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The Artificers

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“Gaspar, the Guru of Time, knows how to restore lost or misplaced time streams…”

– Magus


Kajar – Year of Zeal 324

In its appearance, Gaspar’s creation might well have been referred to as the Time Egg. In its function, he thought of it as the Chrono Trigger, at least once it had been created. That’s getting a bit ahead of the story in one way, and behind it in another. Being ahead of, or behind, his time was very much Gaspar’s job in life. One part historian, one part prognosticator, he was Zeal’s Guru of Time and when Time appeared to be dividing, that was very much his business.

In one timeline, there was no division. Then there was, and in both timelines, there was a division. What Gaspar was to discover, was that it was possible to reach into the space of that division and twist it, undivide it, so that time once again followed a continuous flow. Along one path, or the other path.

That, too, is getting ahead of the story.

In both the undivided line and the divided line, in the 324th year of Zeal’s existence, after the Gurus began their work on the Mammon Machine but before the Rise of Lavos, Gaspar sat at his desk and wrote these words:

“Time resists modification by magic, and does so very strongly – such that even with great practice and considerable power, I can perhaps manage to speed it up, or slow it down, in a local area, but I cannot make changes to it. What is interesting is that this resistance is not infinite, though it is proportional to the local magic field and so under normal circumstances it should be impossible to change historical fact by means of magic. We should probably be glad of this.

“The variation in the resistance of time to manipulation occurs both over time and across space, but it appears to be predictable and the rest of this volume will describe its patterns. The final formula is mostly continuous across both time and space. Local variations in space will move forward in time at the same rate that we experience it. The field can have vertical asymptotes at which temporal resistance is infinite; I do not know what to make of these, and I am not sure any actually exist. Under my current model, time should not pass in such places, but clearly it must. Such discontinuities are invariably instantaneous, and do not remain as time moves forward.

“The field as a whole is positive, but tends towards zero as time approaches infinity. There is another discontinuity at infinity, where resistance becomes negative. It is interesting to speculate about this. If there can be said to be such a thing as the end of time, then time at that spot should be trivially manipulable and easily connected to any other time. I do not know what that means in terms of physical reality. Such an environment may be quite inhospitable to humans. Any local minima with a resistance of zero or less would have a similar property; it might be possible to breach the timestream at such places, with sophisticated magic or in some other way. Fortunately, although such places can exist, no such minima exist in our time period; and because of the forward-moving nature of the function, they never will.”

Everything Gaspar wrote was true except the last bit. He wasn’t stupid enough to tell the truth about that.


Zeal Palace – Year of Zeal 326

The first twist in time went almost unnoticed. Gaspar was studying its resistance field and found that in the space between one day and the next, it changed. He noted the change and noted that it did not match anything predicted by his model.

Like Belthasar, and unlike Melchior, Gaspar had the soul of a scientist. He dutifully recorded the phenomenon, and found that his formulas still correctly predicted his observations over the next few days. This confused him. Initially, he hypothesized that it was a side effect of the Mammon Machine, but that was an easy enough idea to check and discard – Princess Schala had been attending to the Machine at the time and reported no strange events. Gaspar studied the problem for a while after that, and then eventually gave up and moved on to other things. Without a second such event, there was no way to work out a pattern.

Besides, life was busy, and there were other things to do.

Six months later, he had mostly forgotten about it – and so did not make the connection, when a man appeared who would give Gaspar serious competition in the Time business.

The man called himself the Prophet. He was tall, thin, and had the characteristic pale violet hair of the Enlightened Ones, but he was not one of them. There was an aura about him, of rage and sorrow…and power, wild but carefully restrained. Gaspar didn’t know what he was, or who. The Prophet never gave his name, only his title.

He was admitted to the Queen’s presence for curiosity’s sake alone. He told her this: “Within three days, there will be an accident at the Ocean Palace. Three of the Earthbound will die, and one of the Enlightened.” And then he walked out immediately.

Queen Zeal interpreted it as a threat; she had already begun to change, and was more paranoid than Gaspar realized. But she had not ceased to listen to Gaspar’s advice yet. The Guru advised her to have the Prophet observed, to ensure that he would not cause the event he had predicted; and also to have Dalton and Belthasar use extra caution in the construction over the next few days. Belthasar, in designing the Ocean Palace, had included a complex series of flood locks and pressure barriers to mitigate the inevitable risks of working under the ocean. He checked them personally; but in the meantime, work continued.

Two days later, a mage cutting into the rock of the ocean floor broke into a dormant undersea vent. The gaseous release tore the chamber open. The sea flooded in, drowning all present. The floodlocks held. No others died.

Queen Zeal summoned Gaspar, and the Prophet.

“You will explain yourself,” she demanded. Her voice was dark, Gaspar noticed. It was his first indication that something was seriously wrong with her. “How did you know? Who and what are you? Even Gaspar, here, cannot predict such precise events.”

“I told you,” he said, “I am the Prophet. I know many things.”

“I would like to know if there is anything else you have to tell us,” Gaspar said.

“Right now, nothing. But if you wish more proof that I can do what I say I can, here are a few things. Your son, the boy Janus,” he addressed the Queen, “has been missing for several days. His caretaker is worried. He can be found in two days in a cave east of Kajar Falls. He is otherwise safe.” He turned to Gaspar. “Belthasar has been working on another aircraft, one that can fly beneath the clouds safely. He has not told you this. But he will mention it in a few weeks, if you do not otherwise bring it up.”

Gaspar was mentally taking notes. “All right. Anything else?”

“Yes.” The Prophet smiled. “Not everyone wants to see the Mammon Machine project reach its full potential. Some will come who wish to oppose it, and the Queen.”

After a moment of silence, the Queen nearly screamed: “Who?”

“I will be keeping that to myself for now. But I will tell you when it is needful; and you will know, by the truth of my prophecies, that my words are real ones.”

Queen Zeal’s eyes burned, and for a moment Gaspar thought she might assault him physically.

“Do not play games with me, Prophet,” she said in a dangerous voice.

“I do not play games with anyone.”

She scowled at him. “I will speak to you again later. For now, you may leave. You too, Gaspar.”

The two of them bowed and exited. Before they parted in the hallway, Gaspar offered his thoughts:

“She’s been on edge lately. Don’t provoke her.”

“I didn’t intend to. But I agree, she does seem quick to anger.”

Gaspar thought for a moment, then changed tactics:

“Tell me something. There is a golem who visits me somewhat irregularly while I am here at the palace, to talk about my work. When should I expect to see him next?”

The Prophet’s eyes darkened. He said nothing.

“I see,” Gaspar said softly. “Then there are some things you cannot predict.”

“This surprises you?”

“No. I am merely interested in how you do it. I don’t suppose you would be willing to share? Of course not. Well, fine. You will have to prophesize more, to keep the Queen convinced; and if you did not want her convinced, you would not be here. Perhaps I can work it out by looking at what you do and do not predict.”

The Prophet smiled. “Does it bother you, Guru, that I succeed where you cannot?”

“Why on earth does that matter? This is my field, after all, and it’s an interesting puzzle. If you can tell the future, it’s my business to figure out how. Does it bother you, that I want to know what you know?”

The Prophet gave him a puzzled frown. “You are one of the Gurus. I would have expected you to fear for your position.”

Gaspar blinked. “No, not really. Should I?”

“Maybe not,” the Prophet said wryly.

“Where are you from, by the way?”

“Zeal,” he said, “the same as you. The same as all of us.”

Liar. “All right, keep it to yourself if you want. I was just curious.”


Kajar – Year of Zeal 326

Belthasar, the Guru of Reason, had his own private studies in Kajar and Enhasa. “Private” mostly meant “secret.” Gaspar had no idea why his friend seemed to delight so much in being able to squirrel himself away, but he knew better than to interrupt Belthasar at such times without good cause. Today he felt he had good cause.

There was something wrong with Time, and had been for a while. Gaspar’s instruments were not working right. The temporal pendulum was swinging too far to one side. The chronorecorder produced a sharp angle where it should have shown only curves. His grandfather clock kept time as well as always, but Gaspar kept glancing at it, expecting it to do something different, make an error.

Something had changed. Like a rock deflected by another rock, the timestream had moved from one course to another. Gaspar did not understand it. But he knew that something wasn’t right.

He explained all this to Belthasar, who understood him just fine the first time, something that only Belthasar was typically able to do.

“I’ll take your word for it, of course,” Belthasar told him, “but what do you want me to do about it?”

“Math,” Gaspar said. “Something has knocked Time off-kilter, replaced one timestream with another. We are not living the lives we were meant to lead, to whatever extent we’re ‘meant’ to do anything. I don’t know why and I don’t know if it’s something we should be afraid of. I want to be able to knock it back if we need to, and I think I can make a device to do it. But it will take precision. I’ll give you the problems I want to calculate; you hand me the results and I’ll take it from there.”

Belthasar shrugged. “Sure, I can do that. I don’t suppose you have some of it on hand?”

“I do,” Gaspar said, giving him a small book. Belthasar took it and flipped through the first few pages before Gaspar could say anything, then grinned at him.

“Gaspar, check your brain. This is pre-Zeal history.”

“Sorry, I didn’t have any blank paper to hand when I was writing stuff down. Check the back.”

Belthasar gaped at him. “You defaced one of your history books? To save a bit of time? That’s not like you, my friend. You really are worried, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

He flipped to the back of the book and looked over Gaspar’s formulas. They were as neatly-printed as ever, despite extending into the margins of the last few written pages. The numbers described temporal resistance and related effects; under them were a brief set of conjectures he wanted proved or disproved.

“Okay,” Belthasar said. “Yes, I can do this, and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can; just be aware that the Ocean Palace has to take priority, so it may be a bit. Speaking of which, the Queen is here in Kajar and wants to speak to me in her offices on the subject this morning. Want to come along?”

“No, thank y–wait. Will the Prophet be there?”

“I don’t know. Why would he be?”

“Call it a hunch. I’ll come along after all.”

“Professional curiosity?”

“Professional curiosity.”

They left Belthasar’s secret chambers and set out through the streets of Kajar. Gaspar, who as usual had kept to himself until he had cause to emerge, peppered the Guru of Reason with questions about what he had missed.

“Well,” Belthasar said, “your Prophet appears to be the real deal, as far as I can tell. He’s made a number of predictions and they’ve all turned out true – and they were all things he had no way of knowing or influencing, again as far as I can tell. The Queen is pleased as punch and I want to punch him in the head.”

“Any pattern to what he can predict?”

“Not really. Most of his predictions are related to events surrounding the royal family, but that makes sense since most of the time he’s talking to the Queen to begin with; I don’t think that you can draw any conclusions from it. I don’t like it, though. He tells the future, fine, I’ll give him that, but I still want to know why he’s here. There’s something familiar about him that I just can’t place.”

“What does the Queen think of it?”

“She thinks his words are made of gold.”

“That isn’t good.”

“No, it’s not.”

The entrance to Queen Zeal’s personal chambers was opulent but not quite gaudy; its main decoration was the frame, which was made from hollow glass and contained a small saltwater aquarium. Fish from the surface could not live in the rivers and lakes of the floating isles; the Queen had found a way to exhibit them anyway.

The two Gurus stepped inside, and nearly collided with Schala as she was leaving.

“I’m sorry,” Gaspar said, “are you all right?”

“Yes, I’m fine, thank you.”

“Schala, I will speak to you after this meeting,” the Queen was saying. “Gaspar, I don’t recall inviting you.” Her voice was suspicious. A year ago that would have been uncharacteristic of her. No longer.

“Actually,” Gaspar said mildly, “I’m here to see the Prophet. I can wait until you are all done if you’d like.”

“Fine, wait outside. Schala, you too.”

Schala looked as if she was ready to object, but thought better of it and left the room. Gaspar followed her.

“Your thoughts?” he said. Schala was closer to the Queen than any of them.

“She’s not herself,” Schala said. Her voice was frustrated. “Please don’t be angry at her.”

“Dear child, have you ever known me to be angry at anyone?”

Schala blinked, then smiled. “I suppose not. Still, she’s not herself. She used to trust you. And Belthasar, and Melchior. Now she seems irritated at all of you. Me, too. I think she’s only polite to me because she needs me to run the Mammon Machine. She doesn’t even really like the Prophet, she just thinks she can use him. Janus is beside himself. It’s like he thinks there’s something else wearing her face, like a mask. Sometimes I’m not sure he’s wrong.” She heaved in a breath. “Gaspar, I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right.”

“Are you really here to see the Prophet?”

“Something like that. I wanted to observe him rather than speak to him. I was hoping to sit in on their meeting, but it seems I can’t, so I’ll see what I can learn from him afterwards. Belthasar will let me know whatever he says in there, I’m sure.” Gaspar paused. “Perhaps you should not tell your mother that,” he said.

“I won’t.”

“What do you think of him?”

“I’m not sure,” she said slowly. “He’s arrogant and contemptuous of most people, but he’s always polite to me. Well, no, not polite. Just not…well, he gets above his station.” She wrinkled her nose, like she didn’t like having to make the comparison. “He’ll talk to me like an equal, which almost no one does. But he’s not rude about it. Not to me. And something about him feels…familiar.”

“Oh? How so?”

“I don’t know. But a lot of the predictions he’s made have been about me. Even more than Mother, or Janus. He seems to know us all far too well. And he just…looks familiar. I swear I’ve never seen him before, but I get the strangest feeling…”

“Has he ever been wrong?”

“Once. He told Mother I was going to re-activate the Mammon Machine on my own, and that I would be injured in the attempt. I was eavesdropping. They didn’t know. I wanted a better look at the power of this…Lavos…without Mother distracting me, but after hearing him, I changed my plans for the day. Mother sent some people to head me off, but of course I wasn’t there. She was furious at him for being wrong, until I told her what I had done. Then she was furious at me.”

“If you hadn’t been eavesdropping, the Prophet would have been correct?”

“Yes. Well, probably.”

“Then he can predict the future, but others can still change it. How interesting. Schala, can you do me a favor?”

“Of course. What do you need?”

“Write down whatever he said that you can remember, along with anything new. I’m trying to work out how he does it.”

“I’ve already been doing that. Almost from the start. I’ll have a scribe copy it and send it to you. Actually, I’ll do that myself.”

“Thanks. Better not tell your mother.”

“I won’t,” she said, “but I don’t like keeping things from her.”

“I don’t either. I’m not entirely sure what’s going on. Be careful with the Mammon Machine, Schala. I’ve been talking with Melchior about it, and he thinks it might be the Machine itself that’s responsible for her…changes.”

“He’s noticed too, then.”

“We’ve all noticed. You’re not alone. Have you noticed any changes in yourself? You work with it far more than the rest of us.”

“No, but a better question might be if you have.”

He regarded her thoughtfully. “No,” he said, “You appear to be yourself, which is at least some evidence against the idea. Still, be careful.”

“I will.” She shivered. “Believe me, I will.”


Zeal Palace – Year of Zeal 327

“Hey, Old One! Feel like guessing yet?”

Gaspar smiled and turned around. “Hello, Spekkio. No, not yet. I still don’t know who created you, but I’m narrowing it down.”

Spekkio was a construct, and quite strange as such golems went. He was much more articulate than most, and he was…quirky. Gaspar liked him. The “old one” was a joke; Spekkio was actually older than Gaspar, a relic of the early days of magical constructs. Today he was wearing the shape of a Kilwala, a white furred creature from the prehistoric age. That meant he was feeling good. If he was pensive he would have taken the form of a Nu; if angry, a demon of some sort. One time he had come to Gaspar’s office as a walking tree, just to see the reaction.

Gaspar was sure the shapeshifting business would eventually yield a clue as to who created him. Until then, Spekkio liked to needle him about it.

“You’re no fun,” Spekkio said. “How’s work?”

“Nerve-racking. Did you know time is split into at least three branches, as of, um, one year ago and two weeks ago respectively?”

“I do now! Which branch are we in?”

“I don’t know. Well, we’re in the one that exists, and there’s two others that now don’t. And I don’t know how they got that way.”

“Bummer.”

“How are your own studies going?”

“Oh, mine are great. Did you know there was a war in Pre-Zeal fourteen-hundred that was fought entirely with snow?”

“Well, I remember war in that period. Three of the larger mountain tribes, all fighting over the same water supply, right?”

“That’s the one! Apparently when negotiations broke down nobody knew what to do, because it was one of those ages where everybody had forgotten how to make real weapons, and sticks and stones couldn’t kill people fast enough. But they knew how to make fire. So they started using fire to cause avalanches and drop tons of snow on each other.”

“Why didn’t they just melt the snow and use it for water?”

“They did. That’s how the war ended, when they blocked up the original spring they were all fighting over and all had to turn to snow to drink.”

Gaspar frowned. “That doesn’t fit. They had to know they could drink melted snow. What were they really fighting over if it wasn’t the water supply?”

“Nothing, really. Everybody just wanted to be King of the Three Mountains, I think. Have I ever mentioned that you humans are stupid? Because you humans are stupid.”

“Sometimes I think you’re right,” Gaspar said dryly. “So what are you interested in next?”

“Let’s go back further. Got anything from the third millennium P.Z.? And let’s go for something a bit more sophisticated than sticks and stones this time, hrm?”

“I think the third millennium P.Z. was all sticks and stones,” Gaspar said. He got up and scanned the shelves in his office. “There was an empire in the late fourth that fell apart and pretty much took all of human civilization with it. They fought a lot building that empire, though. Would that do?”

“I like it, Old One.”

Gaspar started pulling books out and stacking them. War and war history was Spekkio’s hobby. It fascinated him, at least in part because Zeal had never known war. The Sun Stone provided nigh-limitless power for the Enlightened Ones, so there was no need to fight among themselves. Conditions on the surface for the last few centuries had been too harsh for the Earthbound to bother fighting with each other. War between the Earthbound and the Enlightened was laughable. So who fought? Nobody. War was an alien concept, understood only as a historical curiosity, and Spekkio was nothing if not curious.

“Here you go,” Gaspar said.

“Ooh, hey, Weapons of the Third and Fourth Millennia. I wonder if Melchior would be willing to help me make some of these?”

“You could ask him, but I don’t think he’ll see the point of it. And someone might have a problem with you carrying around stuff meant to kill people.”

“Aww.”

They talked for a while about Gaspar’s work and Spekkio’s hobbies, and then Spekkio left. Gaspar watched him go thoughtfully. A line in the conversation stuck out to him:

Everybody just wanted to be King of the Three Mountains, I think.

The Mammon Machine would provide limitless energy to all, as had the Sun Stone of old. That was the story. But so far it was being kept close, within the royal family. Part of that was simple safety; only a few had the strength and skill to control it. But was that the only reason? Was ambition as obsolete as it seemed?

The thought bothered Gaspar, and he went back to his books, this time looking at the early history of the Sun Stone. The founders of Zeal had to have grappled with certain issues when the Stone was discovered. Maybe they could tell him something useful.


Zeal Palace – Year of Zeal 327 – Two Weeks Later (Timeline C) – Three Weeks Later (Timeline B) – Never (Timeline A)

Gaspar didn’t find anything enlightening in his history books, but his attention soon turned elsewhere. Belthasar returned Gaspar’s book along with notes of his own, written in the careful yet barely-legible block print that he used when he knew someone else would have to read it. Some of it Gaspar couldn’t read anyway. It didn’t matter. He might have been able to verify Belthasar’s work, but not quickly. He would just have to trust that the Guru of Reason had done the job right.

The results were more than he had expected, but less than he had hoped for.

Conjecture: There is at least one resistance-zero temporospacial location for any given instantaneous timeframe. False, disproven by numerous counterexamples. Timeframes with what Gaspar thought of as a “weakness” in time were somewhat rare. That bothered Gaspar, but not much; he knew for a fact there was at least one such location already extant in his own time period.

Conjecture: All resistance-zero temporospacial locations can be breached. This one turned out slightly more favorable. Belthasar hadn’t been able to prove it, but had proven that it could not be disproven, which was not quite the same thing but was almost as good. Additionally, Belthasar had shown that at least some such locations could be breached.

Conjecture: The local time distortions Gaspar was investigating – the “lost timestreams” as he thought of them – each branched off beginning at a zero, and in fact had to do so. This, Belthasar had been able to prove…mostly. Such breaks were provably impossible at any location not resistance-zero or resistance-infinity. Gaspar still didn’t know what resistance-infinity meant, but it didn’t matter.

There were ten or twelve more conjectures mostly involving complicated interactions of magic and time. Some were proven, some weren’t, but the whole added up to what Gaspar wanted: It was possible to breach the timestream, it was possible to do it with a reasonable degree of power and precision, and it was possible to pass through such a breach and survive. In theory. In practice, he would need to create a device capable of doing so.

He was not sure yet what he would use that device for, but he wanted it. Something was wrong. He needed options. This was something he could do. Something only he could do. He needed time and privacy, to think it through, to create. Like Belthasar, he had his own place to go when he wanted to be alone.

He penned a note:

Melchior, Belthasar:

Be careful. Someone or something is altering the flow of Time and has been for around a year. I don’t know what’s supposed to happen when the Mammon Machine is turned on, but I am quite certain something is going to change. Watch for unexpected problems. You can find me at my private island if you need me. I will return shortly before the Ocean Palace’s completion date if I don’t hear from you before then.

He thought for a few minutes. A year since Time went off-kilter. He didn’t need a formal proof to draw a simple conclusion. He added another line:

Don’t trust the Prophet.

Gaspar signed it, then made two copies of the note. He would leave one in each of Belthasar’s private offices and another in Melchior’s smithy, spelled to be unreadable by any but the intended recipients. They could get hold of him if they needed to.

He packed a bag – he traveled light – and then thought of something else. He wrote another letter.

Schala:

Could you send your notes to my private island? Thanks.

Gaspar

She was a smart woman; she would get the point. He turned around, stopped, and turned back to his desk again. One more letter.

Spekkio:

Help yourself to anything off the shelves. I’ll be back when the Ocean Palace is done. Feel free to look me up then.

Gaspar

Gaspar left that one on the desk for Spekkio to find. He waved at the lamps to put them out, then finally left his study. He did not return.


Unmarked Island – Year of Zeal 328

The Guru of Time lost track of time, working. Gaspar’s “office” was really a cave. Like his counterparts, he had a need for private spaces. This was his. He took privacy seriously. He spent months at his private island, hunched over desks, books, magical apparatus. He altered time as much as he could, to get more hours out of a day. For the first month, he slept only briefly and intermittently. Eventually he found that exhaustion was interfering with his work, and spelled himself into sleeping longer. Still he carried on.

He named the device the Chrono Trigger, but when Spekkio finally interrupted his work, it was still just a concept in his mind. It didn’t exist yet.

Gaspar didn’t notice Spekkio’s arrival. The cave had no door, nothing to knock on or keep intruders out. It didn’t need one. The few who knew where to find it knew better than to interrupt him. Except for one irreverent golem, apparently.

Spekkio crept up behind him, then shouted: “Hey! Old One!”

Gaspar didn’t twitch.

Spekkio tried again: “How’s it going?”

“The math isn’t balanced,” Gaspar said. His voice was high-pitched and the words came out blurred together.

“Are you balanced?”

“You can’t have an infinity in here and have the math be balanced. It doesn’t work. So why does it look like using a Trigger has to produce one?”

“Hello? Gaspar?”

“I must have made a mistake, somehow. Or Belthasar did. No, probably me.”

Spekkio gave up and nudged him with a giant snout. Today he was wearing the form of an Earthbound Beast, a long bearlike creature that was about six times Gaspar’s size and weight. Gaspar fell right out of his chair.

“What? What?” the Guru said.

“Wake up, Old One,” Spekkio said. “Nose out of whatever it’s in.”

“Oh, it’s you. Hi, Spekkio. What are you doing here? How did you even know where to find me?”

“Meh, you’re easy to find. But you need to come back. They’re moving the Mammon Machine down to the Ocean Palace next week.”

“But I’m not ready yet!”

“So what? The world is moving on without you, great student of Time.” Spekkio’s voice was mocking. “Better start catching up.”

“Better start slowing down,” Gaspar countered. “Okay, fine, I meant to come back when the Palace was ready, but it’s not that urgent. Melchior and Belthasar can keep a handle on things just fine without me, even if the Queen is still a little off.”

“Like I said, the world is moving on. Melchior’s been exiled – forcibly. Dalton had Belthasar arrested, and he’s being held in his own Palace workroom.”

What?

“Do I finally have your attention, now?”

“All right. Yes, you have my attention,” Gaspar said. He stood his chair back up and turned it to face Spekkio, then sat down. “Find a shape that doesn’t block up so much space. Then tell me what’s going on.”

After a few moments, Spekkio turned himself into a ground sloth only slightly larger than a human. The air whupped in to fill the suddenly empty space. “Better?”

“Good enough. Where are Melchior and Belthasar?”

“Melchior’s been sent to the Mountain of Woe. Belthasar is in his private offices at the Ocean Palace. Both were by order of the Queen.”

“And she still intends to turn on the Mammon Machine?”

“Yes.”

“Without any of its designers on hand?”

“Yes.”

Gaspar bit his lip. “Okay, why them and not me?”

“My opinion? Because she doesn’t know where you are to arrest you.”

“Dalton? Schala? The Prophet?”

“Princess Schala spoke out against the arrests. I think the only reason the Queen stood for it was that she needs Schala to activate the Machine.”

The echo was disturbing. “You know, Schala once told me something similar.”

“Oh, yeah? Well, you should have paid attention.”

Gaspar got up and started pacing. What to do? He couldn’t directly oppose the queen; in a contest of magic, he would lose. He might be able to match her strength for strength, but he would have to fight Dalton as well, not to mention any of her other aides and guards. Moreover, if the Mammon Machine was reactivated and the Queen had access to Lavos’s power through it, any advantage he had would shrink to nil.

Much as he would have liked to, he could not count on Schala. She was too much under her mother’s thumb, too invested in doing what others expected of her. So, what? Reach Melchior himself and go in together? It was a thought. All three of them worked on the Mammon Machine, but Melchior was its primary architect; if anyone could come up with a way to destroy the Machine, he could.

What problem am I trying to solve?

That was the rub. He could find or rescue his fellow Gurus. He could challenge the Queen. He could, possibly, break the Mammon Machine. But he couldn’t do all three, not with so little warning. Did he need to do all three? Probably not. Melchior and Belthasar were perfectly capable of getting themselves out of their own sticky situations. And the Mammon Machine?

“Well?” Spekkio said.

He sighed. “Here’s the problem. We built the Mammon Machine for a reason, and that reason still holds. We need a power source to replace the Sun Stone. But the Queen can’t be trusted with it.”

“Obviously.”

“Obvious now. It wasn’t obvious when we built the thing.”

“I don’t know about you, Old One, but from over here it looks like you can’t safely use it anyway.”

“We can. Schala does it. Or has she suddenly become megalomaniacal in the time I’ve been out here?”

“No,” Spekkio admitted, “from everything I’ve seen and heard, she’s fine. It’s just her mother that’s changed. And maybe Dalton.”

“No, Dalton was always a jerk.”

“Why did she keep him on staff, then?”

“Because he’s a good administrator and he gets things done. Or at least he’s good at getting other people to get things done. She always valued competence in her assistants. Well, she used to, anyway.”

Gaspar started to pace again, then stopped.

“Okay,” he continued, “Melchior will have to fend for himself. I’m going to the Ocean Palace. I’ll try to talk some sense into the Queen, maybe try to talk to Schala too. If I can convince Schala to stand her ground, that might help.”

“And if you can’t?”

“Then either I get hold of Belthasar and we try to do it the other way, or…”

“Or, what?”

Or most likely it all goes to hell and I try to undo it after the fact.

“We’ll fly that sky when we have to,” Gaspar said.


Ocean Palace – Year of Zeal 328

He ended up arrested, of course. That was nearly a foregone conclusion. The Queen wanted to exile him as she had exiled Melchior, but there were only a few people with the magical strength to keep Gaspar restrained, and time was short enough that she needed them all on hand. Dalton and the Prophet escorted him out, instead.

“It will end badly,” Gaspar told her.

“It will end with immortality,” she replied.

Dalton gathered four guards, making an escort of six, and they saw Gaspar to his personal office. At least, it was listed on the Ocean Palace’s design as his personal office. Gaspar had yet to take a trip down to the sea floor and had never set foot in what was supposedly his own space. No one dared to re-purpose it, though, so while it was furnished, it was otherwise empty.

“You will not be allowed to leave,” Dalton said. His tone was overly officious; he was clearly enjoying himself. “My guards will inspect your office regularly and bring you food regularly. You may not see visitors. You may not use magic at any time.”

“Did Belthasar punch you when you gave him that speech?”

The Prophet and a somewhat incautious guard both smirked. Dalton’s face turned a hilarious shade of purple. “Watch him!” he said to the guards, then stalked out.

“Sorry, Guru,” said the one guard. From his insignia he was the squad’s leader. “I don’t know what’s going on, but I don’t want to give you any trouble. And Belthasar did hit him. Laid him clean out.”

“I could tell. I wish I could have seen that.”

“You can if you want. I do illusions and spell recordings. Here, watch.”

The guard cast a short spell. Light flashed from his hands on to one wall, making a picture. There was no sound, of course. Belthasar and Dalton faced each other in the image, in a chaotic mess of an office that could only have been the Guru of Reason’s field workshop. They exchanged words. Dalton, again, was clearly enjoying himself. Belthasar nodded along, grinning. Then Dalton was through speaking, and oh, here came the fist, no magic at all, just a wide swing and a pompous aristocrat going over backwards like a falling tree.

There was a barking laugh from the door. The guard snapped his illusion off and turned around, startled. It was the Prophet. He hadn’t left with Dalton.

“Uhh,” the guard said.

“You four, wait outside,” the Prophet said. “I will speak with the Guru alone for a moment. I will not tell Dalton about your indiscretion.” His voice carried the assumption that he would be obeyed. And he was obeyed. The four guards filed out wordlessly.

“I see you’ve risen to some sort of authority while I’ve been gone,” Gaspar said, guardedly.

“You could say that. I have things to do, so I’ll be brief. Would it be safe to say that you care for Princess Schala’s safety?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Events will shortly begin to spiral out of control. When that happens, find her and get her out.”

Gaspar raised an eyebrow. “Think twice before trying to command me. But I have no objection to doing so. Indeed, I already intended to talk her into leaving. Possibly taking charge from her mother, as well. While today’s events may have biased me, I think I can truthfully say that her mother is no longer fit to rule.”

“Schala should rule,” the Prophet said. Gaspar was surprised at his vehemence.

Also his candor. “You certainly put a great deal of effort into winning the Queen over. Now you suggest she should be deposed.”

“I needed her. The time when I will not is fast approaching.”

Gaspar’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t like the sound of that, Prophet. My problem with her is practical, not personal. She’s simply not herself. I have served the royal family for a very long time, and if you would bring harm to them, I will stop you.”

There was silence in the air between them.

“No,” the Prophet said softly.

“No, what?”

“No, I don’t mean harm to them. And no, you can’t stop me.”

Good enough. “Schala. You’re asking me to get her out. Why can’t you do so yourself?”

The Prophet’s eyes hardened. “I will have other business when the time comes.”

“And what’s your investment in her safety?”

“That, too, is my business. Things are going to go very sour, very soon. I say that as the Prophet; take heed. If it goes badly, she may need help to escape. Be ready.”

He turned on his heel and stalked out. Gaspar thought for a while, then opened the door. The guards were standing just outside. They hadn’t bothered to lock it.

“Can we help you?” the squad leader asked, politely.

“You could let me go.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t. I wish I could.”

“I know, I was just kidding. I’m fine here. Could one of you get me some food, blank paper, and writing implements? And let Belthasar know I’m here.”

“Of course, Guru.”

Gaspar went back to his work on the Trigger. Schala did visit him, briefly. She told him that the Mountain of Woe had collapsed, and Gaspar thought: Melchior. He’d known the man could take care of himself. Schala told him she was going to the surface, out of her mother’s reach, where she could not be used. Gaspar never had to suggest a thing.

It wasn’t as good as getting the girl on the throne, but it would do for now. If the Prophet was right, Zeal was heading for disaster anyway. But Gaspar could change its course. If he could figure out just the right set of spells….

He was still working on them when the world went to hell.


The End of Time – Infinity

Go far enough forward in time, and time ceases to have real meaning.

In the Year of Zeal 328, after the Ocean Palace Incident, all three of the Gurus were cast out of time, out through Gates to wheres and whens unknown. Gaspar, the Guru of Time, was better prepared to fall through such a fissure than his companions. He could use his magic to stabilize it. Make it less dangerous. Less unpredictable. As he hurtled forward all unknowing through a strange, mottled darkness, he did his best to keep that darkness ordered.

He was better prepared, and so came out worse.

Stable and safe, the darkness couldn’t eject him. He left Melchior behind in 600 A.D. – he knew not that the calendar had changed – and centuries later, Belthasar landed in the 23rd century. Gaspar flowed onward. In this place, Time was not really Time.

Gaspar held his place, trying to keep himself in one piece long enough to understand his surroundings. All unknowing, he held his place forever. Then it was over.

The change was subtle. The dark blue-black expanse stopped rushing by him quite so fast. Its contours became…softer. That was all. It was just as empty, just as strange. He noticed that he was not taking in breath and did not seem to be bothered by it, as one might discover in a dream. He had spent enough time in Enhasa to know that he was not dreaming. He had simply…come to rest.

He knew this place. Or at least, he knew of it. He had predicted its existence.

“Nothing here,” he observed aloud, stunned.

This must be…

…the End of Time.

He floated in the abyss, but it was anyone’s guess whether he floated there for seconds or an eternity. It did not matter. He had all the time in the world. He did not need to sleep. Did not need to eat. He did not really get bored or tired or frustrated. He did not feel unemotional. Those emotions with a temporal cause just…didn’t happen.

Eventually he decided to fix that. It seemed wrong.

From the void, he conjured the semblance of lumber, stone, and iron. He shaped it. He made cobblestones. He made a lamp-post with a torch for light, and knew that it would never go out in this timeless place. He fenced off some space with iron rails. He made something like gravity, and when the spell was cast it kept its place without the need for maintenance. When he was done, there was a small plaza amid the emptiness. A place to stand, and to think. There was little else he could do.

So he stood, and thought, and because he was the man he was, he studied. He knew much, and learned more. This place was not quite connected to everywhere, everywhen. It was possible to connect it to many places, however. And it was possible to watch. He named the doors through time Gates. He had come here through a Gate, though an odd one. Most of them were stable; he could open them with magic. The one he had arrived through had immediately collapsed.

His first thought was to use one such Gate to go home. One existed; one had to exist. There were only certain times, certain places where temporal resistance approached zero. There was one such location in his time period. He went looking for it and could not find it.

Gaspar conjured up a notebook, felt his surroundings with magic, and penned some figures. He determined that the Gate he wanted did not exist here yet – and when it opened, it would lead to his own “past” (that word now had quotes in his mind, and always would). There were dangers involved in trying to use such a thing. But if he waited until it did appear, and then continued waiting until it was beyond the time at which he had been pulled away from Zeal…then it should be safe.

He could wait. He had all the time in the world. Literally all the time. Well, he was still a Guru. He could no longer advise anyone, but he lived to understand the world. So he watched through the Gates and studied the surface of Time, and wrote down his findings. Over the course of seconds and centuries, he wrote this:

“Time has been twisted, in a sense. I find myself at the end of Creation, but my friends have been scattered across other eras. I know that Zeal has fallen – I cannot see it through any future Gate – but I don’t know what happened after I left my home time period.

“I have learned some things here. There are many Gates going to many places, and all link to each other here. Most are shut. Some don’t exist yet, but will eventually. Some once existed and no longer do. Only two are consistently open at this time. One goes to the far future and what I see through it is bleak and dead.

“Through the other, I have witnessed the end of the world.

“Lavos, it seems, went quiescent for a time after the Ocean Palace incident. I do not know why. The Mammon Machine was damaged (possibly destroyed) and it may have something to do with that. Lavos did not stay dormant forever. It rose again approximately fourteen thousand years later, and it was far more powerful than I ever would have believed possible. It rained fire across the earth for days, and the world died.

“The Gate to that time is different, and I do not understand why. It always goes to the same place. If I look through it, I always see the same thing. If I were so foolish as to pass through it, I would always end up at the same time. Mathematically, Gates should continuously move forward in time, just as we do, and for the same reasons. This one does not. I suspect, but cannot prove, that the existence of Lavos itself warps Time in such a way as to produce Gates. Perhaps that is why the Gate that led me here opened so unexpectedly, and why it proved so unstable. This one is stable, but behaves strangely.

“I have built a small container around it to remind me not to accidentally use it. If I can work out how it manages to maintain a static destination, I may be able to replicate the effect.”

That Gate was the last piece he needed. And it was not as if he had anything better to do. So he worked, and the device he once named the Chrono Trigger began to take shape. It was an egg. A Time Egg. It did not need to be large. It could…fasten…on to a moment in time, and create a Gate from here to there.

It had limitations. It could only go to a single moment. It could be used to change that moment once and once only; “hatching” would destroy it, and altering a moment in time in that manner would corrupt it in such a way that even a second Trigger could not reach it.

Gaspar was disappointed to find that it was impossible for the Trigger to go to an arbitrary location; only a subset of possible destinations were available to it. Some of them involved Lavos. But there was also a factor he could not identify. Something Else. Something that twisted time just as Lavos itself did.

It was a while before Gaspar understood what he was looking at. The Gurus were not the only ones to be cast through time. Others traveled too, and they…changed things. Time did not like being changed. Like coagulating blood, its wounds sealed themselves. But not well enough. Not well enough. The Chrono Trigger could reach into the wounds where time had been changed and change it again, change it back if necessary. Anywhere a time traveler walked the earth. And with no need for an existing Gate.

Gaspar thought of the Prophet, and finally understood. The Prophet had never been able to see the future. He had already seen the future. He knew its course because he had lived it once already. He had seen Zeal’s fall, and returned to witness it again. Why? For what purpose?

The royal family. The Mammon Machine. The Ocean Palace project. How many people knew such intimate details about all of these things? How many that I would not recognize?

And just like that, Gaspar knew who the Prophet was. He laughed. Boy, you played the most dangerous game I can imagine, and you did it well. I wish that I could tell you so.

Well, he had his own game left to play. But where could Gaspar go? What moment could he touch, alter, that would change fate?

He considered that question carefully.

And he considered it for a long, long time.