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The Last Timekeeper

“You see, living in the past is a cruel delusion, Chancellor.”
A gold-dusted leaf drifts down by a lingering wind’s grace, as slender as a feather, to flow and adorn a tuft of grass fringing the chancellor’s rock.
Inol Harmon sighs, his scrawny legs dangling against the little boulder he is perched on. Unmoved, on the rock facing him is Aelita, the new chancellor of Clefland, issuing a stony silence in a facade of contemplation.
Outside Inol’s hut, they are on a mountain land of unbridled gardens, both wrapped in the chill of Autumn. Counting leaves, counting minutes until at last, Inol leans forward in elderly exasperation.
“Fine. I’ll tell you the whole story.”, he says, his wrinkles furrowing his head deeper. “But remember, it is not in my wish that it should be unveiled and that nor should my reasons be unheeded.”
“Inol,” says Aelita. “I can assure you that I am trustworthy and I’ll listen to your telling like a distant folklore. After all, I’m merely fuelled by curiosity and who’s more fit to relieve it better than the last timekeeper?” She lifts her head up, eyes as grey as a hopeful owl’s. “I just want to know, before my role of heading Clefland begins, the untainted truth about the age of resonance.”

A chamber in hell is what the world mirrors with its scarred arms of barren love. Deep crevices stretch across the lands like a gruesome cut and its people are vagabond; severed and severing others from the pull of warm deeds and the need of sacred ties. So they tread with care on their splintered ground, striving to remain sane and not tumble into a chasm of oblivion. 
One day, an exceedingly crucial day, the central wasteland is teeming with desperate crowds, eagerly awaiting the yearly race to the golden river. The timekeeper, a big strapping man is standing on the age-stained podium beside a gigantic gong; legs and arms apart starlike as a helper fixes a wristwatch upon him.
The air is charged with vivid tension, radiating from person to person like a chain of current. This is their only chance to rewrite their harrowing fate. Their only chance because it is the final year of the age of resonance.
The young sun flushes in the sky, unfurling a blithe glow upon the timekeeper’s striking silhouette.

“A series of chances is what it was.”, says Inol. “A series of chances given out just to be taken back. Year after year, beginning with the very first note of promise to the bitter revelation of failure.”
“But the game? How was it done and then lost? What happened in the last year?”, asks Aelitha, unable to put the lid on the forgotten intrigue of her questions. For all her life they had been buried deep inside her soul’s cauldron, yearning for the right ray of light.
A ghost of a smile flashes across Inol’s face, only to swiftly be overtaken by a weary glint in his eye. “The game. Where do I begin with it?” He sighs. “The prize of the game, the river of resonance or the golden river as they called it, gave a pivotal aura for the age. It was an invaluable prize, a pathway to peace, an end to the broken fragments of the world.”
Aelitha sucks in a breath. “So the stories, were they true? Did the river really contain the rings of the-“
“The past, yes.”, says Inol, sighing yet again. “People knew that Clefland had once been wreathed in harmony, knew that their ancestors had waltzed through their lives, happy and carefree; in a melodic orb of gold. They were aware that they were merely existing in the ruins of that glorious past, with the devil’s wreckage and jumbled noise as their backdrop. And then” Inol shudders a little, in a way that frames the cause as memories and not the winds circling around. “There in the outskirts of Clefland, came the river of resonance, dark blue with a sunlit sheen on its waters. Waters that bore the rings of the past, all golden like gifts that were presented by the gods.”, he says, an uncanny grimness etched on his face.
“And that was when the race began, didn’t it?”, asks Aelitha, who is glowing now. “The literal race against time?”
“Yes. That was when the ritual of the game began.”, he answers. “Each year, four chosen members of Clefland tried their hand at the race to reach the river. They had to arrive there before a specific time; within an ever-fluctuating time limit that was shown by the golden wristwatch. It was the job held by both me as the last timekeeper and the erstwhile timekeepers to set the race off and cease it accordingly, by sounding the big gong. If they reached the river by beating the time, they could collect the rings and revive the past. If they didn’t, if they ran short of it, then the river would close its invisible barriers, which when crossed was believed to pave the way for fatal outcomes. But as you would’ve fathomed, it wasn’t easy to win the race because it contained some, let’s say time-consuming obstacles”.
“What sort of obstacles?”, asks Aelitha almost immediately, mind trapped in the web of an exciting history.

The timekeeper keeps the mallet down, a deafening echo blaring through its strike like a bolt of thunder.
A roar bursts out from the crowds as the players spring forward in a rapid march. There are four of them- Viola, Brio, Carol and Dorian, all clad in a black ensemble and furnished with daggers in a scabbard around their waists. They soon lunge into the air at a furious pace, an unwise venture because the wasteland is more of a moonscape that is dripping in jagged stones and fissures. The haste is essential but one is doubtlessly destined to fall. 
Carol lets out a startled yell as she hurtles down to the ground, silver hair flying in the air like a blade. 
The others hear the heavy thud and feel apprehension creeping up their spines like a wave of coldness but they have no other choice but to keep moving forward. Running back will not avail the race or their reputation.
They eventually stray from the wasteland and the crowds to arrive at a plush green grove, beyond which their prize flows.
Tentatively, they enter the grove and find themselves encircled by earthly glamours: the mossy padding of lush soil, the rich tapestry of green that can only be woven by a daydream and the wafting scents, so sharp and sweet. 
Overhead, the arches of the leafy trees veil the morning sky in an intricate art of nature. After a momentary wonder, they soon rush through the woods, following the rare spots of sunlight as if they’re chasing the last droplets of nectar in a realm of withered blossoms. 
They run recklessly with legs swinging past each other in fleeting moments, gasping and panting, until they come to a swift halt with Viola almost falling forward in the endeavour. She quickly pulls herself together, biting down on her reflexive fear while the others stand still as a statue, gaping at the sight before them.
There right in the midst of the woods is a green pyramid, draped in twigs and leaves and flecked with pale brown that they perceive to be branches. Thick vines entwine with it and then plunge down to curve across the ground like snakes on either side of the structure.
It is Brio who first steps forward and stomps around the pyramid, his defiant spirit, a radiant outline to his frame. But no sooner does he do that than a rope of vine draws him back in.
Viola grips her dagger in her hand. “I think we should break the pyramid to get through”, she says.
“Yes. A task arduous enough to reap a reward.”, says Dorian, glancing at Brio.
Together, the three of them twist and wrench the vines, attacking and unravelling them with a savage relish. But the more they jolt at each strike, the less they grieve for lost time. The vines are built and forged by the relics of old-age and so breaking them apart not only stole minutes but also the notion of giving up. It is only after a while passes that Dorian stops, looks around and says, “Hey, the time!”
Their daggers fall to the ground, deemed abandoned. The pyramid stands rigid and tall, barely a dent made on it.
“With the amount of minutes we’ve let go to waste, we might as well expect Carol to catch up with us now”, remarks Brio sullenly.
“But there must be some way.” Dorian begins. “A faster way to—“
“Wood!”, Viola shrinks.
“What?”
“There’s wood! Pieces of wood!”, she says, her fingers probing the pyramid excitedly.
Brio and Dorian exchange a look before stepping beside her. “What are you talking about?”
You see these brown spots over here? They are not branches. Feel them. They’re wood, heaped up in pieces here and there!”, she says, gesturing wildly and to their amazement, they feel them and realise that she’s true. Stacked at random, peeking out beneath the masses of the vines and leaves, is indeed good solid wood.
“So um, how’s that supposed to help us?”, asks Dorian.
Viola stoops down, picks up her dagger and then wedges it between the vines, into a piece of wood. When it gives in to the force and plummets backwards, a part of the pyramid cascades down to its place, like a thick green cape, ready to be roped around the the players in victory.
Brio whoops and picks up his own dagger. “Come on, guys let’s save Clefland!”

Aelita sits on the rock, watching the clouds drink up the hues of sunset and fly in the blue sky like colourful smoke. She marvels at how rhythmically eternal they are, amusing the world and witnessing its staggering transitions year after year for centuries in an unflappable grace.
Like passive onlookers, she thinks, pure and untouchable even amidst the shifting sands of time. 
“I’ve always found the stories that they tell about the age to be very mesmerising and the now truth is no exception too”, she says. “But I just wish I had a glimpse into the memories and knew what it was like being in the era and seeing the actual game unroll before me…”
Inol shakes head. “It doesn’t take much for one to get engrossed in stories and forget that it’s also a narration of real life of its own kind. Real life that includes the less attractive elements of a story.”, he says. “And I realised all those parts of the age when I was the timekeeper of the game.”
“But how? The race was a perfect arrangement. Our broken world needed it.”, says Aelitha indignantly. “We had to have a chance to get back the past.”
Inol bolts upright. “You see, that’s where you’re wrong.” he says. We never needed the river of resonance. The past is always best where it is. The rings were regarded to be a blessing, but I believed that they were a curse. They were a consequence commonly agreed upon as a saviour but I thought it would be warped. I detested the river and its rings because it meant defying the world’s order.” Inol pauses, eyes shone like a fire. “Back in the age, we all dreamt of the past, lost in its sweet hopes that would make us flee from our hell and now you ask about the age, lit with such strong entrancement, so can’t you see?” he asks. “We will all in the future inevitability form the fragments of the past, that in turn will be envisioned and be talked about. And these pasts shouldn’t in no way be allowed to collide for the people would then be leading a life that has already been led. Carving a legacy that has already been made; a destruction of the reality like no other.” he says and then lets out a sigh, suddenly downcast. “But of course, this was all not in my hands to control because in the last year of the game, the players performed exceptionally well. Exceptionally well indeed.”

Each second twinned with the sound of them running, creating a flawless cadence in the air and rising a steady beat of confidence into their hearts.
Viola, Dorian and Brio had endured five challenges in their path successfully with Carol hurrying behind, striving to catch up. Now, they could sense that they’re nearing the river of gold.
“We’re really going to save this dump now!” pants Brio. “We’re really doing it!”
Dorian who is running a little further away, swivels his head back, shouting, “Yes!” at the top of his voice.
The sun suddenly seems to pour down light to them and the trees seem to sway towards them, like a sign of their forthcoming triumph.
They see it now, the wooden fence with a gate fixed to let them pass. Through the slits in the fence, they see the blue of the river glisten, with sparkles of gold bobbing up and down on the waters.
Viola breathes deeply. “We don’t have to live here anymore. We can get the past back. We can finally be truly happy.”

Inol runs a hand through his hair, smiling ruefully. “And now we arrive at the part you’d despise the most.”, he says.
Aelitha frowns. “What do you mean?”
Darkness is rapidly pulsing and unfolding itself in the sky like a shadowy creature looming out of a mist. Stars grin in an evil twinkle and Autumn leaves rain down on them, reminiscent of a melancholic death.
“In the final game, the people of Clefland were frenzied, chanting for the players to win.”,says Inol. Tied together with the last strands of hope, they were upheld by the players thriving in the race second by second. As the timekeeper, I was on the podium, watching their every turn and end and, revelling in the latter.” He frowns. “But that year, the players arrived closest to the river of resonance than anybody had ever been before. They were going to seize those rings.”
“And then the time ended.”, finishes Aelitha, unruffled.
“No.”, says Inol, his voice barely a whisper. “I ended it.”
She stares at him, shock splattering across her face.
“I turned a blind eye to the wristwatch and then struck the gong hard, well aware that by doing so, I would brew a secret that would haunt me in its silence all my life. Well, until now.” A slight smile plays about Inol’s lips. “But I’m contented to know that I did not let my people fall prey to an unhealthy fantasy. I’m contented to know that you are going to run a clefland that is truly rooted in actuality, however bad it might be.”

The sound sends every bone in their bodies rattling and courses through their veins like ice.
They stand there, paralysed, the river just a few paces away, watching the golden rings float away from their grasps. Their new future. Their only chance.
Tears well up in Brio’s eyes and Viola bangs her fist to the ground, an image of such desperate fury that flares Dorian’s sadness into a blaze. They don’t dare approach the river now lest they’re damned forever. But as it is, their world is just as brutal and now, they would be breathing in an immortal air of despair, let out from everybody’s waning spirit, like words engraved on a clear cloudless sky.
“Everything is gone.”, croaks Brio vapidly, tears streaming down his cheeks in a rapid trail.

“You see, living in the past is a cruel delusion, Chancellor.”

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