“You must soon face Time’s Labyrinth.”
The words of the man on the chair echoed through the chamber, and Caleb stood and let them wash over him.
Time’s Labyrinth, huh?
“Tock,” the man said, turning his gaze on the girl at Caleb’s side. “You will serve as his guide, until the appointed place.”
Tock nodded. “Right!” she said, a determined glint in her eyes.
“When do I start?” Caleb asked.
“As soon as you arrive at its entrance,” the man said. He gestured with his clock-hand-shaped rod, and a door appeared in the wall behind him to his left. “Know this, Caleb Greyson: the journey ahead of you is not an easy one. And the one who has called you here has high expectations of you.”
Caleb stared at the man in silence for a while. Finally, he realized that the man had nothing left to say.
It was time for him to go.
“Ready?” Tock asked, a slight nervous shake to her voice.
Caleb nodded. “Let’s go,” he said.
Tock led the way. Just before passing through the door, Caleb took a look back at the man in the chair.
But the chair was empty. The man was nowhere to be seen.
Through the door Caleb went. It led into a corridor that sloped gently upwards as it wound back and forth. Scones on the walls bloomed with blue flame when Tock and Caleb came near them, lighting the path.
There were no defining features on the walls, floor, or ceiling. On and on they went, featureless stone lit by flickering blue fire.
“You okay?” Tock asked, breaking the long-standing silence.
“Confused,” Caleb said with a soft chuckle. “But yeah, I think so. What exactly am I getting myself into?”
Tock turned around, walking backwards so she could look back at Caleb as she led. “I can’t say for sure, at least not about everything. But you have the Labyrinth to deal with first, and that’s a tricky place, even with me as your guide. And beyond that… well, we’ll deal with things as they happen, right? But I can’t guide you the whole way. Sorry. I’ll do my best for you until then, though!”
“Will you be okay?” Caleb asked. “After we part ways… at least from what you were saying earlier, it sounds like we won’t see each other again.”
Tock crossed her arms over her chest, nodding. “Yeah, that’s about right,” she said. “I mean, I can’t say for sure that it’s never, but… yeah. We probably won’t see each other again.”
“You seem… lonely,” Caleb said. “I can’t stay here, but I… I hope we can meet again. I don’t –”
“Okay, too soon for goodbyes!” Tock said, waving her hands frantically. “Seriously, you can at least save that for where we’re splitting up, right? Honestly…” She sighed, then cracked a grin. But despite her efforts, she still looked awfully sad.
Caleb smiled. “Right. So hey, first up is Time’s Labyrinth, huh? You know, I’m pretty great at mazes.”
“You are?” Tock asked, an excited gleam in her eyes. “Great! This’ll be tons of fun, then! I don’t guide people through there very often, to be honest, so I’m always a little shaky on the way forward. And the people I’ve guided in the past have always been… hmm… how should I put this?” She bobbed her head from side to side, thinking. Finally, her eyes brightened, and she raised a single finger. “Right! They’re total grumps!”
“Grumps?” Caleb asked, laughing.
“That’s right!” Tock said. “They get so angry about every little thing, and if we get lost even a teensy tiny bit, they freak out! You’d think they’d never been in a labyrinth before…”
“Most of the fun of mazes is getting lost along the way,” Caleb said. “You make a wrong turn here, another one there, but every mistake helps you get closer to the end. As long as you remember where you’ve been, you’re always making forward progress.”
“Finally, someone who gets it!” Tock grinned. “Getting lost isn’t a bad thing! It’s only bad if you never get un-lost, but that rarely happens as long as you don’t give up.”
“And some of the best experiences come about by getting lost,” Caleb said. “You never know what you’re missing until you stumble across it by accident.”
Tock nodded emphatically. “Yeah, yeah, exactly!” She sighed happily. “I’m so glad I’m the one who found you washed up on the shore. If I’d missed out on getting to know you, I would have been so upset!” She paused, and her smile faded. “Hey, so… don’t you miss your home? Your family? I don’t mean to pry, but we always know quite a bit about any Time Mage who washes up here, so I know you have a bunch of siblings, and a girlfriend, and you care so much about your city, so I just… are you okay?”
Caleb smiled at Tock, hoping to reassure her before he even spoke. “I miss everyone,” he said. “But it’s okay. I know I’ll get back to them. And if I moped around missing them, I wouldn’t be able to fully take in this brand new place and,” he gestured at Tock, “this wonderful brand new friend. Besides, I ought to learn as much as I can from here, and I can’t do that if I’m lost in self-pity.” He reached into his pocket, fiddling with his watch. “I… to be honest, I’m kind of weird about this. But I… I miss people whenever they’re not around, just like anyone would. But I don’t really get… lonely. I love my family, and Chelsea, and my friends, and I want to spend as much time with them as possible. But I also don’t really mind being parted from them.” He shook his head. “That sounded kind of callous, it’s not how I mean it, I just…” He shrugged, offering a smirk. “I’m fine, I guess is all I can say. I’ll be really happy to get back to everyone, but I’m really happy to be here, too.”
Tock smiled. “You’re really strong. I’m impressed.”
“I don’t know if I’d call it strength,” Caleb said, chuckling.
“Well, I’m glad you’re happy,” Tock said. “And I’ll do my best to help you get back to your family soon.” She ducked her head as she turned around, but Caleb saw in her eyes a measure of melancholy and loneliness.
Anything I can do for her?
The hall’s gradual, sloping ascent stopped at a steep stairway, spiraling upwards. Caleb stared up from the bottom of the stairs, but he could only see darkness.
“We don’t go that way,” Tock said.
“Huh?” Caleb turned, staring at her. She stood next to the stairs, tapping her knuckles against the smooth wall. She smirked.
“You didn’t realize it, huh?” she asked. “We’ve been in the Labyrinth for a while, now.”
Caleb stood dumbfounded. He looked all around, turning in a circle.
Slowly, he started to see the signs. What he’d thought of as one long, singular corridor actually had many branches from it, leading out into other halls and paths. He’d never seen them – but how? There were even other stairwells, some ascending, others descending, that he’d completely missed.
And Tock just stood there, tapping the smooth, featureless wall.
Caleb could see it, now. It wasn’t featureless at all.
“Please tell me that’s a secret door,” Caleb said, grinning.
Tock smiled back at him. She tapped just a little lower, and the wall slid open, revealing an entrance to a dark corridor. “It’s a secret door,” she said.
Way. Freaking. Cool.
“So how do you know which way to go?” Caleb asked, following Tock through the secret path and down the new hall.
“I’ve been in here tons of times,” Tock said. “And, like we were saying earlier… this might not actually be the way to go.”
“Right,” Caleb said, nodding. “We won’t really know until we reach the end.”
“But I can tell you a few things,” Tock said, raising her hand in a fist. She lifted fingers as she counted off different items on her list. “One: Time’s Labyrinth is more vertical than horizontal, and our goal is at the highest point. Two: The best paths are the outdoor ones, so we need to find our way out of these tunnels. And three: there are signs.”
“Signs?” Caleb asked. He studied the walls, floor, and ceiling as they walked, but he didn’t see anything remotely similar to a sign.
“That’s the one feature that changes every time,” Tock said. “There are two different types of signs, and they change every time someone new enters the Labyrinth, but there are always two types. The first type points the right way, towards our goal at the top. The second type intentionally leads us astray.”
“How do we tell which is which?” Caleb asked. He felt along the wall. It was smooth, like polished marble, and slightly warm. “And how do we even find the signs in the first place?”
“You haven’t seen them?” Tock asked, cocking her head to the side. Caleb stared at her.
I didn’t even notice we were in the maze. And now she’s saying I haven’t noticed any of the signs, either?
What kind of place is this?
“Oh, hey, that reminds me,” Tock said, holding up three fingers. Slowly, she raised a fourth. “The Labyrinth likes to play with newcomers. So I have an easier time seeing things as they actually are than you do. But the thing is, I can’t find the way without you. Because in the end, it’s always up to the newcomer to find the right way. I can help, I can guide, but you’re the only one who can actually find the proper path.”
Well, I did just help everyone conquer a Labyrinth back in Grimoire. And that one was pretty freaky, too.
This time, I don’t have to worry about a crazy time limit or super-strong foes. I just have to solve the puzzle.
“It’s all on me, huh…?” Caleb asked, stopping in the hall, looking back the way they’d come. He smiled. “No, that’s the wrong way to think about it.” He turned back to Tock, grinning. “It might be on me to find the way out, but I can’t do it without you. We’ll conquer Time’s Labyrinth together!”