“Will you stay with me? No matter what?”
“Will you stay with me even after we get out of here?”
“I’m counting on you, you know.”
Voices, fragments of memories, echoed to Caleb from deep corners of his mind.
“I promise I’ll do right by her, and love her the very best I can.”
“You’re far too generous with promises, kid.”
Mingling with the voices, with the memories, were other sounds. A distant
Tick… tick… tick… tick…
The sounds of water gently carrying him. The sounds of the wind, a light breeze blowing across his skin.
Caleb was drifting, floating through an endless ocean. And with every mile, the voices of his past grew more distant.
He saw things, too. He saw his youngest sister, and felt himself smiling up at her.
“I’m proud of you!”
He saw a little girl with apple-red hair, a girl who’d counted on him to get her back to her home. Another promise, and this one accompanied by their pinky fingers entwining together.
He saw his oldest sister, golden in the light of a perpetually setting sun. Their brief meeting, and their swift parting, and a longing in his heart to speak with her more, to reach her somehow.
So many moments. So many people.
And all of it seemed so distant, now. He floated in this ocean, staring at that strange sky, and for some reason, he felt at peace.
I shouldn’t feel at peace. I have so much left undone.
But he couldn’t find words. And the longer he drifted, the more he changed. There was a serenity to this place, and that peace flowed through him, until his distant thoughts and the things left undone, the promises left unfulfilled, didn’t trouble him. They remained, for at least some fragment of his heart clutched tight to them, refusing to let them escape.
But they didn’t trouble him. They simply existed.
And then he washed ashore. And a new person arrived, a face he’d never seen before. His eyes were drawn to her blue hair, and her gleaming blue eyes, and the short top hat on her head that was embedded with many clocks, all ticking away to their own individual rhythms.
She smiled slightly, and spoke in a clear and kind voice, musical in a way that warmed Caleb’s heavy heart.
“Welcome ashore, Caleb Greyson.” She held out her hand. On that wrist she wore a pair of watches, one with a white band, the other with a black band. “Time to get up. You have a long journey ahead of you.”
Once on his feet, Caleb was able to walk easily. The heaviness in his limbs faded, and he followed after the girl, their footsteps soft on the white sand. And for a long, long time, he didn’t speak. Something about this vast, strange place inspired silence.
But the time eventually came when he could no longer hold back the one question that held strongest in his mind.
“Where am I?” Caleb asked.
“We call this place The Farthest Shore,” the girl said. She walked with an upright, healthy posture, and strode with an energetic, enthusiastic gait. Whenever she looked back at Caleb, her blue eyes twinkled, and she was smiling. “You must have gone through quite something to wash up here.”
“You seemed to be expecting me,” Caleb said. The girl’s energetic reply inspired more conversation in Caleb, and with each word it became easier, more welcome to speak.
“Well, we had plenty of warning,” the girl said. “You took your time getting here. All we had to do was watch and wait.”
“I’m not the only person here,” the girl said. She turned on her heel, walking backwards like a college tour guide. “I’m just an assistant.”
The girl’s smile morphed into a mischievous smirk. “The Master, of course,” she said. “You’ll meet him soon, and he’ll answer your questions. And, if you’re lucky, you’ll even meet…” The girl trailed off, then shrugged. “Who knows what might happen?”
“So you can’t answer any of my questions?” Caleb asked.
The girl laughed, a light, musical sound that lifted Caleb’s spirits. “I’ve been answering your questions already, haven’t I?” she asked. “I’m surprised it took you so long to start talking at all. But then…” For a moment, she had a faraway look in her eyes. “I suppose it makes a bit of sense.”
“How’d you know my name?”
“We know the name of every Time Mage,” the girl said. “Or rather, the Master does. And well he should, given his role in things.”
“What’s your name?”
The girl cocked her head to the side, her smile fading for a moment into a curious, thoughtful expression. Then she smiled again. “The Master calls me Tock,” she said. “I’m not sure if that qualifies as my name, though. To be honest, I don’t remember whatever name I had before.”
“So you haven’t always been here.”
“Oh, no, of course not!” Tock said, laughing. “Only the Master and…” she giggled, “well, there are only two who have always been here. The rest of us came here at different times, from different places. But because of how this place is, none of us remember where we came from, or who we were. Only… impressions, I suppose you might call them. We remember enough to know we came from different places and were different people, but not enough to say where or when or who. And there aren’t very many of us. There used to be more, but most have left since I arrived. I’ve now been here longer than most of my seniors were, if you can believe that!” She seemed very excited at that fact, beaming joyfully.
“Why don’t you leave?” Caleb asked.
“Why would I?” Tock asked, cocking her head to the side. The clocks on her hat, Caleb noticed this time, spun wildly once when she did that, as if reflecting her own puzzlement. “This place is marvelous, and the Master is so wise, and…” she giggled again, as if she was on the verge of revealing a very interesting secret, and just managed to hold it back. “Well, this is my home, and I’m very happy to be here. The ones who leave… I’m not quite sure I understand them.”
“Do you know where they go?”
“Not in the slightest,” Tock said. “I don’t think they know before they go, either. It’s all very confusing.”
This seems like a rather confusing place overall.
Caleb gazed around him, as he’d done many times along this extensive trek. The vast blue ocean stretched away and away and away forever to his left. To his right, the soft white sand, like diamond dust, spread on and on, rising up in tall dunes so that Caleb couldn’t see what lay beyond them – if anything.
“Will I forget things while I’m here?” he asked.
“Hmm,” Tock started thoughtfully. “Visitors normally don’t. But, well. You’re a special case. But don’t worry! The Master will –” she stopped herself, pursing her lips in thought for a moment. “Well, he might not answer all of your questions. But all of your questions will be answered, if you wish it.”
I get it. There’s “The Master,” but there’s also someone else. A secret someone, by the way Tock talks around them.
In the back of Caleb’s mind, there was a nagging feeling, a sort of unsettled-ness.
Because, it occurred to him, he didn’t much mind whether he forgot things or not.
And yet I should mind, shouldn’t I?
Is it the air in this place? I’ve felt very…
Off. Ever since…
Well, ever since I got swept away.
No. I’ve felt at least a little off for a while now, haven’t I? Ever since…
Ever since escaping the shadow world with Addie. That’s when I first had that vision, with the blue gears, and the tick-tocking.
But that isn’t this place, is it? Or maybe that’s where we’re heading. Beyond the Farthest Shore…
What else waits for me here?
“Ooh, it’s about to get really exciting,” Tock said, grinning. She turned around, running forward now. “Come on!”
Caleb ran after her, and their path – which had so far been just a direction along the sand – turned into an actual path, with blue stones beneath their feet. It wound inland, climbing a sandy dune that turned into a hill with lush, blue-green grass that swayed in the breeze, rippling this way and that like water. Trees came into view, with tall, white trunks that rose for hundreds of feet, smooth and branchless, before finally exploding outward in wide canopies filled with blue, circular leaves. Shimmering cobalt stones rose here and there, some massive boulders, others small rocks, each formed into perfect geometric shapes – spheres, cubes, pyramids, and the like – with not a crack or warped edge among them. Flowering bushes bloomed, their cores a glistening, wet orange, their petals a cheerful, perky, bright blue.
The forest started out open and wide, and Caleb could have seen all around for miles if it weren’t for the constantly sloping topography. But the grass steadily grew more populated, as more rocks and flowering bushes arose, and the trees grew closer and closer together. It was never so dense to be claustrophobic or to block off the bright light from above. It simply grew more…
Out on the shore, there was a different kind of life – a quiet, subdued, peaceful life. But here in the forest, life seems younger, more energetic.
He could hear birds singing, and the grass rustled now and then with shapes rushing through the thick foliage, but he didn’t see any animals, not for a long time. On and on they walked, the path winding here and there, rising up and down, until Caleb lost all sense of direction. Was the sandy shore behind him? To his left, or his right? He didn’t know.
But he knew there was magic in this place. Magic, it was more apt to say, with a capital M, coursing through every single living thing, through the air, through the stones, resounding all around him.
It’s like other places in the Enchanted Dominion. There’s a life to them that you don’t feel back on Earth, even in Grimoire.
“Are we in the Enchanted Dominion?” Caleb asked.
Tock had been humming a pleasant tune for a while, but immediately interrupted it at Caleb’s question. “Oh, no,” she said, grinning mischievously. “We’re somewhere else entirely.”
“One of the Chronolytical Locations?” Caleb asked. “But no… I heard the names of those, and no one ever talked about the Farthest Shore.”
“You’re sharp,” Tock said, laughing pleasantly. “No, this is its own special place. We’ve past the Farthest Shore now, by the way. Now we’re in the Deepwood. Not the only Deepwood in the universe, mind you, but that’s what we call it here. It’s a surprisingly common name for forests, and I’m not sure it quite fits this one. But the Master says it’s a perfect fit, so perhaps I’m not looking at it the right way.”
“What’s our destination called?” Caleb asked.
Tock snickered, eyes alive with mischief. “Oh, that’s an exciting secret, isn’t it?” she asked. “And it’s not entirely determined, yet – at least not for you. Where I take you… it’s more of a beginning, as far as you’re concerned.”
“You like your secrets, huh?” Caleb asked, smiling.
Tock nodded, her hat jostling precariously. Yet though she made no move to contain it or right it, when her nod finished, her hat resumed its proper, balanced position on her head. “Secrets are fun!” she said. “And we so rarely get visitors.”
“I thought I wasn’t a visitor,” Caleb said.
Tock giggled. “You catch on quick! But we so rarely get anyone new. So it’s delightful to keep them curious. I love curious people. You ask a lot of questions. That’s good. The Master’s always saying that curiosity is the avenue to truth.”
“I like that,” Caleb said with a smile.
“Me, too!” Tock looked at the two watches on her wrist and then nodded. “And we have plenty of time. Nothing to worry about! So just keep on going along. You’re okay, right? Your feet don’t hurt? You aren’t tired or thirsty or hungry?”
“I’m… fine,” Caleb said slowly, just now realizing how strange that was. He’d been drifting in the ocean for… hours? Days? And now they’d been walking so long, and all this time he’d had nothing to eat or drink. He should be starving – he was almost always hungry, after all – and parched for lack of water, and yet…
He was perfectly fine.
Not hungry, not thirsty, not tired or weary or aching at all.
Better than I’ve felt in a long time. Better than I knew I could feel.
“That’s good!” Tock said. “But if you ever feel in need of anything, just let me know.” She paused for a moment, and appeared to be listening. Caleb listened, too, and he heard something new.
The sound of rushing water.
Just as Caleb began to follow Tock to pursue the source of the sound, he came to a sudden stop. A shape had flown in front of him, stopping in the air just a few inches in front of his nose. He stared, and the shape came into focus.
It was a bird. Its wings beat so fast they were just blue blurs in the air, suspending its spherical, feathered body with ease. Tail feathers displayed a range of bright plumage, morphing outward from blue to orange to purple. At the end of a short neck was a round face with a long, skinny orange beak, and inquisitive violet eyes.
The bird cocked its head to the side, and Caleb mimicked the motion. Both stared at each other for a moment longer.
And then the bird flitted away, a deep blue blur in the air, vanishing into the Deepwood.
“Come on!” Tock called out, standing at the top of the hill, bouncing on the balls of her feet. When Caleb joined her at the top, he realized why she was so excited.
Before them the hill sloped gently downward, before leveling off and turning to the left. At the turn, it ran along the edge of a canyon, and rushing through that canyon was a massive, wild river.
Its waters were a deep, beautiful, otherworldly blue, exploding here and there in foaming blasts of cerulean and azure. It rushed over rocks, whorled in between stony spires, and raced farther and farther on. The span from one side to the other must have been at least half a mile, and its great width allowed Caleb to see so much of it, to truly take in its powerful, awe-inspiring splendor.
“These are the Headwaters,” Tock said, grinning at Caleb’s expression. “Some call them the True Source.”
“True Source…” Caleb said. “To the River of Time?”
“You’re super sharp,” Tock said. “Come on! We’re getting closer.”
They followed the path farther on, and for the entire walk along the edge of the True Source, Caleb couldn’t help but gape at the river. He’d seen canyons before, but those were vast rocky gorges many, many times wider than the river within, dwarfing the waters rushing through their center. For those places, the attraction was the size of the canyon, the vast, warping cliffs and slopes and rises of rock.
Here, for the first time, Caleb saw a river that overpowered its rocky containment. The river was the attraction, the focus, the only thing worth paying attention to. The rocky edges were merely a barrier, the barest of barriers, barely holding back the writhing waters from exploding up and over the surrounding land, consuming everything in their race towards their destination.
The River of Time is so peaceful, so calm. To think this is where it starts, with such violent force…
It wasn’t long – or perhaps it was, Caleb found it difficult to keep his sense of time in this place – before they reached a bridge that spanned the monumental width of the True Source. What was even more impressive was that the bridge was built at what was, to this point, the widest point of the raging river below. The bridge was wide enough for dozens of cars to cross side-by-side, built of a similar blue stone to the path that led to and from it, and it arced upwards, its railings seeming to have some kind of Magic of their own keeping the waters from blasting up and over onto the bridge’s surface.
“This is the True Crossing,” Tock said, stepping onto the stone of the bridge. Where her feet touched the bridge, the stones beneath lit up, glowing with white light. She took another step, and then another, and the light pulsed beneath her feet, fading back to blue where her feet left the stone behind. “Beyond here, it’s just the Entrance.”
“The Entrance?” Caleb asked. He followed after Tock, staring at his feet as he went, watching with childish delight as the stones lit up with his steps, fading behind him as he went.
“Its true name was lost,” Tock said. “So we just call it the Entrance. It’s the last part of our journey to reach your starting point.”
“So you don’t come with me any further than that?” Caleb asked.
“Hmm,” Tock started, bobbing her head from side to side. “I doubt it. But I hadn’t thought about it much.” She turned around, walking backwards again, hands in her pockets, eyes sparkling as she smiled at Caleb. “Are you gonna miss me if you have to go the rest of the way alone?”
Caleb laughed softly, nodding. “I do enjoy your company.”
Tock closed her eyes as she smiled, lifting her shoulders and tucking her chin down like she was trying to contain her happiness. “You’re so sweet!” she said finally, turning around to walk forward again. “You’re not like any other visitor or otherwise that I’ve met here. People usually get really glum, and lonely, and hopeless, and all that stuff that apparently happens when normal people are separated from their homes and loved ones. But you’re still so… so…” She looked over her shoulder, grinning. “So good! Your goodness isn’t getting sucked away by being alone and in a strange place. It’s very inspiring.”
Caleb laughed, but a part of him wondered at her assessment of him.
Is it really so good to be so… okay with this?
I’m separated from everyone. And so far there’s been no indication of whether or not I can ever return.
It’s not that I don’t care. I do. But I…
Caleb was at a loss for words, and his own confused thoughts weighed heavy on him, for a moment. But that heaviness swiftly faded to his subconscious, because he couldn’t keep his eyes off of the stone lighting up beneath his feet, and when he reached the top of the arching bridge and could see the other side, he had so much more to amaze him.
The Entrance left behind the Deepwood’s organic landscape for one of rocky architecture. Pillars stood, old and weathered yet still so strong. The path was wider, but also older, cracked in places, faded from a deep blue to a grey-blue here and there, and it turned into stairs, rising slowly upwards on a less winding path. Low walls marked different points as the ground rose up, and some of those walls still bore their arching gateways over the stairs. Smaller pillars stood at intervals along the stairs, some crumbled down to dust, others half-standing but otherwise in ruin, but others still whole. The ones that were whole, Caleb could see, weren’t pillars at all, but sconces, stone pedestals for some kind of flame, but all were unlit.
When they left the True Crossing behind and started up the stairs, Caleb had to stop for a moment.
The stairs led up farther than he’d realized, vanishing after many thousands of steps behind a rocky wall. But that rocky wall was only the beginning of what lay beyond and stretched higher and higher upwards:
How he hadn’t seen the mountain until now was a mystery, for it rose higher and higher, higher than Caleb had ever believed was possible. What he’d thought were clouds in the sky above seemed now not to be clouds at all, for he could still see the mountain, higher and higher above them, higher than the sky itself, continuing on up for an eternity, its weathered blue stone morphing as it rose, from grey-blue to azure, then to a deep purple, growing brighter as it went.
“Pretty amazing, huh?” Tock asked. She swayed from side to side, watching Caleb with a pleased expression.
“Is my starting line at the summit?” Caleb asked.
“No!” Tock said, laughing. “No one goes to the summit. Well –” but she stopped herself again. “Anyway, your starting line isn’t too much farther. Come on, then!” She looked at her watches, nodding, and the clocks on her hat seemed to each skip ahead a full hour. “Yup, we’re right on schedule.”
Tock led on, and Caleb followed. The sky above began to darken, but it was a pleasant darkness, a deep blue that occasionally sparked with bolts of bright blue, even brighter against the darker backdrop. The unlit sconces along the Entrance’s stairs lit themselves when Caleb and Tock drew close, bright blue balls of flame dancing in their stone bowls.
They turned around the rock wall, heading up through a narrow passage carved into the mountain. Caleb couldn’t see beyond the walls on either side as he and Tock wound back and forth, steadily climbing. The stone within these passages was a deep blue that glowed with its own ethereal light, and sparkled with tiny diamond dust like twinkling stars in a night sky, and random streaks of pink, purple, and red created a pattern like a deep, wild part of space.
They’d climbed for what must have been miles before the rock wall gave away to Caleb’s right, and he stopped, staring out at the view.
The sky above had darkened, but the True Source and the Deepwood beyond gleamed, sparkled, and shone with their own lights, alive with a life unlike anything Caleb had seen during the day. And he could see even farther, past miles and miles of treetops, to the ocean beyond, and floating in and above it were…
“I’ve seen those before,” Caleb said, staring. Despite the distance, he could see the creatures clearly, for they were massive and beautiful. “But before… I could only see them when I used Time Magic.”
“And there’s your biggest clever hint to the nature of this place,” Tock said, smiling. “If we were closer, we could hear their songs, too.”
“What are they called?” Caleb asked. He couldn’t take his eyes off of the whale-like goliaths that danced in the air, gleaming and glistening with blue lights all their own.
“Whaji,” Tock said.
“Whaji…” Caleb said softly, staring for a few moments longer.
Their climb continued, and every time the walls vanished, Caleb looked out at the stunning view once more. They must be climbing much faster than it felt, because Caleb was astonished at just how much higher they were with each new look at the world beyond and below.
Then they reached a new place. The walls opened inward rather than outward, revealing a wide circular space. In its center was what at first glance appeared to be a stone pillar, but another look said otherwise.
It was a clock.
Set into a pillar of alabaster stone, there was a clock face on each of the pillar’s four sides, and each read the same time – 11:43. The second hands moved along at a steady pace, and soon crossed the top, turning the minute hands to now read 11:44.
Around the pillar was a circular pool of glistening blue water. Small, round fish swam here and there within it, glowing with a soft whiteness. When they passed each other, they sometimes pulsed once with a warm orange glow, and then would follow each other for a while.
“This is the Reflection Hall,” Tock said. “And beyond is your starting line.” She went to the opposite side of the clock to a stone archway that was inlaid with diamonds reflecting the blue glow of the stones around them. “Whenever you’re ready.” She then returned to the clock and knelt at the edge of the pool, placing her hands on her knees and gazing into the water. Caleb, on the opposite side of the pool, mimicked her posture and gazed into the water himself.
For a long moment, he saw nothing save the calm waters and the glowing fish. And then…
The water turned to glass, clean and pristine, and it reflected Caleb’s face back at him…
But his reflection looked different. He looked weathered and worn, and there were fresh wounds on his face and neck. His clothes were different, with more color than the black outfit he currently wore, though Caleb’s eyes kept getting pulled away from them, so that he couldn’t make out details. But these different clothes were torn, scorched, and frayed.
And yet the reflection’s eyes, though fixed into a hard, determined stare, held light. And as Caleb watched for a moment longer, his reflection’s lips quirked upwards in the smallest of smiles.
The glass was gone, and the water remained.
Committing the reflection to memory, Caleb stood, looking across at Tock. She looked back at him, a serene calm mingling with curiosity in her expression. She turned, and Caleb followed.
Through the archway they went.
For some time, all was darkness. Yet Caleb never felt unsure of his footing, or where he was going, or how to keep track of Tock. There was no light, nor sound, and yet…
And yet Caleb knew exactly where to go.
When light returned, it came slowly, dimly. A murky form in front of Caleb slowly resolved into Tock, walking steadily onward. Close walls opened up into a domed chamber. For the first time since arriving in this strange place, Caleb descended, down a short set of stairs into the center of the dome.
Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
In the center of the floor – so large that it filled the center, in fact, for Caleb and Tock were standing on it – was an enormous clock face. Its gears shone, blue and glowing, and its hands moved with blue, sparkling light trailing behind them.
The lights brightened a little more, and Caleb looked up. At the far side of the dome was a wall filled with clocks, and in front of it was a massive alabaster chair. Blue lights from unknown sources played across its surface, and it sparkled like diamonds.
In the chair was a man, and though he was seated, Caleb could tell he would barely come up to the man’s waist if he stood. He was a giant of a man, yet he wasn’t intimidating. He had a gaze set like stone, yet there was kindness in those eyes, framed as they were by bushy white eyebrows and thickly wrinkled skin. A white beard and white hair spilled down over shoulders and chest, mingling with blue and purple robes that seemed woven from the fabric of galaxies – twinkling with stars, pulsing with nebulae, alive with their own light. His right hand, bearing a deep blue ring on each finger, held an alabaster scepter shaped like the hour hand of a clock, its base inset with a massive blue crystal that gleamed and glittered.
“Welcome, Caleb Greyson.” The man spoke, and his voice flowed through the entire chamber, washing over Caleb like the waves of the ocean so far behind him. “You stand on the Edge of Time. And you face a great choice.” His eyes flashed with something Caleb couldn’t read. “You may stay here. You will be safe, and cared for, and want for nothing for all time. Or you may go forward, to meet with the one who summoned you here.”
Caleb stepped towards the man in the chair. Through the haze of his serene mind, he held tight to precious memories, and he knew.
I can’t stay here.
“I choose to go forward,” he said.
The man nodded, his scepter’s stone gleaming a shade brighter. “Then prepare yourself, Caleb Greyson,” he said. “For you must soon face Time’s Labyrinth.”