The deep lowing of the wildebeests across the river held a melancholy air, the whuffling snorts and grunts from the giraffes farther afield adding a mournful refrain.
Feels like a storm coming.
Park ranger Kanja Onyango squinted up at the sky. Not a cloud in sight. Great. Now he was beginning to imagine things on top of everything else.
He tugged a little harder at the wires he’d cut apart. This was the fourth snare he’d found in some shrubs. Bushmeat poachers were becoming more and more brazen in their attempts to trap wild game. Wildlife sanctuaries meant nothing to them.
He snapped his hand back with a hiss. Fool! A sharp tip of wire had sliced into his palm. Even though he was alone, old habits had him look around before sealing the wound with a glance.
What was wrong with him today? Ever since this morning, the Eleventh Hour had been fumbling about; dropping things, forgetting what he was about to do next.
Why just earlier, back at the ranger hut, he’d been on his way out only to blank out before reaching the door. He forgot completely where he’d been going. It had taken the pen he was holding falling out of his lax fingers to snap him out of his funk. Or rather, when he stooped over to pick up the pen and his gaze had fallen on the wire cutters on a hook by the door, next to his rifle. Yes, he’d been heading out to do his rounds of the eastern enclosure to check for fresh snares.
Kanja cracked his knuckles. His taut biceps stretched the sleeves of his dusty uniform t-shirt as he ran his hands over his tight curls. Flopping his ranger hat back over them, he tucked the cutters into his belt and slung the rifle across his shoulder. The rifle was standard issue for rangers. Not something Kanja really needed. For his occasional run-in with poachers, the rifle was merely for show.
A slow smile of satisfaction spread across his face.
The Hours could not use their powers upon mortals so Eleventh got some of the park animals to lend him a hand at times. There was nothing quite like a snarling lion or a charging buffalo to put the fear of…a temporal god… into poachers unlucky enough to cross paths with him.
His boots kicked up dust as he started towards his jeep parked over the rise.
At least I’ve got everything ready for the dinner party.
Despite how the day was going, Kanja hadn’t forgotten about his niece’s birthday. He’d need to get ready in the middle of the night in his Here and Now to jump into Twenty-third’s for their dinnertime.
He hadn’t fumbled with the child’s gift when he’d wrapped it earlier either. The book he’d gotten Zoe was neatly bundled in a bright purple swatch of kitenge cotton on his desk. He’d included an olive wood carving of a giraffe too. In Kenya, the giraffe symbolized keen and gentle intent. Its long neck represented the link between sky and earth in certain African lore. One who can connect the material world to the heavens. Appropriate for the child of two worlds, no.
Eleventh looked forward to visiting his favourite sister and her daughter… and eating some good pizza.
Twenty-third’s text about bringing Tuskers lager had him chuckling. Her message had been interspersed by purple heart emojis, beer mugs, and pizza slices, of course.
Pizza was a food in the mortal world for which he shared the same taste indulgence as his sister —much as they shared the same taste in clocks. His smile grew thinking about his wrought iron one on the wall above his desk. “Can you ever not copy your younger brother?” he’d teased Twenty-third when he’d discovered she’d gotten a wrought iron one similar to his a few centuries back.
Would she copy him again when he got a new one?
Lately, he’d been considering changing his Clock. The Eleventh Hour liked change. He’d been one of the first of the temporal guardians to leave the Circle to live in the mortal world. And copying him once more had been his Twenty-third sister who’d followed shortly thereafter, dropping in for a visit at the very last minute of his first watch on Earth to surprise him.
How time flies! He couldn’t believe little Zoe was turning three.
No, four. He gave his head a shake. Zoe was turning four.
Eleventh rubbed his brow with a frown.
How could he ever forget when he first learned of his niece’s existence. It was when he’d shown up to surprise Twenty-third with a… with a…
Reaching for the water flask at his hip, Kanja took a long, thirsty draw. It was another habit he’d formed so any other ranger passing by would see him behaving as any man would in the heat of the day.
He paused at the top of the rise, grinning in unintended relief at the sight of the jeep just as he’d parked it. The local monkey troupe liked to raid it sometimes when left unattended. At least none of the scoundrels had figured out how to start the engine… yet.
Kanja’s belly laugh filled the air at the image of monkeys flipping him the banana as they drove off on a joyride
He smacked his lips as he recapped the flask. Right then. What had he been thinking about just before? Hmm, there’s still that section of fence to mend and bush to clear.
A quick stop back at the hut to pick up some more tools then he’d continue.
The troupe of monkeys grooming themselves in a tree stopped to watch Midnight when he appeared outside the ranger hut. He ignored the now silent creatures and entered.
A ceiling fan spun lazily overhead. The breeze it stirred caused the bottom edge of a poster on the wall to flap.
Nairobi – the City Under the Sun! Come visit the safari capital of the world!
He knew Eleventh wasn’t there, having sensed the Hour not far off. Midnight wanted to scope out his Here and Now a little before confronting —he read the nameplate on the desk— Ranger Kanja Onyango.
The purple bundle next to the nameplate piqued Midnight’s curiosity. He removed his glasses and picked up the card atop that had a smiling cartoon lion on its cover.
‘Happy 4th Birthday, Zoe! Love, Uncle Kanja!’
Beside the bundle was a small case of bottles adorned with ribbon. A tag dangling from it read ‘Happy 4th year of motherhood to my best copy-cat sister!’.
The tag was marked with the Twenty-third Hour’s sigil.
Midnight didn’t move when tires braked in a crunch of grit outside. The booted footsteps that followed approached then entered the doorway.
“Who exactly is Zoe, Uncle Kanja? A 4-year old child? Midnight said without turning to look. “Motherhood? Twenty-third has a 4-year old child? Is this some kind of joke?”
Eleventh swallowed hard. An icy numbness crept through his corporeal form as he stared hard at the Twenty-fourth Hour’s back; numbness that exploded in a panicked rush of adrenaline when Midnight finally deigned to turn and face him.
For what should have been Midnight’s one eye of day and his other of night were now twin orbs of flaming stars.
And thus came the storm.
Every beast within earshot suddenly let loose in a furor of warning calls and cries. Danger!
The Eleventh Hour had lived in close proximity to the wild animals for decades now. The creatures were more attuned to danger than he as an immortal ever was. Eleventh may have assumed an existence in the Here and Now of this natural world. The animals had been born to it.
The hut door slammed shut with force.
And whether by reflex or borrowed instinct, Kanja hurled himself sideways to dive out an open window, tumbling into a shoulder roll on the ground to spring up and run into the trees. The monkeys overhead screeched and chittered as they scrambled away in every direction through the branches.
Noon! He had to reach Noon. No! Twenty-third!
Midnight knew about Zoe. Eleventh had to warn his sister. But no matter how hard he tried, Eleventh couldn’t transport himself away. The smothering weight of Midnight’s power held him to ground. The Twenty-fourth Hour was too strong for him.
Eleventh ripped open his side pouch and grabbed his phone.
Forced to slow down to use the screen commands, a madly zigzagging Eleventh growled when his first call attempt went to Twenty-third’s voicemail.
“Maya! If you hear this, get your daughter and hide! Something’s gone wrong with Midnight. He knows about you and Zoe. Warn Noon! Stop Midnight from calling!”
He continued to hit redial, hoping beyond hope she’d pick up.
The cane that shot out from between two trunks struck Eleventh squarely between the eyes with its tip. Phone flying from his hand, Eleventh tumbled head over heels to crash onto the ground where he remained motionless.
Midnight stepped calmly out from behind the trees, eyes hidden once more behind shaded lenses cast eerie halos about the rims.
“Twenty-third has a child. How is that possible?” he said to Eleventh’s prone form that dissolved into mist.
Dead silence fell over the park.
He couldn’t skip ahead on the Circle to call upon Twenty-third until he’d called upon all the preceding Hours first. It would take him to the near ending of the Day to get to her.
But that didn’t apply to the child now, did it?
⇛ Next part: VII – Nevermore
⇚ Previous part: V – Next Departure