Sapphire drew on Calsin’s magical field as Ferguson’s power slowly drew her up into the air.
“Yes, yes!” He screamed loudly. “Fight me! Every ounce of power coursing through your body is mine!”
“Help!” Sapphire tried to scream, but found her voice lost. “Please, help!”
She didn’t know who she was calling. Perhaps she was screaming for Hinchipol, for whatever power he might have had left to give her. Perhaps she was screaming for Persphone, perhaps for her friends.
With a whir, two dark figures dropped from the ceiling and landed in front of her, slowly rising and spreading their dark wings. Mal and Simon. The two dark angels balled their fists as Ferguson laughed madly.
“Oh, the two goody-goody angels! What are you going to do?” Ferguson taunted, flexing his bony wings. “Make so much as a move towards me, and I will kill your friend like the dog she is.”
“I’d like to propose a counter-”
Simon’s voice was cut off as Isnita dropped down, slamming him to the ground. Her face was a mask of anger, though that fury vanished as she took in the skeletal Ferguson.
“You’ll die!” She roared at Ferguson.
“I really think…”
Without warning, Mal threw himself at Ferguson. Sapphire had only a moment to blink before the two angels collided. With a burst of light, they vanished in a blur of energy. Sapphire fell back to the floor in an instant, landing with a dull thud. She gasped for breath as pain exploded up and down her legs, eliciting a loud snap.
And, with that… The room grew quiet. Simon and Isnita glanced back and forth, up at the enormous gates, the broken altar, and then back to Sapphire.
“What just happened?” Isnita finally breathed. “Is Mal dead?”
“He’d better not be.” Sapphire gasped as the pain began to overtake her. “If he is-”
“Guys?” Simon cut back in. “Somehow… I think we’re about to find out.” He took a deep breath. “And I’m really not certain it’s going to be good.”
Mal stood silently as Ferguson taunted and screamed. He looked like a skeleton, barely held together by twisted scraps of dried and withered flesh. His wings had no skin or feathers left on them at all, they were simple boney claws that appeared ready to slash at anyone who got too close. Sapphire hung in the air, her life force draining into Ferguson’s twisted body. As Isnita came crashing down through the ceiling, Mal slowly closed his eyes.
Just like he had done so many times before, he opened his eyes to find himself floating just above himself, viewing an event happening just in the future. With a lurch, future-Mal leapt forward, sailing towards Ferguson. Without batting an eye, Ferguson fired a burst of green energy from the Sphere, turning future-Mal into dust. Mal opened his eyes and swayed slightly. That was what Ferguson was capable of? Why hadn’t he just done that to Sapphire?
The answer came to him in a blink. Ferguson was insane. He was absolutely, completely, and verifiably insane. And, as Isnita let out a scream against possibly either Ferguson or Simon, Ferguson’s hollow eyes shifted. He was focused on Isnita, and solely Isnita. Without bothering to do another check, Mal launched himself forward.
Had he had more time to think, he might have decided on a less rash course of action. His wings picked himself up in the cool air of the cave. Ferguson turned back to Mal, and green energy blossomed from the time sphere. By then, though, it was too late. Mal crashed into Ferguson’s body, and he slammed a fist into the decaying chest of the dark angel. It was like punching paper, his fist tore through the bones with ease. Green light flooded around them as Ferguson screamed, and Mal felt the ground fall away from under him.
In that moment… It was one of the strangest feelings Mal could remember. He and Ferguson tumbled downward through a tunnel made from pure green energy, Ferguson sneered and lashed out at Mal with his skeletal wings, slashing him across the face. Mal screamed and flapped his wings, twisting himself around. He slammed a foot into Ferguson’s head, smashing bone and sending a large chunk of the mass spiraling away. Ferguson’s body reformed almost instantly, and he laughed through a hollow mouth.
Without warning, the tunnel ended, and both Mal and Ferguson tumbled into a crowded bar. Just ahead of Mal, Ferguson came crashing down onto a table where two dark elves were playing some sort of card came. Cards blew through the room as the table collapsed, and Ferguson came crashing to the ground with a dull splat. Bone dust billowed upward, and Mal struck an instant later. He planted his feet squarely in Ferguson’s chest, doing his best to stomp out whatever remained of the angel’s life.
A small flash of green brought Mal’s attention to the world around him. A dark elf, clad in burlap rags, scooped the time sphere up into a small sack and darted out an exit. Everyone else, a large number of both high and dark elves, stared at Mal and Ferguson in confusion.
Mal swore, glad that Sapphire wasn’t around to hear him, and bolted for the door. He crashed through the exit and glanced back and forth, looking for the thief.
His eyes opened wide in surprise. It was nighttime, though the stars overhead were nearly obscured by a brilliant, fiery light just below the moon. It looked like a teardrop, blazing with light far brighter than even the moon itself. Smoke trailed from the larger end, stretching across the nearby stars. For a moment, Mal was breathless at the strange and wondrous beauty of it all. Where was he? Or, more importantly, when?
He was brought back to reality as a high elf ran up to him, drawing a short sword. The man began speaking in a language that Mal didn’t understand, and he sighed. With a flap of his wings, he shot up into the night sky, gazing down at the city.
Whatever city he was in, he suspected that it wasn’t a modern elven location. The homes and buildings were made from mud bricks, the roofs from thatch. At least, those buildings that weren’t simple tents, of which there were quite a few.
It didn’t take long to locate the thief, who was threading his way between the buildings with a purpose. Mal dropped from the sky, angling to catch him before he reached the edge of the city. The man glanced back and forth as he ran, desperately looking for any sign of pursuit. He only bothered to look up as Mal’s shadow fell across him.
His face twisted into a mask of horror as Mal struck home, driving him to the ground. He whimpered as Mal flipped him over onto his back and held out his hand.
“Hand it over. Now.”
The man began spouting words in the same strange language, unable to communicate in a way that Mal understood. Mal glared and grabbed at the pouch, which hung on the man’s waist. Somewhere in the distance, Mal heard Ferguson’s scream, and he worked faster.
The elf punched him in the face, a solid blow, breaking Mal’s nose solidly. Mal yelped in pain, then glanced down at the elf. Carefully, he trickled healing energy back into his nose, letting it set back in place with a solid snap. The elf’s eyes nearly bugged out of his head, and he ripped the sack off his belt and tossed it away from him. Mal grabbed it in midair and pulled it open, glancing inside. Sure enough, the time sphere was nestled between several pieces of meat and hunks of cheese, and Mal smiled. He stood up, allowing the man to climb to his feet and race away, back the same way he had come.
Mal’s smile vanished as the man reached the end of the alley. Ferguson stepped into the gap, his wicked sneer permanently plastered across his face. His wings snapped forward, spearing the dark elf like an animal. With a flourish, Ferguson tossed the man up into the air, then charged forward. His skeletal wings reached out like claws, scraping at the walls of the buildings and pulling himself forward.
Mal yelped and threw himself up into the sky, out of Ferguson’s reach. The dark angel scuttled through the space he had just occupied, then turned and screamed up at the sky. For a few moments, Mal just hovered there, watching as Ferguson scurried around on the ground below. The skeletal being made a few pathetic attempts at flying, but was unable to get any higher than he could jump.
Mal felt a smile break over his face, followed by horror. He didn’t know what time Ferguson had thrown him into. He didn’t really even know where he was, though the presence of elves certainly suggested either Elsinor or some past or future version of the land. His only way back to his friends lay in the deadly object in his sack, and the only way to use it resulted in… Well, whatever Ferguson had become.
Without many other options, Mal turned and flew through the nighttime sky, heading in a direction that he hoped was south. He didn’t know why he wanted to head south, only that it seemed like a good idea. If he stayed high enough that Ferguson couldn’t see him, traveled far enough that Ferguson couldn’t find him, maybe he could stay alive long enough to formulate a plan.
Then again, maybe that was a bad idea. Maybe Ferguson would just run rampant, killing hundreds of thousands of people while he looked for the sphere. Maybe he didn’t even need the sphere, and Mal just needed to face him head-on.
Mal shook his head even as he flew. Whatever Ferguson had been planning, he desperately needed the sphere for it. He needed its temporal energies, or whatever it was that Simon was always saying the sphere produced. Which meant that Mal needed to keep it away from Ferguson for as long as possible. At the least, until he could find a way to kill Ferguson for good.
“Your shipment.” Richard stepped into the entrance of the cave, his brilliant silver armor glimmering in the sunlight. “Fruit, vegetables, and all the news that the Hunter Council has on Ferguson.”
“Thanks!” Mal stood up from his bed and walked over to the faithful Hunter. Located in the mountains overlooking what would someday likely become Donisil, Mal had found the cave around a year after running away from Ferguson. At the time, the land had only been inhabited by monsters and a few wandering travelers, mostly orcs and elves. Slowly, over the course of countless years, civilization and society had become manifest. Humans appeared, though they were almost instantly enslaved. Dwarves rose from the depths of the mountains and colonized the lands, elves expanded south, humans gained more freedoms. As Ferguson seemed to have vanished, Mal eventually traveled south to Istinis and confronted the Hunter Council upon learning of their formation. The founding members had been thrilled to learn of the power their organization would eventually wield, and had readily agreed to provide Mal with any information on Ferguson once he appeared.
Of course… Countless years had passed since that point. The Hunters came and went, and yet… No news. Nothing.
“Anything good?” Mal took the sack of food from Richard and set it down on his bed, then took a small journal from the man. “New? Interesting?”
“You know that I am forbidden from looking through those documents.” Richard bowed his head.
“I also know that you did, so if you could save me a few hours, I’d appreciate it.” Mal sighed and sat down on the bed, then gestured at a small chair. “Have a seat.”
“I can’t. The Council wants me back in Istinis as soon as I can get there.” Richard shrugged. “Something about a brewing war. The Elven Empire just sent word that the Dwarven Empire is considering invading. They want all humans as far from the front lines as possible to prevent more enslavement.”
“Good to know.” Mal squeezed his eyes shut. “Does that mean I’m about to get a lot more company? The dwarves would have to come over the mountain range to get to Istinis.”
“Beats me, but it sure might not hurt to move.” Richard shrugged. “Dwarves are nasty, and the Council keeps hearing rumors about this Fond’sar group. We don’t know what they are, but they sound like they’re pretty much set on killing everything that isn’t a dwarf.”
“Fantastic.” Mal took a deep breath.
“You wouldn’t happen to know how this war is going to turn out, would you?” Richard prodded. “Being from the future and all?”
“Please believe me when I say that I was more focused on not getting killed than on world history.” Mal chuckled, then nodded at the book. “So? Anything?”
Richard pursed his lips and nodded slowly, and Mal felt his hopes rise. Of course, this happened nearly every trip. The Hunter Council was quite thorough, they sent him every instance that Ferguson might have been spotted, every monster that may or may not have fit his description. Most of the time, it turned out to be completely false. A few times, though, he had found signs that pointed to the fact that Ferguson was still alive, still searching.
“He actually came and talked with the Hunter Council.” Richard finally scuffed his boot against the ground. “Said he had a message for you.”
“What?” Mal leapt to his feet. “Are you serious?”
“It’s all in there.” Richard sighed. “I can’t say anymore. You’ll just have to read it for yourself. And I have to be going.”
With that, Richard turned and scampered out of the cave entrance, vanishing down the mountainside. Mal pulled open the small book and started reading as fast as his eyes could move. When he finished, he took a deep breath.
Ferguson had entered the chamber of the Hunter Council, declared that he knew that they were in contact with Mal, and requested a meeting at a specific date and time. Mal glanced at the wall of the cave, where he kept track of the days. If he was right, the date was around two months away. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. What to do? Meet his mortal enemy? Try to set up a trap? Ignore it entirely?
He honestly didn’t know what the best course of action was. And, as the drums of war began to beat in the distance, he wasn’t sure if he would be able to come up with the best solution before it was too late.
Mal took a deep breath as he landed in the woods outside of the city. It wasn’t a large city by any means, and had only recently been conquered by the dwarves after their invasion of Istinis. Large tents stood in the trees, war tents housing countless soldiers. Animals milled about, unsettled by the invaders, while search parties walked through the trees.
Mal threw a shawl over his wings, folded them tightly against his back, and double-checked to make sure that the pouch holding the time sphere was still tied to his body. It seemed foolish to bring it along, but then again, it would have been equally as foolish to leave it behind only for Ferguson to take it the moment he left.
As he stepped onto the road leading up to the city gates, several dwarves quickly ran up to him, clad in heavy armor and armed with glistening swords.
“Stop right there!” The dwarf’s accent was so thick that Mal could hardly make out the words. Though species other than humans were slowly growing to use its language as a common speech, the dwarves were trailing far behind the elves and the orcs. “State your business! This is conquered territory!” “And, by the new treaty sighed by Emperor Tornor, I have become a citizen of your new land.” Mal dipped his head. Overhead, stars twinkled down as if laughing at him. “Please, I only wish to seek refuge in the city. I am to meet an old friend of mine.”
The dwarf muttered something in his native language, only for several of the other dwarves to turn and begin arguing with him. After a few moments, he sighed and nodded.
“Under Emperor Tornor, you may enter the city.”
Mal dipped his head and walked past them, smiling slightly. The dwarven forces, almost immediately after invading, had declared their independence from the main Dwarven Empire. From what he could tell, the decision hadn’t sat well with a large number of the foot soldiers in any of the armies, but most people were helpless to do anything as the powers above them ordered them where to go and who to fight.
Mal had to repeat the charade several more times before he actually made it into the main city. Once there, he found himself having to stop even more often, as dozens of dwarven patrols wandered through the city even at night. It grew increasingly frustrating, so that when he finally pushed through the doors of a pub near the center of town, it was as though a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders.
The bar was crowded, as dozens of elves and humans tried to drink away the dwarven occupiers. Only two dwarves could be seen, sitting up at the bar, though they lacked any sort of combat gear.
Mal took a deep breath, then glanced back and forth around the room. It wasn’t hard to find a cloaked figure sitting at a table near the rear, noticeably in a corner where the torches seemed to have gone out. Mal slid through the crowded room, settling into the chair opposite Ferguson. With a hiss, his nemesis leaned forward. The cloak almost completely covered Ferguson’s twisted body, it was only when Mal came to within a few inches of the man that he could see the dried husk that still somehow kept moving.
“You came.” Ferguson hissed. “How long has it been? Do you know?”
Mal shrugged. “A few thousand years, I think?”
“Yes.” Ferguson snapped his jaw a few times, then leaned forward. “How have you been?”
Mal frowned. That was an odd opening question. “I’ve been stuck here for thousands of years. It’s been okay, I guess. What’s going on?”
Ferguson leaned back, vanishing into the shadows of his hood. A few seconds passed, and he sighed.
“I know you took something from me. I spent years of my life searching for it. I traveled this entire continent; I even traveled to the next-closest continent and spend a few centuries exploring it before deciding that you must have stayed in Calsin. But you know what happened?”
Mal felt a sense of understanding dawn in his mind. “You’ve forgotten what it was.”
“The curse of our race.” Ferguson snapped. “Blessed with immortality, cursed to not remember any of our lives. I know I did not come willingly to this realm, but it’s been so long that I don’t know why we came or what our purpose was. There were other members of our race, but I haven’t seen any of them. Why is that?”
Ferguson’s voice sounded so hurt. Mal sighed and shook his head. “I’m not telling you that. You’ve done some terrible things. I’m not letting you get away with that again.”
“Answer me one more question, Mal.” Ferguson inhaled deeply. “Do you remember your past? The people you were with? I was on one side, you were on the other. Do you remember your friends?”
Mal nodded. “I was with-”
His eyes opened slightly. The names of his friends. Their faces. He had drawn them in a journal the moment he had settled down in the cave. He remembered doing that. He had sworn to open the journal every day to make sure he never forgot. When had he quit doing that? And how long had he been here?
“You don’t know.” Ferguson sighed. “Neither do I. I don’t know why I look like this. I don’t know why I’m still fighting. I don’t think you do, either.”
“What are you saying?” Mal crossed his arms. “We just give this up?”
“Yes.” Ferguson nodded. “Please. You have something that can take us back to where we began. I think I’ll know how to use it if I see it. Let’s end this.”
Mal closed his eyes for a brief moment. He had no way of knowing if Ferguson was telling the truth. He didn’t know if the dark angel was just playing him to try and steal the time sphere back or if he was actually repentant. That said… The idea of going back did sound good. He would have to get to know everyone all over again, but… Wouldn’t that be nice? Friends instead of just Hunters showing up every few months?
“How did you know I was with the Hunter Council?” Mal finally opened his eyes again.
“I didn’t.” Ferguson shrugged. “I started going around to all the major groups, anything you might have affiliated yourself with. Vampire hunters, demigods, anyone who would listen to me. It took me a decade or two, but I finally got lucky and heard of the Hunters. Figured it was worth a shot.”
Mal nodded slowly. “So that’s why the sightings of you started increasing in the last few years.”
Ferguson nodded back. “So? Do we end this fight? Try to go back to the way things were?”
Mal took a deep breath. He didn’t know what to think. He didn’t know what to do, how to act. And yet… Oh, he wanted friends again.
“Deal.” Mal took a deep breath. “How do we do this?”
“Show me the item.” Ferguson raised both of his hands above the table, then slid them behind his head. “Keep it as close to you as you like. I just want to go home, you’ll find no tricks from me.”
Mal sighed. He didn’t like the idea, and yet, he did. Slowly, he reached into his pouch and took hold of the time sphere. As always, it burnt his skin just to hold it, but the pain was manageable. Slowly, he pulled the sphere out and held it up, just in front of his chest. Several nearby patrons turned to look at him, and he gripped it a bit tighter. In its light, Ferguson’s nearly-hollow eye sockets glimmered, and he leaned forward.
“So that’s what it looks like.” He breathed. “I knew it was beautiful.”
“Stay back.” Mal clutched the stone a bit closer to his chest. “I can use it, too.”
“Not without making yourself look like me.” Ferguson sighed. “I’ve found a few workarounds. Just let me touch you. Hold out your left hand.”
Mal took a deep breath and slowly stretched the hand out. Ferguson nodded, then slowly reached down with his own hand to grab Mal’s flesh. Ferguson’s bony fingers scraped against Mal’s skin, and he winced. Oh, that wasn’t pleasant. Ferguson leaned forward, and whispered softly.
“And now we go back.”
Light erupted from the sphere, wrapping around the two angels. The floor fell away, and Mal found himself dropping through a tunnel of light. It was so familiar, it was… It was just like it had been when he had first arrived!
Mal felt himself grinning. He was going home! He had turned an enemy into a friend!
With a snap, they reached the end of the tunnel, falling out into a room made from pure metal. Mal’s eyes narrowed as he spread his wings, slowing just before the ground. Ferguson slammed into the metal floor, then glanced up. Mal landed just next to him, glancing back and forth. The room was massive, an expanse filled with crates and barrels, and made entirely from a black metal.
“Where are we?” Mal got the sinking feeling that they weren’t actually back where they had come from, and he turned to run.
Brilliant blue beams of light erupted from behind a crate, striking Mal in the knees. He collapsed, landing on his hands, and desperately flapped his wings. More beams of light burnt away his feathers, then plugged holes in his arms. He collapsed, helpless, as footsteps approached.
“You were faithful.” Ferguson breathed. “Thank you.”
“No problem, boss.” A sharp, crisp, and altogether too familiar voice echoed through the room. “I’d do anything to avenge you.”
Mal felt a boot slam into his side, kicking him over onto his back. Quite unsurprisingly, he found himself staring up at a younger version of Ferguson, before the rot and madness had taken him.
“We’re on the realmship.” The words rose to Mal’s lips. “Aren’t we? Just before the crash?”
Young Ferguson’s eyes narrowed. “What crash?”
“It is of no consequence.” Withered Ferguson waved his hand dismissively. “You received my message well enough, and that is the most important thing.”
“I received the message.” Young Ferguson frowned. “Getting your younger self to hop into this realm was a bit more challenging. We almost missed the date.”
“As long as you succeed.” Withered Ferguson sneered. “Just make sure that my younger self knows nothing of this. He cannot know. Even you yourself will forget about this conversation. Type this information into your personal computer,” the older angel passed a small book to his younger self, “and then set it to download to a personal reader device if catastrophic damage is wrought to this vessel. Do you understand?”
“I think so.” Young Ferguson nodded. “What happens to you, now?”
“I think, if it is not too much trouble, we will remain here.” Withered Ferguson sighed. “I have grown to miss this ship. I will remain in hiding, perhaps around the engine core. I am now able to survive far higher concentrations of radiation than before.”
Young Ferguson frowned. “And him?”
Mal closed his eyes. Ferguson was talking with his younger self, setting in motion events that would lead to the future. That was how Ferguson had known how to use Simon’s Wondrisil device. Of course, young Ferguson thought that he was talking to an older version of Amil… Mal’s head hurt just thinking about it.
“Throw him in a barrel of water. Then spear the barrel.” Ferguson sneered. “Poetic justice, I think.”
Mal opened his mouth to reply, only to have withered Ferguson slam a foot into his throat. Before he could blink, young Ferguson raised one of the strange wands that the brothers loved and fired several shots through Mal’s body. The world went dark… And Mal felt his body drug away.
“You okay?” Mal’s eyes slowly flickered back open as someone slapped his cheeks lightly. “What did you do? Annoy the priestess of Volthera Seven? She threatened to drown me, but I didn’t think she’d actually try and do it.”
Mal sighed and shook his head as healing energy rushed back into his body. His vision snapped into place to reveal an angel kneeling over him, a concerned look on his face.
“Yeah.” Mal coughed, spitting out a large quantity of water. When his lungs had cleared, he shook his head and glanced back and forth. He was still in the same room, but it had been changed around quite a bit. Both Fergusons were gone, so that was a bonus. “Where am I?”
“You’re on the greatest realmship the multiverse has ever seen!” The angel grinned, then frowned. “With the possible exception of the Queen Elizabeth the Fifth. It was named after a queen on a human planet who established an interdimensional pact between the humans and a group known as-”
“Please.” Mal held up a hand. “I’m trying to remember enough as it is.”
The angel sighed and crossed his arms. “I gave up trying to remember things a long time ago. Too much work. Now I have more time to focus on meeting woman and-”
“Simon?” The name rose in Mal’s mind. “Simon. That’s your name.”
“The one and only!” Simon grinned. “So who are you? I don’t remember you as part of the crew, which means that you went in that barrel a truly long time ago. Who put you there?”
“Ferguson.” Mal spat the name.
“Oh sure, you remember the name of the insolent suck-up, but you can’t remember the fun one.” Simon crossed his arms and frowned. “How did we know each other?”
Mal took a deep breath. “That’s a long story. You haven’t technically met me yet. Or… You just met me right now, but I haven’t met you yet.”
Simon crossed his arms. “So this is a time-travel thing?”
“You don’t seem particularly surprised.” Mal raised an eyebrow.
“I’m the king of time travel.” Simon crossed his arms triumphantly. “There was a planet we visited once that had just unlocked the secret to time travel. I managed to sneak into one of the laboratories, stole a short-range time blipper, and used it to sleep with almost fifteen hundred women at the same time.” Simon’s grin nearly split his face. “Of course, Amil caught me, but-”
“Simon!” Mal took a deep breath. “Does this realmship have the ability to travel through time?”
Simon shook his head. “The last time-traveling we did involved a magic whirlpool on an unnamed jungle planet. This ship hasn’t time-traveled in… Oh, a thousand years or so?”
“Good.” Mal nodded firmly. “Then…” He quit trying to think after a moment. If Ferguson had time-traveled at all when he brought Mal to the realmship, it was impossible to know when or where they might have been. “Do you keep records of the planets you visit?”
“Of course!” Simon nodded. “Come with me.”
With that, Simon climbed to his feet and reached out a hand. Mal took it, appreciating the assistance. With that, the two of them marched out of the room and through the narrow, twisting hallways of the realmship. The whole setup seemed eerily familiar to Mal. He knew that he had been there before, but he had no way of knowing when that had been or what exactly he had done.
“Does our memory degrade if we’re just asleep?” Mal finally asked as they threaded their way past a handful of other dark angels.
“Yep.” Simon sighed and nodded. “It’s a bit slower than otherwise, but it’s there. Why do you ask?”
“I can’t remember much from before I was shoved in that barrel.” Mal closed his eyes and tried to think. There had been a mountain range… Dwarves… Maybe a hunter of some sort? “It’s all so blurry.”
“Well, I’ll see if I can figure it out for you.” Simon turned sharply and pushed through a small door. “Here we go!”
Mal’s eyes widened as they stepped into what could only be described as chaos. Dozens of displays sat around the edges of the small room, connected by thousands of small, brilliantly colored strings. Lightning zapped back and forth between several of them, and Simon made his way to one of the closer monitors.
“Alright.” Simon sat down in the chair. “First things first, let’s see what we can learn about you. Look at that blinking red light.”
Mal frowned and glanced to the side, where a brilliant red light had began flickering. With a flash that left him with spots on his vision, something snapped, and Simon nodded.
“Perfect. Now just give me a moment. I’m running your face through our facial recognition software, maybe we can pinpoint how long you’ve been in that barrel.”
Mal nodded and stood quietly as the machine whirred. After a few moments, a handful of images popped up. Simon leaned forward, then gasped softly. He spun to Mal, then back to the screen, then back to Mal.
“Yes?” Mal leaned forward. “Did you find me getting stuffed in the barrel?”
“Yes, but that’s not the point.” Simon spun to Mal while pointing at the screen. Mal glanced past him, noticing a picture of himself as a female in a flowing white dress. “You’re Malah! You turned into a boy!”
Mal sighed and closed his eyes. He couldn’t remember being female, but the statement didn’t sound particularly shocking. “Maybe?”
“If you’re alive, then we’re really dealing with some crazy time travel stuff here.” Simon puffed out his cheeks. “Alright, then. It looks like… Whoa! Is that Ferguson?”
He pointed at the screen. Mal leaned over his shoulder, to a blurry image of the skeletal angel. Mal nodded slowly and sighed.
“In the flesh. Or what’s left of him.”
“Yes!” Simon thrust a fist up into the air, then sighed. “I always hoped he would turn into some sort of dried husk. The guy’s no fun. Never wants to help me land women. Not that I really need help, my wings do my talking for me, but-”
“Right.” Simon took a deep breath. “From what I can tell, that was about two thousand years ago. You’ve had a good and long nap, there.”
“Great.” Mal sighed and nodded at the skeletal Ferguson. “He said that he was going to be hiding in the engine room.”
“Because soaking up all those rads is really going to smooth out his skin.” Simon chuckled, then sobered. “I can only assume that the glowy green thing is the McGuffin you’re chasing?”
Mal shook his head. “I need it, yes.”
“Then we can assume he has it with him in the engine room.” Simon bit his lip. “Let me see here…”
“Wait.” Mal held up a hand. “I still need to figure out when this is. How much more time until I meet you for the first time.”
“Right you are.” Simon nodded. He began typing on a small input device just below the display. “On the day that you were canned, we visited this planet here.” He pressed a final button, bringing up the image of a brown and green orb. “No name, but it’s plastered with more red flags than a girl who only starts showing interest in a second date after you happen to spill your wallet across the ground.”
Mal closed his eyes. “Simon? Please? The largest continent, what kind of civilization did it have?”
“Right.” Simon shrugged. “Not much, it looks like. We didn’t do extensive scans, it looks like Ferguson shut down a bunch of those drives to help prevent the incursion from being detected, but I’m getting three species. Fire giants, ice giants, and flesh giants. Ring a bell?”
Mal shook his head. “All the giants had been locked away by the time I was abducted.” Mal took a deep breath. “He went back in time.”
“Then it’s going to be hard to figure out exactly how long we have.” Simon frowned. “Is it important? If we can steal the green time-travel rock from the Husk, you can just go back, right?”
Mal nodded slowly. “Yeah. Yeah, you’re right.”
“Good!” Simon nodded, then spun. “Alright, then. You ready for a wild ride?”
“Can I say no?”
“Not if you want to set things right.” Simon flashed a grin. “Oh, here we go, Ferguson. Let’s see how you like this.”
Mal frowned. “What are you doing?”
“I’m going to increase the radiation levels in the room.” Simon snickered. “He might be able to survive in it, but even he’ll have his limits. If he’s there, he’s probably using some sort of magical shielding. And thankfully, I learned a bit of anti-magic trickery from a planet we visited about a century ago.”
Mal groaned. “Is it too much to assume that it didn’t come from a priestess of some sort?”
“Why yes. Yes it would be.” Simon flashed a grin and pressed a red button. “And there we go. He won’t make it to the door.”
Mal nodded. “So what should I do?”
“Follow the signs to the engineering room. Wait for the light outside to turn green, then step in. You’ll find him wherever he dropped.”
“Good.” Mal took a deep breath. “You don’t want to come?”
“I do love a good bit of time travel.” Simon took a deep breath. “That said, if it’s used improperly, the effects can be quite devastating. I’d rather survive to misuse it on my own terms.”
“Then I look forward to seeing you again.” Mal flashed a grin. “Until then.”
“Until then.” Simon grinned. “Now go!”
Mal nodded and sprinted from the room. It wasn’t hard to find the signs for the engine room, as they were quite prominently displayed on the walls. In fact, the room that Simon had set up shop in was only a few corridors down from the metal door covered in warnings. A light next to it blinked green as Mal approached, and he happily wrenched it open.
Inside, draped across a large pile of pipes, lay the skeletal Ferguson. His hollow eyes gazed up at the ceiling even as his rags drifted in a soft breeze. Several warnings echoed through the room, and Mal leapt onto the soon-to-reanimate corpse. The man had only one pouch hung around his waist, which was easily torn open to reveal the time sphere. Mal grinned and scooped it up. He was back in control. Good.
Ferguson’s hand snapped upward, latching around Ma’s wrist in an iron-like grip. Slowly, Ferguson sat up, hissing softly.
“You escaped!” He sneered. “I will find Simon, and I will pluck every last feather on his-”
Mal closed his eyes and drew on the power of the sphere. Magic poured through his arm, and he screamed in pain. Every last inch of him felt like he was on fire, every single part of his body felt like it was going to explode.
“Where would you have us take you?” Haunting voices echoed through his mind, even as Ferguson continued to rise up in front of him. “Where would you-”
“Somewhere safe!” Mal screamed. “I want to go somewhere safe!”
“There is only one place you have been where you have felt safe.” The voices echoed. “Would you like us to go there?”
“Yes!” Mal screamed. “Now!”
With that, green light blazed around them, and the ground fell away. Ferguson swore and kicked Mal in the ribs, but Mal didn’t care. He fell end over end, desperately wishing for a way to escape the crazy chase. He found Ferguson, Ferguson found him. Why couldn’t it ever end?
With a blast, he reached the end of the tunnel and fell headlong onto a grassy plain. Mountains rose in his vision for a brief moment before he slammed into the ground, faceplanting in soft dirt. The time sphere bounced from his fingers, off into the tall grass surrounding him.
Almost immediately, explosions echoed through the air. He climbed back to his feet to see Ferguson standing only feet from him, a triumphant look on his face. Before he could move, though, another explosion shook the air, and a massive chunk of Ferguson’s face was blown away. It reformed in an instant, solidifying seemingly out of the dust in the air, but it was nice.
“Let him have it!” A voice cried across the plains. Mal spun to see two elves and a human in a long, dark coat charging across the grass. The human held a device that looked like a larger version of the wands that the angels liked to use. The two elves, one male and one female, both had one of the smaller wands in each hand. Fire belched from the ends, snapping across the prairie.
Ferguson erupted into a cloud of dust as the invisible magic tore through him. He would reform almost instantly, only for the strange trio to blast him apart once more. Mal took a deep breath and glanced to the side, where the time sphere still lay.
“You’re done, Ferguson.” Mal scooped up the sphere and charged forward, making sure to stay out of the way of the trio. “Die!”
With a sweep of his wings, he launched himself up into the air, sailing over Ferguson’s head. The trio ceased firing their wands, and Ferguson reformed for a brief instant. Mal plummeted from the sky, holding the sphere out in front of him.
The skeletal angel glanced upward an instant before Mal struck him. Mal’s fist, complete with the time sphere, drove through the top of his head, down through his neck, and into his chest. Mal let go and tore his hand out of the dark angel, falling away and sneering upward.
Ferguson, in that moment, didn’t say a word. His flesh, what little was left, withered all the way, leaving nothing but bones remaining. His bones became white, as though bleached, and then crumbled to dust. With a whirl, the dust was sucked into the time sphere itself, vanishing below the glowing surface. Mal took a deep breath and slowly dropped to the ground next to it, a sense of relief flooding his body unlike anything he had ever felt before.
“What just happened?” He slowly looked up as the trio strode up to him, wands now lowered. “Who are you?”
“We’re your friends, Mal.” The male elf, sporting a large scar down one cheek, took a deep breath. “And what happened? You’re safe.” He knelt down next to Mal and took his hand. “You’re safe.”
“So, in my future, I’m going to tell the two of you what to do so that your future selves can help me in the past?” Mal took a deep breath.
“More or less, yeah.” Paulin nodded as he turned a small rabbit over the campfire. Overhead, the night sky sparkled down upon them. “I can’t say much more than that, but that’s the basic picture.”
Mal nodded slowly and turned to the human, Berathin. “And you?”
“I’m just along for the ride.” Berathin chuckled. “I still don’t know what I’m doing here.”
“Nor do we.” Hesione glanced at Paulin in a manner that made Mal suspect that bringing Berathin along hadn’t been a unanimous decision. “But he’s here, so that’s that.”
“You need someone else to travel with you once I’m gone.” Paulin scuffed at the fire, then turned to Mal. “I’m about to die.”
“Don’t say that!” Hesione scowled.
“Well, it’s true.” Paulin shrugged. “About six more months or so, after the summer. Unless something wild and unexpected happens.”
“Believe me, I’m holding out hope.” Hesione snorted before turning to Mal. “Sorry. Things get really confusing as time twists itself up more.”
“I’ll bet.” Mal closed his eyes. “So… What do I do now? Do I just stay here and wait a few more years? Can you just take me to the point where I left?” He looked down at his hands, which were now wrinkled and scarred from using the time sphere. “I don’t even remember any of them. Anyone except Simon.”
“Believe me when I say that the rest of us usually try to forget him.” Hesione sighed. “But… It’s really up to you. Paulin and I are sticking around for the next few months, and then…” She shrugged. “I can just take you right there. You get to see them again. Or you can just sit around and wait for a year or so until the moment you left the first time. Or we can go to another time and you can do some traveling before that point. Time isn’t going anywhere.”
“No.” Mal shook his head. “I want to see them again. I really do.”
“Good.” Hesione smiled softly, then nodded. “In six months, then.”
“You guys can talk all you want.” Berathin sighed and climbed to his feet. “I’m going to go get some rest. I’d like to go into town in the morning. I still haven’t seen an orc or watched anyone do magic.”
“Just remember to wear the scrambler before you head in.” Hesione called as he walked away from the fire. “If anyone tries to read your mind, they could find out about us!” Berathin waved at Hesione dismissively, and she sighed. “He’s going to be the death of us.”
“I really don’t think so.” Paulin shook his head. “But I promise, if he does anything stupid, I’ll go after him.”
“No, you won’t.” Hesione snapped back, then sighed again. “I really am sorry, Mal.”
“It really is okay.” Mal climbed to his feet, then paused. He pulled open the pouch that hung on his waist, where the time sphere still hung protected. “What did everyone want with this thing? It lets you travel through time, but I’m sensing that it can’t actually change time.”
“That’s a question for Simon.” Paulin sighed, but reached into his bag. “Might as well give this to you now, though. You’ll need this to make it work.”
He pulled out a small disk and tossed it to Mal, who caught it in the air. Curious, he placed it in his palm, only for spider-like legs to snap out and wrap around his fingers, holding it in place. After a few seconds, it let go, dropping back into his other hand. He dropped it into his pouch, and frowned.
“What is that?”
“Simon will know.” Paulin took a deep breath. “Mal? Can I give you a word of advice?”
Mal nodded. “What?”
“Enjoy your time.” Paulin turned and looked sideways at him. “We live our lives like we’re immortal. If we don’t enjoy one day, there are always more. But… There might not always be more days ahead.” He took a deep breath. “Get some rest, and then return to your friends as soon as you can. Enjoy the time that you have to spend with them, enjoy getting to know them yet again.”
Mal nodded slowly. Paulin and Hesione continued to talk, and he eventually walked away from the fire and curled up in a sleeping bag. It was so strange, knowing Ferguson was gone. How many years had he dreamed of that? It was impossible to know.
All he knew was that he was headed back to his friends. His friends that he didn’t know anymore. In a way, he was terrified. And, in another way, he was beyond excited. What would happen with the meeting? What all would they be faced with? What would he do now that he didn’t have a distinct mission in life?
All he could do was wait. And, maybe… Maybe this time he would be able to truly make his life count for something.
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