Caleb felt woozy.
How long had he been drifting?
He’d fallen, and at the bottom…
Right. There was nothing.
He’d crashed through the nothingness, falling into a strange, hazy world of mist and… feelings.
All he saw was mist, silver and glittering. But it formed shapes at times, and these shapes seemed to latch on to Caleb’s thoughts and feelings.
He’d overdone it. Caleb knew that. Time Magic had become his crutch.
And now he was likely paying the price.
What is this place, anyway? Caleb wondered. He peered through the mist, but there seemed to be nothing beyond it. Trying to take a step forward failed. He was weightless, floating in space. Even lifting a hand to brush away the sparkling fog was a failure.
My body won’t move. So can I… “Hello?” Caleb asked, trying out his voice. Well, at least that works. Sounds weird, though. Such an echo. “Is anyone there?”
“There are many people here,” came the reply. A woman’s voice. Her voice was strong and melodious, like an opera singer’s. “How can I help you?”
“Where am I?” Caleb asked. “And who are you? And how do I get out of here?”
“Ah, right,” the woman said. “Sorry about that. The Transitional Mists have a tendency to overstay their welcome. Go on, then! Shoo! You brought him here, and your work is done.”
The sparkling silver mist around Caleb started to fade away, blown apart by the wind. His feet touched solid ground, and as the mists faded, Caleb found himself in a dark and strange place.
It seemed like an old-fashioned train platform. Overhead was a glassy ceiling, offering a view at the starry sky above. Pillars were here and there, coming up out of the brown, cracked stone. Caleb saw train tracks to his left, and this was clearly a starting or ending point – before him, the tracks ended, and a sort of wide balcony stretched out beyond the platform. There were small tables and chairs scattered here and there across the platform, and several of these had chess sets upon them.
Behind him, the tracks… vanished. They stretched on for several hundred feet, then passed beyond the boundaries of the platform, into empty space, and then simply disappeared.
Looking around, Caleb realized the night sky wasn’t just the sky. He stood near the edge of the platform, and looking out over the edge, a star-dotted blackness stretched out below him. The train platform was floating in empty space.
Taking a few steps away from edge, Caleb began to explore further. To his right, there was a set of stairs that curved around and up to an open-air loft, styled like a large, smoothed out gazebo.
To the left, a set of stairs led down, curving around so Caleb couldn’t see where they went.
All in all, the platform was quite sparse. The tables and chairs were enough for about twenty people, spread out with tons of space between. A ticket booth, next to a snack stand, were both vacant. A glass chandelier hung down from the middle of the ceiling overhead, casting silver light about the space.
The edges of the platform were all open, with pillars forming arches, and short railings around the edge to help keep people from falling. Caleb stepped to one of these, near the stairs leading up, and stared out across the endless starry veil.
What in the world is this place?
“Hello?” Caleb called, turning back towards the platform’s interior. “Where are you? We were talking just a moment ago…”
“Yes, of course,” came the woman’s voice again. “Sorry about that. It takes a bit of time for you to sync chronologically with the rest of us.”
Say what now?
“You’re quite young,” the woman continued. “It’s very odd for someone your age to end up here. The process is a bit complicated. Hold on a moment more.”
Caleb stared as forms started to blur into being. Three of the tables were suddenly populated, with pairs of men playing chess. A fourth table had an elderly couple enjoying what looked like a smoothie in a fancy glass. They used only one glass, drinking from the same straw, smiling at each other.
By the balcony, three people appeared. Two women, leaning against the edge and chatting, and a man, disheveled and dressed in rags, sitting in the far corner, staring at the floor. The ticket booth and snack vendor were populated with a man each, younger than the rest of the crowd, and dressed in navy blue suits, with fancy caps on their heads.
And then, just a few feet in front of Caleb, a woman appeared. She was quite large, and owned it, dressing in a lavish purple dress with a black scarf around her neck, and several pearl necklaces hanging down lower. Her hands were on her hips as she came into being, and each wore a long purple glove. At her side was a small brown dog, some kind of mix that Caleb couldn’t place, with floppy ears, a short tail, and a happy looking face.
“Welcome, Caleb,” said the woman, brushing some of her dark hair flecked with grey away from her eyes, “to Chronoshin.”
Caleb was taken aback for a moment. The woman’s eyes were large and dark, with small lights like stars twinkling in their center. She wore a smile and looked rather amused, but there was an air of wisdom and knowledge to her as well.
“Chrono…” Caleb started, fumbling over the strange word.
“Chronoshin,” the woman repeated. “Though many know it better as Time’s Last Breath.”
“Well,” Caleb said, “that sounds ominous.”
The woman laughed, stepping forward and taking Caleb’s arm. She had a delicate, gentle touch. “It does, doesn’t it?” she asked. “Though it isn’t entirely out of place.” She began to steer him into the station and along its perimeter, like she was guiding him on a tour. “I am Chronoshin’s caretaker, Madame Chronos. And this little fur ball here is named Jikan.”
Jikan woofed, wagging his tail happily at being announced. Caleb smiled down at the dog, and then was startled once again. Like Madame Chronos, Jikan’s eyes were dark voids, with a tiny twinkle of a star at their center.
“But what is this place?” Caleb asked. “And why am I here?”
“Well, all Time mages end up here at some point,” Madame Chronos said. “This is quite often the last place a Time mage ever sees.”
Caleb startled, pulling away from Chronoshin’s caretaker. “The last…” he stared at her, startled, and she only looked back at him with amusement. “But… I can’t stay here.”
“I said ‘quite often’,” Madame Chronos said, taking Caleb’s arm. “Not ‘always’. And many Time mages come here more than once. But none have come as young as you.”
“So why am I here?” Caleb asked.
“Well, that’s quite simple,” Madame Chronos said, “and quite unfortunate. You are aware that Time Magic comes with a price, aren’t you?”
Caleb nodded. “Yeah.”
“And you seem to be quite aware that you’ve been overdoing things recently.”
Another nod. “Yeah.”
“Well, when a Time mage pushes time too far, they’re taken here.” Madame Chronos gestured to the entire station.
“Why is that?” Caleb asked.
They had reached the balcony now, and Madame Chronos let go of his arm. “Perhaps you should talk with some of the residents,” she said, smiling knowingly. “Get a feel for the place. Explore. And, when you’re ready, I’ll be waiting for you up above.”
“You can’t just tell me right now?” Caleb asked. He was a bit antsy – how long had he been gone from Chelsea and Delilah? He’d been taken away in the middle of a battle – were they okay?
“Not to worry, dear,” Madame Chronos said, lightly touching a finger to his lips. “Your friends are quite all right. Now, do as I say. Things here can come as quite the shock for first-timers. Take it all in, and then come find me.”
Madame Chronos left, Jikan trotting along beside her, and left Caleb on the balcony. The two women who had been conversing turned to eye him. They were some of the youngest “residents,” looking somewhere in their sixties. Caleb walked over to them.
“I’m Caleb,” he said, holding out a hand. “Caleb Greyson.”
“Ah, he has manners,” said the woman on the right, taking the offered hand. She had a slender build, high cheekbones, and wore a dark blue dress under a fluffy overcoat. “And so young. I didn’t come here until I was twice your age. I’m Mathilda.”
“And I’m Renee,” said the woman on the left. She had a stockier build, like she’d played a lot of high intensity sports in her younger days, and wore a simple dark blouse with grey pants. “Charmed.”
“What can you tell me about this place?” Caleb asked. “And about Madame Chronos?”
“Oh, that isn’t how this works, dear,” Mathilda said, giggling. “Residents don’t talk about Chronoshin, or about the Lady. We simply talk. About life, about time… it’s quite simple, really.”
“You mustn’t be too impatient,” Renee said, crossing her arms and leaning against the balcony’s railing. “The Lady will tell you all when she’s good and ready. We’re not here to give information to new arrivals. We’re here because we live here.”
“Sorry,” Caleb said sheepishly. “I just… how long have you lived here?”
“Ah, time is such a strange thing in this place,” Mathilda said, looking out across the starry veil with longing in her eyes. “It’s hard to tell. Once we arrive, we don’t age anymore. This is our final destination, after all.”
“In case you couldn’t tell from the train tracks,” Renee said, nodding to the end of the line. “But the Lady will tell you all about those.”
“Well… what’s it like living here?” Caleb asked. “It seems pretty… small.”
“It’s bigger than it looks,” Renee said simply.
“It’s very peaceful,” Mathilda added, smiling.
Caleb stood with the women, staring out beyond the balcony at the expanse of stars. It was all very strange and unsettling to him. “Time’s Last Breath,” huh? Did that mean this location existed at the very end of time? Then why were there stars? Why was there anything?
Still… in the unsettling stillness and quiet, Caleb started to understand what Mathilda meant.
It was, in an odd way, peaceful.
He bid goodbye to Mathilda and Renee, walking over to the man at the far edge of the balcony. Sitting on the floor, disheveled and dressed in rags, he was the major outlier in Chronoshin. His hair hung down to his waist, and he had a beard nearly as long as that. Fingers poking out from long sleeves revealed nails caked with grime.
“Excuse me,” Caleb said, kneeling down in front of the man. “Hello. Are you all right?”
“Oh don’t mind him,” Mathilda said. “He doesn’t talk to anyone. Rarely even looks at anyone. I can’t even remember the last time he moved. Is he –”
“He’s alive,” Renee said. “You ask that question all the time, and it’s always the same. Yes, he’s alive, no, he’s not dead, yes, he’s completely odd.”
“Anyway, Caleb,” Mathilda continued, “you should stay away from him.”
Caleb continued to stare at the man. He was clearly alive – his shoulders softly rose and fell with steady breathing, and every now and then Caleb saw the man’s fingers tap out a short rhythm before stopping.
“Hello?” Caleb asked again, peering lower, trying to see into the man’s face. “My name’s Caleb Greyson. What’s yours?”
“Well…” Caleb said, standing up. “If you change your mind, just look up.”
No response. Caleb walked away from the balcony now, heading over to the nearest table under the glass ceiling. A wrinkled, bald man who must have been at least eighty was playing chess alone, controlling both sides.
“Hello there,” Caleb said. “Mind if I play a game?”
The man looked up and smiled. “Why yes, that would be quite nice,” he said. The man was small and looked rather frail, but his deep voice had a strength and warmth that surprised Caleb. “You have good manners for one so young. Your parents must have raised you well.”
Caleb grinned as he sat across from the man, helping him reset the board. “They sure did,” he said. “My name’s Caleb.”
“And I’m Ted,” the man said, smiling as he took the first move. “You play much chess, Caleb?”
“I played a lot when I was younger,” Caleb said, moving a pawn forward, matching Ted’s opening move. “My dad taught me. But we’ve both been too busy for years, so I’m pretty rusty.”
“Is that so?” Ted moved, then Caleb, back and forth for several moves in silence.
Ted was sharp. He took almost no time to make his moves, leaving Caleb feeling like he was on his back foot very early on, trying to figure out Ted’s strategy. Every move Ted made, Caleb’s turns grew longer as he studied the board, puzzling over the old man’s strange formation.
“Enjoying yourself?” Ted asked.
Caleb smiled. “Definitely,” he said. He moved a pawn, and Ted instantly responded, taking that pawn with his bishop and putting Caleb in check.
I didn’t see that coming at all, Caleb realized. I’ll have to be more careful. He moved his king to the right, and Ted shook his head.
“Not such a good move,” the old man said. He slid his queen down the board, putting Caleb in check again.
Wait… the longer Caleb studied the board, the more he became certain.
“Checkmate,” Ted said, grinning.
“You’re really good,” Caleb said as they reset the board. Ted flipped it around, so now Caleb was white and had the first move.
“That’s why the rest are playing far away from me,” Ted said. He nodded to the other side of the station, and Caleb turned in his chair to look. Sure enough, there were four other pairs of men playing chess… and a few men who were just watching, trading off games with the ones playing over there. They never looked at Ted, and Caleb realized it was on purpose.
“They can’t even bear to look at you?” Caleb asked, returning his attention to the game.
Ted leaned back smugly. “I’m just that good,” he said. “They’re convinced they can’t beat me even if they had a hundred lifetimes to practice.”
“That sounds pretty extreme,” Caleb said, laughing as he and Ted traded moves back and forth. “I don’t know why they’d get so sour over losing.”
“Right?” Ted asked. He took hold of his king, moving it aside and castling it. “Chronoshin is so peaceful, after all. No need to get so worked up over a game. The more you play against someone better than you, the more you learn.”
Those were words of wisdom that Caleb well knew the truth of. Interning as a Hunter under those with much more experience helped him grow exponentially. And partnering with Chelsea made him stronger – she was so brave, fierce, at times reckless, but always able to get things done.
It didn’t hurt that she looked great doing it.
“Checkmate,” Ted said, and Caleb laughed at his own foolishness.
“I should have seen that,” he said, shaking his head. “How is it I miss things until after they happen so often?”
“It’s one of the mysteries of the game,” Ted said with a chuckle. “Now, I do believe you have places to go and things to do. You’re too young to be a resident, so you’ll be needing to learn the important things before leaving. If you ever come back and I’m still around, let’s play again.”
Caleb stood, shaking the old man’s hand. “I’d love that,” he said. “I’ll have to make sure I practice between now and then, though, or you’ll keep making a fool of me.”
Caleb then decided to walk to the stairs heading down, curving around and leading to a space beneath the station above. There were numerous lanterns hanging from the ceiling (which was the underside of the train platform above – it was rather strange to see) that shed silver light across the space. A flat, open area, there were chairs and tables around the perimeter, while the interior served as a dance floor. Three separate couples were dancing, though there was no music. Still, it was a lovely sight. They were smiling, clearly enjoying the experience, and all three couples were dancing in time with each other. Maybe there was a music here that only they could hear.
Not wanting to disturb them, and with little else to see, Caleb walked back up to the platform and across it, to the two vendors. First, the snack bar. The man running it doffed his cap as Caleb approached, offering a “How do you do?” with gentlemanly style.
“What sorts of things do you serve?” Caleb asked, leaning on the counter.
The man smiled, gesturing around him. The shelves behind him shifted and changed with a blurring motion that Caleb’s eyes couldn’t follow. One second, he was looking at a cappuccino machine and full barista set-up; the next, there was a pair of blenders with tons of fresh fruit and juices between them; and after that, there were orderly stacks of snacks like peanuts, crackers, small sandwiches, and cola in glass bottles.
“So just about anything a guy could want,” Caleb said, smiling. “What do things cost?”
“Ah, that might be troublesome for you,” the vendor said. He pulled a coin out of his pocket, and handed it to Caleb.
It was a curious piece. Silver with gold trim, one side had the hands of a clock but no numbers, while the other displayed an old style train engine with smoke spewing from its stack.
“What is this?” Caleb asked.
“The currency of Chronoshin,” the vendor said, taking back the coin. “It’s called a chronal. All goods and services here are paid for with chronal.”
“I’m guessing only residents have chronal?” Caleb asked.
The man smiled winsomely. “Not necessarily,” he said. “You’ll learn more about it from the Lady. You likely do have some chronal in your account, but, well…” The man winked. “You wouldn’t want to waste it on a snack.”
“Fair enough,” Caleb said, bidding the man farewell as he strode over to the ticket booth.
Now that he saw the snack vendor and ticket booth man up close, they looked almost like clones. The man running the ticket booth, though, had a faint scar at the corner of his bottom lip. Other than that, they were identical – slicked back dark hair, those strange eyes like Madame Chronos’ that looked like small stars in a sea of darkness, strong jawlines, and a dapper, gentlemanly quality about them.
“What can I do for you?” the man asked, offering the same winsome smile of his counterpart.
“Just wondering what you do here,” Caleb said. “I’m assuming offer tickets, but… there doesn’t seem to be anywhere for a train to go to or come from.”
“Ah, looks can be deceiving, young man,” the ticket vendor said. He gestured behind him, at the timetable and pricing for different trains and destinations. “Trains do indeed come through here, and they can take you most anywhere, if you have the chronal… and the clearance.”
“Clearance?” Caleb asked. He watched as the timetables blurred and shifted, like the shelves and displays at the snack booth. They kept changing to new destinations, trains, and times, and the combinations were very confusing to Caleb. Things like: “Silver Train – Hall of Reflections – 27:53:12 – 250C” and “Shinka Express Line – Akihabara – 45:63:215 – 312C.” They were all displayed in the same style – four sets of values – but, while Caleb occasionally recognized locations – Hollow Island and Grimoire flashed by, along with New York, Moscow, and Milwaukee – he couldn’t make sense of the trains, or, especially, the times. Three numbers, and they were always values that Caleb would never see on a real clock. The first number was never lower than “25,” so he had no idea what kind of clock they were going off of. And the “C” symbol that Caleb assumed was the monetary symbol for chronal was fascinating – like a capital “C,” but with a set of dashes through it that looked rather like the faint silhouette of an hourglass.
“Clearance is the most important part,” the ticket vendor said. “If you’re a resident, you can’t leave. You get no clearance whatsoever. For residents, this is the final stop. For everyone else, though, clearance… well, the Lady will tell you what clearance you have. But it determines where you’re able to go.”
“So I might only be able to go to one specific place?” Caleb asked.
The vendor shrugged. “It’s possible,” he said. “Had a few like that. One time a visitor showed up from Brooklyn. He wanted to get back home, but the only train he had clearance for was the Shinka Express Line, and that train only goes to Japan. It goes just about everywhere in Japan, but for a guy from Brooklyn who only speaks English, he was in for a bit of a shocker. I wonder if he managed to get back home after that…”
“Well, I hope I can get to somewhere familiar,” Caleb said with a laugh. “Guess it’s about time I saw Madame Chronos, then?”
The vendor nodded. “Seems that way. Good luck, kid. Visitors come through here, and you never know what might happen to them.”
Caleb thanked the vendor and took the route around the booth and up the stairs to the gazebo-like loft. It was quite spacious, with several couches and plush armchairs, and the glass forming large windows around its perimeter shimmered and gave a new texture to the starlit veil all around them. Colors splashed across the blackness, pink and blue and purple and orange, and it was a beautiful sight to see.
“Enjoy your time?” Madame Chronos asked. She was sitting back in the largest and fanciest armchair, and Jikan was curled up on her lap. The little dog had been sleeping, but he perked up as Caleb entered the space.
“I did,” Caleb said, taking a seat across from Madame Chronos. “But I really don’t feel like I should spend much more time here. I need to get back to my friends and my sister.”
Madame Chronos nodded. “Understandable,” she said. “Do you understand why I had you go around and meet people, explore Chronoshin on your own?”
Caleb thought about that for a moment. “I’m not entirely sure,” he admitted. “But since this is often the final destination for Time mages, I’m guessing you wanted me to come to terms with that?”
Madame Chronos laughed, waving a hand dismissively. “Oh, darling, nothing that ominous, I assure you,” she said. “I wanted you to meet people. I wanted you to see the space for yourself. And I wanted to see if you could come to understand it on your own.”
“Well…” Caleb looked out through the nearest window, which cast a shimmering pink hue over the space beyond. “It’s also known as Time’s Last Breath. It’s a train platform, but trains don’t go beyond here. It’s a stopping point… and I think all of that together makes this place something like the literal end of time itself?”
“Interesting theory,” Madame Chronos said. “It’s a conclusion that others have come to as well, and it’s quite understandable. But you seem unsure of it.”
“Well, the stars,” Caleb said, gesturing outside. “There are so many. If this is the end of time, why is there still so much light out there?”
Madame Chronos offered a sly smile. “Do you know how far away those stars are?” she asked. “When you see stars in the sky, and they’re only pinpricks of light, how far away are they?”
“Light years,” Caleb said.
“And I’m sure you’ve noticed that there aren’t any stars nearly close enough to be called a sun,” Madame Chronos continued. “Nor are there any visible planets, or other solid objects beyond Chronoshin.” Caleb nodded. “So, what might that mean?”
“Stars that are light years away…” Caleb’s eyes widened as he began to understand. “The light from them takes years to reach here. Meaning that the light we’re seeing…”
“Is only an echo,” Madame Chronos finished. “Many, many echoes, all across the universe. There used to be more stars visible from here, you know. But never has a living star been spotted from Chronoshin. For you are quite right, Caleb Greyson. This is the end of time itself.”
Caleb sat back as he took that in. “But… so… what about the afterlife?” he asked. “I mean… there are so few people here. I don’t…”
“The end of time is not, necessarily, the end of everything,” Madame Chronos said. “If time can end, then it stands to reason it can start anew, correct?” Caleb nodded. “As for the lack of people… everyone here, residents and visitors, is very much alive.”
“So… how much longer will they live here?” Caleb asked.
“Until they die,” Madame Chronos said. “And then they pass beyond. For this life, and this time, is not the beginning, nor the end. It was once formless and empty. From Chronoshin, we can watch it return to that state. And then, perhaps, I will be able to see time begin anew. All mortal things come to an end, Caleb. But death… well, death is just a part of existence. A stepping off point, if you will. And where we step off to… well, it’s going to be far more beautiful and amazing than you’ll ever see in life.”
Caleb’s mind was spinning a bit, but he smiled. A word of hope, even in the face of death. Who couldn’t help smiling at that?
“Enough existential talk, though,” Madame Chronos said, waving a hand. “There are things you’d like to know, and things you need to know. Let’s focus on those. You need to get a handle on your Time Magic, darling. After all, your overdoing it and, to be frank, novice level of training and understanding, brought you here.”
Novice? Caleb was a novice at Time Magic? That was news to him.
“I need someone to teach me,” he said. “But there’s no one living who knows Time Magic. That’s why I know so little.”
“No one on Earth,” Madame Chronos said. “But in the Enchanted Dominion, there are, in fact, two who could teach you to understand and properly utilize your Time Magic. You can take your pick, though you could benefit from studying under both of them. One of them will suffice to bring you to a point where you can manipulate time somewhat safely.”
“Somewhat?” Caleb asked.
“That’s the rub with Time Magic, my dear,” Madame Chronos said. “There is, unfortunately, no completely safe way to use it. There will always be risks. How do you think people keep ending up at my doorstep?”
“But I need to minimize those risks,” Caleb said. “So? Who are the teachers? How do I reach them?”
Madame Chronos smiled. “Eager. I like that. Now, you have two options – not just in your teacher, but how you reach them. Option one: you go back to your friends and travel with them, navigating the Enchanted Dominion and attempting to find the places you seek. I will warn you, though – the Enchanted Dominion is not to be trifled with. You can’t simply hop from one city or location to the next. There are no stationary roads. Every path leads to somewhere new each day, sometimes each minute. That boat your friends are about to get on, well, even I couldn’t tell you where it’s going to take them.”
“So what’s the second option?” Caleb asked.
“The second option,” Madame Chronos said, “is I send you directly to the teacher of your choice. That will, of course, mean you don’t return to your friends right away, or perhaps in a timely manner at all. But it will get you where you need to go with no guesswork. Looking for these teachers on your own, throughout the Enchanted Dominion, without aid from the Cartographers, could take you years.”
“The Cartographers?” Caleb asked.
Madame Chronos waved a hand. “That’s another story entirely. The point is, you can either go directly where you need to go, or you can fumble around with no clear path for an unpredictable amount of time until you reach your destination – or don’t. You might die before you reach your teacher.”
“And if I go back now, and use Time Magic before I’ve been properly trained…” Caleb started.
“You’ll end up straight back here,” Madame Chronos finished. “If you use Time Magic even one more time without being properly trained, you will be sent straight back to Chronoshin, and not as a visitor, either.” She gave Caleb a stern, meaningful look. “You’ll be coming back as a resident.”
Well, I could just not use Time Magic, Caleb thought. But… can I? I mean, I told myself not to use it on Hollow Island, and at the first sign of danger, it was what I did. It was reflex.
If that reflex pops up again, I’ll be abandoning Delilah and Shana, Fae and Shias, forever.
I’ll be abandoning Chelsea forever.
“I’ll take the second option,” Caleb said, determination in his gaze. “I need to know how to control my Time Magic before it exiles me from everyone I care about forever.”
Madame Chronos smiled. “A good answer, darling,” she said, standing up. Jikan leapt down off of her lap, looking up at her and wagging his tail as he trotted alongside her. “Come along, then. Let’s get you on a train.”
Down below, they headed to the ticket booth. “Andrew, darling, can you tell me how much chronal Caleb has in his account?” Madame Chronos asked of the ticket vendor.
“Right away, my lady,” Andrew said. He pulled a file out from somewhere beneath the counter, flipped through it with a gloved hand. “Caleb Greyson… twenty-five hundred chronal is currently available in your account.”
“Twenty-five hundred?” Caleb asked, gaping. He hadn’t seen a single train on the schedule cost more than one thousand. He had more than double that? “How do I get chronal? Why do I have so much already?”
“That’s a discussion for another day,” Madame Chronos said, laughing. “It’s really not all that important. So, Andrew, give me some times. When are the Hawthorn Rail Line and the Goodnight Express next boarding?”
“Hawthorn Rail…” Andrew pulled out a new file, skimming through it. “It’s back here at 48:234:17, and Goodnight Express… at 37:89:124.”
“Well, Caleb, you have two choices,” Madame Chronos said. “Hawthorn comes later, but will take you to what I would call the safer bet of the two teachers. Goodnight Express is sooner, but it takes you to Midnight Bridge and Mister Midnight, and… well.” She laughed, and Andrew did as well, as if they were sharing an inside joke. “Let’s just say you’ll be in for a real doozy of a time with him. I’ll send you with a letter of recommendation either way, but Midnight might not care too much about that.”
“What about my friends?” Caleb asked. “Is there a way I can leave them a message?”
Madame Chronos smiled. “I was just about to explain that,” she said. “Yes. A short one, unfortunately, but you should have enough space to say what’s needed.”
“I’ll take the earliest train,” Caleb said, smiling. “I’ll meet Mister Midnight.”
“Well, don’t say I never warned you,” Madame Chronos said. “All right. Let’s get a message sent to your friends, and then send you on your way. Although it’s still a fair while before your train arrives… can you think of a way to pass the time?”
Caleb cast a glance back towards the balcony, and the disheveled man. He still hadn’t raised his head. So Caleb looked away, and his eyes rested on Ted, still playing away at his solo game of chess. He smiled. “Yeah, I can think of something,” he said.
Back on Hollow Island, at the port below the mountain, Chelsea and Delilah were astonished when Caleb’s body abruptly vanished. That shock turned to confusion, then, as a small note on faded paper landed in Chelsea’s lap. And that confusion turned to a tiny star of hope as they read it:
I’m okay. No need to worry about me.
I’ve just gone to meet someone who can keep me from collapsing on you guys again.
Turns out I suck at Time Magic, and need a teacher.
If I use it again… well, you’ll never see me again. I don’t want that to happen.
I’ll see you all again as soon as I can. I promise.
Don’t get into too much trouble while I’m gone.
Delilah, Chelsea, I love you both so much. Stay safe.
And have fun!