“I don’t understand,” Caleb said, looking to Mister Midnight. “My eyes, my hair? What’s going on with me?”
“You passed,” Midnight said. “Your transformation’s complete.” He turned, his coat flapping behind him like a cape as he started down the stairs from the Court of Time.
“You’ve gotta give us more than that,” Chelsea said. “You’re a master of Time Magic, right? And you’ve been through this before.”
“Lance…” Mineria said softly, taking Midnight’s hand. He stopped on the stairs for a moment, then kept on walking.
“It’s different for everyone,” he said. “And we shouldn’t linger here. This is a Location meant for a singular purpose. Once done, we leave.”
“You —” Chelsea started, glaring, but Caleb stopped her with a hand on her shoulder.
“So you’ll explain everything on the way, right?” Caleb asked. “I mean, I’ll be honest, I’m not all that freaked out by this, but maybe I should be? The weird hair and the glowing eyes… it’s kind of cool, but I’m guessing this transformation isn’t just visual.”
“What gave it away?” Midnight asked. Chelsea muttered something angrily beneath her breath.
At the bottom of the stairs, they stood at the train platform, but there was no train.
“Well, you’ve got time to kill,” Chelsea said. “Spill the details.”
“Enter Time-state,” Midnight said to Caleb. “See how it’s different.”
Caleb nodded, pulling his pocket watch out and holding it tight. It gleamed with light as he stepped comfortably into Time-state.
What… is this…?
Whenever Caleb used his Time Magic, there was always a strange washing out of the world, colors losing a bit of their vibrancy, light losing a bit of its brightness. It was so normal that he barely noticed it anymore.
While the normal world had a slight blue filter over it due to Caleb’s eyes now, here in Time-state, with time slowed to a crawl around him…
The world was alive with light.
Blue pulses of vibrant light pulsed from here to there. People, surfaces, objects glittered and shone like they were catching light refracted through the surface of a lake or pool. All was bright, and beautiful.
There was a constant sound, too, one that brought back memories for Caleb.
And Caleb’s world was spinning.
He had his feet rooted on the ground, but all around him, the world was going topsy-turvy. He felt nauseous, light-headed, and it was hard to breathe…
He stepped out of Time-state, dropping to his knees, gasping for air.
“Caleb!” Chelsea and Addie both cried out together, rushing to his side. “What happened?” Chelsea continued, rubbing his back, holding his hand. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Caleb said shakily. All those strange sensations had vanished the instant he exited Time-state. “I’m…” he stood, taking a few deep breaths, “…fine. But…” He looked at Midnight.
“We’ll talk on the train,” Midnight said. For the train was pulling into the station, smooth and silent. They boarded together, and Midnight checked the schedule with the conductor before leading them back to an open cabin. “This one’s heading to Gold Heart Arcade. From there, we can go back to Reinheit Citadel, report to the royal brat, and see about helping his pathetic family.”
“They’re not all bad, Lance,” Mineria said, stroking his hand gently, her diamond-emerald eyes shimmering. “Just most of them.”
Midnight coughed out a laugh at that, grinning despite clear efforts to keep a straight face. “All right, to the business at hand,” he said, looking at Caleb. “Describe what happened when you entered Time-state back there.”
Caleb did, describing the light and sensations, comparing them to his usual, far more mundane, experiences with Time-state.
Midnight stared at the floor with a dark expression that did nothing to ease Caleb’s nerves. “We’ll have to test things out more,” he said. “After Reinheit Citadel, we’ll go straight back to Midnight Bridge. We can work through this together.”
“You took the trial, right?” Chelsea asked. “You’ve been through this. Why can’t you give any straight answers?”
Midnight didn’t reply immediately, still staring at the floor. When he spoke, it was soft, hesitant. “The transformation is different for every Time Mage. And I haven’t seen a Human pass the trial before. We can’t do proper tests here on the train, and we have work to do first, but after that, we’ll figure this out together.”
Caleb nodded. “Thank you,” he said.
“So,” Adelaide said, looking excitedly at everyone. “We’re going back to the arcade! Will we have time to play and shop and stuff?”
“We certainly will,” Mineria said, her eyes closing as she smiled warmly. “Lance and I will take care of brokering transportation once more, so the rest of you can enjoy yourselves until then.”
“Thank you!” Ingrid said with a smile. “I did so love that place.” She looked at Midnight. “And the books you bought me are so interesting, thank you!”
“I wanna read with you,” Adelaide said, and there was a brief moment of shuffling around seats so that the two girls could sit beside each other, with Caleb then Chelsea to Adelaide’s right, and Mineria then Midnight to Ingrid’s left. Ingrid picked out a book, and she and Adelaide started reading together, mostly silently. Midnight leaned his head back and closed his eyes, and Mineria leaned against him as she closed hers.
Chelsea slipped her hand into Caleb’s, intertwining her fingers with his. But she seemed to be tired, too, her head slowly coming to rest on his shoulder.
Time passed as the train rolled along, and eventually the two girls fell asleep too, their heads resting against each other’s, the book open in their laps.
All slept, save Caleb.
He couldn’t sleep. He was wide awake, his mind abuzz with thoughts and questions.
A familiar lump against his leg caught his attention, and reaching into his pocket he pulled out a small black box. Carefully, gently checking to see if Chelsea was asleep and satisfied that she was, he opened the box, looking inside.
I’ve been holding onto this a long time. Waiting for you.
Now you’re waiting for me.
But I know exactly how to handle it, now. I can’t until… well. If things go well, we’ll be back there soon enough.
Just wait a little longer.
Time passed, the universe flying by, everyone but Caleb sleeping soundly. Adelaide stirred twice, opening one eye just a tad, shifting slightly in her seat, and then falling back asleep.
They all awoke just as the conductor announced they were approaching Gold Heart Arcade. Gathering their things, they stepped out into the glittering, marvelous bustle of the vast, multi-layered shopping arcade.
“We’ll find you when it’s time,” Midnight said, starting off with Mineria.
“How will you find us, though?” Caleb asked. “Come to think of it, how’d you find us last time?”
“I’m good at finding people,” Midnight said. Mineria laughed.
Caleb, Chelsea, Addie, and Ingrid were on their own.
“Where should we go this time?” Addie asked, taking Caleb’s hand and staring out at the crowds and shops with wonderment in her eyes.
“We’re finding clothes,” Chelsea said.
“Clothes?” Ingrid asked.
Chelsea nodded, looking at Caleb. “I’ve been meaning to tell you for a while, but black really isn’t your color,” she said.
“I thought black went with everything,” Caleb said.
“But not everyone,” Chelsea replied, starting forward, hand-in-hand with Caleb. “It’s too dour a look for you. Especially now with the glowing eyes and blue streak and stuff.”
“How weird do I look?” Caleb asked.
“Not weird,” Chelsea said, looking at him a few times. “Okay, it’s a bit weird. But I can get used to it. You still look like you.”
“You look cool!” Addie said, grinning. “I wish I could make my eyes glow. Alice can change her eyes’ colors, too.” She pursed her lips. “I wanna do cool eye stuff.”
“But your eyes are different colors at all times,” Ingrid said. “I think that’s pretty cool, too.”
“You think so?” Addie asked, her one blue eye and one green eye full of hope. “Really?”
“I do,” Ingrid said, smiling.
“And you’ve got the double-colored hair thing, too,” Chelsea said of Addie’s hair, shoulder-length and light purple on the right, super-short and white on the left. “You and Caleb are more alike now than you were when you met.”
Addie giggled at that, holding Caleb’s hand a little tighter.
“Plus, you look too formal,” Chelsea said, looking over Caleb’s outfit again.
“Madame Chronos gave these clothes to me,” Caleb said. “But I stopped wearing the tie.”
“Still too much for you,” Chelsea said. “Keep them, though. For formal occasions, they could do. The color’s the big problem.” She reached over to tug at the edge of his waistcoat. “The style’s not bad, but this blood-red color you’ve got going on? Totally not you.”
“What am I gonna wear, then?” Caleb asked, holding back a bunch of other questions. Namely, how long Chelsea had been holding in these fashion critiques. He could’ve used them back at Grimoire when he had plenty of other clothes to choose from at home.
“Let’s take a look,” Ingrid said, stopping in front of a clothing boutique. It was a very open store, with wide, comfortable floor space between racks and shelves of clothing. In the four went, Addie and Ingrid going off on their own to look for new clothes for themselves, while Chelsea wandered with Caleb, holding up different shirts, pants, jackets, waistcoats, shoes, all to see what might work best for him.
“You’ve never commented on my clothes before,” Caleb said, laughing.
“You’ve been wearing the same outfit for too long,” Chelsea replied. “And we’ve never really gone shopping together.”
“We haven’t?” Caleb asked, going over his memories. After a while, he frowned. “We really haven’t.”
“So I hope you can handle it,” Chelsea said, holding up a deep blue jacket, then shaking her head and returning it to the rack. “I’m pushy sometimes.”
“Sometimes?” Caleb asked, giggling as Chelsea elbowed him in the ribs. “But really, it’s fine. Tell me what looks good. I’m fascinated by this new side of you.”
“You can lay it on thick sometimes, you know that?” Chelsea asked.
Caleb grinned. “You’re smiling.”
Chelsea elbowed him again, but it was far more playful than the first.
Throughout the boutique they went, Caleb marveling at the analytical, critical stare Chelsea kept using. He’d seen her focused in battle countless times, but this was a different kind of focus, somehow more casual, more relaxed.
It felt stunningly real. He was grounded by Chelsea’s simple act of trying to find him new clothes, fascinated by watching her work.
There’s nothing quite like learning something new about you.
Eventually, Chelsea came to a decision, and Caleb went to try on the outfit she’d chosen. There wasn’t a shred of black to be seen, just blues layered over greys, with one brief shock of emerald green: a thin corded bracelet with a metallic charm, embossed with a spiraling flame.
Caleb had picked it out for Chelsea, and she’d suggested he get one, too. Caleb wore his on his left wrist, Chelsea on her right.
“Whoa, now your hair thing and your eyes really stand out!” Addie said, looking over Caleb’s new clothes. “It’s like, they were blue before, but now they’re super blue!”
“Is that a good thing?” Caleb asked with a chuckle, which turned into a happy laugh when Addie nodded enthusiastically. “You don’t look too bad yourself, kiddo.” Addie twirled, showing off the outfit she’d picked out for herself, a pink dress under a white bolero jacket, with white pants and short black boots.
“Now, girls,” Chelsea said, looking meaningfully at both Addie and Ingrid. “I need you two to keep Caleb occupied, so he doesn’t try to pay for anything. Okay?”
“Hey, hold on a —” Caleb started, but Addie grabbed his left hand, Ingrid his right, and they tugged and laughed and kept him away while Chelsea went to the counter and paid for all the new clothes. Outside, she only laughed at the slight pout Caleb gave her.
“The never-ending battle continues,” Chelsea said with a sly grin.
“Do you two always fight over paying for stuff?” Addie asked.
“It’s more of a perpetual disagreement,” Caleb said.
“That’s just a fancy way of saying fight,” Addie said. Ingrid nodded in agreement.
“Glad to see you’re enjoying yourselves,” Midnight said, coming through the crowd with Mineria to join them. “We’re ready to go.”
“Hey, hey, doesn’t he look cool?” Addie said, tugging on Caleb’s sleeve as she stared up at Midnight.
Midnight gave Caleb the most fleeting of glances. “Sure, kid,” he said, turning to lead the way.
“Hey, wait, what about us?” Addie asked. She and Ingrid showed off their outfits, matching in style while Ingrid chose darker colors than Addie. “We look super pretty, right?”
Midnight’s lips quirked upwards in a slight smile. “Yeah,” he said simply, starting forward once again.
“You look lovely, girls,” Mineria said with a smile.
Walking at the front with Midnight, Caleb scanned the crowd. “Do you think that man is still here?” he asked.
“What man?” Midnight asked.
“The one you were worried about before,” Caleb said. “I think he called himself… Sal. Who was he?”
Midnight was silent for a long while. “…Not a good man,” he said at length. “But there are lots of bad people in the universe.”
“You said you’d hoped he was dead,” Caleb said.
“So I did,” Midnight said.
“You’re not going to say anything about him?” Caleb asked.
“He’s just another man to avoid,” Midnight said. “Keep it simple. More than enough dangerous people to worry about.”
“So you were worried. Worried that he’d hurt Ingrid, or the rest of us.”
“Not necessarily ‘hurt’.” Midnight sighed. “I don’t know. I can’t know with him, whatever he’s calling himself now. That’s what worries me.”
He didn’t have anything else to say regarding the matter, and Caleb tried his best to take a hint and stop asking about the stranger Sal, but…
He was so different. And he specifically came to us, talked to us. The things he said, the way he said them… he seemed to know a lot about us that he shouldn’t.
Maybe he’s just another dangerous person in a universe full of them, but…
They came to a familiar high penthouse, and rode through the Celestial Starway on a familiar gondola piloted by a familiar Starway Maiden.
Soon, they reached Reinheit Citadel. The fun, the chatter, the excitement, all slipped away in the eerie, enforced silence of the stark, foreboding Location. Up they climbed, to the heights, and then further up inside the Citadel itself, until they stood before the Matron’s door.
Prince Glen was waiting for them.
He smiled, but just as before, his smile seemed unnerving, something worryingly unspoken lying behind it. “I knew you’d succeed,” he said, eyeing Caleb closely.
“And now you’re going to tell us about your family, right?” Caleb asked.
The prince nodded. “The story of how they reached their current Location is a strange and long one, one that I don’t fully know. But I can tell you where to find them. The great city near the edge of the universe, one of the last gateways to the Final Frontier: Clockworks.”
“Clockworks?” Midnight muttered under his breath.
“That’s right, Mister Midnight,” Glen said. “You know it quite well.”
“What do we get in return for finding and saving your family?” Midnight asked.
The prince’s smile widened. “I said I would give Caleb something he greatly needs, and I am true to my word. With the aid of my family, Caleb can travel to the Seat of the Seven — with all of you, of course, if that is his wish.”
“The Seat of the Seven?” Caleb asked.
Midnight scoffed. “That’s your prize?” he asked. “And you said last time you didn’t know where your family was.”
Glen cocked his head to the side. “Did I?” he asked. “What a strange notion. I must have misspoke.”
“Yeah, I’m sure you did,” Midnight said, glaring.
“Nevertheless, that is all,” Glen said, stepping aside. “I’m sure the Matron has a word or two for you.”
“Probably literally,” Midnight said. “Come on.”
They went on ahead, entering the Matron’s office. She looked upon all of them, but her eyes rested heavily on Caleb.
Yet the pressure…
The pressure Caleb waited for…
It didn’t come.
The Matron smiled. “Ah, but you have changed,” she said, “and greatly so. You have an exciting future before you, Caleb Greyson.”
“More words than I expected from you,” Midnight said.
“I’m feeling generous,” the Matron said. “I often do when you’re here, Mister Midnight. It’s lovely to be in the company of friends.” She turned her attention back to Caleb. “Seek the truth, young man. Understanding will free you of your fears. As for your current situation… go to Eventide Archive. Selphine Miora can help you reach Clockworks.”
“I know a way there on my own,” Midnight said.
“Getting there isn’t all that’s important,” the Matron said. “How you reach your destination is vital, as well. Go to Selphine. You may struggle to make friends, Mister Midnight, but she is a Paladin, like yourself. And you may be surprised at the welcome you receive.”
“Can you give us any clues about Clockworks?” Mineria said. “From what I know, it’s a vast city. The Crystal Family could be —”
“There’s only one place they would be,” the Matron said, giving Midnight a knowing smile. “You know, Mister Midnight. You’ll guide them well.”
“Thank you, Matron,” Midnight said.
And then they were leaving, back out to the docks, waiting for the gondola.
“Are we following her advice?” Caleb asked. “Going to Eventide Archive?”
“Yeah,” Midnight said. “When she’s as giving as that, you listen. She knows what she’s talking about, even if she rarely cares to explain herself.”
“Sounds like someone else I know,” Chelsea said dryly.
“Caleb understands my methods,” Midnight said. “Don’t you, kid?”
Caleb, despite the whirlwind he seemed to be caught up in, grinned. “Yeah,” he said. “Or at least I think I do.” He thought back to Sunset Square, when he’d really started to learn how Midnight worked and what he expected from Caleb.
In a way, he’s always training me. Even when we’re just traveling, or going through whatever else might be happening.
I’m still his student. He’s still my teacher. And in a way…
I hope I never graduate.