Caleb lay on his back, trying to catch his breath as the cheerful face of Ingrid hovered over him.
“You can do it!” Ingrid said, her bright silver eyes glittering with enthusiasm.
Caleb pointed a weary arm up at her, smiling in his exhaustion. “You…” he said, “you are the reason I can keep going.”
“So what are you waiting for?” Midnight asked. “Get up, kid. Let’s keep going.”
Caleb laughed, even though it made his sides hurt, and pushed himself up to a sitting position.
Midnight, Ingrid, and Caleb were all on Midnight Bridge, not too far outside Midnight’s house. The dark, murky sky all around was something Caleb had to get used to again, but he’d had plenty of time.
After all, Midnight was using Locational Time Magic again.
The pressure had been a frightening sensation for Caleb at first. He didn’t know what would happen, and he was worried his body wouldn’t hold up. But somehow, things didn’t feel so bad this time. When Caleb asked Midnight why things were easier, his teacher just shrugged, and continued brutally training him.
Since things were easier, that meant Caleb didn’t just focus on acclimating to the environment. Now, he was actually getting training from his teacher, and they’d started off from the very first day with combat training.
“How long until I get to sleep again?” Caleb asked, looking up at Midnight, who sat cross-legged atop a stack of crates.
“Less than a day,” Midnight said with a smirk. “Good enough for you?”
Caleb sighed, rising wearily to his feet. “What’s next?”
“That’s the spirit!” Ingrid said, pumping her fists in the air. Unlike the first time around, she was often outside with them during training. Midnight pretended to complain at first, but he allowed it. Caleb thought her presence and enthusiasm might have to do with how long they were gone. She’d been here all alone, so she was very happy to see the pair of them return. And Midnight seemed glad to be back to her.
“Try and hit me,” Midnight said, cocking his head to the side. “I won’t use Time Magic, of course, and you aren’t allowed to use it yet. So it’s a fair fight.”
It’s so not fair, but that’s the point.
Caleb took a deep breath and let it out. Then, clutching his pocket watch Talisman in his hand, he formed several dozen Mobility discs. Their white shine lit up the darkness of the Bridge as they arranged themselves into a wide, spaced out dome around Midnight.
Midnight chuckled. “So you’re going to try to hit me yourself, this time?”
Caleb leapt into the air with a little burst of Enhancement Magic, tilted his body sideways, and planted his feet against the first disc. It pulsed, bouncing him off of it, and Caleb rocketed towards a disc high in the air, turning upside down so his feet planted against that one next. Bouncing from one disc to another, Caleb flew around Midnight, building up speed and watching his teacher closely, looking for the right opportunity to attack.
“I’m waiting,” Midnight called, his posture perfectly relaxed, his expression nonchalant.
Yeah, I know you are. You’re always ready.
Finally, Caleb shot past Midnight, bounced off a disc behind him, and flew straight towards his teacher’s back. Without even moving his head to look, Midnight’s arm snapped out, grabbed Caleb by the wrist, and flung him in a wide arc around and past him. Hurtling helplessly through the air, Caleb brought out more Mobility discs, forming them into a spiraling slide that he rolled into, slowing his momentum so he landed safely on the ground.
“How are you so fast?” Caleb asked, standing up and rubbing the wrist Midnight had grabbed. “And how can you do something like that without looking?”
“Experience,” Midnight said cryptically. “Is that the best you can do? I’d hoped you’d be better by now.”
“And I’d hoped you’d be less of a jerk by now,” Caleb said.
Midnight smirked. “Back to running your mouth, huh? That means you have more than enough energy to play defense again.”
Midnight hopped down from his stack of crates and strolled towards Caleb in a seemingly casual manner, hands in his pockets. Caleb knew, from experience now, that it was anything but casual. The image of his teacher, dark coat flapping behind him, walking towards him like that was something that was getting close to inspiring nightmares in Caleb.
One month of training since they’d returned, and Caleb’s teacher only grew more intimidating.
Since Midnight was being kind enough to give Caleb time, he ran through his options. He knew when Midnight came at him like this, it meant that Caleb was on “defense” – it was his turn to try to not get hit, until Midnight decided he’d lasted long enough.
Caleb never lasted long enough.
He’d tried bouncing high into the air, staying on discs up above, thinking he was outside Midnight’s reach. But, of course, Midnight had ways to reach him. He’d created shields with his discs, tried to bind Midnight down with chains, and even tried good old-fashioned running away.
“You know that tactics aren’t a big part of why you fail at this, right?” Midnight asked.
Caleb frowned. “What do you mean?”
“You don’t lack a strong tactical mind at this point. What you lack is speed. Reflexes. Quick thinking. Improvisation when it counts the most – when you’re scared and on the run. Put simply, you’re still too slow. And if you remain too slow for too long, then I’ve been wrong about your potential all this time. I hope you know, I hate being wrong.”
“I’m not surprised.” Caleb leapt back as inky black tendrils ending in clawed hands shot out of the ground to grab at him. Caleb’s own shining white chains couldn’t do anything to Midnight’s strange conjurings, so all Caleb could do was evade. Midnight continued to walk casually, still a decent distance away. Forming a staircase of discs, Caleb began to climb. Just like previous times, Midnight’s dark hands shot out of the ground and tore at his discs, forcing Caleb to leap higher and higher. Midnight stopped walking below him, just craning his neck back and watching as Caleb frantically evaded the clawed hands that extended higher and higher without losing any of their strength or speed.
Now he’s just taunting me.
Caleb started ricocheting himself around, not forming discs in advance, but instead creating a new platform to bounce off of only at the last possible moment. Early in his training, this would have been utterly terrifying, especially at the wild speeds he could work up to, but training had taken away that fear. Clawed hands reached for him again and again, and Caleb launched himself away again and again, varying his trajectory as much as possible, doing everything in his power not to be predictable.
“You seem quite fond of being a human… what do they call those things?” Midnight asked from below. “Ah, right. A human pinball. You seem to like that a lot. Do you play much pinball on Earth?”
No. Pinball’s boring. And I’m not a human pinball. I’m way cooler than that. You just have no sense of taste.
“How long can you keep that up, though?” Midnight asked. “I’ll tell you, Caleb, I can do this all day. But I’m fairly confident you can’t. Bouncing around like that must be a much bigger strain than what I’m doing to try and catch you.”
Well… you’re not wrong.
So what do I do? This isn’t the best way to stall for time. My legs hurt. And my head hurts. And I’m getting kind of dizzy. And this is really uncomfortable. And… oh. Not this again.
Caleb launched himself to a platform he could land safely on, and then formed a tightly packed, quadruple-layer shield of discs around himself, covering him on all sides. It was just in the nick of time, as he felt vertigo suddenly take over, and then that familiar sensation, like he was falling straight through the floor. Everything went black for a moment…
And when his vision returned, Caleb was still inside the shield-cage of Mobility discs. Midnight’s clawed hands were tearing away at the discs, but Caleb had bought himself enough time to safely escape one of his fainting fits.
I’ve gotten better at knowing when they’re coming. That’s an improvement. And my discs don’t disappear anymore when I black out. Another improvement.
Of course, now Caleb was trapped, and it was only a matter of time before Midnight reached him. Suddenly, though, the claws stopped, and Midnight snapped his fingers.
“Come on down from there,” he called.
Caleb dismissed his tightly packed shield and made a staircase from the disc he was on. He descended down to the ground, standing in front of his teacher and doing his best to catch his breath.
“You didn’t last as long as I wanted, but I wanted to point something out to you,” Midnight said. “That shielding technique is useful for avoiding getting hit, but you see the weaknesses in it too, right?”
Caleb nodded. “It makes me a sitting duck,” he said. “But the main reason I did that was because –”
“I know, you felt another fainting spell coming on. I’m impressed you were able to keep the shield up even when you blacked out. And considering your circumstances, that was a good call. But I think you also illustrated for yourself how much of a liability those moments of weakness are in battle.”
Caleb nodded. “I need to come up with something even better when those moments happen.”
Midnight smiled. “Now you’re getting it. Keep thinking about it.” He nodded towards the house. “Go get a drink, then come out and sit with me. You’ve earned a short break.”
Caleb jogged to the house, smiling as Ingrid cheered him on. Inside, he filled up a bamboo cup with water and then came back outside, sitting with Midnight on a bench as he sipped his drink.
“I know you’re used to fighting as part of a team,” Midnight said, “and it shows. You’re ill-equipped and lacking in experience for fighting by yourself. Oh, sure, you could definitely handle a few Hollows. But other mages are different. You’re doing your best, and there’s plenty of potential with what you have. But you still have this mentality as if you’re on a team, as if someone’s going to be there to back you up or take charge on offense for you. Your skills are fighting at a distance, and keeping your distance, but you’re both surprisingly weak and surprisingly slow. It’s pretty obvious that you’ve relied on Time Magic a lot. You’ve improved, mind you, and I intend to accelerate things some more, but… well. I want to make sure you know where you stand.”
“It isn’t fair to compare him to you, master,” Ingrid said, frowning at Midnight. “You’re incredibly strong, one of the strongest people there is.”
“I’m not just comparing him to me,” Midnight said. “I’m comparing him to the Radiance, to their warriors, the people he’s going to have to fight. He’s fought Void once, so he should know.”
Caleb nodded. “I wasn’t a match for him at all,” he said. “I was distracted at the time because it was my first time fighting while trying not to use Time Magic at all, and my first time fighting another human, and I wasn’t used to wearing glasses in a fight at that point. But… I still don’t think I’d be able to fight him on even ground.”
“Probably not,” Midnight agreed, though the “probably” surprised Caleb. “But by the time I’m done with you, you’ll be able to lay him flat with ease.” He stood, staring at Caleb. “Let’s go a bit farther, then you can have some food and go to sleep.”
“You seem like you’re being lenient,” Caleb said, standing.
Midnight chuckled. “Oh, is that what you think? You know what was so tough about the training the first time around? You couldn’t handle the pressure. You couldn’t even dream of moving like you are now with Locational Time Magic active. I don’t know what changed, but I’m glad it did. Just don’t ruin the good luck you’ve had so far.”
They went back to training, with Midnight giving Caleb more active critiques as Caleb attacked and then defended. Three more times Caleb blacked out, relying on his disc shield-cage, but he knew he’d have to come up with better options when those spells came. And then there was just the simple fact…
“The blacking out isn’t ever gonna stop, is it?” Caleb asked, wiping sweat from his face as he walked with Midnight towards the house. The smells of food had already reached him, along with the sounds of Ingrid happily humming as she prepared their meal.
“It doesn’t seem that way,” Midnight said. “And we don’t know what other symptoms might arise from you constantly exerting yourself. You’re Fractured. The good thing is that it doesn’t seem to have harshly affected your most vital organs. You do seem to have less stamina than you did when you first arrived, but that can be trained. Your lungs – damaged as they now are – are still muscles. You can strengthen them. You’ll still never have the lung capacity and stamina that you used to, but you can be better than you are. You don’t seem to be actually hurt by anything, which is definitely good. But that’s why I’m putting you through your paces early. If there’s anything serious we need to watch out for, we should find out sooner rather than later.”
“So things could get worse,” Caleb said, frowning.
“They could always get worse,” Midnight said, clapping Caleb on the back. “And they can usually get better. Take advantage of that senseless optimism of yours. Let me worry about side-effects and damage. If things get too bad, I’ll just stop it. All you need to do is stay hopeful and push yourself to new and different limits.” He looked Caleb up and down. “Be honest, Greyson. After one month, how do you feel about your fighting abilities?”
Caleb smiled. “There are so many things I never noticed back in Grimoire, fighting Hollows,” he said. “Things were usually easy enough that I didn’t have to think too much or challenge myself.” He rolled up his right sleeve, showing the knotted, bulging, four-inch scar on his forearm. “Aside from a brush with death when I messed up against a Piper, I’ve always had it way too easy.” He rolled the sleeve back down. “Coming here, training with you, and especially not being able to use Time Magic… I always prided myself on working hard and giving my best. Now I know what it really means to challenge myself. I’ve learned a lot, and I know I’m not very strong or fast, but I also know that I’m definitely much stronger and faster than I ever was before. It’s exciting.”
Midnight clapped Caleb on the back again. “That’s the spirit. Keep thinking like that and pushing towards the man you need to be.”
Weeks passed, and Caleb often wondered what it was like outside of their Time Magic-induced training area. Midnight had said that a year in here would be as short as six hours outside. That was insane to think about. All of his friends were out there, and while Caleb had once thought that everyone else would be fine, now he wasn’t so sure. If he was encountering the Radiance, would it be possible that Chelsea, Delilah, Lorelei, and Isabelle had as well? Isabelle had been on the run from a woman with violet eyes. She couldn’t be Radiance – they were banished from Earth – but what if the people she was with, assuming she wasn’t acting alone, had followed Isabelle further, and were giving that group trouble? What about Fae, who he now knew was in the Enchanted Dominion? Was she in danger?
And what of the Radiance’s plans to return to Grimoire? What did they have in store for his family and his home?
Part of his concerns were, in a way, wishful thinking. If Chelsea especially was involved in the fight against the Radiance, he could rest much easier – and he’d feel as if they were fated to reunite sooner, rather than later. He missed her terribly, and in the midst of Time Magic weirdness, he had no idea how long they’d been apart on her end. Had it been days? Weeks? Or just hours? Time in the entire Dominion was different from Location to Location, too, so depending on where they went, a day could be mere minutes for Caleb.
Caleb couldn’t get too bogged down in such thoughts, though. For one, Midnight had encouraged him to live out his usual “senseless” optimism.
And besides that, their training was keeping Caleb very busy. As days passed, Midnight continued to change and modify the regimen, presenting Caleb with new challenges.
“I can’t move my feet?” Caleb asked.
“Try it,” Midnight said. “See what happens.”
Caleb looked down at his feet, which were entrapped by Midnight’s strange black tendrils with their clawed hands. He was rooted to the ground, and he didn’t much feel like testing just how solidly he was stuck. “Why are we doing things this way? You said my specialty was in keeping my distance.”
“That’s right, but you can’t be a strong fighter if you only have one trick,” Midnight said. “So for today, and probably many other days, you’re going to stay stuck in one spot. Your goal, without being able to free yourself or move around, is to hit me… and not get hit by me.”
“So am I on offense or defense right now?”
Midnight grinned, and the expression didn’t make Caleb feel a sense of joy. “Both. Don’t worry, I’ll pull my punches. See?”
Midnight’s fist flew faster than Caleb could see, socking him right in the stomach. Caleb doubled over, coughing and wheezing, as Midnight stepped back, laughing.
“You’ve got to be able to take hits like that, Greyson, or you won’t stand a chance in a real fight,” he said. “Pull yourself together and tell me when you’re ready.”
Caleb stood up, thanking his lucky stars that it had been a while since he last ate, and pulled out his Talisman. With a nod, Midnight…
The sudden movement away from Caleb surprised him, so when a clawed tendril shot up out of the ground and slapped Caleb in the face, he was completely unprepared for it. The claws were held back, and the slap was more for insult than injury, which had Caleb scowling as Midnight laughed at him. Focusing, Caleb sent chains flying towards Midnight – they shot out of the ground beneath him, and the air beside him, behind him, and above him. Midnight dodged with frustrating ease, and Caleb stopped having his chains chase him as another tendril shot up towards him. He deflected it with a glowing chain, and then another came at him, and Caleb formed a Mobility disc, attaching it to his arm and blocking the tendril with his improvised shield.
“Oh, that’s a neat trick,” Midnight said, smiling. “That’s what I like to see, Greyson – creativity.”
Now Midnight charged Caleb. Trying to fend him off with chains, Caleb failed, as Midnight slapped them aside or dodged them altogether. In a matter of seconds, Midnight was swinging a punch at Caleb, who raised his Mobility disc-shield to block.
It was a feint, and Midnight’s other hand came in from the opposite side, slugging Caleb in the ribs. Caleb wheezed, dropped his arm to defend that side, and instinctively tried to step back, to gain distance…
And felt a stabbing pain in his feet, as they failed to move.
“Can’t move your feet, kid!” Midnight taunted, jumping away as Caleb tried to tie him down with chains. Two tendrils flew out of the ground, one on either side, and came at Caleb with claws extended. Caleb blocked one with his shield, and ducked the other one, sending a pair of glowing chains to fend it off.
The session continued, with Caleb rooted in place, for far too long. Every time Midnight came in close, Caleb did his best not to move his feet. But when he took a hit, instinct took over, and once again his ankles and lower legs were pierced by magical claws. When Midnight was at a distance, Caleb couldn’t manage to even touch him with his chains, and whenever he formed a Mobility disc to bounce Midnight into his attacks, Midnight easily changed his trajectory, as if momentum and physics were fictitious constructs that had no bearing on him.
Finally, mercifully, sides and stomach bruised and aching, without having ever landed a single hit on Midnight, Caleb was released and given a break. He gulped down two whole cups of water, and then filled a third and sipped at it while he sat and Ingrid tended to his injuries.
“He was definitely pulling his punches,” Ingrid said, somehow still cheerful even as she applied ointment and bandages to Caleb’s bruised abdomen and bleeding lower legs. “You’ll be all right in a few minutes.”
“You did better than I expected,” Midnight said, back atop his strange tower of crates. “We’ll alternate between that and free movement training for a while. But do you understand why I want you to learn to handle yourself when you can’t be a human pinball?”
Caleb nodded. “It’s about our fight with Neith, isn’t it?” he asked.
“You got it,” Midnight said. “You didn’t have much space to move around, and while you had plenty of other problems at the time, your lack of mobility was clearly a major hindrance. You –”
“– so remember to stay loose in your hips and knees, even when you can’t move your feet. Oh. Sorry about that.”
Caleb took a few moments to realize what happened, and then he sighed. “I blacked out again, huh?”
“Sure did,” Ingrid said, sitting beside him.
“Well, you didn’t miss anything all that important,” Midnight said. He stood up on his tower and folded his arms across his chest. “Here’s your test for the rest of today. I won’t move from this crate up top. You have to tag me, with your hand, right here.” He patted the center of his chest. “If you succeed in the next five hours, you get an extra helping at dinner, and maybe even dessert. If you fail, you have to do five hundred pushups, and ten laps down and back across the bridge. And you don’t get dessert.”
Caleb sprang to his feet, knowing that he’d need every single second of those five hours to accomplish the task before him. Surrounding Midnight with chains, he leapt into the air, bounced off of a Mobility disc, and dove straight for Midnight, intending to end things quickly.
Midnight chuckled, and with a single motion, snapped the chains binding him. Caleb’s outstretched hand, aiming straight for his teacher’s chest, was suddenly grabbed, twisted, and used to toss Caleb far through the air in the opposite direction.
And things kept going like that. Five hours later, Caleb was faced with five hundred pushups and ten laps, and nearly collapsed, so exhausted was he, into his plate during dinner.
“Well, you can keep trying,” Midnight said casually as he ate. “I just wanted to show you how it was done. I didn’t move my feet at all. Remember – you need to stay loose in your entire body. You’re a flexible guy, so you have a natural advantage in attempting to not get hit when your feet are locked down. You were an athlete, weren’t you?”
Caleb nodded. “Swimming and volleyball,” he said.
“Good choices,” Midnight said. “Those’ll both keep you good and limber. Anyway, we’re done for today. Finish up eating and you’re free until the morning. Also…” Midnight held up a finger. “One month. If you can meet my goals for you in one more month, we’ll move onto the phase we’ve both been most excited for.”
Caleb stared at Midnight in disbelief. “You mean… Time Magic?”
Midnight grinned. “You bet. That’s the reason you and I met, isn’t it? It’s time to see if you can handle it after all you’ve been through. If you can… you’re gonna learn to do things right, kid. And you’re gonna learn some neat moves.”
“Like the Steps of Time?” Ingrid asked excitedly. “Do you think you’ll teach him those?”
Midnight nodded. “That’s the plan. If he can handle it.”
“The Steps of –” Caleb stopped his sentence partway. “You mean like the Phase Step? I’m going to learn how to do that? And what it actually is?”
“If you can handle it,” Midnight said, giving Caleb a meaningful stare. “You’d better not fail me, Greyson. I have high hopes for you. Now, don’t get so excited you can’t sleep. I’ll see you in the morning.” He stood, donning his coat as he left the house.
“Oh, you’re going to be a totally new man when he’s done with you,” Ingrid said, eyes bright with excitement. “I hope you don’t fail. This is really exciting, and not just for me.”
“Yeah, I’m excited, too,” Caleb said, grinning.
Ingrid shook her head, her raven curls bobbing. “No, I mean the master.” She gazed out the window. “I’ve never seen him like this. I’ve watched him train almost every student he’s had, and even seen several pass his training. But he’s never been this fired up. He really likes you, and sees something special in you that he hasn’t in anyone else.”
Caleb stared out the window with her, to where Mister Midnight stood atop his tower of crates, his back to the house. Thinking of what they’d been through, and what was ahead of them, Caleb found himself smiling. He missed his friends, and he missed his family.
But he was tremendously glad to be here with Mister Midnight.