It’s well past time (pun intended =)) for a new adventure. Let’s jump in!
Crystal Pit of Time
The golden hands of the clock spin without purpose, around and around and around the sparkling face of golden numbers.
You struggle not to stare at it above the King’s head as he rants about the crime rate in the city. More than once he’s chastised you for not looking at him while he speaks but your eyes keep drifting upwards.
Why did he place the clock over his head if he did not want people to be distracted by it?
“Eyes down,” the King says again with an emphatic rap of his staff against the stone floor.
Your eyes drop from the spinning hands to his wrinkled face. He’s been King for longer than most people have been alive, but the years are etched on his skin in deep crags. Where there’s not enough skin to wrinkle, like on the backs of his hands, he looks like canvas stretched over bone.
“For your crime,” he continues to say once he’s sure you’re paying attention, “you will be sent to the crystal pits for seven days. Should you survive, you will be integrated into the army. Should you not, well,” he shrugs, “you will have paid your time and your family will not be held liable.”
Ice settles, sharp and cold, in your belly.
The crystal pits, all for a loaf of bread.
Your one solace is you have no family for the King’s punishment to fall to. Should you escape before entering the pits, he has no one to go after but yourself.
The King, who turned away with the finishing of your sentence, pauses and turns back just as two guards take your arms to escort you away.
“I almost forgot,” he says, reaching into the pocket of his robe. From it he withdraws a coin like object. He flips it toward you and, when it pings against the ground, you see the circle of numbers on its face. “Your time starts now.” He snaps his fingers.
The small clock at your feet begins to tick with a soft tisking that echoes against the marble floor. A tiny window in the lower portion of the clock face displays a seven.
The guards allow you to stoop and retrieve the coin and then you’re hauled away.
For the ride to the pits a bag is thrown over your head and your arms and legs are bound before they toss you into the back of a barred wagon. You’ve no way of telling time as you bounce around on the wooden floor but, when the wagon stops, you already feel bruised and stiff.
A guard fastens a harness around your waist and then, still blindfolded, you’re lowered down a steep wall. After a time, your feet touch ground. There’s a snick and a soft whistling just before the cut end of the rope smacks you atop your head.
You wait but nothing happens.
With a tentative hand, you pull the rough bag from your head.
Just like that, you’re already in the pits. So much for escaping before you’re delivered. The stories of the pits’ location must be misleading rumors to protect their actual position because, judging by the fact your trial was early morning and it’s not yet noon, the pits can’t be that far from the city.
Clever King. You snort.
High above the sun sits in a cloudless sky. Walls of white stone and mica specks surround you. Here and there the walls are pocked with holes, some large, some small, all roughly edged and showing through like windows to more pits of white stone.
You coil up the remains of the rope after untying it from you waist and sling the loops over your torso. Likewise, you work the restraints off your wrists and ankles and save the ropes by tucking them into your pocket.
Your fingers brush the warmed metal of your clock. A peek at it tells you that it is, indeed, just before noon on your first day in the pits.
The first danger you know of is the sun. High in the sky, it’ll bake the pits into a searing heat that’ll cook you like an egg.
You finger the rough bag they used to blindfold you. It’ll irritate your skin but the weave is loose. With a sharp, clean tug, you tear a long strip of cloth from it and tie it around your eyes.
The fabric muffles the world into a dull gray with shadowed spots where the holes pock the walls.
You pick a large hole and climb into it. Instantly the heat of the sun grows softer. The pit on the far side is smaller but also contains more holes that could lead anywhere. In one of them, you can’t spot sunlight on the far end. It’s just a black spot.
You scuttle through into the darker hole beyond.
In that brief moment exposed to the sun, sweat beads along your skin, but in the darker cavern, you’re safe for the moment from the heat. You sit against the chalky, white wall and sigh with relief that it’s cool against your back.
Your relief, however, is brief as a soft shuffling comes from deep in the darkness of the cavern. The crystal pits are known for harboring many dangers. The sun, the lack of water, but most importantly, the creatures that live inside prey on anything that falls down the steep walls.
You listen to the shuffling. Now it’s got a scrape to it, like perhaps the creature has claws that dig into the chalk and crystal of the pits. There aren’t many places to hide and, even as you’re looking for options, a shape materializes in the darkness of the cavern.
You pull the top edge of your sackcloth blindfold down to see better. A young man stares back. He rests a hand against the wall and takes another step forward. Scrrraaapppe goes his peg leg on the cavern floor.
“What you in for?” he asks in a voice that does not belong to so young a man. By voice alone you’d guess him in his eighties as his question warbles at the end.
“Bread,” you say.
He scoffs. “Is that what he said? Tell me, did you visit the library recently?”
Your mouth hangs open. Just that week you stepped into the library to escape the press of the afternoon crowd. Once inside, you’d wandered, fascinated by the floor to ceiling shelves full of old tombs.
“Ah,” he sighs. “There’s your true crime. Toss your coin and follow me. The others would love to meet you.”
Toss the coin? According to the King, that’s your ticket out. You have to show it, with a zero in the bottom window to show time served, for the guards to haul you out of the pits.
Your chances of survival without help are slim, so you’re going to follow the young man. However, do you…
Pitch the Coin?
Hide the Coin?
Crystal Pit of Time-Pitch the Coin
Over the scrap of the man’s peg leg, you can hear the ticking of the little coin clock as you hold it on your palm. There’s a reluctance to toss it in the middle of your belly, but the strange man isn’t waiting for you to follow, and he’s likely your best way to survive the pits.
You pitch the coin back down the tunnel and it pings off the white stone wall. Then you hurry to follow the sscrraappp of the man’s peg leg. Just as you catch up, the pit shudders. You brace a hand on the wall.
“Earth quake?” you ask, surprised because you’ve never experienced one before.
The man scoffs. “Pit worm,” he says.
The pit gives another heave and then, from the tunnel you just left, there’s a thud and a gust of dry dust whooshes toward you.
“Pit worm?” you cough as an odd rush of warmth travels through your body. When the dust dissipates, you see the man covered his nose and mouth with a handkerchief.
“They’re smart,” he taps his wooden leg, “and dangerous. They’ve figured out that there’s usually a tasty human carrying that lovely ticking device.”
A cold shiver travels down your spine as you realize the pit worm just ate the small coin clock.
“Come on,” the young-looking old man says, “come meet the others.”
You follow him through another open part of the pits, instantly becoming drenched in sweat as the sun bakes onto your skin, and then beyond into a deeper cavern that doesn’t open into another pit, but sinks into the ground into a tunnel at the far end. After leaving the scorching sun behind, the sweat chills on your body and you shiver again.
The man doesn’t even pause as it grows darker. You steady yourself on the wall and follow the sound of his leg scratching against the floor. There’s a thud, and then light floods the tunnel to reveal the heavy metal door the man just opened.
“Andrew,” a woman’s voice calls in greeting, “did you find the new comer?”
“Sure did,” Andrew answers as he encourages you to enter with him.
Beyond the door, you stop in surprise. It’s a large house of sorts. Over a dozen people sit at a long table in the center of the room. Just past them is a kitchen with a metal vent pipe jutting into the ceiling for the cook fire below. A large cauldron bubbles over that fire with what looks like porridge.
Around the walls hang drapes obscuring the entrances into several other rooms. You wonder if these are where the people sleep.
“Come,” the woman who first spoke jumps up, grabs two wooden bowls and slops some breakfast into them. She sets them on the table for you and Andrew and everyone slides down the long bench to make room for the two of you to join them.
Your stomach rumbles as you rack your brain for the last time you ate. It’s then you realize the bread that landed you in the pits was your last meal.
“Where’d you visit in the library?” the woman asks.
You look at her in surprise as everyone pauses to hear your answer.
“Everyone here was sentenced to the pits the same day they visited the library,” Andrew explains. “Lily’s got a theory about it. She’s been narrowing down what subjects the king doesn’t want people to study.”
“I didn’t even pull out a book,” you admit. “I just wanted out of the rain.”
Lily waves that away with a hand. “Doesn’t matter. What area did you hang out in?”
Leaning back, you picture the shelves that surrounded you that day in the stacks. With the rain, the smell of moisture and old dust had been particularly strong while you wandered.
“Science and history for a little bit but then one of the librarians rolled in with a cart and shooed me out since I was dripping water,” you say. “I wandered farther back. There was the modern technology section, mathematics, and then I think ancient technology and magics.”
“Hah!” Lily slams her palm against the table. “There it is again! We need to go look, Andrew.”
“Look?” you ask around the bite you just took. Although the flavor of the porridge is rather bland, your mouth waters with excitement over having something to eat.
Andrew rests his arms on the table with a long sigh. This is clearly not the first time they’ve discussed this.
“We have access to the city,” Andrew says in explanation, for the moment ignoring Lily. “We can get into the library but it’s risky. Lily here thinks there’s a link between the king’s clock, that big one on the wall that spins out of whack, and our coin clocks, and the answer might be in the ancient technology and magics section of the library.”
You frown. “Why do you think there’s a connection?”
“Guess how old Andrew is?” Lily bursts in.
“Umm,” you stall. Andrew’s voice always warbles like an old man’s but his face is still young. There’s just the hint of wrinkles at the corners of his eyes but they’re developing, not deep. But now that you can clearly see him, you can also see his hands, which look as papery as the king’s did. “I’ve no idea,” you admit.
“He’s twenty eight,” Lily says, unable to wait for Andrew to fill you in.
Andrew holds up his weathered hands. “This was the first sign,” he says, “that something was happening. I held onto my coin clock for the first year of my sentence, avoiding the worms by shear luck at first, and then by the tremors of their digging. I finally figured out how they were following me and tossed the clock. As soon as I did, my accelerated aging stopped.”
“He warned us,” Lily gestured around the table, “so most of us don’t show the same wear he does.”
The porridge in your mouth suddenly tastes bitter. You gulp it down.
“You want to figure out what happened by getting into the library?” you ask with a motion of your spoon at Andrew’s hands.
“I say,” another man farther down the table speaks up, “that we sneak into the throne room instead. I’d like to get that giant clock off the wall and take a look at it. We know for certain it’s connected to our coin clocks because Lily saw the king pull her coin out of the bottom of it.”
“But how does it work, Simon?” Lily asks the man. This is clearly another discussion they’ve all been over before. “Just looking at the clocks probably won’t tell us.”
“Looking at books might not tell us either. We don’t even know what book we’re looking for,” Simon counters.
“What do you think?” Andrew asks you. “It’s been a while since any of us have snuck into the city. Perhaps your recent time there could help.”
They all look at you where you froze with the spoon half way to your mouth. You take the bite of porridge to give you a second to consider.
Sneak into the throne room?
Sneak into the library?
Crystal Pit of Time-Sneak into the Library
When you voiced your desire to sneak into the library, you did not fully consider how difficult the endeavor would be. It just seemed like a safer way of investigating the coin clocks. But now, as you press tight to the stone behind a long tapestry on the library’s wall, you grumble mentally at the lack of planning.
The pit dwellers led you through a maze of tunnels until they reached the sewers under the city. At one time the two were separated by an earthen wall, but the dwellers had dug through to give them access to just about anywhere in the city. Lily led you all unerringly to another hole that they’d dug into the library basement and then she guided you up into the stacks by way of a back staircase. She admitted to visiting the library often, but she’s never been sure in which area to look for the king’s secret.
It’s the middle of the night, but unlike the throne room, the city library is always open, so the cavernous room is not empty. In the isle beyond the tapestry where you hide, an old man pushes a cart beside the shelves, stopping every few feet to shelve books. He’s in the ancient technology and magics section, so you wait with shallow breaths as he hums softly and shuffles his way down the row.
Beside you, Lily bounces on her toes in one quick up and down, and then goes still again. You realize now why Simon and Andrew did not want to be paired with the woman. No matter how she tries, she cannot stay still for more than a moment or two.
The humming pauses. Then, after a long minute, it starts up again. Lily lets out the breath she held and shoots you another apologetic smile. You give her arm a squeeze in encouragement.
Finally, after another half hour of the stone seeping its chill into your bones, the old man shuffles away. You wait until he disappears into an isle three rows over before stepping from behind the tapestry.
As you enter the isle, Lily takes the left and you the right to peruse the titles, but it doesn’t take long for you to realize you’ve no idea what you’re looking for in the dusty tomes. You draw a line in the dirt on one book just to read the title, “Creating the Wheel.”
“Oh,” Lily whispers her glee as she pulls a book from the shelf. Engraved on the red and brown leather cover is a clock that looks a lot like the King’s.
Lily opens the cover and a puff of dust explodes from the pages. Although she’s engrossed in the words she finds inside, you shift your gaze to the floor, where you see trails in the dust left by the old man’s cart. Beside the twin trails of the wheels, you can make out the scuffle marks from his feet.
A chill hits you.
Two things about those marks are not right. One, they’re the only type of foot prints in the isle. If the old man were actually shelving books from this row, there should be prints left by the customers who checked the books out. You check and can just make out the soft shapes left by your own feet from when you ducked into the row to get out of the rain the day before. Those prints only go a few feet into the ancient technology and magics isle.
The second oddity is even more telling. The prints you left were soft because your shoes don’t have a deep tread on the bottom. The marks left by the old man are spotted like a leopard. Only a military style boot with a deep tread left that sort of mark.
“Lily, we have to go,” you say but it’s too late as the old man steps into the row.
He’s not hunched or slow like he was with his book cart. It’s easy now to see what he is, a guard wearing a librarian’s long robe. Lily groans and hugs the book close. Behind the guard, two more appear with Simon and Andrew in tow.
“They have this section under guard,” you say to Lily.
“That’s right,” the guard says in a hushed voice. Apparently even he can’t bring himself to disturb the quiet of the books. “Let’s go.”
They usher your group out of the library into the quiet streets of the city. At first you expect them to take you to the city cells but you quickly realize you’re headed in the wrong direction.
“The King’s awake?” you ask, surprised as the guards take you into the palace.
The lead guard snorts. “He never sleeps.”
Sure enough, when they shove open the throne room doors, the King is sitting on his throne with his head propped up by a hand. He frowns at the intrusion but then his eyes come to rest on the book Lily is still hugging.
“Thieves,” he says.
“No,” Lily denies. “We—.”
“You’re holding the proof in your hands and you deny it?”
“The library’s open to all,” Lily continues to protest. “We didn’t mean to take one of the books, we just didn’t have a chance to put it back.”
“What you meant to do and what you in fact did are two different things, young lady,” the king says as he eyes you each in turn. When his eyes come to rest on you, they narrow and recognition glints in his gaze. The others have been in the pits long enough that he didn’t recognize them, but he saw you only yesterday. It’s too recent. “Plus,” he says, “the library is open to all citizens. As soon as you become criminals, that right is lost.”
He pushes off the armrest of his throne to stand and shuffles up the steps to the giant clock that spins without apparent purpose. He rests his hands on the bottom edge and there’s a faint clicking.
“You each get to start your sentences over,” he says when several small coins fall from the clock into the palm of his weathered hand.
“Hey,” Lily whispers to you while the King’s back is turned. She opens the book and tilts it so you can see. The page she holds contains a drawing of the clock, including the smaller coins falling from its base. What you can’t see on the actual clock because of distance, however, are the small circles around the copper frame. At your quick glance, it looks like the smaller coins should slide into the bigger clock’s outer structure. You can’t be certain of what it will do if you actually place your coins into the larger clock, but as the king turns around and slides a coin across the marble floor toward each of you, you realize you want nothing to do with the tiny, ticking sentence.
You could encourage the others to give you their coins. If you make a fast enough move, you might be able to reach the bigger clock and see what happens if you return those pieces.
Or you could simply crush the tiny clock under your heel and see what happens. It didn’t kill you when the pit worm ate the first one, but now that you think about it, it did affect you. The King’s reaction might tell you something as well.
Return the Coins to the Clock?
Crush the Coin Clock?
Crystal Pit of Time-Return the Coins to the Clock
The tiny clock that the king slid across the floor toward you comes to rest right at your toes. In the silence that follows, the ticking seems to bounce off the marble floor and your eyes settle on the number seven in the small window at the bottom of the round device.
You crouch to pick the thing up and give the other three a sideways glance. For whatever reason, they’re looking at you for direction. Your fingers curl around the copper coin.
“Give me your clocks,” you say at the same moment as you pick up the coin and step away from the nearest guard.
Lily grins. Instead of picking up her clock, she follows the king’s example and slides it across the floor. The other two, who paused at your words, do the same.
“Stop it!” the king commands, but you’re already moving and the other three have moved as well.
You dodge the nearest guard who tries to catch Lily’s clock with his boot. He misses and you scoop up the coin right after his boot comes down with a heavy thud. Seconds later, Lily’s small body slams into the man from the side. For such a small woman, she’s all the guard can handle and you easily retrieve the other two coins while Andrew and Simon distract the guards nearest them.
That leaves you and the king to face each other alone.
A snarl lifts his lips and adds wrinkles to his already aged face.
“This’ll bring you the death sentence,” he growls.
“This was already a death sentence,” you say.
He flinches and give a nervous glance at the large clock over his shoulder, which just strengthens your resolve.
You feign to the left and, when he commits to blocking you on the steps before the throne, you dodge right and jump the three steps in a simple leap. Your soft shoes barely make a slap on the marble as you land beside the throne. With a shove, you topple the giant chair onto the king. He gives an angry shriek as he and the chair tumble off the steps. At the bottom, the chair comes to rest on top of him, pinning him to the floor, where he continues to yell with wild anger.
It only takes you two more strides to reach the spinning clock on the wall. As you come to stand under it, you see the small circles that Lily pointed out in the drawing. This close, you can also make out the small indentations that mimic the faces of the tiny coins in your hand.
You fit the first coin into the clock. At first it doesn’t do anything but as you let go, small pinchers slide out of the copper frame to hold the coin in place. The mechanism clicks and the giant clock chimes as though it were three o’clock. The heavy tolling reverberates through the room.
When the tolling ends, you fit the second coin into the next slot. Instantly, the giant clock chimes again and this time it tolls out six notes instead of three.
“Look!” Lily shouts. You glance to see her pointing at the face of the giant clock. It’s no longer spinning without purpose but the hour hand is sitting on the six and the minute hand it straight on the hour.
One of the guards breaks loose from Andrew by kicking his peg leg out from under him. As the large man runs toward you, you quickly set the third coin into place. When you turn back to face the guard, the tolling of the ninth hour makes your ears ring.
From behind the guard, Andrew makes a desperate dash to reach him. He stumbles as the connections of his peg leg break and he hits the floor in a bruising slide. Just before the guard takes the first step of the dais, Andrew’s fingers close around his ankle, tripping him up the steps.
The guard kicks Andrew’s hand away but the brief pause is just enough time for you to fit the fourth and last coin into the clock.
This time, the click makes the whole mechanism shudder on the wall. The guard stops, mouth a gap, as the clock begins to chime the twelve.
Beneath the throne, the king’s shouts change from angry commands to terrified shrieks. He thrashes so hard that the heavy chair wobbles back and forth. That thrashing grows weaker and weaker with each metallic toll until, with the twelfth chime, there’s a puff of dust and the chair settles into stillness.
Everyone stares. As the silence stretches, Lily finally breaks it to approach the throne. She heaves if away from the king to find only a pile of dust and royal robes.
“He’s—,” she swallows, “he’s—.” She just shakes her head.
“Look,” Andrew says in a clear voice. He’s sitting on the bottom step with his shattered peg leg sticking out in front of him. But it’s his hands he’s staring at with wonder. Where before his hands shook with age and the skin pulled tight across sharp bones that showed the nobs of arthritic fingers, he holds out straight fingers that could hold a sword as easily as any of the guards in the room.
After a closer look at the book Lily found, it becomes clear that the king was using a form of old magic to pull life from the prisoners he sentenced to the crystal pits. Since the king lived for so long, there is no living heir to take his place. Oddly enough, it’s Simon who steps in as temporary king. He was once the old king’s first councilor but had been sentenced to the pits when he questioned some of the king’s reasons for sentencing local farmers to the pits.
The first thing Simon does is destroy the large clock on the wall. He then forbids life altering magics, and the book itself is removed from the library.
Yay, you survived and stopped the king! Thank you for joining this adventure.
Next week I’ll return with an update on Quaking Soul, my current work-in-progess/publishing project.