Although it did not look it at first glance, the Far Frozen was a bastion of the sciences, both soft and hard. They had their traditions and their superstitions, yes, and their ancient charge to guard the Infi-Map, but they were people of reason. A curious people, always pushing at the borders of what was known and what was not, which was why they were among the first to notice.
One day, the numbers on a machine intended to determine the age of the Infinite Realms fell into place just so.
The Infinite Realms, said the machine, were one minute old. Twenty years old. Sixty-two years old. One hundred and one years old. Three hundred and twelve years old. Six hundred and thirty years old. Nineteen hundred and forty years old.
This, clearly, could not be.
They started the machine again. The Infinite Realms, said the machine, were thirty-two minutes old.
The scientist in charge of the machine, an old yeti by the name of Firstfrost, scratched her head and hummed and hawed. She looked at the first set of readings, and made note of the time, exactly thirty-one minutes before the second set.
She reset the machine, this time thoroughly checking it for any flaw or damage.
The Infinite Realms were two hours and twenty-six minutes old.
Again and again, Firstfrost ran the calculations, even doing them by hand.
The Infinite Realms were twenty-five hours and eleven minutes old.
This, of course, could not be. Truly, even the longest of the times given by the machine were impossible. Firstfrost could name many monuments, even many ghosts, older than two thousand.
And yet, the readings troubled Firstfrost. The spontaneity, the consistency, the presence of multiple times…
She went to her chief, Frostbite of the Far Frozen, who had guided their people well for many years, and presented her team's findings, as paradoxical as they were.
Frostbite, chief of the Far Frozen, burdened with the wisdom of many years, looked upon the data and said, "Can you detect the source of these readings?"
Firstfrost, who was also burdened with the wisdom of many years, and knew her nephew quite well, presented him also with her triangulation of the readings' origin points.
Frostbite looked upon the readings and was troubled, for he thought he recognized them. He thanked Firstfrost, and went away, to the deepest tunnels of the Far Frozen, where their sacred charge was kept. He stepped by the maze, those twisting places well known to him, and by the traps, their snares beneath him, and by even the guards, those brave souls the first to fight and all too often the first to fall.
To take the Infi-Map out of its case was folly, so Frostbite examined it there, comparing each set of coordinates with the enchanted parchment. It was in this way that he learned he was correct. For each coordinate, for each time, there was a cluster of portals leading from that place, to that time. But why? And for how long had this been the case, for Frostbite to remember and notice it?
He went back to his usual duties, but he pondered the matter, deeply and long, for his people were much concerned with philosophy and science, for the storm-season was long, and often drove them into the deep and dark for many months.
Thus, he resolved to send out warriors, young and restless, in pairs. To look, only, and not to pass through any portals, not even the ones to the now, for portals were not to be relied upon, even when they gathered in such great numbers.
The first two were Nightchill and Bluster, and they were known to be silent and loud in turns. They went to the place that cited the Realms as nineteen hundred and forty years old. There they found the echo of a mighty coliseum, competitors of all kinds and all ages still battling with one another, spectators jeering from overhead. They went among the people there, and paid for news by the strength and skill of their arms. They heard of a city that was built and burned and built again, and emperors who ruled for years or months, days or weeks. It was an old place, with many stories, but it held no special legend, and they went home with little more than they had set out with.
After them, went Polarice and Snowcoat, twin brothers only lately called to the defense of the Far Frozen. They went to the place that claimed the Realms were six hundred and thirty years old. A monastery was erected there, a peaceful place of contemplation that put them much in mind of their own home. They were made welcome, and walked the same paths as the monks, and heard their stories. The monks were of an old order, from old times, and knew much of history. But they knew nothing of the beginning of the Realms, and the twins went home with little more than they had set out with.
The next two were Snowshadow and Alpine, women as beautiful as the false aurora that danced upon the peaks of the Far Frozen. Their goal was the place that read as the origin of the Realms three hundred and twelve years ago. They came across a small archipelago, inhabited by just twenty-five souls. These men, women, and children were eager to speak with travelers, and even to share the fates they suffered in life, to some degree. They spoke of hangings and burnings, of trials and false accusation, of tortures and injustices still at large in the world. They knew nothing of the origin of the Realms, beyond what they retained from their religion, and Snowshadow and Alpine went home with little more than they had set out with.
Then, Blizzard and Flurry set off, in a hurry, as always. They raced to reach the place that would have the Realms be only one hundred and one years old. It was wide and open, a plain set beneath a green sky. Some would call it empty, but there was a memory there, a memory that was history. The roar of an engine– wind beneath fragile wings– But there was little else, and Blizzard and Flurry went home with little more than they had set out with.
Next were Bluesnow and Blackice, both unusual in their coloration. They went to where the Realms were read as only sixty-two years old. There was nothing there but a ringing in the air, an eternal repetition of a voice, and they spent their time trying to decipher its meaning. Nothing to fear but fear itself. Nothing to fear but fear itself. Nothing to fear but fear itself. Even so, they returned home with little more than they had set out with.
Then, Snowbound and Coldsnap were sent out, the youngest and most restless of the warriors. They went to where Firstfrost's readings said the Realms were only twenty years old.
And that was when things started to get really weird.
From the twisting gloom of the inchoate Realms rose a tower, ticking, ticking, ticking. A clock, the likes of which Snowbound and Coldsnap had never seen before.
"Have you ever seen anything like it?" asked Snowbound. She wore her spear strapped to her back - a peacebond, so that any who saw her would not think she sought battle, but knew she could fight one nonetheless - but her forepaws itched for it. The tower was dark and foreboding, and so very unlike the smooth white snows of her homeland.
"Perhaps once, in a book," said Coldsnap. "But I couldn't be sure." They flew closer together. "It was in a book about the Ancients," he continued quietly as they flew closer. "Undergrowth, Pandora, Vortex, Sojourn, Phobos, and–"
The two young yetis whirled to see a strange ghost. To all appearances, it was a child, with blue skin and red eyes. Both Snowbound and Coldsnap knew better than to trust appearances, however. The smaller ghost had a clock embedded in its chest that ticked in time with the tower behind them. It smiled, and smoothly grew into young adulthood.
"Your people have started to understand, I see," he said. "Or, at least, to investigate, which is the first step to understanding."
"Understand what?" asked Snowbound. "What does it mean, that your lair is where our machines say–"
"That the Realms were created, just twenty years ago?" finished Clockwork. "Because this is where the Realms were created, just twenty years ago."
"That's impossible," said Snowbound. "Even I am more than a hundred years old. Coldsnap is even older."
"Quite so," said Clockwork, inclining his head. He turned his head slightly, gaze drifting sideways. "We do not have much time."
"Time for what?" asked Coldsnap, finally coming forward to stand shoulder to shoulder with Snowbound. "Why not? Don't you control time?"
"Ah, children. Always curious, and to our benefit, it seems. Your people are the first to notice. You will not be the last, even today." He blinked slowly, aging just a hair, into adulthood, then middle age. "Time does not fly like the arrow, from one place to the other, with no diversions. Tell your elders to find histories and trace them, as far back as they can. They may not lead where expected."
"May?" asked Snowbound.
"May," repeated Clockwork. "Where time is dismayed, then so am I. Perhaps this is all a mistake. Perhaps it is nothing. Perhaps it is everything. There are–"
"Clockwork!" came a shrill, warbling voice, muffled only slightly by the clouds of ectoplasm surrounding them. "Clockwork! What is the meaning of this?"
"-many things which I must attend to," finished Clockwork with a sigh, his frown deepening into the wrinkles and lines of old age. "Return home, children, and share what you have seen."
Clockwork flew back to his tower, little eddies of ectoplasm being sucked into his wake and resolving into glowing green gears. A pair of Observants rushed from the doors of the tower to meet him.
"Do you think he realized we're both adults?" asked Snowbound.
"I don't know," said Coldsnap. "I think to someone that old, everyone is a kid."
The air around them shuddered slightly.
"I heard that," came a spectral whisper.
Coldsnap and Snowbound wisely fled.
The investigation was no longer a passing curiosity. An Ancient, a member of one of the most respected and powerful groups of ghosts, who defeated and imprisoned the tyrant Pariah Dark, was involved. The Observants were involved.
This was clearly something important, something relevant to the Realms as a whole.
Frostbite called upon the historians of his people. They were many, and from many walks of life, ascribing to both the philosophy of the written word and that of the spoken. They were craftspeople, scientists, teachers, hunters, record-keepers– All the people of the Far Frozen knew some degree of history, after all. Frostbite set them to work.
But there was work he kept for himself. He gathered Firstfrost, Snowbound, and Coldsnap, and went to the place where the Realms were read as only months old.
That seemed to be where it all started, after all. Whatever had happened over there was what had triggered everything else.
At first, they were alone in their journey. The Far Frozen was, after all, far. But before long, they were joined by others. First only one or two other ghosts, then many. Their traveling companions were not terribly talkative, as a group, but Frostbite was not a stranger to the art of conversation, and the younger two members of their group were very personable.
At their destination, they were told, was a portal.
This portal was not like other portals. Not only was it consistent, it was permanent. It always led to the same place, and time passed in the same way on one side of it as the other. It had, the rumors went, been made, artificially, by living scientists.
Such a thing was unheard of.
But, by the streams of ghosts heading for it, converging on the spot from all directions, it must be very real. Or, at least, very convincing.
When Frostbite first saw it, he was underwhelmed. The line of ghosts waiting to use it, few of them fighting one another for the privilege, was a much more unusual sight than a single, small portal. It was, perhaps, large enough to accommodate him, if he stooped, and circular, its surface showing a regular spinning pattern, not unlike that of a whirlpool.
But the longer he watched, the more uneasy Frostbite became. The portal was too circular, its edges too stable. They did not flicker, they did not bend. Apart from its gently pulsing surface, the portal itself might have been fashioned from a rigid object, something solid and unyielding.
Simply saying that it was wrong would have been incorrect. It was not wrong. No. That would be easier to parse, easier to process. There were, after all, many things in the Realms that were wrong. This portal… If there were such a thing as too right, Frostbite might call it that.
There was something about it that pulled.
They did not go closer. Firstfrost set up her tools, and Frostbite and the others questioned and watched.
Ghosts entered the portal in a regular pattern, one after another, taking turns. At irregular intervals, each no more than two days, a group of ghosts would be expelled all at once. Generally, these ghosts were injured, but not seriously so. More as if they had gotten the worse half of a territorial tussle than a serious fight.
Sometimes, ghosts Frostbite had not seen enter - animal ghosts, mainly - would be expelled, causing a small amount of chaos among the more intelligent ghosts waiting their turn. Other times, there would be a large gap in expulsions before a single more powerful ghost was cast out.
Most of these ghosts did not wish to speak of their defeat. But soon a narrative emerged. The human world did indeed lie on the other side of the portal, but so too did a young, brash, territorial ghost, who had claimed the town beyond as his, and no other.
Other scraps of data emerged. The city's name was Amity Park. 'Pranks' and other troubles caused by the 'visitors.' The young ghost was named Phantom, of all things. Often, a school full of children was assaulted. One ghost, to Frostbite's disgust, had decided to hunt Phantom, for nothing more than sport. The oddly noble decision Phantom had made to not leave any ghosts in the hands of a pair of deranged-sounding 'ghost hunters.'
Then, a ghost that seemed… different emerged, gliding through the portal under her own power.
The woman looked around, strangely, as if she had never seen the Realms before. Her tail was long, and her skin was green, and still… she did not quite seem like a ghost. Or, perhaps, she did not seem used to being a ghost.
Frostbite approached her, with Snowbound at his side.
"My name is Maram," she said, "but I cannot help but feel that I might be known better by a different name."
"Many feel that way, when they first come to the Realms," said Frostbite. "Many take new names."
"Then perhaps I shall, as well. Tell me, how long have these… Realms been established?"
"Forever," said Frostbite, though he had come to doubt that traditional assertion of late. "My Realm alone has stood for five thousand years."
"We have records," said Snowbound. "It's true!"
"Impossible," repeated the woman. "Before I was imprisoned, I was a worker of wonders. I spun magic and legends from the aether as easily as a lesser man might breathe - and for that, I was envied and feared. I have plumbed the depths of mystery - and this place was not there. No. No, and I was not this." She looked around herself, then down at her hands, turning them over and over. "Earlier, I felt… Before my prison broke, I felt…" Her hands clenched. "There was a wonder worker even greater than I, but…" She shook her head. "No. No, I must know more." She turned back to the crowds of ghosts, and disappeared among them.
"That was… strange," said Snowbound.
"Yes," said Frostbite, "but of an unsettling pattern."
They went back to Firstfrost and Coldsnap, who were tending the machines.
"I do not know what else you intend to glean from this, nephew," said Firstfrost, "but I can do no more. Everything says that the Realms were born at the threshold of that portal, only months ago."
"Are we going to go through?" asked Coldsnap.
"No," said Frostbite. "We are not." He looked out, to the horizon that was not.
"Then what are we going to do?"
"You will escort Firstfrost back to the Far Frozen," said Frostbite. "I myself will travel to the Time Locked Lands. The Ancient says for us to trace history - very well. As our historians do so, I shall as well, in my own way."
"How long will you be gone?" asked Firstfrost.
"As long as I must," said Frostbite.
Frostbite went from Realm to Realm among the Time Locked Lands, recording every history he could find, from that of kings to those of peasants. There must be some secret here, some clue that Clockwork expected him to find.
And, then, he came upon a school building, floating freely on its own island.
It was named 'Casper High,' in the American fashion, and built of brick. There was no color to it, not even a speck of green. A small ghost, equally gray, sat on the edge of the school's steps, looking out into the green.
Casper High… That had been the name of the school in Amity Park.
"Hello there, young friend!" called Frostbite, waving. "How goes it?"
The smaller ghost shrugged. "Copacetic," he said, listlessly. "You?"
"I am well myself. My name is Frostbite. May I ask yours?"
"Poindexter." He pushed up his glasses. "Or Sidney, but hardly anyone ever called– ever calls me Sidney."
Frostbite nodded, then glanced again at the school's lettering, deliberately exaggerating the motion so Sidney would notice it. "I cannot help but see… Is your lair at all related to the Casper High that Phantom defends?"
Sidney shuddered. "Yeah, I guess you could say that, mister. I thought– A while back a portal opened up between here and there. I went through. I shouldn't've done that."
"Why not?" asked Frostbite. He knew the reasons he would not chance a natural portal, but the young were, quite frequently, more adventurous.
"I looked myself up," said Sidney, one leg drawn up to his chest, the other swinging back and forth over the void. "I wanted to see if the bullies who killed me were punished, somehow, even if they didn't look it from this side. They've got this big old computer thing - like a library, but electronic. You could look up anyone on it! Get their whole life story, just about! But… They were there. I wasn't there. None of us were!" A small stone dislodged itself from the underside of the island and fell. "Something like me was, but it was just a story. An urban legend. Nothing real. Nothing like me." Sidney pulled up his other leg, so that he was in an almost fetal position. "I tried not to think about it. I really did. But, mister… I'm not sure I'm real."
"Nonsense," said Frostbite. "Even if you are a ghost formed from the Realms themselves instead of a death, that does not make you any less real. You are here, aren't you? Speaking and thinking?"
Sidney looked up at him, a sort of desperation in his eyes. "You don't get it, mister. I'm not sure if any of us are real. I don't think we have any history."
There was a feeling - brief, but pervasive - of everything being picked up, moved a few inches to the left, then righted again, with almost nothing out of place.
Frostbite went home after that.
He was just in time, too.
Some young fool by the name of Plasmius - a boy who fancied himself a king - freed the old, true king from his slumber, and it was all Frostbite could do to keep his people safe. All the thralls of Pariah Dark - buried and kept asleep for many years - crawled from their impermanent graves to fight.
The Far Frozen, deep with ice and snow, had been the site of many battles and was home to thousands of such graves. Frostbite, back when his father had still been chief, had lost his arm in one of those battles, and the memory of it burned fiercely with every thrall he crushed or froze.
And then - time stopped.
"Hello, Frostbite," said Clockwork, Ancient Master of Time. "I would like to show you something."
"I cannot leave," said Frostbite, gesturing back towards the bulk of the fight.
"Your people will not be harmed, you have my word. Come."
Reluctantly, Frostbite followed. Clockwork made a portal in the air, and they stepped through to the site of what at first appeared to be a great battle, but which was soon revealed to be only a small handful of ghosts fighting against a huge army of thralls.
"Have you called me here to give aid?" asked Frostbite, his core tense with fear.
"Not in the way you think, or the time you think. Watch, and watch, only."
And Frostbite did watch, as one ghost - small, in a suit of armor much too large for him - fought his way closer and closer to Pariah's keep. Fought, until Pariah himself emerged.
Frostbite started forward, but Clockwork put his hand on Frostbite's shoulder, and they stayed still even as the smaller ghost did the impossible, and defeated Pariah Dark in single combat, forcing him back into his sarcophagus, and, Frostbite hoped, sealing him there forever. Then, Clockwork pulled him back, back to the Far Frozen, back in time to the exact moment he left.
"Why?" asked Frostbite. "Why show me, and me specifically, that moment?"
"History," said Clockwork. "That is Phantom, who defeated Pariah Dark."
"The boy from the city beyond the portal?" asked Frostbite. "He hasn't even been dead a year."
"History," repeated Clockwork. "You should look for it still. When he comes to you, ask him where he died, and when."
"You need not fear. He will not understand the taboo. He is, after all, still half human." With that, Clockwork left, and the battle sprung to life once more.
The battle finished, repairs made, and Frostbite's story shared, he set out again. This time, he looked for the ghosts he had seen fighting Pariah's main army. Some, like Sidney, were happy to speak to him again. Others… were less so. Although Frostbite probably did not need to hit Skulker quite so hard.
Sidney directed him to a friend, a princess of a Realm that once numbered among the Time Locked Lands but which had since drifted free. Dorathea was a courteous host, but she had the same story as Sidney.
Her history was wrong.
More than wrong. And not just hers, but her brother's… And they were said to not be related at all.
She directed him to others she knew of, other ghosts who had gone through the portal for closure, and had returned worse than disappointed.
The pattern, it seemed, was this: ghosts, spirits of the dead, going to the real world and finding their histories recorded incorrectly, if they were recorded at all, or, worse, finding themselves nothing more than legend, nothing more than fiction.
Frostbite was born of the Realms. He did not, entirely, understand. But what he did understand…
He went home.
But, just miles away, an icicle fell from a cliff above him and–
Frostbite was more than pleased to meet Phantom and find that he was just as rumors had painted him. Kind, heroic, curious, not prone to overly deep thoughts - but, then, those as young as he was rarely were. He was a good child, and if a teenager had to have the power necessary to defeat Pariah Dark, well… there were worse choices.
Although he had only seen Phantom the once, and from a distance, he could not help but feel some sense of pride as he looked around the Far Frozen in wonder, seemingly not noticing the remaining scars of Pariah's final battle. He smiled, as Phantom and his human friends played with the younger yetis, and grinned as they sat down to the welcoming feast. He even took pleasure from showing off the slightly silly monument some of the others had built in honor of Phantom, and found it amusing when, in the words of Phantom's companions, the boy started to 'get a big head.'
It was fine. The boy had saved the Realms from Pariah and had received, from all accounts, little thanks. An accomplishment like that deserved at least a few accolades.
It felt, paradoxically and without any reason Frostbite could determine, as if he had known Phantom forever. But that was not, and could not be.
And yet, the possibility danced tantalizingly at the edge of his thoughts. At least, until Phantom and his friends accidentally activated the Infi-Map, and it whisked them away.
"Where did you even go?" asked Frostbite, slightly exasperated. He could not - at least, not very much - fault Phantom for wanting to use the map to explore. That was a trap everyone fell into, at least once. "And when?"
"Well," said Phantom, blushing ever so slightly green. "First it was… nineteen sixty-something, I think? Pretty sure it was before the moon landing. Just a feeling, you know?"
"Nineteen forty-two," drawled Sam. "Danny, there was a calendar. It was right there."
"Oh. Right. Then it was Salem, and they tried to burn Sam at the stake."
"And I had to eat these nasty flowers. Blood blossoms or something?"
"Yeah!" said Phantom. "Do you know anything about them? They really hurt."
"No," said Frostbite, mystified. "I am afraid I have not heard of them."
"Well, I hope that means there aren't any more," said Phantom. "They really hurt."
"I think it was some time in the sixteen hundreds," added Sam, helpfully.
"Yeah, yeah, before the American Revolution, right? And then, um… We followed Vlad to Ancient Rome. He kind of… made us fight in a coliseum and burned down the city. Anyway! We got out of there, and wound up in China for about a month. That was pretty cool. The monks taught us loads."
"I'm glad to be back, though," said Tucker. "The past was not good for my stomach."
"Then we fought Vlad again - he still had the map–"
"He got the map when Sam was being burned at the stake," clarified Tucker. "He kept telling it to take him to his destiny."
"Then," said Danny, "he went to nineteen-oh-three to take out the Wright Flier so he could… rule over mankind from the air. Yeah. I don't think he thought that through, either."
"How come you know that date, and not any of the others?" asked Sam, elbowing him.
"It's aviation history," said Phantom, almost whining. "Of course I know it! After that, we wound up back here, safe and sound." He shrugged, then ducked his head, bashfully. "I'm really sorry about taking the map like that. I just–"
"You were curious," said Frostbite, patting him on the shoulder as if he were a young warrior… albeit with a great deal more delicacy. Phantom was very small, even compared to Snowbound. "It is not a crime, but… perhaps try to understand why something is kept under lock and key."
Phantom grinned, brightly. "Right! I'll do better next time, I promise!"
"Yes, I'm sure," said Frostbite. "But… may I ask you a question?"
"It is of a somewhat personal nature, and it is very understandable if you do not answer it."
"Okay," said Phantom, a bit more seriously. "It's not like my weight or anything is it?" He giggled a little bit.
"How did you become half ghost?" That question seemed at least a little more diplomatic than how did you die? "And when?"
Phantom stilled, blinking up at Frostbite, then looked away. "It was… about a year ago, now, I think? Right, guys?"
Sam and Tucker grimaced, but nodded.
"They were, um, there," explained Phantom, and Frostbite winced on his behalf. Such a traumatic incident, witnessed so young, could not have been pleasant, to say nothing of what it must have been like for Phantom himself. "Where… Well. I'm kinda surprised no one's said anything to you. It was– I was caught in the portal, when it turned on. It sort of… zapped me. Haha."
"Don't laugh about that," said Sam, elbowing him again.
"Ow, Sam. You're going to give me bruises."
"Getting thrown through walls doesn't give you bruises. You'll be fine."
Phantom stuck his tongue out at her, earlier topic of conversation seemingly forgotten.
"And," said Frostbite, "does the time twenty-one years ago mean anything to you?"
Phantom made a face. "That's when Plasmius got his powers. I kind of might have, you know, time traveled there once. To see it. Because he decided to make a plague to force me to help him. He's such a Fruitloop!" What followed was a rant about Plasmius that, as far as Frostbite could tell, based on his impression of the man, was supremely well-deserved. It was, however, cut short because Phantom and his friends did need to leave.
Only when the three of them had been brought home did Frostbite let the paleness that had been creeping up underneath his veneer of cheer overtake him. He leaned against the nearest ice wall and clutched at his horns. Those dates! Those dates!
Over the past months, he had become familiar enough with human history for the numbers to have meaning to him, but even without them, the accounts from the warriors sent to investigate the 'origin points' of the Realms would have been connection enough.
Time congealed around him, and Clockwork appeared. "Do you see, now?" he asked Frostbite.
"What is he?" asked Frostbite, shaking in a way he had never done before.
"A child," said Clockwork. "One around whom time splinters, both backwards and forward. One who would sacrifice himself for the greater good. One who died half way, in a machine made to contact a universe that did not exist."
"We exist," said Frostbite, insisted Frostbite.
"We do," agreed Clockwork, "but we did not then, as you must well know by this point. Firstfrost's readings were accurate from the first."
"But that is–"
"Impossible? Many things are impossible. Many things are wondrous. Miracles existed before us, and they will exist after. But here we are… a whole world and all its history, born from the mind of a dying child. That we were created with any reference to extant history at all is remarkable."
"But the dead–"
"Never lived," said Clockwork. "Never died. Yet, they have done both, and remember both."
Frostbite stilled. "My parents? My friends who have faded?"
Clockwork shrugged. "They are real to our history. By my sight, that is real enough." He leaned forward, with a slight smile on his lips. "Be brave, Chief Frostbite of the Far Frozen. There are few beings indeed who can say that they have met their god, fewer still that can attest with such certainty that their god is good. And," he added, almost as an afterthought, "there are worse people, to have even the residue of such power. Far worse."
Clockwork vanished and time resumed, and for once - for once, Frostbite wished that the Far Frozen was somewhat less of a bastion of the sciences.