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At Calendar's End: Omnibus: At Calendar's End

At Calendar's End: Omnibus: At Calendar's End

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At Calendar's End: Omnibus: At Calendar's End

Length:
547 pages
7 hours
Publisher:
Released:
Oct 11, 2017
ISBN:
9781386185628
Format:
Book

Description

This omnibus collects all twelve serialized installments of At Calendar's End into a single volume.

Time is a fickle thing. Sometimes, so are those that wield it. As the holidays set in and another year comes to a close, the Intercalary – beings charged with keeping the cycle of time moving forward – prepare for another year. For them, it's nothing new. One more year in a timeless cycle, except things are already shaping up to be different for them this time around...
A shadow haunts the Intercalary. A darkness that threatens to engulf them, revisiting the sins of time long forgotten. With their own lives in danger, humanity's own existence now also hangs in the balance...

Publisher:
Released:
Oct 11, 2017
ISBN:
9781386185628
Format:
Book

About the author

Andy Lockwood is a writer, an artist, and above all: a dreamer. When not slaving away, he spends his time buying books he does not have time to read, and delving into mediums he has no time to fully explore. He currently lives in mid-Michigan with his three cats.


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At Calendar's End - Andy Lockwood

FOREWORD

It started out, as most things do, as a challenge to myself. Each book starts out as one challenge or another. Empty Hallways was a challenge to write a novel; House of Thirteen was to start a series with an ensemble cast; Threshold was... well, you’ll have to wait for that one to be released. I wouldn’t want to give anything away. But with At Calendar’s End, I wanted to try something different. It felt like the story would be too long for a novel, but I didn’t want to hack it up into a series either. It had to be something else. In the end, I decided that it was going to be a serial. Not just a serial, but a marathon.

I challenged myself to twelve parts, one to be released each month throughout the year. I promised myself no less than ten thousand words per chapter. And then, I recruited Bailey and Brian to be a part of this madness as well. (Alright, so recruited might not be accurate. One might use the word demand, but at the same time, neither of them would have let me work with anyone else either. They also are as possessive of me as I am of them.)

So it began, and twelve months later it ended. And sometime after that, I decided that it needed to be in one easy-to-carry tome, so here we are again.

What you’ll find in this collection are all twelve parts, including covers, epigraphs, and content. I have spared you having to read the Acknowledgements at the end of every chapter. If you really want to read those, they’re still at the very end of the book where I usually leave them.

I hope you enjoy the story as it unfolds, and I hope you appreciate the ability to move from one month to the next without having to wait (im)patiently for the next installment. Thirty days is a long time – it’s longer when you are waiting for answers.

It is not, however, a very long time when you are trying to get one part of the story out, so you have time to write the next part before its deadline. Time is relative like that; thank Einstein.

Enjoy.

JANUARY

Time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind.

- Nathaniel Hawthorne

ONE

The wind swirled, twisting ribbons of snow through the streets, buffeting anything and anyone unfortunate enough to be caught in the path. Pedestrians redoubled their efforts to hide themselves within thick winter garments as they traveled toward shelters of a more permanent sort.

Ember moved along the path of streetlights, lingering in bright oases before stepping down the path into the relative dark. Even at the furthest points between luminance, the frozen crystals in the air and the blanket of white around her reflected so much light that darkness struggled to hold onto the night. She moved lightly, toeing around icy patches and occasionally stepping off the cleared path to kick playfully at the piles of snow people had worked so hard to remove from the sidewalk. Passersby were so wrapped up in their own struggles against the blistering cold, they scarcely noticed her slight frame and pale curls bouncing down the walk in thin flats and a light jacket. When they did notice, they mistook her for a fashion-conscious twenty-something, assuming she'd rather suffer in the cold than be caught in a frumpy coat that stood a chance to protect her from the elements.

They were partly right: she did love fashion. Maybe not the avant-garde style the fashion world loves to advertise, but she adored the trends. So much so that her knit cap was only coincidentally protective, as she had only picked it out as a colorful accent. If she needed to worry about the weather, she wouldn't be running around in a pencil skirt and vest as the forecasted squall descended on the city. She was, in fact, the furthest thing from worry. Her smile was stretched from ear to ear, and her ruby lips glinted almost as brightly as her blue eyes.

This was her storm. Every year, it was only a matter of time before a major winter event pummeled the Great Lakes and the states that surrounded them. Whether by her own will or by environmental coincidence, the storm often enough fell in December. This year, by some fluke it had come earlier than expected. Usually, she waited all month for it to arrive so she could play as it blanketed the city in peaceful white. This year, it fell in the first week, before turkey leftovers could be forgotten in the back of the fridge.

The longer the flakes drifted down, the more barren the streets became. She loved these moments: the quiet stillness so foreign to the usually crowded streets. It was a small present she granted herself once a year: to run amok in the empty streets. Her job was so strict and serious during December. It usually required so much concentration that she was exhausted by New Year's Eve. Often, it was the only break she gave herself, but sometimes there were moments when the bitterness of mankind got the better of her and she hid among the alleys and the snowbound dead ends, away from both her kind and theirs. She hid, rather than emulate that pettiness, returning it ten-fold and unleashing whatever awful power lie beyond self-restraint. It was times like that she was glad she was not solely in charge of balancing the year. She was all but certain humanity would have been lost to time long before they'd achieved any merit if she'd been their only saving grace.

She was accustomed to hiding from mankind - they all were. The members of the Intercalary had made a solemn unspoken vow that they would never reveal themselves, or who knew what might happen. Through the years, Ember had changed her name more than once, as they all had, in keeping up appearances. And though she preferred her self-bestowed nickname, December was in strict control of her namesake, whatever the Intercalary tried to dictate.

When December first arrived, and November had relinquished the energy to December, their voices became opinions and nothing more. Just as she was allowed to voice her opinion about how another month was faring, no one was required to heed her advice. Higher beings or not, the Intercalary were only a dozen bodies and held many of the same impulses that man felt. They were responsible for themselves and could blame no one else when things took a turn due to unheeded advice. It was mostly a balance of power and control. Bad days happened. When they did, the world felt it. Humanity itself never knew better; it was ignorant to most things outside its tiny scope. But the Intercalary knew and had to be reminded of the goal: to sustain. If anyone of them lost control, they threatened an already delicate balance. Without the revolution of time, the world itself would simply cease to be. The Intercalary would end with everything else, of course. Humans sometimes unwittingly dared Ember to be petty enough to end their ignorant little lives, but she was not suicidal. She enjoyed her life - and her work - but sometimes, she envied the human lifespan: their lives were all over so quickly, they hardly had enough time to become immune to wonder. Ember had been part of the cycle for so long now, her sense of wonder was running on empty.

She existed, like most of her household, on a precarious line between self-restraint and community intervention. Sometimes she worried that her rash behavior might get her edged out of the Intercalary. It happened only one time, and all involved agreed it was a fate that none wanted to experience. Their stations were privileged, but it was never stated that they were exclusive. Ember had no desire to see what came after, or what came instead. The thought of exile from the Earth was a curiosity she had no desire satiating.

A couple hurried passed her, conjoined in a huddle of winter garments. She smiled as they rushed by, but they did not seem to pay her any mind. Though she tried sometimes, Ember could hardly remember being mortal. So far removed and so long ago, it didn't even register. Like trying to recall which socks were worn on a random day in childhood, it was nothing that mattered as any part of her life now. She had long since moved past her mortal tendencies, struggling to keep them in mind as she helped usher the hands of time forward. Each of them had found their own way of coping with the emerging distance between themselves and the rest of the population around them. She found that hobbies were the best way to stave the aggression that led to stupid and regrettable decisions. She played at plenty of skills through the years, including an attempt at fashion design, hoping to hone and curb the obsession. Ember sold some of her designs over the years, but for the most part remained an obscure player in a much bigger industry. If only they knew who they were passing over.

Most of the members of the Intercalary found it easier to play stakeholder in the fate of all while filling their time with diversions that kept them invested in humanity's best interests. There were times where that investment backfired, but Ember considered it part of her duty to preserve the karmic balance and keep trying. She was amazed what kind of effect ready-to-paint pottery had on her mood.

She toured the streets, her smile brighter and her step lighter with every inch of snow that obscured previous proof of life on the roads and paths around her. She lingered at the city center for hours, a blip of red and black on a white-washed canvas.

Last call was a comedy of errors for an audience of one. Ember eyed stragglers and drunks up and down the street, obviously ill-prepared for the world to leave them stranded. She tried not to giggle as she watched them whirling around as if they'd never seen snow before. Her smile brightened as she watched them part ways, shoulders slumped, defeated by the elements. She let the silence and vacancy surround her again, startled from her peace by another figure in her peripheral vision. While she could appreciate the hypocrisy, she did not appreciate being observed. She turned to give them a taste of their own medicine. Her smile stalled, then abandoned her altogether.

There had certainly been someone standing there when she first noticed, but now there was nothing. Had she mistaken the shadows for another person? She shook her head. It didn't seem likely that she would mistake such a clear figure. She looked back to the bar and again tried to catch it in her periphery. It refused a second appearance. Ember took it as a sign that perhaps it was time to return home, and turned down the block, away from the footpaths cut into the snowy street.

She was a number of streets from her previous location when she caught it again. She forced herself to analyze it from her periphery before she turned this time. It had to be a person; there was no mistaking the build of it. When she turned again, there was nothing there, not even a shadow to mistake for a human being. She looked around again, certain that someone was playing a cruel trick on her. Perhaps someone from the household had followed her. If they were making a game of her private time, Ember did not find it as amusing as they did. She quickened her pace, leaving her calm somewhere in the cold street.

For the first time in many years since moving to the city, she lost herself in the streets and alleys, uncertain where she was. Ember wasn't certain of how long she had been running or where, till she realized she was heading in the wrong direction.

She turned a corner and stopped in her tracks. It was there, standing in the middle of the street. If it was a shadow, it lacked any solid form to adhere to. It stood tall, not making any motions. Her breath caught, and she stuttered backward. Her heel planted on a patch of ice and slipped out from under her. She fell, but the blanket of white cushioned her. Her eyes returned to the dark figure, but it was gone. A moment after that, she wasn't sure she had actually seen anything at all. She stared at nothing, not even tracks in the deep snow. She didn't want to believe her senses, but there was no evidence that anything had been there a moment earlier.

She stood in the street for minutes, completely motionless and observing, until her body did something it had not done in a very long time - it shivered. It was not a reflex against the cold; it was a physical manifestation of a reaction to her situation, making her feel wholly unpleasant for the first time in ages.

Ember watched for another minute, taking slow, patient steps forward.  She waited to see if it would reappear, dreading that it might be closer the next time she saw it. Her locks whipped around her as she quickened her pace, trying to spot it hiding in the dark nearby. Her steps widened and moved quickly in the direction of home, uncertain if she should keep looking over her shoulder, or lock her eyes forward till she was safe and sound.

TWO

I assume you've been out admiring this whitewash.

His low voice bounced softly off the walls of the foyer as she closed the door, her nerves frayed enough to cause a small yelp to escape her lips. He misread it as having caught her by surprise, not noticing the quake in her hands as she held the door. Ember hesitated, finding herself pleasantly relieved she was no longer alone, even if her company was the scolding sound of his voice. You could be a little less obvious when you go out, you know.

She accepted the opportunity to distract herself in a frivolous argument.

I am not dressed any worse than anyone else.

Not indoors, at least.

She could see the face he made without looking at him. His brown eyes glimmered under his heavy brow. He chewed on his bottom lip when he was impatient; the motion made his cheeks look sunken under his pronounced cheekbones. Her ability to see his facial tics without looking was the result of many years by his side. Her attempts to keep with the pulse of humanity were often commented on. She had cataloged his tones and looks while he observed and critiqued. Sometimes the comments were directed at her, but often at humanity in general. He had given up his masquerading long ago and resigned to removing himself as completely as he could. Occasionally, she could crack his stony exterior and bring out a light-hearted character that was Jekyll to his so-serious Hyde. Those moments rarely occurred at the end of the year. December meant that New Year was looming and with it, Janus felt the self-inflated pressure to start the following year on a proper trajectory.

Janus was insistent upon balance, both in his life and outside it. No more good than bad, no more sorrow than joy - as far as he could control. The Intercalary's purpose was to keep the clock running - the sun needed something to shine on, after all - and try to steer toward a purposeful balance as best they could.

Meanwhile, humanity and all its folly continued to believe it was in control, asserting itself with the heavy hand of a fumbling child. The Intercalary’s only method of curtailing these fumbles lay in influencing those they were able to sway.

Ember had exercised opinions when she still had ties to the fashion industry. They had been few and far between, but their influence had a long reach. Maya and Augustus used their art to imply directions of change. Sometimes it worked, other times, it fizzled and died inside a small circle of would-be trendsetters. Often though, such tasks fell to Val.

Valentine made both her fortune and her fame in what was referred to as the 'sensual arts' - as she had been doing for centuries. In select company, she would tell the long-winded story of how legendary poet Geoffrey Chaucer made a wager, mostly against himself, to write a poem that could influence the thoughts of all who read it. His design was to influence a movement that would change the Feast Day of St. Valentine to Valentine's day: a day to celebrate love - his love for her. He wrote sonnets to her full lips and green eyes. He wrote prose comparing her golden hair to the sun, her soft curves to Aphrodite and Venus. She would recite one of his poems from memory and then grow very quiet. After a couple of minutes, she would break the uncomfortable silence with her bright, infectious laugh. Then she would remind everyone of how his great deed was eventually forgotten - yet every year, the streets ran red with flowers and hearts, and she knew she would never have a greater admirer - nor would she ever achieve a greater seduction.

The rest of the Intercalary assisted her finances to keep her influence strong when it was needed, but man always did what he saw necessary, regardless of anyone's influence. It was those times when they could do nothing but watch that Janus found his withered connection to humanity tested most. His patience for mankind waned as they spread across the globe, clashing with one another time and again. All he could do was keep the years turning, hoping for fair leaders to plot a better course for their people. On occasion, he saw his wishes granted, watching eras of enlightenment and advancement usher in. Simple tools gave way to complex industry. Oral history evolved into digital communication. Janus could almost be proud of them if they would only shelve their petty bickering. But they couldn't stop, so he continued to loathe them, his frustration transposing onto Ember whenever she emulated their kind.

Ember turned, dragging him back into the here and now and then cutting him off before he could say anything else.

It's been a good day, leave it to end that way.

She started to give him one of her patented glares but stopped short. She wanted to shake off her clothes, and the trepidation from earlier, and crawl into a warm bed with a contented smile. Janus waited a moment, but then closed his mouth without another word. He gave her half a smile and resigned himself to a flourished bow that was equal parts adoring and sarcastic. Ember accepted it as a concession just the same.

She closed the gap between them, standing on tiptoes to plant a kiss just above his jawline. She couldn't reach higher unless he bent to meet her and right now, he was playing hard-to-get.

Thank you, she smiled up at him. I know how much restraint that takes.

He cracked a smile, his sharp nose making the look almost aggressive to the untrained eye. She knew this was not aggression as he teased her fingers in his own. I do what I can.

She twisted outward, spinning away and around him as she moved up the hall toward their room. She paused and looked over her shoulder to where he still stood.

"You could end the night on a good note with me..."

This time she won. His smile was genuine as he followed, closing the bedroom door behind them.

THREE

Ember rolled over, turning from the morning sun. Her sleepy smile widened as her hand lighted upon the smooth, toned muscle of Janus’ bare chest, drinking in his silent presence.

It was these moments that pulled her back into his clutches again, ensnaring her and setting her up for another bitter heartache. It wasn't really his fault, not any more than it was hers. No creature was designed to love both wholly and forever. They were no exception. In fact, they were probably the only two beings to try so nobly at it. The others coupled, and occasionally made a long-term go of it - except Val, who coupled both often and ad infinitum, as was her nature. Janus and Ember separated rarely and even then found themselves gravitating back toward each other soon after parting. Yin and yang; alpha and omega. The frustration was that though they both knew this was the way it would always be for them - Janus would always choose the task over her. He was serious about being captain of the ship; it would take a mutiny to make him relinquish command. More than once, Ember feared it might actually come to pass.

She pondered childish pranks to rouse him but decided it wasn't worth the aggravation that would follow her the rest of the day. Gently, she kissed his chest before climbing over him and making her groggy way out of the bedroom.

She was wearing a thin nightgown, and wrestling with her favorite fuzzy robe as she stepped into the hall - it refused to be worn properly this morning. She almost threw it on the floor in protest when she heard voices in the kitchen. She tugged a sleeve on, wrapping the rest of the robe around her like a toga and tying it off. She wished she had taken a look at her hair before she stepped out of the bedroom. More than once, she had considered cutting it down to the same spiky crop of hair Janus had – as his was effortless to manage - but she knew she would instantly regret it.

She put on a plastic smile, expecting one or more of Val's many frequent guests to be exploiting the bountiful offerings of the community kitchen. It was one of the many perks of living in a home where a dozen or more bodies could be at any given time. Most of the Intercalary frequented the house around their respective months. Ember and Janus called it home for most of the year, sometimes leaving during the summer months - and usually only because Janus and Julian regularly butted heads. No one else seemed to take issue with Julian and largely helped to keep the two of them apart. In fact, when large debates were not taking place, most of the Intercalary would not mind being trapped in a room with Julian. They would probably not be so complacent if any of them were locked in a room with Janus.

Ember rounded the corner and found herself enjoyably surprised. Two bronze faces, ones that appeared to already have been smiling, lit up even brighter as she entered. One dashed around the large kitchen island, racing toward her. Ember's survival instinct didn't have time to register as it shifted from pleasant surprise to blind panic. The small, mottle-haired body collided with Ember, dragging her to the floor in a heap of parts. The witness to the collision stood over them, smiling and laughing softly to himself. He extricated the perpetrator, then helped Ember to her feet with more coordination than she was ready to muster. She was delighted to see that neither of them had lost their enthusiasm since she'd last seen them. Four arms wrapped around her, and she tried to hug them back with equal amounts of joy and vigor. Her panic abated as quickly as it ignited, allowing a joyful laugh to trickle out.

What are you doing here? I heard you were on the other side of the world!

They pulled away, their own amusement settling. It always surprised Ember, year after countless year, to see just how alike they appeared: so much like two versions of the same person. Their constant travel kept them lean and athletic. Their hairstyles reflected the same sense of ease; short and loose, though relentlessly curly.

Juno spoke first, sidling up to her companion before returning her gaze to Ember.

And miss the festivities? Not a chance.

Ember smiled back, knowing what Juno meant. They had spoken once or twice during their travels. The entire time Juno was away, she had quietly longed to come home, to be with the Intercalary again. Ember had replied, trying to placate her homesickness. Julian was always excited for the next adventure and was all too happy to drag her to the far corners of the earth - the farther from their brethren, the better. It was his way. Unfortunately, Juno did not always entertain this same sentiment. She followed because she loved him and wanted to be with him, but she was much happier surrounded by those who understood her. Ember tried to offer her a positive perspective, but Juno had trouble accepting it. When she traveled with Julian, they were alone together for days, sometimes weeks. She had no one else to communicate with, and Julian was not one for conversation on their long hikes. When they returned to civilization, she had to be careful of what she said.

In that Ember sympathized all too well. When they were home, among their own, they didn't have to hide who they were. More than once it had come back to how uncomfortable Juno was around mortals. She didn't like thinking about mortality, it was so very short term to her. She - they, the Intercalary - was ever-present. Perhaps they were not as immortal as the mountains and the layers of the earth, but they were the next link in the chain of long-term concepts.

Ember could see it on her face, 'festivities' or no, Juno was delighted to be back. They were home, and though Julian grumbled about their snowy homecoming, Ember could see that he was happy that Juno was happy.

These 'festivities' could use a little less snow in them, Julian sighed as he extricated himself from her grasp and raised himself onto the counter to sit. Juno fixed him with an unimpressed glare. She and Julian moved synchronously as they waved each other away.

Ember glowed back at them. She too was happy to see them return much earlier than had been scheduled. It wasn't going to be a quiet house for much longer.

So what did you manage to see before you turned around?

Julian opened his mouth, his eyes bright and ready to regale Ember with tales of wonder, but Juno hopped up on the counter next to him, distracting him momentarily.

Nothing we haven't seen a dozen times. Her eyes were sad, distant for a moment. It's strange to visit the monuments as they age.

Ember knew the look well and spoke up.

It reminds you of how long we've been doing this, doesn't it? They shared a look before Juno nodded softly. Julian scoffed, jumping down to move across the kitchen, but Juno ignored him and continued with their kitchen philosophy. It's hard to see monuments as they crumble away while you can still remember what they looked like when they were new.

It's easier if you don't think about it. Just don't. Julian pulled the fridge door open too hard, bottles clattering as the door hit the wall. I don't know why you insist on torturing yourselves. So we've been there. And sure, the old structures are falling apart around us. That's not our problem.

No one is saying we’re blaming ourselves for anything. It's just a thought. You've never stopped to think about it?

He shrugged as he drank orange juice out of the carton, the rest of the household be damned.

I try not to, almost actively. If we are going to be young forever, I'm going to act like it. I am not going to be a withering old thing trapped inside this amazing body.

Juno scoffed. I don't know if 'amazing' is such an accurate term.

Don't be jealous.

I'm not jealous, I'm-

Children, please. You'll wake the parents. Ember tried to look stern, her mouth twisting with a smile.

Julian rolled his eyes while Juno laughed.

And how is our favorite old soul?

His usual self. Their faces showed similar sour reactions, but Ember smiled, a warm spot growing inside her chest. Last night was good though. Really good.

But did he smile? Julian leaned toward her. It doesn't mean anything without a smile.

She nodded. Julian and Juno stared looked at each other, and then back at her.

You saw it? Did you take a picture? Juno leaned in, whispering as if participating in a campfire ghost story.

Ember rolled her eyes. We were having a moment, why would I take a picture?

Julian tossed the empty container in the trash. I say she's making the whole thing up.

She could only smile coyly. Why would I make that up? Of course, he smiles. You know he does. He's as capable as you are.

"I know he can, Julian winked and started out of the room. But I also know he only really does for you."

They laughed and carried on for the better part of the morning, catching up on adventures and details of the past months. Juno and Julian had crossed paths with Augustus before leaving the United States. They had found him in New York, where he had been touring art galleries. While Augustus wasn't certain that New York was his favorite option, he decided to tour the galleries to see if anything struck his fancy. When Julian heard, he conned Augustus into playing tour guide for a couple days before they hopped a plane across the ocean.

Ember had known about the visit. She had exchanged emails with Augustus during the whole process - really, she had been a sympathetic ear while Augustus complained about touring the galleries. He didn't like having to think about selling his work; he just wanted to be an artist when he wasn't turning the summer days into fall. His agent, however, insisted that he participate in his own marketing.

But Ember didn't interrupt, and she didn't inform them that she already knew the story. She liked hearing stories for perspective - where they had been, what they had seen. It was always different; no two people had the same experience, even together. When their ranks were abroad, Ember more or less insisted that they keep in touch. Most did, though it was usually sporadic. The only ones that truly stayed in touch out of season were Janus and Val - and they didn't really count, as they were rarely far enough away to write. Sometimes Nova would stick with the group, choosing present company as the most convenient form of antisocial behavior, but the others were hard pressed to get away when their season was up. Ember hadn't heard anything from September or Tobin since Nova took over her duties. They had booked passage on a train bound for somewhere, and that was that. They said they'd be back when the snow disappeared. Ember had sent messages, but there had been no replies.

It was awful trying to keep them all together. Sometimes Ember could tell that they were growing restless with their duties - maybe it had something to do with staring at the same eleven faces for millennia. They wanted to be themselves - to have their own lives away from the Intercalary - but there was no way out of this. It wasn't just a job they could resign from when something better came along. This was part of who they were, right to the core.

The real problem, the one no one said out loud, was admittedly Janus. He could be overwhelming. They were all aware of the rules that needed to be adhered to; they didn't need to be told every time they took the reins. Ember tried to be a fair mediator and subdue the aggravation, but even she had to admit he was frustrating.

Of course, no one was willing to say it except Julian. He was willing to take the brunt of the storm. It was the larger part of the reason that he kept out of the way until it was his turn. There were times when he didn't want to return with Juno but would have happily pushed back his arrival to when he was required to be there. When he handed the reins off to Augustus, he already had one foot out the door, ready to drag Juno away with him. She would convince him to stay longer, but about the time Janus began critiquing the way July was handled, and what could have been improved upon, Julian was out the door again.

And though everyone would blame Janus and hold it against him through September and into October, no one but Ember saw that he beat himself up over it as well. Sometimes, Janus simply couldn't help himself. His was the burden that kept the world moving. He took it very seriously because he was the only one who would. The rest took their month seriously. Maybe the months around them, often only before them, but on the other half of the year, they were nowhere to be found. Julian didn't care about January, and wouldn't - even if someone elsewhere in control of it. Only Janus, and Ember, for the most part, considered the bigger picture a year at a time. Ember saw it, she understood, but she never said anything. She wasn't sure how anyone else would react to the information - Janus included.

FOUR

Janus stretched, his muscles tight from the stress built up in them. He was accustomed to it, but also knew that if he let it build for too long, bad things would happen. He rolled to the edge of the bed and sat, working his toes against the thick carpet.

Tense and release, tense and release.

It was part of his morning routine. The thick carpet felt good against the balls of his feet. It was his second favorite part of starting the day. The first was a scalding hot shower. He remained under the steaming water until his skin appeared sunburnt and felt tight against his muscles, pressing them against his skeleton.

The steam was thick like fog, rolling across the room as he stepped out, toweling himself soft and slow, enjoying the moments of quiet. Alone time was time to think and reflect. It was part of the routine that cleared his head and made for better leadership. It was why he preferred solitude, even though he knew it did not help his leadership skills. He sometimes considered that he would be better off alone, in another life and another world, but that was not an option in this life. Once in a great while, he considered relieving everyone of their duties to let them carry on as they pleased. He wasn't sure if that was plausible, or even possible, but he considered it. It also occurred to him that he alone would not be strong enough, making it an empty gesture if he set them loose only to bring it all crashing down around them.

He patted the towel against his face, dabbing and buffing as he dried himself. In the post-shower fog, the light reflected off the white walls with almost as much intensity as the sun reflecting off the snow. He welcomed the momentary relief of the towel on his eyes, shielding his eyes in darkness, if only temporarily.

He opened his eyes once as he pulled the towel down over his face, closing them before he had a moment to contemplate what he was looking at. All at once, the afterimage clicked in his brain, and he dropped the towel, tensing.

He looked around the large room. Someone had been standing right in front of him just a moment before. But he was definitely alone now. Surely he had seen them; his eyes couldn't have mistaken it.

One moment, there had been a silhouette in the thick mist swirling around him, and then there was nothing. He gave it another moment, blinking away the moisture floating in the air. Every moment his doubt weighed heavier over his certainty. He couldn't believe that he would be tricked by a mirage - in his own bathroom no less.

By the time he opened the door, he was shaking his head, sure that this was a sign that the stress was getting to him. It was evident that he needed more sleep than he thought he did.

He moved back across the bedroom, stepping into the closet to dress. He pulled a blue long sleeve button-down off a hanger and slipped on a pair of khakis. He put his hand out, grasping across the low shelf where his watch always rested. It was not there. His brow creased as he considered for a moment: had someone taken it? Who would bother? The watch had no significance to anyone but him, and his was only that it remained a reliable and well-made watch for many years. It may be old enough to be an heirloom, but it was certainly not worth much more than modern watches. Still, it bothered him that it was not where it should be. He had placed it in its spot last night before Ember had come home. He tried to shrug it off, distracting himself with the rest of his morning process, but as he reached for his shoes, he pulled his hand back. For a moment, it was as if he'd encountered a snake, only to find it made of rubber. This was no harmless prank, however. Between his shoes, clenched by the heels, was his watch. He scrutinized it again, expecting it to jump out at him. When it did not, he snatched it up.

He automatically threw it around his wrist, and as he fastened the buckle, he saw that it had been reset. It read 12 o'clock, January 1. As he turned it in the light, he noticed that the glass face of the watch was cracked. The splinter wandered across the scarred surface, chips and cracks highlighting the date and time again. Janus did not find this amusing in the least. It angered him that someone would go to such lengths to unsettle him. He would get to the bottom of it, and he would get it restored to its former convention. He took a steadying breath and pinched the mechanism to set the proper date and time.

Out of the corner of his eye, something moved. A dark shape interrupted the light that pressed in from the outside world. Janus turned and saw the dark form blocking his exit. He fell back against the wall, his breath gone. The shadowy shape flickered, but it seemed to examine him, its head tilted in consideration before fading again quickly. Janus remained on the floor, holding himself to the wall until he was certain that the thing would not return.

He looked at the watch again, unable to ignore the feeling of betrayal that rose up inside him when he looked at it. He saw the cracks again and tugged at the watchband, angered that it would not release itself at the insistence of his trembling fingers. The clasp popped, and Janus threw it against the wall as he scuttled out of the closet. He tried to shake off the insidious intent the watch implied, but it had already planted the seed in his brain. Janus fled the bedroom, his panic following close on his heels.

Safety

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