The Hands of Time
He scrambled up out of the dirt, heart thumping. He wasn’t able to believe it. The boogeyman. The fairy tale. They were real, they had heard his garden collapse, and they were here.
Before he could even get to his feet, a hand wrapped around his wrist and pulled him forward. Ari. She dragged him stumbling to the door, clawing dirt to get to the rock that had served as their trapdoor. Pushing and heaving, they both managed to scrap the stone and wrest it free. The tunnel outside was largely unscathed, further proof of Kurt’s amateur engineering.
There were a few lamps posted to the walls that had gone out or been broken by the collapse, but the village itself was fine. Or they wouldn’t be, not for long. They had to find someone, the doctor, the elders, anyone. The village had to do something. Run? No, there was nowhere to go but further down, and they didn’t have time for that? Fight? That was laughable. What chance did some farmers and miners stand against the time gluttons?
Still, they had to warn the village. Ignorance wasn’t an option, quietly dying after all these years to preserve their fragile little community wasn’t an option. Kurt had to find his mother, had to get her out of here. If the Chronids were distracted down here, maybe they could escape on the surface.
That was terrible, that was idiotic. Kurt couldn’t just leave everyone down here to die, but he couldn’t fight those monsters any better than they could. His mother needed him, and everyone else who had feet to stand on could handle themselves. Cruel, but the world they were in was cruel. A kind world wouldn’t have pitted them against Chronids.
He ran faster than he thought possible, leaping over dips and not looking back. His mother was in the middle of the village, relatively close to the upper levels but not quite. If he could just grab her and pull her out of here, they would be fine. They had to be fine.
He passed people, each time passing only a word of warning, but his tone and his rush conveyed more than words ever could.
That sent the other villagers in a panic, running off on their own and trying to assemble their meager belongings. Kurt still couldn’t think of a way out, but if his feet carried him fast and far enough it would be enough. They couldn’t die, not after all this effort and toiling underground for so long. They were going to be the people who would reclaim the surface.
The first time Kurt saw a Chronid, it struck him how wide it was. Not large, its limbs were skeletal, corpse white flesh clinging to bone. But the way that those four arms expanded and grasped a different wall of the tunnel boasted its wingspan. In the center of those arms was the body; it shocked him how humanoid it was. A limp body being supported by the arms, scuttling on claw like hands.
Its face was disturbingly human as well. The nose was less pronounced, closer to slits than a proper human visage, but its mouth contorted and revealed square humanlike teeth. It’s true, Kurt thought, they don’t eat people. The stories were so much worse than that.
But more than the four grotesque limbs, the deathly pale skin, what separated the Chronids from a person were their eyes. Bloodshot, wine red eyes with minuscule pupils in their center. They darted around unnaturally, never locking on a single target, but it moved with such a distinct sense of purpose that it was surely navigating somehow.
Kurt stopped dead in his tracks, all urge to run or to fight gone from him. His feet were fastened to the dirt beneath them, and even as he began to contemplate the end of his life, Kurt experienced a serene feeling. His heart rate slowed, the tremble in his limbs ceased, it felt like even thes sweat beading down his neck was rendered immobile.
He could vaguely recall one of the trappers talking about an animal that didn’t run or fight when it was attacked, it merely dropped to the ground and pretended to be dead. Of course, that only works if the thing trying to kill you is doing it recreationally. Chronids acquire their sustenance through killing; they wouldn’t stop until you were a pile of dust.
Still, Kurt didn’t move, couldn’t move. Even as the Chronid drew closer, stooping to listen, but even his breathing had failed him. As the lack of air climbed to his brain, Kurt dully wondered if it was possible to die simply from his body shutting down and giving up. It seemed that way.
And then, a stone’s throw away from the Chronid as it bared its awful ugly teeth, a deep purple tongue flicking out and running along the tips of its teeth, a sound. Footsteps, loud and heavy, same as the breathing. Through the crook of one of the monster’s appendages, Kurt could see a woman running in the opposite direction. She had clearly seen the Chronid bear down on Kurt and decided to run for it; he didn’t blame her, he probably would have done the same. There was no point in being a hero when confronted by the creatures who devoured time.
The shift was almost imperceptible, but that was because it was so fast. The Chronid barreled towards the woman, scattering chunks of dirt and precious stones as its fingers ripped through to accelerate. Kurt couldn’t recognize the poor woman from this distance, but he never would be able to. In a second, perhaps two, the Chronid had caught up to her and snatched her entire skull in one massive unfurling hand.
She didn’t scream, she didn’t have the time to before the cracks began forming. The first part of a Chronid’s power was to rob the victim of all the water in their body. Skin withered, became thin and leathery even as it turned the color of ash. Hair fell out in clumps, her frightened struggles ceased and became limp. The fissure forming in her skin widened until she began falling apart.
It took less than a minute after initial contact for the Chronid to have accelerated her aging decades and centuries. Even as she was laying as a crumbling heap on the floor, it dragged its fingers over her again, leaving a path of destruction in its wake. It was pointless to struggle, facing something like that.
Standing completely still, watching the Chronid rake through the ashes of his neighbor, a realization came to Kurt. The creature had pursued him, coming within inches of grasping him, and yet abandoned him at the first opportunity for someone who was fleeing. That told him one of several possibilities:
The first, that Chronids did indeed hunt for sport. It didn’t line up with the stories, they only stated that the Chronids did manage to live off of their kills, even though they don’t eat like traditional animals. If they did, it would stand to reason that the monster would attack someone running away, rather than prey that was paralyzed by fear.
The second, it was a glutton. They were often referred to as time gluttons, but that was more of a colloquialism. It was believed that they ate the years of your life straight from your body, so when given the choice between two meals, it had chosen both. Prioritizing the fleeing meal was simply logical, as Kurt had still made no motion to leave. Kurt tried to discard that line of thinking, as he preferred to believe that the Chronids weren’t rational thinkers.
The third, and what Kurt staked his belief in, was that the Chronids hunted primarily by sound. It had eyes, but their undeveloped pupils were ill-suited to hunting in low light and their inability to focus on any one thing meant it likely could only see the basest outline of its surroundings. Enough to navigate, not to discern the viability of prey, so when a louder target made itself known, the beast didn’t hesitate.
Letting out a very small breath, Kurt took a quiet step back, eyes unwavering as the Chronid finished its meal. It didn’t glance at him, confirming his suspicions. Its hearing was good, but it wasn’t supernatural, unlike the rest of the creature. The apex predator does have a weakness after all.
Kurt managed to back up quietly, knowing a side tunnel was just behind him. A detour that would take time, but considering the main route was blocked off by certain death, Kurt would accept it. He didn’t stop sneaking, even after he got to the fork in the tunnels, but once the wheeze of the Chronid’s breath had faded he felt more confident picking up the pace. It didn’t know the layout of these tunnels, most likely, and would have a hard time picking up on anything that wasn’t making a racket.
His mother wasn’t far, she would be alright. He now knew that the Chronids weren’t all powerful, their senses could be fooled. It was even possible that they could hide, provided they didn’t make noise while the monsters did as they would and left.
“Don’t make a lot of noise.” He hissed, low and under his breath, grabbing at the first person who ran by him whimpering. “They track by sound.” It was Spit’s brother, Jeb, or maybe his second cousin Reese. Either way, the man pulled away and ran in the opposite direction regardless. Kurt’s heart sank, knowing he had neither the time nor ability to pull that man away from running to his death.
That was another lesson from that day. The people determined to die will always find a way to make it happen. Kurt resolved to not allow those people to take him with them.
He found the long corridor that he and his mother called home. Its only separation from the outside was a curtain that had formerly been a sack, before too many holes and tears had rendered it incapable of carrying anything. He found her where he expected, laying amidst her matted bedding, half-asleep. The doctor made an effort to see her often, and his treatments usually left her groggy.
“Mom,” he whispered, gripping her shoulders and shaking her. “Mom, you have to wake up. The Chronids are here, we have to go.” The pleading broke his voice, tears fell down his cheeks and there was nothing he could do to stop them.
“Kurt,” her voice slurred. “What are you doing home this early?” It was no good, she was out of it. When she got like this, it was a lucky thing she remembered his name. Most days she would smile fondly, brush her hair back and tell her husband that it was getting too long, that she would cut it soon. His father’s hair had been a bright red, nothing like the brown hair he had inherited from her, but it would do no good to tell her that. When she saw his eyes, his father’s eyes, the same blue, and nothing would convince her otherwise.
Exhausted and at the end of his rope, Kurt heaved and lifted her. She was limp and confused, not immediately understanding, but as he coaxed her further she eventually looped her arms around his neck and settled down. Her light, irregular breathing tickled the hair on the back of his neck. Okay, we just need to get to the surface.
The official route (and only one, now that Kurt’s project disintegrated) was a door with three or four latches on it at the tip top of the village, but he wasn’t concerned. They could have made the door out of stone or crude metalwork, but they had gone for the symbolic option, wood. It meant that most villagers treated the door with some degree of reverence, both as a sort-of portal to hell, and an elaborate representation of its importance.
Carrying his mother wasn’t as hard as he expected; even in his tired state, she felt unusually light. If not for the breathing and mumbled questions, Kurt could imagine he was carrying a sack of stones over his shoulder. The most important delivery he would ever make.
He didn’t see any Chronids as they made their way to the top, he didn’t even know whether or not there was more than one. He did, however, see the remnants of the Chronid’s feeding: piles of ashes, loose limbs that it left behind in its gluttony. There was an entire eye left on the ground that Kurt could swore looked straight at him, and he didn’t want to admit he recognized who it belonged to.
The last stretch of the road to the door was a gentle slope, the last resort if they ever needed to evacuate. Kurt still couldn’t see anyone around them alive, but in the distance there were screams that were suddenly cut off. It made him sick to his stomach, but the best he could do now was to get his mother out of here. And suddenly he turned a corner and there the door was. It didn’t look like anything special, except for the fact that it was one of the few doors in the colony, and outfitted with locks that only the elders possessed keys to.
He gently laid his mother down, mouthing his apologies as he did so, and tried to hype himself up for a moment. Mustering the energy was difficult, but when he felt he had it, he ran at full speed once again and performed a well-placed kick parallel to the door handle. He couldn’t read, but he had eagerly learned the inner workings of the village’s engineering from the maintenance squad. It finally paid off.
The door screeched in protest, giving only a centimeter, and Kurt could hear splintering, but the door was still fixed in place. Feeling the rage rise in his gut, he turned on a heel and launched a new attack. Another little give, more splintering, still nothing. Again. Only on the fourth kick did the door finally surrender and swing open. Drained more than ever, Kurt hobbled back to his mother, ignoring the fire that consumed his right leg.
Scooping her up in his arms, he urgently carried her through the door and up the slope that would take them to the surface. The sunlight was bright, with no protection from it like in the garden, and it stung. He couldn’t see where he was going anymore, but that didn’t matter, because his feet would take him far from here. Or at least they were going to, until he heard that same screech that had marked the beginning of his world coming to an end.
There was one of them bearing down upon him again, just as freedom seemed so close. The brutality of it all washed over him, and for just a fraction of a second, a sob escaped his lips. A curse, a lamentation, it didn’t matter, it was all the sound that the Chronid needed to lunge with two hands. The first wrapped firmly around his mother’s throat, the second, catching Kurt’s wrist even as he pulled away, but his mother was ripped from his arms.
His eyes adjusted to the overwhelming light, and the horror of his situation became even more apparent. His mother, withering, her eyes cloudy and dazed, unaware of the terror she should feel. Kurt screamed and screamed, desperate to draw the Chronid’s attention, but it ignored him and focused its attention on reducing her to dust. That didn’t mean that Kurt was spared, as the fingers of one of the Chronid’s hands gripped his forearm.
He could no longer scream; his breaths came in short shallow beats as the cracks began to form on his arm, running up to his bicep. Time seemed to slow in that moment, but that only made sense when you were being eaten by a monster that could devour time itself. Kurt wanted to throw up, but he couldn’t turn away from the pale, spider-like hand that held him so tight. He felt the bile rising in his throat, not noticing the metallic gleam that appeared out of the corner of his eye.
Kurt didn’t feel any pain, not even as he watched his right arm free itself from his shoulder. It didn’t even look like his arm, so it took a moment longer for the realization to set in. It was a crusting gray thing, and it was falling apart even as the Chronid pulled it away. As blood began to seep out of the stump where his arm used to be, Kurt realized that the Chronid hadn’t gotten overzealous and just ripped the arm out. No, it would have dehydrated the blood. His arm had been cut.
Someone stood beside Kurt, forcing him to realize that he had fallen over. It was a boy, maybe only a year or two older than him, holding an object that Kurt had never seen before, but he got the idea that it was a weapon. A long polished wooden shaft, of better quality wood than he had ever seen. There was a long segment wrapped in some kind of tough material, worn down from apparent use. It reminded him of the tanned hides they made out of the rodents and other small creatures they caught in traps, but they had never got enough from a single animal for that.
The end of the weapon was a metal blade shaped like a leaf, practically glowing in the sunlight. If the entire weapon was about seven feet long, the blade was one foot of that. The blood on the edge of the blade clued him in. He cut my arm off, he thought faintly, but coherent thoughts were difficult right now.