More Than Once Upon A Time

Issue #15

Pebbles bounced into the vast gulf beyond her feet as Hubley skidded to a stop at the bottom of the Sun Road, deep within the Stoneways’ dark caves.

“What was that?”

One of the diggers she’d been trying to avoid looked straight at her. Heart pounding, Hubley stood completely still. Invisibility was an imperfect art at best, but the sorceress who’d brought her herean elder version of herself who was who knew how many hundreds of years older—had taken great pains to explain that Hubley had to stay hidden from the rest of the company, no matter what. “No one would ever understand if they saw both of us at the same time,” she’d explained. Irritably Hubley wondered why she’d allowed her older self to talk her into this ridiculous situation in the first place. But no, she had to rush off the moment the prize was dangled before her eyes.

Despite the skidding, her older self didn’t even glance her way. “A lizard,” she said to the two diggers. Then they all looked back up the tunnel as a man and a woman dashed breathlessly out of the dark to join them.

“The sissit’ll be on us in a minute,” gasped the man. “We persuaded them to pause a bit back there, but we couldn’t stop them.”

The woman peered over the edge of the road. “There’s a ledge about three feet down,” she said. “We can hold them off from there as long as our arrows and your magic last.”

“Hopefully we’ll be out of here sooner than that.”

The older Hubley kicked away the broken stone covering the road and pointed to an iron ring embedded in the rock.

“There. You don’t think I led you into a trap, do you? Omarose, Canna, I’m not as strong as a Dwarf, but you two might be.”

Omarose slung his bow over his shoulder and grabbed the ring with both hands. The muscles in his neck bulged, but nothing happened. Canna bent to help.

“The door is ancient,” said the older Hubley. “Just like everything else in Vonn Kurr.”

She looked like she might say more, but just then the sissit came howling down on them. Hubley still didn’t understand how the creatures had gotten past the wall she’d thrown up to stop them. Even if she hadn’t exerted her full power in the casting, it should still have been more than enough for sissit.

Brandishing what looked like a Dwarf shield, the leader stopped a short bowshot from the party. Hubley slipped down to the ledge Canna had pointed out to make sure she was out of the way.

“You give up!” the sissit leader called loudly. “You not scare us. I carry great emblem of Ydderri! I guard way to city and worm! We kill you sister! We kill you!”

Hubley wondered what sister the creature was talking about. Then she had to duck as, quick and furtive, the sissit leader tossed a stone at her older self from the end of a hidden sling.

Flame!” answered the older Hubley simply, and raised her staff. A bolt of fire shot from each end into the crowd. Squeals of pain followed, and the smell of charred flesh.

“It’s open!”

Canna and Omarose heaved a round block of stone up out of the floor, exposing the tunnel beneath. A flight of arrows buzzed past, always dangerous even if the creatures were terrible shots because sissit shafts were generally poisoned, but none struck. Around her older self the air glimmered with a bluish light. Only magic could affect her now. Hubley knew the spell well. It was her favorite defense.

“Down the shaft,” her older self shouted to the company. “All of you!”

Canna and Omarose hesitated at the mouth of the hole.

“Just sit on the edge and slide down,” she went on. “The passage is steep, but it’s safe.”

Omarose went first. Then Canna took the diggers and tossed them in one after the other like two sacks of potatoes. More arrows splattered off the older Hubley’s magical shield as Canna stepped into the shaft. Raging at the thought their prey was going to get away, the sissit swept forward.

The older Hubley threw up her arms. A blinding flash blew out from inside her cape, and the sissit tumbled backward. Only the leader, who’d been blown sideways behind his heavy shield, remained. It fell against the inside wall of the tunnel, its shield on the ground beside it. But, instead of scrambling after its protection, the sissit began flailing away at itself like a dog with fleas.

“Blast him!” Hubley shouted, willing to show herself now that everyone else was gone. Kill the leader and the others would flee.

But the elder Hubley only watched intently, as if she was far more fascinated than frightened.

“Well, if you won’t do it,” Hubley said, “I will.”

She began the incantation. Maybe this was why her older self had asked her to come along in the first place, to do what her older self couldn’t. Standing with its back to her, its hands and arms straining as if they held something in their thick-knuckled grasp, the sissit leader couldn’t have made a better target.

Fire,” she said.

As if guided by deliberate malice, her older self stepped into the path of Hubley’s spell. There was a burst of fire and, where the older Hubley had been, now stood a column of white flame. For an awful moment Hubley saw herself frozen in the terrible brightness, a grim statue encased in a writhing cone. Then there was only the fire, her body consumed and gone.

She’d just killed herself.

Her heart went numb. Trembling, she took a step backward. But she’d forgotten where she was and, as her foot slipped out over the nothingness above the pit, she gave a last forlorn cry and fell.

2

She’d been standing at the top of Tower Dale, wrapped in a warm cloak and looking south where the sharp crags of the Bavadars stretched the limits of the sky. Only recently had she mastered the Timespell, and she was trying to decide which unhappy moment in history she would go back to and fix first.

A hand tapped her on the shoulder.

She turned instantly and uttered a spell that should have blasted the intruder to dust. Instead she found herself staring at a gray haired sorceress whose eyes twinkled at the exact same level as her own.

“Really, Hubley. You have to learn to be less rash. It only gets you in trouble.”

Hubley fought back the urge to try another spell. “Who are you? How’d you get in here?”

The strange sorceress laughed. “Oh, I know the wards on this place far better than you do,” she said. “Look at me. Carefully. Don’t you recognize me?”

There was something familiar about the woman. The curve of her mouth, her light brown eyes. But Hubley couldn’t place her.

“No. I’ve no idea who you are.”

“I’m you.”

“No you’re not.”

“It is confusing.” The older woman nodded brightly. “I’m not that you, I’m this you. Oh dear. I’d forgotten how complicated this moment was. Think for a moment, Hubley. You know the Timespell.”

Hubley refused to answer, still suspecting some sort of trick.

The older woman went on anyway. “Of course you do. I know you know, after all. Well, I’m you, and I cast the Timespell to come back to talk to you because I need your help. It’s time you began to play your part.”

“Prove it.”

The older woman rolled up the sleeve of her cloak, exposing her left arm. Hubley noticed the thimbles on her little fingers. Despite the mottling of age, the other woman’s arm looked just like her own.

“Touch my wrist,” she said.

Hubley knew what the older woman wanted to show her. Slowly she put out her own hand and took the offered arm between her fingers. The slight swelling in the bone was there, and felt exactly as it felt on her own wrist. The childhood break had healed well, but not perfectly. Her wrist throbbed at the memory as the older woman pulled down her sleeve.

“That doesn’t prove anything,” Hubley said.

“That’s what Mother said, too. But I don’t have the time to prove who I am to you the way I did to Mother. Well, actually, I do, but it won’t be necessary.”

“Ha. You don’t see me believing you yet, do you?”

“I think you’re going to want to come with me before you even believe I’m who I say I am.”

“That’ll be the day.”

“You’ll see.”

Pulling her cloak more closely about her throat, the older woman turned toward the stair.

“Come. We have a lot to talk about. I put the kettle on as I came up through the pantry. It’s beautiful up here, but cold. Let’s have some of that Wistlewood tea we keep in the back of the bread box, and then we can discuss our arrangements. And I have a new way of casting that Stairtripper spell you webbed outside the Traveling Room I know you’ll appreciate.”

Hubley found herself staring at the single gray braid hanging down the older woman’s back as she followed her downstairs. Was that what she looked like from behind? Self-consciously she reached back to feel her own still-brown braid. It certainly felt the same.

In the pantry the older woman fetched the tea while Hubley took the cups and saucers down from the cupboard. As they busied themselves the cat came in, a tawny stretch of proud fur. It looked once at each woman, licked a paw, and looked at them again. Then it mewled at both and strutted away, tail stiff with disdain.

If the old woman was her, it would certainly explain a lot. Maybe, if she really did know the Timespell....

“So,” Hubley said when they’d taken their kettle and cups to the library, “if you really are me, why is it you’ve returned?”

The older woman smiled and sipped her tea. Hubley drew back when she realized she was doing the exact same thing.

“I need you to do something important.”

“What?”

“I need you to follow a party of adventurers to Vonn Kurr.”

“Vonn Kurr’s a dangerous place. Why don’t you just do it yourself?”

“I can’t.” Hubley recognized the way the older woman warmed her hands by rolling the cup gently between her palms. “I’ll be the one leading the party.”

“Then what do you need me for?”

“Because that’s what happens.”

“What do you mean, ‘That’s what happens’?”

I’ve already been there.”

Hubley frowned. “That’s hardly enough of a reason to persuade me to go running off with you.”

“Believe me, when you’ve practiced the Timespell as long as I have, you’ll know that’s more than reason enough. But I do have another reason, just for you.”

The older woman smiled again. Hubley was beginning to be annoyed by the condescension in that smile. It reminded her of her grandmother.

“And your other reason is...?” she asked.

“To go to the future. You’re going to come with me because this is your chance to break the natural boundaries of the Timespell. You know you won’t turn that opportunity down.”

The full scope of the older woman’s offer came to Hubley in a rush. What the woman said was true. There was no way Hubley could turn down a chance to get to the future. The Timespell only worked according to the memory of the caster, or someone with the caster, and that limitation meant the caster could only go backward, not forward to some time she hadn’t yet been. But, once she was in the future, Hubley would be able to travel back and forth between that time and now. And all the years between.

Her impatience disappeared. Or rather, it assumed a different form as she made up her mind in a rush.

“I’ll go,” she said.

“Of course you will.”

“Can you tell me how far we’re going?”

The older woman shook her head. “In these matters, it’s always better to know less, rather than more. Then you don’t have to keep track of so many details.”

3

She fell through the darkness. The wind whipped around her in a rising roar. She didn’t know how long she had before she hit bottom, but she’d need at least ten seconds to cast her emergency spell of return. She knew Vonn Kurr was deep; she hoped it would turn out to be deep enough. Raising her left hand, she removed the small silver thimble that covered the shortened tip of her little finger. Then she spoke a single word of power. There was a jar as time snapped...

...and she was lying on her back in the Traveling Room beneath her tower, back in her own time. Her finger itched where the last joint had reattached. It always took a day or two for flesh and bone to get reacquainted.

For a long time she lay with her eyes closed and tried to recover from the shock of having just killed herself. It wasn’t that she blamed herself for what had happened. She was too practical for that. If anything, she blamed her older self for putting her into such an impossible situation in the first place.

Eventually she drove the pillar of fire from her mind and began to think instead of what she could do to change what had happened. What was going to happen. What was the point of the Timespell if you couldn’t go back and undo whatever it was you didn’t want to occur? All she had to do was return to the future a few hours early and make sure the sissit remained on the other side of the wall she’d spelled. If they never found the party, then there would never be a fight at the edge of Vonn Kurr. And if there was no fight, then the elder Hubley wouldn’t die.

She wasn’t quite sure what she’d do once she found the sissit, but she was sure she’d think of something.

Just resolving to act made her feel better. She went back up to her tower and began the conjuration that would allow her to return to the time she’d just left. With no part of her in the future to act as a lodestone across the years and distance, the process would be more difficult, and take much longer, than her trip home. But the traveling would be just as sure.

She made the necessary preparations, then spelled herself forward to the time when the company had last rested in a small chamber off the Sun Road. Omarose was on guard as she crept past, but she had turned herself invisible again, and made no sound. In the main passage she continued through the darkness, her fingertips brushing the inner wall, until she felt she was far enough away to show a light. She’d lose her invisibility in the casting, but she needed to be able to see.

A simple thought, and a dim flame gleamed at the top of her staff. Its pale light showed the loway winding down into the depths of the earth. The Sun Road. The way from Grangore to Vonn Kurr, but it had been a long time since anyone but sissit had traveled here. The ruin of ancient Bryddin skill littered the passage; bits and pieces of old sculpture and elegant mosaic lay along the road in shattered fragments. Twisted brackets remained where once had shone the lamps of Uhle. Dwarven hands had carved this road in their search for the Sun, but those hands seemed to have long since disappeared. She wondered why.

She found the mouth of the side passage where she was going to encounter the sissit in a few hours. This time she was able to push further into the tunnel, coming at length to a flight of stairs that descended steeply into the darkness. The air thickened; at the bottom, water sparkled on the walls in the pallid light. A fetid mist filled the air, oily, but not quite the smell of a bog. A bog, no matter how foul, possessed the stink of life. But this smell was metallic, an odor that brought to mind an image of rusted corpses dissolving in ancient pools.

Unevenly, the passage continued its descent. Hubley found herself avoiding small but growing puddles whose dark water swallowed her light without reflection. Soon she had to stoop as she pushed forward, her cloaked arm held out to brush away tendrils of mold thick as squirrels’ tails that hung from the ceiling. The puddles deepened until no part of the floor was dry, and bubbled as her boots stirred them.

The heavy vegetation gave way, and she found herself on one side of a large cavern. The water stretched in front of her to an uncertain distance; the walls vanished on either side. Above, the ceiling was lost in blackness. Not wanting to draw attention to the very tunnel she wanted the sissit to avoid, she doused her light.

Nothing followed. No sound, no light, no breath of wind. Though she knew she was at the edge of a large cave, the pressing darkness felt solid as stone.

The absence was broken by voices welling across the lake, the wheedling tone of sissit. How far away they were, she couldn’t tell. Her ears had been so sharpened by the long hours of silence she didn’t trust them. The voices could be on the far shore, or they could be in a rowboat twenty feet away.

“You see it?” asked the first. “Big light by fishway?”

A second voice snorted. “Of course. Everybody see it.”

“You think that Glommer?”

“Don’t know. What you think?”

“I think Glommer come.”

The second voice took on a cunning tone. “Maybe you go look. You see it, you go.”

“I not go. You go.”

“You see it, you go. Maybe you swim.”

“I no swim. Glommer here.”

“You do what Obahed say. I eat you else.”

“You don’t eat me.” This was said without full confidence, as if the first speaker were aware of some possibility of the threat actually occurring. “Only Glommer eats.”

“I eat too. Glommer say, ‘Obahed, eat that one,’ or ‘Obahed, eat this one,’ and I eat. Glommer say that all the time. I number one chief. I eat what I want.”

“You just fat seeti. Glommer eat fat seeti. You swim.”

The thock of something hollow and hard being hit by something just as hard but not hollow followed. A small splash echoed through the cavern. Then the first voice spluttered as it apparently flailed around in the water. “I see you, Obahed. You feed Glommer. I bring Teekee back and then whole tribe eat you!”

The splashing continued. Hubley strained forward as she tried to hear more. What was a Glommer? Where were the rest of the sissit? How had they all gotten across the water to the tunnel leading up to the loway? The darkness still felt tangible around her ears, and she had an urge to swat at it the way she would a swarm of gnats. She took a step forward, and the oily water leaked over the tops of her boots to squish icily between her toes.

Something hit her on the head.

4

She woke with a rag in her mouth and her hands tied to a pipe set into the wall behind her. Light splashed across the assemblage of boilers and belts, pipes and pistons that filled the room, but the machinery was silent. Everything was ancient with decay.

She coughed, shaking her head to clear her thoughts. Gagged and bound, she could invoke no spells. The sissit were either going to dine on her, or they were going to be more creative. With a sinking feeling, she realized that, once again, she’d rushed headlong through time into another unfortunate position.

She tugged at the ropes and pipe. Flakes of rust showered her face. The ancient metal squeaked in a hopeful way, as if the strain was already too great. She pulled at the pipe as quietly as she could and was actually starting to think she might get free when a magician in stained robes surprised her by gliding out from behind one of the machines like a bank of poisonous fog.

He was old. Too old. The skin of his face was stretched taut over bone, and his hands, which he held clasped in front of him, appeared to have no skin at all. Bent into permanent fists, each hand gripped a small crystal globe. Hubley had never seen anything like him, though she could make a good guess at what he’d been up to. Without a Living Stone, there was always a high price to pay for antiquity.

“Ahh, my dear.” The magician’s voice was not unkind, but lacked the least trace of concern. “It seems you have regained some use of your senses.”

Below his black skullcap his eyes loomed even blacker, with no white or iris, two great unblinking pupils like the eyes of an enormous fly, but with only a single facet each. His long, hooked nose divided their hard darkness with a thin, pointed ridge.

“I was worried my servant had struck you too forcefully and that you were not going to waken. At least he neglected to take the odd bite or two out of you.”

He smiled and brought his hands together. As he did, Hubley was able to get a better look at the crystal globes, which were bound to each skeletal claw with loops of thin blumet wire. The shiny coils wound up around the hands and wrists to disappear into the folds of his robe. Deep within the heart of each globe flashed small streaks of blue lightning. Hubley felt the power of his magic swell like a blister out from those strange spheres.

“I hope you are comfortable,” he continued. “Let me unloose that nasty gag.” He raised his right hand, and a shimmer of cold blue light flashed toward the cloth around her mouth. She felt nothing until the rag untied itself with an eerie, flowing motion and slithered away from her face. Then the magician crossed his hands before him, slipping each into the opposite sleeve, and nodded. He seemed quite pleased with himself.

With her mouth free Hubley was no longer defenseless. She spoke two quick words, intending a cloud of noxious smoke to form about the mage’s head.

He laughed, his voice a high-pitched cackle seasoned with more than a little madness.

“Oh, my dear!” he wheezed. “That is wonderful! Do you really think I would allow you to conjure in my own workroom? You might have struck me dead, and that would not have been to my liking. No, no. Not after all these years of time and effort.”

He shook his head in silent laughter, and Hubley noticed he had no ears. Just holes, like the nokken back in Valingwhich was where she wished she was.

“There are incantations covering this place which prevent the working of any magic, except the magic of my own clever hands.”

Bringing his bony claws back out into the open, he turned them this way and that, looking like nothing so much as a Malmoret baroness studying her freshly painted nails. The crystal spheres gleamed.

“I see so few fellow humans down here to whom I can show off my talents. These miserable sissit are worse than children. Do you know, in all the centuries I have been here, I doubt I have caught even a dozen actual humans? And none of them magicians. Do you realize how much easier all this would have been if I had found even one? Do you? But, no. No magicians. Just these miserable sissit, which provide all the sustenance of a worm. Until now.”

He leaned forward and beamed. His black eyes devoured her like a pair of mouths.

A cold quiet settled over Hubley as she realized she’d accidentally discovered the easiest way to change the future. She’d get herself killed now, instead of later. She didn’t want to even think about what else would change when all the various older Hubleys melted away from the years ahead. Or, considering she was already as far into the future as she was ever going to get, the years behind.

Even worse, once he cut her open, the ghoul would find her Living Stone. As devoted as he was to furthering his own life, he was sure to know what it was. And how to use it.

So happy to have another magician to explain his brilliance to after all these years, he failed to notice her increased unease. “My techniques have worked quite nicely, all the same. I have added my own genius to the ancient art, you know. That is why I came down here. These are Dwarven crystals, naturally. They make the process easier and adapt it to all living things. I could even use the fish out of the lake, though the gain to me would be too small for any real sustenance.”

The magician’s boasting was interrupted as a large sissit padded in through a narrow door on the other side of the room. The magician spoke sharply before the sissit could say a word. “Obahed! I told you not to disturb me until I am finished! You know my wishes.”

The sissit bowed, trembling. “Obahed knows. But Eebul go see what Teekee doing. Maybe whole tribe coming now to kill Obahed.”

“I will take care of Teekee and the rest when I am done. Now go away. They cannot hurt you here.”

“Obahed hungry.”

“Obahed eats when I am done. Now go!”

The sissit ducked quickly back out of the room, its large, flat feet slapping hollowly on the metal floor. The magician turned back to Hubley. “I would like to continue our chat,” he said, “but time appears to be running low. And I wish to sample you before entertaining my next set of guests.”

His back was to the door as he began to arrange several wicked looking knives and metal tubes on a table. So absorbed was he in his work that he didn’t notice when a new visitor tiptoed stealthily into the room behind him. Not even when she smashed the top of his head with an axe.

“Hi, sis. I’m back.”

Hubley gaped at the sight of yet another Hubley. Only this one was much closer to her own age. The new Hubley grinned, then bent down over the magician’s body.

“I’m not sure he’s dead, yet,” she said, “if he ever was alive. But this is what I did the last time I was here. When I was you, that is. It seemed to work.”

The axe flashed again. Still wired to the crystals, the magician’s hands bounced off and across the room. A final cut at the pipe above her head, and Hubley was free.

“Come on, we’ve still got Obahed to get past.” The new Hubley pulled Hubley up by the arm before she had a chance to say a word. “We’ve got to close this circle we’re both running around in.” Handing her the axe, the new Hubley pulled a knife from her belt, and led the way out of the chamber.

The narrow tunnel outside was made of the same rusted metal as the magician’s workroom. Pipes twisted across the walls and ceiling like vines in a forest. Only the floor was clear, except for occasional puddles where water dripped from the ceiling. At the entrance to another small room, the new Hubley came to a stop and held out a cautionary hand. Hubley peered around her older self’s back to find Obahed seated not five feet away at a rough wooden table against the far wall. It sat with its back to them, one elbow resting on the table, its chin in hand. The other held a long knife with which it hacked small chips off the side of the table. Her staff lay on the floor beside it. Five or six spells to kill the creature came immediately to Hubley’s mind, until she remembered her magic wouldn’t work.

The older Hubley took a deep breath, tiptoed up behind the sissit, and stabbed it in the neck just above its shirt.

With a loud cry, Obahed grabbed the knife in both hands. The older Hubley stumbled away until her back was against the wall. The sissit twisted as it tried to get the dagger from its neck, knocked over the bench it had been sitting on, and collapsed to the floor. Twice it tried to sit up, splashing around in a puddle of blood. When it died, its head hit the metal floor with a clang.

Hubley swallowed once, then threw up. The tension of the last few hours came spewing out until she slumped weakly on the floor. Her older self left her alone for a moment, but, when she’d recovered, told her to get the knife the sissit had been playing with before it died.

“And look closely at the place where I stabbed it,” the older Hubley added. “Memorize the exact spot. That’s the only way you’ll be sure to kill it on the first try. Which, as you already know, you will.”

Reluctantly Hubley took the bloody corpse in her hands. She had to roll it over to retrieve the knife, which had fallen beneath its body. She studied the second knife in the creature’s neck for a moment, before dumbly realizing the two were exactly the same. Then she fell back wearily onto the floor beside her elder self, wet and miserable and covered with rust and muck.

“Have you recovered?” her older self asked sympathetically. Hubley nodded. “Okay then. It’s time to get out of here. You’re going to have to watch everything I do very closely, because the only reason I know how to do all this is because I saw myself doing it when I was you. Got it?”

Hubley nodded. She was beginning to understand what her oldest self had told her, back at the beginning of this increasingly unpleasant adventure, about wanting to know as little of the future as possible. All this foreknowledge only seemed to be causing trouble. Here she was, following herself in what was starting to look like an endless circle, all in an effort to change the future. And, for the life of her, she couldn’t seem to get ahead of what was happening. The circles just kept drawing closer and closer, like a whirlpool spiraling down a drain.

Wearily she took her staff from its place by the wall. Climbing up on the table, the older Hubley spun a rusty iron wheel fixed to a trap door in the ceiling. The trap door fell open, and a spatter of rusty water rained down. A second wheel showed on the inside. Behind the table was a flimsy ladder, but it reached up into the door in the ceiling and in a moment both Hubleys had climbed into the tiny room above.

They nearly filled the small, unlit chamber. A third wheel hung from the ceiling right above their heads. Hubley reached for it at once, eager to get out of this constricting place, but a word from her elder self stopped her.

“Don’t. You’ll bring the whole lake down on our heads. We have to close the bottom door first, then pull that lever on the left.” She pointed to a pair of switches on the wall beside them. “You pull the right one when you come back. Don’t forget.”

Closing the bottom door, the older Hubley pulled a lever in the darkness. For a moment, nothing happened. Then gears clanked and metal groaned, and Hubley’s legs jerked as the room around her suddenly moved.

“It’s a lift!” she said, suddenly understanding.

Her older self nodded. They ground slowly upwards till the contraption jarred to a sudden stop. Hubley felt her older self move past her to unscrew the wheel above their heads. She heard the door creak open, and a gust of slightly fresher air swept into the room along with a splash of rusty water.

“Where are we?” she whispered after following her older self outside. A cool breeze fingered her cheek.

“In the middle of the lake.”

“The lake?”

“The one at the end of the tunnel. You were standing in it when the sissit grabbed you.”

That lake. Hubley had almost forgotten. She was very confused. After the light of the magician’s lair, dim though it was, the plunge back into the darkness of the cavern was disorienting. She wanted to flash a light from the top of her staff that would open up the darkness to the highest point in the ceiling above. But her elder self was already tugging at her sleeve.

“Hurry. You have to go back again. I don’t know what happens next, but there are more sissit coming. I’ll take care of them. And don’t forget that knife, or the axe!”

Hubley removed the silver cap from her little finger once again. The wound at the last knuckle was barely a day old and still throbbed. The breeze was gusting more strongly now, and her cape flapped loudly in the wind. She spoke the word of power, and once more her soul snapped back through time...

5

...and she was lying in her Traveling Room again, her eyes focused on the rune of carved ivory set into the stone ceiling. Her rune of recovery and return.

This time she didn’t linger, though she wasn’t about to go rushing off a second time without thinking. She needed to be more patient. She was a chronothurge, after all; she was supposed to be in control of time. The axe at her belt belied that thought, perhaps, but right now she preferred not to go too deeply into the how and why of where it had come from.

In a chair in her study she curled up with the cat and a mug of hot tea. The problem, she decided, was that she didn’t know enough. About the sissit who’d attacked her. About what might lie on the far side of the cavern beyond the lake. She needed to go back, scout around, and find out where the sissit had come from. The magician, she already knew she would take care of. All she had to do with him was let matters run their course. But the sissit were another question. She needed to find them. Only then could she burn them out of every tunnel in Vonn Kurr, if she had to, to make sure they never found their way to the Sun Road.

This time she would keep events under control.

When she was ready, and after she’d gotten some much-needed rest, she summoned a memory even earlier than the last one, cast the Timespell again, and retraced her route once more through the tunnels of Vonn Kurr to the shore of Gommer’s lake. There she discovered a shallow ledge that led around the water to a rocky beach on the far side, where two small coracles were drawn up on the shingle. She considered smashing the bottoms of both, until she remembered she’d need a way to get to the middle of the lake and the entrance to the magician’s lair. So she left them alone.

Beyond the coracles she discovered a pair of tunnels at the top of the slope. The passages were roughly hewn, not Dwarven work at all. They twisted and split among each other like a clutch of snakes, with branching tunnels going left and right and up and down. She spent hours exploring them, but without some way to mark her path she kept going round and round in circles. What she needed was to capture a sissit and make it show her the way. Otherwise she was only going to get lost.

She retraced her steps. As she emerged back into the cavern she heard sounds from the lake. One of the coracles was being quietly paddled. If she could catch the paddler she would have her guide. But the soft splashes faded away and she was left silently cursing her lost opportunity on the wrong side of the cave.

She waited a few minutes to see if the paddler would return. The darkness was absolute. She had risked a small light while exploring the passages, but had smothered that spell before returning to the lake. There was no sense in showing a light now; she would only scare her quarry off. She was deciding to sneak back around the side of the cavern and try to grab it there, when the sound of flat feet flopping carelessly against the stone came from the second passage. She recognized the voices immediately.

“So. Where is boat?”

“Boat is here.”

“We catch fish?”

“We catch big fish.”

Two sissit, with who knew how many others on the far side of the cave, was more risk than Hubley wanted to take in capturing a guide. No doubt if she acted now she would just start up some new chain of events that would end with her having to save herself once more. No, she had promised herself she would be patient this time. Better to just keep watching. There would be other chances.

The sissit dragged the second coracle into the water. The boat creaked as they climbed aboard.

“Ssh!” the first sissit warned. “No noises. We on Glommer’s waters now.”

“Glommer not worry about us. I tell you, I know when Glommer sleeping. I one smart sissit.”

“I worry.”

Obadeh didn’t seem to care about that. “You got hooks?” it asked.

“I got hooks.”

Several minutes passed with no talking. Hubley guessed they were baiting their hooks, or doing whatever it might be that sissit did to catch fish. A pair of gentle plops marked the moment when they lowered their lines into the water.

Time passed. Hubley began to fidget impatiently, and was starting to cast about for some new course of action when a flash of light burst into the cavern from the far side, exposing the dark water, a hint of stony walls, and the two sissit crouching in their small boat. Then the light was extinguished as quickly as it had appeared.

Hubley was taken completely by surprise. She hadn’t thought her younger self would arrive so soon. Now everything was going to get complicated again. She listened as the two sissit had their argument and fought, the first time for them, but the second for her. This time, however, she heard what happened next as the first sissit swam noisily ashore and ran across the beach to the other tunnel. More splashing erupted from the other side of the lake, signaling her own capture.

Obahed called loudly across the water. “Ho, Eebul! What you catch?”

A new voice echoed from the far wall. “Man, I think. You have sissit?”

“No. He fall in water after I hit him. He run to Teekee. But we make fine catch today if you catch man. Glommer be very happy.” Hubley heard the sissit climb back into its boat and begin paddling toward the far shore.

“Maybe we eat this one,” suggested the far voice.

“No! No!” Obahed answered quickly. His splashes quickened. “Glommer not like that at all.”

“Glommer not know.”

“Glommer know everything,” Obahed insisted. “We make Glommer happy, we stay happy. Glommer not eat us. But Glommer know about human. Glommer know everything.”

The new voice grunted at this wisdom, apparently convinced.

Hubley listened as the creatures loaded her younger self into their boat and paddled back to the middle of the lake. Their paddling stopped, and a low, grinding sound began that she felt more than heard. When the sound stopped, she guessed the magician’s lift had surfaced, and the sissit were now loading her unconscious body inside.

The grinding resumed. When it was gone the cavern was silent again. Hubley waited in the tunnel mouth, her heart beating. Events had been taken out of her hands yet again. Somewhere down there, at the bottom of the rusty lake, she was being trussed to the pipe in the magician’s workroom. Obviously now was the time she was supposed to rescue herself; no other Hubleys seemed to be showing up. Finding the sissit in the tunnel would have to wait. Again. She curled her fingers anxiously around the handle of the axe at her belt and wondered if she was supposed to swim out to the mechanical island. But, no: she hadn’t been wet when she’d come to her own rescue. Better to keep waiting.

Half an hour passed. The grinding resumed, followed by the sound of a single grumbling sissit clambering into one of the boats.

“‘Go, Eebul,” Obahed say. ‘Go find other sissit.’” The sound of its low muttering floated clearly across the lake. “Always going for Eebul. Never eating.”

Hubley came quietly down to the beach as the sissit paddled itself ashore. The bottom of the boat ground against the rock, then the creature’s feet slapped against water and stone as it hopped out. With a word she caused her staff to flare. The sissit shrieked and held up its hand against the glare. She knocked it unconscious with a single blow from the back of her axe.

Taking its boat, she paddled out onto the lake. The light of her staff revealed the other coracle tethered to a low island in the midst of the water. She tied her boat beside the first, then opened the trap door on the floor of the lift and climbed inside.

Two levers stuck out from the wall beside her. Grabbing the one on the right, she closed and locked the upper hatch, and pulled. The lift clanked downward. When it stopped, she stooped to listen at the lower door. Hearing nothing, she turned the wheel. There was a rusty creak, then the mechanism spun freely and the door fell open.

She expected no one, and she was right. Had she been caught by surprise before, she doubted she would have been able to sneak up on the magician the way she had. She dropped down into the room, her boots clanging on the floor. Carefully she hefted her axe and waited for someone to challenge her. But water dripping into pools from the ceiling was the only sound. Still holding the axe at the ready, she closed the hatch and advanced cautiously down the hall. Everything in this strange cave was just as she remembered; the dank, metallic smell, the reddish water puddled everywhere. Another corridor ran off to the right, turning almost immediately and disappearing.

She came to a quick stop at the sound of footsteps approaching from the tunnel in front of her. She darted into the side passage and around the turn, her heart in her throat. The footsteps padded softly forward, bare feet slapping on the metal floor. She held her axe tight against her chest. Then the sound was past, fading down the corridor toward the room she had just left. With a sigh of relief she cautiously started forward again.

Another several steps brought her to the magician’s workroom. Glommer was standing with his back to her, arranging his grisly tools. Beyond him Hubley saw herself chained to the pipe on the wall. A moment of anger rushed through her and she charged forward, banging the axe down sharply on the magician’s head. He sprawled across the floor, his skull crushed. She felt a sharp thrill of relief – she was reenacting the past! And for the first time it was working!

She grinned. “Hi, sis! I’m back!”

They snuck up on Obahed in the room with the trap door just as they’d done before. When the sissit was dead, Hubley gave her younger self a minute to pull herself back together. She’d already been through that bout of nausea once and this time was much less moved. Until she brained the magician, she’d never killed anyone by hand before, but the fact that she’d seen herself already do it made the act much less of a shock. Loops within loops. And now she’d taught herself how to kill sissit without actually knowing how.

Her younger self still looked a little green around the edges as she led her back through the trap door in the ceiling and showed her how to operate the lift. Outside again, a faint breeze brushed her cheek.

“Where are we?” the younger Hubley whispered.

“On an island in the lake.”

“What lake?”

“The one at the end of the tunnel. You were standing in it when the sissit grabbed you.” Hubley tugged impatiently at her younger self’s sleeve. “Hurry. You have to go back again. I don’t know what happens next, but there are more sissit coming. I’ll take care of them. And don’t forget that knife, or the axe!”

A spot of movement in the darkness struck her eye. A small light had appeared high up in the cavern to her right. She guessed this would be Teekee and the rest of the tribe. Another light appeared, then a third, and now there were enough to cast a glow around the far wall of the cavern. The sissit were arriving from the left-hand tunnel. She reached out to touch her younger self, but she was already gone, back to the past. Eagerly, she faced the approaching sissit instead. Her chance to stop them had finally come.

Brushing a loose strand of hair from her face, she noticed the soft breeze had picked up to a steady wind. Across the cavern the line of lights twisted down to the lake like spots on an uncoiling snake. When the line had come close enough to reveal Hubley standing on the island, the sissit began to jabber excitedly. The leader stepped out of the crowd, and Hubley recognized him by his shield. The emblem of Ydderri.

“Obahed! We see you! Tulum come back, tell sissit everything! We know you try kill him! We not afraid of Glommer any more. We kill you and Glommer!”

Hubley decided she could use Glommer to her advantage now that he was dead. The sissit were acting bravely now, but one whiff of power and they would turn tail immediately, scampering back to their smelly holes. All she had to do was scare them off and her problems would be solved.

An arrow whistled out of the darkness, passing close beside her. She raised her arms so that her cape spread ominously around her, and lit her staff with a thought. “Foolish sissit!” she called, trying to think of what a magician like Glommer might say to scare them. “I am not Obahed. Obahed is dead. He failed me. But do not be so rash as to think you can challenge me as well!”

Raising her staff, she pointed it threateningly. A word, and a bolt of fire flashed over the sissits’ heads to splash in a shower of sparks on the cavern wall. Half the torches vanished as their owners decided that a magician was more than they’d bargained for and melted back into the darkness.

But the leader wasn’t cowed. “Puny fireman!” it called brazenly. “Sissit knows that magic!” It launched a fireball of its own. Disdainfully, Hubley caught the weak casting with her staff and tossed it into the water at the leader’s feet. A puff of steam hissed up, and a few more sissit disappeared. The leader took a few steps backward and shook its staff.

With a roar of noise a greater burst of wind grabbed Hubley’s cape and nearly lifted her off her feet. Most of the sissit torches were blown out, but the light from Hubley’s staff was enough to show her what was happening. Small waves had begun to dance madly across the lake’s black surface, both with the wind and against it, breaking the water into a churning boil. Another blast, and Hubley had to draw her arms back in and wrap her cloak around herself, or she would have been blown into the water. The coracles pulled free of their moorings and vanished.

A strange current started swirling. The metal island shuddered and thrummed in time with the waves. On shore the sissit were either cowering on the ground or crawling up the hill to escape the surging water. The wind blew even stronger.

Hubley threw herself down as well and scrabbled to open the trap door. There would be no more cowing of sissit now. The quaking waves stretched and joined together, circling in a huge eddy that occupied most of the water between the island and the shore. With a great sucking sound and a deeper roar of wind, the center opened. A whirlpool formed; the lake rushed round and round. Waves drenched her. A sudden, twisting wrench knocked the island forward and Hubley would have been pitched headfirst into the whirlpool had she not been gripping the top of the trapdoor. As it was she was left splayed across the surface of the tilted island while she tried desperately not to slide off.

Finally she wrestled the hatch open and threw herself inside. Clamping the door shut, she spun the wheel tight and collapsed on the rumbling floor. She lay there panting, feeling the strain of the chains that anchored the lift to the bottom as they were rattled by the power of the whirling water. Then they broke and the whole chamber hurtled forward, pounding her flat against the floor as if a huge hand was squashing her chest. The island spun and twisted and jumped as it was caught in the grip of the current. Every inch of Hubley’s body was banged and bruised as she rolled about like a die in a cup. She covered her head with her arms and tucked her face against her knees, trying to take all the bruises on her legs and back.

Then the fury slowed. She felt her little chamber get caught in the final swirling of the funnel itself, spinning round and round in the whirlpool. A sudden lurch, her head banging against one of the iron wheels, and she passed into jarring unconsciousness. Again.

6

When she woke, Hubley decided the pounding must have stopped soon after she passed out or she’d never have survived. Her whole body ached; her head was bloody and her ears rang. At least her arms and legs seemed to work. The roaring of the whirlpool and the waves was gone, but she thought she still heard the sound of running water. Or maybe that was just her ears. After a moment’s groping in the dark to find her staff, she set a small glow burning coldly.

The first trapdoor she tried to open wouldn’t budge. Judging from the dents in the walls, the lift seemed to have been banged about as badly as she’d been. Using her staff as a lever, she tried the wheel again. For a moment nothing happened; then, with a sudden grinding of tired metal, it spun free. She let the door fall open and peered outside.

Torches gleamed across a muddy plain. Small pools of water glinted in the hollows; rocks and boulders lay scattered about. Sissit scrabbled in the mud, grabbing something from the slime and stuffing it into their filthy shirts. Fish. But where was the lake?

And where was she? Had the whirlpool carried her off to some new cave? Then she recognized the hill above the muddy plain. It was twice as tall as before, but it was the same hill where she’d found the coracles. The beach was now halfway up the slope, where the mud turned to dry rock forty feet above her head. The lake itself was entirely gone. She had no idea what had happened, but she guessed that, by killing the magician, she’d also released the magic that held the lake in check.

The sound of water at her feet made her look down. The metal island hung above a large, deep hole. To her left a small stream dropped into the darkness in a thin plume of muddy water. Pure luck had caught her at the edge as the lake had drained, instead of sending her spiraling down into the darkness. A massive Dwarven chain, each link thicker than her arm, dangled into the hole, all that remained of the lift’s anchor.

She ducked back inside before the sissit saw her and thought about what to do next. There was no way out through that door. She would have to try the other.

The second wheel swung open more easily than the first. She found herself staring at a wall of rusted metal just beyond her reach. Carefully she poked her head out and looked around, but the metal wall curved to block her view. The lift appeared to have wedged itself against the structure, whatever it was. That explained why she hadn’t been sucked down the massive drain. She guessed immediately she was looking at Gommer’s lair, revealed on the lake bottom now that the lake was dry. The metallic smell was the same.

She pulled her head back inside and cast a quick spell. With her body groaning just as painfully now that she was invisible as it had before, she climbed out the trap door and up the metal wall.

It was an easy climb. The metal surface was mottled with lumpy bulges that made for excellent hand and foot holds. From the top she could see the whole structure was actually a statue of a giant frog, crouching on its belly with the drain caught between its two front legs. The eyes that bulged from the top of its head were made of thick glass, but so covered in ancient grime as to be completely dark. When she finally got back home, she was going to have to ask Nolo why the Dwarves had built a giant metal frog at the bottom of a lake.

Above her, the lake bed sloped up to the tunnel that led back to the Sun Road. The mud in between lacked pools and fish, which meant the sissit were only scrabbling in the slime behind her. She had a free path all the way out.

Half-climbing, half-sliding down the back of the metal frog to the ground, she began to slog her way through the slippery ooze. The thick muck stuck to her boots, and she had to keep her eyes on her feet as she trudged along. Had anyone been close, they would certainly have heard the loud squelching each time she pulled her feet out of the slime and took another step forward. But no one was and, by the time she reached the high curb that marked the edge of the lake bed, she was well away from the sissit.

She’d just finished hoisting herself over the curb when a large sissit barreled out of the tunnel and banged straight into her, knocking her back into the mud below. She rose, covered in slime. Beneath the mud she was still invisible, but the layer of lake bottom she now wore outlined her as clearly as if she’d been wearing brown paint. The sissit that had knocked her over spotted her at once. With a great cry it brandished its club over its head and jumped from the ledge to finish her off. But its feet slipped out from under it as it landed and, being much larger and heavier than Hubley, it went rolling down the slope beyond.

She scrambled back over the curb as quickly as she could. The big sissit flopped futilely, its curses attracting the attention of every other sissit in the cave.

“There!”

“By tunnel!”

“Is Glommer!”

“Yes, Glommer!”

“Kill!”

A shower of poorly aimed arrows clattered around her as she ducked into the tunnel. She ran up the dark passageway as fast as she could, splashing through the rank water, waving away the grabbing growths. By the time she reached the stairs she could plainly hear the sissit behind her. Banged up as she was she wasn’t sure she could outrun them. She wasn’t sure she was thinking too well either. But there was no time to rest. She stumbled over the first step in the darkness because of her slippery boots, then was climbing the steep steps on all fours as quickly as she could.

She’d been climbing for some time when arrows started clanging around her once again. The sissit were gaining. With a desperate burst of speed she scrambled out of range. Below her the creatures shouted in rage.

Her heart pounded and her legs ached. Her panting grew so loud she could no longer hear the sissit behind her. She barely had the strength in her thighs for each step. Then she stumbled badly, falling hard on the sharp stairs, and almost dropped her staff. The sissit whooped and shook their torches.

“We get you, Glommer!” they taunted. “You not get away now!”

The thought of capture sent a final surge of strength through her burning legs. In a moment she was over the last stair, with only the gentle slope of the passage before her. The sissit gave a maddened cry and fired another volley. But she was too far ahead of them now. Another fifty paces and she would be out in the main tunnel.

She dashed forward, and crashed head first into something stretched solidly across the passage. She lay stunned for a moment on the cold stone floor, the cries of the sissit suddenly very far away. Then, in a daze of memory, she realized she’d run headlong into the wall her youngest self had cast. She was leading them out into the Sun Road! The Timing was exact!

In a sudden terrible insight, she saw that, far from changing anything, she’d been the cause of everything! If she’d only left it all alone, none of this would ever have happened.

But there was no time to think. If she stayed where she was, the sissit would rip her to pieces. Staggering to her feet, she dismissed the spell before her with a word. There was a loud crack as her casting was broken, then she lurched on down the tunnel. The loway loomed just ahead, the glow from the oldest Hubley’s staff plain beyond the tunnel’s end. An arrow whizzed past her ear, and then another. The sissit were almost upon her. Only five more steps remained. An arrow struck her in the back, sticking in her like a great pin. Two more struck her, their poison already going to work, and she tumbled forward onto the floor of the wider passage. How could she die now? The Hubley who’d sent her off on this wild goose chase was much, much older. Where were the years in between? Had she changed everything after all? Then the pain stopped, the poison grabbed her heart, and the cold stone floor of the Sun Road closed to darkness around her.

7

She woke again, this time in her own bed in her own tower. Her entire body ached, but there was some relief in giving herself up to warm sheets and the smell of fresh brewed tea. A gray-haired Hubley was sitting in the chair by the window, waiting for her.

She remembered why she was there, and wondered if this was the same version of her older self who’d visited her before.

“Don’t try to get up,” her older self cautioned. “You still don’t have all the poison out of your system. You need to rest for at least another few days.”

Hubley fell back onto the pillow; her older self came over to tuck her back under the quilt. Slowly the wave of nausea that had swept over her when she tried to rise passed, replaced by dull anger. It was all so frustrating. Every time she’d gone back to Vonn Kurr she’d only made things worse. She hated not being in control. There had to be something she could do.

“There isn’t,” said the older Hubley. “You’re beginning to understand that now, aren’t you?”

Hubley didn’t like the idea of having someone around who knew what she was thinking, but was too weak to do anything about it.

The older Hubley, however, seemed to want to make certain she’d learned her lesson. “Do you think you’ve caused enough trouble yet?” she asked. “So far you’ve managed to almost get yourself killed twice. And that’s after you already did kill yourself the first time.”

“It’s not right.”

“You’ll get used to it.”

“There’s nothing we can do?”

“Nothing. The Timespell is only good for learning about the past. Don’t ever think you can change it. No matter how many times you loop through some moment, your own experience is always going to be in a straight line. You can’t get ahead of yourself, no matter how hard you try. You’ll just be a dog chasing your tail if you do. And as for the future....”

The older Hubley pursed her lips; a painful shadow passed through her eyes. Apparently there just weren’t enough years available to soften the blow.

“Just remember, you can never forget what you’d rather not know.”

For the next few days, she gave herself up to the care of her older self. Life was easier that way. Lying in bed, she had more than enough time to try and sort everything out. There were still moments when she quivered in frustration, when the memory of killing herself came unbidden and she was forced to live with the thought that she could do nothing about it, that some parts of life were outside even a chronothurge’s hands.

At least she knew she’d live to a ripe old age before she died on the Sun Road. Now there would be times when she could be fearless, armed with the knowledge of her place of dying. But she would be careful, too. Having challenged fate once and lost irrevocably, she would be unlikely to do so again.

Still, there was one thing she didn’t quite understand.

The day came when her wounds were healed and the poison fully leached from her blood. She was on the roof watching the sun set behind the mountains when her older self joined her.

“Do we really have to go back?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“You can’t just tell me why you did it?”

“No. You have to see for yourself.”

Hubley nodded. She had the feeling the last loop had yet to be closed. Her older self held up a small bottle, no larger than her thumb, filled with a dark red liquid.

“I’ve already prepared the spell.” She handed Hubley the bottle. “It’ll bring you back whenever you want. You’re not strong enough yet for removing fingers.”

Then her elder self spoke a word and the top of the tower was gone, replaced by darkness. She spoke a second word and a pale light shone out from her staff. Before them lay the looming pit of Vonn Kurr, behind them the gently curving wall of the Sun Road.

“They’ll be here any moment,” her elder self said. “And I still have to make us both invisible.”

She spoke the third spell softly and doused her light. Then she pulled Hubley back against the smooth stone beside her.

A dull boom echoed up the passage to their left almost immediately. Hubley felt the pressure of the sound against her ears. Faint shouts followed the explosion, but soon the cries and crashes of battle grew louder. A glimmer of light appeared up the loway; the oldest Hubley and the diggers came running around the turn and stopped, panting, at the edge of the road.

A skittering of stones at the far side of the tunnel signaled the arrival of the youngest Hubley. There were four Hubleys on the Sun Road now, three of them invisible.

The scene played itself out. The oldest Hubley found the hatch in the floor; Omarose and Canna opened it. The company fled down the chute one by one while the oldest Hubley kept the sissit at bay. Several arrows came close to the two hiding invisibly by the wall, misfires from the sissit’s bows, but the eldest Hubley made sure that none of her magical attacks came near them. Of course she knew they were there. She was the last Hubley, and had the benefit of this moment from at least three other viewpoints. The sissit fell beneath her power; the cavern began to fill with the stench of their burns. Then Canna stepped into the shaft, and only the four Hubleys remained at the edge of the pit. The sissit rushed the only one they saw, howling with rage at the escape of the diggers and the other two humans, forgetting their fear of magic until the last Hubley splashed them with fire once again and they went tumbling backward.

Their leader rolled away from the blast toward the inner wall. Its Dwarven shield spun away. Even though Hubley saw the sissit coming, she still lost her balance and fell on top of it when it tumbled against her legs. The creature couldn’t see her of course, but, thinking itself attacked by some strange new magic, it grabbed her violently all the same. They wrestled in the dust, Hubley trying to escape, the sissit clinging to her desperately, fighting for its life against this new and unseen apparition. Its hard, knobby hands closed around her throat. She fought to push it away, her head twisted to one side, and found herself looking at her oldest self, the one who was about to die. Hubley saw plainly that her oldest self was ready to blast the sissit to a cinder if she could only find a clear shot; willing, even in that moment, to take a chance with history and save herself if the opportunity arose. But the chance, as they both knew, never came.

Then the oldest Hubley’s eyes focused directly on hers. A weary smile graced her mouth. And in her oldest self’s eyes Hubley saw tenderness, and a message of forgiveness to reassure her. There was no time for anything more. No chance for her eldest self to say all the things they both wanted her to before she took one step to her right and caught the flash of flame the youngest Hubley fired, killing herself. But also saving herself.

The shock from the blast made the sissit loosen its grip on Hubley’s throat. She kicked herself free and rolled panting to the edge of the cliff. For the second time she watched her death in a plume of fire and tried not to imagine the pain.

When it was over, the sissit stood silent for a moment, their enemy defeated in a way they didn’t understand. They had no idea where that ball of flame had come from. The leader scrabbled across the dusty floor for its shield. Once that protection was back in its hands it stood, shook the shield over its head, and let out a howl of victory. That was the signal for the rest to break their silence and cheer as well. Their whoops and bellows crashed across the Sun Road and out into the great, dark deep.

They were stopped, though, when a loud voice shouted, “ENOUGH!” A new Hubley appeared magically in the middle of the circle of ash where she’d died a moment before. Even Hubley was fooled, until she realized this was her third self, the one who’d been hiding beside her against the wall. But the sissit possessed no such understanding. As far as they were concerned, this was the same sorcerer risen from the dead. A hush fell across their pale faces.

“BEGONE!” the older Hubley cried, and launched her fire once more into their ranks. The sissit ran, even the leader, who dropped his shield and fled with the rest back up the tunnel into the darkness. As the last of their bare feet slapped away into silence the elder Hubley turned back with a weary sigh.

“You know it all, now,” she said. “It’s time to go home.”

“And you?” Hubley asked. “What are you going to do?”

Her older self stooped to retrieve the sissit’s shield. “I have to go on with the others. There’s no reason for them to know I’ve died. They’ll never know what happened.”

“You should get some rest first.”

“I should,” her older self agreed, “but it’s better if I don’t. They’ll be expecting me to be exhausted after the strain of the battle.”

She sat down on the rock beside the open shaft and began to lower herself down. Then she looked back up at Hubley one last time.

“You have many years,” she said, “before you get to this point. You’ll know what to do when the time comes. There’s still a lot for you to learn. But for now, break the vial I gave you and step into the mist that forms. That will take you home.”

Without another word, she let go the sides of the chute. With the emblem of Ydderri strapped to her back, she disappeared down the shaft. Hubley heard a thin whoosh as her older self vanished; then all was silence and darkness on the Sun Road again.

She went home.


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S.C. Butler is the author of the Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books, consisting of Reiffen’s Choice (2006), Queen Ferris (2007), and The Magicians’ Daughter (to be released on April 28, 2009).  A former Wall Street bond-trader, he lives without cats of any sort in Brooklyn, NY, though he recently acquired a dog.

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Comments & Scrivenings
6 Comments on “More Than Once Upon A Time”

6 Responses to “More Than Once Upon A Time”

  1. Asakiyume says:

    04-23-2009, 09:38 PM
    Asakiyume

    Nice take on the time travel paradox!

  2. Michael B says:

    04-27-2009, 06:22 AM
    Michael B

    An interesting exercise in digging a hole, and of course once she had started she had to finish!!! ;)

  3. DFowler says:

    05-01-2009, 08:12 PM
    DFowler

    I really enjoyed this one! I was familiar with the setting of the story from reading Reiffen’s Choice awhile back. That reminds me I must go out and get Queen Ferris soon.

  4. scbutler says:

    05-08-2009, 11:32 AM
    scbutler

    Thanks! Glad you liked it. I’ve always liked this kind of story, and loved writing it.

  5. scbutler says:

    05-08-2009, 11:32 AM
    scbutler

    Not to mention jump in, and fill the hole back in on top of her.

  6. scbutler says:

    05-08-2009, 11:34 AM
    scbutler

    The story actually fills in the back story of a character who shows up in the third book, The Magicians’ Daughter.

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