feet of the leg which was promptly swept away as dust in a gust of wind.
“How dare you?” Neith shouted, her eyes wide in rage. She charged, but Caleb was backing up Gwen from a distance, and Neith was soon forced back on the defensive. When another spider leg came down, missed, and was severed, Neith let loose a wordless cry of twisted wrath and anguish, holding high something in her hand that Caleb couldn’t make out – presumably her Talisman. Her spider Summon vanished, along with all of its silky threads. Neith leapt in a high backflip, narrowly evading Caleb’s chain attacks to land atop a chimney. Gwen paused, and so Caleb stopped his attack as well. But his mind was in motion, planning out his next chain placements if the battle resumed.
“You fight like a woman possessed,” Neith said, staring wide-eyed at Gwen. “Golden eyes… who are you?”
“You don’t need to know anything about me,” Gwen said, her voice taut. “But you should know my mother and father. Your king’s war killed them. And all of you will pay for it.”
Neith cocked her head to the side, and then nodded slowly. “I see. Another vengeful survivor from Sunset Square.” She lifted her eyes, looking beyond Gwen to the street between the house she stood upon and Greyson Manor. “And one who can follow through on her rage, at that. I don’t approve of what you’ve done to my comrades.”
“You will join them soon,” Gwen said, flicking her sword to the side. Drops of blood flew from its slim blade, speckling the roof tiles.
For a moment, all was quiet and still.
Then, as if on a shared cue, Neith, Gwen, and Caleb all leapt into action.
“Now is the time.”
Chelsea could feel it before the voice spoke to her. She was ready. She looked over to Lorelei, who nodded once. So was she. Lorelei stepped forward, thrusting out her hand…
Chelsea thought, for a moment, she’d seen a ghostly woman, the same color as Lorelei’s ice, stand as if she was surrounding Lorelei, thrusting out her hand with her. But then the woman was gone, as soon as she appeared. A massive wall of ice surged out of the ground, forcing back the raging scarlet fire of Ignis for the moment.
It’s my turn.
Chelsea stretched out her hands, and clicked each of her lighters five times in a steady rhythm. With each click, a small plume of flame burst forth, floated in the air, and then alighted on Chelsea’s wrist. After five clicks from each lighter, each of Chelsea’s hands were surrounded by flat, emerald shapes.
They were flower petals made of flame.
Chelsea took a deep breath, closed her eyes, then breathed out. She clicked each lighter one more time.
The flames spread, up her arms, over her head, her chest, her legs. But this was not the vicious, swift, raging fire that her blasts always were. This fire came slow, like a calm, warm embrace. When Chelsea opened her eyes, she was seeing the entire world in a flickering, emerald tint.
Taking hold of the nickname her mother had given her, and the experiences Chelsea had undergone on Hollow Island and in the Library of Solitude with her fire, she had carefully devised this new technique. Part of it was also inspired by watching her mother’s final moments, her beautiful, tragic battle against the shadow.
Her whole body was wreathed in flames, but she didn’t burn. Even her hair – having been a casualty of her fire once as a teenager – simply flowed as if she were underwater, unsinged, unscorched, untouched.
Lorelei’s ice wall came down, and the scarlet dragon charged forth. Its flaming maw opened wide.
Chelsea walked to meet it. Her movements were slow, calm, measured.
Unlike every moment of her life before this, Chelsea was serene.
She held up her hands, and fire bloomed upwards and outwards. Flowers of verdant flame burst forth. Blossoms spread as shields. Petals spiraled forth as weapons.
The dragon roared, but when its mouth clamped down, it could not touch Chelsea. Its head burst into a million wisps of tiny scarlet flame that quickly vanished. Ignis stood before her, and he watched her for a moment with childlike glee.
“Oh, I really can learn a great deal from you,” he said, eyes smoldering. His ring gleamed, and fire swirled around him, rising higher and higher until he was surrounded by a raging tornado of flame.
Chelsea kept walking forward. The flames roared and snapped, but she didn’t flinch.
She raised her hand as a plume of spinning, writhing scarlet fire lanced towards her. An emerald blossom rose to meet it, and the plume was torn apart, its disparate bits dispersing in the wind.
Chelsea walked into the cyclone of flame, but she felt none of its heat. She reached out, and her hand touched Ignis’ chest. She stared into his eyes, eyes that flashed with wild excitement.
The scarlet cyclone ended.
Ignis flew through the air, tumbling end over end. He flipped, landing on his feet, but his legs immediately gave way beneath him, and he crumpled to the ground. He looked up at Chelsea, reached out one feeble hand…
And then collapsed.
Chelsea took in a deep breath, closed her eyes, and then breathed out.
Thank you, mother.
She opened her eyes. The fire had left her. The battle raged around her.
For a long moment, Chelsea couldn’t move. She breathed in, and out, slowly finding her way back to a normal rhythm.
No matter the practice, I can never stay that way.
Serenity lasts for such a short time. Reaching that place, and then entering it…
Yet I always have to leave.
Remember what reality feels like. Remember its sounds. The taste of the air, the smell of fire and water and stone, the sound of your breaths.
I’ll get back to that place again. But until then…
Thank you, mother.
Chelsea turned, taking stock of the battlefield. Callum and Deirdre seemed to be driving off the last of the Enforcers on their side of the street. Lorelei was helping Will deal with some long-ranged attackers in the other direction. Before Oscar’s giant tortoise Summon lay three unconscious forms in black uniforms.
Up on a nearby rooftop, Caleb and Gwen battled together against a shadowed form.
Chelsea took a deep breath, let it out. She held up one of her lighters and clicked it.
No flames came.
I’m not back yet.
She sighed, feeling a small pang of frustration. She looked up towards the sky, at the tiny white pinprick of light that flew lazy circles high overhead, and felt a sharper pang of frustration that was not her own.
I know. Next time, okay? It looks like the battle here is finished.
I’ll need you for when the war begins.
Chelsea sighed again, her shoulders sagging. She was incredibly weary. But she smiled.
Thank goodness for my friends.
Caleb was stunned. Neith seemed to have found new life, and the woman who had first been easily forced back and cornered by Caleb and Gwen’s combined offense was now meeting them on equal footing. She dashed this way and that, throwing out sharp punches, spinning kicks, quick knee and elbow strikes. All the while, she kept moving, darting to and fro.
Caleb and Gwen dodged or blocked most of Neith’s attacks. But she was so much faster than she’d been at first, it was all the pair could do just to manage a defense while cutting off any attempts to escape.
For Neith, despite turning the tables, was still trying to escape.
So she probably can’t keep this up for long. She’s desperate. And judging from the sudden lack of green and red light all around us, I can guess why.
The battle’s almost over, and she and her allies have failed.
Caleb ducked a spinning kick, but the hand he stuck out in a palm strike touched only cold, empty air. By the time he had processed that Neith was back to attacking Gwen, she was already back to him, and he was knocked off his feet as he barely blocked an elbow strike on a Mobility disc shield.
Caleb sprang to his feet and then launched himself up and over with springboard Mobility discs. He landed next to Gwen, held up his watch, and sent a flurry of chains at Neith. She dodged two, deflected a third, and was almost snared by a fourth –
When Caleb leapt high, shooting chains behind him. Instinct had grabbed hold of him, and he immediately took down the Howler that had lunged for his back.
Caleb landed on a Mobility disc and looked around in horror. Howlers, Weaver, Splicers, and more were appearing on rooftops, in the streets, on the walls of houses and shops.
Hollow Hour had arrived. And in spots here and there, Caleb saw Pipers standing tall, raising Flutes to their lips. A shrill, frantic melody pierced the air.
The Song of Summoning.
Where there were dozens of Hollows there were now hundreds.
Neith tsked, leaping away from a pair of Splicers that lunged at her. “Seems we were too slow,” she said. Raising her voice, she called out to her allies. “We’re pulling back! Make sure Ignis gets away safely!”
“Wait!” Caleb cried, starting after her.
“Into the Manor!” Callum called. He and Deirdre stood in the now open doorway of Greyson Manor. Will and Lorelei joined them with Chelsea, while Oscar stood defending the entrance from Hollows now, as the Radiance’s Enforcers had fled.
“Let’s go,” Caleb said, hopping down to land next to Gwen. He started forward, but Gwen didn’t follow. “Gwen? Come on, it isn’t safe for us out here.”
Gwen finally turned towards the Manor, a fire in her golden eyes. “They will not escape next time.”