Caleb stepped through the door from Time’s Labyrinth and stared in wonder.
Where he’d once stood on the summit of a mountain, he now stood upon a vast plain. When Tock stepped through and shut the door behind them, the door vanished.
All around them, the plain stretched on, towards a distant horizon that was alight with blue fire. The ground itself was scarred and cracked, a mixture of grey-and-white stone and glittering blue crystals the size of glaciers. Here and there the landscape was dotted with stone pillars, crystalline spires, shattered buildings, toppled monuments, a canvas of ruin bearing echoes of a forgotten world.
The Time Wilds…
The sky above was blanketed with deep blue clouds, bursting and flaring with bolts of azure lightning that lanced and arced to and fro, clashing occasionally in wild, brilliant explosions.
Sound filled the air. Thunder rumbled, lightning crashed, and the ground beneath Caleb’s feet wasn’t idle, either. Stone slabs shifted, glacier-like crystal tilted and cracked, and mountains – Caleb hadn’t realized there were mountains in the distance, they were so great and majestic they seemed to be a part of the vast, electrified clouds – tumbled into ruin.
There was always an undercurrent of a sound, ever since Caleb had arrived at the Farthest Shore. Everywhere he went, it had changed texture, had taken on the personality of the place he had visited. In the Deepwood it had been bright, cheerful, unobtrusive. In the hall where he’d met the man in the chair, it had been slow, pondering, thoughtful. In Time’s Labyrinth it had been swift, careful, mischievous.
Here in the Time Wilds, it was powerful, foreboding, ominous
Tick… Tock… Tick… Tock… Tick… Tock… Tick… Tock…
On and on it went, unrelenting. And Caleb saw in the air, in the clouds, even beneath his feet…
Gears of all sorts of shapes, sizes, and styles. They turned, rotating to the pace of time’s tempo. They flashed blue, silver, and gleaming white, and motes of light arced from gear to gear.
“Don’t stay in one place too long,” came the voice of Tock. Her clear, musical voice anchored Caleb, who hadn’t realized that he was being overwhelmed by the vast storm of this place.
He’d threatened to be flooded, drowned, washed away.
“Follow me,” Tock said, starting ahead. Caleb obliged, watching her every step. She leapt over from a rocky slab to a crystalline glacier just before they started to crack, a gap widening between them. Caleb jumped after her in the nick of time. On and on Tock went, seeming to know what would happen before it did, understanding the ever-shifting landscape of the Wilds and predicting its actions with perfect accuracy.
Strangely, though, Tock was quiet. She’d been a talkative, comforting presence for so long that her sudden silence was striking.
It made the vast openness of the Wilds feel that much more lonely.
“Are you trying to concentrate?” Caleb asked.
“No,” Tock said. “This is easy.”
But her response didn’t come as chipper and relaxed as usual, instead reaching Caleb’s ears as a flat, hollow monotone.
They went on for much longer in silence. Climbing a massive crystal slope, Caleb was stunned to see that gears were turning inside the crystal, gleaming and flashing beneath his feet. From the top of the slope they leapt to a rocky stair that descended in a wide spiral, coming out into a scattered ruin that must have once been a marvelous city. Here they stepped carefully, and the great sounds of the world around them seemed to fade away. When Tock ducked through a barely standing doorway and Caleb followed, they were back out on the wild wasteland, and the sound came back with a roar.
“How do you find your way out here?” Caleb asked. “And you have to leave me alone at some point, right? Don’t I need to know –”
He stopped himself, and Tock came to a halt in front of him.
So that’s it.
“I don’t want to go.”
Tock’s voice came out small and faint. Her hands were balled into fists, her shoulders stiff.
“It’s all gone by too quickly, hasn’t it?” she asked. “And now… really soon…”
She turned around, facing Caleb with a determined, firm stare.
“You won’t forget me, will you?” she asked.
Caleb stared back at her, stunned by the question. Slowly, he shook his head. “Never,” he said with a smile. “And I’ll tell everyone about you. The greatest guide at the Edge of Time. The girl who met me on the Farthest Shore. A dear friend.”
“Friend?” Tock asked slowly.
Caleb nodded. “That’s right.”
Tock stared at her feet, shifting from side to side. She turned on her heel, facing away from Caleb again.
“Good,” she said, her voice strong. She started ahead, and Caleb followed.
“You’ll really tell everyone about me?” Tock asked, sliding carefully down a gravelly slope.
“Everyone,” Caleb said, grinning. He followed her lead to jump atop a rocky slab just as it broke away from the ground they’d stood on. “And I bet when I tell Will, he’ll write about you. Everyone’ll know about you.”
“Why so many?” Tock asked.
“Because I don’t want you to go, either,” Caleb said. He stepped onto a gear after Tock, and they waited for it to rotate them around to a point where they could step off onto a sloping bridge. “So the least I can do is make sure I remember you.”
“I do like it here, you know,” Tock said. “I don’t want to leave. But… I just don’t want you to leave. Or at the very least, I want to see to the end of your journey, instead of having to leave partway.”
It’s frustrating, isn’t it? To come all this way, only to have to leave before the journey’s over…
“Are you sure you can’t go all the way?” Caleb asked. “I mean… I was called by someone, right? Isn’t there some way we could ask them to let you continue on to the end?”
“Only the called can finish the journey,” Tock said, as if reciting a learned phrase. She raced across a narrow stone bridge, and Caleb sprinted after her. In the nick of time – it collapsed into the dark chasm just as Caleb reached the other side. “And… the one who called you… we’ve met. I was allowed to go there, once. So it’s okay. Honestly… I know what you’re going to see at the end of your road.”
Caleb found himself lost for words as the journey continued. What could he say? Their time was about to come to an end, and all he could do was follow. Through ruins, up and down stairs, across bridges and chasms, around rotating gears…
On, and on, and on they went.
“Do you have other friends here?” Caleb asked. It had occurred to him that he hadn’t seen anyone except Tock and the old man in the chair.
“Oh, yes,” Tock said, laughing. “There are only a few of us, and we have many duties, so we don’t often spend time together. But when we do, it’s wonderful! I won’t be lonely, honestly.”
“What about the old man?” Caleb asked. “Is he your boss?”
“Sort of,” Tock said, giggling. “And don’t call him old. His name is Morrow, and he’s much kinder than he may seem. He’s all-business with visitors, but don’t think just because that’s all you saw that that’s all there is to him.”
Caleb smiled. “So what’s it like living here?” he asked. “Do you have a house? What kinds of games do you play?” He asked many questions, thinking of anything he could ask about Tock and her life.
And she answered, happily and energetically. Her posture and demeanor changed. She walked with a bouncy gait, and pointed out what was going to happen in the landscape ahead of time instead of relying on Caleb to follow her lead exactly.
They crested a hill, and Tock came a to a stop at the crystalline plateau. She pointed.
“See that clock?” she asked.
Down in the valley ahead was a grandfather clock. Its casing was pearly white and covered in cracks, and its internal mechanisms were silver. On the very top was a softly glowing blue symbol that looked like a water droplet.
“That’s where we part,” Tock continued. “And from there, you’ll see more clocks. Go from clock to clock, and you’ll find the way. At the end, you’ll reach the horizon, and pass through the flames to your goal.”
“So… you were around for the hard part,” Caleb said, smiling.
“Yeah,” Tock said. She laughed, but there was a melancholy tone to it.
For a while, they stood atop that hill in silence.
“Well… we should get going,” Tock said. She started on ahead, and Caleb walked beside her, rather than following after her.
Down into the dusty valley they descended, coming to a stop at the grandfather clock. Tock turned to Caleb, fishing inside her jacket pocket for something. Her hand came out, holding a pocket watch. Its casing was metallic blue, its chain was pearly white, and embossed in its surface was a single letter: T.
“I want you to have this,” Tock said, holding it out to Caleb. “I know you said you’ll remember me, but… well, it doesn’t have to be a memento. Just… a gift. For a friend.”
Caleb smiled, taking the watch from her. “I’ll make sure I cherish it forever,” he said. Both smiled at each other, but then looked away. Tock shuffled her feet. Caleb fidgeted with the watch’s chain.
“I’ll miss you,” Tock said softly.
Caleb nodded. “I’ll miss you, too,” he said.
Tock held out her hand, and Caleb took it, shaking it once.
And then Tock was gone.
Caleb stared at the spot where she’d just been standing. He turned in a wide circle, looking all across the wide expanse.
She really is…
Just like that?
Neither of us got to say goodbye.
He held Tock’s gift tight, looking out and around. He spotted the next grandfather clock.
I guess there’s…
Nothing to do but go forward, then.
He quickly found that Tock truly had guided him through the hard part of the Time Wilds. Each new clock was clearly in sight of the next, and the landscape was flat, or perhaps even slightly sloping downward, giving Caleb’s steps a sure, confident briskness.
Before long, he was standing at the last clock. His path ahead was a gateway in the rock, barred by blazing blue fire.
“Pass through the flames to your goal.”
Caleb took a deep breath, then strode forward. The flames blinded him, wrapped around him, but…
He wasn’t burned.
He stepped through to the other side, and his eyes adjusted.
Before him was a familiar sight.
It was the place from his visions. The place from his dreams.
He stood on a platform in a vast, bright void. The platform steadily spun in a slow circle, but of course it did. It was a gear. The whole space was filled with the different mechanisms of clocks, all sorts of gears and dials and clock hands. Blue sparks of light occasionally shot from one mechanism to another. Clock faces flashed with light.
As his platform turned him around to face what should have been the flaming gate behind him, he saw instead a clear path. Stairs descended through the void, and Caleb followed them.
Down, down, down he went.
The white void steadily darkened to a soft blue, and then a deeper blue. Caleb stepped out onto a pearly white platform that arced up.
He strode forward, and the air that had been so still and empty around him seemed to grow cool, pleasantly so. A new sound came to his ears.
The rush of water.
He arrived at the other side of the bridge, and stood before an archway just barely taller than he was, and just wide enough for him. It was covered over with a curtain of thin cords beaded with blue gemstones.
For some reason, Caleb didn’t pass through. He stood there, waiting.
A voice spoke from within: “Enter.”
It was the voice of a woman, and carried with it wisdom, hope, and…
Gently brushing aside the curtain, Caleb entered. He found himself on a beautiful terrace with many flowering plants. And before him, over the edge of the alabaster railing…
A river. Vast, rushing, and brilliant blue.
The River of Time.