Caleb felt a haze slowly lift from his mind. His eyes fluttered halfway open, and all he could see was a blur.
A sudden spike of panic shot through him. His hand went to his face, and he felt skin, his eyelids, his nose.
They were unprotected.
He shut his eyes tight and fumbled around with his hands. He was in a bed that felt rather familiar, and something in his memory told him that there was a bedside table to his right.
When his hand reached the table, there was the sound of something solid sliding across the wooden surface. Cool metal frames touched Caleb’s fingers, and he grasped his glasses, putting them on before opening his eyes.
“Good to see you still value your health,” came a deep, familiar voice.
“Mister Midnight?” Caleb asked. His voice came out hoarse and weak – his throat was unbearably dry. His vision steadily cleared, and he recognized where he was.
It was the bedroom in Mister Midnight’s house, the one he’d slept in so many times for over a year of training. Next to the bed sat Midnight, his expression serious, his eyes watching Caleb closely.
“Yeah, kid,” Midnight said. “Welcome back to the physical world.” He held out a cup of water. Slowly, Caleb propped himself up until he was half sitting, enough for him to be able to drink. He sipped rather than gulped, letting his mouth and throat gently adjust to the sudden moisture.
“How did I end up here?” he asked as he set the half-full cup on the bedside table.
“I don’t know,” Midnight said. “What do you last remember?”
Caleb thought for a moment, and it was the object in his left hand that jogged his memory.
Tock’s pocket watch.
“I walked through a door,” he said. “And then… there was nothing.” He looked at Midnight. “How long have I been out?”
Midnight eyed the clock above the bed. “Ingrid found you here thirty Earth hours ago,” he said.
Caleb let out a long breath. “No wonder I feel so groggy.”
“You were at the Edge of Time,” Midnight said.
“Yeah,” Caleb said. “But how –”
“There’s no other place you could have been,” Midnight said. “You don’t need to tell me about everything yet. Others have told me enough about what you did to get you there, so I can guess at a lot. I just have one thing to say to you, and I want you to think seriously about it before you respond.” Caleb stared back at Midnight, giving him a single nod to say he understood. Midnight’s next words sent a shock through Caleb’s heart: “You wanted to die.”
There was that knot of dread in Caleb’s mind, which he’d first noticed in Time’s Labyrinth. It had been untying itself, but now it was back, large and twisted, digging into the back of his mind.
Midnight watched Caleb for a while in silence, and then continued. “You’re not suicidal. You have a different sort of problem. Right?”
Slowly, his mouth unbearably dry, Caleb nodded.
“I saw little hints of it in all the time we spent together,” Midnight said. “You want to be a hero. And I had a feeling you might attempt that grand heroic sacrifice one day if the opportunity presented itself. Somewhere within you, when push came to shove, you pushed yourself too far. But the reason you ended up at the Edge of Time is that a part of you wasn’t willing to fight back.”
“I…” Caleb started, shuddering under Midnight’s blunt assessment, “I was called there. The lady… I don’t know her name, she wouldn’t tell me… she said she called me there. So that’s why –”
“Why did she call you?” Midnight asked. “What did she call you for?”
Caleb lowered his gaze. “She wanted me to take her place.”
Midnight nodded slowly. “She saw the same thing I saw.” He sighed. “Look, I’m not saying it isn’t heroic or amazing to give up your life for those you love. I’m not so cynical as to spit in the face of that. But it’s never something to take so lightly. Look at me.” Caleb lifted his eyes, crumbling under Midnight’s intense gaze. “You didn’t make the heroic sacrifice. You made the easy one. You felt your Time Magic giving you problems, you had strange visions, and when you saw a chance to put yourself on the line, you leapt at the opportunity. You didn’t make the hard choice – where it’s between your life or someone else’s, inevitably, inescapably, no loopholes or clever tricks to save you both. There are moments where that kind of sacrifice is noble, and good, and heroic. Yours wasn’t that kind of moment. You made the easy choice, the coward’s choice. Your magic was scaring you. The battle was difficult for everyone. You saw an opportunity, and you misjudged it, seeing it as a grand heroic moment to throw yourself away, save everyone… and then get sweet relief from the fear and struggle that was creeping in on you. Not to mention, you got that heroic blaze of glory that you so foolishly craved.”
The knot of dread in the back of Caleb’s mind unwound itself fully, spreading out like a blanket to coat every facet of his thoughts.
“I told you never to be afraid,” Midnight continued. “I forgot to tell you that when you start learning to resist fear, to set aside fear consciously, then fear learns. It starts to creep in subtly, to tickle your subconscious, to play at the unconscious parts of your mind until you don’t even realize you’re afraid. It tricks your mind, makes you think you’re making choices for different reasons. So you leap into the breach, dive onto the sword, step in front of the bullet – you think you’re being a hero. Fear tricks your mind, and you let go of your strengths, you stop thinking the way you normally think. And when push comes to shove, when you’re bleeding out in the dirt, or you feel the River of Time crushing you into nothing, instead of continuing to fight – to gasp for breath, to claw for movement, to say ‘no’ to the ending of your life – instead of valuing your life, you surrender. And you think it’s noble. But it’s just a fear-addled mind lulling you into an escape.”
Midnight leaned forward, tilting Caleb’s chin up with a hand until their eyes met again. “Don’t crumble now,” he said, his voice taking on an uncommon softness. “You’re my favorite student because you’ve been able to take whatever I throw at you. I don’t say all of this to make you shut down. I say all of this so you can be better. Talk to me.”
“I…” Caleb started. He gulped, then took the cup off the table and drank some more. He let out a long sigh. “What do I do now?”
“You stop giving up,” Midnight said. “When danger comes, you take it, you fight against it, you outwit it, overpower it, deflect it, overcome it. You’re going to hurt. You’re going to face terrible pain. That’s the road before you. But you can’t surrender to it.” He touched a finger against Caleb’s chest. “Time Magic is changing within you. You’re going through a transformation, and that’s what happened in Grimoire, what terrified you and pushed you to surrender. Don’t run from this. Things will be different now. I’ll walk you through it as best I can, but I can’t fully explain all of it. And you’ll get nowhere if you continue to fear what you don’t understand.” A grim smile crossed his face. “You’ll never fully understand Time Magic. I don’t. The Masters of Time don’t. Even the lady you met at the end of your journey doesn’t.”
“The Masters of Time?” Caleb asked.
“Like Madame Chronos,” Midnight said dismissively, waving a hand. “The people in charge of the Chronolytical Locations. Don’t worry about that now. The point is you’re in a world – a world you chose by nurturing your Birthright Magic – of the unknown, and at least some of it is unknowable. Fear will destroy a Time Mage more than anyone else. Fear is your greatest enemy. Fear is death.”
Slowly, Caleb felt the blanket of dread covering his mind pull back. Not to tie itself back up, but to vanish, swept away into the distance, leaving his mind clear, if not quite at ease yet.
Midnight let out a long sigh. “Well, you’ll have a lot to tell about your adventure at the Edge of Time,” he said. “But don’t just tell me. You have a lot of people here waiting for you to wake up.” He glanced at the open door.
“A lot?” Caleb asked, raising an eyebrow.
Midnight grinned. “I don’t want to spoil the surprise.” He stood up. “Think you can walk?”
Caleb’s stomach rumbled. “If it leads me to food,” he said with a laugh.
He followed Midnight out into the hall and down the spiral staircase. On the first floor, Midnight entered the sitting room by the fireplace, and Caleb stopped at the entrance, staring in shock.
Shana. Shias. Their closest friends. Ingrid. Mineria.
“Guys…” Caleb said, his heart so incredibly full.
“Took you long enough, sleepyhead!” cried Adelaide, leaping off of the couch and tackling Caleb in a hug. Shana, Shias, and Ingrid crowded around him, too, excitedly greeting him. For a moment, Caleb was overwhelmed, smiling at his family and friends, his heart overcome by their enthusiastic greetings.
But then his eyes looked past all of them to Chelsea. She was standing, but wasn’t coming towards him, instead studying him with a strange expression, one that didn’t look entirely happy.
“Hey,” Caleb said, smiling at her.
“Make some space, will you guys?” Chelsea asked. The crowd parted, and all stared as Chelsea walked slowly up to Caleb, stopping two feet away from him. She pointed at his face. “You’re gonna want to activate a little Enhancement Magic. Left side.”
Caleb didn’t even manage to get a single word out.
Chelsea’s hand came up in a blur, slapped him across the face from the left side hard enough that Caleb was knocked off of his feet, crashing to the floor in a sprawl. Gasps went around, frustrated cries and shouts that blurred to Caleb’s hearing. His ears were ringing. His face burned, and he had no small measure of whiplash. Dizziness gripped him, and he couldn’t even sit up for fear of toppling over.
Slowly, he managed to sit. When he looked up, Chelsea was glaring down at him.
“Get up,” she said firmly.
Caleb stared at her. Slowly, he nodded.
Yeah. I get it.
Up he rose, and he’d barely managed to get his feet under him before Chelsea lunged at him. He braced for impact –
And instead was pulled into a strong, desperate embrace. Chelsea’s hands gripped the back of Caleb’s shirt tightly, her face pressed against his chest.
“Don’t you ever do that again,” she said, voice catching on a sob. Her hands gripped his shirt tighter, her knuckles pressed into his back. “Don’t you ever die for me.” She looked up, staring at him through tear-filled eyes. “I need you alive.”
“We both need you alive,” said Adelaide, who’d joined in the hug, staring up at Caleb.
Caleb stared back at her, his heart caught in his throat.
He understood now. He understood where he’d gone wrong, understood what fear had almost cost him.
He nodded once. Chelsea nodded back at him. For a moment that seemed to stretch on and on, both stared at each other, a strange tension in the air between them.
That tension evaporated as Chelsea leaned up and kissed Caleb fiercely on the lips. He kissed her back, feeling all fear, all worry flee from his mind and his heart.
Softly, Adelaide gasped.
Caleb could feel Chelsea smiling against his lips, and he was smiling too, and then they were both laughing, breaking off the kiss and shaking their heads. Chelsea put her hand on Adelaide’s head and shoved her playfully. “Don’t spoil the moment, kiddo,” she said.
Adelaide giggled. “Sorry,” she said, without even a hint of sincerity.
Chelsea rolled her eyes and then looked back up at Caleb. He tilted his head down, and their foreheads touched gently. “I’m sorry,” he said softly, staring into her eyes.
“Good,” Chelsea said, staring back. She poked him in the ribs and he laughed, pulling away from her, but she hugged him close so he couldn’t escape. She let out a long sigh, and then released him. “Sorry for hitting you.”
“I know,” Caleb said, smiling at her.
Chelsea sighed again, casting a glance over her shoulder. “I guess I should let your siblings have you for a bit, since they have places to go.”
“Places to go?” Caleb asked, looking over at Shana and Shias. “And, wait… why are all of you here in the first place?”
“Oh, boy,” Shana said with a little laugh. “Ready for a long story?”
It was, indeed, a long story. All sat down, save Ingrid, who went into the kitchen and returned with drinks and snacks while Shana and Shias – with some input from their friends, Chelsea, and Mister Midnight – explained all that had brought them here, and all that had transpired while Caleb had been away. The Nightmare Road, the Nightmare Citadel, healing Nocta from Collapse, the departure of Fae to pursue the missing Collapse, and the journey ahead for Shana and her crew to the Garden of Memory. Chelsea and Adelaide also filled Caleb in on what had happened to Delilah and the surprising truth that there was a Daylight Bastion on the Moon! So much had happened.
“I’m sorry I missed Fae,” Caleb said, staring at the floor. “But… wow. You guys have been through a lot.”
“And so have you,” Shana said, bouncing in her seat. “Come on, you’re gonna tell us all about it, right?”
And so it was Caleb’s turn to tell his story. Telling the story helped cement it in his memory, too, and walking through the journey made him treasure his strange adventure all the more. From the Farthest Shore, through the Deepwood, up the great mountain, through Time’s Labyrinth, across the Time Wilds, and finally to his meeting with the lady, his new knowledge about the River of Time, and his return.
He spent quite a lot of time talking about Tock. Thinking of her brought a pang of sorrow to his heart, and he showed everyone the pocket watch she had gifted to him.
“And you said we went through a lot,” Shias said with a chuckle. “What a fascinating journey.”
“It’s so stupid that Tock wasn’t allowed to stay with you to the end,” Shana said with a frown. “What the heck’s up with that?”
“At least you made it back,” said Adelaide, who was curled up on the couch and against Caleb, looking utterly content. “We missed you.”
Caleb smiled. “And I missed all of you,” he said. He looked over at the twins and their friends. “It looks like this is a short-lived reunion for us, though. We keep reuniting for such short times, only to charge off onto our own adventures all over again.”
“Come with us!” Shana said, leaning forward. “You don’t have anything to do now, right?”
“I do,” Caleb said, giving his sister an apologetic expression. “I’m not entirely sure where to start, but…” he looked to Midnight, “I’ll need your help.”
“Of course,” Midnight said. “But they’ll need my help, first. I promised I’d get them started on their journey, at least. And as it usually is, starting their journey will be easy.”
“Oh yeah, you didn’t even say where we were going first,” Shana said. “All you mentioned was a ‘Miss Miora.’ Who’s that?”
“The Archivist of Eventide Archive,” Midnight said, “and another Paladin. That’s why it’s so easy getting to her – the Archive is another Daylight Bastion, and all of them are linked.”
“But she doesn’t like you,” Shana said, pursing her lips.
“Most people don’t like me,” Midnight said. “She’ll like you just fine, don’t worry about it. And she’ll be able to get you to the Garden of Memory, one way or another.”
Shana let out a heavy sigh, leaning back on the couch. “Everything’s moving so fast, all the time,” she said. “Never a moment to breathe ever since we met Annabelle in the grove.”
“So if it keeps moving so fast, it’ll be over just as fast,” Kathryn said with a grin. “We just have to keep moving forward. Nothing else to it.”
“At least we have each other,” Rae said.
Shana smiled at that. “Yeah,” she said. She frowned at Caleb. “I’m sorry we couldn’t spend more time together.”
“Don’t be,” Caleb said, smiling back at her. “When all this is over – whenever that is – we’ll just have to make up for all the missed time. You can count on it.”
That seemed to lighten Shana’s spirits. And a good thing too, because Caleb…
Felt that sense of vertigo, of the ground giving way beneath him, and…
What an awkward time to black out.
That was the last thought that went through his mind before all went dark.
“You’re sure he’ll be okay?” Shana asked.
She was kneeling next to Caleb, who had been laid out on the couch, with Chelsea’s lap as a pillow for his head.
“Yeah, yeah,” Midnight said, already standing by the door to Midnight Bridge’s basement. “He’s just got a weird condition, blacks out for no reason, but he’ll be just fine. Don’t waste time waiting for him to wake up.”
“But I wanted to say goodbye properly…” Shana muttered, pouting.
“So what’s stopping you?” Chelsea said with a smile. “I’ll tell him all about it when he wakes up.”
I guess I have to settle for that much.
Shana leaned in for a hug, resting her head against Caleb’s chest. “Be safe,” she said softly. “And don’t go making anymore stupid reckless sacrifices. There are a lot of people who need you. I’ll see you soon.” She leaned back and pushed herself to her feet, giving her older brother one last long look before turning away.
“We can wait if you want,” Shias said.
“No,” Shana said. “We’ve been waiting around a long time anyway. We really should get moving forward. Besides, it’s like Caleb said.” She forced a smile. “When it’s all over, we can make up for lost time.”
Shana, Shias, Kathryn, Rae, and Ben followed Mister Midnight down the long spiral staircase into the glittering crystal cavern beneath Midnight Bridge.
“How many Paladins are there, anyway?” Shana asked. “And how many Daylight Bastions?”
“More than are worth counting out right now,” Midnight said. “You’ve been to two, and you’re about to visit your third.”
“And Delilah’s been to a fourth on the Moon,” Shana said, feeling giddy just at the thought of that. “Are there seven? Seven’s a good number.”
“More than seven,” Midnight said.
“Is there only one Paladin to a Bastion? Don’t they need helpers? Oh, I guess that’s what Delilah’s doing with the whole Sub-Paladin thing. Hey, do you have any Sub-Paladins?”
“Try asking one question at a time,” Midnight said. “I don’t have any Sub-Paladins.”
“Take a wild guess.”
“Because you’re a grumpy loner with no friends?” Kathryn asked.
Midnight didn’t bother replying to that.
Down on the bottom level they walked a path that led past a Light Catcher and up some stairs into a glittering rocky wall. Tunnels branched off from the outer path, and Midnight led them down one to a door.
“Through here you’ll find Eventide Archive,” Midnight said. “Ask for Selphine Miora, and tell her why you’ve come. She’ll handle the rest.” He opened the door, revealing a cozy-looking library beyond.
“Thank you,” Shana said, staring at Midnight. “Really. For helping us, and for looking out for Caleb.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of your brother,” Midnight said. “Now go on. Weren’t you saying moving quickly is a good idea?”
Shana smiled. “Yeah,” she said.
She stepped through the door first, with her companions right behind her.
Caleb stirred, though for a moment, he didn’t want to wake up. He was tremendously comfortable, and felt warm all over. Slowly, he opened his eyes, and found himself looking up at Chelsea’s face.
“Welcome back,” she said with a smirk.
Caleb then realized he was using her lap as a pillow, and one of her arms was draped across his stomach, her fingers gently tickling his side. Caleb chuckled, taking her hand in his and pressing it to his lips, holding the kiss for several seconds.
“You guys are cute,” came the voice of Adelaide. She was sitting on the floor, watching Caleb and Chelsea with intent, wide eyes.
“And you stare too much,” Chelsea said, gently pushing the girl in the shoulder with her foot. Adelaide giggled, ducking away and scooting in closer at the same time.
“How long was I out?” Caleb asked.
“About half an hour,” Chelsea said. “Mister Midnight thinks you took a bigger hit than usual because your body’s not used to the physical world yet. So you might be extra sensitive and extra fragile for a bit.” She gently pried her hand from his grasp and ran her fingers down his side, and Caleb felt a whole shock of sensations rush through him at the feather-light touch. He grabbed for her hand but she snatched it away, wiggling her fingers teasingly out of his reach.
“Your siblings left,” Adelaide said. “They wanted to hurry up and do what they have to do so they can see you again soon.”
Caleb smiled. “Then I should hurry up and do what I need to do quickly, too,” he said.
“What do you need to do?” Chelsea asked. After several feints, she slipped her hand past Caleb’s guard and poked him in the stomach, earning a series of giggles from him, which then spread to Adelaide.
“Time Magic stuff,” Caleb said when he regained his voice. Chelsea’s hand teasingly threatened to tickle him again, before gently resting on his stomach.
“Timey-wimey stuff!” Adelaide said. “Mister Midnight said that much. Where do you have to go?”
“I have no idea,” Caleb said with a sigh. “I was hoping to ask him.”
“We’re going on a road trip,” came Mister Midnight’s voice from the kitchen. “There are hints in your visions and your journey that point the way, but in a nutshell,” he came into the sitting room, Ingrid right behind him, “we need to find a Location that most people have forgotten exists.”
“How do you forget an entire Location exists?” Caleb asked.
Ingrid set down the tray she was carrying, pouring tea for six. “The Lost Locations,” she said, a glimmer in her silver eyes.
“The Enchanted Dominion isn’t like Earth, or even your galaxy,” Midnight said. “Everything’s in motion, and we can’t accurately map the movements of every Location. We can map exits and entrances, but those exits and entrances change destinations all the time. Some places are heavily frequented, and develop means of mass transit, while others are just easy to reach, but the other side of that is that it’s very easy for Locations to get less and less traffic, until they fade into myth, and eventually can even be forgotten altogether. When that happens, the Location is Lost – disconnected from the rest of the Dominion, with no easy ways of traveling to it.”
“Can they become un-Lost?” Adelaide asked.
Midnight smirked. “That’s what we’re going to try and do,” he said. “Find the Lost Location and reconnect it to the rest of the Dominion.” He picked up a cup of tea and took a sip.
“So… why?” Caleb asked, sitting up and taking tea for himself. Seeing space on the couch, Adelaide hopped up and nestled in happily next to Caleb. “And where are we going? What clues are there? How do you know more about my visions and journey than I do?”
“As always,” said Mineria, entering the sitting room and taking a seat next to Midnight, “you withhold information for your own amusement.”
“It’s important to amuse oneself,” Midnight said with a smirk. “And it’s good for the kid to learn things for himself. But to answer some of your questions, we’re searching for the Court of Time. And I know so much more than you because I wouldn’t be much good as your teacher if I didn’t, now would I?”
“What’s the Court of Time?” Adelaide asked, bouncing in her seat, somehow managing to avoiding spilling her tea.
“And if it’s a Lost Location, doesn’t that mean everyone forgot about it?” Chelsea asked. “How do you know about it?”
Midnight’s smile widened. “Lost Locations come in many forms,” he said. “They don’t have to be completely forgotten to be Lost. The Library of Solitude was Lost, for a time, and it only became un-Lost when you brought Isabelle back there. And even though the Library of Solitude was Lost, Merric was still there, still looking after it as best he could. But most had forgotten, and many had abandoned it, and the ones most closely tied to it – the Princesses of Solitude and Lady Kodoka – were all gone. That, coupled with the invasion of darkness, caused the Library to be Lost.”
“So what is the Court of Time?” Caleb asked. “And why are we going there?”
“Yeah, I’ve never heard you talk about it before,” Ingrid said. “Why is it so important now?”
There was an excited gleam in Midnight’s eyes. “You’ll find out what the Court of Time is when you get there,” he said. “And I’ve never talked about it because I’ve never had a student worthy of making the trip. As for why we’re going…” he pointed at Caleb, “you’re going through a transformation right now. The only other person I’ve known who went through this was my teacher, and he walked me through it when I faced the same trial. Now it’s my turn to walk you through it. When all is said and done, you’ll be a whole new man, Caleb.”
“Hopefully not too different!” Adelaide said, leaning into Caleb. “He’s so good already just the way he is!”
“Don’t worry about his personality, that’s not going anywhere,” Midnight said with a wave of his hand. “I just mean his power. Time Magic… it’s a wild, incredible magic that isn’t fully knowable. But Caleb’s about to know more about it – and have more command over it – than any Human ever has.”
“So where do we start?” Caleb asked.
“We start after you eat some more,” Ingrid said. “You need to make sure you’ve recovered your strength before you go on another adventure.”
“She’s got that right,” Midnight said. “And as for where we start… we’re following a clue from way back, one that it’s taken me a long time to realize was so important.”
“Please, be a little more vague,” Chelsea said dryly.
Midnight grinned, leaning forward. “We’re going to the Reinheit Citadel.”