“Oh, this is beautiful.”
Caleb marveled at the park that sprawled out before them. Several multi-tiered fountains sprayed water into the air. Flowers were everywhere, splashing color across the gently sloping terrain, and a large lake served as the centerpiece of the park. An arching bridge crossed it, and Midnight led the way towards the crossing.
“Our destination is just beyond this park,” Midnight said. “How are you feeling?”
“I’m fine,” Caleb said, puzzled yet again at his strange episodes during the fight with Neith. “I don’t really get what –”
Caleb stopped in his tracks. Across the bridge, coming straight towards him, was someone he’d never expected to see in the Enchanted Dominion. She’d noticed him, too, and had stopped as well, leaving the pair of them staring awkwardly at each other, uncertain of what to say.
“Fae?” Caleb asked.
His sister made a face. “Obviously,” she said.
Caleb offered a smile. “It’s good to see you.”
Fae looked away, shuffling her feet. “Thanks.”
Fae nodded. “I’m fine.” She turned to leave, walking back the way she’d come.
“Weren’t you coming this way?” Caleb asked.
Fae stopped, sharing a brief, hushed conversation with the three girls with her. Caleb thought the three looked familiar, though he couldn’t place them. They were hard to forget, what with their vibrant hair colors – one a bright blonde, another red, the third blue.
“I heard you were training your Time Magic,” Fae said, turning back to Caleb. She nodded to Midnight. “Is he your teacher?”
Midnight nodded. “Mister Midnight,” he said. “Charmed.”
“What brought you all the way here?” Caleb asked.
“I’m on a…” Fae hesitated, pursing her lips in thought. “It’s a long story.”
“I’ve got time,” Caleb said.
“No you don’t,” Midnight muttered under his breath, casting a sharp glance Caleb’s way.
Fae shook her head. “I gotta go,” she said. “Good luck with your training.”
How long had it been since Caleb had had a conversation with his oldest sister? This is the most they’d spoken to each other in at least a year. Was she really just going to leave already?
“I’ll miss you,” Caleb said, practically stumbling over his words as Fae and her three colorful friends passed him. “Take care of yourself. It’s a dangerous city.”
“She’ll be fine,” the blonde said, flashing a dazzlingly white smile. “We’ve got her back.”
“Bye,” Fae said softly, waving briefly over her shoulder.
And then she was disappearing across the park, as if she’d never even been there.
“You okay, kid?” Midnight asked.
“I just…” Caleb said, letting out a slow breath. “I miss my family.” He gritted his teeth, turning back to the path ahead of him as he swallowed the emotions that threatened to overtake him. “Let’s go.”
“You want to follow your sister?” Midnight asked, not continuing along the path yet.
Caleb shook his head. “She doesn’t want that. Come on, let’s go.”
“Suit yourself.” Midnight led the way again.
“So where’s your sis–”
“Alexandra.” Midnight shot a glare at Caleb. “She’s still a ways.”
“So what’s between you and Alexandra?” Caleb asked. “I mean… you’re family.”
“Family’s a fickle thing,” Midnight said. “It doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. I sympathize with you wanting to be closer to your sister. But don’t project your family experiences onto me.”
“Clemson said she wanted to see you.”
Midnight growled low in his throat. “The feeling is not mutual.”
Caleb sighed. Hopefully when he met Alexandra, he’d be able to get a better sense of what was going on between the estranged siblings. Was it like the reverse of Caleb and Fae? Could Caleb get a better understanding of why Fae was the way she was by paying attention to his teacher?
Why can’t siblings just… be siblings?
Fae… please be safe.
They walked across the park, eventually diverging from the main thoroughfare to take a side path to a less populated section of the city. Passing between smaller and less flashy buildings with every block, eventually they were in a sort of suburb, with simple two- and three-story houses spaced out enough to have enough grass to call a yard, but otherwise the homes seemed rather crammed together.
They didn’t go more than two block through this suburb before they arrived at a ruined section of the city. There was construction, clean-up, and renovation at work, but it was clear that there was still much to do. While car-drawn carts filled to the brim with bricks, scorched metal, and miscellaneous debris drove away, there were still mountains of ruined homes and buildings left in this place. Two homes were in the process of construction, and Caleb marveled at the way the workers went about it.
Up on scaffolding, builders used hammers and nails, screwdrivers and screws, to fit pieces together. That was perfectly normal. But then there were pieces of metal that needed welding together, yet there wasn’t a welding torch in sight. Instead, the men in charge stretched out their hands, and flames appeared in the air, swirling around the welding spot, increasingly gaining speed and intensity, changing colors from red to orange to blue, to nearly translucent. After a few seconds, the flames dissipated and the welders took a breather and examined their work.
In the clean-up crews, more Elemental Magic was at work, as men and women blasted dirty spaces with high-pressure jets of water that shot out of thin-air. Containment Magic seemed at play as rings of blue light contracted, squashing trash and debris together to make for more compact transportation of it.
Midnight led Caleb beyond the site of clean-up and construction, to even more ruins beyond. Now that the constant walls of tall buildings so close together were gone, Caleb was completely stunned.
The city of Sunset Square was already a massive place, easily rivaling any major city on Earth. And yet now Caleb looked at what could very well be the size of another city entirely.
It was completely in ruins.
Devastation stretched out for miles and miles. Towers had toppled, houses had crumbled, businesses had been razed to the ground. Wrecked cars and signs and street lamps littered the street. Fires spontaneously roared to life, only to burn themselves out within seconds, leaving a scorched crater in their wake.
And on and on it stretched, to the horizon and beyond.
“What…” Caleb started, but he couldn’t find any words.
“This is the first Sunset Square,” Midnight said. “The primary battleground of the war against the Radiance. Behind you, the city we went through, is almost entirely newly built. At first, the residents wanted to leave this place behind. They felt it was haunted, a painful memory of a dark past. But recently, attitudes have shifted, so they’ve started cleaning and reclaiming it.”
“They’ve got a lot of work ahead of them,” Caleb said softly.
Midnight nodded, murmuring his agreement.
“Alexandra lives out here?” Caleb asked.
“Not exactly,” Midnight said. “But there’s an entrance to her home from here. She’s lived in Sunset Square for a long time.”
“Did you grow up here, too?”
“No, no. Neither of us did. We were both already adults by the time of the war, and had gone separate ways. Alexandra had put down roots here, while I’d become apprenticed to the previous master of Midnight Bridge.”
“You used to be an apprentice?”
Midnight chuckled. “Everyone starts somewhere, kid. Come on. We’re not here to talk about my story.”
Caleb followed Midnight’s every step, wondering how the man could so easily find his way through the vast, haphazard wreckage. Not even once could Caleb ever see the road beneath the scars of war. He stumbled up and over piles of bricks, carefully picked his way through fields of sharp-edged scrap metal, all the while following after Mister Midnight.
“Whenever you get a chance,” Midnight said, breaking the long silence, “I want you to think about how you fight. There’s a major flaw in your style. Do you know what it is?”
Caleb frowned. “No,” he said honestly. “I just thought Neith and Void were both too strong for me as long as I didn’t have Time Magic.”
“Say those last two words again,” Midnight said, holding up two fingers.
Caleb, puzzled, obliged. “Time Magic.”
Midnight snapped his fingers. “That’s the flaw.”
“I… don’t understand. Aren’t you supposed to teach me how to properly use Time Magic?”
“How often, before coming to find me, did you ever fight without using Time Magic?”
Caleb thought about that at length. Slowly, he started to realize what Midnight was getting at.
“I’ve used my Mobility discs a lot,” he said. “I move around just fine without it. But when I fight…” He shook his head. “Almost never.”
“So? Do you realize why that’s a problem?”
Another long stretch of thought, as Caleb ducked under a crumbling archway. His eyes slowly widened. “I always have forever to think about what to do,” he said. “I can take in the whole situation, and I can make decisions at my own pace, without any real pressure.”
“Now you’re getting it,” Midnight said. Caleb thought he saw his teacher smile for a moment. “Keep that in your mind whenever you have a chance for idle thought. Because that’s the first hurdle we’re going to have to get over in teaching you how to fight.”
Caleb held his tongue, despite wanting to instantly reply. He always wanted to talk. He didn’t take much time to think, and Midnight seemed to be trying to curb that instinct. So he kept silent, taking in the increasingly bleaker surroundings as a part of his mind dwelled on his fighting style, and just how much his unique qualities – being the only living human Time Mage – had inadvertently held him back.
“Here we are,” Midnight said, stopping abruptly. The rubble beneath his feet jostled for a moment, and then settled.
Caleb looked around the space. It was difficult to recognize at a glance, but they were inside the remains of a ruined building. Where the four walls had once stood tall was still recognizable, thanks to strong foundations that left the last bits of wall still standing. The rubble within was littered with glass of many colors, and quite a lot of wood, chipped and splintered in millions of pieces.
“Magic was first gifted to the Enchanted Dominion,” Midnight said, his voice taking on a quiet, reverent tone. “The land itself is imbued with life. This city is, quite literally, scarred. It can remember what happened. And with the right touch, and proper skill, one can step into those memories and see for themselves.” He knelt down, touching the ground with his hand. Light pulsed through the devastated building, a ripple of green that transformed the space. Walls grew several feet higher – one wall even rising an entire story. Windows were repaired – stained glass showing beautiful images. And the floor was partially cleared, with some of the wood forming into a long bench.
The building was a church, ruined and hollowed out, but still standing. And in the ruins, people came into being.
These people weren’t completely solid, like Caleb and Midnight. They were translucent, and had a greenish tinge to their forms, but they were otherwise real enough for Caleb to be absorbed into what he was seeing.
The first person was a girl, sitting on the bench, her head in her hands as she sobbed. Caleb didn’t need to see her face to know who she was. Her slight build and long, raven curls were instantly recognizable.
“Ingrid,” Caleb said softly.
Standing in front of Ingrid was a man that Caleb also recognized: Void. His pale face was fixed in a sneer, and his arms were folded across his chest.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, his icy voice cruel and callous. “You thought you could find refuge somewhere? You know the King has been looking for you for a very long time.”
“I don’t even know who he is,” Ingrid said, shaking her head. “What King? Who are you? What do you people want from me?”
Void scowled. “That doesn’t make much sense,” he muttered. Then, louder, “What do you mean you don’t know us?”
“I’ve never seen you before,” Ingrid said, her voice pleading. “My parents… they’ll come for me… please. I’m just waiting for my parents.”
“Your parents?” Void scoffed. “So someone fooled you into –”
“Away from her!”
The cry came from Midnight’s voice, and suddenly a memory version of Mister Midnight burst onto the scene. He didn’t stop in the aisle and confront Void or wait for his reply, like they do in Saturday morning cartoons. Midnight came charging at Void instantly, leaping at him faster than Void could react. From Midnight’s incredible speed and his blurred, inconstant form, Caleb could tell that he was employing Time Magic. The fight, if you could call it a fight, was over in less than a second, so fast Caleb couldn’t even follow it. One moment, Void was standing over Ingrid. The next, he was crumpled against the far wall, blood trailing from his forehead, his jaw, and his shoulders, eyes lolling dazedly.
“Clear out of here, you filth,” Midnight said, glaring down at Void.
“She…” Void said, groaning as he weakly pointed at Ingrid. “She belongs to… the King…”
“She’s a child,” Midnight said. “Not property. Now leave.”
Void, seeing he was beaten, gripped his cane. It pulsed with light, and Void vanished through one of his strange black portals.
Midnight turned to Ingrid, kneeling down before her. “Are you all right?” he asked. His voice was clearer than Caleb knew it, like he’d gone a bit raspy between this memory and the present day, but it was also kinder. There was a warmth to him that Caleb hadn’t seen in the Midnight he knew.
“I’m…” Ingrid said softly, looking up at Midnight. “I’m not hurt. I’m just… scared. Where are my parents?”
“Not here, but I could find them for you,” Midnight said. “Who are they?”
“Rodney and Brathilda,” Ingrid said. “The Gabblens.”
A look of disgust and rage flashed across Midnight’s face. “They’re your –” he started, then shook his head. “Look, kid. Do you know why that man was after you?”
Ingrid shook her head. “I don’t know anything,” she said. “I…” She tapped her forehead. “My memory isn’t so good. Daddy says it’s because I’m clumsy. I trip, I hit my head a lot…”
“What’s the earliest memory you have?” Midnight asked.
“I…” Ingrid sat back, thinking for a moment. “I remember Daddy pulling me out of the garbage. I don’t remember how I got there. He was… happy. I don’t know why.” She looked at Midnight curiously. “Thank you for saving me, sir, but… who are you? And why do you want to know about me?”
Midnight held up a blue crystal that Caleb knew quite well. “Do you know what this is?” Ingrid shook her head. “Can you breathe on it?” Ingrid did as she was told, and the crystal turned from blue to red. Midnight nodded, tossing the crystal away, out through a shattered window into the ruined city beyond.
Suddenly, the memory halted, like someone had hit the pause button. The Midnight of the present day stood, walking over to where his younger counterpart and Ingrid were.
“This was days before the war was ended,” Midnight said. “I wasn’t part of the war, I just… came here. It’s not important. But while here, I heard here and there about the fool’s gods seeking out a girl – a chantlen. That’s our word for what you’d call teenagers. Something seemed off about it to me, and I certainly wasn’t about to let monsters abduct a kid. But my instincts brought me to search out the truth, so… anyway. Here’s the rest.”
The memory resumed, with Midnight sitting down next to Ingrid. “Can I do something?” he asked. “I have an ability. I can look into memories. I have a feeling there’s something very special about you. Do you mind if I take a look?”
“Something special?” Ingrid asked, staring up at Midnight. She smiled. “No one’s ever called me that. You can look.”
Midnight placed his thumb and ring finger against Ingrid’s forehead. “Close your eyes,” he said, and Ingrid obliged.
Suddenly, the memory building faded, and Caleb was looking at a fast-moving montage that appeared to be Ingrid’s life. The first thing that struck him was her home.
She’d lived in Grimoire.
That made sense. Caleb had come to the conclusion that Ingrid was an Eternal, and Midnight said they’d all come from Grimoire. But seeing it with his own eyes was still startling. She’d lived not too far away from Greyson Manor, in what Caleb and his siblings called “the house on the hill.”
There were lots of houses on lots of hills, but this one was special to them. While many of Grimoire’s hills had several houses, built not just on them, but into them, clustered together as a sort of mini-neighborhood, this house stood alone. It was sort of a mini-manor – three stories tall, with a wonderful yard, and lots of flowers. Even looking into Ingrid’s repressed memories, a childhood that must have been centuries ago, the house on the hill looked almost exactly the same. Ingrid, as a teenager, looked so happy, and she had wonderful loving parents. She even had a brother and sister.
And then, tragedy struck. A man whose face was hidden from view said words that Caleb couldn’t hear to Ingrid and her siblings. The three kids nodded, following after the shadowy man.
Inside a dark basement of some unknown building, the kids finally realized what they’d gotten into. They tried to run, but the man wouldn’t let them – and he had several accomplices to help him restrain the children. One by one, the three siblings were strapped down to operating tables.
What happened next was a haze. There were flashing lights, blurred forms, a disorienting kaleidoscope of color and confusion, and then…
Ingrid was alone. Let up from the operating table, she looked around her, only to find her brother and sister weren’t moving.
She screamed, and many images flashed by. A glowing portal opened up, and Ingrid – along with many other people, including the shadowy man – were sucked away, leaving Grimoire behind.
Ingrid was alone.
Again, and again, and again, she was alone.
She wandered through a snowy forest.
She cried in a rain-swept street.
She tumbled down many, many stairs.
And then, she was in the garbage. And Rodney Gabblen discovered her, his greasy, rat-like face sneering down at her.
Suddenly, Ingrid’s memories vanished, returning the memory scene to Midnight and Ingrid in the ruined church.
“Do you remember anything?” Midnight asked.
Ingrid shook her head. “No,” she said. “What did you see?”
Midnight pursed his lips, seeming to carefully consider his words. Then he stood up, offering Ingrid a smile. “What would you say to working for me, kid?” he asked. “I can keep you safe from the people who are after you, and I can pay you well.”
Ingrid shuffled her feet, staring at the floor. “Well…” she said, bobbing her head from side to side in thought. “Could you give the money I earn to my parents?”
Midnight looked like he was fighting the urge to vomit, but he nodded. “Sure, kid,” he said. “Don’t worry. They’ll be fine. You want to leave this city anyway, right? It’s a wreck.”
Ingrid turned away, looking longingly out at the devastated streets. “I…” She let out a long sigh. “Yes. I suppose I’d be better off elsewhere.”
Slowly, the memory faded, until Caleb and Midnight were left alone in the ruined, unrecognizable remains of the church.
“I know it isn’t all clearly shown,” Midnight said, looking away from Caleb. “But I hope you understand better now. Understand just what the fool’s gods did. Ingrid, she’s…”
“Lucky to have you,” Caleb said, smiling.
Midnight chuckled. “Sure,” he said. “You ready?”
“To meet your –” Caleb stopped himself. “To meet Alexandra? Sure.”
“Then follow me. It’s not much farther.”
Caleb walked alongside Midnight, navigating through an automobile graveyard, winding through the twisted, warped remains of vehicle after vehicle.
“Why show me Ingrid’s past?” Caleb asked.
Midnight shrugged. “Do I need a reason?” he asked. Caleb kept silent, and eventually Midnight sighed. “We’re in this together, Caleb. And… someone else ought to know about her. Someone good, unlike her parents and the Radiance. I may not always be there for her. Not that I’m asking you to take responsibility, I just… you’re a good kid, Caleb. She could use someone nice in her life.”
At every turn, Caleb seemed to learn more and more about his teacher. “You can count on me,” he said, smiling. “I’ll do everything I can for her.”