“Oh, that’s it, kiddo.”
Chelsea glared over her shoulder at the giggling face of Adelaide while she brushed snow off of her arm. Despite her warning and glare, Adelaide was already packing a fresh snowball to throw.
“It’s your own fault for letting your guard down!” Adelaide replied, sticking her tongue out. She reeled back to throw…
And dropped her weapon as a snowball blasted her in the face, exploding into powdery mist.
“Too slow,” Chelsea said, grinning. Adelaide wasn’t deterred at all by the face shot, packing a new snowball and ducking under Chelsea’s second throw. They exchanged fire a few more times, and then Adelaide came charging out from her cover, looking to tackle Chelsea into the snow.
“Not happening, kid!” Chelsea said, scooping up Adelaide and tossing the girl over her shoulders. Adelaide fell, screaming with delight, into a deep snowbank. It took her three whole seconds to dig her way out, and she was grinning when she got back to her feet, covered in snow. Chelsea placed her hands on her hips. “We’ve got work to do. We can’t spend all day playing.”
“This is the first time I’ve ever gotten to play in the snow!” Adelaide said, grinning. “I can’t help it!”
The first time…?
Chelsea stared at Adelaide for a moment, then turned away, continuing along the street. “You’ll have plenty more chances,” she continued, “don’t you worry. And the sooner we do what we’re here for, the sooner you can play in the snow with Caleb.”
Adelaide’s eyes sparkled with joy, and she hurried after Chelsea. Behind them came Lorelei, Will, and Gwen.
Their path took them to Caleb’s apartment, where Chelsea pulled out a key, staring at it for a moment.
He gave this to me just before we went to the Underground… just before he was captured.
You knew something, didn’t you? You knew something might happen to you, and so you…
She clutched the key tight.
I just have to make sure to find you.
She unlocked the door and stepped inside, surprised as always by just how tiny an apartment Caleb had decided to have. The entire place was just one room, aside from a small closet and the bathroom. A foldout bed was folded against one wall.
“Well, you know, Wardens make a lot less than Enforcers. And I let you have way more Hollow Drops than I keep for myself!”
That’s what he said, laughing as he usually did. But we both knew he made more than enough for this tiny place. He was always saving money, all the time, but joking around as if he was actually poor. As if he’d ever be poor.
Why did he always try to hide it?
While Chelsea stood staring, thinking of who the apartment belonged to and how strange it was to be inside without him, Adelaide dashed forward, spinning in a circle as she surveyed the place.
“This is where Caleb lives?” she asked, wide-eyed and curious. “It’s so tiny! But I guess for one person it’s fine.” She dashed over to his foldout bed. “Oh, this is way cool! That saves a bunch of space! I want a bed like this!”
“You don’t want that one,” Chelsea said, chuckling.
“Why not?” Adelaide asked.
Will stepped forward, holding up his phone with a message:
Even Caleb complains about how uncomfortable it is, and he’ll sleep just about anywhere.
“Ohhhh,” Adelaide said, nodding appreciatively. She hopped onto Caleb’s couch, sprawling out. “This is comfy, though!”
“Where did Caleb say the whistle was?” Lorelei asked.
“In his dresser,” Chelsea said, crossing the room to the chest of drawers. “He said the top drawer…”
“But let’s check everywhere!” Adelaide said, rushing over to help. While Chelsea opened the top drawer and started rifling through socks and underwear, Adelaide pulled open all of the other drawers, shoving shirts and pants here and there with haphazard abandon.
“Don’t make a mess,” Chelsea said, pulling out a sparkling black whistle on a silver chain. “I already found it.”
“And I found this!” Adelaide cheered, holding up a small black box. “This is totally suspicious, don’t you think? What’s it doing in a drawer full of shirts?”
“Hey, wait, that’s –” Chelsea started, staring in shock. But she was too slow to react.
Adelaide opened the box.
Chelsea’s heart skipped a beat.
“Whoa…” Adelaide said breathlessly. “It’s… beautiful…”
Inside the box was a silver ring with three diamonds embedded into it. On the inside of the band was an inscription, and Adelaide started to pull the ring out to read it.
“No, wait!” Chelsea said, snatching the box from the girl’s hands. For a moment, she hesitated, wanting to touch the ring herself, to read the inscription, to see how it looked on her finger…
But she shut the box, staring at everyone else in the room meaningfully. “Listen,” she said, taking a few moments to calm her quaking heart. “None of us saw this, okay? We don’t know anything about it, okay? The box, or what’s in it. Got it?”
Lorelei was wearing a knowing smirk, but she nodded. “I saw nothing,” she said.
Will nodded wordlessly. Gwen replied with a simple “Got it,” as her golden eyes glittered.
Adelaide didn’t respond, though, just staring up at Chelsea and the box in her hands. “But what are you gonna do with it?” she finally asked.
Chelsea stared at her, and then at the box.
What to do, indeed…
I could put it back where she found it. That’s the sensible thing to do.
Chelsea took a deep breath, then let it out. And with that, she stuffed the box into her coat pocket, ignoring the grin on Lorelei’s face. “Don’t worry about it,” she said, ruffling Adelaide’s hair. She slipped the chain of the black whistle over her head so it rested against her neck, and then started towards the door. “Let’s find a good place to call the Goodnight Express.”
“The cliffs behind the University should work,” Lorelei said. She kept smiling at Chelsea, so Chelsea looked away. “So? What are you planning to do with that thing I never saw in your pocket?”
“Dunno yet,” Chelsea said, pursing her lips. “Just leave it, okay? I’ll figure something out.”
Lorelei laughed. “You’re so cute when you’re embarrassed. Caleb outdid himself, huh?”
Chelsea shoved her hands in her pockets. “You’d think he would have…” she started, then shook her head. “What was he waiting for?”
Lorelei said nothing, and after a moment, Chelsea stopped.
I get it.
He was waiting…
She sighed, blinking back a sudden wetness in her eyes.
Yeah. I get it.
She let out another sigh, long and heavy, and then started forward again.
“All the more reason to find him quickly, right?” Lorelei asked.
Chelsea nodded, but it was Adelaide who spoke first. “Yeah!” she said, skipping along energetically. “We gotta find him fast, so we can all play in the snow together! And besides, he has a promise to keep.”
“A promise?” Chelsea asked.
Adelaide nodded. “He said he’d stay with me, even after getting out of the shadow world,” she said. “No matter what. I told him I was counting on him. So we need to hurry up and find him so he can keep his promise.”
You keep promising so much. You silly, reckless boy.
You’d better not be in too much trouble. But… if you are…
We’ll be there to get you out of it. So just hang on, okay?
On the way to the cliffs, Adelaide kept wanting to play in the snow, and especially get into a snowball fight. While Chelsea didn’t want to delay, she was surprised at who jumped in to keep the little girl entertained: Will and Gwen.
Will started it, beaming Adelaide in the back of the head with a snowball when she was about to hurl one at Chelsea. Seeing that he was now someone to watch out for, Adelaide turned her attention on Will… only to dumped into a snowbank by Gwen, who snuck up behind her at just the right time. And while they played with her, they also found clever ways to keep moving forward, so Chelsea and Lorelei didn’t even have to slow down while Adelaide got all her fun in. Even though she wasn’t participating, just hearing Adelaide laugh so much made Chelsea smile.
She’s such a good kid. It’s hard to imagine she was Duo…
Well, she wasn’t, though. That was Kaohlad, while Addie was locked up inside that shadow world. Whatever the case, I never would have expected one of our most frightening foes would lead to meeting such a fun little girl. It’s no wonder Caleb got attached to her…
Honestly, I am, too. And she’s clearly attached to me, not just Caleb, though I don’t really get why… but I’ve seen it before, I guess. Kids are weird like that. She latched onto Caleb because he saved her, but probably also because he’s such a kid in his attitude… but she also latched onto me, even though I brushed her off and acted all tough and grown-up all the time.
Kids are weird.
Adelaide came charging at Chelsea from behind, thinking she’d found a blind spot, but Chelsea just laughed and stepped aside, grabbing the girl around the waist as she missed. Hoisting her into the air, she carried Adelaide over her shoulder kicking and screaming for a bit, before dumping her back down on her feet. Grabbing her shoulders, Chelsea spun her around.
“We’re here,” she said.
Adelaide stared with her out across Grimson Bay below. Here near the edge of the cliffs overlooking the Bay, the wind came in fierce, and all the fiercer for it being winter. Even so, when Chelsea looked down, Adelaide was grinning from ear to ear, her eyes alive with wonder.
“Ready to call our train?” Chelsea asked, ruffling Adelaide’s hair.
“Yeah!” Adelaide said, tilting her head back to stare up at Chelsea. Chelsea nodded, pulling out the whistle and placing it to her lips.
She blew, and a soft, musical note filled the air. It was a bit haunting, or rather haunted, as if it came from a lonely, heartbroken soul, filled with regret. The single note lingered in the air for several seconds, and then was washed away by the wind.
The whistle in Chelsea’s hand dissolved to ash, along with its chain.
For several moments, nothing happened. And then they heard a new musical note, like an answering reply to the first – haunted, regretful, filling the air before getting tossed away by the wind.
In the distance, the air rippled, and a dark shape appeared. It was clear after just a few moments that it was a train, speeding towards the cliffs, running along some invisible track. As it approached, Chelsea raised her arm and called out with her mind. She received a reply filled with relief and impatience, and then saw a bright shape shooting down from the sky.
Kept you waiting, huh? Don’t worry – from here on out, we’ll be together for a long time, I’m sure.
That bright shape soon was close enough to clearly be made out as her owl Summon, and he banked sharply as he neared the ground, wings spread wide to cut his descent. He came to a soft, graceful landing on Chelsea’s forearm, and immediately tilted his head down, rubbing a soft, feathery cheek against her face.
“I get it, I get it,” Chelsea said, laughing as she petted him under the chin. “I missed you, too.”
“Hey, hey,” Adelaide said, gazing up with excitement at Chelsea’s owl. “What’s his name?”
Chelsea frowned, turning her attention to Lorelei. “Did you tell her to ask?”
“I’m innocent,” Lorelei said, holding up her hands.
“What’s his name, what’s his name?” Adelaide asked, bouncing on the balls of her feet.
“Not telling,” Chelsea said, looking up at the approaching train. It glittered black just like the whistle that had called it, and came almost noiseless to a stop at the edge of the cliffs. Dozens of cars long, it stopped with the very middle car in front of the group, and a door slid open.
In the entrance stood a slender man who looked to be in his forties, with grey flecks in his dark hair and a cunning smile. His dark eyes twinkled as he doffed his cap, bowing low before standing up straight with perfect poise. “The whistle called, and the Express has answered,” he said, his voice deep and calm. His gaze rested on Chelsea. “You blew the whistle, and so you must be the one seeking passage. Where can we take you?”
“We’re going to Midnight Bridge,” Chelsea said, stepping forward.
The man’s smile faded, and he cocked his head to the side. “I don’t think you quite understand,” he said. “The whistle counts for passage, but only for the one person who blew it. You can’t all come aboard.”
Chelsea glared at the man, and stepped right up to the stairs leading into the train car. He looked like he wanted to back away, but just barely held his ground. “We’re all going,” Chelsea said. “Try and stop us.”
“Really, I just follow the rules,” the man said, holding up his hands. “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do.”
“I don’t have time for this,” Chelsea said, reaching into her pocket and pulling out one of her lighters. But a gentle hand on her arm stopped her.
It was Lorelei. And her other hand was on Adelaide’s shoulders, guiding the girl to stand in front of her.
“Please, sir,” Lorelei said, in a sweetness that was totally convincing to everyone except Chelsea, who knew her well enough to recognize the act. It was an excellent performance, though, and Chelsea had to fight against laughter when Lorelei batted her eyelashes at the man. “We’re trying to track down a friend who’s been lost from us, and only Mister Midnight can help us. I’m sure there’s some exception you could make… couldn’t you?”
The man looked more flustered now, and was he blushing a bit? “I, um, look, ma’am, I just, I think, well…” he stammered out a string of words without forming any actual sentences for a while, then shook his head vigorously. “Ma’am, I’m sorry, but I just can’t make exceptions. This is a URS train, so only Time Mages or those who have otherwise accrued enough of a sum of chronal can ride with us. The whistle makes an exception to that rule, but it only counts as fare for one.”
“What’s chronal?” Chelsea asked.
The man didn’t miss a beat, seeming used to giving out this explanation. “Chronal is a special currency that is, for the most part, only accrued by Time Mages for using Time Magic. But there are rare occurrences of chronal being earned by special feats or strange exposure to the River of Time.”
“Time Mages, huh?” Chelsea asked. Her hand went to the pocket that held a small, special box. “What if we’re family to a Time Mage? We’d be able to access his chronal, right?”
The man shook his head. “I can’t make calls like that without the Mage in question being present, ma’am. We don’t all have comprehensive records, so unless he can be here to pay himself, we’d get all sorts of people pulling names and asking to put their fare on someone else’s tab, without us being able to check it all to make sure it’s legitimate. I’m sure you can understand.”
“What about her?” Lorelei asked, nudging Adelaide forward slightly. “You know how it is with a lot of places – kids ride free, kids eat free, that sort of thing? She could just tag along on Chelsea’s fare, couldn’t she?”
What the heck are you thinking, Lorelei? If he went for that, that would still mean the rest of you couldn’t come with us!
“That’s…” the man started, looking puzzled. He shifted back and forth, then held up a finger. “Let me check with the conductor, please.” The door hissed shut, but they could see him rush towards the front of the train through the window.
“You can’t just make me go without the rest of you,” Chelsea said, turning on Lorelei. “It’s not right for just Addie and me to go.”
“It’s perfect for just the two of you to go,” Lorelei said.
“Caleb’s tied to both of you through important promises,” Lorelei said. “You and Addie need to find him, and be reunited with him. But honestly…” Her expression grew serious as she looked back towards Grimoire. “I’m worried about us all leaving. We won the battle, but… Grimoire doesn’t feel safe.”
“What are you talking about?” Chelsea asked. She looked at Will. “Will, you want to find Caleb, right? You don’t want to just stay here and wait for news again.”
Will looked at Lorelei, and the two of them nodded together. “We already talked about it,” he said in his soft voice. “I think as long as you can get to Mister Midnight, you can find Caleb. It’s a Time Magic thing. It may sound weird, but…” He smiled, just a little. “I’m not worried about Caleb. Not as long as he has you looking for him. I’m more worried about Grimoire.”
“That’s…” Chelsea started.
“There are signs that our foes have unfinished business here,” Gwen said, startling Chelsea the most.
“You don’t have any ties to this city at all,” Chelsea said. “Why would you stay?”
Gwen smiled. “But I do have ties to this city, now.” She looked at Chelsea, then Lorelei. “Thanks to the two of you, I can call this place home. And if I’m going to call it my home, then I want to protect it. While I want to stay by your side and aid you whenever I can… I feel as if I have unfinished business here.”
“You guys aren’t making any sense at all,” Chelsea said. “What unfinished business? What danger? We saved the city, so let’s go save Caleb – together! We’re a team, right?”
“We are,” Lorelei said with a smile. “So believe me when I say, if they’d let us all on this train, I’d come with you in a heartbeat. But honestly… I think it’s better this way. We’re Hunters. That means that Grimoire is our priority, more than anything. So while you go find Caleb, we’ll keep up the good fight here, and keep a candle burning for you, and Caleb,” she placed a hand on Adelaide’s shoulder, “and Addie. The three of you will come back. I know it.”
“But…” Chelsea started, but she couldn’t find words.
“It’s okay,” Adelaide said, taking Chelsea’s hand in hers. The little girl’s hands, though she wasn’t wearing gloves in the winter chill, were warm, and that warmth spread to Chelsea. “I feel really safe knowing they’re taking care of Grimoire. I have a house here, you know. It’s important that someone’s around taking care of it.”
Chelsea breathed in and out several times, frustrated breaths, misting in the frigid air. She opened her mouth to speak, but the door to the Goodnight Express hissed open.
“The girl can come as well,” the man said, standing in the doorway once more. “She can ride on the whistle’s fare with you.”
“And the others are –” Chelsea started, but Lorelei and Gwen each laid a hand on her shoulders.
“It’s okay,” Lorelei said.
“We’ll take care of things here,” Gwen said, nodding. “And we’ll look forward to your safe return.”
“But…” Chelsea started. Her eyes were stinging, and she fought for words.
“Time’s ticking,” the man on the train said. “Are you boarding?”
We have to go. Even if we can’t all go…
For Caleb’s sake.
“Don’t you dare screw things up while we’re gone,” Chelsea said, focusing her gaze on Lorelei. “And don’t you dare –” But she stopped herself.
“We’ll still be alive when you get back,” Lorelei said, smiling. “And Grimoire will still be standing.” She gave her a gentle push. “Now, go save that boyfriend of yours. And by the time you get back, I’ll be expecting him to be more than just your boyfriend.” She grinned, her eyes flicking to the pocket where Chelsea carried the box.
“Oh, that’s totally true!” Adelaide said, eyes wide. “This is way exciting!”
Chelsea laughed, but it was tinged with bitterness. She raised a fist, and first Lorelei, then Gwen, then Will bumped their knuckles against hers. She opened her mouth and then closed it three separate times, then shook her head. “I suck at goodbyes.”
“Because you hate them,” Lorelei said. She pulled Chelsea into a hug, and Chelsea hugged her back.
She wished she could stay like that forever. But just seconds later, she was boarding the Goodnight Express with Adelaide, holding the little girl’s hand. She took a long look out at Lorelei, Gwen, and Will.
And then the door hissed shut.
“The train will start moving momentarily, so please find an empty compartment,” the man said. “It’s a long trip to Midnight Bridge, but don’t worry. All of our compartments are designed to allow for comfortable sleeping, and there’s plenty of complementary food and drink for your pleasure.”
Chelsea and Adelaide sat in the first empty compartment they found. The little girl immediately snuggled up against Chelsea’s side, a contented smile on her face.
“You know, I kinda lied back there,” she said.
“Lied?” Chelsea asked.
Adelaide nodded. “Mhmm. I’m not worried about Grimoire at all, honestly. I’m just excited because I’ll get to have you and Caleb all to myself.”
Chelsea chuckled a little at that, shaking her head. “You’re a mess, kid.”
“Hey,” Adelaide said, looking up at Chelsea with wide, hopeful eyes. “We’ll save Caleb fast, right? And we’ll all be together after that, right? No matter what?”
Chelsea stared back at Adelaide, unsure of what to say.
Caleb, you set this kid’s expectations way too high. What the heck am I supposed to do?
But I guess I kind of understand. It’s hard to reject such a cutie, huh?
Chelsea sighed, hugging Adelaide with one arm. “Let’s just save Caleb, okay?” she asked. “After that, we can worry about what comes next.”