Chapter 1: Rider in Black
with a radiate brilliance
through illuminated tips, temporal-lit peaks
temporal watchtower stands just below the heavens
looks out upon neighboring lands, the future
displayed all around.
—TAKEN FROM THE DEPTHS OF HISTORY
Adarius gripped the top of the ledge and he pulled himself up.
Overlaid by old memories, the summit of Mount Gale swept out at him. It remained flat, round and ringed, like a crown, with long outcroppings all around.
Directly in front, a lone outcropping stretched up and pierced the Ethereal Realm above. There, a rift in the fabrics—bright but visible in the center—spewed gales down the windy stairway into Adrianna's Crown and the surrounding vale.
His gaze focused on the rift, Adarius approached. He stopped before the precipice, ignoring the constant wailing.
Adarius looked deep into the rift and his thoughts soared out of him like the wind. Though the inner workings of the world—the cosmic secrets contained within, including the answer he sought—loomed before him, even a former captain of the Zone could not pull them within reach.
But maybe that was just for Adarius had failed to reach farther in real life. Alone. In chronological order.
A fact, comprehension only beginning to peer through, such knowledge had been woven in layers too intricate to understand at a glance. Even from one spending most of his present living in the past… He guessed there were things you had to learn the hard way.
A thunderous shake rocked the balcony overlooking Mount Gale, the surrounding outcrops. Adarius stumbled from his daydream onto an embrasure belonging to the parapet meant to protect him.
“What in Gaia!” He braced himself… gaze steadied before him on the pristine white battlements. The castle's balcony shook, as if screaming for the Ages to be returned to linear order: the past to the past, the future to the future. Not bound, intertwined so casually with the present.
An earthquake, realization screeched. Ear-popping, truth be told, but ground-shattering to behold, as if from the middle of a sinkhole plunging down from a titan’s footstep.
Like the one felt atop the temporal watchtower.
The Under World battle being waged right now, hundreds of leagues below the Earth, but glimpsed then—from above, the ground torn away by the tower’s piercing gaze—so too waged to the forefront of Adarius’s mind.
Would the darkness that followed set in this day?
The thought hounded him. Adarius looked to the valley, leveled his gaze on the mountain-crown of Adrianna’s making and waited for darkness to reappear. The wind to his back, he pictured the Contortion of Creation stretching down on the world and laying its claim to the Realm of Men.
When it did not, he realized it might not happen this day, that what he had seen atop the temporal watchtower could happen years from now. Yet that had to have been the same earthquake he had felt before…
Adarius turned, intending to head back, when—drawn to something out of the corner of his eye—his body jerked to a stop.
A distant speck on the sinuous landscape. It was gone now, disappearing almost as soon as it had appeared.
He fixed his eyes on the mounds scarred by the frost-melt, but either a trickster was playing a game or his eyes were losing their vision. He squinted, but saw no clearer. When that left only a trickster to blame, he saw it again.
Weaving around the majestic sights in height of bloom from the sudden changing of seasons, a dark and shadowy figure sped across the land like all would soon come to an end behind him. The figure had come out of nowhere toward the city, as if bent on arriving at his destination within moments, when in actuality it would take at least an hour to reach the pristine gates of the city.
Adarius pressed his gaze down on this shadowy figure, which could only be a rider on horseback. Where had this rider come from?
Not from the east and the Stormfrost Mountain Maze. The dragon knights of Kalaran still slept while they waited for the day they could sail and battle in the skies once more.
Not from the west and the Enchanted Vale. The wizards of Arcania were few in number and only dealt with matters that directly concerned them. And certainly not from the south. The time-slowed mouth of the Zone kept watch on Misty Shores and the potential accompanying phalanx.
Then, like the breaking of night to the coming of day, the images in his mind gave way to one more. He looked past the timeless slopes of Mount Gale, the surrounding ring known as Adrianna's Crown. The mountain pass Ither Timeholder himself had weathered into the former White Mountains: had it been reopened? The curse Adrianna placed on Palador, before closing and rearranging the mountains, lifted?
He looked back to where he had seen this rider in black, only to find him nowhere to be seen. He waited for him to reappear, thinking he must have disappeared behind one of the towering kopjes, but he did not.
Perhaps the rider had been a figment of his imagination, a fragment of erased history trying to push through.
About to swing back, Adarius noticed the hair on his hand standing up. Regular time being absent, he could only look, hear a coursing inside him. He strove to understand, but his thoughts flowed out at nearly a standstill. The blood… of a… knight—telling him something?
A flurry of emotions whipped past Adarius before he could fully understand.
In succession, a series of commotions rang up from the courtyard below. Time sped back to normal before he could work them out.
His sights sank to the gatehouse. Iron-bound wooden doors slammed against inner stone walls. His eyes widened; his vision a sight not to be trusted: gatekeepers tossed into the air before crashing into the ground and sliding like pebbles; usually stalwart knights, hardened with experience, frozen where they stood.
The same shadowy figure he had seen before climbed through the bent bars of the portcullis and emerged into the open courtyard. Adarius made out a hooded and cloaked individual dressed in dark attire.
He stood confused. The rider in black couldn't have gotten here so soon. Unless… the weight of Ages convoluted into one another, had finally put enough pressure on the Hourglass to break its sacred bulbs, demanding to be put in proper order before they would…
The intruder stopped before the gatehouse, gaze directed at the doors leading into the keep.
Released from their entanglement, the guards cried out, unsheathed their swords and dashed toward this uninvited guest.
The intruder stretched out a palm. In unison, all within the courtyard froze. The grains ceased to tumble down their metaphoric tubes.
Adarius's bewilderment only deepened as the intruder strode toward the keep, taking no notice of those who were frozen around him. Halfway across, he stopped for no apparent reason. He stood there, silently, shrouded in a veil of secrecy, as his cloak slowed to motionlessness. The fabric stood out against the greenery of the courtyard, and the hood rippled with movement, as he lifted his head and looked straight at Adarius.
Despite being level with Mount Gale and thus unable to see clearly, Adarius felt the same eerie connection as when two strangers’ eyes meet...
When the rider's gaze fell back onto the keep, the hold broke. Adarius took a sudden step back, as if he’d been pulling on a door latch and the person behind it let go.
The intruder walked, on as if nothing amiss had happened, before disappearing under the balcony where Adarius stood.
“Father!” Adarius cried, realizing—whoever or whatever—headed straight to the keep. There would not be a moment to lose. Though the tower had not shown this, he knew no time spent studying the past, being a guest through its most significant moments, would prepare his adopted father for this individual's intent.
Adarius turned into a run and dashed under the arbor of two dueling knights, their moment in time fixed in stone. Thoughts squarely on his adopted father, he made haste to the king's throne room. He hoped the guards would delay the intruder long enough for him to arrive. From his position, the king's chamber stood many stairways and hallways away. From where the intruder started, it required crossing only a chamber and a short hall.
At that thought, it appeared to Adarius that time itself slowed down around him while he himself remained unaffected. He dashed down the regal red halls of the castle, past the rows of alcoves and memories of knights standing like armor displays. The castle servants and maids might be going about their daily errands but their movements almost ground to a halt.
He thought it his imagination and ran on. Not long after, he opened a side door and ran in. Immediately, others’ movements returned to normal.
Adarius stopped and allowed his senses to soak in the sight before him.
His father stood on the path of gleaming marble steps leading up the king’s dais. The king himself sat on his Timeless Throne, which was a wave of gold unadorned by precious jewels, and he wore his one face for every occasion. Time hung nearly still over the throne’s long arms and rounded back, keeping this Ither alive well into his second childhood.
Before Adarius’s sometimes nurse, sometimes chamberlain of a father, the rider in black knelt in the exact center of the room, staff held straight in one hand. Lord Corelleon, his father, must have turned at the appearance of this intruder for he stood in the way of the rider to the king, slightly drooped but nevertheless tall, an unwitting vanguard but also a stalwart unwilling to move against the wave of uncertainty that threatened to pool a path toward his liege’s feet.
Despite being a sifter of the grains, Corelleon couldn’t simply rewrite events if said events proved… undesirable. If his future self chose later to head back in time, that self wouldn’t be shy about stepping in front of him, creating a parallel timeline. For them, there was no timeline analogous to this one, meaning if his future self stepped in front of him it was meant to in the first place. No, he’ll need a mason to chip away at what would be considered “set in stone” if he chose later to have etched a new history—as others did on their own sections of tablet when having let their lives slide to unproductivity (Corelleon on Thursday). Though whatever version of his father this was he would of course have to survive the encounter.
Quite out of the ordinary, the stranger remained kneeling, saying and doing nothing. His tattered cloak looked old and travel worn. And the garb beneath fell to the carpet and enwrapped his whole body, obscuring his build.
A moment of unease lingered between Adarius and the others. In the lenses of Adarius’s eyes, the circular stone wall of the Hall now seemed pushed back. Corelleon could of course omit an hour or two—even a day—from ever occurring, the delicate task of removing successive grains from ensorcelled hourglasses, but by the scene Adarius had a feeling this meeting would take place no matter how much one fiddled with time.
Made obvious by the wooden stand arrayed with fresh fruit and pastries, this stranger had interrupted the king's scheduled meal. Corelleon broke the silence with tempered speech so not to alarm the king. “Who are you and what do you want, conjurer? We are not puppets for amusement.”
But the stranger kneeled there, for some reason reluctant to speak. Long sleeves showed only supple white fingers, and head tilted, his cowl drooped over his face.
Corelleon wielded a poor excuse for a wand, hefting only a wooden spoon. “If you can wield the magic of time so successfully, and unaided, then surely you can speak as well.”
In the center of the room, Valis stood frozen before he could draw the king’s sword. Even dashing through time, hand already on hilt, Valis could not prevent himself from being stopped in his tracks like those outside in the courtyard.
Adarius stared at what the intruder held in his right hand, a moonstone staff—with no markings etched on its surface whatsoever, and nary a device set on its crest.
To display such prowess with the grains of the Hourglass, without the need for assistance from any devices—a faint voice echoed out from under the stranger's hood, like words trailing off in the wind.
“Who am I?”
Adarius’s body straightened on its own. That did not sound like a man.
“That is of no consequence.” The stranger threw off the cloak, revealing the undeniable allure of a woman underneath. Now she stood dressed in a flowing red robe, the locks of her hair a shower of gold and auburn-brown.
Adarius almost drew in at the sight of her before he shook his head and snapped out of it.
“This, however, is,” she said in a voice loud and clear. Ither sat as always upon his Timeless Throne, gnarled and gray—the absolute frailties of old age twisted in a laugh. “You think you are masters of time, plotting to rule the entire Realm of Men with the forces you have gathered to the south, but allow me to show you this. You are anything but masters of time.”
The witch flicked her fingers together, and a magical tune chimed in the air. Simultaneously, a sphere of light spun into existence in the palm of her hand. As it spun, it pulsated and grew, drawing the stares of everyone unfrozen in the room.
Before Adarius knew himself, his eyes stretched wide, and his will ebbed away. He leaned forward and allowed himself to be drawn into the light...
The next moment, Adarius found himself completely enveloped by a strange blue mist.
There was the faint chill of wet dew abreast his skin. Where was he? He swung around to absorb his new surroundings, but his eyes couldn't pierce through the thick, water-like embroideries fluctuating wildly around him.
The sorcerous mist ebbed away and faded into the near horizon before him.
He stood amid an armed host. Startled, he looked at those around him. All of them wore the gold armor, crowned helms and kited shields of a knight of Alexandria. He looked down, and to his surprise, he wore the same regal armor. His scabbard sheathed a sword. Wondering if it was… his old sword, he quickly unsheathed it. A pristine long sword, the brand of a temporal knight passed down through the ages, slid out. He scrutinized it with reflected amber eyes and ran his hand down the length to feel the material. This possible future had chosen to cough out his sword all right, but something remained wrong. Normally the blade, forged out of fine white crystal, would absorb ambient light and emit its own radiant beam, but in this moment—it did not.
Feeling a tinge of uncertainty, he looked forward. The mist loomed ominously ahead. The growing unnerve in his chest told him this was not to be an auspicious day.
He glanced at those around him and put the past together. They were at the end of the Winding Chasm, leading past the Emerald Cliffs into the heart of the Misty Shores. He had been ordained once more captain of the Zone, a knight of Alexandria, as if he’d never given up his sword and armor. He looked around once more. Judging from appearances, it looked like he had led his men to yet another battle in the ever-ending Wars of Men. The enemy still concealed in their mist, they stood before the Iron Gates of the city-state of Dalahan as they waited for them to come out and accept their challenge.
Sure enough, after he had come to this conclusion, large metal doors creaked open. By the sound of it, a host of heavily armored soldiers marched through, concealed by the billowing mist. The army halted before Adarius and his army. The sound stopped.
Time seemed frozen. Plainly, he would have to witness this illusion to its end. He raised his sword into the air.
The signal given, the front of the host marched toward the mist. Following suit, the other side gave an unseen call to march as well. Rolling, the mist moved with them. The front of Adarius's host disappeared into the mist, followed shortly by the clanging of swords against spears, mail on mail, and the cries of men as metal ripped into flesh.
Sweeping over it all, the mist rolled forward, the battle unfolding beneath. Adarius watched from a safe distance, waiting for the inevitable outcome.
Win or lose, it would be more of the same—a waste of lives.
Moments later, the same tide swept over him, enveloping him in a thick, wafting curtain of mist.
The Hourglass held by no normal rules here. In only a matter of moments for Adarius, the mist receded from steep slopes, revealing the devastation wrought on both sides.
Searching for the slightest signs of life, he meandered through the arrow and sword-riddled battlefield, carefully stepping over friends and comrades dispersed amongst the enemy's dead. The vine-encrusted sword loomed unopposed, the enemy having never followed the path to earn an emblem of their own.
An unfamiliar but recognizable voice rang out.
“Before you looms the devastation that will befall your city if it continues down its chosen path,” the voice said.
Adarius swung abruptly in the direction whence the voice had come. The witch who had broken into the castle studied him from close by, her crimson robe undisturbed from the scene before. “You,” he cried.
The witch held motionless.
The inevitable question escaped him. “Who are you?”
“You know who I am,” the witch said. “Peer inside. What does your soulshard tell you?”
Adarius paused and listened. One answer immediately came to mind, an answer that stunned him. “Adrianna.” Namesake of the mountain-crown. Shifter of the White Mountains. A wonder straight out of the Age of Legends.
The witch smiled. “You have good intuition.”
Did he? The Age of Ruin had lasted nearly two thousand years, and the Wars of Men even longer. Yet, the answers came straight to his lips as if they were intertwined, despite the countless years between them.
If Adrianna had been alive since the end of the Age of Legends—then this was an auspicious day. But again, why only now had she chosen to reveal herself? Better yet—what had she been up to in the time since? “Why are you here?” he asked. “I mean… the sudden urgency?”
At his spoken questions, the ground at his feet crumbled and broke apart, revealing untold depths beneath. What he presumed to be the very core of Gaia—but flung forward for him to see—showed a myriad of tunnels blocked by ice.
With the stacking of tiles part of a castle built up around him before the earth rose up, up, up, like a giantess tree, and he found himself once more atop Adrianna’s Crown, overlooking Mount Gale and the passage to the Snowglobe Kingdom.
It was as before—atop the temporal watchtower, the future coming in leaps and bounds around him.
Down below, beyond the wall of ice, a bright red light glowed and steadily gnawed away. A low-pitched growl echoed through the barrows of the deep. Judging from the sound, he did not need to know what manner of beast that growl belonged to. A beast not friendly.
“In another timeline,” Adrianna began, “the Age of Darkness proved much darker—before the forces of gloom delayed their attempt to end the dominion of men. Nearly two thousand years ago, in our timeline, the same forces retreated back into the farthest depths of this world. In response, Gaia froze her own womb to keep them sealed inside her. But since then, the Dark Lord Malrinth has been biding his time, gathering strength inside her, but no longer. Now he is ready to reclaim his rightful place on the surface, and the only thing that is stopping him is the ice. Against the fire of a balrock, it shall not hold forever. Once it fails, the only force standing in the Dark Lord's way is the race of men, but with each of the five lineages now fighting the other, they and their precious cities are ripe for the plucking.”
The vision over, the ground reassembled at Adarius's feet, and he found himself once more on low ground.
“Alexandria and the other city-states stand at the cornerstone of repeating the mistakes of ages past,” Adrianna said. “Only this time, there shall be no lands beyond the White Mountains to fall back to.”
“How did you reach the castle so quickly?” Adarius asked. “In one frame of time I saw you riding clear across the hills of Alexandria. In the next, bursting through the gatehouse doors.”
Adrianna gave him an amused smile. “With the power of time I can be at many places at once. For many days I battled the balrock under the mountains, but it defeated me, and I was forced to come up with another plan. So, I summoned a titan's footstep to open up the mountain pass. Then I allowed you to see me riding toward your city to complete the illusion. Time is a tricky thing and, sometimes, it is important to try and keep up with appearances. You may ask your next question.”
“But why did you make sure I arrived sooner as well?”
“That was all you. You are descended from a certain temporal knight, if I might say. You are capable of the same power. It is only dormant inside you.”
It took a moment for Adarius to digest all this. He didn't even believe in half of the things Adrianna said.
An unnerving sensation running up his veins, he asked, “But what do you want from me? I mean… you must be appearing before me for a reason...”
“I have watched you from afar, since you were born, Adarius. In that time, I have come to know your spirit for what it truly is,” Adrianna said, drifting toward him.
Since he was born? Did that mean she knew his mother? “And what kind of spirit is that?” Unspoken questions—Was she a fair lady who resided in the romance of the past? A mere commoner belonging to the dullness of the present? To the more muted, what did she look like?—stirred in his thoughts.
Adrianna stopped before him and tilted her chin to look up at him. “The kind that brings proper resolution to the problems we face, like you have always done.”
Adarius grimaced. Like that had done him any good. He moved onto his next line of questioning. “But how did you get here? Shouldn't you be long dead?”
Adrianna hushed him. “That is a question to answer on another occasion. For now there is something you must do,” she told him, her voice on the cusp of telling him something.
“Awake and be gallant.”
Before Adarius could say anything in response, Adrianna leaned closer, caressing his arm with the gentle sway of her hand. Part of him latched onto her, his thoughts drawn. Only a section of his soulshard told him to hang back. Without him expecting it, she pinched him. The next moment, his mind and body hurtled back through the interwoven layers of time.
Light filled Adarius, and he squinted as a lone wind brushed past his face.
Blinking, his eyes adjusted. He found himself staring at the plain white ceiling of the castle. From waist to toe, his body lay underneath something. Without scrunching his neck, he bent his chin to his chest and looked down. He lay in bed. His bed, he realized, but someone had replaced his favorite bedspread with pristine new sheets.
He pushed himself up, and the light-spun sheets slid down his waist. Hourglasses now abounded, he sat in his room all right—as if, from his bed, that hadn’t been obvious enough. But something further seemed slightly off about it… Then he saw what. Inside the intruding hourglasses, the grains poured nearly at a standstill within their glass bulbs. Who would slow time inside his room?
The door cracked open, and he looked up.
A luminous sliver of light slipped through—no. Dressed in a shimmering white robe that aptly passed for a maid’s uniform, Shalana came striding in.
She had long golden hair that reached the tips of her shoulders, milky blue eyes and plump pink lips, a complexion so fair it looked like she had been blessed with winter's touch. Her robe, hooded and slightly arched at the front, ran down to her feet, the hem fringed with a small band of gold.
A semi-translucent prism was attached to the neck of her gown. She walked straight into the room, her head tilted down as she rummaged through one of her pouches. If she had walked in with wings attached to her back, Adarius would have thought he saw one of the featherfolk in all its inner beauty.
A wingless Shalana looked up, saw Adarius and froze. “Oh, you're awake.” She held still, but widened eyes couldn’t hide her startlement. “I was beginning to think I would have you at my mercy for the entire day.”
“What happened? How did I get here?” Adarius asked, leaping out of bed.
She crossed her arms, put on her best frown. “After that woman broke into the castle, Corelleon and you were put in a kind of trance, or so I could gather. The only problem—you didn't wake up from it, until now. As for how you got here,” she shifted to a still stern but empathic voice, “you can thank Corelleon for that. He had Eldon haul you in here by himself—or that ‘checker-hating, fast-witted prince’ as he prefers to call him.”
“My father?” Adarius sifted through his thoughts and rummaged his drawers. “Where is he now?” He pulled a shirt on then reared back to hoist a pant leg in.
Shalana tilted her head to the side. “Last I heard, the past inside Time's Hall. Conferring with the king about what happened, I suspect.”
Adrianna. She had been here. “I just remembered—there is something that needs attending.” He didn’t know whether to feel guilty or embarrassed, as that sounded like something Eldon would say. Brushing it aside, he gave her a hasty “Goodbye” and a “Thank you” for watching over him before dashing out the front door, leaving a motionless Shalana behind.
“You can’t hide. I’ll know where you’ll be before you do!” he heard before he ran out of earshot.
He sped through the halls of the castle and soon reached the same side door leading into the throne room.
It looked empty, except for the future version of Corelleon, who had the most knowledge and thus could stand with absolute confidence in the center of the room.
“Where is everyone?” Adarius asked, skidding to a halt before Corelleon. Apparently, he need not be in a hurry anymore, but he had yet to slow down.
Corelleon’s turn seemed to take an eternity despite the fact he brimmed with positive energy. “Good, you're awake,” he said, now puffed up in his bright-red chamberlain robe instead of the threadbare shirt his past and sometimes present self bore. “The king has since retired to his private chambers.”
Adarius straightened and tried to give his father a leveled look. “What did I miss?”
“The king and I discussed at length what the prophet—or rather what that witch showed us.”
“And? Did the king reconsider what he’s said in the past?” The swelling in Adarius’s chest helped push the words out. In another timeline he might have asked, “What did you see?” He imagined Corelleon telling him, “It was all folly!”
Perhaps perceiving that other Adarius, Corelleon took a small but deliberate step forward. “I saw all come to darkness while I kept to the king’s side until I died and a younger version of me took my place.”
“I'm afraid the king has decided to stay with the current plan. After a brief respite, the Wars of Men shall begin again,” Corelleon said, with a sniff of superiority. Behind him, porous stones imparted the last vestiges of the future: of tendrils, a few remaining mists evaporating over the cold greens of the Realm of Men.
Adarius's heart sank. I see… the mistakes of the past will not be corrected…
“Fear not. All due precautions shall stand. And now word has finally been sent to the Zone. The decisive battle against Dalahan begins as soon as the time-field allows.” Corelleon rested his hand on Adarius's shoulder for a moment then turned and walked away. The echo of his footsteps on duplicated marble mined from the present into the past amplified the emptiness Adarius felt inside him.
Head still tilted toward the floor, Adarius listened to Corelleon take his leave. A door creaked closed.
What could he do now? Buy a pass into the future to ask his future self what he did in this case? Even ask him to take his place and do whatever he did… again (in his spare time, of course, so not to risk the order of things!). In which case—he gave a quiet chuckle—should he expect his future self to visit to save him the time in the first place?
No, he shouldn’t! This he needed to do himself.
But what exactly was that? All he knew it had to be something unexpected… something the future Corelleon wouldn’t have faced already… a past mistake he could now handle differently or avoid entirely…
An idea came to Adarius, and he looked up. If the king would not stop the upcoming battle, it remained to him, and he knew the perfect way to do it. He would need some help, but he also happened to know the perfect helper.
The interior of the castle sped past as Adarius searched high and low, every nook and cranny for Eldon, who would probably prove up to something. He found the “old” prince inside the castle's dank and lowest library, his head in the Ages courtesy of one of the chronicle fragments fashioned by the time-historian Chrono.
With an old-timer’s enthusiasm, Eldon took advantage of the fact he was trapped in his younger body, which he used to dredge up secrets from the past to use on some of his misguided adventures.
Adarius tapped his shoulder. Eldon looked to and fro a few times before Adarius caught his attention, and Eldon stepped away from the pedestal.
“Yes, yes, yes. What is it?” Eldon asked in a quizzical tone, as legend seekers often did when they were absorbed in something.
Adarius gave Eldon a sideways look. “Well, it looks like the fates have decided to reverse our roles. This time, I’m the one coming to take you on a wayward trek.”
Eldon didn’t assume a questioning look, like Adarius expected. He just put on his signature smile and asked, “Where to?”
It took Adarius a moment to recover from his surprise, the odd reversal of things. “The Zone. Though we’ll need another one of your relics handy to get us out in a snap again.”
Eldon frowned, putting on his thinking face. “Well, let’s see.” He set a hand under his elbow. “There’s unicorn horn.” He shook his head. “No, that won’t do. Vanishing powder? Certainly not. Another time-rewinding hourglass? Uh-uh… Ah!” Eldon’s face lit up as if knowing exactly the item. “Right.” He turned and faced Adarius. “In a snap it is.”
Adarius didn’t ask, didn’t want to know. “Be sure to avoid any unwanted attention from my father.” He also didn’t want Corelleon, or the king, to catch wind of this.
Eldon fluttered an eyelid. “Who do you think I am?”
Adarius blinked. “Prince Eldon.” Did Eldon expect any other answer?
Eldon raised his hand. “That’s correct.” He shook it for extra emphasis. “Being that I have a handle on this sort of business, I will make the necessary preparations.”
Adarius nodded, unsure whether he understood. “While we separate for the time being before meeting up at the city’s southern gates in…”
“One hour.” Eldon finished the sentence, he being the one who knew how long it would take for him to finish.
They nodded and went their separate ways. Time passed slowly for Adarius, but grain after grain tumbled down the Hourglass's narrow tube. An hour later, he stood outside the city's walls, and Eldon came strolling through the south gates.
“Ready?” Adarius asked, doing his best impression of Eldon.
Eldon gave a nod of excitement, but before they could step away from Far See-er Gate and the grains tumbling down Celestis’s side, a voice sounded in Adarius’s ear.
“You just never learn, do you Adarius?”
The voice continued. “Haven't I told you before, no matter how hard you try—I will always find you in the end?”
Adarius swung to find Shalana standing there behind him, overlooking them with an exhausted smile on her lips.
“Whereabouts are you two heading? Mischief, I assume, judging from the looks on both your faces. Well, knowing how stubborn the two of you are, I guess I have no choice but to go with you.” As usual, Shalana did not let them get a word in. Although one might have expected to find a piercing frown on her face, Shalana did strangely the opposite. Adarius attributed that to her knowing the future, how her future self would have acted, thus giving her the insight to handle matters in another way if need be.
The face or keystone looming at the top of the gate looked down and took a sudden interest in them. Adarius glanced back at Eldon and gave him a look that said they should have known.
Her words final, Adarius and Eldon swung back, and Shalana walked up and set herself between them. After a glance at each other, they looked ahead and stepped beyond the limits of the city and its ornate flagstone, out onto the surrounding marble blocks which stretched before them. A small but steady force built at their feet as they kept walking toward their destination, the temporal road increasing the speed of their movements with every step they took. When they had traveled far enough, a great wave churned behind them and sped the three of them across the land, past idyllic hills and the occasional backwater pond until they reached the other side of the valley.
Having used the road before, Adarius slid to a stop at the exact edge of the time-field. The others skittered to a halt behind him.
Never-melting peaks narrowed like the tube between bulbs in an hourglass. In the exact heart of the Zone, as the mouth of the valley had become known, stood the familiar white bastion: the Winding Wall as those who toiled atop called it.
Adarius and Eldon strode in direction of the bastion, but then Shalana gave a cough behind them, putting an end to their unison. Adarius swung around. Judging from her unmoving stance, Shalana obviously had a better idea.
She waved her treantwood stick over the two of them and herself. A ribbon of light grew out and shone as she weaved it left and right. Then a flash of light and the ribbon faded.
She lowered her light stick. Adarius and Eldon stood still.
Shalana firmed her shoulders and looked at them both. “A lightshow bending off reflected surfaces?”
Adarius glanced at Eldon. Eldon glanced back.
Her features tightened. “Not invisibility, merely a trick of light. An illusion where, unless someone looks directly at it, the only thing a guard on the rampart will see is the grass beneath this time-field of yours.”
Adarius and Eldon finally nodded and murmured in understanding. Without a further word or mumble, Adarius set foot into the Zone.
His movements ground almost to a halt. Nevertheless, he took another step toward the bastion along a wandering arm of the river Timeholder.
The normal-flowing current, slowed by the sheer weight of time, kept pace with him.
He reached the wall undetected. When the others popped up beside him, Adarius jumped into the river. He landed with hardly a splash. The tireless current pushing on him, he waded the water and swam through a small culvert.
For all intents and purposes, time reverted to normal on the other side. He climbed out of the water, ran and hid in a darkened corner. The others followed, like images from his past.
A jangle of chainmail came from the side, and a pair of zone walkers strolled into view.
They wore boiled leather, patched and stitched together using the occasional metal piece. More walkers could be seen ahead.
Watching the patrols of soldiers and counting the grains between them before they disappeared into the invisible spots where past and future accidently mixed together with present, Adarius waited for a gap. The bastion's citadel loomed in the center of the pitch. They simply had to make it inside without being seen.
An opening between two sets of zone walkers appeared, only a grain or two before it would close. Adarius ran for the nearby temporal road. The others’ footsteps came behind him, and they sped into the citadel.
“Which way?” Shalana’s voice resounded down the hall.
Adarius’s memories of his time stationed here as captain of the Zone flooded his subconscious. “This way,” he said. They dashed after him across the winding entrance hall. Immaculate stone walls on either side curved as they strode on until coming to a narrow passage. Deceptively long enough to shrink the sight ahead, the mastery of masons long dead stretched until rock tapered into the background.
Adarius led, and they immediately transported to the end of the hall, inside a large mirrored chamber. In the exact center, inset in a small pedestal that rotated slowly in mid-air, loomed a golden hilt engraved with two looped crosses on either side.
Shalana held still, but Eldon made a short dash and stopped in front.
“Right, time to flex your sword arm,” he said.
Adarius took a heedful step toward the pedestal and reflected on the choice before him. If he were wrong about this, he could accidentally destroy the sword, leaving Alexandria vulnerable. But he had seen what might happen if he did not do this.
Without another thought, Adarius grabbed the sword with both hands. He thrust it deeper into the pedestal and held tight.
A luminous glyph rose in front of the pedestal, and he stepped back.
Good. It worked. The glyph indicated the temporal field outside the bastion had been altered.
Good, he repeated for good measure. That meant, together with the mountains of the valley being nearly impassable, their army would be safely stuck inside the Zone until needed.
He spun, set his sights on Eldon again. “I’ve done my part. Now, it’s your turn.”
Eldon rummaged through his pocket for the next relic he had been hiding for a showy last-second reveal. He checked the other pocket, but lifted both hands and shrugged.
“Where's the relic?” Adarius asked, knowing it would—somehow, someway—lead them home. Meaning… this was the one timeline? Where out of countless other possibilities, he actually dropped or forgot it?
Eldon the Mischievous became Eldon the Most Apologetic, an epithet for widening brows and eyes. “I must have dropped it. It was a feather. A Pegasus feather.”
“How are we going to get back to Alexandria?” Adarius raced with thoughts of the grains ceasing to tumble outside, the encasing glass pressing down on him.
Eldon threw up his arms. “I don't know.”
Shalana sidestepped into view. “Can't we just go back the way we came?”
Adarius shook his head. They had both neglected to tell her what sabotaging the citadel might do to the time-field. “Before, the citadel only slowed objects beyond the wall.”
“And now?” The slight strain in Shalana’s voice belied the tension in her face.
Eldon shrank down as if being stared on by Corelleon. “Now, it completely halts them.”
Shalana whipped out her light stick and breathed a sigh of relief. “Well, you're lucky you decided to bring me along.” She twirled her wand. From the light that shone out popped a Pegasus feather, which fluttered down before Adarius and landed in the palm of Eldon’s hand. Shalana tilted her head back. “Being a seer has its advantages. I wasn’t sure what I needed it for, but now I know. How do you think I find you so easily?”
Adarius couldn’t help but swish the features of his face together. Eldon already had his sights directed down on the feather. Adarius gave him a moment. The next, a rising gleam flowed over him.
The same gleam had flowed over the others. They thundered soundlessly across space. The next, next moment, the tide of light turned back and the heaviness returned to Adarius’s body. His feet touched the ground, as just like that the effects of the Pegasus feather wore off, and they arrived safely back at the gates of Alexandria.
Still feeling buoyant, Adarius hoisted his legs up and down before his gaze found Shalana. She looked at him, but before either could do anything, Eldon spoke, “Well, I guess this is where we split up.”
Adarius looked at Eldon.
He continued, “Until the next time daring need arrives.”
Eldon swelled up as if he inhaled a gust straight from the top of Mount Gale. “Farewell!” he said to the both of them before he retreated under the timeworn gaze of Celestis Far See-er and her intricately carved gate. The grains tumbling down her side almost swallowed him up.
Adarius watched until he disappeared up the road. Would such a need soon arise? He now knew that sometimes the adventure comes to you. Did Eldon?
“Well, I guess this leaves just us,” Shalana said.
Adarius looked back. He tried to linger on the lines of the distant storm raging inside her eyes but found his sight drifting up. “Or not…” With her puffed-up cheeks and shapely pursed lips, Celestis watched the two of them from the arch above, giving new meaning to the word headstone.
His mind fell on the right thought to shake off the moment of awkward silence. He looked down, took a step and touched the neck of her gown. The prism he had given her rested there. A clear sign of it not being from this world, its translucency bleared the edges of it, meaning it would be beautiful in all but its native timeline.
He tried to convince himself it remained the eyes watching him but something locked inside kept him from showing further affection.
“Til tomorrow then,” he said, looking back up at her.
“Til tomorrow.” The sound of Shalana’s voice trailed off like the wind, but her directed gaze remained steadfast. On him.
Adarius gave her a tilting down of his forehead on hers. His eyes followed as she turned and ran back into the city, between a set of cloisters. She soon disappeared from his vision. He let out a tired sigh. Could Ages collide? Or was he destined to remain stuck in the past? The wind stirred and echoed around him, Gaia evidently hearing his frustration.
Before departing himself, he looked up. Celestis still watched above.
He was glad, on this occasion, that stone could not talk.
No other choice, Adarius escaped Celestis’ constant watch and fled up the same flagstone path Eldon and Shalana had taken. Ascending the first hill, he weaved left and right as he skirted the stairs that—leading into the past—would otherwise have had him trekking for nearly eternity. He knew it would be only a matter of time before he came to the top. Before long, he reached back inside the keep, and the journey up became a distant memory.
Inevitably drawn forward, he passed through the regal red halls. The dull brilliance of the normally unobscured stone blocks and hidden alcoves tucked into the walls shone his way but couldn’t stream far. Now translucent and gray, the almost completely faded memories of long-dead knights passed in and out of view as he kept to his long-reaching strides.
What possessed him so? He tried to conjure the answer, but nothing came, his thoughts now keeping to a distance. Driven, he reached the iron-bound wooden door leading into his room.
His very being felt detached from his body. His hand reached for the knob as he watched. He found himself stepping into his room, and the reason for his body’s contention became clear—Adrianna in her crimson gown, like an image drawn out of his past—standing directly before him. Waiting.
“Been here long?” The distance between his awareness and his physical form folded, and he spun into his own body.
“Not long,” Adrianna said almost casually—if that was possible. She leaned slightly to one side, against her sorceress’ staff.
Adarius gave a quiver. “I take it you know what happened?” he asked, as the last shudder passed through him.
“Yes, I have seen it.” Adrianna’s eyes briefly turned a brilliant gold-gray against the growing darkness.
“And now?” His gaze met hers.
Without ever taking her eyes off him, she closed the gap between them, reached under her garb and, judging from the chain hanging from her neck, put a hand on the crest of some type of jewel. “I could tell you,” she said, “but men never listen to the words of a clairvoyant.”
A pulsating blue light emanating from her chest flared up and grew bright. Having no wisp or tendril of thought to give, Adarius leaned in once more—toward the next task for him to complete.