Caleb stared at the strange place before him.
They’d climbed to the top of Gold Heart Arcade, where the broker Midnight had found did his business. His penthouse was a wide, open single room with dozens of couches and plush armchairs, several low tables, and a hearth in the center of the floor, its coals glowing warmly.
What amazed Caleb the most was that this penthouse was largely open to the elements, and he realized that the sky wasn’t so high above as he thought. The rich, painterly swaths of color and the spiraling formations of stars weren’t distant, galactic bodies, but something magical and near to the earth. Color soared through the air, right past Caleb’s face, and he could reach out and run his hand through the gleaming waves, causing them to ripple and scatter outward in beautiful, surprising patterns. Glittering pinpricks of light spiraled and swirled here and there, and when Caleb touched one with an outstretched finger it pulsed with light and bobbed away, bouncing off of other “stars” and blending with whorls of color.
The broker himself had already left, saying simply “Wait for the boat to dock. It’ll take you where you wish to go.”
And so they were waiting.
In the midst of Caleb’s fascination at the majestic sky being right at his fingertips, his mind turned to less happy things.
The suitcase in his hand.
The box at the top of the case.
Addie, or Chelsea, or both of them together, found the ring.
I mean, I should have seen that coming. It was hidden in the same set of drawers as the whistle I told Chelsea about. But I did hide it in a different drawer.
But come on, you know how curious Chelsea and Addie are. Of course they would have searched further than that.
And if he was honest with himself, he was glad they’d found the ring, and even gladder that they’d brought it with them and snuck it into his suitcase.
I needed this reminder. And…
Well, I would give it to her right away, but…
“Hey,” came a bright, cute voice. Caleb looked down and saw Adelaide staring up at him.
“Hey, you,” Caleb said with a smile.
“You haven’t done the important thing yet,” Adelaide said, giving Caleb a rare serious stare.
“The important…” Caleb started, but trailed off as the girl’s eyes glanced at his suitcase.
She’s just coming right out for it, huh?
“Yeah,” Caleb said with a sigh, looking across the wide penthouse. Chelsea was sitting with Ingrid, who was excitedly showing her the books Midnight had bought for her earlier.
“What’s the hold up?” Adelaide asked. She slipped one of her small hands into Caleb’s and held onto his wrist. “You guys are keeping me waiting.”
Caleb blinked several times, staring at Adelaide in shock.
Oh. Whoa. So then…
Adelaide met his stare without flinching, her gaze earnest and hopeful.
Wants that? From us?
A sudden lightness burst forth in Caleb’s chest.
Caleb, you idiot. You can’t keep messing this stuff up.
You can’t keep making these girls wait for you.
A breathless laugh escaped his lips. “Thanks, Addie,” he said, ruffling the girl’s hair. “And I’m sorry.” He looked up at Chelsea again, and saw that she was staring back at him, a strange look on her face. “Just… wait a little while longer, okay?”
“For what?” Adelaide asked.
Even though Chelsea was too far away to overhear their conversation, she gave Caleb a look as if she was echoing Adelaide’s question.
“For me to… make things right,” Caleb said so softly it was almost to himself.
“What’d you do wrong?” Adelaide asked.
Caleb stared at her, stunned to see how seriously she still looked back at him. “I…” he started, then shook his head.
Don’t hold back.
“I messed up my promises to you both,” he said. “I told you I’d stay with you, even after we got out of the shadow world. And I told Chelsea… that I’d do right by her, and love her the very best I can. I promised her that, and I promised that to her parents, too. And then I…” He sighed, looking away. “I got caught up in other things, and let that tear me away from both of you.”
I’m not worthy of either of you.
Not yet. That’s why I need to fix this.
Because what I want… what I planned on and still desire…
It means I can’t break my promises. I can’t forget what I’ve committed to, even for a moment, as long as I live.
“But you came back,” Adelaide said.
Again Caleb found himself staring at the girl, marveling at her simple trust, at the small smile that played across her lips.
Caleb slowly smiled back at her.
And the reason I was able to find my way back, to choose not to stay at the Edge of Time…
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a pocket watch. Its casing was metallic blue embossed with a T, and its chain was pearly white. He handed the watch to Adelaide.
“This was a gift from Tock,” he said. “She… talking to her… that’s what helped me find my way back. She helped me remember what mattered most, so I wouldn’t lose sight of where I belong.”
Adelaide stared at the watch. “You’re… giving it to me?” she asked in a small voice.
“Yes,” Caleb said. “I want you to have it.”
Adelaide reached out with both hands, taking the watch with startling reverence for one so young. She closed her eyes for a moment as she clutched the watch close to her. Then she opened her eyes and started fiddling with the chain. After a few moments, Caleb realized what she was trying to do and helped her.
They turned the chain into a loop, placing the watch around Adelaide’s neck. She opened the watch once, looking at the picture of Tock and the other girl, and then closed it, letting it rest against her chest. She looked up at Caleb, beaming.
“Thank you,” she said. She reached out for him, and Caleb knelt to reciprocate the girl’s tight embrace.
Oh, you sweet girl. I missed you more than I knew I could.
“I love you,” Adelaide said in a whisper.
Caleb blinked at a sudden wetness in his eyes. He smiled, laughing. “I love you too, Addie.” Adelaide giggled in response, hugging him tighter.
“Is there room in there for me?” came a familiar voice. Caleb and Adelaide both looked to see Chelsea kneeling next to them, watching them with a smirk.
“There’s always room for you!” Adelaide said, reaching out to her. Chelsea laughed, but she fixed her gaze on Caleb, waiting.
“There’s always room for you,” Caleb echoed, taking Chelsea’s hand in his. That was all it took, as Chelsea lunged forward, planting a fierce kiss on Caleb’s lips. Startled for a moment, Caleb quickly recovered and kissed her back, while the two of them hugged Adelaide close. After a few moments, Chelsea pulled away, staring deep into Caleb’s eyes.
“Always is a long time,” she said breathlessly.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Caleb replied, smiling.
Chelsea grinned. “Good answer.” She kissed him again, and when Adelaide gasped, she ruffled the girl’s hair and pulled her closer into the group hug.
“Boat’s here,” came the rough voice of Mister Midnight. Caleb, Chelsea, and Adelaide pulled away from each other, laughing. In the midst of their little circle, a painterly swath of color – blue, green, and purple – flew between them, glittering with tiny stars.
“Let’s go!” Adelaide said, hopping to her feet.
“Yeah,” Caleb said, standing and pulling Chelsea up with him. They kept their eyes locked on each other for a moment longer.
How in the world did I ever get so lucky?
As they walked towards Midnight and the others at the edge of the open penthouse, Caleb held Adelaide’s hand to his left and put his arm around Chelsea’s waist to his right.
“I love you,” he said, smiling.
“Of course you do,” Chelsea said. Caleb laughed, and then Adelaide laughed, and finally Chelsea joined in.
At the edge of the penthouse, Caleb’s trio joined Midnight, Mineria, and Ingrid. And before them, floating in the otherworldly sky, was a long, flat-bottomed gondola. Standing at its farthest end was a woman clad in a pure white kimono tied at the waist with a red sash. In her hands was a long-handled, long-bladed oar. She stood watching the prospective passengers with a serene gaze.
“Ladies first,” Midnight said, stepping aside and gesturing for Mineria to board ahead of him.
“Ever the gentleman,” Mineria said, brushing her fingertips against his as she boarded the gondola. Ingrid was next, then Chelsea and Midnight stood facing each other.
“I appreciate the thought,” Chelsea said, leaning into Caleb, “but you should go ahead of us.”
“Fair enough,” Midnight said. He boarded next, then Chelsea, Caleb, and Adelaide. The boat rocked only the slightest bit as they stepped into it.
Midnight looked to the woman at the front of the boat and nodded. “We’re ready to go,” he said. The woman nodded wordlessly and turned forward. With a smooth motion she dipped her oar over the left side of the gondola and rowed through the air. Colors and stars swirled in the oar’s gentle wake, and the gondola started forward through the sky.
“It’s an airship!” Adelaide said excitedly, leaning over the side to gaze wide-eyed down at Gold Heart Arcade below.
“The view’s only gonna get better,” Midnight said with a smirk.
“This will take us directly to Reinheit Citadel?” Ingrid asked.
“It takes us through the Celestial Starway,” Mineria said, “a place that can take one almost anywhere. But there are certain Locations – like Reinheit Citadel – that are only accessible through the Starway.”
“Celestial Starway…” Ingrid said, silver eyes glowing with wonderment.
Gold Heart Arcade soon blurred into a swirl of color, and then vanished entirely.
That was when the sky exploded into life.
Colors blossomed in great clouds of swirling, fiery majesty. Stars burst in flashing light, tumbling downward, soaring upward. A vast, colorful, marvelous expanse stretched out in all directions, a magical skyscape of shapes, lights, color flowing like water and bursting like fire. Up, down, and all around there was just the vast, unending wilderness of brilliance.
“This is the best trip ever,” Adelaide said with a sigh, leaning against Caleb.
“It’s awfully romantic, don’t you think?” Chelsea asked, smiling at Caleb teasingly.
It is, isn’t it?
Caleb grinned, giving Chelsea’s hand a squeeze.
“You can make those kinds of shapes with your fire though, can’t you?” Adelaide asked.
“Probably,” Chelsea said. “Should I give it a try sometime?”
“Yes!” Adelaide said, grinning.
“How can you even find your way in this?” Caleb asked, looking ahead to the woman rowing the way forward. She didn’t look back, didn’t speak.
“She knows the way,” Midnight said.
Does she… not talk?
“She has taken a vow of silence,” Mineria said softly to Caleb, noticing his curiosity. “It’s a trait of all the Starway Maidens.”
“A vow of silence…” Caleb said softly, looking ahead at the woman – the Starway Maiden – guiding them forward.
“Have you been to the Citadel before?” Chelsea asked, looking at Midnight.
“Once,” Midnight said, gazing off into the distance. “Here we go.”
Caleb didn’t notice any difference in the swirling Celestial Starway, but all of a sudden the colors were rolling back like the a curtain, and a stark whiteness took their place. For a brief moment, all was this strange, bleak, endless white.
“I, um…” Adelaide started, putting her hands to her mouth. “Gonna be sick.”
“She’s sensitive,” Midnight said, with surprise and a sort of… admiration? There was no judgment in his voice. “Bear with it, kid. It’ll only last a moment.”
The whiteness didn’t vanish so much as… fade. Shapes appeared in the bleak landscape, slowly developing detail like an artist blocked them out first and then started filling them in.
There was no color. All was black, white, grey.
Caleb looked around at the others and realized it wasn’t just the place that was colorless – they had adopted that same greyscale appearance. Chelsea’s brilliant green eyes, Adelaide’s two-toned hair and eyes and the blue watch around her neck, the brilliant colors of Mineria’s hair, skin, and eyes…
All were gone, their color replaced by shades of grey.
“There’s the dock,” Midnight said, pointing as their gondola began an arcing, gently diving turn. Down below Caleb saw a grey sea, still as glass, and a stone platform extending out into it. Following the walkway from that platform inland, Caleb kept looking up, and up, and up…
The landscape constantly climbed, with magnificent, towering architecture on a grand, imposing scale. All led upwards to a stalwart, regal fortress, white pennants lying flat against its walls in the windless air.
The gondola came to a gentle stop at the stone dock, and Midnight stepped out first, holding Mineria and Ingrid’s hands to guide them out of the boat. He nodded to the Starway Maiden before turning to lead the way inland. Caleb helped Chelsea and Adelaide out of the gondola and then looked at the Maiden. She stared back at him unblinking.
“Thank you,” Caleb said. The Maiden nodded, then turned away, guiding the gondola up into the sky.
“Welcome to Reinheit Citadel,” Midnight said dryly, looking back at the others. “Cheery place, I know. Understand a few things. First, that the Rein Knights are not to be trifled with. If you get angry, or you feel threatened, whatever happens, don’t make any aggressive moves. Fighting always, always, always ends in failure here. Second, don’t get separated. Especially you two, Ingrid, Addie. Children are rarely seen here, and they aren’t welcome on their own. Finally, don’t speak unless I say it’s okay, or unless directly addressed with a question. Don’t answer questions for others, don’t speak for others, don’t interrupt anyone, and don’t speak first.”
“So we should all shut up starting now?” Chelsea asked.
“Yes,” Midnight said simply. He nodded ahead. “The welcoming party’s here.”
Caleb’s breath caught in his throat as he looked at the end of the walkway leading inland.
He hadn’t seen them since The Brig, but he would never forget the impression they’d made on him. Broad-shouldered and tall, each looked practically identical to the one next to him. They dressed head-to-toe in white: suit, tie, pants, shoes, gloves. Their hair and eyes were completely white. None of them bore weapons or wore armor, but that fact somehow made them even more intimidating to Caleb.
I cannot fear. Not now.
We’re supposed to be here. This isn’t like The Brig where we were intruders.
There were six in all, and they stood at the end of the walkway, hands clasped in front of them, watching the new arrivals with stony, unblinking faces.
Midnight led the way, stopping six feet away from the Knights. He said nothing. Neither did anyone else. No wind stirred the air, no waves lapped against the shore.
The six Knights parted, the two in the center nodding towards the long, steep staircase winding its way up towards the Citadel. Midnight nodded back to them and started forward, everyone else following.
Have they taken vows of silence, too?
Up they went, saying nothing. Now and then they saw a Knight beside the stairs, who would only nod up towards the Citadel.
One strange thing about these Knights as compared to those in The Brig were that Caleb never felt that pressure from them. He even locked eyes with one once, and while it made for an eerie moment, he was able to keep on walking past without any trouble.
Are they different from the ones back then?
The city built below and around the Citadel was a mystery, each of the rare side streets from the main stair blocked off by a Knight. Each glimpse Caleb got was a brief one, as the side streets swiftly turned away, leaving little for anyone to see from the main stair.
The sound of the six’s footsteps were the only sounds to be heard.
About halfway up, it was clear that Adelaide was exhausted. Without a word Caleb scooped her up in his arms, carrying her as he climbed. The girl smiled, resting her head on Caleb’s shoulder. It wasn’t long after that that Ingrid started dragging her feet, and Midnight did as Caleb had, carrying the silver-eyed girl as the climb continued.
Soon, they stood before the great doors of the citadel at the top of the stair. The doors stood open, flanked by Rein Knights, and inside was a grand room with marvelously high ceilings.
It looks more like a church than a fortress.
There was a long carpet running straight down the center of the great room, ending at the far side where a stage was set apart from the rest of the room, a central stairway running up to a high, circular stained-glass relief of three great lights intertwining with each other, in such a way that Caleb struggled to see where one light ended and another began. The longer he looked, the more he thought there weren’t three at all, but just one, but as soon as that thought entered his head, they looked like three distinct lights once more, overlapping each other.
Halfway down the carpet was a circular place where a grand stone font stood, its waters like mirrored glass. Midnight stopped the group there, and they stood before the font, waiting. Caleb set Adelaide down, and Midnight set Ingrid down, the girls standing once more of their own strength.
Three Rein Knights approached, their footsteps soundless on the carpet. Two of the Knights were the same as all the others, but the one who strode between and slightly in front of them was different. Over his suit he wore a long coat that brushed the floor as he walked. In his right hand was a white stone pitcher.
The three Knights stopped opposite the font from Midnight’s group. The one in the middle stared at the six of them with white, unblinking eyes.
For a long time, no one said a word, or even moved.
Then the center Knight stepped aside, turning and looking back the way he’d come.
Someone else was approaching.
It was a boy, around the same age as Adelaide from the look of him. His footsteps made soft sounds on the carpet as he walked.
What stood out the most, though, was the color. He was dressed in a brilliant blue coat that seemed as if it were woven of sapphires, and his blue boots were etched with silver. His hair was a shimmering, glittering gold, and his eyes gleamed pale blue.
He stopped next to the Knight that held the pitcher, and looked across the font at Midnight’s group. Both Midnight and Mineria looked shocked at the boy, and the boy smiled at them.
“It’s surprising to find you here, Lancelot, Mineria,” the boy said. His voice was bright and clear, and he spoke with an air of confident authority. “And good to see the both of you, to know that an important Bastion is still protected, and that not all of my Family’s people were destroyed in the Radiance’s vicious assault.”
Caleb’s eyes widened.
He’s a prince. From the Crystal Family.
“Are you wondering why I am here?” the boy asked.
“I’m wondering how you’re here,” Midnight said, his voice taut.
“What of the rest of your Family?” Mineria asked.
The boy looked at the rest of the group, and nodded once. “I should introduce myself first, of course,” he said. “I am Glen Treyard Arianos, third Prince of the Crystal Family.” He gave a refined, and yet short and shallow, bow. “And I alone reside here at Reinheit Citadel. The whereabouts of the rest of my Family – whoever has survived, that is – are unknown to me.”
He turned his pale blue eyes on Caleb, and a small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “We did expect you to arrive here, though, Caleb Greyson,” he said. “It is well that you have lived up to our expectations.”
“What do you want with him?” Midnight asked, taking a step forward. The three Knights that stood around the prince started to move as well, but the prince’s hand shot up.
“Peace,” he said, and the Knights resumed their original stances. “Lancelot, please. You mustn’t break the rules around here, no matter how your temper flares. I have some power here, but I cannot protect you if you insist on your own way.” He smiled as Midnight took a step back. “Now, then, I will answer your question.” He turned his eyes back on Caleb. “Caleb is precisely the one we need for our family to be restored. And, in return, we’ll be sure to give Caleb something he will have great need of.”
Prince Glen gestured to the Knight holding the pitcher, and the Knight approached the font, filling the stone vessel with water. “But before we can engage with any of that,” Glen said, “Caleb, you are in the midst of a great transformation. We will have need of your powers, so please, do your best to survive the process, won’t you?”
Tock stood in the special, secret chamber at the farthest reaches of the Edge of Time.
“You… called me here?” she asked softly, gazing nervously at the form of the woman beyond the translucent curtains.
“There’s no need to be afraid, dear one,” came the woman’s voice. “You’re not in trouble. I called you here for a good reason. I have a very important task for you.”
“A…” Tock started, her eyes widening. “You mean, like, a mission? For me?”
“Precisely,” the woman said. “You have a rare gift. And you have a rare attachment to one who has left this place behind. Tell me, dear one: would you like to aid Caleb in his quest?”
Tock was breathless for several long moments. Could this really be happening?
“I can really help him?” she finally asked.
“Oh, yes,” the woman said. She parted the curtains and emerged, smiling at Tock. “You can help him, and so many more.”