While Alexandra led Caleb and Mister Midnight up to the solar – an upper room in her extravagant mansion – Caleb’s mind dwelled on his new physical state.
That one word described Caleb as he was now. It was hard to come to terms with that. Being defined by brokenness wasn’t something Caleb had ever considered. And yet, with one little word, Mister Midnight had upended Caleb’s entire sense of self.
His eyes would never be the same again. The same went for much of the rest of his internal organs.
What would the rest of his life look like? He’d been gung-ho about continuing his Time Magic training with Midnight earlier, despite his condition, but…
Could he really do that? Was he now a liability?
If he was such a liability, why would Midnight be so open to Caleb fighting alongside him? From the earlier conversation, it seemed apparent that Midnight had known about Caleb’s condition for a while, and that, despite the medicine he’d provided, Caleb would never fully recover.
And yet he didn’t seem to care nearly as much as Alexandra. His confidence in Caleb hadn’t seemed to diminish in the slightest.
I want to just move forward, to keep up my spirits like I always do. But last time I thought everything was fine, I ended up collapsing and nearly dying, transported far away from the people I was trying to protect.
I can’t afford to not take this seriously.
Up the stairs they climbed, and Caleb continued to be stunned by the opulence of Alexandra’s home. Nearly everything was gold or silver, shimmering and shining in a way that made Caleb’s eyes hurt – though at this point, he couldn’t know if that pain was due to bright lights or his own Fractured condition. And that was a very troubling realization.
They passed several other floors along the way – Caleb counted as they went, and they must be on the eighth floor by now – before Alexandra stopped them, departing from the stairs into a corridor. Caleb was the last off the steps, and he peered up the spiraling case, still not seeing a top.
The corridor seemed to be one of Caleb’s favorite architectural designs: a “hallway-bridge,” as he liked to call them. There were windows on both sides, flooding the corridor with light and letting Caleb look out onto Sunset Square. They were certainly high up, and with no skyscrapers for at least a mile around – Alexandra’s home was surrounded by a gigantic, open park – it made the mansion seem that much taller. This hallway-bridge continued on for a while before coming to a new building, where it branched off into three directions – two different rooms and a spiraling staircase. Alexandra led them to the room to the right, and Caleb was momentarily blinded. There were floor-to-ceiling windows on three walls, and the slanted ceiling was nothing but windows. The golden light of sunlight flooded the solar, and it took Caleb several moments for his eyes to adjust.
If she’s so concerned about my eyes, she could have given me sunglasses.
“Now Caleb, sit here,” Alexandra said, leading Caleb to a chair by the right wall of windows. It was facing the windows, meaning Caleb couldn’t avoid the light if he tried. “Stay very still and look right at me, please.” Alexandra sat across from Caleb, and she took off his glasses, leaning forward and peering straight into his eyes.
It was unnerving. Alexandra was kind and gracious, and when Caleb wasn’t staring at her eyes, he felt perfectly at ease. But, just like with Mister Midnight, staring into her eyes changed his entire attitude about her. The tiny black pinpricks at the center of her eyes seemed to expand the longer he looked into them, swirling with a rhythmic motion that pulled him in against his will.
“Please stay still,” Alexandra said, pressing against his shoulders so Caleb sat back against the chair. He hadn’t realized he’d been physically leaning forward.
“Gotta watch our eyes,” Midnight said. “Humans can’t handle them.”
“Well, he only has to handle them for a few more seconds,” Alexandra said. She touched his arm gently. “Just hang in there, Caleb. I’m almost finished.”
Almost finished with what?
Finally, Alexandra sat back and stood up, freeing Caleb from her hypnotic stare. She looked past him to the one of her maids who had followed them to the solar. “Adelaida, take this and get some proper glasses made for Caleb, please,” she said, handing off a piece of paper.
“Wait, you’re an optometrist?” Caleb asked.
Alexandra smiled. “It’s a hobby.”
“You have an awful lot of hobbies,” Midnight said dryly.
Alexandra glared daggers at her brother. “Well excuse me for being locked in this mansion with nowhere else to go. Of course I have lots of hobbies, how else would I keep my sanity since my own brother never visits me!”
“You can’t leave here?” Caleb asked, joining the bickering siblings at the round table in the center of the room. There was a vase in the center of the table filled with lovely white and yellow flowers that sent a sweet fragrance through the room.
“Because of her temporal displacement,” Midnight said. “This house is designed to help her stay in one place. If she set foot out the door, she’d be lost to the river of time. Best case scenario, she’d end up at one of the chronolytical Locations, but that’s no guarantee.”
“Which is why I depend on my family visiting me,” Alexandra said, pouting. “Honestly, Lance, what do you have against your only sister? Ever since mother left –”
“Do we really need to drag Caleb into our family squabbles?” Midnight asked, clearly growing uncomfortable.
“You never visit, otherwise we could have had this ‘squabble’ another time,” Alexandra said. “And we’re not bringing Caleb into it. He’s just present for it. There’s a difference.”
“Come on, now,” Midnight said, leaning back in his chair, staring at the ceiling. “We have actually important matters to discuss, here.”
“Me missing you is an important matter,” Alexandra said. “Whether you like it or not, we’re family. And whether you like it or not, I quite like you, Lance. I only wish I knew what you had against me.”
“I don’t have anything against you,” Midnight said. “I just like being alone.”
“So why are you so nice to Caleb? And I hear you have a young girl working as your apprentice, too. But you ‘like being alone,’ or so you say.”
“Your information network is as annoying as ever.”
“And your manners are as disreputable as ever.” Alexandra gave a little hmph of frustration, turning away from her brother as Adelaida returned to the solar with a pair of glasses in hand. “Ah, thank you very much. Caleb, dear, try these on.”
Caleb wasn’t sure how he felt about a stranger calling him “dear,” but Alexandra was nice enough, so he let it slide. Taking the offered glasses, he compared them first to his current pair, holding one in either hand.
“They’re practically identical,” he said. Both had a narrow, softly rounded rectangular frame, and both were jet black. The only difference were the lenses – the new pair’s lenses seemed to change color when he turned it different directions, slightly tinting from blue, to red, to yellow.
“I thought you seemed rather fond of your current frames and style,” Alexandra said.
Caleb smiled. “Yeah, I am, thank you.” He put down his old pair and put on the new one.
The world completely changed for him. The bright glare of the solar faded, and yet it didn’t lose any of its vibrance. In fact, colors seemed to pop out at him in a way they never had before. The walls, floors, and decor had seemed nothing but gold and white with sparks of silver, but now Caleb saw there were so many colors interwoven into the paint, the carpets, the tiles, and everything else. Flecks of green and blue jumped out at him. Splashes of red ignited across his vision. He stood up, walking to the nearest window to stare out across the city.
Red and gold, orange and green, blue and silver, and so much more. The city was full of color. The gleaming splashes from the perpetually setting sun were like waves of golden flame. Though Caleb could name each of the colors he saw, he’d never seen them like this. Somehow, the brightness had faded, and yet the colors had not. He could see clearly just how vibrant, how eye-popping, how utterly beautiful this city, this house, perhaps even the entire Enchanted Dominion was. He held his hands up to his face, and even these seemed to be more alive, more full of color and texture and substance than they had ever looked to him before.
“This is…” Caleb said softly, yet he was unable to find the right words. “Pardon the cliché, but it’s true – it’s like I’m seeing the world for the first time.”
“I was hoping you’d like them,” Alexandra said.
“Westward Glass comes from the shores of the very farthest reaches of the Enchanted Dominion,” Midnight said. “There’s no other glass like it. It’s more alive with magic than perhaps any other substance in the universe. What you’re seeing right now is how the Enchanted see the world.”
“More than that,” Alexandra said. “You’re seeing the world in its truest form, more than even Enchanted often do.”
“And more importantly,” Midnight said, “these help offset your Fracturing. Magic was separated from your eyes, and can never return. But these lenses serve as a bridge – they connect your Fractured eyes to the magic around you, helping to prevent further damage.”
“Is everything really this colorful?” Caleb asked, turning back to the table, unable to suppress a huge smile. “Is everything really so… so…”
Midnight smiled. “Sure is, kid.”
Caleb turned to Alexandra, doing his best attempt at a bow – he never bowed, not to anyone, but for some reason it just felt like the right way to express his gratitude here. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you so much. This is incredible.”
Alexandra laughed, waving Caleb away. “Oh you’re very welcome. Now sit down, sit down. We have much to discuss.”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you all this time,” Midnight said.
“Don’t start up with me again,” Alexandra said, glaring at her brother. “Honestly. If you have something so important to do, perhaps you shouldn’t be so rude to your sister, especially since you came to me asking for help.”
Caleb leaned across the table, holding a hand to the side of his mouth so Alexandra wouldn’t see, and whispered as gently as he could: “It’s worth a try, isn’t it? She’s your sister.”
Midnight’s glare was fierce, but it was a look that Caleb was growing more and more used to seeing. He met the glare with a level gaze as he sat back in his seat.
Midnight looked away first, sighing. “So,” he said, glancing at his sister. “What do you know about Mineria? And how do we go about rescuing her?”
“Well, Mineria came to me quite distressed,” Alexandra said. “She’d fled the Crystal Palace with an urgent – and probably final – message from the Crystal Family: ‘The Radiant King has escaped. The Crystal Palace is taken. Prepare for a second war. Prepare for the prophecy to come true.’ And that was all she could bring to me officially, but she had plenty to say for herself, unofficially. She was there as the Palace was being taken. She barely escaped with her life.”
“Does she know how the Radiance escaped?” Midnight asked. “They were locked in the deepest, darkest, most secure vault of the Fault Line Dungeon.”
“She doesn’t know,” Alexandra said. “Even the Crystal King couldn’t believe it, let alone understand how it happened. It was a complete surprise to everyone. There was no warning. On the day of the Lunar Festival –”
“Lunar Festival?” Caleb asked. “We have that back in Grimoire.”
Midnight smirked. “Then it makes sense, doesn’t it?” he asked.
Alexandra nodded. “There’s a Lunar Festival honored by the Crystal Family and their closest subjects every full moon. You see, there’s a single moon that orbits the Crystal Palace, and it goes through cycles much like Earth’s moon, though one cycle is much longer than those of Earth’s moon. So for the Radiance to attack on the day of the Lunar Festival…”
“They are from Grimoire, after all,” Midnight said.
“The Festival is one of the only days that the Crystal Family leaves the royal quarters of the Palace and walks among the people,” Alexandra said. “It’s when they would be most vulnerable to an ambush. From what Mineria told me, the Radiance didn’t stop with the Crystal Family, either. The casualties were…” Alexandra closed her eyes, “terrible.”
“The last Lunar Festival was quite some time ago,” Midnight said. He leaned his elbows on the table, resting his chin in his hands. “So why haven’t we seen much activity by the Radiance since then?”
“I don’t know anything about that,” Alexandra said. “Neither did Mineria.”
“Some members of the Radiance have been free for a long time,” Midnight said, staring off into the distance. “Void, for one – he’s been pestering me for my domain for decades. So it seems like the King’s Enforcers were the first to get free, and he used them to gather information and spread influence.” He smirked. “I’m almost impressed. He played a very long game. There aren’t nearly as many people today who remember, or even care, about the Radiance, as there were in the early days after the war ended. The Dominion’s defenses are weak. People are apathetic. And finally, when the universe is least vigilant, the King of the fool’s gods breaks free from his prison and seizes control.”
“But then why hasn’t he done much since then?” Caleb asked.
“He’s still playing the long game,” Midnight said. “He was patient enough to wait centuries to get free. That paid off, so he’s continuing the same approach. That’s my guess, anyway. Of course, no one knows what his ultimate goal is. When the Radiance began, they were attempting to become gods, to rule over the entire universe. Now? Who knows what it is he wants.”
“But if he basically sits on the throne of the Enchanted Dominion, why don’t more people know?” Caleb asked. “Doesn’t that technically make him the king of the Dominion?”
“Royalty doesn’t have the power and influence here that you might expect,” Alexandra said. “Part of that has to do with how the Dominion is laid out. Locations are always moving, very few places are ever connected for long. Even with the URS trains, and Sunset Station, it’s still very difficult at times to get where you want to go.”
“Think about Earth,” Midnight said, “That’s a huge planet, with an insane amount of people. And there isn’t any one ruler over Earth, is there? Now imagine if it was a hundred times bigger, with a hundred times more people, and you could never get from one country to another by the same route on a different day.”
“Basically, it’s almost impossible to form a centralized form of government and rulership over the entire Dominion,” Caleb said. He leaned back in his chair, looking around at the entire room. He kept adjusting his glasses, gawking at how wonderful and exciting everything looked.
Midnight nodded. “The mayor here in Sunset Square? He doesn’t answer to anyone higher than himself, though he has respect for and is on good terms with the Crystal King. There are lots of Locations like that, with their own independent governments, and only a civil, respectable relationship with the Crystal Family, rather than actually being their subjects.” He stared at Caleb, an annoyed look crossing his face. “At least pretend to pay attention, kid.”
“Sorry,” Caleb said, laughing as he took his hand off his glasses. “I just… these are so cool! I’ve never known the world could look like this. Sorry, I promise I was listening. So… okay, so if that’s the case, what’s the point of there being a royal family at all?”
“Their role is to defend the Enchanted Dominion from existential threats,” Midnight said. “Thus their fight against the Radiance.”
“And thus their work in establishing certain persons of interest to help safeguard the Dominion,” Alexandra said, smiling knowingly at Midnight. “Like Mister Midnight and the Midnight Bridge.”
“Wait…” Caleb stared at Midnight. “You were given your station by the Crystal Family?”
Midnight sighed, a pained look crossing his face. “I wasn’t the first Mister Midnight,” he said. “I was apprenticed to the first. When he died, I thought that was the end of it, I’d move onto something else. I didn’t have any ambitions of living on and owning Midnight Bridge. But the Crystal King had other ideas.”
“That’s not all –” Alexandra started.
“That’s all he needs to know,” Midnight said, his tone harsh yet constrained.
Alexandra sighed. “Lance has very negative feelings about the Crystal Family,” she said. “And yet he is determined to fight the Radiance.”
“Not for them,” Midnight said. “I don’t fight them for the Crystal Family, and you know that better than anyone. I fight them…” He trailed off.
Alexandra smiled. “I know,” she said. She reached across the table. Her hand brushed lightly against Midnight’s, before he pulled his away.
“If the Crystal Family can appoint you to run Midnight Bridge,” Caleb said, “then that means Midnight Bridge is important to the very existence of the Dominion, right?”
“Indeed it is,” Midnight said, a small smile on his lips. “Like I was telling you, you’re quite the sharp one.”
“Midnight Bridge is a Daylight Bastion,” Alexandra said.
Caleb blinked. “Well, that sounds awfully important,” he said. “What’s a Daylight Bastion?”
“They’re specific Locations that defend the Enchanted Dominion from darkness,” Midnight said. “There’s no need to get into the details right now. Darkness… think of it as death itself. Most Enchanted do. It’s an unfathomable force that seeks to devour all life. If it succeeds, it will start with the Enchanted Dominion. The Daylight Bastions hold back the darkness.”
“Thanks to The Light,” Alexandra said, making a curious gesture with her finger that Caleb didn’t quite follow.
“So… that’s a lot bigger than I thought any of this was,” Caleb said, chuckling nervously. “I never knew… well. Guess we’d better keep Void from taking your Bridge, huh?”
Midnight chuckled. “There’s no danger of that,” he said. “He likes to boast and posture, but he doesn’t stand a chance. Anyway, we keep going to other topics. They’re all fascinating to you, I’m sure, and they’re moderately relevant to the mission ahead of us, since you’re woefully ignorant of this world, but I think you know all you need to of the background. Let’s talk Mineria and the Brig.”
“And our jailbreak mission,” Caleb said, grinning. Midnight rolled his eyes. “What? I never thought I’d help break someone out of jail. It’s exciting just thinking about it.”
“No one else seems to think so,” Alexandra said, frowning. She looked across the table, to Adelaida by the door. “I saw Gregory Wilhelm in the past, correct? He came talking about the Brig?”
Adelaida pushed up her glasses and nodded. “Indeed,” she said. “He came the very next day after you met Mineria, to tell you what had happened to her.”
“That’s right,” Alexandra said. “Gregory’s a close aide to Mayor Trenton, you see, and yet he’s also been sort of an inside man for me lately. He’s not very fond of the mayor’s recent agenda changes, so he’s been confiding in me. But I thought I could convince him to work with a few other trusted individuals to break Mineria out. He wouldn’t go for it.”
“And that would have been our best shot,” Midnight said. “You don’t have anyone else on the inside?”
Alexandra shook her head. “Unfortunately, no. But you arriving widens my options considerably. Though it seems you’re a bit unwell, Lance.”
“I overdid things a bit,” Midnight said. “I’m better than this kid, though.” He pointed at Caleb. “I’ve still got a few tricks up my sleeve. And if we play our cards right, we won’t have to worry about a fight.”
“And I do like to keep you out of fights, Lance,” Alexandra said, reaching for her brother’s hand again, to no avail. “You’re far too violent, especially recently. Your talents always did lie elsewhere.”
That comment was surprising to Caleb. He’d seen how fierce a fighter Midnight was.
“So how do we get in?” Midnight asked. “You said you had some ideas. And you’ve been wanting to break Mineria out ever since she got into the Brig, so you’ve had more time to plan than the rest of us.”
“Adelaida, you have my maps of the Mayor’s manse, don’t you?” Alexandra asked. “And the confidential blueprints of the Brig?”
“Do I want to know how you have those?” Midnight asked.
Alexandra smiled sweetly. “I told you, I have an inside man.” Adelaida came to the table. She snapped her fingers, and in a few sparks of white light, several large sheets of paper appeared, which she laid out on the table, moving the vase of flowers to a corner desk.
Midnight whistled. “These are more detailed than I could have hoped,” he said.
“How many possible entrances do we have?” Caleb asked, leaning over the maps. “And which ones are the most viable?”
“I like the way you think,” Midnight said, grinning.
“There are two ordinary entrances to the Mayor’s manse,” Alexandra explained, “as well as seven… unconventional entrances. The only way into the Brig is through the manse, and there’s only one entrance, unless Lance decides to use his trump card.”
“Which I’m not entirely sure I’d be able to pull off in my present state,” Midnight said with a scowl. “And it’s only a way in – not a way out.”
“What’s the trump card?” Caleb asked. He was back to fidgeting with his glasses while listening, so Midnight shot him another look of annoyance.
“You’re not entirely capable of acting serious, are you?” he asked.
“I just…” Caleb frowned. “No matter how I move my glasses, I have a lot of peripheral vision that’s just… not right. Since the lenses make such a big difference in how I see everything, with these narrow frames, it makes everything look very strange. Like…” Caleb held up his hands around the edges of his glasses, blocking off his peripheral view. “There’s so much space to cover up. It’s very distracting.”
“Would you like larger frames?” Alexandra asked. “I thought you preferred narrower ones, but I have lots of options.”
“Yeah, let’s try that when we’re done here,” Caleb said.
Fae’s always gotten by with large frames. Maybe I can stand them, too.
After all, it seems like I’m gonna be stuck in glasses for the rest of my life. Bye-bye, contact lenses. Our time together was far too short.
“So the two ordinary entrances are here and here,” Midnight said, pointing to two points on the map of the Mayor’s manse. They were pretty obvious – one was the front door, the other was the back door. “Both are heavily guarded, and both are impossible to sneak Caleb through.”
Alexandra nodded. “Their human detection systems are, so far, unbeatable,” she said.
“Well, I always did prefer the unconventional approach,” Caleb said.
Alexandra smiled. “Then let’s talk strategy.”
Their conversation continued on for what felt like quite a while. Caleb struggled to get a sense of time, since there were no clocks visible and, he discovered, the sun never completely set. It stayed in its spot on the westward sky, no matter what the hour was.
But it certainly felt like they were at it for hours. Not because Caleb grew bored, or tired, or stiff. Certainly not because Caleb got hungry – Adelaida kept supplying them with snacks of all sorts. There were sandwiches, muffins, miniature cakes, cookies, brownies, fresh fruit and vegetables, chips, crackers, and even a few small helpings of assorted chewy candies.
It felt like they were discussing a strategy for hours because they covered so much ground. The fact that Adelaida brought them six different courses, spaced far enough apart that Caleb had time to get hungry again before the next, said a lot.
Eventually they took a break, and Alexandra took Caleb to the next room over to try on different glasses frames. She hadn’t been kidding about a hobby for optometry – the room was packed with eye examination tools, different frames and designs, and numerous charts and diagrams. Her magic also proved to be quite fascinating to Caleb. Without a Talisman, without any sort of gesture even, Alexandra could change the size and fit of different frames to suit Caleb’s needs. Just holding a pair, her hand would pulse with white light for a moment, and they’d subtly change to Caleb’s specifications.
“You’re quite fond of black,” Alexandra said, putting away a pair of blue frames. “I think you could use a bit more color.”
“I like my frames to be simple,” Caleb said. “Though you could probably talk me into some color. You’re quite persuasive.”
Alexandra sighed. “Ah, if only dear Lance saw it the same way,” she said. “You seem to be a good influence on him, though. Perhaps in time he’ll come to be a little more like you.”
“If you don’t mind me asking…” Caleb said, “do you know what came between you two? I gather your relationship wasn’t always so distant.”
“You’d be correct in that,” Alexandra said. “We were inseparable as children. And Lance was so protective of me. We… didn’t have a particularly safe upbringing. Our parents did the best they could, but with my condition, almost all of their time was spent building this mansion before things got so bad that I was lost to them forever. It fell on Lance to raise me. And… well, once I was confined here, for a time he lived with me.” She handed Caleb a new set of frames, which he tried on. “But the upkeep was dreadful, so he left to find help. He’s the one who sent Andrea and Adelaida to me, and they’ve been such darlings. And he took the position as apprentice to the Mister Midnight of the time because it paid extraordinarily well. He sent me all of his earnings, every single time he was paid.”
Alexandra sighed, a single sound conveying a great depth and breadth of emotion. “You ask if I know how things grew so strained. I wish I knew. Over time, Lance grew distant. When he was appointed the new Mister Midnight, he was very upset about it, and I tried to comfort him. But he was never the same after that – in more ways than one. When our parents left, things grew ever worse.”
“Your parents left you?” Caleb asked, trying on a new set of frames. “Why? Where did they go?”
Alexandra blinked at him in confusion for several moments. “Oh!” she said, eyes lighting up in understanding. “Sorry, no, that’s not what I meant. For humans, death is inevitable. For us Enchanted, it’s slightly different. The only way an Enchanted dies is from illness or violence. When we pass on from this life of natural causes, we simply depart from this world. So when an Enchanted, you would say ‘dies’ from natural causes, we refer to it as them leaving. That’s what I mean by saying our parents left.”
Caleb stopped himself from smiling. It seemed a very peaceful, pleasant way of looking at death. Yet their parents were still gone, and they weren’t coming back.
“In short, I don’t know why our relationship has turned into this,” Alexandra said sadly. “But I thank you for asking. And I thank you for standing by Lance. Even in the best of times, it was always very rare for him to grow fond of anyone. You’re quite lucky. Oh, do you like those frames?”
Caleb nodded, playing with the edges of the glasses he’d chose. “Yeah, I think I do. It’s a little weird, having them cover so much space, but… it’s not bad. I can get used to this. And they kind of make me think of my sister.”
Alexandra’s eyes lit up. “You have a sister?”
Caleb nodded. “Three of them, and one brother, all younger than me.”
“My goodness, that sounds simply wonderful,” Alexandra said, beaming. “No wonder you care so much about our difficult relationship. You seem very fond of your family. I’m glad.”
“I may be, but my oldest sister is… well, she’s quite distant,” Caleb said. “She reminds me a bit of Mister Midnight, at least when comparing our relationship to yours. And I honestly don’t know why she ever grew so distant. It happened slowly, until one day I realized… I’d lost her. Though hopefully not forever.”
“Hopefully not forever,” Alexandra said with a nod. “Well, your hope gives me hope. Thank you, Caleb.”
“I wish we had more time to talk about this,” Caleb said. “And I wish he’d spend more time here with you. I… well, I really shouldn’t stick my nose into this, but it seems to me if he should be close to anyone, he should be close to his only sister.”
“This is an awfully long break!” Midnight called from the solar. “Caleb, don’t be so picky about your glasses!”
Caleb and Alexandra both laughed. “Well, I suppose we should finalize our plans for saving Mineria,” Alexandra said.
Caleb nodded. “Let’s do that,” he said. “And, for what it’s worth, I hope we both see a day when we’re closer to our siblings very soon.”