Caleb and Midnight stared at the door for several minutes, with each attempt by Midnight at knocking increasing in intensity. Finally, Midnight gave up, shouting at the door instead.
“It’s Mister Midnight, you pair of cowardly filth!” he roared, slamming the door once with his fist. “Open up now, or I’ll break down this door, along with whatever feeble supports are holding this hovel together!”
Heavy, frantic footsteps sounded inside, and moments later the door swung open. A man and woman stood in the doorway, and Caleb finally started to see what Midnight had meant when he spoke so ill of Ingrid’s parents.
The father was a short man, likely only a few inches taller than five feet, with greasy hair haphazardly arranged in a pathetic attempt to hide his bald dome of a head. Eyes, small and squinty like a rat’s, peered out from overlarge eye sockets, and a hook-like nose seemed ready to impale quivering, pale lips that couldn’t hide a noticeable overbite. He dressed like someone who had once been in power and riches, and couldn’t come to terms with the squalid life he’d fallen into. His suit jacket was once a rich navy blue, but now was so faded and patched with various colors that it looked more like rags than proper attire. Despite all of that, he kept his shoes shined, as if that was enough to hide the dreadful state of the rest of his life.
The mother wasn’t much better. Her grey hair was flecked with a poor, gloppy attempt at self-applying hair dye without any knowledge of proper application, leaving her hair clumped together in grey-black smudges, unable to be tamed into any coherent hair style. Her entire face was thin and came forward like a beak, with her eyes too close together, and her lips too narrow and pursed, like she was constantly trying to kiss the air. Her frilly dress was ripped and torn in places, and a size too big, as if she was attempting to hide the fact that she was far too thin to possibly be healthy. Bony hands poked out from her sleeves, with knotted knuckles and grimy, chipped nails.
“M-m-m-m-midnight,” the father said, his lips quavering and his hands shaking as he surveyed the dark-clothed figure in his doorway that towered over him.
“Don’t act so familiar with me, Rodney,” Midnight growled, stepping into the house and motioning for Caleb to follow.
“B-but you j-j-just –” Rodney started.
“I used your name in lieu of proper introduction,” Midnight said, gesturing to Caleb. “I brought a guest. Caleb, this is Rodney and Brathilda Gabblen. But don’t feel any need to call them by name. I certainly don’t.”
“You b-brought,” Rodney said, staring at Caleb with as wide of eyes as he could muster, which only made the disparity between his eyes and sockets more apparent and repulsive. He fumbled in his pocket, pulling forth a blue crystal on an oily thread.
“Put that garbage away,” Midnight snapped, glaring at the crystal as he shut the door behind him. “No tests here, Rat.” Rodney swiftly returned the crystal to his pocket.
“Why are you here, Mister Midnight?” Brathilda asked, batting her eyelashes and affecting a clumsy curtsy. “You aren’t due for another seventeen rotations.”
“I’m here because I don’t want you two snakes to think I’m predictable,” Midnight said. He looked around the small house, his nose wrinkling in disgust.
Caleb could understand why. The house appeared to be just two rooms – a dining room, which connected directly to the front door and included a meager counter and stove; and a living room just beyond, with two couches pushed together like they were a bed.
Aside from that, it was hard to discern much else about the house. Trash was strewn everywhere – crumpled paper, stained napkins and torn towels, broken glass, crumbs and small bones, and numerous indecipherable objects that could have been anything, and none of them pleasant. Uncountable stains plastered the garish floral wallpaper. Piled high in the sink were plates, bowls, and glasses that made Caleb instantly look away – those stains and debris weren’t from food prepared this morning.
Who could live like this?
And then came the startling realization: these were Ingrid’s parents. How long had she lived with them? How did she turn out so kind and upbeat when she grew up in this? And how did she look nothing like the two slobs who nearly tripped over themselves trying to appeal to Mister Midnight?
“You know I don’t just come here to collect,” Midnight said, glaring down at the couple. “Have the Marlows moved?”
“Not since your last visit, sir,” Brathilda said.
Rodney nodded frantically. “T-t-that’s right,” he said. “They’ve stuck to routine, s-sir. Still keeping to the Blue Sector.”
“What about Neith?” Midnight asked. “Have you seen her come through here lately? Or any of the other Enforcers?”
“Neith was here,” Brathilda said, shuddering. “She even came to visit us. But we said nothing about you, oh no, or about the girl, oh no.”
Midnight’s eyes flashed. “That ‘girl’ is your daughter,” he growled. “Or had you forgotten?”
Brathilda cowered away, eyes wide, her puckered lips moving but making no sound.
“We haven’t f-f-f-forgotten, honest,” Rodney said, bowing again and again. “Of course not. Not our s-s-sweet, lovable Ingrid. You’ve been so very k-k-kind to –”
“Stop it, Rod,” Brathilda said suddenly, glaring at her husband. “Look at him. He’ll never give her back. Even though he stole her from us.”
“Stole her?” Midnight asked, arching an eyebrow. “I seem to recall a certain soulless, balding buffoon agreeing to give up his only daughter as payment when he couldn’t come clean on a dishonestly accrued debt.”
“And you’ve kept her long enough!” Brathilda shouted, a rather pathetic sound, coming out more like someone with a terrible case of laryngitis trying to raise their voice – hoarse and scratchy and shockingly lacking in volume.
“She stays of her own free will, you wretched hag,” Midnight said, shooting a glare at Brathilda that caused her to once again cower away. “And you’ll be happy to know I haven’t spoken ill of you two serpents in her presence even once. Luckily for you, her heart is too soft to bear the truth.”
Suddenly, Rodney lunged at Caleb, bringing a fist up towards his face. Caleb gasped, dodging away from the perceived attack…
Only to see that it wasn’t an attack. Rodney had pulled out his blue stone once more, getting it close to Caleb’s face for just a fraction of a second. As Caleb backed away, he watched the crystal turn from blue to red, and Rodney and Brathilda’s eyes widened in terror.
“H-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-human!” Rodney cried, his voice rising an octave. He turned his beady rat-eyes on Midnight. “How d-d-d-dare you!”
“We must –” Brathilda began to say.
Suddenly, inky black tendrils burst out of the floor, the walls, and the ceiling. At their ends were clawed hands, each of which grasped either Rodney or Brathilda somewhere – the throat, the wrists, the ankles – dozens of black hands reached out and took hold of Ingrid’s parents, pulling them up off of the floor and suspending them in midair. Caleb’s eyes widened, and he stared at Mister Midnight, who hadn’t so much as moved a muscle. Yet this magic must be his doing. Caleb could see in Midnight’s eyes a fiery glare. While Midnight’s eyes were the inverse of Madame Chronoshin’s – completely white, save for a small black void at the center – that black void now flashed with orange and red and gold sparks.
“You must do nothing, you wretched, loathsome slugs,” Midnight growled. Rodney and Brathilda were struck dumb, staring wide-eyed and speechless at the terrifying visage of their attacker. “If you value your miserable, pathetic lives, you won’t breathe a word of my guest’s humanity. I don’t care what the blasted laws are in this rotten city – he is my guest, and he will be treated with as much respect as I demand he be treated with. And, despite his terrifying humanity, he is far more respectable, courageous, and honorable of a living soul than you two filthy snakes will ever hope to be. Is that clear?”
Rodney and Brathilda, still unable to speak, were apparently too prideful to agree to Midnight’s insulting description of them, and simply stared back emotionless.
Midnight snarled, and the tendrils tightened their grips on the couple’s limbs, torsos, and throats, until finally the pair were frantically, desperately nodding. “That’s better,” Midnight said, and the clawed hands relaxed their grips. “Now, more than your cowardly paranoia, we have something important to discuss. The two of you, unsurprisingly, have been hiding something from me. You will tell me in the next three seconds, or I will remove your heads from your bodies.”
Brathilda seemed unwilling to comply, but Rodney instantly blurted out “The King spoke to us!”
Midnight’s upper lip curled in disgust. “Spoke to you, did he?” he asked, his voice descending into a quiet calm that was more frightening than his angry growling. “Explain.”
“Rod –” Brathilda started, before her voice cut off as the hand around her throat tightened its grip.
“In our dreams,” Rodney said. “He s-s-shows up. Talks to us. S-said he w-was invited. And he said t-t-t-to tell him about any human guests you bring with you. Also that we should l-l-let him know if Ingrid ever r-returns.”
Midnight took in a long, slow breath, and let it out just as slowly. “He mentioned me by name?” he asked. Rodney nodded frantically. “And he wants Ingrid?”
“Just said t-to let him know if she c-comes back,” Rodney said, his voice squeaking in fear.
“Rat,” Midnight said, taking two steps forward, until his nose nearly touched Rodney’s. “This next question will decide how long you live, so listen carefully. Are you going to mention my guest to the Radiant King, any of his subordinates, any of his messengers, or to anyone else you know or even see anywhere for the rest of your life?”
Rodney blinked several times. “T-t-t-that’s quite a long l-list –”
“Answer the question,” Midnight snapped.
Rodney shook his head repeatedly. “No, no, no, no, no, Mister s-sir M-midnight s-sir, not as long as I live, I s-s-swear on my life and my wife’s life and my mother’s g-g-g-grave, sir!” he said frantically, tripping over his words multiple times.
“Good answer,” Midnight said, releasing Rodney to drop to the floor, gasping and rubbing at his throat and limbs, where the clawed hands had torn through his clothes and left shallow gashes that were bleeding lightly.
“Now for you, Hag,” Midnight said, turning to Brathilda, who stared back at him with defiant eyes. “This is no time to be courageous. If you say a word, you do realize your husband will die, right? And I’d hate for anything to happen to your sister, or your sick mother, both of whom have miraculously escaped being anywhere near as revolting as you.”
The air seemed to go out of Brathilda as she lowered her eyes. “You are cruel, Mister Midnight,” she said softly. “I will agree to the same terms as my husband.”
“Good answer,” Midnight said. All of the black tendrils suddenly vanished, leaving Brathilda slumped on the floor along with her husband. Midnight turned to leave, casting a glance at Caleb. “I’ve got everything I came for. Come along, kid.”
Out they went, as Midnight slammed the door shut behind them. For several blocks they walked in silence.
“Well?” Midnight asked finally, as they turned off of the street into a wide open grassy park. “You’ve been uncharacteristically quiet, Greyson.”
“You really hate them, don’t you?” Caleb asked. It had been difficult for him to wrap his mind around what he’d seen.
“And unfortunately, you likely didn’t see enough to understand why,” Midnight said, sighing. He stopped in the middle of a bridge, placing his hands on the rail and looking out across a lake which glittered gold in the perpetually setting sun. “Our history is far longer than I ever hoped it would be. If it weren’t for their continuing usefulness as eyes and ears on a few persons of interest, then I would have cut ties with them long ago.”
“And Ingrid?” Caleb asked.
Midnight glared at the water. “I’d love nothing more than to keep her away from her parents forever, and have nothing more to do with those two,” he said.
“No, I meant…” Caleb shook his head. “She’s really their daughter?”
Midnight chuckled. “Ah,” he said. “Right. Well…” He looked around, as if checking to see that no one was in earshot. “In a word, no.”
“I’m guessing there’s a long story behind that, too?” Caleb asked.
Midnight nodded. “And one that shouldn’t be told in a place like this,” he said. “You’ve seen it in the city, and you saw it in those two. There’s a fear that festers in the people of Sunset Square more than any other Location in the Enchanted Dominion.”
“Fear of humans,” Caleb said, leaning on the rail next to Midnight. “Does it have to do with the Eternals and the Radiant King?”
“You’re sharp,” Midnight said. “Yes. That story, at least, I can tell in public. Nearly every Enchanted knows it. When the fool’s gods were banished from Earth and stuck in the Enchanted Dominion forever, they weren’t initially imprisoned. And to imprison them took more than the Crystal King expected. A war broke out, the first and so far only war the Enchanted have ever known. Many of them died, and this city was where the fighting was fiercest. While the Enchanted suffered horrible losses, not a single Eternal – not a single human – died. Eventually, the Enchanted won, and the Eternals were imprisoned.”
Caleb stared at Midnight. “You’re not much of a storyteller,” he said.
Midnight chuckled. “I’m not in the fairest mood today,” he said. “Perhaps you hadn’t noticed?”
“I never would have guessed,” Caleb said, smirking at Midnight.
Midnight laughed, shaking his head. “You’re all right, Greyson. Unlike most of the people I know.”
“When you say ‘people’,” Caleb said, “you don’t just mean humans.”
Midnight nodded. “When I, or any other Enchanted, is referring specifically to humans, we say ‘humans.’ ‘People’ is more of a catch-all term for civilized living beings – including Enchanted. Just like how humans don’t usually refer to themselves as humans, we don’t often call ourselves Enchanted.”
“Wait, hang on a second…” Caleb said, thinking on Midnight’s short story. “You said the Radiant King and the Eternals were imprisoned.”
Midnight nodded, looking at Caleb as if to say “go on…”
“But the Radiant King talked to Rodney and Brathilda,” Caleb said. “Through their dreams, or so they said, but still… and you and I fought Void on Midnight Bridge. He’s one of the Eternals. How is he running around freely?”
Midnight sighed. “Something – I don’t know what – went wrong,” he said. “They got free. But they haven’t been running amuck – only the King’s Enforcers, like Void, have been seen anywhere – so I can’t say for certain what’s happening. I have my theories, but… well, either something happened to the Crystal King and the rest of the royal family, or they decided to let the Eternals go for some foolish reason.”
“Why are they looking for Ingrid?” Caleb asked. Midnight was silent, staring out across the lake. Caleb’s eyes widened, and he opened his mouth to speak, but stopped himself.
Ingrid’s a human, Caleb realized silently. And more than that… she’s probably an Eternal.
No wonder Midnight wouldn’t talk about her story openly. But those realizations just added new questions. Why was she adopted by two Enchanted who had a very clear and unbridled fear of humans, in a city rife with fear and hatred of humans, no less? And… did Ingrid know?
Of course she didn’t. Clearly, from her behavior and how Midnight talked around the issue, Ingrid thought that Rodney and Brathilda were her actual parents. She didn’t even realize she was adopted, let alone not an Enchanted at all.
“You’re starting to understand, Greyson,” Midnight said, turning to walk the rest of the length of the bridge.
“What are you, a mind-reader?” Caleb asked.
Midnight smirked. “It’s written on your face,” he said. “Come on. I just needed a good look at the lake to cleanse my mind of the filth we had to deal with. We still have a few more stops.”
“Why did you bring me along?” Caleb asked.
“To keep you from getting bored,” Midnight said. “And so that you could see things that I think you need to see. And because I think you’ll be useful at a few of our stops.”
“Useful how?” Caleb asked.
Midnight shot a glance at Caleb’s wrist. “Is it time for your medicine, yet?” he asked.
Caleb checked his watch, nodded, and pulled the vial of liquid out of his pocket. Measuring it out very carefully, he took a sip of the miniscule dose. Instantly, his gag reflex kicked in, and he had to fight to keep from spitting the vile, bitter medicine out. He stood still, face contorted in disgust, for several moments, before finally managing to swallow, his entire body shuddering as the liquid snaked its way down his throat.
“Ugh, I’m never gonna get used to that,” Caleb said, slipping the vial back into his pocket.
Midnight laughed. “No one ever does,” he said. “It’s the price you pay. Remember, you should be dead. That disgusting tonic is the only thing between you and the grave right now.”
Thanks for the comforting reminder, Caleb thought. “Where are we going next?” he asked.
“Someplace you’ve heard mentioned a few times by now, probably,” Midnight said, leading the way through a tunnel of trees that led out of the park and back out onto the city streets. “A protected zone.”
Caleb had heard the term thrown around a few times. “You’re going to tell me to wait and see what it actually is, aren’t you?” he asked.
“If you head me off like that, I won’t have to,” Midnight said, chuckling. “You’re starting to get to know me, Greyson. Not sure how I feel about that.”
“You’ll be fine,” Caleb said, laughing. “It was inevitable, with all the time we’ve been spending together.”
“Fair enough,” Midnight said. “Now, enough chitchat. Get back to paying attention. Observe some more. You’ve still got a lot to learn.”
“Yes, sir,” Caleb said. Eyes and ears open, he strolled along the streets of a city that, if it knew what he was, would imprison or exile him in an instant. It was surreal, walking amongst such an atmosphere of fear under the golden glow of a beautiful sunset.