Caleb bore the intense gazes of three patrols on the sixth floor of the Brig, before the trio of him, Adelaida, and Midnight arrived at the stairs leading to their destination: the fifth floor.
The center of the Brig.
Things didn’t necessarily get easier for Caleb, not physically. But mentally, he was holding up. He was standing in the face of the challenges sent his way.
He’d be very glad when this mission was over, though.
“Something’s different here,” Adelaida said as she investigated the stairs to the fifth floor. “There are several traps that detect by sight. And the lines of sight…” She shook her head. “They completely cover the stairs. I’m not sure how we get past them.”
“Can you tell how they see?” Midnight asked. “Do they rely on light?”
“Light?” Adelaida asked, puzzling over the question for a moment. She nodded. “Yes. But why –”
“So if there wasn’t any light on the staircase, they couldn’t see?” Midnight asked.
“Yes,” Adelaida said.
“Do any of the traps detect by contact?”
“On the walls,” Adelaida said. “And in a straight line in the center of the stairs.”
Midnight grinned. “Clever. But not clever enough.” He stepped up to the stairs like a batter stepping up to the plate. “Adelaida, you can guide us through pitch darkness, right?”
Adelaida nodded. “The absence of light is no obstacle to me.”
“How are the patrols above?”
“We’ll be clear for… another twenty seconds or so.”
“All right, here we go.” Midnight raised his right hand, and snapped his fingers.
The entire staircase went dark.
It wasn’t that the lights were turned out. It was that a blanket of pure darkness, thicker than the darkest night Caleb had ever patrolled, had suddenly blanketed the stairs. A wall of the pitch blackness stopped at the bottom of the stairs, a strange divide between the bright halls of the Brig, and the now completely enshrouded stairs.
“Lead the way,” Midnight said, gesturing to Adelaida.
She took Midnight and Caleb each by the hand – a fact Midnight wasn’t fond of – and led them up. As soon as they entered the blackness, Caleb was completely disoriented. He nearly tripped on a stair five separate times, but he knew they couldn’t slow down to accommodate him. Time was ticking for the patrols above to arrive. So Caleb adjusted his gait, getting a sense of how long and high each step was, managing the rest of the stairs with much less difficulty.
Emerging from the inky blackness was disorienting, and Caleb blinked sudden spots from his eyes. Midnight dismissed the darkness, and Adelaida pulled her companions against the wall, raising her glassy shield around them just as a patrol came around the bend from the right.
Once each patrol passed, Adelaida lowered her barrier, and the trio began walking around the right side.
“Where are the Radiance?” Midnight asked in a bare whisper.
“It’s strange,” Adelaida said, running her hand along the wall as she walked. “They started inside the manse, but they’ve descended far slower than I’ve expected.”
“So we’re in the clear?” Caleb asked, breathing a sigh of relief.
“No,” Adelaida said. “They’re on the floor above us, and they’ve nearly reached the stairs.”
“Is Mineria closer to us than the stairs?” Midnight asked.
Adelaida nodded. “She’s coming right up,” she said. “Hold on – patrol coming.”
“Of all the times…” Midnight started, but he shut his mouth and flattened himself against he wall as the patrol came past – first from the right, then the left. Caleb found his heart pounding for a far different reason now than the intense stare of the men in white.
They were cutting things extremely close. What they’d thought would be a simple one floor rescue mission had turned into them climbing several floors, and facing opposition from a separate group that wanted Mineria for themselves. If things didn’t go just right – if Caleb and his team couldn’t reach Mineria and get her out fast enough – they’d be face to face with four Radiance agents.
He and Midnight had failed to defeat even one – Neith – and that was with the pair of them fighting together. How could this trio possibly hope to fight four? And if a fight erupted, they were sure to be noticed, and caught, by the powerful guards of the Brig.
Could they make it in time?
They came to the door to Mineria’s cell. It didn’t seem any different from the other doors in the Brig – its dull silver sheen stood out against the white-and-gold walls, and there were no windows or even slits to peer in or out. A single keyhole was set above the handle to the door, a vertical bar that seemed to note the door as a sliding door, rather than a push-or-pull.
“I can pick it,” Midnight said, kneeling in front of the keyhole, placing his hand beneath it. Inky black tendrils, like he’d used to intimidate and to fight in the past, slowly crept into the keyhole, working steadily on disengaging the lock.
“They’re on the stairs,” Adelaida said, keeping her hand against the wall so she could track the Radiance’s movements. “They…” She stopped for a moment, eyes flashing with a brief spark of surprise. “They descended them so quickly. So easily. They’re coming our way, and they’ll be here before the patrols.”
“How long?” Midnight asked.
“Seconds,” Adelaida said. She turned to face the right curve of the hallway, and extended her right hand. A swirl of white light formed into a long, metal staff that she gripped tightly, adopting a combat stance in readiness. Caleb, heart catching in his throat, pulled out his pocket watch, staring intently ahead.
“Hold on, what are you guys doing?” Midnight asked, staring at the duo.
“Time’s up,” Adelaida said. “Did you pick it?”
“No,” Midnight said, standing up. “It’s too complicated.”
“So what –” Caleb started.
“Come on, you two,” Midnight said. He grabbed Caleb, and Adelaida, each by the arm. For a brief moment, Caleb saw a shape rounding the bend of the hallway ahead of him…
And then he was staring at a stark white wall.
“What the heck just –” he started, turning around, but then stopped as he laid eyes on a stranger.
He was now in a room with pure white walls, floor, and ceiling. Midnight and Adelaida were with him, and in the center of the room was a woman who must be Mineria. She was dressed in a plain white shirt and pants, both of which were a couple of sizes too big for her, and had no shoes or socks on her feet. She was small in height and build, and she seemed like she’d been formed out of some crystalline substance. Her coppery skin glittered, her eyes were like diamonds inlaid with emeralds, and her hair tumbled down over her shoulder like sapphires that had been carefully rolled into thin, silvery-blue strands.
“Who are you?” Mineria asked, her voice musical and resonant, like a crystalline bell ringing into the silence.
“We’re… here to rescue you,” Caleb said. A sudden coughing fit alerted him to Midnight, who was doubled over in the corner. Adelaida stood over him, arms folded over her chest and a very cross expression on her face.
“You overdid it,” she said.
“I got us in, didn’t I?” Midnight asked, before clutching his stomach and coughing. “I told you… it was my trump card.”
“And a card you were in no condition to play,” Adelaida said.
“We ran out of time,” Midnight said, pushing himself to his feet. He leaned against the wall for support, and his face looked a shade paler than usual. He nodded to Mineria, who was still sitting, very confused, in the center of the room. “Nice to see you again. Been an awfully long time.”
“Lancelot,” Mineria said, nodding back at him. “It is nice to see you, but… what are you doing here? How do you intend to rescue me?”
“Yes, how indeed?” Adelaida asked, glaring at Midnight.
“Where are the Radiance agents?” Midnight asked, eyeing the only door in this room.
“Just outside the door,” Adelaida said. “They could be inside any second.”
“Sucks for them,” Midnight said, chuckling.
“What do you mean?” Caleb asked.
“The door…” Midnight said, coughing a few times before continuing, “it’s not that I couldn’t pick the lock. I just noticed… it’s rigged with all kinds of security. If it’s forced open, alarms go off. If it’s damaged, alarms go off. And if the lock is disengaged without use of the proper key, alarms go off. So I got us in the only way I could.”
“By…” Caleb looked around the room, dumbfounded, “teleporting?”
Midnight laughed, which set him to coughing, so he stopped. “I’ll explain it later, but no, not teleporting,” he said. “It’s a neat little Time Magic trick. I’ll teach it to you when I get the chance. But right now, it seems like I need to use it again.”
Time Magic lets you go through walls? That was a new one for Caleb.
“You can’t use it again,” Adelaida insisted. “Look at yourself. Listen to yourself. You’re in no condition to –”
“Mineria, do you want to be rescued?” Midnight asked, walking over to and kneeling down before Mineria. He looked at the crystalline woman with an expression of reverence and respect, one Caleb had never seen on the man’s face before. “I’d like to get you out of here, but… what do you want?”
Mineria’s cheeks pulsed once with a faint scarlet shade before it vanished, and she closed her eyes as she smiled. “I’d be honored to be rescued, as long as it doesn’t kill you, Lancelot,” she said. “I can see you have a very dangerous plan in store. Do make sure you survive it.”
Midnight nodded, taking Mineria’s hand and standing up, pulling the woman to her feet with him. “Come on, you two, hold onto me,” he said, looking at Adelaida and Caleb meaningfully.
“I can’t just –” Adelaida said, but a sudden sound at the door cut her off.
The lock had been broken. The door was sliding open.
“Let’s just go!” Caleb said, pulling Adelaida with him as he ran to Midnight, grabbing hold of his arm. Midnight flashed him a smirk, and then…
They were back in the tunnel, the secret one below the Brig. It had happened so suddenly – in a space smaller than a breath, smaller than an eyeblink, perhaps smaller than time even allowed – but they had left Mineria’s cell and arrived in the tunnel by which they’d entered the formidable prison.
Alarms were wailing above them, faintly through the closed trapdoor, but Caleb did not like the idea of listening to those alarms inside the prison. They were a combination of wailing, screeching, grinding, and pulsing, an obnoxious cacophony of sounds that Caleb was glad he wasn’t hearing at their full volume.
His attention was pulled away from the alarms by a retching, disgusting noise of pain from his teacher. Midnight had fallen to his knees, and appeared to be vomiting…
Oh. Oh no.
Midnight was coughing and spitting blood onto the stone floor, his face twisted in agony as he clutched his stomach. Caleb and Mineria both raced to him, placing their hands on his back, but Midnight waved them off, continuing to wretch and wheeze. For several long, painful moments, this continued, until Midnight finally leaned back, falling against the stone wall. Blood trickled down his chin, and his face was stark white, eyes closed as he took slow, raspy breaths.
“Are you –” Caleb started.
“I’ll live,” Midnight said, his voice a gaunt, hollow whisper. “Though I’ll… need… a hand here.”
“We’ve got you,” Caleb said. Together with Mineria, he hauled Midnight as gently as possible to his feet. With one arm draped over Caleb’s shoulders, the other over Mineria’s, the trio began walking down the long tunnel.
“I told you not to do it,” Adelaida said, walking ahead of them. “You’re lucky you’re still breathing.”
“Luck…” Midnight said slowly, “is something I have… in large… supply.”
“Evidently,” Adelaida said. She cast a glance over her shoulder, and Caleb could see that, despite her chastising tone, there was worry and fear in her eyes. “Please try to be more careful with yourself. My Lady would be terribly distraught if you died.”
“Sure thing,” Midnight said. “Hey… Caleb… remind me when I’m better… to teach you the…”
“Phase Step,” Adelaida finished for him.
There was a brief silence, which Midnight punctuated with a cough. “How?” he asked.
“My Lady has told Andrea and myself all about your special abilities,” Adelaida said. “She never misses a chance to brag about her strong, talented, courageous big brother.”
The four of them continued on in silence for a long while. Caleb finally chanced a glance at Midnight, and was surprised to see that, despite his condition, despite his pained breathing, despite his eyes closed and needing to be carried… he was smiling.
The trek back to Alexandra’s mansion was a slow but steady one. They stopped briefly at the tunnel’s exit, as Adelaida entered Sunset Square first, returning shortly with some proper clothes for Mineria. While Caleb held up Midnight, making sure both of them were facing the blank wall, Mineria changed into a fancy shirt and pants, long fluffy coat, and a wide-brimmed hat. She and Adelaida argued for nearly a minute over two details: one, a headscarf that Adelaida insisted Mineria use to tie up and conceal her tremendously conspicuous hair, and two, a pair of socks and boots. Mineria did not at all like the idea of hiding her hair – it seemed a point of pride for her – while covering her feet seemed to be more about comfort. That last detail made Caleb smile for a moment, as he thought of the perpetually barefoot Isabelle.
I hope that girl’s doing okay. She has Chelsea, Lorelei, and Delilah, so I can’t imagine she’s having any trouble. Those three will keep her perfectly safe, and get her home in no time.
I wonder if they’ve already found the Library? Man, that must be cool. I bet they’re having a great time. They’ve probably forgotten about me by now, I’ve been gone so long.
I’m sure they’re safe and happy.
Adelaida won over Mineria – keeping her identity concealed was more important than pride or comfort, after all – and the four of them ascended a set of stairs out into a back alley of Sunset Square. Adelaida sealed the hidden door to the tunnel behind them, and they trekked a careful and quiet route back to Alexandra’s mansion. They occasionally had to enter busy main streets for brief periods, and Caleb was surprised to find that even a man and woman carrying a pale, nearly-unconscious man between them didn’t arouse much attention. One married couple that passed them even remarked, just barely loud enough that Caleb overheard: “Shame, having a drunk for a father.” “Yes, you see that far too often these days. The man’s lucky to have such loyal children.”
The idea of Mister Midnight being Caleb and Mineria’s father – and Caleb and Mineria being siblings – and Midnight being a drunk – had Caleb battling giggles the entire walk back to Alexandra. Surprisingly, and to his great relief, they were never once stopped by anyone, and made it back safe and sound.
At the sight of her brother’s condition, Alexandra’s jaw hit the floor, and then punched a hole through the floor and the ground beneath it for another mile. She was speechless for nearly a full minute, before sprinting forward and tackling Midnight in a hug.
“You idiot!” she cried, hugging her brother tightly. “You stupid, senseless, reckless, selfish, too-brave-for-your-own-good, idiot!” She pulled herself away, staring at Midnight for several long seconds before nodding to Adelaida and Andrea. “Andrea, help me get him to the medical wing. Adelaida, make sure Caleb and Mineria have all they need, and double-check to be certain you weren’t followed. I’ll be back as soon as I’m confident in my brother’s recovery.” Alexandra and Andrea took Midnight from Caleb and Mineria, helping him out of the mansion’s main lobby and down a side hallway.
“Are either of you injured in any way?” Adelaida asked, looking over Caleb and Mineria while adjusting her glasses.
“I feel fine,” Caleb said.
Mineria didn’t respond at first, removing her hat, head scarf, boots and socks, then smiling. “I’m fine now,” she said. “Thank you, all of you, for saving me. I…” Her glittering emerald eyes turned downcast. “I was quite certain I was going to waste away in that cell.” She turned to Caleb and held out her hand. “Caleb, was it? I’m very grateful that you would risk your life for a stranger such as myself.”
Caleb took the offered hand. Mineria’s coppery, crystalline skin was cool and smooth. “I’m just glad you’re safe now,” he said. “I’d ask you… well, a lot of things, but I feel like most of the information you’d like to share should be heard by Alexandra and Mister Midnight, too.”
Mineria held a hand to her mouth, giggling. “So you call him by his title, do you? He’s not very fond of it.”
“I didn’t even know his name until about a day ago,” Caleb said. “And he doesn’t seem all that fond of people calling him by it.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear he’s taken to his title,” Mineria said. “We’ve known each other a long time, Lancelot and I, even before he was appointed Mister Midnight. He was very upset with the appointment, and has been rather… isolated since. It’s good to see he’s made a few friends.”
“He seems to make them against his own will,” Adelaida said. “I’m going to see that we’re safe. Make yourselves at home. Mineria, you know your way around here.”
“Yes, Adelaida, thank you,” Mineria said, closing her eyes as she smiled pleasantly.
“Mister Midnight never mentioned that he knew you,” Caleb said, as Mineria led him up the main staircase to a second floor sitting room.
“He’s not one for being outwardly emotional,” Mineria said, taking a seat across from Caleb. “And we haven’t seen each other in a very long time. In truth, I’ve missed him. How has he been these days?”
“I can’t say for sure, since I’ve only known him for… well, not very long,” Caleb said. “But he’s…” Caleb paused. He wasn’t used to describing people to others, and he truly wasn’t sure how exactly to describe Midnight. “He’s a good teacher. He’s been teaching me to use Time Magic properly. He’s strict, and tough, but honestly, I like it. And…” Caleb smiled, thinking of the times he’d seen Midnight’s softer side – or his acts of “tough love,” like in the Brig. “He’s surprisingly kind, in his own way.”
“Isn’t he, though?” Alexandra asked, suddenly strolling into the room and taking a seat next to Mineria. “Oh, I’m so glad you’ve noticed. Dear Lance will be all right. He’s managed to cheat death once again – though I must say this is the closest I’ve seen him to parting this mortal coil – and he’s on the mend. Andrea’s keeping an eye on him, though I’ll be checking in on him regularly. It pains my heart to see him in such a state.” She looked to Mineria. “It is so wonderful to see you were unharmed in the Brig! I’ve heard such awful stories about it, but you seem to be doing quite well.”
“They left me unharmed,” Mineria said, her expression thoughtful. “I was never sure why. They simply made sure to keep me locked securely in my cell, but they were very delicate with me. In truth, they rarely said a word to me. It pains me to say it, but I don’t know why I was taken prisoner.”
“What happened when you went to see Mayor Trenton?” Alexandra asked.
“I was admitted as an honored guest, as I have before when I’ve come with messages from the Crystal Family,” Mineria said. “I told Mayor Trenton all I told you – about the Radiance attacking during the Lunar Festival, and about the fall of the Crystal Family, and how I barely escaped with my life and still am uncertain of the whereabouts of the Crystal King and Queen and their children. Mayor Trenton listened very quietly, and when I was done, he asked me to wait in an antechamber. That was all he ever said to me. I’d only waited alone for a few minutes before two Rein Knights came and escorted me to the Brig.”
“Rein Knights?” Alexandra asked, eyes wide. “Mayor Trenton has Rein Knights in his employ?”
Caleb raised his hand. “What are Rein Knights?”
“You should have seen them,” Mineria said. “They were guarding the Brig. They’re dressed all in white, with white hair and eyes.”
Just hearing them described sent a shock down Caleb’s spine, like his body was remembering the intensity of that powerful stare. “So that’s what they’re called,” he said. “Even Mister Midnight was afraid of them.”
“For good reason,” Alexandra said. “The Rein Knights are the defenders of the Reinheit Citadel and are considered some of the most powerful mortal beings in the universe, for more than just their physical and magical strength. They’re supposed to be incorruptible, and completely loyal to their masters at the Citadel. Which begs the question… how does Mayor Trenton have them in his employ?”
“I tried asking them,” Mineria said. “I’ve spoken with some of the Knights before, and they weren’t doing anything to physically harm me, so I thought it safe to ask. They wouldn’t speak to me at all, though. I can’t imagine how Mayor Trenton was able to bring them under his sway.”
“Things become stranger and stranger in this city, and this Dominion, the more time goes on,” Alexandra said. “Whatever the Radiance is plotting, I hope they aren’t involved in this.”
“It doesn’t seem that way,” Caleb said. “There were four of the King’s agents in the Brig when we were, sneaking in from above. We don’t know how they got in, but they had as much trouble getting through each floor of the Brig as we did. And they set off the alarms at Mineria’s cell just after we escaped, so chances are they’ve been captured and locked up.”
“Very curious,” Alexandra said, lips pursed in thought. “Well, I’m delighted you’re safe, Mineria, dear. Make yourself at home. When Lance is better, we should talk about things in more detail. We’ll need to decide next steps soon.”
“Next steps for what?” Caleb asked.
“For fighting back against the Radiance, of course,” Alexandra said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “They’re running rampant now, and with the Radiant King free and in a place of power, things will likely only accelerate from here. We’ll need to start by gathering information, but… well. As I said. We’ll talk things through in detail when Lance is at least well enough to converse.” She glared at Caleb. “I know you and him plan on resuming Time Magic training as soon as you’re done with your medicine, and I don’t like it. But I know I can’t sway you. And, admittedly, if you could use your Time Magic properly, that would be a very helpful skill to have. Just don’t take after Lance. He’s far too reckless.”
Caleb laughed at that. He’d gotten into his current state by being just as reckless, using his power freely and without thought of the consequences.
“Mineria,” Caleb said, “do you have any clues or thoughts about the Radiance’s plans?”
Mineria sighed, as musical a sound as her speech. “I know very little,” she said. “One thing that has puzzled me is the King – the Crystal King – and his final words to me to deliver. His last line was: ‘Prepare for the prophecy to be fulfilled.’ But I don’t know which prophecy he meant.”
“That has puzzled me as well,” Alexandra said. “There are such a great number of prophecies, you’d think he’d have the foresight to specify which one.”
“I can tell you that the Radiant King had a puzzling addition to his forces,” Mineria said. “Many of us know all of the members of the Radiance, and he attacked the Palace with every single one of them. But there was a new warrior of his – a massive knight, encased in golden armor from head to toe. He was a frightening force on the battlefield, but he never strayed from the Radiant King’s side.”
“Well he couldn’t have made more Eternals,” Alexandra said. “The Radiance’s access to Time Magic was severed as punishment.”
“Wait, Time Magic?” Caleb asked.
Alexandra nodded. “The Radiant King made himself and the other Eternals immortal through a twisted, forbidden use of Time Magic. In order to ensure such wicked practices were never again undertaken, every member of the Radiance was completely severed from Time Magic.”
“If the Crystal King can do that, why didn’t he just sever all of their magic?” Caleb asked.
“That would have been far too difficult,” Mineria said. “Severing their Time Magic sounds grand and impressive, but don’t overestimate my king’s powers. Such an extreme punishment carries a heavy cost. To sever all of their magic would not only be too great a task, but even if my king attempted it, it would also have resulted in a torturous, excruciating death for the Radiance.”
“You should understand that a little bit, Caleb,” Alexandra said. “You’ve been Fractured, but only in part. Part of your magic has been severed from your very being. If you were completely severed from magic, you would suffer a horrific death.”
Oh. Right. That makes sense. Not sure if I wanted it painted in such stark terms, but… yeah. I understand now.
“So the golden knight can’t be an Eternal,” Caleb said. “Maybe an Enchanted?”
“It would be a sickening betrayal after such a terrible war between Enchanted and Eternals,” Mineria said bitterly, “but… not impossible. Whoever he was, he was a frightening force. No magic could touch him, and the most skilled warriors were no match for his skill and speed with his massive sword.”
“They attacked on the day of the Lunar Festival,” Caleb said. “When is the next Lunar Festival for the Enchanted?”
“In… oh, I should think about it in Earth time,” Alexandra said, staring at the ceiling as she worked it out in her head. “Quite soon, actually. It would be about a month.”
“Do you know what the date is on Earth right now?” Caleb asked.
“October…” Alexandra relented from mental calculations, Conjuring a small notepad out of the air. “October 27th.”
“So a month…” Caleb’s eyes widened. “Your Lunar Festival coincides exactly with ours.”
“And the Radiance are from Grimoire…” Alexandra caught on to Caleb’s train of thought, eyes wide.
“Mister Midnight said I should be involved in the fight against the Radiance,” Caleb said. “He said whatever they had planned, it would eventually put my family and loved ones at risk. Now I think I’m starting to understand.”
“You think…” Mineria started.
“It seems that way,” Caleb said. “They overthrew the Crystal Family – the ones that banished them from Earth entirely. Mister Midnight said that Void’s actions suggested that he’d been in contact with humans. So they’ve been playing the long game for a very specific reason. They’re figuring out a way to return to Earth. And if they succeed, their next major action will be a grand return to where it all began for them.”
“They’re coming back to Grimoire,” Mineria said, her voice hushed.
Caleb nodded. “On the day of the Lunar Festival.”