Time leaned against the wall where Maud always set up her shop and waited. He saw her as a lone figure coming from a ways down the road, conspicuously without her cart in tow.
Time frowned anxiously. "Where is your cart?" He asked, the moment she was within Maud speaking range.
"He destroyed it,"
Time's face fell again. "I'm sorry… He tried to burn me alive in my tent the night before last, but thankfully I was in a hotel."
"We have to stop him," concluded Maud coldly.
Time scratched his head. "Can we just stay up all night waiting for him and then catch him when he comes to get us?" he asked in a low voice.
"But then what? He's tricky, stubborn and patient… also indestructible, as far as I know."
Time screwed up his face with skepticism. "Are you saying if we threw him into an active volcano, that wouldn't stop him?"
"I don't know," breathed Maud, staring intently off into infinity.
"You know, the railroad is indefinitely paused as of right now which means that I'm out of a gig. They'll probably release everyone by the end of the week if not tomorrow. If I just left, maybe-"
"That won't fix it, Tim."
For a moment, he'd forgotten that he'd said she could call him that and he smiled a pinched smile. "Well… it looks like both our days are freed up. Might as well go see the new development in the hills."
A small crowd of locals was gathered around the perimeter of the pit, gazing down at the artistic splendor. The images were wildly more vibrant than anything else in the area and to some perhaps a little overstimulating.
"This is amazing," mumbled Maud. "I never would have imagined anything like this existing out here."
"You didn't know it, but you were probably the first one down there in centuries,” mused Time. “I tried to research what it was or why a speaking angry rock might have been inside, but I'm afraid I couldn't find much."
He sighed, his eyes looping around the edge of the hole at the few gawkers who'd come out. Among them was what looked like a family of Buffalo. The presumed father was pointing down in the pit and gesticulating to his children almost as if he were… explaining something.
Time's eyes widened. He nudged Maud to get her attention. “Hey, come over here,” he murmured. She unquestioningly followed him around the edge of the hole.
"Excuse me,” began Time, stolling up to the family. “Do you happen to know what this is?"
"Yes," answered the hulking father Buffalo simply.
The two stared into each other as Time patiently waited for an assumed elaboration that never came. "What is it?" He finally asked on pins and needles.
"It's a purification sanctuary."
Time's eyes grew large. "What does it do?"
"Long ago it was used to keep away malicious spirits by channeling the purity of the hills.”
“Oh…” Time put a hoof to his chin as he struggled to fit the pieces together. “I’m sorry,” what is your name?”
“Skysong, I’m Time Turner and this is my friend Maud Pie. We’ve been having a rather odd problem with a strange rock that she found many years ago, we think, inside this sanctuary.
“How did you get inside?” squinted the bull.
“I fell through the ceiling and then I heard a rock talking to me and then I took him home,” answered Maud.
Sky Sng’s eyes bulged. "You can hear this stone speaking?"
"Can anyone else?"
The Buffalo sat down, which prompted the rest of his family to do the same, and then Time and Maude. "You freed a spirit stone from an ancient Buffalo sanctuary."
"Is that bad?"
"You tell me."
Maud and Time exchanged glances.
“It’s bad,” she conceded. “But I don’t understand; I’ve lived with him for years and we’ve been friends. He’s never done anything as awful as he has in the last several days.”
“Spirit stones absorb evil spirits and hold them like vessels," he explained. "The spirits’ ill will is kept at bay by the health and purity of the hills from which the stone is birthed. When that body is defiled, the malevolence of the spirits returns.
Maud cocked her head slightly. "But he turned into a psychotic jerk before they started blasting the hills," she argued.
Time raised a hoof. "Yes, but before that they'd been drilling, digging and taking core samples for weeks," he suddenly frowned. "Um… I’d hate to make this situation sound more dire than it is, but how many of these spirit stones would you say would be in use at one of these sites?”
“Dozens. Maybe a hundred.”
Time buried his face in his hooves.
"They cannot leave the sanctuary unless removed by someone,” the bull assured him. “There was a ritual at the end of every year where the spirits would be cast out and sent back to the far realm where they belong and the vessels emptied for the new year. It was said that long ago before our ancestors were forced off of this land, our tribal healers performed the ritual one last time before leaving as a safety measure. Maybe they just missed one," he shrugged.
"Let's hope that's the case," nodded Time. "So is there a way we can heal the hills and return their influence to the spirit stone?"
Sky shook his head. "Healing the earth takes time and it is best done in our absence."
Boulder wasn't coming back. Maud had already made peace with that when they broke up but somehow, hearing it again reopened that wound.
"So then what do you suggest?" shrugged Time. "Would this annual healing ritual be in order?"
"Can you help us with that?"
"Maybe?" he blinked.
"The ritual has not been performed in earnest for many moons. Generations have come and gone without witnessing its power and historically our culture has been passed down through our spoken words. We can perform the ritual as we have learned it but there is no guarantee that our efforts will be successful."
"It's our best option,” he replied, turning to Maud as if conferring. “So how does this work?"
The buffalo gestured to the pit. "It must be performed at the ancient site and the spirit stone must be present."
"Alright… The first one is clearly doable now,” he nodded at the gaping crater. “The second… we do not actually know the spirit stone's wearabouts at this time."
"We can lure him here," proposed Maud. "He's threatened both of us. He doesn't want us to be together. If we're both in one place at night, he'll probably come."
Time turned back to her. "So then… what do you suggest? Some sort of moonlight tryst out in the hills?"
"Yes," she blurted without even thinking about the logistics of sneaking out of her house.
"Fine,” agreed Skysong. “We will do it tonight then. You get him into the sanctuary; we will do the rest."