Caleb was in the air before the chain-bound Chase hit the floor. Bounding from one Mobility Disc to the next, Caleb sent out new chains, targeting Void and Neith, who were already racing to join Chase against him.
They really have it out for me, huh?
A giant, dark purple arachnoid leg stabbed into the vast entrance hall from outside, and Caleb leapt away from it, barely evading Neith’s Summon’s attack. Her spider was too large to properly fight inside the hall beneath the throne room, but the gigantic windows open to the sky outside allowed the creature to cling to the outer wall and attack from there.
Still, that at least limits her mobility.
While Caleb was charging into combat, everyone else was, as well. Platina, burn-scarred by Chelsea at Grimoire, came racing towards Chelsea with a murderous rage all over her face. Chelsea blasted back at her with fire, which Platina blocked with her morphing metal weapon, turning it into a shield. Rae Summoned Brutus, the bear-faced goliath leaping into battle against Titan, smashing two giant fists down on the muscular weapon wielder. Kathryn was following Rae after Brutus, ribbon-wands at the ready. Ben created numerous illusory copies of himself, scattering them throughout the battlefield, while one stayed close to Shias. The pair of them were coordinating the battle, Shias keeping an eye on everything and supporting everyone’s efforts with the glistening shields he could call up to block and deflect attacks.
While Hestia, Artemis, and Galahad raced towards the Gold Knight, Midnight and Nyx walked slowly towards each other, sizing each other up.
“I heard you were imprisoned in Grimoire,” Midnight said. With a flick of each wrist, a jagged black dagger appeared in either hand. “Thought I was finally rid of you.”
“I’m sure you missed me,” Nyx drawled, smiling with a sort of sadistic glee. Caleb could never get past how strange it was to see and hear the body and voice of a child embody such maturity, mixed with a seeming delight in violence. “After my darling Beast got a taste of you last time, she’s certainly longed for a proper feast.”
“She’s welcome to try,” Midnight said, glaring darkly.
In a flicker of movement, their fight erupted in violence, Nyx’s Summon warping and thrashing all around her, while Midnight leapt and ducked, bobbed and weaved, slashing and blocking with incredible speed.
The two Enforcers Caleb didn’t recognize went to support Titan and Platina, while the newest Royal Guard, the glasses-wearing teen with the thick book in his hand, hung back, flipping through the pages and eyeing them carefully. He had a thoughtful gaze, without hint of either devotion or rage like the other followers of the Radiant King bore today.
But Caleb couldn’t concentrate on the wider battle. Neith was leaping to meet him in midair, and Caleb barely ducked a spinning heel-kick before bouncing away to safety. Void followed him, slashing with his cane, but a shining shield flickered in the air, blocking the vicious attack and forcing Void back.
Caleb sent numerous chains flying forth, batting Void away and anchoring Neith’s legs to the floor. Neith was too strong, however, her Enhancement Magic honed through centuries of use, and she snapped Caleb’s glowing chains with ease, dashing back into the fight.
So Caleb did what he’d dreaded doing, and entered Time-state.
It was as strange and hard to process as it had been on Midnight Bridge. There was so much blue to it all, when for so many years entering Time-state had introduced him to a world of washed-out colors and stillness. This new world of slowed time was filled with blue, the blue of the River of Time, and flashes of blue light gleamed as they leapt from point to point, like electricity.
Not electricity, Caleb realized.
They’re like currents.
That was what he felt! No longer was there the pressure of the River of Time crushing him, but instead this sense of buoyancy, mixed with resistance — like he was underwater, but not so deep it crushed him. He didn’t move as quickly as he did in his older version of Time Magic, but his new buoyancy helped him to move in different ways, gave him more opportunities to take in the world around him even though he was in the midst of free-fall.
Those lights… like currents. Connecting… people. What do they mean? What are they trying to show me?
But then Caleb gasped, like suddenly being pulled up from underwater. He didn’t exit Time-state, he was forced out, and suddenly called up a Mobility Disc to catch him from crashing to the floor, regaining his footing just in time to leap high away from Void and Neith’s pursuit.
I’m not hurt. I don’t feel short of breath or crushed or weakened like I used to from Time-state. I feel…
So is this some kind of new limitation to replace the old one? Can I overcome this limitation, or is it permanent? Is it based on time, or something else?
These questions spinning in his mind gave him startling clarity, and a marvelous realization.
I’m not afraid anymore.
I still can’t fully comprehend what’s happening in Time-state anymore. The River of Time is with me, it’s aiding me in ways it never did before — before, I was an intruder. Now, we’re allies. But it’s a force that I’ll never fully understand.
And yet, it’s not freaking me out. I’m not scared.
Because there were things he could understand, given time and experimentation. And the things he couldn’t understand, things he would never understand, made him feel all the more excited.
I’m allied with something greater than me.
I’m not alone.
After some more aerial acrobatics and chain-based counterattacks, Caleb stepped back into Time-state, and couldn’t wipe the grin off his face.
He felt so free!
It’s like being in the water, except I don’t get wet. But I’ve always felt so comfortable with this kind of feeling. Like weightlessness, but also…
Something holding me up. It’s not resistance. It’s guidance, it’s assistance.
The water isn’t fighting me. It’s helping me. Helping me do things I couldn’t do anywhere else.
So Caleb swam, after a fashion, changing his trajectory in mid-air without the aid of Mobility discs, relishing in this feeling, in this new way of seeing the world around him.
Mister Midnight said that manipulating time also messes with space, with physics, with the laws of reality. That’s why the Phase Step works like it does, and that’s why, the deeper I get into the River of Time, the more I learn and understand, and the more I accept what I can never understand…
The more exciting horizons open up to me. The more the world changes.
And Caleb felt it, this time, as he swam without swimming, through water that didn’t soak his clothes or skin. He felt something, like hearing a bell without hearing it, but rather feeling its resonance reverberate through the water.
A moment later, Caleb was out of Time-state, back in the normal flow of time, back to needing Mobility Discs and frantic leaps and flips to move through the air, to evade the vicious attacks that came his way.
And yet Caleb was laughing, grinning from ear to ear.
This is so COOL!
Everything had changed, and there was so much new to discover, to uncover, to learn.
And he didn’t have to be afraid.
“Is this some joke to you?” Neith asked. She had leapt right into Caleb’s path, reaching the apex of her jump above him, flipping into a downward spinning kick. Caleb had the briefest moment to process his miscalculation, and then frantically twisted away. Neith’s heel dropped, connecting with Caleb’s hip and sending him spinning, tumbling downwards. He caught himself with a Mobility Disc that eased his momentum before depositing him, rolling, onto the floor, but he was still wincing at the pain that had erupted in his side.
Okay. Don’t have too much fun.
He sprang to his feet, limping once as he adjusted to his bruised hip, then ducked, sidestepped, and leapt up and away from a series of cane swings and spinning kicks from Void and Neith. Down on the floor, Chase finally burst free from the chains that bound him, leaping to his feet and directing a vicious glare up towards Caleb.
All right, let’s see what we can learn this time.
Caleb stepped into Time-state, relishing in the feeling of swimming through the air, darting this way and that with the barest of motions to send him on his way. He focused on the lights now, the flickering, gleaming currents that looked almost like electricity, their brightness clear and visible. There were some around every person, flickering into and out of and around them — Chase, Void, Neith, and everyone else. The ones linked to Void and Neith were largely coming out of them, angling towards Caleb.
Trajectory of their next attacks, maybe?
Meanwhile, the currents linked to Chase were swirling around him. His hand was on its way to his scarf, his Talisman that he loved so much.
So he’s preparing some kind of attack…
Are the currents showing me the future?
Caleb took advantage of the drastically slowed time to call forth chains, binding Neith, Void, and Chase. Rooting feet to the floor, binding hands and pulling them away from weapons and Talismans, Caleb completely shut the trio down.
The glowing bolts of light around each shifted, changing. Void’s and Neith’s no longer were shooting straight towards Caleb, but instead were going to the side, and focusing in on the chains. Chase’s remained rather the same, but that was when Caleb noticed other currents, smaller ones, not moving as much, but instead staying in one place, blinking to a rhythm. Chase’s was in the center of his scarf, Void’s was in the pommel of his cane, and Neith’s was on her wrist, on a bracelet Caleb had never noticed before.
Marking their Talismans, huh? How many different things can these currents do?
But then he felt the resonance of the bell, and braced himself for the sudden gasp, the strange and shocking sensation of leaving the peaceful, quiet freedom of Time-state for the loud, chaotic broil of real time. Neith, Void, and Chase all gasped in shock at their sudden predicament. Neith was the fastest to break free, and then she snapped her brother’s chains, and the pair leapt back into combat. The fresh bruise on Caleb’s hip throbbed.
Those two are way too strong! I need to do a better job of keeping my distance.
And… maybe stop playing around. Given how my Time Magic works now, I could probably knock them flat with ease.
I could try what I did back in Grimoire?
No. Not the Pendulum Step. That one’s hard enough for me, and the only reason I was able to risk it back then was because I had Will’s headphones. Music helps a lot with establishing and maintaining a rhythm. Trying to do that without assistance just isn’t easy for me.
Just keep things simple.
Caleb’s gaze flicked to Chase.
That Enforcer uniform really doesn’t suit you. You’re a Hunter. A defender of Grimoire, no matter what madness you’ve bought into recently.
Caleb entered Time-state…
Or he would have.
What’s going on?
It was like an echo of the bell’s resonance, so faint he barely felt it. But it was there, steadily fading.
I can’t re-enter Time-state until that fades?
There are just all sorts of new things now.
So Caleb jumped, flipped, and bounced away, using Mobility Discs to keep him in motion. He sent chains at his attackers, while using his aerial vantage point to take in the rest of the battlefield.
Things had progressed a lot less than he’d thought. Multiple uses of Time Magic skewed his sense of the actual passage of time. Chelsea was ably evading Platina’s wicked, morphing metal weapon while blasting flames back at her, keeping Platina from mounting as vicious an offensive as she clearly wanted to. As Platina formed a wide shield to block a burst of fire, Chelsea launched a thin dart of emerald flame through the gap between the shield and the floor. When that tiny dart struck the floor at Platina’s feet, it exploded in a massive cloud of flame. Platina screamed more in shock than pain, leaping back with a wild look on her face, some mixture of terror and rage.
Even more impressive, Chelsea wasn’t only fighting Platina. She was also sending blasts of flame with pinpoint accuracy at Titan and the three unknown Enforcers, putting all four on the back foot as they struggled to fight back against Kathryn and Brutus.
All through that, Shias’ flickering shields burst to brief life at the perfect moments to block dangerous attacks against his allies.
Midnight continued to fight Nyx alone, and it was a frightening battle to behold. Midnight’s daggers and inky black tendrils he could call out from the floors and high ceiling were the same color and jagged appearance as Nyx’s Summon. The ferocious duel looked like a wild cloud of darkness, flashing and convulsing, flickering and writhing.
Hestia and her team were in pitched combat against Athena, the Gold Knight. Hestia knelt at the hearth in the center of the audience chamber, her whole body aglow with orange light that matched the hearth’s coals. That orange glow spread slowly outward, making its way to Galahad, who dueled Athena’s sword directly, and Artemis, who danced around Athena, firing gleaming green arrows at specific spots on her sister’s armor, working on the specific pattern needed to undo the Contract that bound Athena.
Staying back from the battle were Addie and Ingrid, guarded by Mineria, but also by Shias and Ben, who stayed close to them as they focused on support and coordination.
Strangely enough, the bespectacled Royal Guard with the big book was still hanging back from everything, just flipping pages and staring at them with that thoughtful, focused gaze.
What’s his game? What kind of Magic does he use?
Is he participating in the fight already? Using some kind of Support Magic that’s hard or impossible to see?
That gave Caleb an idea, and, two jumps later, he entered Time-state, his gaze focused on the unknown Royal Guard.
He was surrounded by dozens of flickering currents, swirling and spiraling around him, nothing going out from him or coming from elsewhere into him. And there in the center of his book was the pulsing mote of light that marked it as his Talisman.
Everything’s focused on him. What does that mean? Is he building up something? But I don’t know any type of Magic that does that… is he using Guardian Magic, protecting himself just in case? But then why be here at all if he’s just going to stay at the back and shield himself?
Oh. That should be enough.
Caleb knew what he could do with what he’d learned. And now that he knew that much about the unknown Royal Guard, he could turn back to his immediate opponents. Using weighted attack chains, he struck at Void and Neith with a barrage, then stepped out of Time-state to watch them crumple to the floor, unconscious.
Well that wasn’t even fair, was it?
“Shias!” Caleb said, bouncing off a Mobility disc down to where Shias was. He lowered his voice so their foes wouldn’t hear. “The Royal Guard with the book… I don’t know what he’s doing, but the book is his Talisman. Maybe your Divination Magic can pick up more about him.”
Shias nodded. “I’ll figure him out,” he said.
“Greyson!” came the yell of Chase.
Caleb sighed. “Gotta go,” he said. “You’re doing great. Keep it up!” He grinned at Shias’ smile, then leapt into the air, his flip arcing towards Chase. When he landed, he glared at his once friend and mentor. “I thought we were on a first-name basis. What’s with the shift, Fredricks?”
“Why do you keep ignoring me?” Chase asked. “Why do you fight the others, and treat me as trivial?”
“It’s not because you’re trivial,” Caleb said. “It’s because I don’t want to fight you. Come on, Chase. Leave the Radiance. You don’t belong here. Come back to Grimoire, talk to Mister Crowley. Get your mind right.”
“My mind is more right than it’s ever been,” Chase said. “You don’t see. You could join me, you could be a —”
“A god, yeah, you keep saying that,” Caleb said, heaving a sigh. “We’re only human, Chase. All these powers? They don’t change that. Don’t try to be what you aren’t, don’t chase things you can’t be. Keep pretending to be a god, and you’ll come crashing down to earth.”
Chase smirked. “By your hand, I presume? It would prove nothing for you to be the one who defeats me.”
“You’re even talking differently. Trying to fit in with your new best friends?” Caleb shook his head. “Sorry, Chase. I don’t have a ton of time to bicker with you. We’ll have to continue this conversation later.”
“I’ll overcome your Time Magic,” Chase said, his scarf glowing with magical light. Wind whistled around him, and he started to fly, slowly lifting up off of the floor. “I’ll show you just how powerful I can be!”
“It’s hard to take you seriously when you talk and act so grandiose,” Caleb said, shaking his head.
And if getting beaten by Time Magic won’t mean anything to you, then I’ll knock you senseless without it.
Thunder rumbled, and Caleb took that as a cue to take the fight elsewhere. He didn’t like the idea of lightning bolts zipping around this interior arena. So he used a Bounce Disc to launch him out the large window and into open air. Chase followed him, soaring on the wind.
“You know, Caleb,” Chase said, “I know how you are. I know you want to ‘save’ me from my ideals, from my choices. But you aren’t the right hero for this story. There’s nothing you can do to turn me off this path. I’ve never liked you, Caleb. And I’ve never held a fondness for Grimoire. The only thing I ever wanted of that city, you took for yourself. There’s nothing for me there.”
Caleb suppressed a disappointed sigh, not wanting to aggravate Chase further. Not now that he knew what was deeper behind his motivations.
Chelsea. He’s always wanted Chelsea, and she’s never even given him the time of day.
Is that really all this is? Just petty jealousy?
“None of us gets everything we want,” Caleb said. “And what we want can change. We change all the time, Chase. You can change, you can find what really gives you meaning, something that doesn’t feed into an egotistical desire to lord over everyone else. There’s a lot of beauty in Grimoire, a lot of beauty to its people, that you’ve never seen, but you can. Just come back with me. Give it another chance.”
“Enough,” Chase said, and there was a sadness in his voice. He shook his head, not meeting Caleb’s gaze. “That’s more than enough, Caleb. This is where I belong. I live and die with my King. This is what I was meant for.”
“Chase, come on!” Caleb cried, hands balled into fists. “Don’t lose yourself in —”
“Goodbye, Caleb,” Chase said. Thunder rolled, and Caleb bounced himself skyward into a sphere of Mobility Discs, staying always on the move as a trio of forked lightning bolts streaked down from magical storm clouds. Two shot right past him, making his hair stand on end and shocking him with the heat roiling off the electric bolts. The third completely missed, but more lightning was building.
Gotta stay on the —
No! Not now!
Caleb felt it. Like the world was dropping out beneath him, like he was falling sideways even though he wasn’t falling or moving sideways.
Before I go…
Practiced instincts kicked in, and as Caleb blacked out, he was already forming a sequence of Mobility Discs to shield him and keep him moving, hopefully through safe places.
And then he blacked out.
An unknown amount of time later, time that felt to Caleb like the blink of an eye, he was back, hurtling through the sky. Before he got his bearings he collided with a Bounce Disc that launched him to another, knocking the wind out of him with how awkwardly he slammed into it. He rushed to twist around, to look all over and figure out where Chase was, and where the next attack was coming —
Caleb’s eyes went wide as a bright flash filled his vision, and a searing hot blast struck him in the chest. He was blinded, his ears popped and then were ringing, and he was hurtling through the sky with no grasp of where he was or where he was going. He tasted metal, which was the slightest of blessings, distracting him just a little bit from the intense, shocking pain that lanced through his body, pain he couldn’t describe, pain the likes of which he’d never felt before. His whole body went numb, yet he was still blazing with white-hot pain. He thought he was screaming, but he couldn’t know, his ears were still ringing, ringing, ringing…
The first sound he suddenly heard was a friendly voice, peppy and confident, shouting “Got you!” He couldn’t feel with his skin, but he could feel the slowing of his momentum, the descent from his hurtling trajectory, and then a gentle settling onto his back. He blinked furiously, drawing on Enhancement Magic and gritting his teeth as the shock, the heat, slowly faded. His eyesight came back, and he was looking up at the smiling face of Kathryn, blonde hair and bright blue eyes a welcome sight after the terror and pain of the lightning strike.
“You okay?” Kathryn asked.
Caleb opened his mouth to speak, but couldn’t find words. Slowly he sat up, feeling coming back to him, his senses returning. He shook his head, clearing his mind, then opened his mouth again. “Yeah, I’ll get there,” he said, his voice sounding tinny in his ears.
“Thank goodness,” Kathryn said, still smiling. “I’d never hear the end of it from your siblings if I messed up catching you or something.”
Caleb laughed, and Kathryn laughed with him. “Thanks,” he said, pushing himself to his feet, shaking himself off again.
“You bet!” Kathryn replied, her smile infectious as she raced back to her part of the battlefield.
Caleb swayed on his feet, but didn’t fall. His shirt — his new shirt, the one Chelsea had picked out for him — was scorched slightly in the center, but must have had some kind of magical defenses woven into the fabric, because that was all the damage he saw.
I got it way worse than my shirt.
Everything still tasted coppery, and though he could hear, there was a tinny, shrill quality to everything, and a faint ringing underneath it all.
And he hurt. His whole body ached, a strange sort of ache he’d never felt before, he couldn’t describe.
Normal people get killed by lightning. Thank goodness for magic, for Hunter training ensuring I always have at least a little Enhancement Magic going at all times, but…
Yeah, okay. I can’t mess around with Chase anymore.
He lifted his gaze, locking onto Chase who still flew outside, staring intently at Caleb. A pair of lightning bolts streaked forward, but glittering shields flickered in at the perfect moment, the lightning booming as they exploded ineffectually on Shias’ Guardian Magic.
Caleb rolled his shoulders, cracked his neck, grimaced at the pain that just wouldn’t go away.
All right. This is the best I’m gonna be.
Time to go to work.
He launched himself forward, hurtling through the sky off a Bounce Disc, a human rocket locked onto Chase Fredricks. Lightning formed in the sky, but Caleb paid it no heed.
He hurtled right into Time-state, and the lightning stalled in midair, still building energy, giving Caleb all the time in the world.
Maybe you do hate me. Maybe I can’t save you from yourself.
But you’re not dying here. You’re coming back to Grimoire and getting a nice, cozy prison cell. Time, and better men than me, will help you get your mind right.
A dozen weighted attack chains shot out of the sky from all sides of Chase. His face, his body, were pummeled into submission. As Caleb soared past Chase, he grabbed hold of the scarf Talisman and wrenched it free from Chase’s neck, robbing him of his Magic. Turning in midair, watching as storm clouds immediately vanished, as lightning winked out before it could even strike, as Chase showed the first, faintest hints of beginning free fall, Caleb shot back the other way. Cradling the unconscious Chase in his arms, he carried him to the audience chamber and settled him on the floor. It was so quiet, so still here in Time-state.
“We’re not gods,” Caleb said softly, laying Chase’s head gently on the floor. “We’re only human. You’ll see that. And you’ll abandon your arrogant dream.”
Caleb stood as he exited Time-state, neatly folding Chase’s scarf. He opened a small Conjuring portal and gently placed the scarf inside, a secret place for safekeeping. There was nothing else in there — Caleb didn’t make any use of Conjuring Magic, and only had that small portal, that tiny magical room, because he’d wanted to know he could do it so long ago — and so the scarf rested there alone.
“You’re going back to Grimoire, Chase,” he said as he closed the portal. “You’ll learn to love the city. You’ll learn to love the people.”
He looked at the battle raging around him, and then to the stairs leading up the throne room where Shana waged her lonely battle.
“You won’t die with the Radiant King,” he said. “You’ll live a long life, a human life, learning to embrace your humanity.” He smiled, even though he didn’t feel it. “Maybe you do hate me. But I’m not going to abandon you.”
Void, Neith, and Chase were out of the fight, but so many foes still remained, and his sister’s fight still continued. Until she had won, Caleb’s fight wasn’t over, either. So he gritted his teeth, pushed down the pain, and marched back into battle.