“Now, it’s time to show me what you’ve got,” Mister Midnight said.
Caleb stood across from his trainer, uncertain of what to do. Mister Midnight had a lot to say about the world, Eternals, and fool’s gods, but when it came to actual training, he’d been remarkably vague.
“What I’ve got with what?” Caleb asked.
“With your Time Magic,” Mister Midnight said.
“But… I’m not supposed to use my Time Magic,” Caleb said. “I’ll end up back at Chronoshin as a permanent resident.”
Mister Midnight sighed, and waved his hand in the air. The sky and space around them distorted, as if they’d been surrounded by a bubble. “I can protect you from the negative effects of your Time Magic,” Midnight said. “But before I start teaching you how to use it correctly, I need to see how you currently wield it. I need to know specifically what problems need correcting.”
“Okay,” Caleb said. He held his pocket watch in one hand, and started to inhale, preparing to activate his Time Magic.
“Okay, stop right there,” Midnight said, waving his hands dismissively. “What’s that? Do you hold your breath when you slow down time?”
Caleb shook his head. “No, I just have to take a breath before I do it,” he said.
“Why?” Midnight asked.
Caleb stared blankly at his teacher in response.
“You do things and you don’t even know why you do them?” Midnight asked. He let out a long sigh. “Come on. Think about it. Why do you take a deep breath before you slow down time? You started learning Time Magic as a kid, so you’ve probably been doing things the same way for a long time. Figure out why.”
“Because…” Caleb wracked his brain. “I… it helps me concentrate.”
Midnight pursed his lips. “What does it feel like when you slow down time?” he asked.
“I feel a sort of pressure,” Caleb said. “It comes from all around me. But… after a while, it gets really strong right in my chest. I sometimes get strong headaches, too. And if I keep things up for too long, I can start to get dizzy or short of breath.”
“That’s because you hold your breath,” Midnight said.
“No, I don’t,” Caleb said. “I inhale, then when time is slowed, I breathe normally.”
“Oh, really?” Midnight asked, hands on his hips. “Show me, then.”
“So I should actually slow time now?” Caleb asked. “You’re not going to stop me again?”
“Do you normally talk back to your teachers like this?” Midnight asked.
Caleb shrugged. “When it feels appropriate.”
“Just do it, Greyson,” Midnight said, eyes narrowed.
Caleb chuckled, took in a deep breath, and slowed down time. He felt the familiar pressure, but it wasn’t like when he’d collapsed on Hollow Island. It was… like normal. He grinned, jumped up and down, spun in a circle, and laughed.
“I’m back to normal!” he said.
“If that’s what you call normal, I’d hate to see your bad days,” Midnight said. Like Isabelle, he was able to move normally even when Caleb slowed time. “Notice anything strange?”
“I’m not holding my breath,” Caleb said, perhaps a bit too smugly.
“Really?” Midnight asked. He stood a few inches away from Caleb, looking down at him with an analytical gaze. “I guess when you do things wrong for years, you stop noticing the problems.”
Caleb stared skeptically up at Midnight. He opened his mouth, intending to take in a new breath…
But he couldn’t. It was as if his lungs were already filled to capacity. He tried to speak, but now no sound came out.
Why… why can’t I talk? Why can’t I inhale? What is going on?
“How often do you talk while using Time Magic?” Midnight asked. Caleb blinked, thinking back, and things started to click together. He shook his head, held up one finger. “Once per day, or only one time?” Caleb nodded, holding up two fingers. “Got it. So you never noticed what was wrong until someone else pointed it out. How’s your chest?”
There it was. The building pressure in Caleb’s chest came to being, and now he finally recognized it for what it was.
He was holding his breath. And he couldn’t let it out.
“What happens every time you stop slowing time?” Midnight asked.
Caleb knew before he did it. As he returned time to its original flow, just like every time before, he let out a long breath.
“Exhale,” Caleb said, catching his breath bit by bit.
“Now you’re starting to get it,” Midnight said.
“But why could I talk before?” Caleb asked.
“Time’s a funny thing,” Midnight said. “Manipulating it causes all kinds of havoc, even in ‘masters’ of Time Magic. You slowed down time as you were inhaling. Meanwhile your body, as a wielder of Time Magic, can operate relatively normally even as time is slowed all around you for everyone else. But the state in which your body enters time’s slowed flow is critical. Since you slow time while inhaling, your body, while less effected by the slowed time, still struggles to keep up. It recognizes your inhale as your natural state, and your entire breathing cycle is ruined. You can’t breathe properly, until eventually, you can’t breathe at all. And if you’re frequently active and in combat while slowing time, that puts even more stress on your body. You have to breathe to move, after all.”
Wow, he actually does explain stuff in detail sometimes, Caleb thought. “So… how do I change that?” he asked. “I don’t know any other way. I’ve never tried another way, but…”
“You have to understand why, just like I said,” Midnight said. “Why do you inhale as you slow time?”
“It helps me concentrate,” Caleb said. “I do that for lots of things. When I need to focus for a test, or a competition, or something else, I always take in a deep breath, and then let it out.”
“So why don’t you go through the full circle before you slow down time?” Midnight asked. “Inhale, then exhale, then slow down time.”
Caleb pursed his lips. “I dunno,” he muttered. “I… maybe it’s because I’m always using Time Magic on the fly. I don’t have a lot of time to prepare myself for it, and I have to react quickly. So I just shortened the inhale-exhale process.”
“And shot yourself in the foot,” Midnight said. “Now that process for slowing time is ingrained in your mind and body. It’s going to be quite some work to undo that.”
“About how long do you think it’ll take?” Caleb asked. “I just… I have people waiting for me. And there was someone who I promised I’d help.”
“Well lucky you,” Midnight said, grinning in a way that sent a shiver down Caleb’s spine. “You have two options. There’s the long training, which will take you at least a full year to complete – possibly longer. That’s a year in your Earth time, by the way. I’m just going to talk in Earth time rather than Universal time, make it easier on you.”
“And I’m guessing there’s a short version,” Caleb said.
Midnight nodded. “Shouldn’t take more than six hours or so,” he said. “Although… if you fail at any point in those six hours, you’ll have to start over from the very beginning. Depending on how many times you fail, it could take weeks.”
“That’s still a lot faster than a year,” Caleb said, ready to jump on board the short version.
“That’s because if you fail too many times, you’ll die,” Midnight said flatly.
“I…” Caleb started, uncertain of what to say.
I don’t have a year, he thought. I mean, Chelsea and Delilah and Lorelei can probably handle themselves. But… I said I’d come back. And with these fool’s gods like Void starting to branch out and enact some kind of dangerous plan, they could be in a lot of trouble. Plus, there was that woman pursuing Isabelle. They’ll be hunted.
And… I’ve never been away from Chelsea for more than a week. I’ve never been away from mom and dad, and Shana and Shias and Delilah, for more than a month.
And I just started trying to get closer to Fae again. A whole year away would ruin that.
I can’t take a year.
Of course if I die, that would kind of ruin the whole point of accelerating my training, wouldn’t it?
And Chelsea would hate me for it.
“Can you tell me more about the shorter version?” Caleb asked.
Midnight smiled. “Sure thing,” he said. “This is our training ground. I slow down time for us and this entire Location for the duration of your training. It doesn’t bother me, or Ingrid – we’re special. But you’re human. You know the stress and strain of slowing time for a few seconds in the real world. What’s the longest you’ve ever slowed time for?”
“About a minute,” Caleb said. He felt sick at just the memory. “And that was only once. And I passed out. And was asleep for two days. And after I woke up, I was sick for a week, vomiting and feverish and… yeah. It was a mess.”
Midnight chuckled. “Then you probably won’t want the shorter training,” he said. “Your training will take a year, one way or another. The only reason the shorter training is shorter is because that will only be a year within the slowed time zone of Midnight Bridge. Outside, only about six Earth hours will have passed. It means a day here will be a little less than a minute to everyone outside.”
“So… to complete the shorter training, I have to handle six hours of slowed time with no stops or breaks?” Caleb asked. Midnight nodded, his eyes flashing with a challenge.
“What’s it gonna be, Greyson?” he asked.
“You said if I fail, the six hours starts over,” Caleb said. “Why is that?”
“Because you need the consecutive hours of slowed time in order to acclimate yourself to the true nature of Time Magic,” Midnight said. “You collapse or pass out in the middle, and you need to start it all over again. The shorter training also makes you much stronger and more capable. It’s a fair tradeoff for the risk, as long as you don’t die.”
“So it’s like a time bomb,” Caleb said. “If I pass out from time’s pressure too many times, I’ll get sick from it, and eventually, my body won’t be able to handle it anymore.”
Midnight nodded. “That’s right,” he said. “How strong do you think you are? How much can you endure? What’s your pain tolerance? And…” His eyes flashed again. “How far are you willing to go for the people you love?”
He’s enjoying this, Caleb realized.
“Let’s just get it started,” he said. “I’ll only find out for sure by being put through it, right?”
Midnight grinned. “That’s the spirit,” he said. Raising his right hand, he snapped his fingers.
Caleb felt that familiar dull pressure of time’s flow being altered, but… it was different. When he slowed time himself, the pressure was acute and focused.
This version was less painful, but… it was pervasive. He felt hot, and fuzzy, like his mind couldn’t quite comprehend what was happening.
“Locational Time Magic,” Midnight said. His voice seemed to echo, as if Midnight Bridge had been enclosed within some kind of invisible construct. “You’ve likely heard of Locational Guardian Magic – it’s what you human mages use to protect your houses and important places.”
“And a long time ago, the Council of Mages even tried to use it to protect the entire city,” Caleb said. His own voice sounded far away to him, like it wasn’t even coming from within him. “That failed pretty poorly, and they abandoned it within days.”
“Locational Time Magic is a form of Time Magic you likely won’t ever be able to use,” Midnight said. He paced a circle around Caleb, looking for all the world like he didn’t feel any pressure or discomfort at all – he probably didn’t, from what he’d said about himself and Ingrid. “But that’s not why you’re here. The point is, the pressure of time’s alteration is diffused. It won’t affect you as greatly or as quickly, but it will feel different. For the first few days – possibly even several weeks – your own senses and perception will struggle to keep up with how time has been distorted.”
“Why do I still feel the pressure, though?” Caleb asked. “You said my problem was that I hold my breath when using Time Magic, but I didn’t this time.” Caleb inhaled and exhaled several times to experiment, proving his point. “So what’s the problem?”
“You’re human,” Midnight said with a chuckle. “And there’s nothing you can do about that. The human body isn’t meant to exist outside of time’s regular flow. Think of it like water. Humans are similar to the top-dwellers, the surface level fish – or maybe even things like frogs, which don’t even spend all the time in water, but just live around it.”
“So I’m a frog?” Caleb asked, laughing despite himself.
“Metaphors,” Midnight said, rolling his eyes. “I’m sure you’ve heard of such things. So, humans are meant for – and accustomed to – the top levels of water. Not a lot of pressure there. When you distort time, or when time is distorted around you by others, things get flipped. Suddenly, the shallow swimming frog that you are is submerged, deeper and deeper. The longer time is altered, the deeper that little frog goes. And the deeper underwater you are –”
“The more pressure there is,” Caleb said, nodding in understanding. “All that weight of the water pushes down on you – there are depths where even a lot of submarines get crushed, let alone humans – or frogs.”
“Right,” Midnight said. “You’re no anglerfish, or other type of deep-dweller. You don’t belong in distorted or altered time. The longer you stay there, the worse it gets. All you can do is train, and learn proper techniques to mitigate and adjust to the pressure. Even then, you’ll always have limits. The good news is this: if you change the way you do things, and survive this training, you’ll be able to wield Time Magic with virtually no negative side-effects, as long as you use it wisely and sparingly. That’s the first key – when you use Time Magic, use it efficiently. Short bursts are best, and don’t prolong time’s alteration any more than you have to. And the second key is to space out your usage of Time Magic. The longer you alter time in one use, the longer you should wait before using it again.”
“So, in the end, I’m going to need to learn to fight smarter, no matter what,” Caleb said.
Midnight nodded. “Now you’re getting it,” he said. “And speaking of fighting, we’ll also be working with your combat abilities. You’ve got some neat skills with those discs and chains you use. Proper training could make you an effective fighter – and you wouldn’t have to rely on Time Magic as much. You need to change the way you perceive Time Magic. It isn’t a crutch, or even the core of your skillset. It’s a tool. A secret weapon of sorts. The more effectively and efficiently you use it, the better. And,” Midnight grinned, “if you do well enough, I’ll even be able to teach you entirely new ways to use Time Magic. That is, if you’re interested in having your mind blown.”
“I was hoping you’d blow my mind,” Caleb said, laughing. He shook his head, trying to shake off the fuzziness and sluggishness of his mind. His vision sometimes went out of focus, too. It was something he was used to happening occasionally when wearing contacts – they didn’t always stay exactly in the right spot on his eyeball – but when wearing glasses, this was a whole new sensation. “So… how do we start?”
“First, work on your breathing,” Midnight said. “The first few days are actually easy. You need to get accustomed to all of this. Move around, breathe, and get to a point where you can function relatively normally. If you can’t get that far, then we can’t even begin the actual training.”
Caleb took in a deep breath, then let it out slowly. It was difficult – he felt like he couldn’t quite fill up his lungs, and his exhale was stuttered as he struggled to maintain consistent air flow. Midnight began to walk back towards his house, and Caleb started to follow him.
“Stay out here, Greyson,” Midnight said, waving a hand dismissively. “I’m gonna have Ingrid put together some food. If you can accomplish the tasks I set before you when I come back out, you can eat. If not, then you have to wait until tomorrow.”
Caleb stared, slack-jawed. “Tomorrow?” he asked.
“That’s right,” Midnight said. He rolled up his sleeve to show off a black-banded wrist watch to Caleb. “I have a watch that adjusts its speed to how I’ve altered time. So far, your training’s been going for…” he took a look at his watch, “two minutes. I’ll be back in ten, and give you a few challenges. Complete those, and you can eat. Fail, and you’ll have to wait twenty-four hours – and complete a new set of challenges – to get a chance to eat.”
Noticing Caleb staring speechless at him, Midnight smirked. “What?” he asked. “Already regretting your decision?”
Well, now I know what Madame Chronos was warning me for, Caleb thought, turning away from Mister Midnight so he could focus on getting his breathing and movement back to normalcy. But… no. I don’t regret it. Not yet, at least.
It hurts. It’s uncomfortable. But that’s nothing.
This will make me stronger. This will get me back to my friends and family.
This will make me useful to them. This will make me able to help Isabelle get home.
Caleb realized he was grinning. Bring it on, Mister Midnight. I’ll take whatever you can throw at me. I’m a Hunter, after all. I can handle adversity.
And I’m a Greyson. We’re as strong as they come.