Caleb had screwed up, in a big way.
It wasn’t entirely his fault. His luck had just been too good for too long now, so much so that he’d forgotten, for a moment, about his Fractured state, and the risk of fainting spells and blackouts. That single moment had cost him. When the cloaked mages had arrived to attack Chelsea, Lorelei, and Caleb, he’d leapt into action immediately...
And promptly started to black out.
His hesitation, forgetting his training and preparations for the briefest moment, had meant he hadn’t responded the way he should. He hadn’t surveyed the battlefield properly, hadn’t been prepared for this kind of attack.
So he’d made what he thought was an educated guess, formed a bunch of bounce-discs, and let his magic see him to safety.
When Caleb regained his consciousness, however, his allies were nowhere in sight. He was soaring through the air, and it was only by a stroke of luck, and with quick reflexes, that he bounced himself away from a tower and landed safely on a rooftop.
Where am I?
He knew Grimoire better than most, but he’d never blacked out while hurtling through the air before in this city. Many of the streets were poorly lit, or not lit at all, and a lot of the city could look the same in the darkness of night. Caleb didn’t have much of a chance to get his bearings, however, for nearly a dozen hooded mages had followed him, and they were on the attack.
When they first appeared, I only counted eight. But more were beginning to appear when I blacked out. I’ve got ten on me now... did I pull all of them away from Chelsea and Lorelei? Or are there a lot more than this?
One mage landed on the rooftop just a few feet away from Caleb and charged. In either hand gleamed a long, curved knife, and each had an aura of magic to it, flickering and pulsing with power.
Instinct warned Caleb of another close-quarters fighter behind him, and he slipped into one of Mister Midnight’s defensive methodologies for combat.
“When outnumbered, turn your enemies on each other. Misdirect. Analyze how they fight, find their weaknesses, exploit them. No matter how powerful you are, don’t brute force your way through it. Save your strength, and let them use up theirs.”
Caleb didn’t immediately bounce away into open air, instead making use of the grueling evasion training Midnight had put him through. He sidestepped a dagger, ducked under a punch, slipped outside of both attackers’ reach, and then formed a bounce-disc behind each of them. They predictably backstepped to gain space, and were promptly bounced into each other, head-first with a crack of force that made Caleb wince. He didn’t have time to watch them fall limp to the roof, however, as more mages were upon him.
I need to learn what their specialties are. What kind of magic are they using? How do they want to fight?
Not just so I can fight them effectively. I want to see if I recognize any of their styles.
I want to know if we’ve really been betrayed. If my friends have become my enemies.
That was a possibility Caleb had been wrestling with ever since he’d returned to Grimoire. Knowing Chase was at the very least a pawn of the enemy organization was hard enough to bear. Knowing that there were more mages, most unknown, who were seeking to cause harm to this city and to Caleb’s family? That shook him to his core.
Why couldn’t people be trusted? Why couldn’t mages with the same goals of defending the city and each other cooperate?
Why was Caleb being attacked by humans? That’s what he wanted to know more than anything. Had his city turned against them? How many people were left that he could trust?
Why was this happening to begin with? Caleb had never been anything other than honest and hard-working, giving his all for his city and his fellow mages. To think that they wouldn’t be and do the same – to think that they would be enemies of one who did so much for them – was an impossibility in Caleb’s mind.
That impossibility was throwing him off his game. Encountering Chase just before starting patrol was throwing him off his game, too. He was emotionally compromised, wracked with frustration and anxiety and too many questions with no clear answers.
And suddenly, in the place he’d called home his entire life, he was surrounded by enemies.
How had it come to this?
Cracking stonework alerted Caleb to the next attack – Manipulation Magic, focused on bricks and other cut stone. A wall warped, twisted, and broke off into a thousand projectiles that hurtled towards him. He blocked some with a Mobility Disc-shield and evaded the rest, ducking low and sliding down the slanted roof, leaping into open air at the bottom.
Two mages met him in the air. The one on the right stretched out their hand, and the threads of their cloak extended, reaching for Caleb like the mage had a third hand formed from fabric.
The one on the left was the real danger, though. All around them were glowing, magical swords, constructs formed of Energy Magic, and they flew this way and that without so much as a gesture from their owner. A dozen scarlet blades, commanded by thoughts, raced towards Caleb.
In that moment, unlike the previous moments, for some reason it suddenly hit Caleb.
These cloaked assailants weren’t looking to capture Caleb. They weren’t looking to knock him out and leave him somewhere, to rough him up so he stopped whatever they wanted him to stop.
They were aiming to kill him.
If Caleb hadn’t accidentally been separated from Chelsea and Lorelei, these mages likely would have done all they could to ensure he was separated from them anyway. He was their prime target, the focus of wrath and fury and cold, murderous intent that Caleb couldn’t fathom. His blood went cold, his chest grew tight, and his mind struggled to form coherent thoughts.
I’m fighting for my life... against other mages?
How did it come to this?
Luckily, Caleb didn’t need to think to save his own life. Instinct and training – a year’s worth of training in so little time, thanks to Midnight’s Locational Time Magic – spurred Caleb into action. Weighted attack chains pummeled and tossed away the mage using Manipulation Magic with his own clothing, and a series of bounce-discs took Caleb far away from the mage commanding magical floating swords. Caleb hurtled through the frigid night air straight towards a pair of mages who floated high above the battle, likely acting as Overwatch, coordinators for their allies. One had gleaming blue wings sprouting from their back, while the other sat atop a Summon, a griffin that gleamed a metallic-orange color.
It was a Summon Caleb had never seen before, so he still couldn’t pinpoint who any of these mages were. But he charged straight towards the flying foes not to discover their identities, but to disrupt his attackers.
Break the chain of communication. Weaken their information network. Keep them from coordinating as effectively, and their numbers would be less effective.
Chains gleamed in the air, bursting forth from empty space in a dozen different directions, flinging themselves at the stunned flying mages. They scrambled to react, but they were too slow, and Caleb wrapped them up, pummeled them, and hurled them earthward. Flipping, he braced against a new Mobility Disc, aiming to dive towards the ground below.
But he couldn’t pursue those two, for other mages were targeting him, firing away with long-range attacks – spears of rock, gleaming magical swords, spiraling beams of energy, spinning knives – and Caleb was forced to spin and twist, Mobility Discs forming swiftly and providing him a path to leap and fly, bouncing and diving here and there. Below him on a rooftop, Caleb stopped a running mage in their tracks with a “sticky disc” – a new invention he’d come up with while training with Midnight, one of his Mobility Discs designed to stick to any who touched it. They proved useful for Caleb’s own mobility, but they also served as effective traps, and sure enough, the mage below came to a sudden halt, feet glued to a gleaming disc of light.
I don’t need to keep this up. Maybe I can win, but what’s really important is to make the right choices. My priority shouldn’t be victory, not yet.
My priority should be regrouping with the others. I need to make sure they’re safe. And together we have a much better chance of fighting these guys than separated. But how do I get a hold of them? If I just had time to send a text or something...
That could work.
Caleb landed in a tumble on a rooftop, wincing as the roof tiles behind him exploded from some magical attack narrowly missing its mark. He ran, sending weighted attack chains crashing against his foes to the left. In front of him, another mage appeared, their shadowy, cloaked form blending with the night sky as they leapt up and over a chimney. In their hands was a long-handled scythe, like they fashioned themselves as some kind of Grim Reaper. It could have been a terrifying sight, but Caleb’s sudden idea had put him in a humorous mood.
Caleb held up a finger. “Hold on a sec, will ya?” he asked.
And then he stepped effortlessly into Time-state.
Grinning despite his situation, Caleb watched for a moment as the entire world around slowed to the slowest crawl imaginable. And then...
He pulled out his cell phone.
Creating a message to both Chelsea and Lorelei, he typed quickly: Taurus District. By bazaar. Ten assailants, possibly more. Send help at earliest convenience. Please? xxoo Caleb
Caleb sent the message, tucked his phone in his pocket, trotted past the Grim Reaper-guy, and then slipped out of Time-state. Sound and motion burst back into the world, and Caleb resumed his evasive maneuvers.
I can’t believe I’ve never thought of using Time Magic for that!
Caleb couldn’t help but laugh, and he laughed all the louder at the night around him, his shadowy attackers, their relentless assault.
Laughter pierced the night, and the gloom, and the fear. Laughter pulled Caleb back to his senses, out of his dread and anxiety.
Perhaps some of his attackers were mages he knew. Perhaps once-friends were now trying to kill him.
But right now, he could be sharp, and he could laugh, and he could cast aside the fear and do what he needed to do, to the best of his ability.
I need to stay in this general area. I’m not good for drawn-out fights, but I can conserve my strength. These guys are all so... straightforward. They have interesting methods of attack, but they’re coming straight at me, almost like they’re competing with each other, like there’s some prize for killing me.
Kind of a morbid thought. But kind of flattering, too.
They have numbers and strength, and probably stamina, too, on their side.
I have the best training in the universe on my side.
And I have one thing no would-be murderer could ever have: love. Those who love me, and those I love back.
If these guys think they’re going to kill me, separate me from the ones I love, they’ve got another thing coming.
Caleb was already feeling the effects of his relentless battle, the unfortunate crippled stamina due to his Fracturing. His breathing came faster, his muscles were tired, and some of his movements came the slightest fraction slower than he intended. Time to adjust his strategy. He bounced his way outside of the ring his attackers were trying to make around him, maneuvered one way, then another, and found his assailants going exactly where he wanted them. They were bunching up, coming straight at him, and Caleb hit them with a barrage of traps. Sticky-discs glued feet to rooftops. Chains anchored arms and legs to walls and chimneys. Bounce-discs knocked mages off of rooftops, into dumpsters, into each other, away from Caleb.
Instinct saved Caleb again, pulling him out of his pride in his successful trap-barrage to narrowly avoid an attack from behind. Ten attackers became thirteen, as three cloaked mages melted out of the darkness to attack Caleb from behind. A knife flashed overhead, slicing a few strands of hair as Caleb barely ducked in time. Sparking sparrows formed of electricity swarmed towards Caleb, and he bounced himself out of there, out and up, thirty feet into the sky so that he looked down on all of his attackers. The ones he’d trapped were breaking free, as Caleb’s focus was pulled away from maintaining those traps to keeping himself in motion.
Thirteen. Unlucky. If they stick to that number, I hope it’s unlucky for them. As long as this doesn’t get any worse...
Oh. Spoke too soon.
The barest whisper of breath was enough for Caleb to react, bouncing himself to the side, hurtling thirty feet in an instant, twisting around just in time to see the pair of mages who had appeared in the air above him slash and stab through the empty space where he had just been.
Fifteen. Okay. Just stay smart, stay in motion, use your enemies against each other, all that same stuff. No need to change the strategy now. There’s more of them is all. But you could handle a hundred of them easily, right?
Please tell me there won’t be a hundred of them before the night’s over.
Weighted attack chains slammed the two newest arrivals into each other, and they tumbled towards the ground far below. Two mages leapt towards him, their Enhancement Magic so strong that their leap shattered the stones beneath them, and they flew fifty feet in an instant. Mobility Disc-shields wouldn’t stop them with that kind of strength, so Caleb let them come to him, and then, at the last possible moment, activated Phase Step.
His attackers hurtled straight through him, striking nothing but air, and as soon as Caleb had phased through them he came back to normal time, gasping at the sudden pressure on his chest.
You weren’t desperate enough to resort to that. Don’t show off. Be smarter. You can do this.
Below him, a mage sent forth a whip crackling with scarlet energy, and Caleb met it with a gleaming white chain. The impact sent sparks exploding into the night sky, and Caleb hoped that would serve as an effective flare for his allies. He used a pair of Mobility Discs, hopping from one to the next, and from the second to the wall of a four-story building. Sticky-discs were his allies now, as he adhered his feet to the wall and ran along it, stone shattering behind him twice as his attackers narrowly missed. Caleb winced at the property damage, sent attack chains at his foes, and then climbed a Mobility Disc staircase down to the street.
I’m used to bouncing around in open air, but with so many enemies, that makes me too obvious a target. I need to take advantage of my environment. Narrow streets. High walls. Not a lot of light.
This is my city. And it can be my ally.
Caleb ran through a main street, knocked aside a cloaked mage with a chain, and then slipped into a dark alley. On he ran, and when he exited from there, he took several quick turns. He knew where he was now, and he could take advantage of that, using his knowledge of the streets and alleys and connecting paths to vanish, evade his foes until help arrived.
He kept listening for Chelsea or Lorelei’s voice, for the whoosh of Chelsea’s flames or the crackling of Lorelei’s ice.
All he heard was the silence, punctuated by footsteps and sharp, cracking explosions as his foes spotted him for a brief moment and attacked, only striking the stone and tiles around him. It was eerie how silent his attackers were, how they never cried out, not even in pain.
Anything to conceal your identity, I guess.
It makes them look so guilty, though. Like they’re ashamed of what they’re doing. If you’re willing to attack me in the open, to try and kill me in public places, then why hide your face? If this is what you want, if this is the life you’ve chosen for yourself, then show yourself. Don’t hide behind a mask. Don’t live a double-life.
I’d rather know who each and every one of you are, anyway. Get the heartbreak over with, as I see how many of my friends have turned to hatred and madness.
Caleb vanished into a dark alley, slipped out the other side, and ducked into a dark corner. For several breaths he was still, catching his breath as quietly as he could, cursing his reduced stamina.
Before collapsing on Hollow Island, I could have ran all over this city, led these guys on a merry chase for hours without breaking much of a sweat.
Of course, before I collapsed and ended up getting my training, I wouldn’t have been nearly well-equipped enough to survive this long. They would have killed me in the opening attack, because I would have been too shocked and confused to react properly to danger.
I lost something physical. But I’ve gained so much more. And it’s what I’ve gained that’s keeping me alive, that’s overcoming what I’ve lost tenfold.
A cloaked mage leapt down into the street in front of Caleb, but didn’t see him. Caleb waited two breaths, and another mage dropped down. The pair started flashing hand signals to each other, and that’s when Caleb struck. Gleaming chains, dozens of them, sprang up from the stones beneath the mages’ feet. Arms and legs were lashed, snared, shackled to each other and the street, while attack chains slammed into stomachs, eliciting a grunt of pain. Both of them went limp, and Caleb ran out into the street, reached for their hoods.
I’ll know who you are...
A sudden sound, and Caleb leapt back. Blue light streaked through the space between Caleb and the two mages he’d subdued, and then receded.
Caleb knew that shade of blue. He knew that sudden motion, of it cracking forward and then snapping back. He turned his head to the right, his heart knotting with dread as he laid eyes on a cloaked mage. In the mage’s hand was a long, blue scarf, with silver embroidery along it.
There was only one scarf Caleb knew like that. It was handmade, a special memento from Regina Fredricks to her grandson.
“Chase!” Caleb shouted, his anger and confusion piercing the night. The mage with the scarf halted a moment, stepped back, and then stopped. A hand pulled back a hood.
Caleb’s and Chase’s eyes met.
“Why are you doing this?” Caleb asked.
His friend, the man who’d trained both him and Chelsea, stared back at him with a steady, determined gaze. There was no shame, or fear, or even anger in his eyes. He was just focused. He threw aside the cloak, slid his foot back, raised his hands and scarf into a ready stance. “You won’t believe me, but I wish it hadn’t come to this,” Chase said.
“Don’t you have a choice in the matter?” Caleb asked. “You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.”
“You’re the one who made the wrong choices,” Chase said, his usually cheerful voice cold and stern. He shook his head. “Goodbye, Caleb.”
The scarf lashed out, but it came so slowly that Caleb had an eternity to dodge it. Time-state active, feeling the current of the River of Time all around him, Caleb took in this moment. He stared at his once-friend, now enemy, and wondered so many questions. He clenched his hands into fists, gritted his teeth, desperately hoped for another way.
And he took one long, possibly last, look at Chase Fredricks. His clear blue eyes, his bright blonde hair, the laugh lines from all the jokes the pair had shared in the short time they’d known each other.
He looked upon his enemy, and could only see his friend. This fight wasn’t real. It couldn’t be. And yet it was.
Caleb closed his eyes, took in a deep breath. When he opened his eyes, he let out his breath in a slow, regretful sigh.
He strode forward, feeling the pressure of Time Magic as the River of Time closed in more on him, warning him of the dangers of staying too long in such a state.
I know. Please... just give me this moment. Let me avoid this fight.
The pressure lessened, and Caleb walked up to his friend until they were almost touching, The scarf Talisman in Chase’s hands was almost ethereal, a long ripple traveling slowly, ever so slowly, up its length as it began its arc of whipping attack.
Caleb sighed. He could see it now. There was anger, rage, in Chase’s eyes. There were emotions and feelings that Caleb couldn’t place, with motivations Caleb didn’t know. And he likely would never get the chance to know.
Chains formed in the air, weighted attack chains. One to Chase’s left, another to his right, and a third directly below him.
All three struck at once. The ones from the side slammed into Chase’s ribs.
The one from below surged upward, like a boxer’s uppercut, and pummeled Chase’s jaw.
Caleb walked past Chase, exited Time-state, and heard his friend, now enemy, crumple to the street, unconscious.
Attackers were in motion, and Caleb tossed them aside with a flurry of attack chains. But more came, and Caleb couldn’t stay in his melancholy state of regret. He leapt into the night, putting distance between himself and the limp body of his friend, dashing across rooftops, bouncing off of Mobility Discs, hurtling here and there and then back down into the streets. His foes pursued him, and the fight continued as it had before. Caleb couldn’t linger on the pain of losing a good friend.
And besides, it was very likely that more of his friends were among the ones who still fought him. If Caleb cast aside all of their hoods, who would he see? How many times would his heart break?
He knew he needed to stay focused, but his heart was too heavy. He dodged and weaved, ducked and rolled, slid and slipped, and struck back with every opportunity. But he was weakening, more now mentally than physically. And his attackers were relentless, with more appearing every time Caleb thought he had a grasp of their number. How many were there now? Twenty? Forty? They came out of every shadow, they stood at every escape route.
And still Chelsea and Lorelei had not arrived. How many foes were they facing?
Worse yet, could they have been defeated? Could they have been the true targets, rather than Caleb? After all, it was Chelsea’s mother who had come closest to discovering the truth behind these shadowy foes and their purposes, and now all of her knowledge belonged to Chelsea.
That would make Chelsea the prime target, the greatest foe of this shadowy group that sought to bring harm to Grimoire. And if that were the case...
Caleb’s thoughts were cut off as he was ambushed at the end of an alley. He came out of the darkness into a flurry of bladed weapons. A knife scratched a long line across his cheek. A sword tore his sleeve, bit into his shoulder. An axe nearly took off his leg, missing it by centimeters. Caleb moved to leap forward and free, but the way was blocked by a large, bear-like Summon that gleamed bronze in the night. Caleb ducked back into the alley, but foes were coming from behind. Tearing through the shadows were many weapons, flashes of light. Leaping upward into open air, Caleb only met more resistance, hands that grasped, roof tiles and stonework and windows that, controlled by Manipulation Magic, turned on Caleb. Glass and stone bit into him, tore clothes and skin. Hands pulled and punched, and Caleb was spinning, tumbling, rolling across the roof. A flurry of chains, sent outward in a blind, desperate play to repel his enemies, bought him only the slimmest unit of time. He was on his feet, running, but every avenue was closed off.
On all sides of the roof, cloaked mages.
In the air above, cloaked mages.
In the streets below, cloaked mages.
Caleb was trapped, hemmed in, with no help in sight. He braced himself for a fight, or, failing that, to tempt fate with his Phase Step and vanish through the crowd, when a clear, strong voice rang out in the night.
Caleb blinked in confusion, and his attackers all paused. That pause was their downfall. In their midst, from all sides and from above, came thousands of flashing, violet butterflies. They were each as large as Caleb’s hand, and glowed like Summons, though Caleb had never seen Summons so small, or seen any Summons ever share the exact same color. Whatever they did, it had a profound effect. They flew into the many cloaked mages, and pandemonium erupted. Cloaks burst into flame. Mages doubled over, writhed in pain, or suddenly fell to the ground like a plank with arms glued to their sides. The butterflies swarmed, and everywhere they went mages were screaming, shouting out in fright, or outright fleeing the field, racing for freedom and safety from the swarm of purple butterflies.
A clear, pristine laugh pierced the screams, and Caleb looked up to see a figure standing atop a high tower. Several butterflies flew to the figure, and their light suddenly flashed brightly, like spotlights on the newcomer. She was a woman, and dressed quite outlandishly, in a skintight purple-and-silver bodysuit. Around her waist was a golden belt, and a purple, feathery cape billowed in the wind. On her chest was emblazoned an insignia, a bird in flight, purple wings outstretched, edged in silver. Her long, dark hair was tied back in a ponytail, and the upper half of her face was disguised with a mask, feathered and angling upward at the edges. She held out her arm, and a butterfly alighted on her long, silver glove.
“Caleb Greyson!” the woman called out, staring straight at him. A confident smile played across her lips. “Your friends are safe, and you will find them at the Hunter Building. That is the safest place for anyone tonight, until the shadows of evil are purged from the city. Go to them.”
“Who are you?” Caleb asked.
The woman laughed. “I am Royal Raven! Evil fears my name, and wickedness cowers before my might! Remember me, Caleb Greyson, for this will not be the last we meet. Farewell!”
Royal Raven turned on her heel and leapt into the dark of night, vanishing from sight. All around him, Caleb realized that his many foes were nearly gone, with the only ones who remained lying unconscious on the roofs and streets. Caleb turned towards the Hunter Building, beginning his trek to safety. But his mind whirled, with excitement and confusion.
I was saved...
By a superhero?