Caleb hung suspended in the air for seconds that felt like minutes, as gravity fought to overtake him. Turning so that he angled downward, tilting his head up to look at Mister Midnight who stood ready and waiting on the stone surface of Midnight Bridge, Caleb placed his feet against a Mobility disc and pushed off.
Wind rushed against his face as he hurtled earthward. His teacher, at first merely a speck through the gloomy sky, rapidly grew as Caleb sped towards the ground. As usual, a cocky smirk was on Midnight’s face as he prepared for Caleb’s attack.
But there was something else, too.
His eyes were alive like they hadn’t been in months.
They’d been training for eleven months and thirty days. This was the last day of Caleb’s training.
Midnight wasn’t pulling any punches, and Caleb’s body, drenched with sweat even as the wind blasted across it, was a testament to that. And as Caleb swiftly drew nearer to his teacher, he could see in the man’s expression that he was expecting something great from Caleb.
Caleb intended not to disappoint.
Now he was dozens of yards away. Now dozens of feet. And now…
No more than twelve inches away…
Caleb froze time.
The Phase Step was a tricky maneuver. It was terribly dangerous, as Midnight said. Caleb didn’t realize how much until he started using it.
Everything truly froze, and with it came a host of new elements to what Caleb understood of how Time Magic felt.
First, of course, there was pressure. Not the steadily increasing external pressure associated with ordinarily entering Time-state. This was a sudden, overwhelming pressure that came from without and within. Caleb’s body felt like it was being crushed from an outside force, while also being suffocated from within. His internal organs, struggling to handle the state of complete stopped time that Caleb was in, exerted themselves with desperation and maximal effort for every single impulse. Every heartbeat. Every breath.
On top of that, all around him, the world looked different. He could see more clearly than ever before. The gloom of Midnight Bridge was nearly nonexistent, and there was a flowing blue softness to all around him.
It was very much like being within the river of time.
And when Caleb used the Phase Step while in midair, hurtling towards the ground, his body attempted to come to a complete and utter halt.
But it didn’t have to. With a thought more than a motion, Caleb kept his body moving forward, and as he contacted his frozen teacher…
He passed through him.
That was, undeniably, the coolest part of the Phase Step. Passing through solid objects – even people! – was at times frightening, but as Caleb grew more and more used to it, he was completely amazed and loved the experience every time.
And of course, ever since he’d activated the Phase Step, Caleb was counting.
He had a time limit. It was a fluctuating time limit, but a time limit nonetheless. And as Caleb reached a count of three seconds – the amount of time, with time frozen all around him, it took to pass through Midnight’s entire body – Caleb came out of the Phase Step and into ordinary Time-state.
That was a trick Midnight hadn’t taught him. With the Phase Step, it was taught as all or nothing. You go in, and then you get out.
But Caleb hadn’t snuck in extra practice while his teacher slept for nothing.
Now in ordinary Time-state, with the ground just inches away and rapidly approaching, Caleb flipped forward, orienting his feet towards the ground as he formed a Mobility disc. His feet contacted the magical surface, and all impact was absorbed before Caleb was bounced off of it, flinging himself across a short distance towards the back of his teacher. Another flip, and Caleb exited Time-state just as his foot connected with Midnight’s back in a flying kick.
And, unlike every other attempted attack in nearly a year, Caleb’s kick actually worked.
Midnight was sent flying, tumbling across the ground for dozens of feet before finally stopping – not by righting himself or gracefully returning to his feet, but by slamming against the wall of the bridge.
Caleb used another Mobility disc to bounce him gently to the ground, and then rushed to his teacher, who didn’t get up at first.
When he got close enough, Caleb could hear Midnight laughing.
“Yes!” Midnight shouted, leaping to his feet with a giant grin on his face. “That’s the way, kid!” He beamed at Caleb, and then pointed at him. “You did it! It took you almost the entire year, but you finally did it!”
Caleb stopped a few feet away, stunned by the sudden praise. And then his heart soared.
He’d done it. After all this time, all this training, all these tests to land a hit on his master, all the failures and extra pushups and laps along the bridge…
He’d finally hit Mister Midnight.
“And not just a light tap or a graze,” Midnight said, “but a real solid hit! That was beautiful, kid!” He sighed, a loud sigh of relief and joy. “How do you feel?”
“I feel…” Caleb started to say…
Vertigo grabbed hold of him. The ground gave way, and he felt himself pitch to the left, while his eyes told him he was falling to the right.
Next thing he knew, he had an arm over Midnight’s shoulder, barely being held standing up.
“Easy, kid,” Midnight said, patting Caleb on the back. “You all right?”
Caleb nodded, letting out his own sigh of exhaustion. “I may have overdid it,” he said, chuckling. “I… I don’t think I can do much more today.”
Midnight laughed as Caleb got his feet back under him and stood of his own power. “Well… hang on a second.” Midnight looked towards the house and cupped his hands around his mouth. “Ingrid! What are you doing?”
Ingrid came running out the front door, her raven tresses flying behind her. “What is it, what is it?” she called as she raced toward the pair.
“You know what day it is, right?” Midnight asked.
Ingrid stopped in front of Midnight and Caleb, her silver eyes puzzling over the question for a moment, before they lit up in understanding. “It’s… the last day of training!”
Midnight nodded, clapping a hand on Caleb’s shoulder. Caleb swayed, not from his Fracturing or anything dangerous, but from simple exhaustion. He’d been pushing himself all day, and that last maneuver had left him spent. “And you know what?” Midnight asked. He looked at Caleb, beaming. “The kid didn’t just pass. He passed with flying colors.”
“Yay!” Ingrid shouted, hugging Caleb tightly. “You did it! I knew you could!”
Caleb felt stunned, and he looked at Midnight in confusion, which only prompted a laugh from his teacher. “What?” Midnight asked. “You knew what today was, too, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, I did, I just…” Caleb started, but he couldn’t find the words. He shook his head, laughing. “I… it’s been a long time. I didn’t really think…”
“Well it really happened,” Midnight said. “Congratulations, Caleb Greyson. Let’s get you some food, and let’s talk about things before I take down the Locational Time Magic and…” he yawned, stretching his arms overhead, “probably take a nap, honestly. This takes a lot out of me.” He rubbed his back, grinning. “And that kick of yours was no joke.”
Caleb walked along with Midnight and Ingrid, the two of them adjusting their pace to match Caleb’s. He really was exhausted, and he couldn’t even walk very quickly. But when he sat down at the dinner table and got to eat, his exhaustion quickly melted away.
“Well, unfortunately your stamina is probably as good as it’s ever going to be,” Midnight said. “We did our best, but that’s always gonna be your weakest point.” He grinned. “In every other respect, though, you passed with flying colors. Not just with Time Magic, but… well. Tell me how you feel about everything.”
Caleb swallowed his next bite and thought about it for a moment. “I’m stronger,” he said. “Physically, and my magic as well. When we started, you could snap my chains like twigs and shatter my discs like glass. Now they make you exert yourself to fight through them, and you avoid my attacks more than you did at the beginning. I always thought I was pretty strong, but now…” He laughed, shaking his head. “No one’s gonna recognize me when I get back to Grimoire.” He thought a bit more, nodding. “I’m faster, and I think that’s the biggest improvement. Just like you wanted, I can think so much quicker, I can make important decisions in the middle of combat without deliberation or using Time-state as a crutch. And that’s changed everything.”
Midnight nodded. “How so?”
“I don’t have to use Time Magic as much. I can slip into it for a second or two, make a big move, and then come out of it and keep fighting normally. My chains and discs come out quicker, and I can move around so much faster because I have a better understanding of my abilities. You make fun of me for being a human pinball, but I can stay in the air and bounce around much faster and with more precise, chosen actions and trajectories than before, when it was at least partially random.”
“Now he admits it,” Midnight said, laughing.
Caleb laughed with him. “It’s something I always saw the potential of, but moving that fast and flinging around all over the place was something I didn’t think I could do any faster.”
“How much stronger and faster do you think you are now?”
Caleb mulled over that for a moment, then smiled. “Probably twice as strong. And… shoot, I don’t even know how much faster. Five times? Six times?”
Midnight leaned back, smiling. “I’d say at least ten times.” He chuckled. “You’ve advanced so quickly that you’ve forgotten how slow you really were.”
“So it’s all over?” Ingrid asked, leaning forward, silver eyes wide and glittering. “He graduated?”
Midnight nodded. “Sure did. You ready to feel the real world again, Caleb?” Caleb nodded, and Midnight raised his hand and snapped his fingers.
After twelve months under the effects of Locational Time Magic, Caleb had stopped noticing its pressures, especially when he started using Time Magic again and adjusted to that pressure. With a snap of his fingers, Mister Midnight changed the entire atmosphere. Caleb nearly jumped out of his chair, he suddenly felt so light and free, like he might float away, as if gravity had been undone.
Ingrid giggled. “They all make the same face when they graduate,” she said. “I love it.”
Midnight nodded. “I’ve always had a soft spot for the ‘grinning like an idiot’ look, too.”
Caleb laughed, and then did stand up, moving around the small dining room a little bit, stretching and testing his body. “This is so weird,” he said, still “grinning like an idiot” as he did so. “It’s like… I don’t know, like I’m stronger than I was even during training.”
“That’s expected,” Midnight said. “When you spend that much time constantly being pressed upon by outside forces, and you become so accustomed to it that it feels natural, returning to ordinary pressure and ordinary air brings about some very exciting realizations. Under the Locational Time Magic, you were likely three times stronger and ten times faster than you were when we started. Now, though?” Midnight shrugged. “Why don’t you go outside and give it a try?”
Caleb grinned, sprinting from the house, barely remembering to put his shoes on at the door before exiting. Outside, he leapt up to Midnight’s stack of crates, using just a little push of Enhancement Magic…
And he overshot it by five feet.
Laughing in shock and delight, Caleb flipped in midair, forming a Mobility disc and bouncing off of that to land on top of the crate-tower. He looked down at himself, bouncing on the balls of his feet.
He didn’t look all that different. He was tall but had a small frame and struggled to hold onto muscle, so he still looked skinny even after all of his training. But he felt…
He felt superhuman.
Jumping without Enhancement Magic, he realized he wasn’t superhuman without magical boosts. He could jump higher than he ever had before, but he wasn’t about to beat a world record with his vertical.
But jumping felt so easy. He leapt up, doing a stationary backflip and landing back on the top of the crate-tower, laughing with a grin he couldn’t wipe off of his face even if he wanted to. He jumped again, doing a half-flip and landing in a handstand, and marveled at how light and free he felt. He didn’t waver in the slightest, even when he lifted his right hand so that he was just doing a one-handed handstand. Dropping out of that, he fell into open air, bounced off of a Mobility disc, and then another, zipping here and there, higher and higher into the sky, whooping and hollering with glee as he darted about faster and faster, the wind whipping his hair, the darkness around him constantly pierced by the bright light of his discs.
Finally, he launched himself at the ground, hurtling at insane speeds, eventually forming a winding slide of Mobility discs that he rolled down, laughing like a little kid until he tumbled safely onto the ground. He lay on his back, catching his breath, staring up at the murky sky, laughing until his sides hurt.
Silver eyes were soon staring down at him, and Ingrid’s smile brought Caleb back to the present.
“Having fun?” she asked.
Caleb nodded. “So much,” he said with a breathless sigh. He tilted his head back and saw Midnight leaning back against the stack of crates, watching Caleb silently. “You’re the very best, Mister Midnight. Thank you. I don’t know how to say it the way I want to, words feel like they’re not enough, but…”
“Maybe don’t say it while you’re lying on the ground and looking at me upside down,” Midnight said with a chuckle.
Caleb laughed, springing to his feet and turning to face his teacher. He bowed, and even though it felt awkward… it felt right. He didn’t know how else to convey his gratitude and respect at once. “I know it’s been a long time since it happened, but… I was almost dead,” he said. “Madame Chrono’s explanation of my condition was a wakeup call. And I had two choices for a teacher, and I don’t actually remember why I chose you, but… I’m so glad I did. I’m Fractured, but I don’t feel broken.” He stood up straight, smiling. “You’ve made me better than I could have ever dreamed of. I don’t know how to thank you enough.”
Midnight strolled up to Caleb and planted a hand on his shoulder. “You already have, kid.” He smirked. “You’re welcome.”
Caleb laughed, and Midnight laughed, and Ingrid laughed, and for a long time the trio just laughed and smiled, saying nothing else. Eventually they went back inside, where Caleb finished the meal that he hadn’t realized he hadn’t finished.
“So I guess it’s time for you take a long nap, huh?” Caleb asked, remembering what Midnight said about the stresses of Locational Time Magic.
Midnight, though, shook his head, and then looked at Ingrid. “Not yet,” he said. “I made a deal, and it’s time I uphold my end of it. Ingrid…” And then Midnight seemed to lose his grip on words. He stared at the girl, and she stared back at him, but still Midnight said nothing. He sighed, shaking his head. “I’ve put this off for far too long. Ingrid, there are things we need to talk about. It won’t be easy for you, but… it’s time you knew the truth. Let’s go outside.” He stood, giving Caleb a brief glance. “Feel free to eavesdrop. I know I can’t stop you anyway. And, well…” He sighed. “This was your idea, after all.”
Ingrid followed Midnight outside wordlessly, her eyes conveying immense curiosity. Caleb watched them go, walking around the side of the house to the back, where Caleb rarely went. There was a small garden at the very edge of the bridge, with a bench offering a view out into the endless darkness. There Midnight and Ingrid sat, while Caleb sat by the open window and listened from within the house.
“Ingrid, I…” Midnight started, his voice shaky. “I want you to know the truth.” He paused, as if waiting for Ingrid to reply, but she didn’t say anything, just stared up at him. “The truth is… well, I don’t really know where to begin, there’s so much. You know about the fool’s gods, and what they did to obtain their endless life. You also know that there are some who were forcibly given such long life by the Radiant King, but… they didn’t join him. Some of them ran away, disappearing into the far reaches of the Enchanted Dominion. But some… well, they were just… lost.” He sighed, the weary sigh of a man who had lived for centuries, holding onto truths that he thought he’d never have to speak aloud. “Ingrid… you were one of those. You were made into an Eternal, and… I don’t know the whole story, or how it happened, but… you got lost. You ended up in Sunset Square, in the garbage, and that’s where the man you call your father found you.”
There was a long silence, and finally Ingrid spoke. “But… then who are my parents?”
Midnight sighed. “I don’t know. Whoever they are, as far as I can tell, they weren’t a part of the King’s experiments. And that means… well… that means…”
Ingrid’s reply was surprisingly calm. “That means they died a long time ago. Humans don’t live very long.”
Midnight nodded. “That’s right. You also… you had a brother and a sister. The King tried to turn them into Eternals, too, but…”
“They… didn’t make it.”
Midnight sighed. “Right.”
Ingrid looked away, staring out into the gloomy expanse. “When you found me in the ruins, when that man tried to attack me… you saw it all back then, didn’t you? You’ve known since we met.”
Midnight nodded. “Right.”
“So… I still have the memories? I just… I just don’t consciously remember them, right?”
Midnight nodded. “Right.”
Ingrid was silent for a while, as if building up the courage to ask her next question. “Can you show them to me?”
Midnight stared at her, and she stared back at him. Finally, Midnight nodded. He raised his hand, placing his thumb and ring finger against Ingrid’s forehead. “Keep your eyes open,” Midnight said. “Keep them fixed on me. You’ll see the memories, as best as I can show them. They’ve always been fragmented, but…”
Ingrid nodded. “I understand.”
Images started to appear in the air between Ingrid and Midnight – images that Caleb recognized from when Midnight had shown him the memory of him finding Ingrid. For the first time, Ingrid saw her old life in the house on the hill. She saw her brother and sister, both a little bit older than her, and how they played together so happily.
She saw how a man, hidden and mysterious in Ingrid’s memories, came and deceived her parents and led the three children away.
She saw her wake up after uncountable days of experiments, only to look and see that beside her, neither her brother or sister had survived the same procedures.
She saw a strange portal pull her and dozens of others into a world that wasn’t Grimoire at all.
And she saw how she was alone.
Again, and again, Ingrid was alone.
Her first memory of not being alone in the Enchanted Dominion was a sad, cruel one: Rodney Gabblen pulling her out of the garbage.
Then the images disappeared.
Midnight removed his hand from Ingrid’s forehead. Ingrid sat back against the bench, staring out into the dark expanse. For a very, very long time, neither of them said a word.
Finally, in the stillness, Ingrid spoke in a small voice.
Midnight looked at her. “For what?”
Ingrid turned to look up at him, and Caleb was surprised to see that she was smiling. “For showing me the truth. I… there was so much I never understood about my life. I noticed that people around me aged, just a little bit, but… I never did. Fa– I mean Rodney – told me it was because my growth was stunted. I…” She shook her head, her silver eyes glistening with tears. “All this time I thought I was nothing. I let people I thought were my parents tell me I was useless, tell me I had to be better and better, and I never knew where I came from, I couldn’t remember anything, and all they ever said was that it was because I was clumsy, and I am clumsy, I fall and hit myself all the time and I never mean to, and I don’t know why, and I just…” Ingrid stopped, shaking her head silently. “I thought I was hopeless. When you took me in, and you let me work for you, and you acted so cold, but you still praised me, and I could see that you really cared, and I knew from you and spending time with you that…” She sobbed. “I knew the people I thought were my parents never loved me, but I wanted them to, because I thought they were my parents, and what use is life if even your own parents don’t love you? What good are you if even the people who brought you into the world and raised you hate you? But you… even though I wanted to earn their approval, you… Mister Midnight… you’re the father I never had.”
Midnight opened his mouth to speak, his eyes wide in surprise, but then he shut it and shook his head.
“So… thank you,” Ingrid said, looking up at him again, her smile returned even as tears covered her face. “Thank you for caring for me. Thank you for raising me properly, and for saving me from those people who only saw me as a tool. And thank you for showing me the truth.”
Midnight opened his mouth to speak again, but again shut it without saying a word. Ingrid giggled. “It’s okay,” she said. “You don’t have to say anything. I’m just glad to be here with you. And I hope… I hope you didn’t show me all of this because you plan on sending me away, or telling me to go back to Earth or something.”
Midnight shook his head. “Not a chance,” he said. “You can do whatever you want of course, but… if you’re still willing…” He sighed, his expression conflicted. “There will always be a home for you here.”
Caleb heard in Midnight’s voice the mixture of emotions and pain that he heard so often when they’d spent time with Alexandra: pain, frustration, sadness, loneliness, uncertainty, reluctance, restraint, and – more than anything – guilt.
But unlike with Alexandra, when Midnight spoke those words to Ingrid, Caleb could hear other emotions fighting to make themselves heard: joy, love, peace, and hope.
For reasons Caleb might never know, Mister Midnight felt terribly conflicted about the idea of being a father figure. He felt terribly conflicted about being loved, about people truly finding a home with him.
And yet those were things that, Caleb would wager, Midnight wanted more than anything.
Ingrid didn’t say a word, but instead leaned in and wrapped her arms around Midnight, hugging him tightly. Midnight seemed caught completely off-guard at first, but slowly he hugged her back. And in the darkness of Midnight Bridge, Mister Midnight’s eyes shone with a rare light as a small smile crossed his face.