Qaifin did not bid anyone goodbye before she crossed the bridge to knock on the thick double doors to accept the Challenge. There was no point. The town hustled and bustled beyond the gates as though nothing was wrong, and the only one she’d spoken to was the shopkeeper closest to the bridge, who dismissed Qaifin and her concerns with a grunt. Qaifin knew, somehow, that the world was very, very wrong.
She felt it in the hollowness with which she regarded everyone in town. She sensed, at the back of her mind, the wrongness of the absence of something vital. But above all, she knew it because she did not have a place. There was no shop, no home, no job for her in town.
There was only the Challenge. He who enters these doors may challenge the Master to reclaim time, the signboard at the bridge proclaimed. What was time? Qaifin didn’t know, and neither did the dismissive shopkeeper. Nor did he seem to care.
The doors opened a crack by some invisible force. Qaifin stepped through into a dim hallway with stone floors and wooden doors. Suspicion became a certainty. She knew that she had been here before and that this was exactly what she was meant to do.
The door slammed closed behind her. She leapt into action without knowing why.
Qaifin danced through the hallway. She did not stop to think. She every so often paused near a door just long enough to press her ear to it—perhaps half a heartbeat, perhaps a full heartbeat, but no more—then moved on. She couldn’t remember what she was listening for, but her body led her, and she followed.
The hallway seemed endless. Her legs grew tired, but she knew better than to stop. Qaifin had no memory of this place, but her body knew this hallway too well. Only the Master could know how many times Qaifin had danced by, searching for a door, knowing only that she sought “time” and that she could not stop. Her mind may have forgotten, but her muscles knew to leap in a dance from stone to stone down the hallway. Qaifin did not know why, but she could surmise that there were “wrong” places to step. So Qaifin trusted her muscles to remember what she had forgotten and lead her.
Finally, as she paused near a door, she heard a tick-tick-tick from within. Her heart skipped a beat. But just as she was reaching for the door handle, it struck her that the ticking was just a little bit off. Something inside of her cried, it’s too fast! Surely “time” was more like a heartbeat than this rapid-fire ticking?
Qaifin could not remember. But she trusted her instincts just as she trusted her muscles.
She withdrew her hand from the handle and leaped onward. She knew that she had been correct when her legs immediately carried her on her way.
(Watching her from afar, the Master sighed. The rules of the hallway were simple. But as any challenger’s memory was wiped upon each failure, those simple rules should have been impossible to discern, much less crack. Most grew tired within a few hundred tries, even if they could not remember trying. This girl’s tenacity he had not anticipated.)
Cold sweat was trickling down her back, but Qaifin paid it no heed. She saw only the tiles and the doors flying by; she heard only the sounds within each room. She was all too aware that everything in the world hinged on her success—but fear would only slow her down, so she forced her mind into a place where there were only her legs, the doors, her heartbeat, and the sounds behind the doors.
At last she heard a tick-tick-tick that seemed right. Felt right. With one leap over to a closer tile, Qaifin took hold of the handle and turned it. The door fell open inwards without so much as a nudge.
Quickly, her pounding heart and aching legs reminded her as she took in as much as she could in an instant. The floor was made of wooden planks, with no pattern discernible at a glance; the ceiling wasn’t visible through the doorway; on the opposing wall was the ticking object, a round face with two arrows, a dozen numbers around the edges and a pendulum swinging beneath. Qaifin jumped across the remaining tiles and felt the rough wood beneath her feet.
“Thirteen,” said a voice to her left. As she turned, the doors swung shut behind her once again.
But Qaifin wasn’t listening, because the moment she stepped through the door, everything came back. Her memories; time; space. Thirteen. It was the thirteenth time she’d found this room. She had danced that hallway and fallen into oblivion too many times to count. Hundreds? Nay, thousands?
She began to tremble under the weight of that thing she had not even remembered how to comprehend a moment ago. Time. She remembered too many times dancing down that hallway. She could not ever remember sleeping or eating—but then, perhaps that didn’t matter in the absence of time?
Above all, she became aware of how very much she could not remember. She remembered waking up one day and knowing that it was wrong that she could not remember anything from the day before. The town had been in a clamor. Qaifin had been one among many to accept the Challenge on the signboard. Every time that they would emerge back into the world with their memories wiped clean again, a few more would defect to the town full of smiling, complacent, adjusted people.
It was difficult to discern order in her many memories of the Challenge within a world devoid of time. Yet Qaifin knew she was the only one still trying; she had too few memories of other challengers for it to be otherwise.
“Master,” she said. She took in the tall, skinny, white-haired, wrinkled, monocled figure lounging in a padded chair that only dwarfed him.
“Indeed,” said the man with an incline of his head. “I’d ask how you knew—but then no one else could possibly be in this room, now, could they?”
“I’m here to take back time.”
“Of course you are,” he said, stretching his mouth sideways. “As you were the twelve times before. Admirable. Unbelievable, really, that you would manage once, let alone thirteen times.”
“Time,” Qaifin repeated, tasting the word. Her eyes went to the object on the wall: the pendulum swung, and the object ticked. At the top was a square, the edges lined with numbers and three arrows pointing at the number 6. Something looked… off.
“Do you even remember what that is? I don’t imagine you do—nor anyone else.”
“That changes today.”
“Does it? You’ve been here twelve times before.”
“This time will be different.”
The Master smiled indulgently. “They say that repeating the same thing again and again and expecting a different result is a sign of insanity… but of course, that assumes that one can remember the previous times.”
Qaifin realized two things at once: that she had not regained her memories the twelve times before, and that the Master was not aware that she had her memories back now. She let the conversation slide in a direction only slightly different from the twelve times before. “It doesn’t matter. Why are you doing this? What did you hope to gain?”
“Haven’t you heard? It’s mankind’s greatest desire to live forever. It was yours too, once.”
This was not a thing Qaifin remembered. But this was no kind of life. “Then I was a fool.”
“You wished. I granted. Would you undo the yearning of your entire town?”
“There is no forever where there is no time.”
“There is no death where there is no time.”
“No. But I would prefer oblivion to reliving the same thing over and over again.”
“The town has everything you need. You could be happy there, if you gave it a chance.”
Qaifin thought of the townsfolk and their lack of concern. She did not envy their oblivion.
“Do you remember what it was like to be happy?” asked Qaifin. Her eyes flickered to the ticking device and its swinging pendulum. All the arrows still pointed at 6. Why was that strange? “Do you remember any emotion, anything mattering at all? I don’t think you do. But I think you wish you did—I think that’s why you stay in this room.”
The Master narrowed his eyes at her. “You say that as if you know what this room is.”
“The place where you sealed time,” said Qaifin, suddenly confident. “The device ticks, but the arrows don’t move. They’re supposed to move, aren’t they? Here, I feel… like I could live again. I think you must feel the same.”
“You dare tell me what I feel?” said the Master, rising to his feet. Standing on the seat of the chair, he was tall enough that his head seemed about to hit the ceiling. Qaifin told herself that he was more ridiculous than intimidating as she craned her neck to hold his gaze.
“I suggest, because I don’t believe any of us knows what we feel anymore.”
“I can make you feel terror.”
“Maybe. But then you’ll take my memories and terror will be meaningless.”
“There is no then. There is only now. Whatever you feel now—that is all there is.”
“Good,” said Qaifin, and she swallowed her heart as she leapt with all her might toward the ticking device. She heard the cry behind her, but paid it no heed. She felt a rush through the still air as he leapt off the chair at her. She was almost there—she could make it.
She felt the impact on her fist as she broke through the glass over the numbers and arrows. At the same moment that her fist struck the iron arrows, she felt the Master’s bony hand close around the back of her neck. She wrapped her fist around the arrows, and so when Master pulled her back she used his strength and pulled.
The iron arrows slid sideways ever so slightly. The ticking continued undaunted, but Qaifin felt a tearing through the air. This was what it felt like when a trapped world came apart at the seams all around her. An incoherent cry sounded from behind her, and then she was falling; the ground was suddenly far, far below.
I broke it, she exalted as she watched the clock, the room, and the manor crumble to dust. Time will move again! With the walls gone, she could suddenly see the shadows that were people all around: above, below, right, left, and front. But gravity had already taken hold, and the rush of air in her ears distracted her, reminded her that she lived again.
She could remember now: the grief of the lives taken by the plague, including both of Qaifin’s parents and her three elder sisters. She remembered invoking the Master with other survivors. She remembered him raising them into the clouds, constructing a timeless world around them even as their memories had faded away. She remembered other things, too: like the shopkeeper who had been so dismissive of her was her uncle. Where were her brothers and her cousins? What had become of her friends? Qaifin remembered love and fear and joy and pain and grief—such grief—and wondered if they were all going to fall to the earth and die as one.
Yet she was free. The tears she shed were for joy as much as relief. Qaifin, her town, and the man who had once been a Master of Time passed through the clouds on their way back to earth, where they belonged.