Even by the standards of dark nights, that one was dark. There weren't even stars to see by, just a blanket of cloud blocking out all light.
Aside from the torch burning in the hands of the traveller as he urged his Whinny along the canyon pass. The red Lutari had his head pressed hard against his steed's mane, the torch illuminating a small path ahead of them. He glanced back occasionally - worried of what might follow.
Ahead, the path forked - and the Lutari brought his steed to a stop. He hesitated. These paths were unfamiliar to him.
He started out down the left hand path, but a sudden explosion high in the canyon above him caused rubble to rain down - blocking the path forwards on the left side.
The traveller made a pained expression, again glancing back the way he had come. There was no time - he had to move, and the only way forwards was to the right.
He pressed his head deeper into the Whinny's fur and spurred it on, drawing every last bit of speed out of it. The torch began to flicker in the wind as they went, making the circle of firelight even smaller.
After a few minutes, the path began to climb up to reach the canyon lip, but then ended abruptly at a cliff face. The Lutari snarled in frustration before noticing a small wooden shack attached to the cliff wall. He made his way over, knocking hard on the door.
A candle lit in the darkness of the shack, and the door opened a fraction.
"Who are you? What do you want?" a gruff voice demanded.
"I need to get to Folkstone Pass," the Lutari said.
"You came from Crannock Hold?" the voice asked. "You went the wrong way at the fork - take the left path and it will lead you to the Pass. I'm sorry, this way's a dead end."
"I can't take that road," the Lutari said. "There was a landslide - and I can't go back to Crannock Hold... I'd never make it tonight."
The door was opened a fraction more, revealing an old Acara.
"A landslide?" he asked.
"The path is completely blocked," the Lutari said. "There must be another way out of the canyon, surely?"
"Only back to Crannock," the Acara said.
"Father," a female voice said from within. "Don't be so rude - he can't make it back to Crannock tonight - at least invite him in for a drink, it is a cold night."
The Acara gave a withering look to the person inside, but relented, opening the door.
"Come, warm yourself by the fire before you head back," he said.
Inside, a young woman was already stoking a fire in the modest shack. The Acara was a deeper shade of blue than her elderly father, and shot the Lutari a friendly smile.
"Nicole," she said. "This is my father, Howard. Professor-"
"The stranger doesn't need to know our life stories, Nicole," the elder cut across her quickly.
"A professor?" the Lutari asked, taking the bait.
"Professor Howard Volsuice, attached to Brightvale University," Nicole said proudly, ignoring her father's acid glare.
"We're quite a way from Brightvale," the Lutari said, sitting down by the fire and taking a cup of something hot from Nicole.
"Studying the mines in this area of Meridell," Howard said.
"You are?" Nicole asked.
"Carver," he said, hoping to leave it at that but failing under the pressure of Nicole's stare. "I was hoping to get to Folkstone Pass for business. My clients might leave town if I'm not there to meet them in the morning."
"Well I'm afraid we can't help you there," Nicole said. "As my father said, there's only two ways out of this canyon. The Crannock road and the Folkstone road. Your best bet is to stay here until first light and then set off back to Crannock. You can take the high pass over the top of the canyon to Folkstone from there, but it is longer, you'll have missed your clients, I'm afraid."
"What exactly is it you sell, Mr. Carver?" Howard asked, glancing out the window at his waiting Whinny. "You don't seem to have much room for packs."
"Services, mostly," Carver said quickly. "I only carry contracts."
"You said there was a landslide, yes?" Howard asked, still staring out of the window. "We get our supplies from Folkstone - it will take them days to go the long way round for deliveries."
"Well, I say landslide, but it was more of an explosion," Carver said.
This got Howard's attention.
"I feared you may say that," he said. "I have explosives set up to further some mines - something must have triggered them, I think. I had better check the damage."
"Father," Nicole protested. "Can't it wait until morning?"
"No," Howard replied bluntly. "I must be sure. There is a Petpet path that leads up to the top of the fork - sadly not out of the canyon system, so it will be no help to you. I'll be back within the hour. You were so keen to let Mr. Carver in, you can entertain him until I get back."
With that, he grabbed his coat off a hook and was off into the night.
"Just you two?" Carver asked, looking around the single room shack.
Nicole gestured to a door in the back.
"We've carved out living quarters in the rock," she said. "This place is bigger than it seems. Not enough room for you, sadly, but I'm sure you can sleep in here until morning."
"How long have you and your father been here?" Carver asked.
"Oh..." she said. "Quite some time."
Carver knew a deliberately vague answer when he heard one, and left it at that. Nicole made a fresh pot of tea and delivered it with more probing questions about Carver's past and business which he countered with ones of his own. None were answered truthfully or completely. Both knew it.
After only half an hour, Howard returned - looking white and shaken.
"Are you alright, Father?" Nicole asked.
He wasn't, but he said he was.
"Mr. Carver," he said suddenly. "Would you say you are a principled man? An honest man?"
"Yes," he replied.
"Then I need your word, Mr. Carver," Howard said. "Your solemn word that you did not come here to steal from me. That until I opened that door you had no idea who Howard Volsuice was."
"Of course," Carver said, nonplussed. "You have it."
Not a lie.
"Good," Howard said with relief. "I'm sorry if I appear short with you, Mr. Carver, but my work can draw interest from the outside, and it appears that my explosives in the mines were... Tampered with."
"After all this time?" she said. "Surely that's not possible?"
"All this time?" Carver asked. "Exactly how long have you two been here?"
Carver didn't get the answer to that question - outside, there were hoof beats approaching. Many of them.
"Who is this?" Howard asked, glancing out the window.
There were four of them, riding Whinnies and approaching fast. Their burning torches illumined their faces and they didn't look happy.
"I wouldn't answer that door, Professor," Carver suggested. "They are not friendly people."
"Here for you?" Nicole asked.
"I'm sorry," Carver said. "They are why I can't go back to Crannock Hold. Their problem is with me, not you - I'll go out there, no need to draw you both into this."
"Nonsense," Howard said with a sudden panicked look in his eyes. "These men are thugs, yes? We cannot allow the lawless to rule the land. No, you stay with us."
"We'll go further in," Howard told Nicole. "To the study."
"Father, you can't be thinking?"
"Nicole, now, my dear," Howard said.
She nodded obediently, moving to the door and opening it with effort. Carver saw that what appeared to be a simple wooden door on one side was in fact a sheet of steel on the other, with several sturdy looking deadbolts.
"You're not really here researching mining, are you?" Carver asked.
"I will explain later," Howard said. "Please, Mr. Carver, unless you would rather spend the remainder of the evening with them?"
Carver wouldn't. He followed Nicole through the door, and Howard closed it behind them, locking it tight. Ahead, they passed through two more similar doors before finally stopping their retreat.
"That should hold even the most aggressive attack for a few hours," Howard said with relief. You asked a question earlier, yes? How long we have been here? Two hundred years."
"My research is into the nature of time, Mr. Carver," Howard said. "We've been slowly shaving off bits of time here and there - a second in Crannock is a quarter of a second here. In our time, we've been here only thirty years, but two hundred have passed outside. The process requires a lot of iron - hence the mining. We thought, being a dead end on the way to a backwater town in Meridell, we'd be safe."
"Father," Nicole said, suddenly more sternly. "You didn't bring us back here to use it, did you?"
"There's only one way out of this bunker, my dear," he replied. "You know that."
"It isn't properly tested!" she said.
"We have no other choice, believe me," Howard said.
"Believe you?" Nicole asked. "What do you mean? ... Exactly what did you see at the fork, Father?"
"Nothing, my dear," Howard said in an entirely unconvincing voice. "Nothing at all. Mr. Carver, there is more, if you would follow me."
They had arrived into what appeared to be a well stocked library, with bookcases lining the walls and a small reading desk in the middle. Howard made his way to one of the shelves and picked a book, pulling it forwards to reveal a secret passage in the bookcase next door.
The hidden room behind it was nothing like the previous. It was filled entirely with clocks, the ticking from hundreds of timepieces almost deafened Carver. High above, what looked like a giant clock was ticking, but strange white energy seemed to be present where the clockworks would normally sit.
"Time doesn't disappear," Howard explained. "And we couldn't simply discharge the time we were shaving off into other areas - so we stored it. One hundred and seventy years of stored time, that's what you're seeing."
"That's not possible," Carver said.
"And yet, here we are," Howard said. "Your friends outside will breach our doors eventually, but this gives us a way out. We can discharge the excess time into this room - most of it will wash away, be absorbed into the canyon, but some will stick. Enough of it that we will be transported to a place where your friends cannot touch us. The past."
"Time travel?" Carver scoffed.
"Only a few hours," Howard stressed. "But it will be enough to get you up the canyon before the explosion happens - enough to get you to Folkstone Pass tonight and with a wall of rock between you and your friends."
"You'd do this for me?" Carver asked.
"I doubt they will be any more friendly to me," Howard said. "If we are quick enough,why, we may even be able to prevent the explosion. Stop you ever coming here."
"Father, stop!" Nicole suddenly shouted. "You've never believed that, not for a moment! Just what are you planning?"
"I'm sorry, my dear," Howard said.
"What did you see at the fork, Father?" Nicole repeated.
"I'm sorry," Howard told her. "Goodbye."
Too late, she saw him reach for a lever on the wall. She couldn't stop him pulling it. Above, the giant clock cracked and broke, sending stray bits of machinery raining down. Parts hit Nicole, sending her to the floor. Howard meanwhile grabbed Carver, holding him close as the mass of white energy rained down on the pair like a tidal wave.
It was over as soon as it begun, the energy melting into the floor as Howard let go of Carver. Nicole was gone.
"Nicole..." Carver gasped.
"Is still in the present," Howard said. "She'll live, mild concussion, I'm sure. And when she wakes up... Well, if we get to the canyon quick enough, when she wakes up, I will be there and none of this will even have happened, I'm sure."
"She was trying to stop you," Carver said. "What exactly have you done?"
"What exactly have you done, Mr. Carver?" Howard asked, deflecting the question. "You are a thief, yes? I guessed the moment I saw you. Those men, other thieves, yes? You betrayed them? And now they come for you. Your only hope is to get to the canyon before the explosion and you are wasting time."
With that, Howard led him back out of the bunker, taking care not to wake his past self, sleeping in one of the bedrooms off the library. Once they were out in the dark, they picked up the pace, finding the steep Petpet track and climbing up to reach the canyon lip at the fork.
Below, both paths were still open, and in the distance there was a small pinpoint of light - Carver's earlier self, heading that way.
Howard had moved to a stack of explosives, ready to be transported down into the mines. He picked up the detonator.
"What are you doing?" Carver asked.
"I'm very sorry, Mr. Carver, but there really is no other way," Howard said. "I lied to get you here. There simply is no way to change what happened - the explosion must be triggered, or you will never visit my house and, as a result, I won't see... What I saw when I came here. Even you must now guess what that was. Why I know both you and I must come here, at this moment. Why I knew Nicole had to stay behind. If we don't do this, it will cause a contradiction in the timeline. A paradox. Such a thing could kill us all, even my dear Nicole. This is the only way."
"You said we could change it!"
"A theory Nicole always believed, but there is no evidence to support it," Howard said. "Time is immutable. This is the only way."
Carver lunged for Howard before he could press the detonator, and the two tussled on the floor.
Down on the canyon floor, the younger Carver reached the fork and hesitated. Then, an explosion ripped through the canyon, closing off the left fork.
With no other option, Carver took the right fork.