“Come on, Greyson, it’s not so bad,” Midnight said, chuckling as he looked down at Caleb.
Caleb groaned in response, laying on his back as he looked up at his teacher. Mister Midnight, for whatever reason, had decided to stack a number of crates on top of each other, and then sit cross-legged on the very top.
“Is it bedtime yet?” Caleb asked, struggling to take in a full breath, only managing it after four tries.
Midnight checked his watch. “Still got six hours,” he said. “Don’t tell me you’re going to quit after two months. You’re one-sixth of the way through your training!”
“After failing three times and starting over,” Caleb said, sitting up. His head swam, but he didn’t lay back down. He needed to get his equilibrium back. “How much real time has passed so far?”
“Twenty-nine hours,” Midnight said. “You’ve burned a whole day so far.”
“Fantastic,” Caleb said with a groan.
On the first attempt, Caleb had passed out after twelve days within the altered time zone. He’d needed three hours before starting things up again.
The second time was the worst. After making it a full month, Caleb had collapsed in a vomiting fit, eventually having to sleep for nearly a full day before getting his strength back.
He’d rushed into this third run at Midnight’s training, and he knew that. The first week had been torturous, but he’d found his footing. For over a month now, he’d been in a pretty good groove.
Then today happened. Waking up, Caleb had felt sick to his stomach and worryingly dizzy. Terrified that he’d end up hurling his guts out again – perhaps literally, this time – he’d tried to take it easy.
Midnight wouldn’t oblige.
“You know today’s a bad day for me,” Caleb groaned, slowly rising to his feet. He felt queasy, and leaned against the stack of crates, trying to breathe slowly and carefully.
“Well, you shouldn’t have failed to earn your breakfast,” Midnight said, chuckling.
“I shouldn’t still need to earn every meal and opportunity to sleep,” Caleb said. His stomach settled, but his head was still light and airy. It contrasted nicely with the rest of his body, which felt heavy and sluggish. “Are you seriously sticking to that system for a full year?”
“That’s how we do things at Midnight Bridge,” Midnight said. “If you don’t like it, you could always quit. Hawthorn’s not so bad. Slow, but he’ll get the job done. You just might not complete his training until you’re twice the age you are now.”
“You know I’m not quitting,” Caleb said, glaring up at his teacher.
Midnight grinned. “That’s the spirit,” he said. “So? Come on, your lunch is waiting. Show me what you’ve got.”
“I…” Caleb closed his eyes, concentrating. “What was the task this time?”
“Ingrid!” Midnight called out. “Greyson’s got the fuzzy brain thing going on.”
“Still?” Ingrid asked, leaning out from the second floor window of Midnight’s house. She actually looked concerned. Because she was nice. Unlike a certain master of Time Magic that Caleb knew. “It’s been two months. If he doesn’t get over it soon –”
“I know,” Midnight called back, looking down at Caleb disapprovingly. “If your mind doesn’t right itself soon, I’ll have to end the training for you. Some humans can’t handle the strain like this, and suffer permanent damage. I’m not about to let you –”
“Shut up, I remember now,” Caleb said, waving a hand. “Fifty pushups, right? And then run across the bridge, down and back three times. Easy.”
Midnight snorted. “Show me how easy it is, then,” he said.
Caleb took his time getting down into a pushup position. He still felt a bit unsteady, but once in position, pushups weren’t too hard. They were one of Midnight’s favorite “tasks” for Caleb to earn meals and sleep. Most of the tasks set upon Caleb were exercises and tests of strength, speed, agility, or endurance. It made sense to Caleb. On the one hand, he needed to become accustomed to time’s uncomfortable pressure, and what better way to do that then by pushing himself physically?
And on the other hand, Caleb’s training wasn’t just going to be in Time Magic. Mister Midnight was going to make him a fighter. Caleb needed to be as strong as he could be.
And he enjoyed that challenge. Caleb had always been athletic. He had been Captain of Grimoire Academy’s Swim Club and the Volleyball Club, and had continued with both sports through college. During his internship and then his career as a Hunter, Caleb had kept up a strenuous workout regimen, and was in many ways in the best shape of his life when he ended up at Mister Midnight’s door.
There was, of course, the added challenge of time’s pressure. Midnight had been right – “Locational Time Magic,” as he called it, had a whole different kind of impact on Caleb’s body. After two failed training sessions, Caleb had come into attempt three fired up. His body seemed to have adjusted well to the strain.
But two months with no real break from the physical pressure was a daunting challenge. The heaviness, the pain, the soreness, the discomfort, had all crept up on Caleb.
Of course, if he successfully earned every meal that Ingrid prepared for him, Caleb would probably be feeling a lot better right now. Food was important.
And then there was the whole “failing to earn sleep” for two days straight earlier in the week. Sleep was even more important than food, sometimes.
Get your act together, Caleb thought, or you’re going to fail. This might be your last chance.
Succeed at earning every meal and every rest. You need that stuff more than you realized.
Caleb found running a lot more difficult than pushups. That was likely because of how Midnight Bridge was constructed – where most bridges were arched upward, this one arched downward. The descent and following ascent, along with Caleb’s constant bouncing rhythm as he ran, made his head ache something fierce, and his light-headedness never really abated.
Normally, you stop exercising when you feel light-headed, Caleb thought. One of the first rules I learned about working out.
I think there are exceptions, though. Like when a madman makes you exercise to earn your next meal.
Thankfully, Caleb managed all three laps of the bridge, returning to Midnight’s crate tower. He stayed standing up straight even as he panted for air. Leaning over or sitting down now felt like it would mess up the tenuous equilibrium he now had.
“Ingrid, is lunch ready?” Midnight asked.
Ingrid, leaning out the window once more, smiled. “All set!” she called back, flashing a thumbs-up before ducking back inside.
“All right, Greyson,” Midnight said, hopping down from his perch. He clapped Caleb on the back, hard enough that Caleb nearly toppled forward. That tenuous equilibrium was more tenuous than he’d realized. “Let’s go eat.”
Getting some food in Caleb’s stomach did a lot of good. Ingrid had prepared “Midnight Mushroom Sandwiches,” which sounded disgusting. Even after cooking them, the strange glowing mushrooms that grew outside Midnight’s house continued to glow. Caleb had never been a fan of mushrooms – not the flavor or the texture – so he was delighted to find these to be completely unlike any ordinary mushrooms.
They were crisp and sweet, with a flavor more like some kind of berry than a mushroom. Combined with some meat, cheese, vegetables, and “secret spices,” the sandwiches hit the spot.
“When do we get to combat training?” Caleb asked. “You still just have me running around and doing exercises and stuff. There are only ten months left. I’d like to make the most of them.”
“You’re pretty pushy for someone who almost failed his third round of this training,” Midnight said, pointing at Caleb with the last bit of his sandwich before popping it into his mouth. “What do you want to do first?”
“Well… I should learn to use Time Magic properly, right?” Caleb asked.
“I asked what you want, not what you think you need,” Midnight said.
“I want what you think should come next,” Caleb said. “I need to learn to fight Void and the other fool’s gods, and other human magic users in general… but I also need to learn to use Time Magic properly. I don’t know what should come first. You’re my teacher.”
“So, you haven’t gotten sick of me yet,” Midnight said, grinning. “Ingrid, is this a record?”
“It is,” Ingrid said, rolling her eyes. “Most of your students start openly rebelling against you after three weeks. And only if they make it that far. The longest anyone lasted before Caleb was five weeks.”
Midnight nodded to the young girl who worked as his assistant. “She’s great, isn’t she?” he asked in a whisper, eyeing Ingrid to see if she was listening as she went about washing the dishes. “Best assistant I’ve ever had. Probably best I ever will have.” Caleb noticed that Ingrid seemed to overhear, as a small smile crossed her face.
Midnight grinned, standing up. “So? Ready to continue?” he asked.
“You still haven’t said what we’re doing next,” Caleb said, following Midnight outside.
“Working on Time Magic,” Midnight said, hopping up onto his crate tower and resuming a cross-legged sitting position. “Stand in front of me.”
Caleb took his position, looking up at his teacher. “How do I do this right?” he asked. “Also…” He looked around, gesturing at the space. “Time’s already slowed. Can I really slow time again inside of a place where time’s already slowed down?”
Midnight chuckled. “Fair question,” he said. “And no, you can’t. But you can still use the same techniques. They’ll impact your body the same way they would otherwise.” Midnight mused for a moment, staring off into the distance. “I shouldn’t say you can’t slow time down further. Technically, you will. It’ll just only be for you – Personal Time Magic instead of Locational. But since your own alteration of time doesn’t impact myself or Ingrid, it will seem like time is unaffected.”
“If I learn how to do this right,” Caleb said, “that means it won’t really affect me much, right?”
“It might affect you more than usual, actually,” Midnight said. He stretched out his arms. “It’s because of this place. Slowing time on top of already altered time… that can wreak havoc on a human body.”
“Um… so… should we just… not, then?” Caleb asked, suddenly feeling very nervous.
“What, chickening out on me now?” Midnight asked with a smirk. “You can come back from the effects. You’ll only ever be slowing time down for yourself for a few seconds. Remember what I said before?”
“Efficiency,” Caleb said, nodding. “Use it sparingly and in very brief bursts.”
“Exactly,” Midnight said. “So, let’s start with just getting you familiar with the technique. First of all, you need to calm your mind. That might be difficult. You’ve got a very overactive mind, Greyson.”
“How can you tell?” Caleb asked.
Midnight chuckled. “You always have questions,” he said. “You always have something to say. And even when you’re silent, I can tell by your eyes. Always thinking of a million things. Must be pretty noisy in that head of yours. You need to quiet it all down. If you can’t do that, then Time Magic might never truly work for you.”
“But… how do I do that?” Caleb asked. “I don’t mean just right now, but in the heat of battle. When there’s so much going on and I have to react at a moment’s notice, how do I take the time to quiet my mind down?”
“If you get used to it, you won’t have to take time to do it,” Midnight said. “Just like your current methods of slowing time, this will become second nature, to the point where you don’t even think about it. You just do it. Plus, I’ll teach you how to be a fighter – not just the skills, but the mindset. If you’re thinking a lot in a fight, you’re almost always going about it the wrong way. But we’ll get to that. For right now… close your eyes.”
Caleb did as instructed. With the gloom and darkness shrouding all of Midnight Bridge, closing his eyes left him with not even the faintest trace of light. It was as if it was pitch black outside.
“Now, listen to my voice,” Midnight said slowly. “Breathe in, gently. Take your time. Make sure it’s a full and steady breath.”
Caleb had to take a few tries to get it right. His lungs and head seemed like the parts of his body that struggled the most to adapt to the pressure of altered time. Breathing usually came shaky and ragged, unless he focused, and even then, it was a challenge. Finally, he got it, and held the breath for one count, then two.
“Now, let it out,” Midnight said. “Take your time again. Slow and steady is the key here.”
Caleb was starting to wish he’d taken up yoga when Chelsea had offered it. She’d talked a lot about the breathing exercises, and had shown off their impact to Caleb. Caleb, the longtime swimmer, prided himself in his lung capacity.
Chelsea, who only barely knew how to swim, could hold her breath nearly twice as long as Caleb. And she could take far more steady and calm breaths than he could.
He always found that so funny. Chelsea had such an intense and fiery personality, and yet she had such calm control over her breathing when she put her mind to it.
“Continue breathing like that,” Midnight said. “In and out. Breathe. Just… breathe. Let your mind quiet down until there’s only the sound of my voice, and the sound of your breathing.”
Caleb internally chided himself for thinking about Chelsea and yoga. Way to totally miss the point of this exercise.
His first ten inhales and exhales were rough and challenging. But over time, he got used to it. His breaths became steadier, stronger. His lungs started to feel more flexible, as if they’d been crushed for a long time under a large weight and were only just now free of it. Midnight said very little, only occasionally criticizing Caleb for a poor breath. Even then, Caleb’s teacher had a much calmer and softer voice than he usually did.
“Good,” Midnight said softly. “Keep breathing like that, but now… think about how it feels when you personally slow time. What’s that kind of pressure like? How does it differ from the Locational pressure? Don’t actually slow time yet. Just think about it. Let your body remember what it feels like.”
Caleb did as instructed, thinking on the acute pressure he’d felt so many times before. It started to come to him, centered on his chest and his head.
“That’s right, focus,” Midnight said. Somehow his usual gruff exterior had melted away into something soothing, and Caleb felt calm and attentive. “Now, try and make those sensations real. Leave behind your old conventions for slowing down time. Just take that pressure, and make it as real as you can.”
Caleb kept his focus entirely on those sensations, and it started to feel more and more real.
And then… he started to feel strange. His light-headedness changed to pain. It was more than the pressure of a strong headache. It extended downward, to his eyes, until it became profoundly uncomfortable. Suddenly, all Caleb could feel was an intense pain centered in his eyes, until he felt a wetness running down his cheeks.
“Caleb, stop!” Midnight shouted. “Bring it back!” His voice turned panicked as he screamed for his assistant. “Ingrid! Hurry!”
Caleb opened his eyes, but found it was difficult to see. He dropped to his knees, clutching his head. Desperate, he reached up a hand to wipe away his tears, wishing the pain away.
But what he felt running down his face was thick and sticky, not at all like tears.
He wasn’t crying.
His eyes were bleeding.