Time Takes a Ticking
The natural processes that take place inside the earth are referred to as endogenous events. They cause continents to migrate, push up mountains, and trigger earthquakes and volcanism. Endogenous events are driven by the heat produced in the earth’s core, along with radioactivity and gravity.
—The Twenty-First Korus of the Emerald Tree
Without breaking stride, NightFire leapt onto the rain-soaked boulders, avoiding the scorched and broken saplings sprawled across the trail. Charcoal scars striped their trunks and branches, while leaves that had escaped the hellfire shuddered. In her lynx skin, NightFire had to tread carefully. Although miles from the cliffs of the Whisper Fist and still half a day’s run to the Alsgren, it would take but one misstep to give her away.
Maybe it’s best I stay a lynx, NightFire thought as she picked among the moaning branches. If the Arctic hare can’t hear me, perhaps it won’t either.
NightFire knew the Skaarsgard would stop at nothing to find her. It had laid waste to everything in her path—everything it could burn, that is, and then some. Whatever it could “see” from its aerial vantage it incinerated instantly, rooting through the scattered ashes afterward to discover what it had killed.
Not that it felt any remorse. Remorse had long been dead in the creature.
The warring spirits that had long ago overthrown the Skaarsgard’s humanity had seen to that. Now its Vampire Bat, Electric Eel, and Giant Squid Tokas battled for dominance within its twisted form, sending the massive, flying horror spiraling into madness.
Like all Skaarsgards, it was not of nature’s making. It was a mutation splintering apart, an uncontrollable aberration created for a single purpose: to serve the will of its maker—StormWing, the LorVecca of TerraTopia.
A jagged bolt of Skaarsgard lightning ripped apart the forest to NightFire’s left, destroying the lodge pole pines that had thought themselves spared. Instinctively, she leapt right. In her panic, she forged a new, noisier path through blackened stands of tamarack.
Sweat, wind, and smoke blinded her. She pressed forward by feel, long whiskers and tufted ears guiding her. She tried in vain to quell her rising panic, to force it back into its cave of doubt.
A yelp of frustration and hopelessness escaped her lips. “I am not the enemy!” Yet each flap of the Skaarsgard’s torn leather wings argued otherwise. The Skaarsgard hunted her for a reason. It believed with every sin of its forgotten soul that NightFire was what StormWing claimed she was: the being who belonged to no one, to no world, that she was the legendary one who would bring about the Falling.
It was true. In a world where everything was connected, where “family” could mean anyone or anything, NightFire had no herd, no pod, no flock of any kind. Even the Order of the TerraKoru had abandoned her, disappearing like the sun during an eclipse.
She had no one except Sequoia, her adopted, enigmatic father, and he, too, had exiled her. For her own protection, he’d claimed, but even that reeked of shame.
NightFire knew, as did all TerraTopians, the dangers of being an outcast. Just ask the wolf ejected from its pack, or the lion from its pride. Death follows quickly, because Nature demands just one thing from its creatures:
To All Who Belong, Belong To All.
Belonging was the core of all Ticking. This tenant, this rhythm of life, this motion of creation at work was the basis for all things. But for NightFire? She had been robbed of belonging, left only to dream that others might one day share her world. Hers was a life of solitude and isolation. A life hidden away.
Until now, of course.
Gusts of air pounded the landscape. The rain soaked her fur. Her temples throbbed. NightFire caught a loose rock with her forepaw and, very unlynx-like, she stumbled. The ground came up hard as she slammed to a stop.
Groaning with pain, she attempted to rise, but her despair hammered back. You never finished my training, Father, she screamed within. I can’t do this! Images of Chief Sequoia, the great Council Leader of the Emerald Guard, formed in her mind. I tried. I ran with my quiver wrapped in lichen to silence my arrows. I buried Jim’s knife deep in my par fleche so it wouldn’t be seen. I changed skins, left different prints, ran downwind, swam upstream. I didn’t talk, didn’t walk. Yet still it hunts me. It always knows where I am. I can’t… go… on.
She resisted the urge to fall into a crumpled heap, to cower beneath the branches of the Standing People until the storm blew over, but NightFire knew that would only invite more destruction. She knew the Skaarsgard would kill every form of life to find her. Her debt to her world was already too great.
Please. No more.
While she wondered how to find the will to take another step, NightFire felt a tiny seed of faith cling to her receding hope. It was as if the seed sought to take root, convinced the soil was still good. In her mind, she heard the deep timber of Sequoia’s voice.
Complaints never won a battle, solved a problem, or changed a season, my child. Self-pity’s crop only withers with time.
“That’s easy for you to say,” she hissed. “I’m the one lying here in the mud.”
Abruptly, the Skaarsgard’s aerial screeches ceased and the air grew still. The only sounds that followed were the rain and the forest’s lingering moans.
Silence! she commanded herself, trying to swallow her mistake. Do what you were taught and listen.
She waited until her heartbeat stopped echoing in her ears.
Tick. Tick… Then, quiet as ripples on the water, Sequoia’s teaching returned.
NightFire cocked her furry head, shaking loose more memory.
Trust your Ticking, whispered Sequoia from deep within. If you are to survive you must listen to your world and recognize its heartbeat. Trust what you know. Trust your ticking, my child.
She squeezed her eyes shut and focused, pushing away the doubt and fear that made it difficult to hear. Something…something Sequoia had said. She loosened her jaw and unclenched her claws.
Remember. Remember. And breathe. Just breathe.
Slowly, Sequoia’s message rose from the recesses of her memory:
Follow the movement of time, starting with noon. Disappear into the clouds and come out another day. Head for the Doorway of the Setting Sun and look for me on the other side of the world.
But what did it mean? NightFire wondered. What was her father really saying?
Trust your Ticking, the world and its heartbeat. Trust what you hear. As his words echoed in her mind, Sequoia’s counsel began to crystallize.
To the rain…
Giving birth to the rivers…
Giving birth to the oceans…
Giving birth to the land…
To the land…
As it gives birth to the sky…
Giving birth to the rain…
As if with one hand…
Listen. Tick, tock, tick, tock…
“Of course,” NightFire growled excitedly. “The world is a clock!”
Sequoia’s message suddenly became clear. It was as if its camouflage had been stripped away. Her problem wasn’t that she’d been abandoned or ignored; she’d simply been too busy running to hear what the teachings had to say.
The world was a natural timepiece. To follow the movement of time meant moving with nature’s currents, much like with the sun, moon, and tides. But unlike with a regular clock, following nature’s currents also meant moving with the planet’s rotation, going counterclockwise, or backwards. Sequoia’s first clue was clear: go backwards or down the backside of something instead of taking the easy—or the “right”—way up.
Start at noon must mean to start at the mountainous peaks of the Whisper Fist, the highest point in all of TerraTopia—the top of the clock.
Disappear into the clouds and come out another day. That was easy. No one saw what went on in the nether regions of the Whisper Fist. It was always shrouded in mist. And it took a day to cross the Icelynk Bridge—if one were allowed to access the ShamanTrail through the Whisper Fist’s treacherous passes.
Finally, head through the Doorway of the Setting Sun had to be the Western Door, which meant riding the Crossroads to the Other Side of the World—to the Kingdom of the Emerald Guard!
Home! He wants me to come home!
Tears of joy clouded her feline eyes. She’d been going the right way all along! Her training had worked! Reach the Alsgren. From there she’d have a chance. She might make it out of this alive. After all she’d been through—the pain, the torture, the unknown—everything held promise once again.
And it might have worked, too, all of it—going home, seeing her father for the first time in years…
Yes, it might have worked had not the world suddenly exploded in one singular, brilliant flash of hellfire.