19Hour Clock Tower
The river that painted the world was white. It rose from the mirror-end, gurgling forth and pooling into pensive arcs carved into the rock of a mountain. Once it was cragged, and thrice it came smoothed. As hefty billows sank along hushed whittleholes, some undocumented shades of colour and colour cast over this new expanse of ‘thing.’ But the colourless mass was twice as tall as it was wide, every backside collapsed into itself, and thus the rolling stream piled upwards into its pinnacle — spilled.
Winding helices showered throughout the setting forms, oozing as they fell beneath the shade. Tearing. Fickle. Silent. The sea had calmed and a new realm born.
All of it, a soundless procession.
It… almos… ight. The s… on the dish… eady… And… ill find… ster.
A wobbling susurrus rang once, then twice, into the forest air. It was between a colony of shelled things — creatures hiding under leaf or bark, or some that dared to totter under the aging rays of sun. In a place that was here, time was beginning to set. And like most days which bore a spattering of hazy patches in the sky, the earth was warm.
Paths astray from a liquid body fizzed as they settled on the banks. Away from the river, their moisture wafted only up to the sky. They hung in the spot: one of a venue, yet everywhere. They were fleece untethered with the funnelling wind, though a cluster remained that struggled and strained — an object was there they could not quite grasp.
Something tranquil on the ground (a sizeable lump) and it lay there, crumpled.
In the first moment, the unmoving figure seemed like a corpse. What parts of the woodland lived, from wind to grain to critter, they went around in quiet hubbub. In spite of no sign to cease their days, the fact the undisturbed was here could not be ignored; its own weight drew a place for itself — a mark on the field. A deathly presence, perhaps, or equally not.
The next showed it was in fact alive. The heaving of its chest could faintly be seen beneath the tattered leather, which had wrapped itself in lots across a covering sewed in sackcloth. The arm moved first in a drawling crescent, and then a sudden awareness of sound — one consciousness unsurfaced.
Her grey eyes blinked blearily.
◼The author is very much spedaddly and in a can't-write state. As such, the rest of this chapter is the version written while the contest was ongoing; the chapter is to be updated with the rest of the new one... soon. You could probably read the rest of the unedited novella and come back without having been spoiled, in regards to the mysteries, because anokomokonokomo forgot to connect the hints. Comments on their (lack of) detail are provided in the afterword.◼
The crisp sound of rushing water coursed along the groove of the earth, flicking the occasional pellet onto the taller banks that stood, decidedly, on either side. Its rising moisture brought with it the heavy scent of mud and grass, drifting and swirling lightly around the edges of an unnatural obstacle – a figure that lay quite crumpled on the ground. A sudden awareness of sound, and its consciousness unsurfaced. Her grey eyes blinked blearily.
Erratic scuttling and scratching of the river bugs forging paths in the soil beneath her. A faint warmth from the sun. The slight shifting of winds. The world around her was filled with life – a stark contrast to the fogginess that lingered in her mind.
Regardless, there was little to do from the ground, so the lying figure determined to stand up and be it. Her clothing, slightly wet with the moisture of the grass, unglued itself from the ground and she was soon standing upright.
Her black hair, which fell short of her shoulders, waved only slightly in the air. From a higher angle than the floor, the colours seemed especially bright. A fresh whiff of forestry entered her lungs and she was once again reminded of the its crystal-like freshness. As her hand moved to untousle the more dishevelled strands of hair, the girl became aware of a wooden object pressed into her palm. She peeled her fingers off the studded surface and held her hand closer. It was largely triangular, with a small scoop in one corner. A tool.
Recent memories began to flood into her mind. That’s right, she was…
The tool dropped from her hand in surprise, and it landed awkwardly on the grass beside her. A furry creature the size of an ostrich egg bounded into view. It was pink, and its large, round eyes even pinker – like a sweet syrup (or, alternatively, the medicine that claimed to be such). It came to a halt a metre in front of her and looked directly into her eyes, pupils staring and short nose twitching inquisitively. She stared back. Unquestionably, she had never seen this creature in her life.
“Kil,” a voice called, and the girl’s stare distracted to the source – the nearby forest. “Is something there?” With another rustle, some other girl, wrapped in a black cloak, came into the clearing. But what stood out more than its pitch shade was her hair – a salmon pink, like one could find on the petal of a flower – and it drooped, coming in to a tie under her waist. Their eyes met.
Her eyes were a light silver – almost white – and here she saw they bore a sense of strong disbelief.
The word, or statement, was within context directed to the girl who had only recently awoke from the riverbank. But the name was unfamiliar. Perhaps she had been mistaken for a friend of hers? Either way it went, she saw it fit to clear the misunderstanding before any further incorrect assumptions were made. Clearing her throat, she made her response: “My name is Sirra.”
The shock in her eyes, disbelieving yet hopeful, faded to reside in its place behind an invisible film. A mask. “I see…” The unnamed girl looked at Sirra again, this time with inquisitiveness. “If I may ask, what are you doing here? I haven’t seen you around before.”
This was her turn to be at a loss. “I don’t really know,” she admitted. “I was scavenging for mud critters, to bring to town… but this isn’t my river.” She gave a laugh. “Do you know where I am?”
The girl in the black cloak hummed. “You are right. This is not your river.” The rushing of the river seemed especially loud. “There are no towns here.”
No towns? she thought quizzically. Judging from the material of her clothes, a light, floating fabric, it certainly did not look as though she had gone far from shelter. “What do you mean? How can there be no towns?”
The still-unnamed girl looked puzzled. “You don’t remember how you came here?” she asked.
“I don’t recall,” Sirra replied uncertainly.
Before another question had escaped the visitor’s mouth, the girl opposite her gestured for her to wait, saying, “Let me get someone.” She raised the back of her hand over her eyes and tilted her head, as if looking to the sky.
What was she doing? The seconds stretched, and Sirra was becoming increasingly doubtful of the method she watched at play to ‘get someone’. The motion did not seem dangerous– just… incredibly unfamiliar. Was it a sort of telepathy? she wondered. But expectations often fail to meet reality, and the saying was particularly true in this case as the answer came in a notably unexpected fashion.
What started as an indistinct droning became louder as it was closer, and Sirra came to realise that it was, in fact, the sound of a faraway voice. Specifically, it was a person yelling.
A white blur shot from above the nearby canopy, balling towards the two standing near the water. How exactly the owner of the scream managed to travel a distance at this speed she was not aware, but, as it slowed, she saw that a flailing boy was being dragged along by the limbs of a long-armed creature. With an audible whisk, the flying creature released its baggage and landed heavily near the forestry.
The boy, still travelling through the air, twisted his body in an effort to manoeuvre his way to the ground and slowed his descent such that he landed (surprisingly) lightly on the grass, at the opposite side of the river. He whipped his head round to face the girl who, Sirra had guessed, was the one to call him to them.
“Irem,” he exclaimed, eyes wide. His white hair trembled from the shock of the fall. “What was that for? That was all the way from the Tower!”
“You were the closest one,” the inscrutably faced girl, apparently named Irem, answered him. “Besides, I didn’t call you for no reason.” She patted the large creature, which let out a low grumble in its own language and dipped its head in respect. It failed to meet the gaze of the boy, and plonked its way back in the direction from which it came – only it was across the ground, and at a much more manageable speed.
Sighing, the boy – who she noted was wearing a white jacket marked with colourful threads at the seams – stepped back and (rather easily) hopped over the current, so that he stood nearer to the both of them. As he did so, he seemed to notice the other individual in presence – the shorter girl, with black hair. His fuschia-tinted irises glanced at her. “She is…”
“Sirra. She doesn’t know how she got here,” Irem explained for her.
An expression of absolute puzzlement crossed his features. “Is that possible?” Then: “Do you reckon she was brought here by one of the others?”
The girl more familiar with him responded, “That’s what I thought at first. But I can’t imagine anyone would bring another person here” – her arm swept the space around her – “for anything. They even left her alone.”
The boy scratched his head. “That’s true, but…” He trailed off. “Well, there’s an easy way we can solve this. Sirra, where is the last place you were before coming here?” His gaze was directed at the unfamiliar girl.
“The bank of the Carean River. It’s close to a fishing town,” she answered promptly.
“Right. And the name of the land this is in?”
Goodness. Have I crossed all the way to a foreign nation?
The boy seemed to think. “Ehmadais? I don’t think I know that place. Are any of us from there?”
His pink-haired friend shook her head. “No, the name doesn’t ring a bell. But if it’s not one of us, then that means she made her own way here.”
His lips drew up into more confusion. “Still…” he said, scratching his head. “I think we’ll need to discuss this with the others. Will you come with us?” The question was, once more, directed at Sirra.
A dubious suggestion. “Will it be more convenient for the both of you if I tried making my own way back?” she suggested. “I don’t wish to be a bother.”
He had an odd look on his face, and both of the strangers seemed to be silently stunned. Then, he made the remark, “You really don’t know where you are, do you?”
“I don’t really.” What did they expect? She had given them the answer in the beginning.
There was a brief silence among them, as a nearby insect flicked itself into the water.
“You’re on the grounds of the Clock Tower,” the boy resumed. “It’s entirely disconnected from any world you came from, and it would be impossible to exit if you don’t know how you came here in the first place.”
A different world…
“If I am understanding correctly, then you are saying this is your world,” she said slowly, “and Ehmadais does not exist here?”
“This isn’t exactly our world,” Irem corrected. “But we are technically the caretakers of this place. Your second statement is correct.”
“As one of the caretakers of this place,” the boy took over, “I will warn you that you can spend an eternity trying to find your way out of this forest without ever finding the exit.” His bronze goggles, which he had retrieved from an inside pocket of his jacket, twirled in his fingers. “If you starve in the process, though, one of us will come back to find you. We can’t have someone dying in our forest, after all.”
Sensing the scepticism of the grey-eyed girl, the female caretaker reassured, “Don’t worry. We’re only looking for a way to send you back.”
Despite the apparent lack of information having been given by the two strangers, the landscape was a more significant enigma. But the two seemed to know the place well, and could at least provide more information than she could gather for herself.
“That’s fine,” she replied.
“A quick decision, and the better one,” the white-haired boy said. “The tower is that way.”
He pointed in the direction of the forest (from which he was dragged from), and the two strangers led the way into the jade, with Sirra following a short distance behind.
Before long, conversation started again. “Just to be sure, you don’t remember anything about how you got here?”
“Apart from going to the river to collect mud critters, no.”
“That is strange. I don’t think it’s possible that a connection was made from a river in a place none of the caretakers know,” the taller girl mused, pulling at her cloak. “Could you tell us more about the place you came from?”
“Well, it’s a fishing town,” she repeated. “Creatures of the Carean are just starting to come into season, and it was for that reason I was at the river. There’s nothing special about it.”
“Hm,” the boy said. “There’s something special in every place, you know. You just have to find it.” A pause. “Though that doesn’t give us any clues as to why you’re here. Your name was Sirra, yes?”
“Yeah, I didn’t get any ideas from that.”
The girl who was walking beside him let out a quiet snicker, though, judging from his lack of reaction, the one behind didn’t think the boy caught it.
“And what is your name…?” Sirra prompted.
He turned back to look at her, so that he walked diagonally. “Oh, I’m Noen.”
Like the girl’s, it was an uncommon name – but, she remembered, there were not many common names she knew of in any case. Having received both of theirs, she decided to ask the question which sat, patiently, in her mind for the past minute or so.
“You mentioned it was impossible for someone who didn’t know to come here to enter and exit. How did you come here yourselves?”
This time, it was Irem who answered the question, “The way here is something that was passed from person to person. Because of this, only a handful of people know how to get here.”
The response seemed to satisfy the curiosity of the three, and for a while the only sounds to be heard were that of the forest. It was the trees and the undergrowth, and what lived noisily among them. Although the human figures had passed into the thick of it, a breeze had somehow found its way towards them, shaking the leaves of the trees around them.
“What are you going to do for the Gathering?” Noen asked. This question was not directed at the newcomer, but rather at his friend who walked beside him.
“That’s not until more than two weeks away,” came the response. She ducked under a low-hanging branch. “We have time. Plus, it’s more of a formality, so there’s no need to prepare anything fancy.”
The boy agreed, “That’s true. Only a few people change things much every time it comes around.”
Sirra was unsure what this Gathering was that they were talking about, but his statement told her that he was one of those people.
As the topic of discussion fell on topics that were unrelated to herself, the visitor’s attention untuned from the people ahead of her, instead falling on the grounds through which they were traversing. Given a chance of a closer inspection, the particular species comprising the area were distinctly different from the ones she had seen before. A bright blue bug, like a fat caterpillar, was winding its way up the rich bark of one of the taller trees, and its body pulsed. The luminescence of the colour may have often in nature been meant as a warning sign against eyes that fell upon it – but, in this case, it seemed to be a display of only life. Simply:
The forest is pretty.
And soon, the number of looming trees became sparser. More of the sky was visible between the leaves of the canopy, and a glimpse of white glinted beyond the jade. As they stepped over the edge of a wide rock, the forest fully parted.
A swirling, white mass rose from the far edge of the clearing. The ceramic shell was almost blinding in the late afternoon sun, and it formed the encasement of the structure from base to sky. At its front, near the top – the face of a large clock, of which golden hands gleamed.
To put simply, she was thoroughly impressed.
“This is the Clock Tower,” Noen introduced, at last putting on the goggles he had been keeping in his jacket. His purple eyes disappeared behind the brass. If Sirra was to give an honest remark, she would state it was likely only for appearances. (How did one see behind metal?)
“Since you don’t have a way to get back, we’ll lend you a spot in the tower to stay for now,” the other explained. “Until then, you’ll be here.”
The boy nodded. “That sounds good. We’ll ask the other caretakers and see if there’s a way we can get you back to your world.”
“Are you alright with that?” Irem queried, looking to the black-haired girl for approval of their plan.
Sirra nodded once. They had seemed hospitable enough.
Walking ahead into the tower’s entrance, the boy gave his farewell, “Well, since our plan is sorted out, I’ll be going off.”
Irem dipped her head. “Alright.”
“See you around,” the boy called, and he disappeared into another part of the building.
It was the two of them left. As they stood at the base of the tower, Sirra noticed the building’s exterior was not entirely joined with the ground. A sort of rotating mechanism?
Gesturing forward, Irem pointed, “I guess the room you’ll be staying in is this way.” She led the way into and through the interior of the spiralling structure, and they went up several flights of stairs and curved hallways. It was definitely spacious, to say the least.
“We didn’t expect anyone new to show up in the Tower, so you’ll be using one of the spare ones,” the caretaker explained, as they went up another set of stairs. “They haven’t been used for a long time, but it should be bearable.”
Sirra nodded, although the girl in front of her was not looking behind.
“Oh, you have got to be kidding me,” the voice of an irritated Noen grumbled. “It was right there.”
She slowed to a halt. It had come from the narrow door beside her, near the highest step of the particular flight. Hadn’t he already gone? She looked apprehensively at the simple golden pattern framing the panel, as well as the curled bar that stuck out horizontally. Perhaps it would do no harm to check. She pushed the handle downwards.
Although offering a slight resistance at first, it opened outwards suddenly, and she almost fell in – but caught the frame in time. And she stared.
This wasn’t a room – it was a canal of some sort. With the thought to determine what exactly it was, she stuck her head in and peered further inside. It was dark, with the only non-negligible source of light coming from the way she opened it. Some sort of heavy, metallic strings twisted with a wind that seemed to pass both up and down the space. For a moment, she considered touching it, but made the decision not to. It was a tad too far (and she wasn’t risking falling to the bottom – she didn’t know how far down that was).
She frowned. Whatever the case, the white-haired boy was nowhere to be seen (in fact, she’d have been surprised if he was in the canal hanging onto the coils), so she held the door again and closed it. Outside of the darkness was a dark blue sky, speckled with a spatter of pinpricks, which lit the inside of the building with a pale light. The moon had taken its place in the sky rather quickly.
And what was more – her guide was nowhere to be seen in the hallway.
“Irem?” she tried calling.
There was no response; no flash of pink nor black returning to find her. She was beginning to think that maybe opening the door was not such a grand idea, after all. What could she do in an entirely unfamiliar building (and, not to mention, the broader area)? All she could do was wander along the hallway, in the hopes that she would soon know where she was supposed to go to rest.
And then – the answer came. A deep tolling from somewhere inside the building brought a rhythmic tremor, and she felt it from her feet. With no other clue to follow by, she followed the source.
Feeling and listening for where the vibrations shook strongest, she traipsed up another further flights of steps, and found herself in front of a large set of doors. In the wan light, its edges appeared to shrink into the darkness, effecting an uncertain size.
A warm light leaked from the bottom of them, and slight murmuring could be heard inside – and was that music? Curiosity possessing her nerves of her hands, they pressed against the smooth oak, and the door pushed open.
Her grey eyes reflected gold.
Inside was an incredibly large performance hall, the centre of which a ring of horses, seemingly made from the purest gold, tottered and leaped around a dramatic pillar of water, as an audience of several kinds watched on from the fringe. Light, water and gold. Movement and flight. A flamboyant performance.She was in an entirely different world.