With Many Faces: Part Three
Marlene sat on a stool in the disguise room, head-in-paw. "He had all the ideas," she murmured. "He always knew what to do."
I furiously knocked aside potions and brushes that were either too cute or too intimidating. "I'm going to right this, as soon as possible."
"How?" She laughed humorlessly. "Goodness, Trenn, we have no idea where it even happens."
"I know when," I said between gulps of a Red Kougra Morphing Potion. "Three years, 27 days, and however much time has passed since I returned plus 14 hours. That's when the first one went mad."
"Okay, but that still leaves the plane of space. The Land of Magic isn't exactly the smallest place in the world."
"You've been there ten times." I readied the Time Box. "Where's it the least populated?"
"The Marshland," she said. "Or the outskirts, just like it is here. They partially overlap, though."
"Perfect." Before she could protest or anything, I was in the Marshland she spoke of, three years and 27 days ago.
The air was damp and misty, making it hard to see where I was going. I had no clue, myself. Any sign of life would work. Smoke rose in the distance, above the tall trees. I headed toward it.
The further I walked, the more stupid my plan seemed. The wizard could have been hiding in an overpopulated area, which gave them more coverage from the rules. The chances that I would happen upon them in the middle of a marsh didn't seem very likely.
It turned out that the smoke rose from a little hut in the Marshland. A starry Kau hummed to herself as she roasted unidentifiable meat out front. She looked up at me every now and again as she roasted the food. I wasn't sure if that was a welcoming sign or not, but I had nowhere else to go.
Thankfully, she smiled as I got closer. "Traveler, eh? Who would be crazy enough to explore the Marshland alone?"
I swallowed. "I was just curious about... magic and wizards and stuff."
She laughed a friendly laugh. "So you're not even a wizard. That's something new, I've gotta say. Dangerous place, the Marshland. Never know what kind of crazies you'll find out here."
I cringed at the mention of "crazies." At the very least, she didn't seem like one of them.
"You're welcome to stay for breakfast, if you'd like." She eyed the Box. "Ah, and you should put that in a safe place so no one steals it. That's a very powerful thing you've got there. I wouldn't be carrying it around to people's houses, if I were you."
I blinked. "Um, breakfast sounds nice. Thanks."
"You from the past or future?" she asked.
I hesitated. She was probably just being conversational, but she was a wizard. If there was anything dangerous she could do with that information...
"No pressure, bud. You don't have to answer if you're uncomfortable. You could be in the present, just traveling to The Land of Magic out of curiosity, for all I know. I doubt it has much impact either way, but suit yourself." She picked the roasted meat off the fire and placed pieces on four plates. "Anna, Dexter!"
A baby Ogrin and baby Moehog came running out of the hut, wrestling with each other and giggling. "This is Dexter, my son," she said, gesturing to the Ogrin. "And the other is Anna, my daughter's sister. Dexter's going to grow up as a wizard like myself and Anna's going to be raised with her mother in the kingdom in the north. Her mom's on vacation, though."
"I'm from that kingdom," I said, and immediately regretted it.
"It's a beautiful land," she said. "Very green. One of the prettiest I've ever seen. And trust me, I've seen many." She handed me a plate of steaming deliciousness.
I dug in greedily, messier than the Baby Neopets were. "We haven't introduced ourselves," I noted.
"I'm a wizard, you're from the northern kingdom. Names are powerful things, you know." She politely took bites of her own meal, chewing slowly. "Is there anything in particular you were curious about regarding to wizards and magic, or are you just lying because you came here by accident?"
I swallowed down the meat. It was the most delicious thing I'd ever tasted, even better than the King's meals in the castle. When they said wizards knew their ingredients, they meant it. "What can you tell me about curses?"
The wizard's ears perked up at this. "Curses, eh? It's a big subject. You'll have to be specific."
"What's the most recent large-scale curse you've heard of?" I asked. Maybe it wasn't the one that impacted the kingdom yet, but there had to be something similar.
She scrunched her nose with the effort of thought. The kids ran back into the house, having already finished their meals. The wizard had barely taken a few bites of hers. "Over a hundred years ago, certainly, before the rules were set in place regarding stuff like that. If we didn't have the rules, the world would go back to chaos, and we'd be freely cursing and jinxing and turning everyone into Mortogs."
It was nice information, but it didn't help. "I want to know what wizards are allowed to do, regarding curses."
"Little, playful curses are fine," she said, "as long as they're deserved. For example, if you step on my foot right now—and it hypothetically hurts—I can curse you with a limp for a day without anybody knocking down my door. It's really just a slight inconvenience for you, and satisfaction for me. On the other hand, if you were to burn down my house..."
She glanced back at the house with slight concern in her eyes. One of the children was being extremely loud, probably Dexter.
"...then I couldn't curse you for revenge with that. I'd have to report you to get proper punishment from the wizard council, but I couldn't myself take up the responsibility of a crime that large. We aren't allowed to harm others. Our magic has been entirely pure for over a century, and we take great pride in that. We try to be a friendly people."
I shifted uncomfortably as she ate slowly, staring me down. A friendly people, with rules that restricted from harming others, and yet one had brought all that damage upon my own land.
Back in the hut, one of the children screamed. The starry Kau set aside her plate and marched into the hut, muttering under her breath. I followed.
The children were seated in front of a game—or, what was once a game, before one of them had flipped it over onto the ground. Dexter wailed, tearing pieces of the game aside, and Anna sat there with her front legs crossed, teary-eyed.
"Now, now!" the wizard reprimanded, plucking Dexter off the ground and setting him in a chair. "A weeping child never wins!"
Dexter continued to wail, despite the wizard's many efforts to soothe him. She finally became fed up and stormed away toward a wall full of strange-looking little bottles and bowls. The wizard rummaged for a short while and extracted a small, yellow vial. She fed it to Dexter, who quickly stopped crying and fell asleep.
"There," she muttered. "That'll teach him not to stay up all night."
"That was wonderful!" I exclaimed. I suppose it was a little enthusiastic, but I'd never seen anything like it. "How did you do that?"
"Special ingredients. Made to calm the mind."
Red smoke puffed between us, blocking the wizard from my view and vice versa. She sighed loudly. "That'll be cousin Randa. She's very needy." As the smoke dissipated, a small, blue letter hung in the air where the center had been. The wizard picked it out of the air as though it had been attached to something and opened it. "Yes, it's Randa. She needs me immediately."
"I'll be on my way, then." I made to move, but she held out a hoof.
"Not so fast, mister. I just fed you breakfast, and now I have to leave for a family emergency. The least you could do is watch little Anna. I won't be gone long."
How did I get myself into this situation? I time travelled all the way here only to become the babysitter to a wizard's niece.
Before I could protest, the wizard was out the door. I vaguely remembered her chanting something under her breath, perhaps stunning me to silence or upping her speed. It didn't matter what magic she'd used. She was gone, and I was stuck with her sister's daughter.
Anna's big Moehog eyes filled my mind. I'd never had to take care of a baby before. I hadn't the slightest idea what you were supposed to do with them.
She must've liked the game, and been okay at it, for Dexter to throw his tantrum. He still sat in the chair in the corner, dead asleep. I hoped whatever was in that vial was safe for him to have. Then again, the wizard couldn't do any magical harm, and she wouldn't want to do it to her own son.
I set the game back up on the table to the best of my ability. It was some sort of old wizard board game, with cards and pieces representing different magical maneuvers I was entirely unfamiliar with. There was no way they were playing by the rules before. I doubted they could even read.
I was so busy furrowing my brow at the confusing, antiquated instructions that I hardly noticed when a "pssst" came from the window.
The "psst" came again, and then much more urgently again. "Psst!"
I finally turned to the window and found a speckled Blumaroo in a cloak leaning into the house. Nearly knocking the game back off the table, I jumped violently. Why had the wizard kept her window open? What was I supposed to do now?
"Hey, don't worry," the Blumaroo cooed in a soft, feminine voice. "I'm not here to hurt anyone or steal anything. I just want something from you."
Firmly, I continued to set up the game. Maybe if I ignored her, she would disappear.
Something golden glinted in the corner of my eye, and it was irresistible. I finally whipped my head around to face her.
She held up a travel watch in her hand, and was swinging it back and forth in the light of the morning sun. "I've got something for you, too, in turn."
I blinked at it. "I don't need that."
"No, because you've got that Time Box."
Involuntarily, I shuddered. "Go away. You're not wanted here."
"I think I am," she said. The Blumaroo made a move to climb into the house. I found myself frozen in place, unable to do anything but blink. "See," she said as she struggled through the tiny window, "that Time Box is shared. It's not yours. If someone else were to use it while you needed desperately to escape, you'll be done for. And if something happens to the Time Box, well... You'd have a backup, so if you get lost in the past, you can come back to the present. Do you see the benefits to having a backup?" The Blumaroo waved the watch in front of me again.
It really pained me to think that she was absolutely right.
My mouth loosened up, no longer under her control. "What do you want?" I asked. The words were like molasses in my mouth. This was dangerous. I was messing with wizards, stuck between two of them.
There was no way I could get out of this one unscathed.
"Just a little leverage," she said. "Well, a hostage, to be more precise."
"A hostage." I swallowed. "You won't get much out of taking me hostage. The wizard who lives here barely even knows me."
"Don't be daft, Kougra. I have no intention of taking you hostage. I know all about the wizard who lives here—and I know she's caused my family troubles for years. She's a shifty one. Always finds a loophole in the rules. Always finds a way to wreak havoc on me and cause me suffering."
"I—" No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't imagine the sweet wizard I met this morning doing all those horrible things. "I won't let you take any of the children."
The Blumaroo laughed heartily, holding her belly. "Oh, you're a hoot. I wish I could take you, too."
My arms moved, without permission. They scooted a scared Anna over to the Blumaroo's side, where she was picked up. The same happened to Dexter. I could only watch as my body moved of its own accord in horror. Complete and utter defeat overwhelmed me. So this is what helplessness felt like. It wasn't when your mentor went insane while trying to stop the madness. It was when you had no control over anything.
The Blumaroo kicked the travel watch toward me with her foot. "I hope it comes in handy!" she shouted. She was already halfway out the door when she said it.
I was still frozen in place. A layer of sweat built up on my fur. The only thing I could do was wait until the wizard returned from her errand, and accept whatever punishment she had in store for me. Even if I groveled at her feet and offered to help with the Time Box, I doubted she would let me get away with it.
Hours passed. One by one, my bones unstiffened and I could use my joints once more. I had the foresight to snatch the travel watch on the ground in case I needed a quick escape. Part of me was afraid I'd have to use it very, very soon to get away from the wizard. I was tempted to use it just now, but my legs were still frozen and I had to try to console the wizard when she returned.
Hunger rolled through my belly, but fear overrode it. Numbly, I noticed how exhausted I was from staying up for so long. Bouncing from time to time was taking its toll.
My feet were the only part of my body still frozen when she returned.
The wizard was cheery at first. She dropped a bag onto the ground and a few vegetables rolled out, perhaps part of the next meal she had planned for the children who were no longer there. "Hello, you of the northern kingdom!" she exclaimed in an overly enthusiastic voice.
I hid the travel watch in my pocket.
"Have you seen the kiddies? I hope you fed them lunch, darling, or else they'll be starving."
The wizard attempted to turn me around, and found that she could not. She whirled around me until we were face-to-face, uncomfortably close. I thought she was still playing around until I saw her eyes. I'll never forget the sight of her eyes. They bore into the depths of my being, fury shining through more prominently than I'd felt any emotion in another person.
"You gave them to her, didn't you?" Her voice was a coarse whisper, heartbroken. "What did she offer you that was so great? What could she possibly have offered you that was worth it to give away my children?"
"She's going to give them back, she's just using them as hos—"
"I don't care what she's using them for!" she seethed. Tears flowed down her face, angry tears that scared me more than I can explain. "The fact is, she's got them!"
"I'm very sorry, ma'am, but she force—"
"You are weak. Only the weak allow themselves to be pushed around as you do." She circled me now, eyes examining me from top-to-bottom as though searching for a weak spot. "Funny, how I trusted you enough not to trick you into telling me your name. It's a good thing I know where you came from, then, isn't it?"
"Please, don't do anything—"
"Curses, you asked me about curses!" she screeched. "I'll tell you what, boy—I'll give you a curse you'll never forget, a curse they'll write down in history!"
"NO! Please, stop!" I swatted my paws at her to no avail. She was out of reach, dancing around me in a frenzy.
"May your kingdom never be fertile again! May your crops go cold and brown and may your fruits dry out! May the dirt beneath your feet become sand, may the clouds bring down a fiery rain! May your people go incurably, utterly, inconsolably mad! Doom them all to repeat the words of the past, the words of the sane! Doom them to be mere cackling echoes of what they once were and the things they've heard! May they become guffawing, mad fools like a plague spreading across the entire kingdom, from east to west! May the buildings crumble and rot, may your Castle turn into a pile of rocks! May the King die and may no one be stopped from transforming into raving lunatics!" She spat the last word at me. A dark mist was beginning to settle on the ground.
My stomach had dropped down to my ankles, it felt like. And still she danced, working her forbidden magics.
In my attempt to prevent the curse, I have caused it.
To be continued...