“Here we go,” Caleb said as the doors of the train hissed open. He stepped out first into the second of the Chronolytical Locations: Chronokon, Time’s Twilight Hour.
Where Chronoshin was quiet, open, a mix of somber and peaceful, Chronokon was marvelously dramatic. Light blazed in the expansive sky, with deep reds, fiery yellows, burst of gold, royal purples…
The stone at Caleb’s feet and all around in this place, very much like a train platform, not too different from Chronoshin, was a rugged red flecked with gold. Twisting pillars that turned into statues of Herculean strongmen held up the great glass ceiling. Fires blazed in open pits in the floor. There were a great many sounds, but all were an undercurrent to the constant barrage of distant explosions, explosions with a power and depth that were unlike anything conventional weaponry could create.
“You notice it yet?” Midnight asked, standing next to Caleb.
“Notice…?” Caleb started, but then focused on looking and listening.
The structure. The layout. The way everything was organized. There was a flair to this place, an incredible grandiosity, but…
“It’s just like Chronoshin,” Caleb said softly.
Midnight nodded, starting ahead.
“But wait, what does that mean?” Caleb asked, hurrying after him. “Were they all designed by the same person or something?”
“Yes,” Midnight said, though there was a sly smile on his face.
“You mean…” Caleb stopped, and Midnight stopped a few steps ahead, looking back at him. Caleb shook his head. “This is Chronoshin?”
“No,” Midnight said. “It’s Chronokon. But you’re on the right track.”
“I…” Caleb started.
“Time is the operative figure here,” Midnight said.
“This place…” Caleb looked around, shaking his head in disbelief. “It will be Chronoshin.”
“That’s right,” Midnight said.
“But… Chronoshin already exists. We were just there. I’ve been there twice. How does that…” Caleb stopped, eyes widening.
Midnight smirked. “Now you’re getting it.”
“Chronolytical Locations,” Caleb said. “They’re Locations that exist frozen in time, at different points. Chronoshin is at the end of time, and this place…” Caleb looked up at the sky blazing with dramatic, intense, incredible light. “It’s before all of that. The storm before the quiet. All this light… this sound… it’s the blasting and bursting of so many stars, their final dramatic display before death.”
“There you go,” Midnight said. “Come on. We’ve got to get your stamp and then get moving.”
“We can’t stay?” Caleb asked.
“Look around, and you’ll see the answer,” Midnight said, heading towards stairs that, on Chronoshin, led up to Madame Chronos’ place. Where would they lead, and who would Caleb find?
“There’s nobody here,” Adelaide said, coming up alongside Caleb and taking his hand in hers. “We’re all alone.”
“I guess it’s not a place for visitors,” Chelsea said. “Better hurry, like Mister Midnight said.”
They all followed Midnight up the stairs to the stone gazebo at the highest point of Chronokon. Here, rather than the variety of seating options that Madame Chronos offered, there was just one piece of furniture — a plush, red-and-gold armchair.
Standing behind it, hands placed atop it, looking at their group with a displeased glare, was a man.
His eyes were large and dark, and in the center were blasts of color and light, not unlike the exploding, dying stars that filled the sky. He wore his silver hair short, combed to one side, and had a well-trimmed beard around his lips and chin. Golden gloves covered his hands, and his long coat seemed to change colors every time Caleb looked at it, as if it were mirroring the vast expanse of colorful, dramatic sky above and around him. When the man stepped around the chair, Caleb saw he wore a sword on a black belt, its ornate red handle glittering with flecks of gold and silver.
“It’s been a long time, Bayard,” Midnight said, nodding to the man.
“You’ve brought too many,” said the man. His voice was deep and rich, like that of a virtuoso opera singer, carrying with it such a depth of tone and strength with even the simplest of words. “This is not a place for visitors.”
“You never were much for introductions,” Midnight said, gesturing to the man and then to his companions. “Everyone, this is Bayard, Master of Chronokon.” He then nodded to Caleb. “Go ahead and show him your Passport.”
“You know how this works, Lancelot,” Bayard said. “You bring the one on the path to their trial. It’s not a road for guests and spectators.”
“The ladies insisted,” Midnight said, smirking. “You wouldn’t understand unless you got to know them.”
Caleb stepped forward, handing his Passport to Bayard. The Master of Chronokon took it without even looking at Caleb, produced a stamp from his pocket, and stamped the appropriate page, handing the Passport back to Caleb. Only when Caleb took it back did he and Bayard lock eyes.
For a long moment, both were silent. Caleb felt, just like with Madame Chronos and Midnight and Alexandra, as if he were being swallowed by those strange, deep eyes. But with Bayard it was different from all the others. There was a sense of drama, a call to adventure, a feeling like there was something incredible and wondrous just beyond what he could see.
Bayard looked away, and Caleb suddenly felt remarkably grounded. The floor was more solid beneath his feet, the air more filling in his lungs.
“We’re done here,” Bayard said. “Hurry on, or turn back.”
“Why would we turn back?” Chelsea asked.
Bayard glanced at her, then back to Midnight, who shrugged. “It’s a fair question,” he said.
“The trial is unnecessary,” Bayard said. “You’re taking an extraordinary risk.”
“You’re not usually one for warnings,” Midnight said. “I’m touched.”
Ingrid looked from Midnight to Bayard and back again. “Hey, you actually have a friend I haven’t met before,” she said.
“Don’t act so surprised,” Midnight said.
“It’s not surprising at all, seeing the two of you together,” Mineria said, closing her eyes as she smiled pleasantly. “If only you could get together more often.”
“Distance bonds souls like ours,” Midnight said with a frown.
“Friendship is best valued from afar,” Bayard said, his frown matching Midnight’s.
Ingrid laughed. “No wonder you two are friends,” she said.
“That’s enough out of you,” Midnight said.
“And enough from all of you,” Bayard said. “This is no place for visitors, no place for idle chatter.”
“We’re going,” Midnight said. “Thanks, Bayard.”
Bayard said nothing, and then the six were back on the train and rolling away, leaving the dazzling Chronokon behind.
“What’s with the whole ‘this place isn’t for visitors’ shtick?” Chelsea asked. All six were packed into one compartment, largely at Adelaide and Ingrid’s suggestion.
“Chronokon isn’t meant to be seen,” Midnight said. “The same goes for Chronosei. Chronoshin is its own thing — it’s the end of Time, Time’s Last Breath, and also serves as the final destination for most Time Mages. Or at least, their final destination before what comes after the end of Time itself. It’s a place of rest and contemplation. But the other two Locations… they’re like a really poorly-kept secret. They aren’t places meant for anyone but their Masters, and Time Mages with important business. If you aren’t their Master, you go there, conduct your business, and then leave. Staying… it isn’t right. It’ll mess with your brain. We weren’t there long enough for that to happen, and we won’t risk that at Chronosei, either.”
“Yeah, but why?” Chelsea asked, pursing her lips in frustration.
Midnight chuckled. “Mysteries of the universe,” he said. “Some questions are beyond us mortals.”
“So do you know?” Adelaide asked Ingrid. “Since you’re immortal?”
“Well, I’m artificially immortal,” Ingrid said thoughtfully. “So I suppose I don’t count.”
“That’s not quite the right description, anyway,” Midnight said. “You’re chronostatic — frozen in time, biologically speaking. You’re not centuries-old, though you have the life experience of someone who is. You’re still a teenager, same as you were when you were frozen in time.”
“That’s so weird!” Adelaide said. “But, like, kind of cooler than being immortal. It’s all technical and stuff!”
“Ooh, I like this song,” Ingrid said. She and Adelaide were still using Chelsea’s music player, and soon both girls switched completely from the topic of Ingrid’s age to talking about and listening to music.
“So is Chronosei the same as Chronokon?” Caleb asked. “It’s Chronoshin, but… younger?”
“Yes,” Midnight said. “I only say that outright because there’s no way you’ll be able to tell from being in the place.”
“What do you mean?” Caleb asked.
Midnight smirked. “You’ll see soon enough.”
And see Caleb did, and much sooner than he expected. The ride from Chronokon to Chronosei — Time’s Birthing Cry — was much shorter than that from Chronoshin to Chronokon. When Caleb exited the train, he was completely flabbergasted.
“What… the heck is this?” he asked.
Even his voice sounded strange, like it bounced off of very specific points into very specific directions. Echoing, but not in a general sense. It got softer, then louder, then softer. Was to Caleb’s left, then his right, then above him. Eventually, it faded completely.
Caleb couldn’t make any sense at all of what he was seeing. Light, and color, and shapes, and lines, and textures, but…
“Just stay close to me,” Midnight said. “This isn’t a place you can comprehend. We’re as close to the beginning of time as anyone can get. It’s the birth of creation.”
“So why’s it so psychedelic?” Chelsea asked. She held onto Caleb’s hand — all of them were holding hands, linking together with Mineria and Ingrid, who held onto Midnight’s coat. “It’s like a kaleidoscope on steroids, but also — okay, I can’t talk anymore.”
Her voice was doing the same thing Caleb’s had done when he’d first spoke, and the way it bounced around so unpredictably was jarring. Their footsteps all did the same, but also constantly changed sound quality entirely — like they were walking on glass, then gravel, then concrete, then marble, then dirt, and on and on. Nothing felt real, either. Caleb had left Chronokon feeling more tethered to the ground beneath his feet than ever. Here in this place that defied description, he felt completely adrift, constantly contradictory: weightless yet painfully heavy, floating in water yet walking on solid ground, wandering yet guided.
Midnight came to a stop, and everyone stopped with him.
“Hand over your Passport,” Midnight said softly. “Carefully. Don’t let go of the group.”
Adelaide held onto Caleb’s sleeve, and Chelsea to Caleb’s free hand, while he pulled out his Passport and held it out.
Some… shape… approached him. It was some strange grouping of lines and shadows and color, a being of sorts. Caleb could tell it was separate from the place, and yet… he couldn’t explain how. A force tugged at the Passport, and Caleb let it go. The being held his Passport for a moment, then handed it back. The page for Chronosei was stamped.
Caleb’s eyes were transfixed. There was something in the being… as if Caleb could actually see their face staring back at him. And a voice, one that spoke without words, said something to him.
Caleb’s heart felt light, yet heavy. Joyful, yet full of sorrow. Courageous, yet cautious.
The being went away, vanishing into the unknowable strangeness of Chronosei. Midnight led the group back, somehow knowing his way. They could see the train’s door in the distance, but still didn’t let go of each other until they were all aboard.
Just inside the doors, Caleb looked back as they closed. But through the windows, he saw nothing. Not sky or land or sea, not light or darkness, and certainly not the staggering impossibility of Chronosei.
There was nothing at all.
Then the train was in motion again, and stars started to wheel past, planets, Locations.
All was back to normal.
But Caleb couldn’t feel normal at all.
The voice of the being, the Master of Chronosei, stuck in his mind, in his heart, in his ears.
“Caleb?” came a little girl’s voice, followed by a warmth enveloping Caleb’s hand. He looked down into Adelaide’s eyes, one blue and one green, both full of concern.
And Caleb was grounded once more.
“I’m all right,” he said, smiling as he squeezed the girl’s hand. Adelaide smiled back at him, and together they walked to their compartment, where Midnight, Ingrid, and Mineria were already seated, but Chelsea stood outside, waiting for them.
“I think of all the things I’ve seen and places I’ve been,” Caleb said as he took Chelsea’s hand in his, “and of all the stories I’m so excited to tell the others. But this place… it’s not a story that can be told.”
“Which makes it even more important that we were there with you,” Chelsea said, giving his hand a squeeze.
Caleb nodded, smiling. “Yeah,” he said softly. “I’m glad you were.”
All six sat in the same compartment again, and chatter went back and forth, scattered and ever-changing in topics, as these kinds of group conversations often went.
Caleb kept flipping through his Passport, looking at the three stamps he already had, and the blank pages that marked what awaited him.
The Court of Time.
He was already about to go there. About to face his trial, and undergo his transformation, the transformation that no one could tell him about.
I have no idea what I’m going to face. What’s going to happen to me…
And the voice, the impossible voice of the impossible Master of that impossible place…
I feel like, somehow, I’m supposed to know what they said to me. Not in words, so much as… just… knowing.
But not yet.
Is that a part of my transformation? I’ll understand after the trial?
Why is it called a trial? It’s like I’m a criminal, being forced to argue for my fate.
Mister Midnight never made it sound quite that ominous, but…
Caleb awoke gently as the train came to a stop.
He hadn’t even realized he’d been asleep. His head rested on Chelsea’s shoulder, her owl keeping him warm with a wing over the side of his face. Adelaide was sprawled over his and Chelsea’s laps, and Ingrid on Mineria and Midnight’s laps in the opposite direction, both girls’ heads close to each other’s, ear buds still in their ears, Chelsea’s music player still working its magic.
Midnight was already awake when Caleb awoke. Chelsea was next, and she and Caleb stared at each other for a long time. No words passed between them.
Next Mineria awoke, and then Ingrid, and finally Adelaide, who rubbed her bleary eyes and then her mouth, wiping away drool.
They rose, one by one, and followed Midnight to the train doors, standing before them in silence.
The doors seemed to take forever to open.
Chelsea squeezed Caleb’s hand, and then stared at him, and he at her.
Caleb’s heart beat faster. He pulled Chelsea to him, kissed her, and she kissed him back.
The doors hissed open.
Out went Midnight, then Mineria, then Ingrid. Then Caleb, Chelsea, and Adelaide, all three at once.
Mist swirled around them. Nothing else could be seen save silver fog.
For the first time in their journey, the train behind them rolled away, and when it was gone…
They were all alone.
The mist swirled and warped, then drew back like a curtain.
Rising up before them was a grand staircase, dark blue stone flecked with silver. At its top, a pair of silver doors.
“Passport ready,” Midnight said softly. Caleb nodded, needing to let go of Adelaide’s hand to reach the little book, holding it tight as he climbed the steps.
Midnight and Caleb led the way.
At the top, Caleb held up his Passport, displaying each of the three stamps to the doors.
The doors swung inward with a sound of booming stone.
Through the doors was a circular arena, with high walls on all sides save directly in front, where a dais was raised and seven high-backed chairs sat upon it.
In each of those chairs was a figure, enrobed in deep blue cloaks, silver hoods up and hiding their faces.
In the center of the arena was a small raised platform, just wide enough for one person to stand atop it.
“It’s all you, kid,” Midnight said, nudging Caleb forward. “All the rest of us can do now is watch.”
Caleb nodded, taking a deep breath. He started forward, but Adelaide tugged on his sleeve. Turning, he was met by a tight, desperate hug. Caleb hugged the little girl back, stroking her hair.
“I’ll be fine,” he said softly. “Just you wait.”
He looked at Chelsea. Nodded to her. She nodded back.
Caleb stepped atop the platform.
The figure in the center chair held out a gloved hand. Caleb held up his Passport, then let go.
The Passport floated across empty air until it rested in the gloved hand. The figure opened it, checked the three stamped pages, then handed it to the figure on their right. They did the same, passing the Passport around until all seven had seen it, and it returned to the hand of the one in the center chair, who laid it on the chair’s armrest.
No words were spoken. No sound was made.
Suddenly, Caleb felt a strange tug at his heart.
Backwards, pulling him back, tipping him over.
Caleb fell, and the trial began.