Caleb awoke, rubbing his bleary eyes and then putting his glasses back on. He’d been asleep for quite a few hours, but looking out the window from his train compartment, he was pleased to see that there were still amazing sights passing by.
Man, this is so freaking COOL!
That was the thought that kept going through Caleb’s mind, and he couldn’t make it go away. Not that he wanted to. From Chronoshin to his quite long train ride aboard the Goodnight Express, Caleb kept seeing amazing things that blew his mind wide open. He’d thought the magic he knew in Grimoire was cool, but he hadn’t seen even a fraction of what there was in the vast expanse of creation.
Not for the first time, Caleb was happy at his stroke of luck in wearing glasses. He’d now spent roughly forty-eight hours in the Enchanted Dominion. His eyes would be screaming for relief if he’d worn contacts.
I’ll have to make sure to thank Chelsea when I get back to her.
Thinking of his girlfriend brought pangs to Caleb’s heart. He wished he’d been able to leave her something more, or even speak to her in person, before heading off on his training adventure.
I hope she understands.
Caleb hadn’t even been able to board the Goodnight Express for another ten hours after he bought his ticket in Chronoshin, but that ended up being a good thing. He was able to get new clothes, for one: he currently wore the old fashioned style of Chronoshin – black pants and boots, a black shirt, deep red waistcoat, and a tie matching his waistcoat’s color. He wasn’t a fan of the tie – he never was a fan of those strangling devices masquerading as fashion – but he kept it on at Madame Chronos’ insistence.
He had undone the top button of his shirt and greatly loosened the tie once he’d boarded the train. The lady of Chronoshin would be fit to be tied at his insistence on dressing more casually.
He’d also been able to play more chess with Ted, still losing in spectacularly swift fashion, but having a blast while doing it. Ted was a joy to talk to, a man who clearly had lived a long life, though he didn’t let on much about the details of it.
One frustrating mystery plagued Caleb, though. The raggedy man in the corner of Chronoshin’s balcony had never once looked up… until Caleb was already on the train and speeding away from the platform. Looking out his window one last time at the man, Caleb saw him lift his head… and then the train and Caleb had left Chronoshin behind, leaving him unable to talk to the man dressed in rags.
Next time, Caleb had promised to himself. I’ll be back eventually, I’m sure. Then I’ll finally talk to him.
But, you know, don’t send me back too soon. I still have a life to live.
In a suitcase above Caleb’s seat were several more changes of clothes, along with snacks, a bottle for water, and several utility items, like a needle and many colors of thread (Caleb didn’t know how to sew, but Madame Chronos said it would still be useful), a small knife, a flashlight (even though he had his cell phone and magic), and some chronal, amounting to a third of Caleb’s savings.
The Goodnight Express was named appropriately. The train’s cars were wide, accommodating sizable cabins where the seats were as large –and as comfy – as Caleb’s bed back home. He had spied several passengers snoozing away in their pajamas as he walked to his own compartment and, even with the amazing sights outside, Caleb’s exhaustion had gotten the better of him.
The Goodnight Express sped through space and time. Caleb saw wonders he never would have seen anywhere else. They coasted along through a nebula, and Caleb got to see the amazing colors, like clouds and sun fire and pure radiance itself intermingling into a mysterious and beautiful sight. They passed a dying star, lights breaking apart in one final gasp of life, and a star just being born, burning across the starry veil with excited brilliance.
Besides outer space, they passed many Locations within the Enchanted Dominion. Caleb saw Hollow Island once again, this time from a great height, as if viewing it from a plane in flight far above. A huge section of the island looked desolate. It must have been the side they were unable to see, Caleb reasoned. There was still plenty of jungle, but that strange wasteland that took up a fifth of the island was fascinating. It raised so many questions that Caleb would likely never know the answers to – he was, after all, hoping he wouldn’t go back there again.
There were buildings floating in voids of color, citadels on cliffs that gave way to clouds and then sparkling emptiness, boats sailing on green waves, and a massive canyon that seemed to house a network of mechanical buildings. Whenever they passed close to – or even through – Locations, no one gave any indication that the Goodnight Express was visible to those outside. While drifting through a bustling city in the clouds filled with spherical architecture, people outside the train frequently almost ran right into Caleb’s window, and yet they never seemed to see him, or the train, at all.
Coming through the horn-shaped, old-fashioned speaker system was soft, relaxing music. It had a tinny, sometimes static quality to it at times, but Caleb found it charming.
Chelsea always pokes fun at me for being old-fashioned, Caleb thought, smiling as he thought of her.
Then the music stopped for a moment, and a warm, calming female voice came over the speaker. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are now coming up on Midnight Bridge. The exit is on the left. Please do not attempt exiting on the right, as you will likely never be seen again. If you are disembarking here, please gather your belongings and be ready at the nearest exit. Thank you for riding with us, and we hope you’ll choose Goodnight Express in the future.”
That’s my cue. Caleb pulled down his suitcase from above and exited his compartment, walking through the narrow corridor up to the exit from the car he was in. Watching through the window, the scenery turned to blackness. For several moments, Caleb couldn’t see anything. And then, slowly, shapes began to appear. They were dark as the deepest hour of night, and were only visible because the sky had lightened a few shades from pitch black to a deep, dark blue.
The primary shape that Caleb was able to make out was a massive bridge. It seemed to be made of some kind of stone that arched down and then back up, with its lowest point being the center. Lamp posts ran along the edges of the bridge on either side, shedding strange dark light that didn’t do much to aid in visibility, but instead added a mysterious, ethereal tint to everything.
“Midnight Bridge, Midnight Bridge,” came the woman’s voice over the speaker again as the train came to a stop. “Now disembarking – Midnight Bridge.” The doors slid open, and Caleb stepped out into the darkness.
Things were suddenly deathly silent. The Goodnight Express rolled away, but Caleb heard no sound from it. All around him was stillness and quiet. Walking to the edge of the bridge to look out at whatever he might see beyond, Caleb could hear his every step, his every breath.
And nothing else.
Suddenly he was gripped by a powerful sense of being completely alone. Looking out into the blue-tinged darkness, Caleb saw nothing. No stars, no water, no cities, lamps, or people beyond. As he looked back from where he’d disembarked, it looked as if Midnight Bridge simply stopped, with nothing back the way he’d come.
So forward is the only way.
Caleb carried his suitcase in his left hand, keeping his right hand in his pocket and wrapped around his pocket watch. Don’t you dare use Time Magic, he reminded himself. If there’s trouble, you have your discs, you have your chains. And they’re quite bright – you can light this place up very effectively. For some reason, though, Caleb didn’t immediately pull out his Talisman and cast light ahead of him.
A small voice in the back of his mind told him not to – that the darkness was important, and to disturb it without need would be very unwise.
Would have been nice if Madame Chronos had told me more about my destination. She’d been characteristically vague about where Caleb was going and the man he was searching for: Mister Midnight. She’d given him a warning that this place, and the man he sought, would be dangerous, and that was all.
Midnight Bridge was truly massive, impressive for a bridge made out stone rather than through modern architectural materials and means. Wide enough for a four lane highway, and easily a mile across from what Caleb could see, its size made him wonder at what lay beyond, and where his teacher-to-be resided.
Caleb didn’t call out for Mister Midnight as he walked slowly on the downward slope towards the bridge’s center. He felt adding any more sound than necessary to this strange, silent place would be – like adding unnecessary light to the darkness – unwise.
First Hollow Island, now Midnight Bridge. The Enchanted Dominion just wants to shut down chatterboxes like me at every turn, huh?
Caleb stopped as he neared the bridge’s center. Something had changed in the gloom. Caleb looked up and around at the lamp posts on either side, but their light seemed the same. Back the way he’d come was nothing new. Caleb took two more steps forward, and then he realized what had changed.
He was no longer alone.
In the center of Midnight Bridge was a humanoid form. It looked like a man, from what Caleb could see of its shadowy figure, with broad shoulders on top of a solid, muscled build. He seemed to be carrying something in his right hand – a cane? Or was it a sword? It was long and dark and slender, but it didn’t look like it ended in a point, and the way he held it made it seem quite light. A cane, then.
“Hello?” Caleb asked softly, stopping and waving to the figure ahead. “Who goes there?”
I’ve always wanted to say that, Caleb thought, his inner child laughing as Caleb fought to keep a straight face.
“In the center lies a burning sphere.” The voice that spoke from the shadowy figure was ice cold, running like frigid nails down Caleb’s spine.
Silence, for several moments.
He’s waiting for a response, Caleb realized. Some kind of passcode, then?
Either he’s waiting for someone else, or Madame Chronos neglected to mention the response.
“I’m looking for Mister Midnight,” Caleb said, his voice now loud and clear, unafraid of tainting the silence. “I need –”
Caleb didn’t get to finish his sentence. The shadowy figure lunged forward, dashing across the ten yards that separated them. Caleb pulled out his pocket watch, frantically screaming in his mind DON’T USE TIME MAGIC!
He barely had time to open the watch and call upon his magic before the man was upon him. So Caleb brought forth a mobility disc as a shield between him and his assailant. The man sidestepped it, but that gave Caleb a moment to breathe, to drop his suitcase, and to gather his wits.
Chains, Caleb thought, frustrated that he had to put active thought into using his magic. Time Magic was an integral core of his entire way of fighting. Forcing himself not to use it slowed him down, and he was barely able to conjure two glowing white chains to lash at the figure in time to block his attack. The man blocked with his black cane, leaping backward to gain distance.
The light from Caleb’s magic revealed more of his assailant. The man was dressed in a long black officer’s coat with silver buttons and ornamentation, and had a strange silver badge pinned at his chest. Black and silver were this man’s fashion sense, it seemed – black pants, black boots trimmed in silver, and black gloves with a strange silver symbol on the back of the hands that Caleb couldn’t clearly see. His face was pale, but it didn’t seem to be from a sickly nature or illness – his eyes blazed with dark focus, and everything about his bearing and movements suggested strength and health.
“You are not the one I asked for,” the man said in his chilling voice, pausing for a moment to fix his dark, frightening stare on Caleb. “And you ask for the master of the bridge. You cannot be allowed to live.”
“I’d rather you not kill me,” Caleb said, keeping his voice raised, hoping it would carry to someone else – if there even was someone else – nearby. “I’m just here for training under Mister Midnight. We don’t need to fight.”
“It’s too late for that, boy,” the man said, charging forward.
Whirling to his right, Caleb sent forth a dozen mobility discs, racing up them in an improvised staircase, dismissing the ones behind him as soon as he was done with them.
His attempt to gain height was futile. The pale man in black leapt up to the height of Caleb’s highest disc, landing on it lightly and thrusting his cane at Caleb’s chest.
Caleb took the quickest way out of danger – falling. He stepped off the edge of the disc he was on and let gravity pull him away from his attacker, calling forth chains to encircle the man. The man batted the chains away with vicious speed, and then jumped down, following Caleb in his fall.
“Mister Midnight?” Caleb called out, desperately hoping the mysterious time mage would show himself and back him up. As he did, a mobility disc flashed into being, functioning as a springboard to launch Caleb up out of his fall and to the side, once again evading the man in black’s attack.
“It is futile, boy,” the man said, racing along the dark surface of Midnight Bridge, tracking Caleb’s trajectory. “You will be dead before anyone comes to your aid.”
“Are you sure we can’t talk this out?” Caleb asked, bouncing himself one way, then another, staying airborne and watching his attacker below, trying to find an opening. “I don’t want to fight.”
“Because you know you can’t win,” the man retorted, jumping dozens of feet off the ground straight into Caleb’s path.
Don’t use Time Magic! Caleb screamed at himself, creating a swirling mass of chains, as many as he could, to try and overwhelm the man in black while he used a mobility disc to bounce him away, landing on another and climbing a shining staircase to the ground.
“I don’t even know anything,” Caleb said, watching in awe as his opponent deftly parried and dodged two dozen chains coming from all different directions, coming out of the attack unscathed and landing on the ground. “I’m no threat to you.”
“Don’t you understand?” the man asked, smiling cruelly. “You’re already dead.” With that vicious smile on his face, the man resumed his attack.
Caleb jumped, creating a complex arrangement of mobility discs in a scattered sphere around him, alighting on one and then leaping around, always keeping a disc between him and his opponent. Some of the discs were springboards, while others were static platforms, and Caleb continued to rearrange them as he moved, time and again blocking the man in black’s access by a hair’s breadth.
Caleb was at more of a disadvantage than just not having access to his Time Magic. That was bad enough, but he was also completely out of his depth when fighting this man. Caleb was a Hunter – his training was against Hollows. None of his training ever involved fighting another mage. While the man in black hadn’t displayed anything beyond Enhancement Magic to jump around and move with astonishing speed, it was still terrifying how close he continually came to Caleb.
Caleb’s final disadvantage was the most obvious one: this man wanted to kill him.
Every time Caleb saw the man’s dark eyes, he knew he was fighting against a man with murderous intent. His heart pounded in his chest, and he was constantly panicking when he knew he shouldn’t.
Because while this man would clearly kill Caleb without a second thought, Caleb knew he couldn’t kill in kind.
Sure, it would be perfectly justified. In theory, Caleb had always been ready to kill someone in self-defense if the need arose.
But faced with the reality, he knew he couldn’t do it.
And that in itself terrified Caleb. He felt like he’d already lost the fight, despite continuing to maneuver and keep the man in black at bay.
His primary instinct, beyond evasion and buying time for someone to help him – a possibility that crept closer and closer to zero with every passing second – was to trap the man somehow. Chains were good for that, but he couldn’t fight through his opponent’s overwhelming strength. For the man to bat aside Caleb’s chains with a one-handed swing like that, he had the strength of twenty men at least. Even if Caleb could get his chains wrapped around the man in black, it was unlikely they’d hold him for long.
So what do I do?
All the frantic leaping and soaring through air, often horizontally or even upside down, was also not a great fit for Caleb at the moment. In the long term, it was a good thing he was wearing glasses.
But for this kind of fight? Glasses were turning into a severe handicap.
Time and again Caleb frantically pushed his glasses back on, sometimes holding them in place for a second or two while he made a particularly forceful leap. He frequently lost sight of his assailant, commanding his discs to move into defensive shields in his blind spots when he couldn’t see the man in black.
Caleb had so many things he wanted to say. Who are you? What do you want? Can’t we just talk this out? Make me swear some kind of blood promise or sign a contract or something?
Do you really need to murder me?
But of course it would be futile. And that scared Caleb the most. Monsters had borne down on him countless times with murderous intent, but…
They were wild beasts.
This was a human. He looked older than Caleb, but younger than Caleb’s dad – somewhere in his mid-thirties.
Why was he so intent on killing Caleb? So Caleb wasn’t the one he was waiting for – but Caleb didn’t know anything. Was it so dangerous to keep him alive?
What could be so important that knowing even just a hint of it when you weren’t supposed to meant you needed to be killed?
Why couldn’t they just talk or something?
It wasn’t as if Caleb had never gotten into physical conflict with people before – he’d faced down bullies in middle school and high school, even gotten in a few fist fights – but someone who wanted to kill him, and was perfectly capable of doing so, was completely new.
And completely terrifying.
The man in black came into Caleb’s vision again, diving down at him from a great height. Bouncing off of a disc springboard, Caleb sent chains surging at his assailant, only to watch them barely slow him down as he batted them away in an instant.
And then Caleb messed up. He’d made plenty of small mistakes that worked out all right due to dumb luck and the frantic nature of using so many discs and chains, but not this time. Where he thought he had a mobility disc waiting for him was only empty air. Dropping to the stone of the bridge, Caleb had no time to stop himself, using Enhancement Magic to break his fall as he tumbled into a roll.
Get up, get up, get up! Caleb scrambled to his feet, only to see a black cane sweeping through the dim gloom towards him. He leapt away, and the man in black surged forward, attacking relentlessly. With no time to bring forth chains or discs, Caleb gambled with Enhancement Magic, coursing it through his body to make his skin, muscles, and bones tougher, raising his hardened arms to block.
The black cane came on undeterred, whipping across Caleb’s arms with a slap like a thunderclap. Pain surged through Caleb’s limbs as he went flying, tumbling up the bridge’s far slope. He got to his feet, but his arms were badly bruised, and his left arm was likely fractured somewhere, judging from the shooting pain lancing through it.
And still the man in black came on. Still he wore that mirthless smile, contrasting with his dark, murderous glare. Caleb conjured a springboard, launching himself high into the air. Even if it was only his arms, his pain was pounding away at his concentration. He brought forth as many discs as he could – both as shields and to cast shining light into the darkness. Alighting on the highest disc, he dropped to a knee, casting about frantically for the man in black.
If I can’t see him, then he must be…
Caleb leapt forward on pure instinct, twisting in the air to see the man in black come crashing down onto the disc Caleb had just been kneeling on. As the man dove towards Caleb from that disc, Caleb brought all of his other discs to bear as a makeshift shield, stacking them on each other to strengthen them, with the one closest to the man serving as a springboard. His assailant slammed into that springboard and was sent flying in the opposite direction. Caleb, satisfied he had a minor pause in his deadly struggle, quickly formed a staircase of discs to run back to solid ground.
As soon as his feet touched the stone of Midnight Bridge, he felt a force tugging at him, pulling him backwards. Struggling against it, Caleb turned to look, and saw the man in black standing far away, holding his cane overhead. Above the cane was a strange portal, pitch black and writhing with rhythmic intensity. From it surged tendrils of inky blackness, wrapping around Caleb’s waist, his arms, his legs, pulling him towards the portal.
“And so it ends,” the man in black said, his icy voice carving a frigid line along Caleb’s nerves. “The chase was amusing for a time, but I’ve run out of patience. Now perish into the void.”
The tendrils wrapped tighter, cutting into Caleb’s flesh, and he cried out in pain. He created a mobility disc as a wall to stop him, but a separate tendril lashed at it, shattering the shining construct into shards that faded into the darkness.
Caleb sent chains to attack his captor, only to watch in vain as they were batted aside with contemptuous ease. Caleb’s Talisman flashed as he called upon Energy Magic, flinging orbs of white light at the man in black, only to watch tendrils from the void portal slap them away.
Am I… out of options?
Caleb pulled even as the tendrils cut in deeper, fighting against their strength, but still his heels slid on the stone, still he grew closer and closer to the portal.
And then, a voice rang out in the darkness.
“Void!” a man shouted, his voice strong and clear. “You dare set foot in my domain again?”
“Blast,” the man in black said, glaring over his shoulder. “Mind your own business, Midnight!”
“You killing people on my bridge is my business,” the unknown man said. There was a blur of silver light, and then the tendrils tugging at Caleb were suddenly severed, freeing him to fall flat on his butt. Between him and the man in black was the newcomer, a tall man dressed in a black duster coat that hung all the way down to his heels. Long black hair was tied back in a ponytail, and he cast a short look at Caleb. He had a strong, blocky jaw, and his eyes were like the inverse of Madame Chronos’ – where hers were dark pits with shining points of light in the center, this man had almost completely white eyes, save for a small black point in the center, that seemed deep and endless, threatening to suck Caleb in if he stared for too long.
“You all right there, kid?” the newcomer asked.
Caleb wasn’t really “all right,” but he was at least no longer teetering on death’s door, so he nodded.
“Good.” The man turned to face Caleb’s attacker, who had dismissed the frightening portal, and the two shared a long, silent stare.
“I’m not here for you, Midnight,” Caleb’s attacker finally said.
“You would have been once you finished off the kid,” the newcomer – apparently Mister Midnight – said. “Get out of here.”
“Or I’ll make sure you never walk again, Void.”
Caleb’s attacker – apparently named “Void” – let out a sigh. “You just don’t know when to quit, do you?” he asked.
“You’re trespassing on my grounds,” Midnight said. “I’d say you’re the one who doesn’t know when to quit. So?” He spread his hands. Each of his index fingers bore a single ring inset with a black stone. “Want to settle this once and for all? Or do you want to live to fight another day?”
Void scoffed, but turned away. “You don’t know what you’re messing with, Midnight,” he said.
“I know enough,” Midnight replied. Void’s body suddenly warped, twisted, and shrank in on itself until he vanished.
“What…” Caleb started, rising to his feet. “I, um… thank you. For saving me.”
“Don’t mention it,” Midnight said. He was still standing with his back to Caleb, watching the spot where Void had disappeared, as if expecting him to come back. “You were the one calling my name, right? I assume you have a good reason for being here.”
Caleb nodded. “I was,” he said, clenching and unclenching his fists and wincing at the pain in his arms. “I’m here because I need someone to teach me to use Time Magic more effectively.”
Midnight turned around, glowering at Caleb. “Madame Chronos sent you?” he asked. Caleb nodded, and Midnight scoffed, looking away. “That old bat again? She never knows what’s good for her. She didn’t think to send you to Professor Hawthorn?”
“She mentioned there were two options,” Caleb said. “I chose you, since it would take less time to reach you.”
Midnight stared at Caleb, blinked twice, and then smirked. “You chose to come to me?” he asked. “Really? The old bat didn’t set you straight?”
“She said it would be more dangerous,” Caleb said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out the crumpled reference letter, holding it out. “But she didn’t say it was impossible.”
“You’re crazy, kid,” Midnight said, taking the letter from Caleb and tossing it over the bridge’s edge. Caleb watched in shock as it drifted out of sight. “I don’t care about letters. You told me all I need to know. I can put you on a train to Hawthorn if you like. But if you really want me to teach you, I won’t refuse.” He sighed. “I watched your fight. You didn’t use any Time Magic.”
“Madame Chronos told me not to,” Caleb said. “Until I learn to better use it. She said if I used it again without training, I’d end up as a permanent resident of Chronoshin.”
“So you’ve got it that bad, at your age?” Midnight’s eyes flashed with surprise, but only for a brief moment. “You live life on the edge. I’m willing to teach you, but…” He looked back towards where Void had vanished. “Void was waiting for someone – a human, like you.”
“And?” Caleb asked.
“And that means a lot of things,” Midnight said. “None of them good. Come with me. We can talk inside. If Void’s able to contact humans now, then you and everyone you care about is in a lot of danger.”
“What do you –” Caleb started.
“I said we’d talk inside, didn’t I?” Midnight asked, his voice sharp. “Grab your things and follow me. Gotta get you cleaned up, too. Those wounds look pretty bad.”
So Caleb grabbed his suitcase, carrying it with quite a bit of difficulty, and followed after Mister Midnight. The man walked fast across the bridge, partially owing to his height. Caleb, injured as he was, had a rough time keeping up.
But still, his mind swirled. He had many thoughts and questions, but one question in particular stuck out in his mind:
Things just keeping getting weirder every second, don’t they?