With Many Faces: Part One
For three years, I listened to her rant and rave.
She flitted around the cell like a madwoman, in the way only a mad Korbat can. I heard the same things over and over. The Mutant Korbat screeched about the "spotted Grarrl with many faces" and "the immune one." Of the many things she called me, these were most common. I spent countless days sitting on the sole stone bench against the cold wall, eyes closed, trying not to do anything stupid that would leave me imprisoned even longer than my sentence. The Korbat never noticed. She never looked at me, through all the years, and for that I'm quite grateful. If she had, I undoubtedly would've gone mad myself.
The sounds got worse after the first year. Before they shoved the Korbat into the cell with me, the dungeon was eerily quiet. Her voice echoed off the walls, her calls resounding in my head. Somewhere after the first year, if the tallies are correct, the other voices began. I heard them croon down the hall; they came from the floor above, and the floor below.
Sometimes, I heard them mention me, and sometimes they would just scream wordlessly.
It was the toughest era of my life, and I'm not sure how I kept myself sane. For much of it I just retracted into my mind, like one who is accustomed to falling asleep in an overpopulated town.
Breaking out was a relief.
What woke me up that day wasn't the Korbat battering my sense of hearing with her strange words—the dungeon had become silent, completely and utterly so. She, who never slept, crammed into the corner, curling in on herself with her wings. She watched the ceiling as though she'd spotted a Spyder. "Trenn," she said in a coarse whisper. "It's time."
A creepy wind of whispers weaved through the place. Different ones had different words. They were all strange. "My mother got a new hat." "The strawberries have left us forever." "A weeping child never wins." Though they hardly made sense, they were the most coherent things the prisoners had ever said. They piled on top of each other, each resounding together, the sentences merging. Each one became stronger as the prisoners' sentences became the same, became one: "It's time."
A deafening roar hit them then, a single roar of the raw sounds of many creatures at once. The bars themselves shook as the roar escalated and I held my claws to my head. It was the last straw.
I leapt at the bars with a newfound urgency. Enough was enough. The bars vibrated from the noise. The stone around them cracked. I yanked at one of the bars until it came loose. No guards were there to stop me. After that, I ran away as fast as I could.
The dungeon was underground, and breaching the surface wasn't the experience I'd hoped it to be. The sky was the same: a light, sickly purple dotted with blackish clouds. It was the only similarity to the world I remembered. Where people should have been strolling through the streets—perhaps purchasing goods in the market—there were none. The grass was dead in every direction. Empty and barren, everything. At the very least, it was quiet.
I desperately peeked into a few windows. They all looked as though they had been abandoned for years. The Castle of the King loomed back in the direction I had come. Its colorful flags waved, some of the only movement I witnessed since my escape.
A crash and then a yell sounded out, over the emptiness. It came from the direction of the Castle. Any sign of life was good enough for me. I headed toward it, time elongating itself in the lonely trek. Part of me was nervous to be heading in that direction, so out in the open; it was in the Castle that I'd been sentenced to a decade in the dungeon. The last time I'd come this way, I was being dragged by a pair of muscular green Krawks. I had to be desperate to go this way again.
The drawbridge was already out, though the moat was empty. Chills went up my spine as I approached the open doors. It was too easy to enter such a fortress. Nothing made sense, and nothing felt right. I strode down the elegant, unlit foyer quickly and uncertainly, much like a child forced to explore the darkness to find his bed.
A harsh light burst forth as the ballroom doors were thrown open. A silhouette stood in their midst, chest jutting out in a posture that enforced importance. My eyes adjusted and landed on the skunk Krawk; they drank him in as the first sane source of contact I'd had in a long, long time. He squinted at me. "Come closer," he commanded.
I approached him, extra conscious of my clacking feet against the marble stairs. The closer I came, the more his posture slunk. We were face to face. I could sense something about him that seemed off—that regal air he had before momentarily vanished. He set a claw on my shoulder. "Trenn," he said softly. "You've come to me."
"Who are you?" I asked, though it was one of a thousand questions buzzing through my mind.
"I'm your new mentor. And you're probably confused." He checked behind him, as though he expected company. "Come into the ballroom. I'll explain the situation."
He sat himself at a dinner table, one of the only few still standing, and beckoned me over. I took a seat across from him. Regardless of our short time together, I felt a sort of strange bond with him, like I sensed this Krawk and I would become very close. He had an air about him of one who can be trusted and looked up to, even without calling himself my mentor. I liked him instantly.
"You've been in prison these last few years, eh?" he started. The mentor put his claws together on the table and leaned forward. "You wouldn't know what's going on at surface-level, but I'm sure you've seen the lunatics in the dungeon. They were all sent there, a while ago. Started putting the crazies down there instead of criminals." He spoke fast and quietly with an unwavering gaze.
"I did notice that," I said. "But what's happened to the kingdom? Or, I should say, why?"
The mentor paused and held his breath. "It's complicated." He rubbed his forehead as though tired and frustrated. "You see, essentially, it's been cursed."
"That is... Well, it's simple at a basic level. Someone angered a wizard, and the wizard cursed their homeland. It's not like it's of much significance," he said hurriedly. The table bobbed slightly up and down—he must have been bouncing his leg as he spoke. "But no one's left to right what's happened, so I suppose we must take that on ourselves."
"No one at all?" I asked. "What about the King? Any people? Citizens?"
"The citizens are mostly gone," he said in his hushed, quick tone that I was quickly becoming accustomed to. "You'll find a few on the outskirts of the kingdom, but that's it. The King's dead, Trenn." His eyes were wide and filled with sorrow. "He died not too long ago, actually."
"I'm very sorry to hear that." I truly was. The King had been an honorable man, even if he sent me to the dungeon himself. It's not like I hadn't deserved it.
"Yes, well, it's time we moved on." He took a deep breath. "I'm going to tell you just what to do, and..." The mentor trailed off, and then muttered to himself, "No, you can change it all. I've changed so many things."
"Um... Mentor? Are you alright?" From the very start, he'd seemed troubled. Of course, who wouldn't be, given the death of a King and his kingdom that had gone both barren and mad?
"Yes, yes, I'm okay." He ran his hand over his head and sighed. "I'm sorry, Trenn; it's hard to focus. The thing we're trying to do isn't easy."
It didn't sound easy. But if it was anything like stories and legends, there would be a simple way to remove the curse and we could move on. "What do you need me to do?"
"It's not going to be simple," he repeated. "The way we're going to do this is a little fragile and complicated. I'm not sure there's a way to remove the curse, and if there is, its secret lies with the wizards, and they will die with that secret in their hearts." He waited for this to settle in, and it settled in quite uneasily. "So, the other way to get around a curse, other than removing it, is to stop it from happening in the first place."
Understanding washed over me. "You speak of time travel."
He nodded. "Yes, time travel. I don't know how much faith you have in it, because there have been so many shifty stories relating to time traveling, but I can tell you for certain: there's a definite way to do it, and to do it right."
"Whatever you need me to do, I'll do it. I can't stand to live in such a quiet world." Perhaps my willingness was naïve, and perhaps it was too optimistic. I can't explain where it came from, but it probably was founded in my trust of this strange, troubled, kingly Krawk who was also so willing to save the day.
"I'm glad you'll help me. There's this box—it's a Time Box, actually, and I think there's only ever been one of them. Have you heard of travel watches?"
"Yes," I said. "The wizards in The Land of Magic have made a fortune on them. One-use time travel, to the future or past, and after they're used up, the watch function still works. They're very expensive and usually restricted to the rich, or so I've heard."
"Good," the mentor said. "The Time Box is like a travel watch, only it has unlimited uses, and unlimited power. It doesn't, however, make a very good watch, as it's box-shaped and unsuitable for wrists." He smirked. "I used to have it, but I've lost it. And what I need you to do is go back in time and get it for me."
From his robes, the mentor retrieved a golden watch that nearly sparkled in the purple light pouring in from the windows. I stared at it in awe. I'd never seen a travel watch in person before. On top of being noble enough to save the kingdom, the mentor must have been very rich.
"I'm going to give you this," he explained, "and you're going to go back to two weeks ago at 10 PM, near the bakery shop in the plaza." The mentor began to wind back the watch, and he examined it with careful eyes as he worked to get the time right. "A hooded figure will run past, clutching the box. Just knock him over and get it from him. He should be weak enough where he won't be able to retaliate." He continued to wind the watch.
My head buzzed from the excitement. Time travel. What a beautiful concept. Something everyone dreamed of doing at some point, and here I was just being handed the chance.
"Take it into the bakery with you," he said. "It should be simple to use, just like this watch. It's a wooden box with numbers on the surface and a crank on the side. It cranks back to go backwards in time, and forward to go forwards. Like I said, simple. The first number is the years you want, the second number is the days, and the third number is the hours. Push the crank in once when you're done entering the year and it will adjust the day, then push it in again and it will adjust the hour. To get back here, I need you to set it forward to 14 days and"—he checked a clock on the wall—"4 hours. Press the crank in a final time and it will send you right back. Focus on the place you want in your head while you're pressing the crank down that final time, or else it'll just send you to where you are at that moment."
"It sounds too good to be true," I said as he handed me the watch.
"The blue button on that watch will send you on your way," he said. "Please do your best. We need the Time Box to prevent the curse. I trust you, Trenn. You're the only hope I have, and this is the only chance we've got for retrieving that Time Box."
After so many boring and irritating years in the prison, the proposed adventure was very appealing. The responsibility was huge, I knew, but I'd always been good at shouldering responsibility. That's what got me in the dungeon in the first place.
"I'll do exactly as you say."
"Thank you, Trenn."
I pressed the blue button.
I found myself at the front of the bakery, clutching the watch. The blue button had disappeared. If I didn't get that Time Box, I'd be stuck here and I'd be at fault for the madness of the people. The weight was starting to get to me, and I let out a nervous shiver.
The kingdom from the square wasn't much different than when I'd seen it only an hour before, though it was dark. The emptiness was still there, and though the grass was harder to see, I could only guess that it was still dead. Grass probably didn't die in just two weeks, anyway, but what did it matter when...
A scuttle of footsteps joined the sound of the lonely, soft breeze. Instantly, I froze. This was it. This was the chance, and it was coming so fast; I didn't know if I could do it, but I had to try. I readied myself, crouching, to catch the runner by surprise when I finally tried to claim the box.
The figure checked behind him frequently as he ran: even in the dim light, I could see that. For a moment, I wondered who it was I would be taking this Time Box from, and what would happen to them once it was gone. In relation to the kingdom's curse, they probably weren't very important. The mentor wouldn't have sent me to take it from them if it wasn't absolutely necessary to save the people.
He came closer. I pounced, knocking him over. Something went tumbling out of his hands. I leapt for it. The hooded figure let out a little whimper of despair as I dashed away and back into the bakery with the Box, setting the lock behind me.
I worked quickly. The wooden box was big enough where I needed to hold it with both hands, but it was surprisingly light. The top of the box read "00:00:00." I pressed the crank into the box and it clicked. Quickly, I turned the crank away from me and watched the numbers in the middle go up. 14 days. I pressed it in again and set the hours to 4.
The door shook as the figure outside pounded on it viciously. I jumped, nearly dropping the box. It was time to get out of there, before they broke the door down or tried to get in through a window. The Castle Ballroom... The Castle Ballroom... A satisfying click took place when I pressed the crank in again, and then I was surrounded once more by the intricate designs of the ballroom.
The mentor sat at the same table as before, and he had pulled up another chair for a dismal-looking Red Eyrie. They both looked up when I popped in and the mentor smiled. "Trenn, this is Marlene. I found her near the outskirts."
To my surprise, the sun was setting outside; it had been morning when I left. The mentor had given himself enough time to find someone else to help, too. I wasn't sure if I liked the idea of someone else being in on this. I had it in my head that it would just be the mentor and me, saving the kingdom back-to-back like in some action novel.
She gave me an uneasy stare. "You can call me Marl," she said in monotone. "I hate the name Marlene."
I set the travel watch down on the table in front of the mentor, and then I held out the Time Box to him. He hungrily ran his hand over the side. "Once you're used to having it, it's hard to be without," he said with a half-smile. "I won't be using it myself much, though. You two will." He set the box down and poised his claw protectively over it, as though he was afraid it would suddenly vanish.
"He already explained how to use it and everything," Marlene said with a sigh.
"Yes, I have. You can play with the cranks if you want, but leave it at the zeros when you're done. It's hard to change something when you've set it in." The mentor eyed the two of us with weary eyes. "Let me tell you what I want from you, before I ask you to do anything big. I need you to have a full grasp on the situation so none of us do anything horrible."
He stood and wandered out of the ballroom. Marlene glanced at me from her seat. He hadn't given us an order. I gestured to the door. We followed him together.
The mentor headed up the left staircase and down a long hall, stopping in front of the fifth door on the right. "This," he announced, "is the most important room in this castle." He opened the door with a small golden key, and we followed him in.
Shelves and shelves of Morphing Potions and Paint Brushes lined the walls. We both admired the impressive collection. They must have been worth a fortune.
"The King used to have a team of personal spies," the mentor explained. "He would have them change form almost daily."
"How is it the most important?" I asked.
Marlene was already halfway down the long room, eyeing all the potions as though she were looking for one in particular.
"They're important because we can't have you going through time in the form you're in now," he said. "If someone you knew were to spot you, they'd be suspicious."
"Can I be a Gnorbu?" Marlene called from the other side of the room.
"I'm not picky about what you choose," the mentor said. "Just make sure it's at least a different color than what you are now. I don't mean to be extremely strict, but I'd like to ask that you change form or color at least once before each time you travel back, if possible. Anonymity may be important with what we're doing."
"So we can be anything?" Marlene sounded ecstatic.
"Anything," the mentor confirmed. "Not anything that needs the Lab Ray, though anything from this collection is open. When this is all over I'll let you take whatever final thing you want before we elect a new King."
Marlene had already downed a Morphing Potion and stood before us as a red Gnorbu. "Man, I've always wanted to be one of these."
The mentor did another one of his half-smiles, bittersweet. "You'll get the chance to be many things, Marl."
"Can you tell us what we have to do next?" I asked. "I mean, I guess—"
"Dinner first," he said. "Pick something, and we'll feast upon a meal worthy of a king."
A Morphing Potion and Paint Brush later, I was a camouflage Grundo. I was unused to the body, but it was neat being something else. I only hoped that later I could go back to being a spotted Grarrl. I had grown fond of that appearance over the years.
Dinner was spectacular. I offered to help the mentor cook it—the staff was all gone, and I'd spent a while as a chef for a little restaurant down in the square—but he seemed plenty capable himself. We feasted on roasted meats and mashed potatoes, vegetables doused in butter, an array of desserts I'd never tried before. It was, truly, a king's meal.
With every bite I took, I couldn't help but feel guilty that the King was deceased. We were eating the food of a dead King, happily chatting over it as the citizens raved madly below us in the dungeon. It was nerve-wracking, especially since I'd witnessed myself what it was like down there. The mentor was bothered by other things, however, and Marlene probably didn't know about it. She was too happy being a Gnorbu to notice anything, and she wouldn't stop talking about it. After all the years of not talking to anyone, it was a positive change.
"Both of you should take the Time Box out for a test drive tonight," the mentor said. "It only takes one person at a time, I'm warning you. You should get the feel of it, going one place and then coming back." He dabbed at his face with a napkin. "Try not to mess up history or mess with the curse itself too much, though. I've got certain plans and if you ruin them, I'll have to start all over."
He led us to our rooms. Marl got an elegant room adorned with silky red decorations everywhere, and the mentor placed me in the King's former room. The bed itself was large enough to hold five families. Through the window, I could see a large-spanning view of the dead kingdom. A door led to the balcony of the ballroom, where spectators would chat during balls as they watched others dance. It hardly felt real. Before I even knew what I was doing, I had fallen asleep on the soft cushioning of the bed.
Marlene entered my room around midnight and nudged the Box in my direction. "Sorry," she said. "I lost track of time."
I groggily took the Box from her and turned it over in my hands. Funny, how a wooden box could do so much. "What did you use it for?"
She hesitated. "I visited my mom," she said quietly. "Before she went mad like the rest of them."
"We'll get her back to normal as soon as possible," I promised. "The mentor's making sure of that."
Marlene smiled. She nearly glowed with hope. "I know," she said. "It's so noble of him—he could just run to somewhere else, but here he is, sticking it out and fighting for everyone. A brave, brave Krawk, that one is."
I nodded. "I guess I have some catching up to do, huh?" I asked with a little smile. "I've been underground for the past seven years."
"Underground? What's underground...?" She froze as she put two and two together. "The dungeons. What did you do to get sent there?"
To my surprise, she didn't seem scared or anything. Just curious. "I wouldn't worry about it," I said. I cranked the Time Box back two years. "Wish me luck."
I was gone before she could finish.
To be continued...