‘It’s smelly,’ said Curio.
He was resting inside one of Ashlyn’s many pockets, all the while getting jolted whenever Ashlyn tumbled over a windowsill. He was starting to feel as hot and sticky as she was, and he didn’t like it. Ashlyn on the other hand was too busy to notice.
‘Where are these fressers coming from?’ she panted.
They seemed to be lurking in every growing shadow and it was all she could do to distract them with time sands, step on them and shout profanities at them. It wasn’t long before she spotted another one in the treetops. What she called a time bomb was now a ball of rags, but it was nonetheless dusty with time sands, so she bowled the zeitfresser over with it anyway. Unable to spare anymore sands, she resigned herself to running indefinitely.
More than two packs of zeitfressers were in the area, which was unusual, because zeitfressers do not like to share. A small village can supply a day’s worth of sands for a single pack, but once the village has been stripped clean, the zeitfressers must continue their nomadic existence. Memories and stories need time to grow and develop into coveted time sands. For whatever reason, zeitfressers were gravitating toward cottage ruins that had already been laid bare by other zeitfressers – and were not leaving.
‘Time sands,’ Curio said next to Ashlyn’s ear.
The pocket in Ashlyn’s cape coat had become too uncomfortable to sit in, so he decided to perch upon Ashlyn’s shoulder instead.
‘I can’t use anymore!’ she gasped. ‘You have to hide!’
She made to grab him and stuff him back inside a pocket, but he slipped away and clung to her hair. She was about to scold him when she noticed several zeitfressers looming above. They sprung from the trees with claws that reached for her head – claws that in a blink of an eye would snatch Curio away and tear his little body to dust. Her hand clumsily searched and failed to reach a vial of sands. She was too late to do anything.
‘Q!’ she shrieked, terrified for his life.
‘Zeitfressers,’ she heard him say.
Before she knew it, the zeitfressers had flown away overhead, without landing a single paw on Curio or her tangled hair. She was still running.
‘Q?’ she huffed, a little confused.
‘I slowed down their time fields,’ said Curio. He yawned.
Ashlyn was relieved, but angry at the same time.
‘Get in a pocket before you fall!’ she snapped.
‘But Ash,’ said Curio. ‘Time sands are here.’
She took a moment to tell herself that he was not stating the obvious, but couldn’t see how he was talking about anything other than their own reserves.
‘How?’ she asked, utterly bewildered.
The land was overrun with zeitfressers. She evaded one on her right and flailed a fist at another one on her left. It was unthinkable that somewhere was a trove of time sands, completely untainted and vibrant enough to call Curio’s attention.
After a moment of quiet reflection, Curio replied, ‘Magic.’
Ashlyn groaned tiredly. She wasn’t amused, because magic was something she had never been able to get her head around. She knew there was such a thing as white magic and another thing called black magic, but in her time travels, she often witnessed other colours of magic, such as Briar Rose red or Peter Pan green. To put it simply, she had no way of telling whether a spell would heal the cracks in your soul or break every bone in your body.
The further she ran, the more grey foliage and crooked trees sank away behind her. She found herself fleeing the thinning woodland and the soles of her boots starting to hit parched stone and dirt. It was getting very dark.
‘Zeitfresser,’ said Curio suddenly.
‘Where?’ Ashlyn cried, tossing her head every which way.
She felt something furry crawling up her leg and then the shock of tiny claws digging into her flesh. She stumbled to a halt and thumped the creature with a balled up fist.
‘Ouch! Get off, you mangy demon!’ she shouted.
It released its hold, but once again, Curio said, ‘Zeitfresser.’
Another zeitfresser grabbed her arm. More climbed into her cape coat, scrambling for time sands and targeting the zeitgeist that was nestling in her hair. The light had gone and she couldn’t see. Horrified, she realised that she must have stumbled into the territory of another pack.
Something pulled her long braided hair and her tired legs gave way from under her. The drop was bigger than she first anticipated. She went head first, slamming into the thirsty ground and falling into a blur of painful rolls, flips and turns. The dirt cracked and crumbled as her body somersaulted, but eventually the slope started to level and she tumbled to a stop.
Her body was heavy with aches and pains. It took her a minute or two to notice something gently tugging her braided hair. She was confused and dizzy. She pictured a snapping zeitfresser and found enough hatred to raise her hand. Just when she was about to thrash the creature into oblivion, a familiar voice said, ‘Will you not thank me?’
She was too numb and stunned to answer immediately. Her zeitgeist was hopping about in front of her eyes, strangely content and animated.
‘Will you not thank me?’ he said again.
‘Your wings…’ Ashlyn said quietly.
She wasn’t one to cry so easily, but whether it was because of the awful chase, the shock of falling or simply because she was tired, the sight of Curio’s tattered wings made her vision blurry. The neat, delicate little feathers had been torn apart by zeitfresser teeth.
‘The zeitfressers…’ Ashlyn mumbled. ‘We need to…’
‘You will not be thanking me?’ said Curio, a little disappointed.
Carefully, Ashlyn lifted her head and moved to support herself on her forearms. She found it required less effort than she feared it would and rolled over to land uncomfortably on her back. Beneath her cape coat was her satchel, which felt reassuringly sturdy and hard. It meant that her family heirloom was still inside. She was relieved to feel its presence.
The night wasn’t as dark as she remembered it to be. She listened to the sleeping forest’s gentle hush and wished, for one brief moment, that she could slow down and walk at its pace. Letting the water dry in her eyes, she finally asked, ‘What did you do?’
Curio replied, ‘I took hold of your hair and pulled until you fell.’
Ashlyn forgot her weariness and sat up.
‘I thought that was a fresser,’ she said.
Curio tilted his head to one side and said, ‘A zeitfresser wouldn’t want you to be safe.’ He added, ‘You have new cuts on your face.’
Ashlyn had the sudden urge to shake him about like a ragdoll, but decided against it given the state of his wings.
‘Thank you,’ she said flatly.
Satisfied, Curio waddled away to explore.
‘Hold on,’ Ashlyn called. ‘Where did the fressers go?’
Curio stopped and looked back at her.
‘They didn’t go anywhere,’ he said. ‘We are inside the magic circle and they are outside the magic circle.’ He turned away. ‘This tree has many time sands.’
Ashlyn watched as he approached the mountain before them. He quietly investigated the rough surface with the horn on his forehead. The mountain was made of tree bark and the tree bark was glowing timidly. She thought the colour very much resembled Peter Pan green.
It took her a few moments to see what was really there. She rose to her feet and ignored the stiffness in her bones when she stepped clumsily backwards. Instead of knobbly, uneven stone, she saw thick tree trunks that had grown tightly intertwined together. The result was one enormous tree with a girth that stretched many metres across. It was so big, she couldn’t quite work out in her close proximity just what shape it had decided to assume. All she could see was that the base of the tree was very wide and that its broad canopy of leaves had taken the pattern of crawler lightning. It had been a long time since she saw something so wonderful.
‘I’m jealous, Q,’ said Ashlyn softly. ‘I wish I could read this tree’s memories.’
Curio didn’t say anything. As expected, he had made himself comfortable and was absorbed in reading the new stories he had found. With them came the healing energy he needed, and already, the little wings on his back were beginning to repair themselves.
Ashlyn was about to find a spot to rest and see to her cuts and scrapes, when Curio said, ‘I like this tree. You will like this tree too, Ash.’
‘I could use a nice bedtime story after the day we had,’ Ashlyn said with a sleepy smile.
With only the glow of the tree to see by, it was difficult to assess the terrain, but there appeared to be no other greenery. It was as if the land had been struck by a meteorite and she and Curio had fallen into the enormous crater left behind. She wondered at the sheer size of the tree. She wondered how it had come to be in such barren, unremarkable earth, completely flanked by zeitfressers.
‘Here was once a lake,’ Curio revealed. ‘Underneath is a cavern where the water flowed.’
Ashlyn placed a tentative hand on the tree’s warm surface. She rested an ear against the bark and thought she could hear the tree whisper. The seconds ticked by and standing still became the last thing she wanted to do.
‘Throughout is a lot of magic,’ Curio continued. ‘Inside is a library.’