Caleb took a deep breath, then let it out.
Just follow what Mister Midnight taught you. Follow the rhythm.
“Step outside yourself.”
Caleb stepped right and left at once.
Just as weird as always.
Time slowed to a crawl all around him. As he spun his watch in time with the rhythm of the music playing in his ears, a steady tick…tock… echoed through the air.
And then Caleb was looking at himself.
“Don’t get lost in the multiplicity. Keep going. Find the center of the River, and follow it.”
Faint blue streams of light flowed this way and that. Caleb followed them, trying not to get lost in the fact that he was, in a manner of speaking, in many different places at once. And those places were multiplying. There were three Calebs, and then seven, and then fifteen, and then twenty-eight. They spread out across the street, up onto rooftops, across floating doors in the sky and strange glass constructs, spreading throughout every corner of this pocket of Isla’s labyrinth.
“Now that’s a fascinating trick,” came Neith’s voice from the rooftop to the right, rippling and distorting as if it was coming to Caleb through several feet of water.
Unlike every other time Caleb used Time Magic, he felt light and airy. There was no pressure, and it felt as if gravity was loosening its grip.
It also felt as if Caleb was vanishing. His body felt intangible, and he knew he was starting to get lost.
“You’re spreading yourself out across many ‘time zones,’ all just the tiniest bit different from each other. Spread yourself too thin, and you’ll get lost, breaking up and dissolving into the River of Time.”
Not a pleasant thought. And Caleb had come too close to that for comfort in his training.
“Because the trick is, there’s still only one of you. Each of those other Calebs you see is just a place that you can go, a spot that you can jump to at will. Your senses are stretched out across all of them, so you can see and hear more than ever.
“But you, the physical you, is only one. Don’t lose sight of that.”
Caleb took another deep breath, letting it out slow and steady.
He found himself, found that slight difference between the other Calebs and the Caleb he was.
I’m right here.
Let’s get started.
“I’ve had enough of this,” came Void’s rippling, distorted voice. Inky black tendrils shot forth from his swirling portal, assailing three of the Calebs.
All three Calebs dodged, with plenty of time to spare.
Caleb stepped into one of those Calebs, raised his pocket watch, and let loose a barrage of shining chains. Void never stood a chance. Time was still slowed for Caleb, and his attack came too swift for Void to comprehend. When a weighted attack chain struck Void under the chin, he rocked back on his feet, dazed for a moment.
And then he fell unconscious to the ground.
“Brother!” Neith cried out, rage building in her voice. She leapt into a spinning kick at one Caleb, while her spider Summon’s legs came crashing down on three others.
But Caleb wasn’t there. And as Neith’s attacks hit only empty air, Caleb stepped into a place behind her and struck. Neith fell to the rooftop, and her spider Summon vanished as her consciousness slipped away.
Caleb took a moment to look out across all of the different Calebs walking here and there.
Tick… tock… tick… tock…
He spun his watch one more time, and then pocketed it as he sidestepped out of the Pendulum Step. All of the other Calebs disappeared, and Caleb felt the heavy reality of returning to normal time.
“You okay?” Will asked, looking up at him from the street below.
“Yeah,” Caleb said, nodding. He hopped down from the roof, swaying slightly as he landed but keeping his balance. Handing the headphones back to Will, he smiled. “Pretty cool, right?”
Will nodded, a small smile tugging at his lips. “And you’re only using it once,” he said. “No more Time Magic until it’s time to take out the weapon, okay?”
“You got it.”
As they continued on, leaving behind the unconscious Neith and Void, Caleb looked up at the massive clock floating in the sky. Already the “4 DAYS REMAINING” had rolled over to three.
Anastasia spun into a vicious kick, her heeled boots glowing with magic as they struck a Hunter across the chin, sending him to smash against a wall, falling limply to the street.
“Thank you, Ana,” Blaise said, stepping up beside her. “That appears to be the last of them.”
All around Anastasia and Blaise were a dozen unmoving members of the so-called “Grimoire Guard.”
Anastasia said nothing, staring into the distance of the wild, warped labyrinth Isla had conjured into being.
The last of them for now, at least.
We’ve fought like this only once before, and then…
I understood. I knew what we were fighting for back then. The fool’s gods could not be allowed to have Grimoire.
But now they’ve returned, and we play their allies.
And worse still, we fight against those who hold this city just as dear as we do.
Anastasia stopped that train of thought. It was more than easy to see how things had come to this.
Grimoire is dying.
“Ana?” Blaise asked. He was standing far away at the next intersection and looked back at her expectantly. “Are you all right?”
Anastasia nodded, following.
“Perhaps I shouldn’t have been gone so long,” Anastasia said softly.
“Why do you think that?” Blaise asked.
“You rely on me,” Anastasia replied. “And…”
And the longer I’m away, the more I think about the past. And the more I start to think…
You’ve changed far too much, Blaise.
And who wouldn’t? With all you’ve endured… how could I expect any less?
“It’s all right,” Blaise said, smiling thinly.
Your smile is so different from how it used to be.
Where did that boy I called my dearest friend go? Somewhere I missed the moment that your eyes changed, the moment your optimism and hope faded. By the time I noticed…
It was too late.
How much have we been through together?
And yet I look at you now…
And I don’t know you.
“How was your other home?” Blaise asked as they walked on. They climbed the arch of Moonstone Bridge, which now crossed over a pool that contained small remnants of the ruins of Grimson Bay. Beyond, they trekked a street made of roof tiles and boarded up windows, while marble floors of different Manors arched over them on either side as walls.
“I wouldn’t call it my home,” Anastasia said.
“Well, the home of your mother,” Blaise said. “It’s been a very long time since you visited. I’m sure it brought back many memories.”
Yes. But not the ones you’d think.
All my time in the Enchanted Dominion, all my time visiting the home of my mother, and her mother before her…
I thought of Grimoire. I thought of you, and your mission.
And I thought…
“Do you remember?” Anastasia asked, feeling fear clutch her heart.
Don’t. Don’t be afraid. When did I start being afraid of confronting Blaise?
When did I stop being able to even hint that my closest friend might be wrong?
“Remember what?” Blaise asked.
“Do you remember when you changed our dynamic?” Anastasia asked. “When you formed the Shadows, and when you set yourself up as our ‘Master,’ and when you began demanding absolute loyalty.”
A long silence stretched between them, and with every passing second, it felt to Anastasia as if Blaise was growing farther and farther away from her.
When he spoke, his eyes were the slightest bit narrowed, his expression the slightest bit harder than it had been.
“It was after the war,” he said softly. “After learning the sickening truth of what such conflict entailed, and seeing so many dear friends slaughtered by Leon and his forces. Soldiers require a chain of command.”
“It’s been a very long time since that war,” Anastasia said in soft reply.
“Yet here lies war on our doorstep once more,” Blaise said. “If we are to debate the merits of the current command structure, it will have to wait until after the battle. Once we have won…” He let out a long, heavy sigh, and for a brief moment looked like the centuries-old man he was. “Well. When we’ve won, it’s all over for me, Ana. There will be no more Shadows. I will leave Grimoire and never return.”
Which is why I’m so frustrated that I waited to say anything until now.
It’s too late, isn’t it? You’re fully committed to your goals. And…
I supported you.
But standing here now, at the very end of all you’ve worked for…
“Ana,” Blaise said softly, coming to a stop and turning to face her. He leaned wearily on his cane with one hand, while he placed the other on her shoulder. “I’m sorry.”
A new silence stretched between them. Anastasia waited, waited for more words, for some explanation, for what he was sorry for…
But when Blaise turned away and continued on in silence, Anastasia saw the chasm between them, wide and dark, with no crossing in sight.
Sudden footsteps put both of them on alert. But when the bearer of those footsteps rounded the far corner, Blaise and Anastasia relaxed.
It was Doctor, his white lab coat scorched in places with soot, one of his black gloves missing, his narrow-framed glasses askew. He came to a sudden stop as he saw Blaise and Anastasia, and immediately he relaxed, a weary smile coming to his lips.
“Well, thank goodness I can rest from the fighting now,” he said, dusting off his coat. “Honestly, I’m not made for this sort of thing. I didn’t even start any of the fights, people just attacked me, probably – correctly – assuming I was with you.” He adjusted his glasses and looked around at the labyrinth. “Ah, but what a fine job Isla and Dama have done this time. They’ve grown much stronger since the last labyrinth.”
“Are you all right?” Anastasia asked. “And what are you doing up here? I thought you were monitoring the White Whale. Have she and her harbor been caught up in this labyrinth, too?”
Doctor stared at Anastasia, a look of utter perplexity on his face. He blinked, twice, and then adjusted his glasses again.
“You don’t… know?” he asked slowly, glancing past her at Blaise, and then back at Anastasia.
“Know what?” Anastasia asked. She felt a spike of tension lodge itself in her back, anxious dread setting her on edge.
“The White Whale…” Doctor said, his tone heavy and bitter. “She’s… gone.”
“Gone?” Anastasia asked. At the same time, the world seemed to bottom out, as if her heart had suddenly plummeted into a pit of utter hopelessness. “But she’s… she was… our only hope, wasn’t she? Without her…”
“Doctor,” Blaise said, stepping forward, his cane clacking on the ground with a harsh, threatening tone. Anastasia turned, staring at a man she barely recognized, whose eyes flickered with a dangerous, calculating tint. “Who else have you told?”
Doctor shook his head. “No one else, sir,” he said. “But I don’t understand. I thought –”
Blaise cut him off with a bitter, heavy sigh. “I’m terribly sorry, old friend,” he said softly.
His cane struck the ground, and up from the tiles at his feet roared a massive, twisting black dragon. Jaws flickering and warping like lightning, eyes roiling like storm clouds, the beast rolled forward like a wild storm, like the Storm of all storms.
And the Storm was coming for Doctor.