Caleb understood little of what happened for the next several hours. His eyes burned, his head throbbed, and he threw up multiple times, leaving his throat raw and dry. His ears popped, distorting sound and collapsing Caleb’s sense of balance – he toppled onto his side and curled up into the fetal position to try and avoid the pain.
He knew that Ingrid came and spoke to him, applying some kind of salve to his eyes. It stung at first, and he screamed, but it eventually soothed him. Mister Midnight and Ingrid talked a lot, mostly to Caleb, but he didn’t understand much of what they said. Their voices seemed to come from a great distance away, like Caleb was drowning deep in the ocean while the pair called to him from the shore high above.
He did gather a few words: “poisoning,” “over,” and “my fault.”
And then, Caleb fell into a deep sleep.
He awoke a few times, briefly and in a haze. He was in a bed. One time, Ingrid was asleep in the chair beside him. The next, she was holding his hand, watching over him. Another time, Midnight sat there, reading a book. There were a few times when Midnight and Ingrid were talking, but Caleb never understood their words.
Sometimes they were worried and frantic. Other times they were solemn and subdued.
Every time Caleb slept, it was like he was drowning in darkness and dreamlessness. He’d drop into undisturbed sleep, then wake up for brief fits, sweating and struggling to breathe. His stomach roiled. A sharp, stabbing pain reverberated through his skull.
He was burning, and then he was freezing. He was so tired of pain and discomfort that he eventually awoke only to lay there numb and willing sleep to embrace him once more. Mercifully, after what seemed like an eternity, he once again sunk into slumber.
Slowly, he awoke once more. The room was dark, with just a dim blue lamp shedding light from a bedside table. Naturally, Caleb couldn’t tell if it was day or night. The sky outside was always dark on Midnight Bridge.
But he noticed two very peculiar things.
One: he was starving.
Two: he felt fine.
Not just “I’m not in excruciating pain anymore” fine. He felt one hundred percent normal.
The pressure of time’s alteration was nowhere to be felt.
Caleb jolted upright, and immediately regretted it. His head swam as his blood flow struggled to catch up to his sudden movement, and he lay back down. Woozy from hunger, Caleb slowly rolled over, kicking his feet over the side of the bed before steadily rising to a sitting position.
He took several slow breaths, in and out, just as he had been with Midnight shortly before Caleb had…
Oh. Right. Caleb’s eyes had been bleeding.
No wonder he’d been a wreck.
Gingerly rubbing against his eyes, Caleb was relieved to feel no soreness, and to see no blood on his hands. Another breath in, then out.
There went Caleb’s stomach, begging for food. And it must have gone an incredibly long time without. Caleb felt woozy as he stood, recognizing the effects of low blood sugar and lack of nutrition. He’d once pushed himself much too hard during his internship, on a night after a full day of exams at school. He hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast, and his superior had to stop their patrol in order to get Caleb some food before he passed out.
What Caleb felt now was ten times worse than that. He used the bedside table, and then a chair, and then the wall to keep him steady as he walked ever so slowly to the bedroom door. He couldn’t stand up straight, wracked as he was with intense pangs of hunger from his stomach.
Outside the bedroom were stairs leading down, and a rather pleasant smell wafted up from below.
Why does it have to be stairs? Caleb wondered. At least there’s a railing. I can do this. It’ll be fine. Just go slow. Nothing to worry about. Just… beg your stomach to leave you alone for five seconds so-OH MY GOSH STOMACH CALM DOWN I’M TRYING TO HELP YOU FOR CRYING OUT LOUD!
Caleb took each step very slowly, planting both feet on one before continuing to the next. The wooden stairs creaked slightly as he went, and after just three steps, Caleb saw Ingrid at the bottom of the stairs, staring up at him in shock.
“You shouldn’t be moving on your own!” she said, rushing up to him and taking his arm. “Call for help next time. I can’t believe you can even walk in your condition.”
“What condition?” Caleb asked. “What’s wrong with me?”
“Nothing compared to what was wrong with you,” Midnight said, arriving at the bottom of the stairs and watching with a mixture of relief and disapproval as Ingrid helped Caleb descend. He shook his head. “Honestly, Greyson. Come on, let’s get some food in you. You have good timing. We were just about to sit down for breakfast.”
“Why’s the pressure gone?” Caleb asked, taking on a confrontational tone even in his weak, pained state. “You ended the training, didn’t you?”
Midnight nodded, dropping unceremoniously into a chair at the dinner table. “And I should have ended it weeks earlier,” he said. “I noticed the signs. But you kept pushing through, so I thought you were adjusting. But you weren’t. You –”
“Can wait until he eats,” Ingrid finished, glaring at Midnight. “Caleb, please. Eat first. Stay calm. You’re lucky you survived.”
Well. That certainly shut Caleb up. Ingrid helped him to a chair, and then she served piping hot pancakes – blue, naturally, because the Midnight Mushrooms were the foundation of almost every recipe here on Midnight Bridge. They were delicious, and Caleb dug in with gluttonous abandon.
“Slow down,” Midnight admonished. “And chew your food more than you would normally. Take your time, or you won’t be able to keep your food down. It’s been a long time since you ate.”
“How long?” Caleb asked. “How long was I out?”
Midnight looked to Ingrid, who gave him a meaningful look. He sighed. “Two weeks,” he said.
A clatter on the wooden floor made Caleb realize he had dropped his fork in shock. He stared at Midnight, unable to find words.
“Yeah,” Midnight said. “Now you’re getting it.”
“It was that bad?” Caleb asked, his voice hushed. Slowly, he bent over and retrieved his fallen fork.
“You suffered from acute chronial poisoning,” Ingrid said. “It can happen to humans when they’re exposed too much to altered time without a break.”
“It can also happen if you spend too much time under time’s pressure and then come out of it extremely quickly,” Midnight said. “Your symptoms were compounded, unfortunately, because I panicked and ended the Locational Time Magic around Midnight Bridge abruptly when I saw what was happening to you.”
“Poisoning…” Caleb said softly, suddenly questioning his appetite.
“Eat,” Midnight said, pointing at Caleb’s plate with his fork. “And take seconds when you’re done. I’ll explain things, but you need to get your strength back.”
Caleb nodded reluctantly, returning to his pancakes.
“One of the early symptoms of chronial poisoning is poor short-term memory,” Midnight said. “You displayed that several times during this period of training. But it often passed quickly, so I allowed you to keep moving forward. I’ve seen it before – almost everyone who undergoes my accelerated training deals with some form of chronial poisoning at one point or another. The key is that their poisoning never gets too severe, and it passes. I thought that your poisoning was passing, but I should have seen the truth. It was worsening, bit by bit, under the surface. I get the feeling your stubbornness is what kept symptoms from really showing until you were too sick to avoid it.”
“But why didn’t it just pass for me?” Caleb asked. “What’s different about me from your previous students?”
Midnight shrugged. “Nothing major,” he said. “You’re not the first of my students to suffer like this. You’re not even the worst case. But you’re up there. There really isn’t a distinct factor in why you were so painfully affected while others weren’t. It just happens, or it doesn’t. The main thing is that I didn’t notice the signs when I should have. There’s medicine you can take to help with the symptoms.”
“So why didn’t you give me any?” Caleb asked.
“The medicine is useful and important when things are severe,” Ingrid said. “It can help with the minor and early symptoms, but that would defeat the purpose of your training.”
“You have to learn to adapt to time’s pressure,” Midnight said. “So you’re always going to deal with, and have to push through, some symptoms of chronial poisoning on your own. If I gave you medicine for every little bit of discomfort, your body would never adapt, and the training would be worthless.”
“So… what comes next?” Caleb asked, dreading the answer.
Midnight sighed. “You’re going to need to take medicine for the next two Earth weeks. I’ll give you the medicine and a watch that’s set to Earth time so you can stick with it. Once that’s over… you can resume your training.”
“I sense there’s a ‘but’ coming on,” Caleb said.
Midnight nodded. “With how terrible things got for you, you’ll only get one more chance,” he said. “Even if you took on the slower version of my training, if you show any signs nearing acute chronial poisoning… that’s it for you. You’ll never use Time Magic again.”
Silence stretched long and imposing through the dining room. Midnight didn’t look at Caleb, finishing off his pancakes and piling some more onto his plate.
“So I have to take a two week break,” Caleb said. “What do I do in that time? Do I just stay here? Should I leave? Is there any kind of training you can give me that doesn’t involve Time Magic?”
Midnight leaned back, musing. “You came here to learn Time Magic,” he said. “I can’t teach you that until you fully recover. And any kind of strenuous combat training while you’re on your recovery medicine could slow your return to full health. But you’re a stubborn fool, so maybe you don’t care about that. However…” Midnight grinned. “I have an idea. I’ve been meaning to make a trip. How about you come with me? You could learn a thing or two about the Enchanted Dominion.”
“I can come with you?” Caleb asked, shocked at the offer.
Midnight nodded. “Sure can,” he said.
Ingrid leaned over the table, grinning. “He only makes this offer to his favorite students,” she said. “Normally he goes everywhere alone.”
“Don’t you have work to do?” Midnight asked with a glare.
“Work’s already done,” Ingrid said, sticking her tongue out at him.
Midnight frowned, turning his attention back to Caleb. “Before we go anywhere… I need to ask you a few questions.”
Caleb stared back at Midnight. “Why does that sound so ominous?” he asked.
Midnight just continued to stare.
“Okay, start asking,” Caleb said, breaking eye contact and finishing what was left on his plate, piling up seconds.
“When finished with your training, where would you go?” Midnight asked.
“Back to the others,” Caleb said. “We’ve talked about this. That’s why I was training to begin with.”
“And who are the others?” Midnight asked.
Caleb blinked in confusion. “What the heck is this?” he asked.
“Acute chronial poisoning can damage your memory,” Ingrid said. “Most symptoms are only temporary, but if you have memory problems now, it could be permanent.”
That got Caleb’s attention. “Isabelle, Delilah, Lorelei, and Chelsea,” he said in answer to Midnight’s question.
“Who are they to you?” Midnight asked.
“Isabelle’s a girl I promised to help find her home,” Caleb said. “Delilah’s my little sister. Chelsea’s my girlfriend, and Lorelei is Chelsea’s best friend.”
“What is Isabelle’s home called?” Midnight asked.
“The Library of Solitude,” Caleb said.
“Do you have any other siblings?”
“I’m the oldest, and Fae is the oldest after me. Then there are also the twins – Shias and Shana.”
“How did you arrive at Midnight Bridge?”
“I took a train from Chronoshin.”
“You made a friend there, too.”
Caleb nodded. “Ted. We played chess.”
“But there was someone else. Someone who troubled you.”
“There was a man who wouldn’t speak… he wouldn’t even look at me. Until my train was leaving. Then, while I was looking at the window, he finally looked up. But I didn’t get a chance to talk to him.”
“How do you channel your magic?”
“Through a silver pocket watch, given to me by my father.”
“What was the last meal you had before you passed out from chronial poisoning?”
“Midnight Mushroom Sandwiches.”
Midnight sighed, leaning back in his chair, his expression softening. “Well, you seem all right,” he said. “I’m glad you told me so much about your life and journey before our training started, or it would have been hard to test you.”
“Are there any other long-term effects I should watch out for?” Caleb asked.
“Fatigue is common,” Ingrid said. “You’ll suddenly feel extremely tired for no reason. Eventually your body will get back to normal, but you may want to take occasional naps or sleep longer.”
“You might also struggle with balance and coordination for the next few days,” Midnight said. He pointed to his ear. “Time’s pressure can mess with your inner ear, leaving you a bit disoriented. You might struggle to breathe occasionally. And you’ll probably feel some pain and soreness in your joints, even when you’re fully rested. Most of the pressure falls on your joints, and chronial poisoning likes to seep into those areas.”
“You also might have less… self-control,” Ingrid said nervously. “Of your… bodily functions.”
“Pack a few extra pairs of underwear,” Midnight said, chuckling.
“Lovely,” Caleb said with a sour face. “Are all of these guaranteed, or just possibilities?”
“Possibilities,” Midnight said. “Things to watch out for. So? You coming with me, or staying here?”
“I’m with you,” Caleb said, standing up. He felt refreshed from the pancakes, his stomach settling so that he could stand up straight. He swayed for a moment, and even when he could see that he was standing straight, the room looked askew, like it was slowly tilting to the right.
“It’ll pass,” Midnight said, rising. “Take your time. The train won’t be here for a while, anyway. Which is good – you need more rest.”
Caleb changed into fresh clothes, and Midnight provided him with medicine and a watch set to Earth time. Ingrid gave Caleb a list of possible symptoms to be aware of, as well as his schedule for taking his recovery medicine.
“This is it?” Caleb asked, shaking the small bottle of pink liquid. “It’s supposed to last me two weeks?”
“You take very small doses,” Ingrid said, showing Caleb the measuring cup for him to drink from. It was quite tiny, about half the size of the plastic cups that came along with most liquid cold medicine. “Just make sure you take it on time, and don’t take too much. You don’t want to run out.”
“The schedule says I should start it right now,” Caleb said.
“That’s right,” Midnight said. “Drink up.”
Caleb measured out a small dose of the pink liquid and took it. He swished it around in his mouth for a moment before swallowing, smiling at the surprisingly good taste. Like strawberries. Strawberries were Caleb’s favorite.
“And now, it’s time for you to sit down,” Midnight said, leading Caleb to a couch. “Kick back and relax. Feel free to fall asleep. We’ll wake you when it’s time to go.”
“I…” Caleb started to say, but he was suddenly very drowsy. He leaned his head back against the cushioned back of the couch, closed his eyes and smiled.
Things are gonna be okay, he thought. This detour is taking a lot longer than I thought it would, but… it’s turning out to be quite exciting.
And as he drifted off to sleep, his last thoughts were of those most important to him.
Chelsea, Delilah… I hope you’re doing all right. You probably are. You girls are beasts. Take care of Isabelle… I’ll be back as soon as I’m ready.