Previously in Only Slightly
After being defeated by Anneka, The Geraldine, the gestalt entity and the Karema P'tarig, Yarek was placed on a spaceship to be taken to the remaining Ikhshiid planets for trial and judgement by his own people, with the added hope that bridges might be built between the Karema and their ancient enemies. During the voyage, Yarek was rescued by a four-legged alien wizard, who attacked The Geraldine and then teleported off the ship with Yarek in tow.
Fire. Pain, burning, agony, searing heat, flames, torn apart, spread on the winds, scattered between the stars. Peace, of a kind.
An attraction, a need, a purpose. A place. A time.
A keen wind swept the clifftop overlooking the city, which glittered strangely in the sunlight. Against the howl of the wind, a sound became audible; a cry of pain and agony beyond words or real expression, the mortal hurt of life extinguished before its time. It stopped, and Bill stood on the clifftop, staggering slightly as he came to grips with his new situation. Beside him, Pen-Ghast also staggered, stumbled, then fell with an inarticulate cry over the cliff edge.
Without thought, Bill stretched out a hand, and Pen-Ghast came to a halt, floating in mid-air. Slowly, Bill raised him back up and deposited him safely on the rocky clifftop, several metres away from the edge. Pen-Ghast took a moment to calm his breathing.
'Thanks,' he said. 'I know we died already, but I'm not particularly keen to repeat the experience.'
'Did we die?' Bill asked. 'I'm not sure we did. If we did, why are we here now?'
'Don't you remember? There was -'
They both paused, caught up in memories of an experience neither could describe, even to each other. Neither needed to - they would each remember it for eternity.
'So,' Pen-Ghast said. 'We must be here then.'
'It looks like the right place,' Bill agreed.
'So we wait for the right time now?'
Within that glittering alien city, Yarek and his rescuer appeared in a blaze of light, inside a circle laid in black marble on a floor made from quartz. Yarek looked around, adjusting himself to his surroundings, although really he was just trying to get his thoughts straight. He knew the Ikhshiid would never have disagreed with his actions - they had, after all, suggested the plan to him in the first place - but there were many things here that he did not understand, and he would have to proceed with caution.
'Welcome home, Yarek,' his rescuer said eventually. Yarek shook his head.
'I have no home,' he said. 'This is just where I happen to be at the moment. My thanks for your timely rescue.'
'They were bringing you here, but we did not wish you to be harmed when their vessel was destroyed.'
'You have destroyed it already?'
'No. It will not be in range for two more days.'
'I see.' Yarek paused, uncertain how to ask the most burning question on his mind.
'We have magic of our own now,' his rescuer said, negating the need for Yarek to ask. 'It was thought that if the Karema could make such modifications to us against our will, some of us could willingly undergo the same procedure for the sake of the Ikhshiid race. Our technology has advanced sufficiently since the last war that we could do such a thing.'
'How long ago? How many wizards do you have now?'
'About thirty years; we have a full complement of five hundred wizards currently in training. Your rescue is due to more than simply gratitude for your past services although, despite your failure with the primary plan, you have been perceived to have done well. You are a wizard of greater power and experience than any Ikhshiid can currently boast. You will train us so that when the Karema and the humans come, we will be prepared to protect ourselves.'
'With more trained wizards, we could implement the master plan again.'
'This is also a possibility.'
A slow smile spread across Yarek's face.
'Then we should begin at once,' he said.
They had, perhaps, half a minute of warning. It started as a rushing feeling, like the sound of a rockslide approaching, transmitted through the ground before the sound arrived through the air. Abruptly, the rushing became a roar, and their eyes and senses were drawn to the shimmering magical vortex being constructed over the city. Pen-Ghast let out a low whistle, for with his magical gifts untethered he could see it at least as well as Bill could.
'They have a lot of people working on that one,' he said.
'We weren't told it would be easy.'
'But we are going to need some help.'
'I think it's already here.'
Bill turned towards a smaller magical disturbance he had felt behind him, something Pen-Ghast, for all his newfound raw power, had missed through lack of training. This had a familiar feel, and a moment later his face broke into a wide grin as Bath flickered into view, followed by a Karema, The Geraldine and Anneka. Their transportation spell faded, and the magical storm being whipped up behind Bill grew in size still more, but none of them appeared to notice, for they were all too busy staring.
'Bill?' The Geraldine asked eventually. Bill nodded, still smiling, and with a cry The Geraldine threw herself into his arms, and they embraced there on the clifftop as the magic waxed yet stronger. After a long moment, they pulled apart, and The Geraldine looked into his eyes, a troubled light behind them.
'Why are you here?' she asked. 'We thought you were dead.'
'We were,' Bill said. 'Or we are. We're not entirely sure, but we are here for a reason.'
'To stop Yarek? He's trying his spell again isn't he.'
'He's trying something. I'm not sure what it is yet, but I'm fairly certain we don't want to let him finish it.'
'Then we must stop him.'
'That is why we are here.' Bill turned back towards the Ikhshiid city and studied the magical vortex swirling above it, growing larger with each passing moment, spreading outwards and upwards as if to threaten the entire galaxy - which of course it would, if allowed to grow unchecked. He turned back to Bath, and found himself looking at Fridgara instead.
'Where did you come from? Weren't you Bath a moment ago?' he asked. Fridgara laughed.
'We're kind of inhabiting the same space at the moment,' she said. A cat appeared from behind her ankles and rubbed against Bill's legs, purring loudly. 'I don't believe you've met Rmurr,' Fridgara said. 'She was one of the components of Yarek's spell.'
'Hello Rmurr,' Bill said politely, but his attention was distracted as he really started to pay attention to Fridgara. There were five - no, eight - people all occupying the same space, a space bound tightly with assorted human and Karema spells. He'd never seen a Karema spell before, but somewhere before arriving here he'd gained the ability to recognise them. 'What on Earth happened to you lot?'
'We had a fight with a Karema wizard,' Fridgara explained. 'It realised it wasn't going to be able to convince us of the truth by fighting us, especially as there was a real chance it would have died in the process, so instead it arranged a load of trigger spells which forced us all to merge. It was a bit of a shock to start with, but we're mostly used to it now.'
'Don't you want to split up again now you know what you need to know?'
'We would quite like that, but we can't spare the time for it now. There are more important things to do.' And her eyes went to the spell being constructed above the city by Yarek and the Ikhshiid wizards. 'Where did they get wizards from anyway?'
'That is not an immediate concern,' Pen-Ghast put in. He'd been watching the growth of the spell with an increasingly worried look on his face. 'We can worry about that if any Karema survive the next few hours.'
Pen-Ghast had been studying the spell as it developed, eyes narrowed. He spoke to the others without taking his eyes off it.
'What makes you think this is the same spell?' he asked. 'I had part of it inside me for a while, I know what it felt like... this isn't the same. It's not the same at all.'
Bill, P'tarig and Fridgara (who had actually just changed into Bath) turned to look, studying the magical vortex which now towered above the highest clouds. Even as they did so, an alteration rippled up from the city. The spell collapsed, forming a denser structure that Bill recognised with a sharp intake of breath, for he'd cast spells like it himself in the past.
'Time travel!' he exclaimed.
NOT QUITE, P'tarig said. NOT TO TRAVEL IN TIME. TO MODIFY IT.
'Yes... but to modify what? How far back is he going? How much will he change?'
I SEE TWO POSSIBILITIES. EITHER HE AIMS FOR THE POINT WHERE HE SET HIS PLAN IN MOTION, TO CHANGE HIS METHODS TO AVOID YOUR INTERFERENCE, OR HE AIMS FOR SOME POINT DURING OUR WAR WITH THE IKHSHIID. IF THEY HAD NOT BEEN BEATEN, MANY THINGS WOULD HAVE BEEN DIFFERENT.
'Yes, they would have. I don't think he's going quite that far though. Two thousand years is a stretch even with the amount of power he's got to draw on,' Bill said thoughtfully.
Bath let out a long breath. 'Is there any way to tell for sure?'
'Not just by looking.'
WE HAVE TO ENTER THE SPELL IN ORDER TO RETURN TO THE TIME IT AFFECTS, P'tarig said. ONCE THERE, WE CAN WORK TO PREVENT THE ALTERATION IT SEEKS TO MAKE.
'There's no more time to waste,' Bill declared. 'Who's coming?'
'I am,' Pen-Ghast said before anyone else could speak. 'I may not have much skill, but I've got some power you can make use of.'
I WILL ALSO COME.
'As will we,' Bath said. Anneka and The Geraldine also spoke up their willingness to come. 'What do we do?' the old wizard asked. P'tarig stepped forward.
ALLOW ME, it said. Bath nodded. P'tarig raised a hand...
... they stood in the dark. Something in the quality of the air told The Geraldine that they were in a tunnel, a mineshaft perhaps. Someone muttered a spell, and light flared above Bill's hand. They were indeed in a tunnel; roughly carved from red rock. The Geraldine turned, bouncing slightly in the light gravity, before she realised where they must be.
'We're on Mars,' she said.
'Yes, but when?' Pen-Ghast asked.
'Does it matter?'
'Probably not. Which way?'
The tunnel ran at a slight incline. One way went up, and around a corner about fifty metres from them. The other went down, and was straight as far as the light penetrated. Bill had been staring down it since he'd made the light, and now sighed heavily.
'This way,' he said, and started down the tunnel. The others came after him.
HOW DO YOU KNOW THIS IS CORRECT? P'tarig asked. Bill sighed again. He didn't look like he particularly wanted to say.
'I've dreamed it,' he said. 'I've dreamed this for forty years.'
That was it, The Geraldine realised. Forty years ago, all this had been set in motion - Bill's destiny had started. Full circle. She would have bet anything at that moment that they were within minutes of the time when, in America, Bill had made his utterly irrational decision to try and get Bath out of prison. That decision had changed the course of human history. What would he change today?
At length, they came to a halt. The tunnel still stretched onward into darkness ahead of them, as featureless as the rest had been, save that single turn beside which they had arrived. Bill smiled slightly; a sad smile.
'Here,' he said. Suddenly there was a door. It did not block the tunnel, it simply stood in it. The Geraldine could have walked around it, if she wanted to, but suddenly she didn't want to even contemplate what might be behind it. She got the uneasy feeling that part of the tunnel didn't actually exist, and that they could have easily walked straight out of reality without even knowing it.
There was a panel beside the door; a number pad. Bill hovered his fingers over it, then entered a number: 528749010.
'Did you dream that as well?' The Geraldine asked him. Bill shook his head.
'No,' he said. 'I told this to myself.'
She was about to ask more, but the door swung open, and beyond it was a huge room carved from the rock, supported by pillars. Yarek stood in the middle of it, magic swirling around him, a tall, delicate column of a spell which extended upwards, through the rock to some distant target. The Geraldine was willing to bet that target was somewhere in America, and that a younger version of herself was there.
'It was you all along,' Bill said. Yarek blinked, saw them. It was clear he didn't recognise them, but he knew a Karema when he saw one.
'You dare come to this place!' he cried. Lightning crackled from his fingertips, and P'tarig brushed it aside. It said nothing, though. This was Bill's task.
'It ends here,' Bill said. 'There will be no war. The Karema will live, and the Ikhshiid will learn to live in peace with them.'
'How...' realisation dawned on his face. 'You're from the future.'
'Not for much longer. Flames crackled around Bill's hands. 'Not for long at all.'
The fight was brief. Yarek was flung, his body broken and burned, into a pillar, where he slid to the floor and remained motionless. There he would stay, until an archaeological team found him in sixty years' time, and nobody would ever know who he was. The Geraldine knew this as she knew that things would be very different this time around. She could feel time starting to slip through her fingers as she turned to Bill.
'This is it, isn't it?' she asked. He nodded, and she smiled weakly. 'Think we'll make a better job of it this time around?'
'I think we will,' he said. 'I think we definitely will.'
'Lots of them.'
She smiled again, a full, happy grin.
'I do love you, Bill.'
The world rippled again.
Bidet came to her after about half an hour, and settled himself in the seat next to her.
'Dad always wondered why you left Bill,' he said when she ignored his presence. 'He wondered once if you'd caught Bill with someone else.'
The Geraldine laughed, a short, sharp sound in the quiet passenger cabin. 'Oh, I caught him with someone else,' she said, 'but that's not why I left.'
Bidet waited, but The Geraldine didn't elaborate any further. A couple of minutes later, a few other settlers came in and found seats, and the opportunity was lost. They sat in silence through the preflight, then a low hum started and the intercom came on.
'Ladies and gentlemen, please ensure you are strapped into your seats and settled comfortably. We are about to launch on our pre-jump trajectory.'
The Geraldine gripped the arms of her seat, and looked over at Bidet. The young wizard looked back.
'I'll definitely be coming back,' she said. Bidet flashed her a grin; it was infectious. She grinned back.
'Maybe you won't need to. Maybe he'll come for you this time.'
The Geraldine laughed again. This time it was filled with mirth.
'Only after the sun turns into a cupcake.'
'He could probably arrange that.'
The Geraldine thought about that.
'Yes,' she said as the ship took off. 'I think he probably could.'
On Earth, two Bills watched the ship leave. One, the President of America, was thinking that he might go and visit in a month or so, once they'd had a chance to get settled in. He smiled to himself and went indoors, where his aides hustled him off to an interview with a reporter for the Post. He'd just about had enough of being President. Perhaps he could try being a husband and father instead. He was, after all, only in his mid sixties. The doctors said wizards didn't always age normally, and as far as children were concerned, he was like a twenty year-old. He might even live to see two hundred. That thought kept the smile on his face as he sat through the interview, answering distractedly, thinking of the patter of tiny feet.
The other Bill watched from the back yard of a house in Los Angeles. Everything seemed to be coming out much better this time. He rattled his lid thoughtfully, and wondered what an out-of-work Dustbin of Wisdom might be able to find to keep himself occupied. He was, after all, only in the middle of his fourth century. Plenty of time left to find a new occupation. Maybe people should know the story of how it happened last time; he was, after all, the only person who knew. Nobody would believe it, but if he posed it as fiction, changed names...
Perhaps he could become a writer.
Here endeth 'Only Slightly'