Cherim Hopkins can feel his eye lids gaining weight while his horse clops along the dusty dirt road. The sun is setting, the sky melting like candlewax under the ever-persistent flame in the sky. For Cherim, night is when all hope flees and the dread washes over the planet, blinding the good from their way and letting evil slither without notice. It is the time of the bird for the north. The days are longer, warmer, life is springing. The time of the snake is still months away, which gives time for all the plants to escape within themselves in preparation for short cold days and long snowy nights.
Cherim can see the town from afar built in the center of a rolling field, he can see a sign identifying the cluster of wooden structures as “Baryl” to his delight. It had been a long day of travel for him, and while he enjoyed the time of the bird more than the time of the snake, the heat always makes him drowsy under his brown clothing. On the slow trot of his brilliant white horse, he makes it to the front gates of the town just as the sky turns black, revealing little lights from above.
Two alterna lanterns illuminate the front gates of Baryl between them in a crystalline blue light. Cherim’s horse became especially bright from the lanterns reflecting off the white fur. Cherim stops his horse and gets off it, approaching the gate on foot and giving a loud knock. “Hello? Can someone open the gate for me please?” he calls. No answer came, he can only hear the almost mute soft crackling of the lanterns as alterna reacts within their mantles. He pushes loudly on the gates, “Hello?” he calls, and to his surprise the gates give way from all his shoving. Cherim is greeted by no one, no guards, no merchants, not even any peasants that usually stand at these gateways asking for coin. Cherim feels an ominous feeling wash over him internally.
‘What sort of town is this? No one in their right mind leaves the gates unlocked and unguarded like that.’ Cherim ponders. He looks at the houses, some have lanterns lit within, allowing blue light from their windows to escape into the vast world.
“Snowy. Come here.” He calls for his horse. The proud stallion snorts and then clops up to him where he grabs the reigns and pulls it into the town with him. He makes sure to shut the wooden gate behind and locks it with a large piece of wood laid down on two metallic hinges. They make their way down the twisting cobbled roadway, passing by houses and shops. Cherim gazes at the buildings with his glassy brown eyes as he passes them and takes note of a lack of any activity within houses with lights shining. Nonetheless he still feels tired from his long day of traveling the landscape, and so he is more focused on finding an inn to sleep in, although it would be easier to find if he could find anyone to talk to. As he walks around, Cherim starts considering on knocking on someone’s door despite the act being considered to be an incredibly rude thing to do so late at night when people are probably sleeping. After giving the thought some humor and caring less about formalities with people he’d never meet again in exchange for rest, he decides to give it a try anyways. He makes sure to find a home with a light on inside and walks up to the door with Snowy left waiting out in the street. He knocks on the door loudly as he did with the front gates previously swallowing his pride of being polite as a naughty twisted feeling of awkwardness roared in his belly.
He waits for an answer, perhaps an annoyed housewife or a grouchy landlord trying to sleep, but there was no answer. Wind softly blows through the empty streets, with a haunting whistle. Sadly, for Cherim, there is no moon out tonight. The moon always made the nights easier for him as he could see through the dark with the aid of the dim lunar light. It’s hard for him to see through the pitch blackness. He only has the lanterns within the homes occasionally lighting the road to see his way. If the town were any bigger, it likely would have street lanterns as the town would be able to muster up the alterna needed to fuel them with the utilization of mage communities. So many things Cherim wishes Baryl was but isn’t. After repeatedly getting no answer from his knocks on the door, he decides to try another home. Making his way down the street with Snowy tugged behind him, he finds another house with lanterns on inside and tries knocking, once more no one wanted to answer. He tries with a third house, and upon mounting pressurizing frustration, Cherim attempts to open the door without giving a second though the chance of being mistaken for a thief. The doorknob twists and he swings the door open to find the cramped house was empty.
‘Empty… are they all empty?’ he had become inquisitive. Cherim proceeds to run up to at least five different houses from the ones he previously knocked at and finds all of them to be empty. Some homes are locked, but he can still see through their windows to find no one inside.
“Hello!?” He shouts at the top of his lungs in the middle of the street. Once more, no answer. ‘This makes no sense,’ he thought, ‘how the hell is this a ghost town and yet some of the lights are on with fuel inside? Why is there fresh food on the table in some of the houses? Is there something in here?’ his mind raced. The ominous feeling from before grew into a fear of perhaps some kind of monster wandering the town, or perhaps something nasty made everyone flee for their lives, abandoning the place right as he got to it. Yet there is no blood, no bodies, there is no trace of anyone that Cherim can find. He wanders around and finds a sign with an image of a glass of ale on it; a tavern. Upon looking inside, Cherim finds no one tending it; yet there are full glasses of alcoholic beverages strewn around the place as if there were customers inside and also many lay smashed on the wood floor with their smelly contents spilled all over as though they were dropped there.
Cherim continues looking and eventually, he finds a building with a picture of a bed outside; the inn. He ties up Snowy to the empty stable outside, and walks in. Unsurprisingly for him at this point, there’s no innkeeper to greet him, no one in the lobby getting warm by the lit alterna fire, even though it was clearly filled up with alterna recently. The blue rock crackles and collapses inward, releasing a flurry of sparks and heat into the air, but nothing catches fire as only alterna can undergo the burning reaction, releasing energy into space in exchange for the rock’s mass. He has wandered the streets long enough to humor the thought that nothing is in the town, no monsters, bandits, or even cultists it seems; all of which he has come across before and nearly been killed by in previous travels. When he was wandering the town, he felt especially vulnerable with no gear on his back to defend himself anymore. His camp was raided the previous day and he had no means of getting his sword back but only to go to the closest town and get a new one.
Cherim helped himself to a room on the second floor of the building, which he knew there’d be no one to mind him sleeping inside of for free. It still bothers him though, none of this is normal, but he can barely keep his eyes open anymore. He lays down on the soft, wood framed bed and his eyes close shut. He falls asleep with no effort at all.
A ticking clock waves its bronze pendulum back and forth, swaying left, right, then left again. Side to side, end to end of a never-ending cycle between two places.
“Can you hear it? The waves of time flowing through all things, pressing us all ever forwards without consent or care. Wounds heal, life is born, the world decays and is replenished. Winds howl, oceans tumble, energy changes form.”
The clock hands overlap each other. It’s now midnight.
“The waves of time wash over us, and yet do not crash down. They do not end, they do not stop, but we always go a direction. You are disoriented, you can’t even see where you’re going, but only where you’ve gone. You struggle to try to survive this wave, flailing around, grasping onto life by eating food and drinking water. You try to survive by not being swallowed by these waves, alongside everyone else.”
The pendulum slows down, the time is off, the clock says it’s after midnight, but it is impossible to know how long since it has actually been precisely.
“And yet, as with all things, your time will run out, your pendulum will stop swinging, and you will be engulfed by the waves of time as it finally does crash down upon you. Nothing will be left but still waters for you when that day comes, as it does for all of us, and eventually with everything too.”
The pendulum stops swinging, the clock no longer works, no more ticking and tocking, no more telling time for it has all gone.
Cherim wakes up gasping for breath and sweating. He looks out his window and finds it is blinding outside as he is met with clear blue sky, but also chilliness bites at his skin as with all mornings. There was no sounds of any sort of autonomous living creatures outside, only the distant howls of the breezes over Baryl. Another insufferable night terror plagued him in his sleep. He has been having many such terrors the past few days. He knew due to both the fear in his heart and the sweat on his skin and also the knots in his stomach that he has had another. Cherim felt mocked by his own mind, why is it that he has all of a sudden started to remember his terrors more and more often? It used to be very rare for Cherim to remember any of his dreams by morning, and oh how he missed those days where his terrors were only but a fleeting memory he will never have again. But now, his terrors still roam his mind as a trauma seared permanently in his memory, alongside previous near-death experiences of his. Cherim, of course, gets nasty terrors of those near-death experiences in his sleep, but what he has been getting recently is different. Not near-death experiences, but rather messages about time, not of his own, nor is he capable of understanding them.
Like the previous days, he merely shrugs it off and slowly becomes more and more awake and aware of his surroundings. He puts on the boots he left beside the bed last night and walks out into the lobby. The alterna fire had gone out completely as there was no more alterna left to burn. It isn’t hard for Cherim to imagine that all the lit alterna lanterns have run out fuel, just as Baryl seems to have run out of people.