It was dark, and they were light. Gently drifting on a breeze that rustled the forest leaves were wisps of fire, soft blue and ever so warm against the cold of a forest night. Stars peeked in through the canopy, smiling at their fallen counterparts.
She marveled at the tiny droplets of light as they circled her hands, and it seemed as if they were teaching her to dance. They told her, whispering in voices of archaic language she somehow understood, to follow her. They beckoned, and she walked behind them as they led her down a winding lane, between trees and moss, mushrooms peeking up to say “hello”.
She was a traveler, guided not by any map of human hand, but by that which shapes each mortal heart into intricate spirals of flesh and blood. No ties had she to any but the earth itself. She wandered free. Some would say she was cursed like Cain before her, always to roam and never find hearth, yet she would claim the earth’s fiery core as hearth enough for her. She may not have homestead, but Hestia watched carefully. A vagabond in the night, her lantern was ever burning.
The fallen stars hummed down the crooked lane and sang songs she’d never heard, and they followed the path until the dim starlight fell upon a building whose glory days were long behind. Vines creaked over the rugged stone of a dilapidated fixture, trees branched through the roof, and moss replaced caulk between each stone. The front door, however, stood tall, dark and wooden and majestic, and she rapped her knuckles on the wood. Three knocks were heard, a flurry of footsteps, and a creak of the door.
Standing before her was a man of unusual height: he loomed over her, yet she felt no fear. A dark top hat and a royal blue coat with golden buttons. Milky white shirt, coal-coloured trousers. Brilliant gilded hair, soft golden skin, gently wrinkled eyes, and a kind smile. “What brings you to my home?”
“I just followed the lights, sir.”
“A traveler, eh?” He looked wistful at the thought of travel, seeing the world. She nodded, and he carried on. “Does this traveler have a name?”
“Elainne Lewis, sir. And yours?”
“I haven’t one, but Time seems a fitting title.” Silence settled uncomfortably before he spoke again. “Do you have a place to stay?”
“No, sir, but the forest can do fine.”
He nodded. “If you’d like a warm meal and a bed to sleep in, I’ve an extra room.”
She thanked him and stepped inside. The wallpaper was faded and the floors worn down, but the inside remained surprisingly intact otherwise. At Time’s offer, she took a hot shower while he prepared dinner. She found a white linen shirt and trousers in the little bedroom she was staying in and headed to the dining room.
The powder-blue wallpaper was peeling at the corners, and currents of air drifted through the room, carrying with them specks of glowing light, golden and warm. She took a seat at the creaking table and tucked into the meal. A silence settled, comfortable, but both quizzical of the other’s story. Gently, a voice cut the quiet.
“Your life seems an interesting one. Were you separated from anyone?” His voice was gentle, yet the roughness clearly showed the lack of usage.
“Traveling the world in solitude. Any reason why?”
“To most, it seems a lovely thought, yet comfort takes precedent. But to me, comfort is found more in the soul than the body, and mine never seems content in such a distinct lack of change. I find consistency in the night sky and the moon’s repeating cycle.”
He looked wistful at that. “The world seems a lovely place. I’d love to see it someday. Comfort, consistency, they’re nice, but I would soon trade both for a hint of change.”
“Were you always here?”
“Yes. This place is larger than you might think, but it’s not endless. The stars aren’t half as lovely through the glass.”
The bed was soft and worn, the mark of many preceding. She wondered who else had visited this place, had found themselves lost in the forest and following mere wisps of light. This place was a mystery, and secrets seemed to hide in every crack of the stone.
Why was Time here? Why could he not walk through the door she’d easily entered? She wondered what it was like, never feeling the soft give of moss beneath one’s feet, marveling only at the moonlight diluted through the gently cracked glass of the windows. She wondered how the wisps of light knew to bring her here, or why they thought it was important. She wondered a great many things, and concluded that she’d not be able to rest with the questions that were rapidly pummeling her consciousness. Slipping on a light coat due to the cold, she crept from her room, down the stairs and into the kitchen, taking a seat to pull out a journal and write, document this strange place she’d stumbled upon.
However, as she set her pen to the page, she heard a voice. “Couldn’t sleep, eh?”
She nodded in affirmation, recognizing the soft voice of Time. “You neither?”
“I don’t sleep, really. Lay awake sometimes, stare at the ceiling, but there are too many things to be thought about. I can never find myself wanting to spend time sat on a mattress all night.” He cleared his throat and his voice softened even more. “While you’re here… would you like to see something?”
“Sure, why not?”
He gave this consideration. “I must warn you, it may skew your views of things. The world, really. Existence and the like.”
“I’m not particularly attached to my views.”
He smiled at this, beckoned her. She followed through a dark corridor, passing the small staircase leading to the guest chambers in which she’d been staying. While dark, the walls themselves seemed to exude a soft golden light, perking up at their approach. The two rounded a corner, treaded down another set of stairs, and arrived in front of one of the most beautifully intricate doors Elainne had ever laid eyes on.
The wood was dark, inlaid with lighter varieties of timber, and it was etched with the design of a tree stretching its long limbs side to side. It seemed to bear fruit, but a closer look served to show her that the clusters hanging from its branches were clocks, ever so many different designs and varieties.
Time spoke again. “What lies beyond this door has been seen by a select few, travelers who’ve shown up at my doorstep before you. I’m not sure why the will-o-the-wisps see fit to lead certain people my way, but... company is nice once in a while. Most everyone who comes across my home has an intense case of wanderlust, searching the earth over for some meaning, some adventure, what have you. I figure, if you’re all so keen to have adventure and learn things about the world, why not lend to the discovery?” He paused. “Also, being the holder of arcane secrets of the universe makes for good conversation.”
She chuckled confusedly. “Lead the way, secret-keeper.”
He drifted open the door, and behind was a chamber so grand and perplexing she couldn't help but gasp. The walls were lined on every side with hourglasses, sorted compactly in alcoves in the stone. They seemed to stretch so far upward that the ceiling became quite impossible to see. Each hourglass flowed with golden sand, and each alcove bore a nameplate inscribed with a different name. However, the most noticeable feature of the room wasn’t visible: it was a ticking noise, loud and thunderous, yet it seemed calm, almost as though every clack gently embraced her in arms of time. In the center of the room stood the source of the sound, a clock, massive and ornate. It was round, and blue leather lined the sides, bound with bronze. The face of the clock held a great many numbers around its face, counting until the figures became unrecognizable. Gears marked the face, turning slowly, patiently, as if they had all the time in the world. Elainne found herself wondering if they truly did.
Time turned to look at her. “I’m guessing you have questions.”
She nodded, awestruck, trying to take in every last feature of the room, from the dark wooden flooring to the moss climbing the walls, the pristine hourglasses and their odd labels, the massive clock that seemed to hold every secret in the universe. “I don’t even know where to begin.”
He guided a finger towards the walls first, pointing at one of the nameplates. “Each hourglass is a human life. The sand is their time left on earth. Very occasionally, one will empty only to refill, some miracle having saved a life, I presume. However, most are exact.”
Elainne didn’t know what to say to this, only trying to take in the weight of it all. She almost asked to see her own- but thought better of it. She’d rather spend her time on earth enjoying each second for its life, not worrying about the approaching day of that life ending. “And what is the clock?”
“That, my dear Elainne, is the life of the universe. Each tick on its surface marks another year on earth, until its inevitable end.”
“And you’ll be here to oversee it?”
“Yes. It’s my duty. I was born with these cosmos, and I shall die with them. I’ve heard from predecessors that it’s calm, though. Lovely, even. The day the sun dies forever shall hold the most beautiful sunset- and I’ll be there to watch it.”
“Will you be able to see the stars then? Properly, I mean.”
“Indeed,” he said, eyes crinkling from a smile. “On that day, I’ll be free to join them.”
The sun rose the next morning, and Elainne had a newfound appreciation of it. She hadn’t looked too closely at the clock- she didn’t want to know when it all would come to an end. She hadn’t wanted that pressure, the literal weight of the universe, as another burden in her knapsack. The sun rose, and so did she, and so did every other speck on the walls, every other life. She dressed quickly and headed downstairs.
“Good morning,” said Time, turning from his brewery, the stench of coffee weaving through the air. Even secret-keepers of the universe need a pick-me-up, she supposed. “How do you do?”
“Decently, all things considered.” She gripped the cup of coffee he’d offered. “I’m afraid I must resume my travels, though your company is lovely.”
He nodded in affirmation. “It seems you must. You’ve been gifted freedom, the ability to traverse the world. Use it, and use it well, child.”
She gave him a brief hug and headed for the door, stepping out with an acknowledgement of her ability to do so. The will-o-the-wisps, as Time had called them, seemed to be gone during the daytime. It was lovely all the same, and each tree and fern gave a new sense of wonder. Someday, this universe would be gone, and Time would be a star in the sky, a mark of what the world had to offer. She turned her back on the shambling building, weaving through the trees to her next destination, eager to use her life as well as she could. Elainne glanced back one last time, but the clearing where the house had been was empty.