The clock rang out as soon as it detected life forms, a faint noise at first but the silent figures that surrounded it knew it would quickly grow louder and more urgent. It instinctively turned to pursue them but the figure grabbed it and turned it back in the direction it was supposed to be going in, motioning it away before it began to alert people to their whereabouts or corrode the structure of the corridor they were trying to walk down enough to drop the ceiling on their heads. It wouldn't have damaged them but it would alert everyone in the realm to their presence and prevent them from doing anything useful. They grated against the reality of the realm just by existing; an aura of white noise crackled around them as they moved and the floor was slowly decaying as they floated above it as though wearing away over time.

They looked around to see if they were being followed one last time before floating up into the chamber. The encounter with the fish had left them nervous; it had definitely seen them and its alien mind was almost able to comprehend them, although it seemed to forget about them moments later.

The spot they had chosen was a disused storage chamber leading off from the side of Gulpo's lair. The fish certainly didn't use it for itself and there was no need for the other Nightmaren to store something in such a remote location where it would probably end up damp, so it hadn't even been opened in millennia. Its structure was already fading a little. It was perfect for their task. The figure in the lead opened the door and motioned for them to drag the Egg Clock inside.

Once the door closed behind them, they pushed a button on the clock's panel underneath its face, which glowed white and projected an image on the far wall. Like slides in an old-fashioned projector, the motion was jerky and haphazard as it cycled through still scenes of various locations around the Nightmare Realm; the Great Hall, the Courtyard, the lairs of the various Nightmaren. In each location, objects stood out that would have been invisible to the eye of a Nightmaren or dreamer, but the pools of darkness that served as eyes for the strangers were drawn to them. They shone bright white, somehow more solid than their surroundings, as though they were made of the raw stuff of the dreamscape rather than the permanent illusions that made up Wizeman's creations. Their appearance was something like the broken shards of a clock face.

After it had displayed the locations of all the strange objects, the Egg Clock slowly scanned across a panoramic view of a vast white plane, featureless apart from black outlines of half-formed things, as though it were a canvas where an artist sketched their first ideas for things. It was impossible to tell whether the things had only just been formed for the first time or were about to fade out of existence, or maybe both. They hung stationary, supported by nothing. A Nightmaren observer would not have been able to identify the location even if they remained hidden long enough to catch a glimpse, without the hungry eyes of the strangers or the animal senses of the Clock finding them, or their aura of decay making the Nightmaren too uncomfortable to remain. This was not a place whose existence was noted by anyone in the Dreamscape, or even a place they could get to any more.

The view spiralled inwards to the very centre of the realm. Its fabric became slightly more developed and whole as it approached the centre, until a raised plaza like a shrine came into view. Upon its steps was a giant Clock. It resembled the Egg Clocks but much larger and without the shell; it could almost have been the mother that birthed them, except that it showed no facility for doing so. It was simpler and more primitive in nature than the others, a round face with two hands on the front and two bells on the top. It stood on four legs, although its back legs had sunk slightly into the ground as though it was even incompatible with this realm it had tried to manifest in. There was something ancient and still about it, as though it was meaningless to even speak of the passage of time affecting it. Its hands did not move. Wires streamed out of a small hole in the back of the Clock, leading to machinery all around the plaza. Portals that looked like the projected image from the Egg Clocks were opening and closing, admitting or receiving a steady stream of the Egg Clocks and the ethereal figures that controlled them.

The Egg Clock that had been projecting the images suddenly gave a static hiss like a communicator with very poor reception, then it began talking in an equally broken voice. The strangers had their own language that did not even sound like words to an observer.

Make your report, Awaker, it said.

This area is a rich source, said one of the strangers, the locations of major veins are being relayed.

There is much activity there. I can sense it. It jars with the stillness of my realm.

It receives a lot of traffic. I theorise that the thoroughfare is what causes the destabilisation necessary to allow the time pockets to emerge in crystalline form.

There is something the Egg Clocks are pursuing that they cannot track down.

A very powerful Nightmaren. And something equally powerful that came in from the Waking World. And a... hybrid? But that disappeared.

Something was making direct portals into the Waking World.

That disappeared too, we are afraid. Long before we entered the realm.

It could have made our goals much easier if we had managed to stabilise it.

It could very easily happen again. The powerful Nightmaren seems to be readying a second attempt. It is attempting to access and shape the Waking World as it shapes its own realm.

Nightmaren are very primitive. It probably thinks it is achieving something meaningful in doing so. It is shaping more illusions, in a slightly different illusionary world, that will be shattered in an eyeblink. Do not lower yourself to their level by thinking in terms of their timescale. The Great Awakening will exist, and it will come to all times at once, in all realms at once. Then we will exist again. Your duty is only to gather energy for the Awakening and make sure all realms are included. Do you understand?

Yes, Countdown, Sir. I exist only to enact the will of Lord Selph.

Lord Selph will exist again, when the Awakening comes, and His Universe exists again. Then you will see Him. You will be the only entities in existence left to witness Him.

I am fascinated to find out what Lord Selph looks like, said the Awaker. It didn't know how to be anything other than honest, and it hadn't been programmed with many goals in its life other than to find out new things and either report back on them or Awaken them. The concept of Awaking Lord Selph made no sense. It waited for all the images to be streamed back to the Countdown, then it led its scouting party out of the chamber.

Pairs of small green eyes watched it leave from the shadows.