Sunset Square had a total of twelve protected zones, scattered throughout the city. Clearly, Enchanted didn’t even want to live near them, as the neighborhoods around the zones were practically garbage dumps, with people living in small houses surrounded by trash. It was rare for houses here to even have windows, instead having holes bashed out of the walls for ventilation and vision.
Not that there was much of a view. And letting in the stink wasn’t such a great idea in Caleb’s opinion. Mister Midnight had given him a black face mask rather like a surgical mask, and Caleb greatly appreciated it. The residents of this horrible neighborhood didn’t bother covering their faces, but anyone who had the displeasure of traveling through, or the poor workers tasked with cleaning up the trash as best they could, made sure to wear similar masks.
“What are the protected areas protected from?” Caleb asked.
“They’re not as bad as this,” Midnight said. “We’re almost there.”
They rounded a trash-strewn corner, and Caleb saw a sort of military checkpoint manned by police officers. The trash ended ten yards before the checkpoint, and that area was clear and clean. A waist-high stone wall stretched from left to right, with a passage through the middle that the two officers stood in front of, guarding. Beyond the checkpoint was a place devoid of buildings, instead strewn with tents of all shapes, colors, and sizes. It was decidedly cleaner than the trash heap that surrounded it.
“Mister Midnight?” the police officer on the left asked as the pair approached. “My word, how long has it been?”
“A long time, Roy,” Midnight said. He nodded to Caleb. “I brought a guest.”
“Sure, sure, no problem,” Roy said, turning to the other officer. “Let ‘em on through, Freddy.”
Roy’s partner scowled, his bristly mustache turning downward with his lips. “No tests?” he asked, his voice hoarse and scratchy. “Highly irregular. I don’t approve.”
Roy gave an apologetic smile to Midnight and Caleb. “Freddy’s new and very by the book,” he said.
“It’s called doing our jobs,” Freddy said. “Obeying, upholding, and enforcing the law.”
“Mister Midnight has special privileges,” Roy said. “Surely you’ve heard of him?”
Freddy nodded, glaring at Midnight. “So surely he has a pass,” he said. “And if he brings a guest, he’s required to register him for a guest pass.”
“Look, we can just go to a different zone,” Midnight said, turning to leave.
“Now hold on,” Roy said, casting a pleading look at Freddy. “Look here Freddy, this ain’t a problem, just let ‘em through.”
“If they pass the tests,” Freddy said. He pulled out a small black ledger in one hand, while in his other he held a familiar blue crystal.
Midnight rolled his eyes, and Caleb spied him gesturing with his fingers behind his back. The crystal in Freddy’s hand shattered, its pieces vanishing as they hit the ground. Freddy stared in shock, and then glared at Midnight, who simply shrugged.
“Willfully flaunting the law and the enforcers of said law!” Freddy yelled, his face glowing a shade of crimson.
“I don’t know why you’re blaming us,” Midnight said. “Faulty crystals are more common than you’d think.”
“Faulty crys-“ Freddy started, but he was so livid he couldn’t even finish his sentence. He pointed at Midnight and Caleb while glaring at Roy. “They still need to be searched!”
“Like I said, we can just go somewhere else,” Midnight said, once more turning to leave.
“You’re under arrest!” Freddy screamed.
“On what charges?” Midnight asked lazily.
“Nothing you can prove,” Roy said. “Come on, Freddy, leave it alone. Mister Midnight’s good.”
“And what about him?” Freddy asked, pointing at Caleb.
“He’s with Mister Midnight, so he’s good too,” Roy said.
“You have no legal basis for that!” Freddy protested.
“And you have no legal basis to keep them waiting,” Roy said.
“I know why you’re protecting them,” Freddy said. He pointed harshly at Caleb. “He must be a human!”
Caleb did his best to keep his face calm. Wearing a mask that covered the lower half of his face helped.
“Even if he were, he wants to go into a protected zone,” Roy said. “Why stop him?”
“Why do you insist on defending the human menace?” Freddy asked.
“Why did you volunteer for zone guard if you hate humans so much?” Roy countered, though his tone made clear they’d had this argument many times and he was sick of it.
“To keep them in!” Freddy shouted, jabbing a shaking finger towards the zone’s interior.
“Did you take your medicine this morning, Freddy?” Roy asked.
“That has nothing to do with this!” Freddy screamed.
“We can go now, right?” Midnight asked, stifling a yawn.
Freddy and Roy spoke at the same time, and Midnight heaved a huge sigh.
“I have more,” Freddy said, pulling from his pocket another blue crystal.
“Now that’s just about enough, Freddy,” Roy said, stepping towards his partner.
“I agree,” Midnight said. His eyes flashed, and a black blur so fast Caleb couldn’t see it flashed behind Freddy’s head. The police officer swooned, and then collapsed on the ground, unconscious.
“Oi, Mister Midnight, you didn’t need to go that far,” Roy said.
“You can take care of him, right, Roy?” Midnight asked.
Roy sighed. “Course I can,” he said. “Go on through. I hope you don’t cause too much trouble.”
Midnight smirked. “Always a pleasure, Roy,” he said. In he went, with Caleb following behind.
Looking around, Caleb was surprised at the state of the protected zone’s occupants. Despite living in tents, with the only places to cook and bathe being outdoor, publicly shared facilities, the people seemed in good spirits. Men and women and children talked and laughed, played and relaxed, not seeming to mind their shabby dwellings and shabbier clothes.
“Who are all these people?” Midnight asked Caleb as he removed his mask. Caleb did the same, happy that he was in breathable air again.
“They’re…” Caleb paused for a moment, wondering why Midnight was asking him. Then he remembered the clues he’d picked up along the way. “Right. They’re…” He stared around the protected zone. “Humans.”
Midnight nodded. “That’s right,” he said. “You might see an Enchanted visiting here and there, but the ones who live here are all humans.”
“Why are they called protected zones?” Caleb asked.
“You’ve seen and heard enough to be able to make an educated guess,” Midnight said.
“To… protect the Enchanted from the humans,” Caleb said, disgusted at the words coming out of his mouth.
“And to protect the humans from Enchanted radicals who would like nothing more than to beat, harass, and possibly worse to any human they find,” Midnight said.
“Why don’t they leave the city?” Caleb asked.
“Ask them yourself,” Midnight replied. “I’ll be up ahead. See that red tent? Turn left there, and there’s a square with a statue. I’ll be there.” He pointed as he explained, and then left Caleb behind.
Caleb walked over to a man and woman about the age of his parents who were playing cards on a tilted, rotted wooden box while they sat on cut logs. “Excuse me,” Caleb said, kneeling down next to their game. “I was just wondering – it’s my first time to Sunset Square – and I just don’t really understand. Why do you live in a place like this? Are you not allowed to leave the city?”
The man rolled his eyes. “Dear,” the woman chided, shooting a quick glare his way. “Don’t be rude.” She turned to Caleb. “I don’t suppose Enchanted would understand.”
“I’m not…” Caleb said. “I mean, I’m human. I’m from Grimoire. From Earth. My name’s Caleb.”
“No kidding?” the man asked, eyes brightening at Caleb’s news. “But then why would you come here?”
“Mister Midnight brought me,” Caleb said. “I’m training under him, and he said he wanted me to see things. To observe and understand.”
“That man seems so mysterious,” the woman said, shaking her head. She held out her hand. “I’m Lissa. This is my husband, David. And we live here… well, because it’s the only place we can live in Sunset Square. For now.”
“But why even live in this city?” Caleb asked. “I don’t understand.”
“Because we long to change things,” David said. He stared out, past the tents, to the skyscrapers beyond. “The Enchanted were badly scarred by the war against the Radiance. Many of them – especially in this city – blamed all of humanity. The wounds run deep, especially in people who live so much longer than most humans. But, well.” David smiled. “Sunset Square’s law enshrines life as the most sacred thing bestowed upon living beings. So despite their fear, and their pain, and their hatred, they refused to kill humans. All of us living here in Sunset Square, we do so because we’ve chosen this life.”
“My parents lived here when I was in college,” Lissa said. “They never said how they found out about the Dominion or Sunset Square, and they thought originally that they’d just stay here for a year or two and do what they could to change public opinion. But they ended up spending the rest of their days here, refusing to leave until the Enchanted could let go of their hate. They didn’t live to see their dream fulfilled, but… well, I hope that we can finish what they started.”
“We are allowed to leave,” David said. “There’s a long process to it, so a few here are still waiting for their request to go through, but that process is just so that humans leaving Sunset Square can leave safely. But ask almost anyone in this zone, or the others. They’ll tell you much the same thing. We’re trying to change Sunset Square. We think if we can do that, it might eventually mean even more.”
Lissa had a far-off look in her eyes, like she was picturing the future she was working towards. “The Enchanted live almost completely cut off from the human world,” she said. “Because of that, so many humans don’t even know the Enchanted Dominion exists. I’d like to see that change. If I could see Enchanted and humans working alongside each other even on Earth… or if my children or grandchildren at least could… that would be something beautiful.”
“Make yourself at home here,” David said. “Maybe not literally, but talk to people. Get to know some of us. See what you think. Maybe you’ll be called here, too.”
“Called?” Caleb asked.
Lissa smiled. “You haven’t heard of being called to something?” she asked. “Like… a voice, a voice you can’t explain, that doesn’t even speak with words you can translate, tells you exactly where to go. It’s like something deep inside you, and from far beyond you, says ‘here is where you belong. This is the work you’re meant to do.’ Something like that.”
Caleb couldn’t say he had experience a calling like Lissa described, but he smiled at her description. It sounded like something truly special.
“Well, you’d better not lose your teacher,” David said. “I hope you have a good stay here.”
Caleb bid the couple farewell and continued on, trying to wrap his mind around this place.
People were willingly living in refugee camps. Not because they were waiting on a proper home, or because they had nowhere else to go, but because they wanted to be here.
They wanted to change people’s hearts and minds.
That’s a lot bigger than what I spend my time doing, Caleb thought as he followed Midnight’s directions. My job since I got out of college has been fighting monsters. And it’s a good job, and it keeps people safe. But… I could never do what these people do. This seems so much more difficult. Lissa’s parents were here before her, and they didn’t even see things change before they died. And now she’s here, and she might face the same fate as them – ending her life without having achieved what she longs for.
But she seems so happy. Caleb smiled. I hope she gets to see Sunset Square change. I hope she gets to see Enchanted welcome her into their city with open arms.
And meanwhile… I just learn to use Time Magic properly.
Why does my mission seem so much smaller?
“Deep thoughts?” Midnight asked, startling Caleb out of his reverie. He’d already reached the square with the statue, and had been walking past it when Midnight came out and stopped him. “You look conflicted.”
Caleb stared at the statue, a strange hodge-podge made out of scrap metal and wood. “I feel conflicted,” he said. “Well… maybe that’s not the right word. I just feel smaller than I ever have.”
“Well, it’s about time you showed some humility,” Midnight said. “Come on. This is why we’re here.”
Leading Caleb into a blue tent covered over with patches, Caleb was startled to find its occupant was someone familiar.
“You’re… Clemson, right?” Caleb asked. The street preacher of sorts sat in the center of the tent, hastily combing over his few remaining strands of hair as he realized he had company.
“That’s me,” he said in his reedy voice, standing up. “Mister Midnight! You… you never do announce yourself, do you?”
“I like surprising people,” Midnight said. “I saw you got yourself in trouble with the authorities today again, Clemson.”
“They’re just –” Clemson started, face flushing as his voice rose.
“I know, I know,” Midnight said, holding up a hand. “I heard what you said. You have it on good authority the Radiant King’s escaped, do you?” Midnight’s eyes flashed with suspicion.
“It’s true!” Clemson crowed, waving his hands. “First my brother heard Mayor Trenton talking about it. Then the external security for Sunset Square started to expand and add to its forces. I met with a messenger from the Crystal Palace – Mineria – and she said the same thing. In fact, she’s no longer a messenger. She says the Crystal Family has been overthrown, and she only barely escaped.”
“If that’s true, why hasn’t word spread?” Midnight asked. “Where is Mineria and why hasn’t she told more people?”
“Mayor Trenton fears a panic,” Clemson said. “She went to him, and he locked her up. She’s in the Brig.”
Midnight growled. “The Brig?” he asked. “You’re not messing with me, are you, Clemson?”
“I wouldn’t dream of it!” Clemson shrieked, raising his hands in alarm. “Honest to goodness gracious, Mister Midnight!”
Midnight looked to Caleb. “The Brig is the second-highest security prison in the entire Dominion,” he said. “And the third-highest in the entire universe, if you can wrap your mind around that. It’s Mayor Trenton’s own personal lockup, for the worst criminals in Sunset Square.” He turned, glaring at Clemson. “Do you have a way in?”
“M-me?” Clemson asked. He shook his head frantically. “Of course not, are you kidding me? That place is unbreachable!”
“But it’s only the second-highest security,” Caleb said. “If it was unbreachable, it would be the best, right?”
“Ah, now you’re getting your pride back,” Midnight said, grinning. “Clemson. Where’d you find out she was in the Brig?”
“Gregory Wilhelm,” Clemson said. “He went to Lady Alexandra with the news. I haven’t seen him or her since. That was two days ago.”
“Oh you’re –” Midnight started, cutting off and throwing up his hands in frustration. “Alexandra? Why’s it have to be her?”
“You two don’t get along?” Caleb asked.
Midnight sighed, staring at the floor of the tent. “It’s… complicated,” he said.
“She’d like to see you,” Clemson said in a quiet voice, shrinking back as Midnight glared at him.
“Mineria,” Caleb said. “She’s important, right?”
Midnight nodded. “She may be the only one who knows what’s really going on,” he said. “If the Radiant King is free, and if the Crystal Family is overthrown, then that means he’s putting together his master plan. Probably revenge for being imprisoned and exiled. I don’t know. The point is, we need to know more. And Mineria is our best chance.”
“Does Lady Alexandra hate humans?” Caleb asked.
Midnight and Clemson stared at Caleb. “What are you getting at?” Midnight asked. “You’re not thinking about –”
“It’s important, right?” Caleb asked. “She knows where Mineria is. If you can’t talk to her, then as long as she’s okay with a human, I could go, right?”
“Just like that, you’re all about saving Mineria?” Midnight asked.
Caleb nodded. “I fought Void, remember?” he asked. “And you told me all about the Radiance. If they’re putting together some kind of master plan, we have to stop them. Mineria’s the key to that, it seems.”
“But she’s –” Clemson started.
“In a nearly unbreachable prison,” Caleb said. “I get it.” He looked at Midnight, smiling. “Well? What do you say?”
Midnight scowled. “Well… you can’t talk to her alone,” he said. “She won’t believe you came from me unless she sees me in the flesh. So… if you’re really sure…” Midnight let out a hiss of breath, turning to Clemson. “Look, is there anyone other than Alexandra who would know as much as she does, and has the connections she has?”
Clemson blinked several times in confusion. “You know there isn’t, Mister Midnight,” he said.
Midnight let out a long sigh. “Yeah, I know,” he said bitterly. He looked to Caleb. “Well, kid? You sure you want to start this? Honestly, I still have more to do in the city, and I wanted you to see more…”
“I’m starting to understand,” Caleb said. “And you can still teach me more and show me more on the way. If you think we can’t do this, then I’ll follow your lead. But it seems to me it’s more that you don’t want to.”
Midnight sighed once again. “Alexandra’ll like you, kid,” he said. Clemson nodded in agreement. “All right. I guess that’s our best bet. But look.” He jabbed a finger into Caleb’s chest. “Don’t you dare miss a dose of your medicine. And if things are as difficult as they probably are, I might leave you behind. You’re not at your best right now.”
Caleb nodded. “I understand,” he said. “So? When do we go?”
Midnight sighed, clearly reluctant. “Might as well get it over with right now,” he said. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a small leather bag, and tossed it to Clemson. It jingled with the sound of metal. “Thanks, Clemson. I’ll see you around. If I survive.”
“Don’t be such a pessimist,” Clemson said. “Like I said, she wants to see you. It’s been a long time, from what I hear. You –”
Clemson was suddenly shut up by a black, inky tendril that shot down from the tent’s ceiling and wrapped around the man’s mouth. Midnight glared at the street preacher. “Not another word, you,” he said, voice soft but threatening. “We’re leaving.” The black tendril vanished, and Midnight left the tent, Caleb close behind.
“Will you do the same to me if I say too much?” Caleb asked, chuckling.
“You laugh,” Midnight said, shaking his head. “Ah, what would be the point, Greyson? You’re supposed to talk. Besides, pretty soon you’ll know more about me than I ever wanted you to.”
Caleb raised an eyebrow. “Why’s that?” he asked.
Midnight let out a long, pained sigh. “Alexandra…” he said slowly. He closed his eyes, and let out another breath. “She’s…”
“Come on, out with it,” Caleb said, laughing at this strange side to his teacher.
Midnight stared up at the sky. “Yeah, you’re right,” he said. “Alexandra’s my sister.”
“You have a –” Caleb started, only to be muffled by one of Midnight’s magical black tendrils.
“Sorry, habit,” Midnight said, shaking his head as the tendril vanished. “You were about to say something annoying. Come on. Let’s get this over with.”