Starspire

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Chapter 24: Ticking Tyme Bomb

Matt rolled his eyes and snapped. “Dad, keep that visor closed!”

His dad slammed the visor shut and turned around for good measure. “Sorry. I just thought it would have worn off by now.”

Matt grunted and a swirl of dandelion fluff escaped his mouth. He had returned to his normal state not long after leaving the floor with the whirlwind, and he had stayed normal all throughout the next few floors. However, soon after their romp through the desert, he had relapsed, breaking out with shoots of grass protruding through his skin, and vines creeping out through his hair. The relapse had done nothing to improve his mood after climbing up hundreds of stairs.

Dad had removed the armor soon after escaping the whirlwind, but had put it back on now as Matt insisted that he wear it to impede his vision.

“I’ll let you know when it’s gone, now please get back to solving the riddle!”

His dad and Bahati turned back to the strange inscription over the wooden door they now stood in front of. The golden letters swirled and looped around each other, making them slightly difficult to read. In the center of the door, a carving of a brilliant star shone out at them, bathing the door in soft starlight.

His dad squinted through the slits in his visor for a few long moments and then shook his head. “I’ve got nothing. Take it away, Miss Wizard.”

Bahati didn’t not move her eyes from scanning the ornate text. She stared at the letters another long minute before nodding. “Yes, it says: To unlock the dreamer’s power, simply strike the dreamer’s hour.”

Bahati glanced from the door and then up at the massive clock face that towered over them. Matt stood next to one of the massive wooden pillars, which supported the vaulted ceiling that shone with hundreds of panes of stained glass. Sunlight shone through, casting a rainbow of colored shadows onto the floor, much like being in a gigantic kaleidoscope.

The clock was the most incredible piece of work he had ever seen: towering above them in the shape of an enormous cuckoo clock. Dozens of wooden houses were etched into the surface, each with its own set of doors and windows. As they watched, the clock struck 3 o’clock, the chimes resonating like musical thunderclaps.

As soon as the third chime had died away, the doors burst open, admitting dozens of wooden characters into the room. They dressed in festive costumes from many nationalities from every continent, each carrying some sort of bell, from a simple handbell, to a cowbell or even a gong. The figures moved in unison, each striking their instrument three times before retreating to their dwellings. Many kinds of sound filled the air, a feast to the ears and hung there for several seconds afterwards, echoing easily off the smooth chamber walls.

It took Matt a moment to realize what this meant and his jaw had dropped. “My brother loves these sorts of things. My uncle lives in Germany, and he sent him a cuckoo clock two years ago for his birthday. The thing drove me nuts, but he couldn’t get enough of it.”

“I do not see how you could sleep with one of these things in the house,” said Bahati.

“Well,” his dad said. “It was much, much smaller, and not as elaborate. I just wish he were seeing this.”

“He is,” insisted Bahati. “He is the one who made it. Your son certainly has an active imagination.”

“Yes,” Neil agreed. “A bit too active if you ask me.” He shifted his weight from one foot to the other and ran a hand through his hair. “So, any idea what that thing could mean by ‘the dreaming hour’? Sounds like it should be sometime when people are supposed to be asleep.”

“Agreed” Bahati said. “But a night has many hours, any of which could be considered ‘the dreaming hour.’ I suggest we look around for more clues.”

Neil nodded and motioned for Matt to join them.

They approached the door set at the base of the clock, and for the first time, Matt noticed another entryway a bit further down with doors like swinging saloon doors. Above it hung a makeshift sign that read: “Make time for Tyme.”

“Tyme?” Neil said. “What’s Tyme?”

“I think it is some sort of spice. Does your son like to cook?”

“Only if you count microwave popcorn. Besides, I think there’s an ‘h’ somewhere in the name of the spice.”
Bahati arched an eyebrow. “I’m surprised you know that. You do not seem like the cooking type either.”

Neil pursed his lips. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be able to fend for yourself in the kitchen. My wife was wonderful, but she wasn’t a culinary master.”

“Are you going to come in, or aren’t you?”

The voice came from beyond the door, a high, raspy voice, like a child with a cold. Neil placed a hand on the door and pushed. “We’ll come in, thanks.”

Bahati clamped a hand on Neil’s shoulder. “You’re just going to rush in there? What if this is a trap?”

Neil shook his head. “Didn’t you hear the voice? Doesn’t sound like the guy could hurt a bunny.”

Ignoring Neil, Bahati called into the room. “Who are you, and whom do you serve?”

“I’m Tyme, of course. Can’t you read the sign? I serve the clock. Now come in and close the door. You’re letting in the draft.”

Neil shrugged, casting Bahati a knowing look as he entered the room. Bahati followed, clutching her staff in front of her.

Tyme’s quarters occupied only about as much space as Tyson’s bedroom, and at first glance, bore a striking resemblance to them. A bed stood in one corner, and Matt recognized the bookshelves, the TV table and the desk. He felt a stab of sadness at the memories it conjured up. He didn’t know if they’d ever get to the top of the tower and see his brother again. True, being cooped up in the house with only him and Neil got old sometimes, but the thought of never seeing him again seemed about the worst thing that could happen. Who else would he play video games and make fun of old movies with?

In the center of the room on a stool, sat Tyson’s life-sized wooden twin. He looked up as they entered, his face set in an expression Matt had often seen him use during home school Math lessons. “So, who are you then?” asked Tyme. “Is there something wrong with the clock?”

Matt stepped forward, feeling how strange it was to have to introduce himself to his own brother. “I’m Matt and this is Bahati and my dad. We’re trying to find a way up to the next level and we think we need to get through the door with the star on it. You don’t have the key do you?”

Tyme sighed and shifted in his seat. “Here I thought it was something important. The second hand has been on the fritz for some time now. Thought it was finally time to install a replacement.”

“So,” Bahati said, “you oversee the clock then?”

“Yes. And you if had read the sign, you would know that the door has no key. It only opens when the dreaming hour is struck. I don’t know why I even bother putting up so many signs. No one reads them.”

Matt leaned in closer. “And what’s ‘the dreaming hour’? Can’t you tell us that?”

Tyme shook his head. “My wooden lips are sealed. That is not my information to divulge. By order of the management.”

“May we speak to the management?” Bahati asked.

“I doubt he would want to see you. He’s a very busy man. I’ve only ever spoken to him through magic. He always says that he has to get back to his reading.”

“Sir Nickeltwist,” mumbled Bahati. “When did he tell you to keep it a secret?”

Shrugging, Tyme lighted off his seat and started walking over to the bookshelf. “Not long ago. He mentioned that you might be coming and specifically forbade me to tell you anything. I fear I’ve said too much already.”

Matt could feel the anger rising to his face. He couldn’t very well wrestle this wooden version of his brother. “Why do you follow a guy like that? All the other versions of Tyson have been helping us. Is he paying you off?”

Tyme reached into the bookcase and withdrew two well-worn volumes. “When he is finished with a book, he sends it down to me. There’s nothing I love better than a good book.” He offered the books to Matt so that he could have a look. Matt took them, and read the titles, both of which he knew well.

The Jungle Book and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Interesting. That would explain the candy jungle a few floors down.”

Tyme took back the books and placed them carefully on his shelf. “Now, I don’t have anything against you personally, but I do have my orders. My boss doesn’t want you hanging around here, so I suggest you go. I don’t want to have to take other measures, but I will if I have to. I don’t know why you guys are even trying anymore.”

“What do you mean?” asked Matt. “Haven’t met anything we can’t take so far.”

Tyme closed his book and grinned in a way that gave Matt chills. “That’s because you haven’t reached my floor yet, not to mention the ones above us. The tower’s growing faster and faster. So really, I don’t have to stop you. It’s enough just to slow you down.”

A hand from Bahati silenced Neil’s impending outburst. “Come,” she whispered. “Let’s talk about this outside. There’s no use trying to wrench anything out of him.”

Bahati and Matt followed Neil out the swinging doors and back into the main corridor. “So,” Neil said once they were out. “Let’s discuss. How can we show that little punk posing as my son who’s boss?”

Bahati bit his lip. “I do not think that is as important as figuring out the meaning of the dreaming hour. I suppose we could just wait around for a while. It is bound to strike the dreaming time sooner or later.”

Neil shook his head. “I think I would go crazy. The longer we wait here, the longer our journey gets. Who knows what Sir Nickeltwist gave Tyme to harass us?”

Another door in the face of the clock opened and two wooden figures lumbered out. One was a man, walking entirely on his knees towards them. The other was a man with a huge tangle of hair rising up from his head like a thorn bush defying the pull of gravity.

Matt stood his ground and Bahati raised her staff. The pair of wooden figures drew ever closer, and Matt realized something that made his stomach flip: the two figures looked just like Neil and him. They stopped only feet away and fixed them both with unblinking gazes.

“Hello,” said the man. “I’m Kneel and this is Matted. Father Tyme sent us to give you a message.”

Matted leaned in, his eyes eerie and flat. “He wants to let you know that if you do not leave immediately, you will be evicted. We can escort you to a door that will take you completely out of the Tower.” She swiveled and indicated a door near the back of the room. The door glowed with a subdued purple light.

“So, what do you say?” Kneel asked. “Will you come without making a fuss? You don’t want to upset Father Tyme. He’s not a very patient person.”

Neil stepped up to his counterpart, his face fixed in a scowl. “That’s the message, huh? Well, I’ve got a message for that obnoxious wooden brat masquerading as my son: we’re not going anywhere until the dreaming hour, at which time we’re moving up. Final answer.”

The figure snapped back as if someone had pulled on his puppet strings. “He said you might say something like that. Now I don’t want to hear any whining that we didn’t give you a fair chance.” He raised his left hand, which held a bell of a dark, shimmering metal. With a series of swift jerks, he rang the bell backwards over his shoulder sounding a low ominous note.

As the sound died away, every door on the face of the clock flew open, admitting the occupants into the main room. What had seemed like something he might have seen at Disneyland a few minutes before, now looked more like something out of a horror movie. Dozens of figures clambered down the clock face like spiders, an angry murmur rising through the air.

Neil gasped and took a step back. “Maybe it’s time again for the armor.”

Bahati nodded, withdrawing the belfry from his pocket. “I think we need to make this a fairer fight.” She shook the belfry, releasing the third bat from its confinement. The bat flew away and disappeared, its squeaking lost in the clatter of dozens of advancing wooden feet.

Suddenly, a trio of figures materialized in front of them: the Yeti whom Bahati had chosen, his fur once again white, the imp with the exploding spines, and an unfamiliar figure, a hulking man with a skin of green scales, a ridge of spines down his back, and a face that looked like a combination of a man and a dragon.

The dragon-man rushed up to Bahati, his face lifting in a sharp-toothed grin. “I am Borgron, VICE. Lieutenant 2nd order. How can we be of service? I hope it’s a fight.”

Bahati nodded, adopting a grin of his own. “You are in luck. See those wooden things climbing down the clock? We need help fending them off. Shouldn’t be a problem?”

Borgron’s grin grew. “Wooden warriors shouldn’t fight dragon men.”

The trio of monsters dashed off towards the oncoming foe.

Neil rushed to Bahati’s side. “I don’t suppose there’s anything I could use as a weapon around here.”

Bahati pondered momentarily, and then nodded. “Here—try this.” She wove her fingers through the air and a slender icicle the length of a baseball bat appeared in her hands. With a smile, she handed it to Neil, who accepted it in a hand wrapped in his sleeve. She repeated the process and handed one to Matt as well.

“It is magically-reinforced ice,” Bahati explained. “It won’t shatter as easily as a normal icicle, and should slow down anything that comes in contact with it. If you prick an enemy with the point, it might even freeze them solid.”

Examining his new weapon, Matt nodded and gave it a few practice swipes in the air. “This will work.” He cleared his throat, “Uh, thanks.”

As the first of the wooden figures hit the floor, it vanished in a flash of light and sawdust, only to be replaced a moment later with a giant version of itself. Rank after rank of the wooden giants appeared, forming a formidable forest of adversaries.

Neil sighed and dropped his head. “I knew it. I was just starting to get hopeful. This always happens. I feel like we’re the checker pieces picking a fight with the chess pieces.”

Bahati exhaled sharply, and handed Neil an icicle for the other hand.

The first row of wooden pieces charged, meeting the three VICE monsters head on. Borgron opened his jaws wide and unleashed an intense plume of blue and white flame across the front lines. The figures, a line of robed men who looked like Romans in togas, went up in flames and started flailing around, igniting other figures around them.

An enormous wooden man, at least twice as tall as the other figures, wearing green lederhosen clomped toward Bahati, brandishing an enormous walking stick. Matt turned and saw the man snap her up, wrapping its long wooden fingers around her. She flung ice and wind at it, pounding it repeatedly, but couldn’t make it let go.

Just then, a trio of figures with red coats and tall, furry black hats leapt into the forefront, performing low kicks like Neil had seen Russian dancers do in “The Nutcracker.” One kick caught Borgron off guard and sent him flying across the room.

The imp leapt into action, jumping atop the extended legs and jabbing them with explosive spines. The destructive dance routine ended abruptly. Matt hesitated only for a moment, before deciding on a battle cry.

“For Tyson!” he cried as he charged ahead, icicles raised toward the figure wearing lederhosen. He parried a blow by a walking stick and then struck out with his icicle. The tip connected, and the figure froze in place, a dusting of frost covering his entire body.

Matt took a second to admire his handiwork and missed seeing a second walking stick hurtling towards his back. The blow knocked the wind out of him as he hit the ground hard, and he had just enough time to roll away before the sharp end came down on his neck.

He sprang to his feet, and saw that a woman in a dress that matched the lederhosen man had snatched Bahati out of the man’s hand. He ran as hard as he could and caught his opponent with the side of the icicle. The German hiker did not freeze right away, but turned sluggish, making dodging the next blow a simple task. Neil followed up, striking the second figure with the tip of his icicle and rendering it immobile.

Elation coursing through him, Matt looked down at the weapon he had used and realized that it had grown smaller. He would have to ask Bahati for another one soon. Bahati jumped out of the wooden woman’s grasp and joined Matt. “Thank you,” she called. “Don’t let them catch you. You won’t get out.”

Before he had time to catch his breath, Matt saw a massive man dressed as a Canadian Mountie bear down on him, swinging a club thicker than Matt’s arm. Matt ducked and tried to swipe back, but the Mountie’s horse was too quick. It dodged nimbly and then whirled around for another attempt. Matt tried to evade the next attack, but instead found out what it feels like to get hit by a croquet ball. He slid along the floor on the edge of consciousness, and heard the horse thundering towards him to finish him off.

Matt’s head swam, but he knew the incoming hoof beats signaled his doom. He found he wasn’t afraid of what was coming, only sad that he hadn’t been able to save his brother.

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