“So… this is your home?” Caleb asked.
He walked slightly behind Mister Midnight as they trekked through the gloom. They were on the upward slope of Midnight Bridge, coming close to its far side and whatever lay beyond.
“It’s my domain,” Midnight corrected. “I don’t just live here. Midnight Bridge was entrusted to me centuries ago.”
“Centuries?” Caleb asked, unable to hide his shock.
Midnight chuckled. “You haven’t met any other Enchanted, have you?” he asked. “That’s what we call the natives of the Enchanted Dominion. We live for… well, it doesn’t seem like a long time to us, but I suppose it would to you humans.”
“So is Void an Enchanted, too?” Caleb asked. Even as he did, he was thinking about Isabelle – that small girl was from the Enchanted Dominion. She looked like she was ten years old at the most, but how long had she actually lived?
“Don’t be insulting,” Midnight replied. “Void, and the rest of the fool’s gods, wish they were Enchanted.”
“Fool’s gods?” Caleb asked,
“Ever heard of fool’s gold?” Midnight asked.
“Looks like gold, but it isn’t,” Caleb said.
“Right. Void and the rest like him are like that. They proclaim themselves to be gods, but of course that’s the furthest thing from the truth. Come on, we can talk about the rest inside.”
They’d reached the far side of Midnight Bridge, climbing to a rocky plateau. A garden of sorts was full of mushrooms, glowing with soft blue, purple, and white light. The building they were next to was a short tower, rising up about six stories and focusing on verticality, with little in the way of horizontal space. Its walls and door were pitch black, only sparsely illuminated by the strange, dim blue lamps nearby.
Midnight stepped up to the door and swung it inward, walking inside and inviting Caleb to follow. “Ingrid!” he called out. “We have a human guest. Turn the lights up, would you?”
“Right away, master!” came a girl’s voice in reply. The room swiftly brightened, and Caleb was able to get a proper look at his surroundings.
The tower’s first floor was small, as suggested by its exterior. The first floor was a small single room with a spiral staircase in the center. Bookshelves lined the walls, and a couple of small couches and chairs were arranged in haphazard fashion by round tables. The hardwood floor and textured ceiling were a deep blue color.
The thing that stuck out to Caleb, though, was that he couldn’t pinpoint a light source. Shadows weren’t cast by anyone or anything, making it impossible to discern where the light was coming from.
As he pondered that peculiarity, swift steps came pitter-pattering down the stairs. They belonged to a young girl who looked to be in her early teens, wearing a dark blue bolero jacket over a long black dress. Her hair was a long tumble of raven curls, swept forward over her right shoulder. Rushing down the stairs with a childish energy, she hopped the last three to stop on the floor, looking up at Caleb with large silver eyes.
“Hello!” she said happily, giving a cute little wave. “I’m Ingrid. I work for the master of Midnight Bridge and keep everything here in order so he can do his work in peace.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” Caleb said, holding out a hand. “I’m Caleb.”
“Got a last name, kid?” Midnight asked as Caleb and Ingrid shook hands.
“Greyson,” Caleb said.
“Now that is interesting,” Midnight said, his lips turning upwards in a smirk.
“What’s interesting about it?” Caleb asked.
“Tell you in a second,” Midnight said. He took hold of Caleb’s arm, and Caleb winced at the pain. “Yep, these look bad. Ingrid, patch this kid up before he dies in my house.”
“Right away!” Ingrid said with a sloppy salute, racing upstairs and returning surprisingly quickly with a black box. She sat Caleb down, rolled up his sleeves and pant legs, and sprayed some kind of blue liquid on his wounds. It was frigid, and made Caleb wince at first, but it went from harsh to soothing quite quickly. Ingrid took dark strips of fabric and wrapped Caleb’s wounds carefully, and then stood smiling at him. “All set. You’ll be better in no time.”
“Thanks,” Caleb said.
Midnight strolled over to them, plopping down unceremoniously on the couch across from Caleb and propping his booted feet up on the table. “I met a Greyson once,” he said. “Must have been a half dozen generations before you were born. He couldn’t use Time Magic, but he showed up in my domain looking for help. He had an interest in doing away with the fool’s gods. It didn’t go well for him.”
“He tried to kill them?” Caleb asked. Ingrid leaned over the couch, watching the conversation with eager curiosity.
Midnight nodded. “That’s right,” he said. “Thought he could do it all by himself, too. He was arrogant and idiotic and rude. Not much like you so far. So that’s a good change.”
“Why did he try to get rid of the fool’s gods?” Caleb asked. “How did he even find out about them?”
Midnight waved his hand dismissively. “It’s a long story, and not very relevant to the subject at hand,” he said. “Just thought it was interesting to meet his great-great-whatever grandson.” He cast a sharp look at Ingrid. “What are you staring for?”
“You didn’t let me take your coat,” Ingrid said, pouting slightly. “And you’re scuffing the table.”
“The table’s black,” Midnight said, lifting his feet and pointing at the polished, seemingly untouched surface. “You can’t even tell. And what do you want my coat for?”
“I always take your coat when you come home,” Ingrid said, folding her arms and meeting Midnight’s sharp glare with one of her own. “You even made it one of my duties and a house rule. Your coat is outerwear, and must be hung up properly whenever you come indoors.”
“You’re obstinate,” Midnight said, but he stood up and turned his back to Ingrid, spreading his arms. The girl smiled triumphantly, excitedly rushing up to take Midnight’s coat and fold it over her arms.
“I’m excellent at my job,” she countered. “You’ve told me so on fifteen separate occasions.”
“You’ve been counting?” Midnight asked, plopping back down in his seat. Caleb tried not to smile as he noticed Midnight not putting his feet back up on the table.
“Of course!” Ingrid said happily as she took the coat to hang it up by the door. “I have to report back to my parents every solstice.”
“Don’t worry, you haven’t disgraced your family name,” Midnight said, waving at Ingrid. “Go on, don’t you have something to do upstairs?”
“I don’t need hints, master,” Ingrid said, already heading up the staircase. “When you want me to leave you alone, just say so.”
“Right, right,” Midnight called as she vanished into the upper floors. “Entrusted to me by her father. The man owed me a great debt, but couldn’t pay, so he offered his only daughter to work here for me.” He cast another glance towards the stairs, making sure that Ingrid wasn’t listening in. “If anything, she’s raising the value of her family’s name. Her parents are gaudy fools – it’s a wonder she’s their daughter. But don’t tell her I said so.” Stretching his arms overhead, Midnight sat up a little straighter. “Anyway, we have things to talk about before we get to training. Void’s one of the fool’s gods, who are part of a group of individuals who dubbed themselves ‘Eternals.’ It’s another misnomer – they may never die of old age, but they certainly didn’t exist from the beginning of time. They were all born humans in Grimoire, in the early days of Grimoire’s magical community – quite a number of centuries before you were ever born.”
“They’re human?” Caleb asked. “And they come from Grimoire?”
“That’s right,” Midnight said with a nod. “One day, a few of the greatest mages at the time meddled with Time Magic. They thought it was more than just a tool to manipulate time around them – they believed it could be turned inward, and serve as the source of eternal life.”
“So they were right,” Caleb said.
“Yes and no,” Midnight replied with a grim smile. “They had to introduce other elements, and twisted Time Magic to their will in ways that it was never intended. They rejected nature, and they paid the price. For the last five hundred years, they’ve been banished to the Enchanted Dominion, forbidden from passing to the human realm or interacting with humans in any way.”
“Why did you say only some of them are fool’s gods?” Caleb asked. “How many Eternals are there? What do they want?”
“The ones who engineered the method to turn humans into Eternals were just a handful,” Midnight said. “Only five. But they saw potential beyond themselves, and reached out to other mages. Many of the Eternals became so willingly. But over a dozen were given eternal life against their will. A few were never asked, and thus were never able to give their consent. But most of them outright refused. And yet everlasting life was forced on them.”
“And they were banished too?” Caleb asked. “But if they didn’t want it in the first place –”
“There wasn’t any other way,” Midnight interrupted. “The Eternals wanted to rule over all of humanity. By twisting their very essence to allow themselves everlasting life, they fashioned themselves as gods. The magic used to banish the Eternals was very powerful, but that power came with a price. It couldn’t discriminate between those who had evil intent, and those who were just forced into immortality. Because of this, though, the royal family took pity on the victims of the fool’s gods, and allowed them to live freely in the Enchanted Dominion, while the fool’s gods were imprisoned and tortured.”
“Wait, hold on,” Caleb said, shaking his head. “If the fool’s gods were imprisoned, how come Void was here?”
Midnight smiled. “I was testing you,” he said. “The fool’s gods were all imprisoned… for a time. Eventually, they escaped. No one truly knows when, or why, or how. Some think the royal family was manipulated into setting them free.”
“But if there’s a single royal family ruling the entire Dominion, how would people not know?” Caleb asked.
“Imagine, if you will, that a single king and queen rule over the entire human race,” Midnight said. “Can you picture that? No regional governments. No governors. No mayors. No multiple world leaders. Two people and their children to rule over the trillions of human beings on planet Earth. Now, take that a step further. Make Earth a hundred times bigger, and make it quintillions of humans spread all across it – can you even imagine that number? There’s no means of instant communication in the Dominion, and that largely ties into the next thing to imagine – imagine that every city on planet Earth is constantly in motion, and you can never truly see where the exits from each city will lead. One day, you could walk from New York to Tokyo. The next, that same exit might take you into Moscow, or Paris. And finally, just to add one extra wrinkle, imagine that there’s no real press corps to speak of, and that the royal family keeps the goings-on within their royal palace as much a secret as possible. Now are you getting it?”
“Yeah, that paints a pretty stark picture,” Caleb said, reeling from the imaginary scenario that was real for the Dominion. “But that’s… that’s totally insane. How do you people live?”
Midnight chuckled. “We Enchanted like our freedoms and our privacy,” he said. “The royal family doesn’t do much, aside from promise to protect the Dominion from external threats. That’s why they took the fool’s gods into their own hands – once they were done with Earth, where do you think they would have gone next? Anyway, most of the time the freestyle way of living throughout the Dominion works out great. Even now, the fool’s gods have been free for two hundred of your years, and what have they accomplished? Not much that I know of – though, of course, there’s that wrinkle about the royal family being so secretive. If they’ve managed to ensnare the royal family or take over the Crystal Palace, it’s no surprise that even I don’t know about it. I’ve never been pals with the aristocracy.”
“So… wait, what’s the problem?” Caleb asked. “If they haven’t done anything for so long, why are you all of a sudden worried?”
“I’ve been worried ever since the fool’s gods arrived,” Midnight said. “But things have gotten much worse now. Void was able to speak with you – a human. That should be impossible. And he was clearly waiting for a human, judging from his attempted passphrase. If that’s happened, then something’s changed, and it means the fool’s gods are starting to make their move. It means they may be ready to go back to Grimoire and do what they set out to do in the first place.”
“Okay, backtrack a second,” Caleb said. “Is his name seriously Void? He started as a human, so where’d that come from?”
Midnight burst out laughing, leaning back and staring at the ceiling. “Ah, and here I thought you’d be scared witless and ready to frantically play hero,” he said. “Good to see you’re more relaxed than I guessed. And hey, it’s my fault I skipped over their stupid names. Yeah, they’re human, but when they decided to ‘ascend’ to being self-proclaimed gods, they left their human names behind, all of them adopting names of their own choosing.”
“Wait… he chose Void as his name?” Caleb asked. He laughed. “That’s ridiculous! These people are as crazy as they sound.”
“Ain’t that the truth?” Midnight rolled his eyes. “You’ll like this next bit, then. The leader of the fool’s gods calls himself the Radiant King.”
“He sounds full of himself,” Caleb said, shaking his head.
“What do you expect?” Midnight asked. “They think they’ve ascended beyond humanity, that it’s their right to rule over all of creation. Megalomaniacs, every one of them. Insane, too. I’m sure you caught a bit of that from Void and his behavior. He’s a nut job if I ever saw one.”
“So… what do they want?” Caleb asked.
“Like I said, they want to rule everything,” Midnight said. “They think of themselves as gods. They want Earth and the Enchanted Dominion. Despite their long lives, though, they aren’t nearly as powerful as the term ‘gods’ would make you believe. Considering how highly they think of themselves, they’re hilariously ordinary. Tremendously powerful for humans, no doubt, but they are also incredibly vulnerable. If they were as powerful as they claim, Void wouldn’t be afraid to fight me.”
“So we’re going to fight them together,” Caleb said.
“There’s no ‘we’,” Midnight said. “I fight them on my own turf, when they do things they shouldn’t here. But the human world is your jurisdiction. And that’s why I’m going to train you. Those crazies are one step closer to going back to Grimoire and ruling over it and the rest of the planet. You’ve got guts and good instincts, being able to last against Void as long as you did. But you’re clearly not trained to fight against other mages. You don’t just need to get your Time Magic in order – you need to learn how to fight with all of your tools. Those chains and discs you use have outstanding potential. You just need a proper teacher.”
“I’m glad to have your help,” Caleb said, smiling.
“I won’t go easy on you,” Midnight said. He leaned forward, and Caleb was again startled by the man’s strange eyes – almost completely white, except for those black points at their center, but the longer he looked at them, the larger the blackness became, like it was swallowing him up.
“I didn’t expect you to,” Caleb said, wrenching his gaze away. “That’s part of the reason I picked you. I need someone who’s going to push me as hard as possible. I have… a lot of people I need to protect.”
“I can see that in your eyes,” Midnight said, smiling. “Don’t you worry, Greyson. I’ll whip you into shape. Ready to get started?”
“Definitely,” Caleb said, grinning. “Show me what I need to learn.”