Garjan's Borrowed Time
Garjan could not believe how ungrateful Pystry was being. Apparently this benighted Mutant Hissi didn't realize that the opportunity to assist someone of Garjan's eminence was a privilege he didn't lightly bestow.
Nevertheless, there it was. Garjan's sky-blue wingtips deftly smoothed out the crumpled Neomail:
Sorry, Garjan. I'm thankful for your support during my recent quest, and I'm all for random acts of kindness, but you're basically asking me to do your job for you. Right now I just don't have the time – they accepted my application to help restock the Darigan Citadel's main library. Can you believe they don't even have a copy of "Mage Spells"? I don't mind proofreading your work, but if you're expecting me to run all the wind tests, analyze all the data, and write up all the reports like last time – well, it's a Neopoint world, my friend, and it would only be fair to be compensated, going forward. I wish you good luck and much success with your project to restore Faerieland. – Pystry
P.S. If you're still thinking about using that E-Z Brand Containment Field, don't!
Garjan crumpled the note again, and swatted the wadded paper onto the floor for the servants to deal with.
Much as he hated to admit it, he was in trouble. His report on air vortex stabilization was due in just three days. For some reason, he hadn't been able to keep an assistant to manage the grunt work. And he'd been busy. Tracking down and marking up items for the Charity Corner had completely taken up his time during the Month of Giving. Hey, someone was going to profit, and it might as well be him, right? But neither all the profits in the world, nor his intelligence, nor his rakish Qasalan good looks and lilting accent would save his prestigious position in Queen Fyora's Faerieland Restoration Task Force if he didn't come through with some results, and fast.
Curse that Pystry, he thought. He could engineer an energy field to contain an air pocket himself, of course, but not fast enough.
He needed time.
His tongue darted out in a slow grin. Yes, time was exactly what he needed.
Zylphia's Chronomobile. It had to carry air, or else its passengers would suffocate. That meant it had to contain the air in a field. And that gave Garjan the shortcut he needed.
Garjan's Task Force credentials gave him access to "examine" the Chronomobile's field generator, and really, what better way to examine it than it a field test? And surely, there was no reason to trouble the Royal Guard with complex scientific protocols they wouldn't understand in the first place, so naturally it made sense to "temporarily" "borrow" the equipment he needed and test it back home in Qasala.
It was a beautiful, warm day in the open desert, with a gentle, steady breeze, perfect for preliminary wind tests. His task was simplicity itself: attempt a small-scale lift-off of a small platform up 1,000 feet, and determine whether the platform, its cargo, and especially its passengers could be transported safely through any turbulence. Maybe it was just as well he would conduct this test alone. Himself, as pilot, counted as passengers, and his anemometry equipment qualified as cargo, so even one test would technically meet his requirements. And if the platform was a Mystical Flying Carpet from the Hidden Tower, and his power source an Energy Blaster from the Royal Armoury? His family, while not rich, was certainly comfortable enough to afford such things, so there was no sense in depriving himself of the best tools available, and with no one around to question him, there'd be little likelihood of having to answer any awkward questions about his equipment or methodology.
Still, he thought, it would have been nice to have Pystry double-check my flight specs. No matter, I'm sure they're fine.
Garjan did one last check: Flying Carpet, wind-measuring machines, Chronomobile field generator, and E-Z Brand Containment Field as a back-up. Pystry always did worry too much about dotting his i's and crossing his t's. Energy Blaster set to 600 teradynes, nothing too big, just to get off the ground. Blaster link to field generator confirmed, and... go!
The carpet rose, not of its own power, as the containment field pushed up and away from the sand. Garjan's smirk of satisfaction was short-lived, as the containment field suddenly rippled and writhed with feedback. Before he could begin an emergency shutdown, a wave of force slammed through him, and he fell, unconscious.
Later – whether moments or hours, he had no way of knowing – a shrill avian screech jolted him back to reality. Momentarily blinded by the bright sun, worsened by a pounding headache, his tongue rankled at the scents of ozone and salt. His feathers and scales were inexplicably damp. Fighting through his disorientation, he found himself lying on the carpet, floating inches above a vast sea.
Shaking his head, he checked his instruments. Latitude and longitude were unchanged. And, in fact, the cliffs in the distance did look like the scarps above Qasala... only there was no Qasala. The only sign of life was an agitated Blue Kateil, flying swiftly towards shore. Garjan followed.
Soon, the petpet's destination appeared: a battered schooner, whose colours – an arm wielding a scimitar on a red background – whipped ominously in the breeze. As he approached, he squinted, uncertain what species served as the ship's crew. They vaguely resembled lanky, Mutant Myncies, mostly hairless, with disfigured skins. Garjan suppressed a shiver of revulsion, and flew his carpet higher to get a better look.
"Captain-General!" croaked a voice from the deck. "Interloper broadside. Aloft!"
A particularly pockmarked creature, blue from topknot to feet, lurched forward, brandishing a sword in Garjan's direction. The Hissi raised a brow archly at the captain's futile gesture. "Good day," began the Hissi. "I seem to have gone off course. Which way is the Lost Desert?"
The captain snarled through a sneer. "Th'art lost indeed, an seekest thou a desert. None there be hereabouts, my good..." The captain turned to his crew. "What be that creature? Marry, 'tis no Mellish, to be sure!"
"Mayhap a Cerpull, Captain-General? Or a Fleye; I've heard tell some of them be growin' heads these days."
"Whatever thou mightest be," coughed the captain, "do thou keep thy distance. Cursed be this vessel, with the plague!'
Garjan literally recoiled on his tail, nearly slipping off the floating carpet. "Surely the Faeries can heal you?"
The captain convulsed with anger, finally managing to wheeze, "Whom dost thou imagine did lay this foul curse upon us, lad?"
"That simply can't be right," protested Garjan importantly. "I work at the pleasure of the Faerie Queen herself, and..."
"Th'art in league with those winged strumpets, tha bilge rat?" barked the captain. "Would thou wert near enough to spit upon! Take then back this message. Tell thy wench that though she rob us of our very breath, she'll not have our treasure. To the murkiest depths of the sea shall we sink every last Dubloon ere she see the least coin. Thus do I swear, by my life's blood, even as the sickness taketh me."
"Look, this doesn't make sense," sputtered the Hissi. "The Faeries don't do that kind of thing! At least, they haven't for millennia..."
Garjan pressed his snout into his feathered hands as he finally realized his plight. I am in the right place, just not in the right time. The Lost Desert is right below me... only right now it's the ocean floor. Seeing the ship's cannons tilt upwards in his direction, he flew his carpet to a safe distance, and nervously checked his equipment. He sighed with relief. The equipment was banged up but mostly undamaged, the fields were functional, and the Energy Blaster still contained most of its charge. Now all he had to do was reverse the process, and he should be able to travel back. The Hissi tinkered contentedly, congratulating himself on his superior engineering skills, until he was ready to try again.
This time, he knew what to expect, and shielded himself best he could from the temporal shockwave. Still, his head throbbed like a struck bell, and it took a moment for his eyes to clear. With great relief he found himself hovering above familiar dunes, with small pointed gebmids in the distance across the river. Anxiously, he steered his carpet towards the mini-pyramids, searching for any sign of civilisation. Neopets were nowhere to be found, which wasn't a good sign, but the gebmids meant a colony of Gebs had to be nearby.
After his last hostile encounter, Garjan decided stealth might be the better part of valour. He concealed his carpet and equipment in a convenient chasm. With a rustling of his outstretched wings, he took flight, relying on his altitude and Cloud colouring to camouflage him in the sky.
Soon, he spied a team of Apises laden with tools and materials trudging placidly across the floodplain towards the river, goaded by a bored herder Geb. Across the river, another Geb was directing the final construction on the small pointed buildings. The cracks along her weathered, triangular skin suggested age, but also toughness. Her amber eyes, though tired, moved sharply, and glinted particularly when she glanced at a nearby Geb child, full of enthusiasm, almost spinning like a dreidel in his excitement.
"Grandma!" piped the gebling. "Try to catch me, Grandma!"
The elderly Geb smiled slowly, and turned stiffly towards her young charge. "I'm afraid you're a wee bit too spry for me, little Setekh."
Garjan blinked. Gebs didn't usually talk. Petpets don't usually talk, as a rule. Clearly this was an unusually advanced tribe.
"But why, Grandma?"
"I've grown old, little one."
"What's old, Grandma?"
"You know how the river grows fat, once a year? And the water spills out and makes the land grow rich?"
The little Geb bobbed his head.
"Old means I have seen the river flood and recede many, many times. It also means I don't move quite as fast as I used to. Like the river, my strength is drying up. But unlike the river, I won't strengthen again. At least, not in this life."
The little Geb frowned. "Does that mean you're going away, like Mother and Father did?"
"Everything goes away eventually, little one, but hopefully not for a long while yet. The river flows strong in me still. And while we are here, we pass on the wisdom we have learned: the songs and stories that tell us when the floods will come again, and how to carve the sand so the water can make it rich..."
"And how to make a square corner with a rope?"
"And how to make a rope out of reeds in the first place, little one. Never forget that from humble beginnings come great achievements. In my mother's time, we had not yet learned how to tame the stone. Now we are learning how to make likenesses of those who have left us, to store their treasures and secrets, so we will not forget them and their gifts to us. See, child, the wise face of your mother fashioned in stone and sand, and by her side, the handsome visage of your father."
"Will they make a gebmid for me, Grandma?"
The woman's eyes searched the skies. "Oh, I should think so, little Setekh, if you are wise like your mother, and caring like your father, and, dare I say, sensible like your grandma. Look up, look up to the great Sun who brings warmth and light to us all. Do you see a sign?"
The young Geb squinted into the sunlight. "No, Grandma. Do you see one?"
"That I do, my young friend. A winged Erisim, the colour of the gentlest sky. Never have I seen such an omen. I believe, little Setekh, that some day yours may be the greatest monument of us all."
Garjan was surprised. He hadn't expected the elder Geb to spot him. But if his hunch was right, he was in the time of Sutek – maybe even in Sutek's presence – providing a crucial data point for calculating the settings needed to return to his own time. He retrieved his gear and prepared for another jaunt forward in time, modulating the power flow to reduce the energy feedback. Third time's the charm, he thought, as the chronofield blurred the surrounding air.
There was, however, nothing remotely charming about the scene that greeted him as his vision cleared.
The carpet was once again floating above the riverbed, but the river was brackish, leaving a stinging odor on Garjan's tongue. In the waning daylight, shambling mounds with bandages limbs slowly turned in his direction and groaned, the throaty, unearthly moan of the undead.
"Hey! You! Hissi! On the carpet! Are you crazy? Get out of there!"
Garjan spun around to see a half-orange, half-purple Vandagyre swoop alongside him. "Follow me, if you can!" hooted the stranger. "Is that an Energy Blaster? I suggest you use it!"
Garjan fired as a mummy's hand, scented with mouldering myrrh, nearly seized the carpet. Without a moment's hesitation he followed the Vandagyre's zigzag path out of the mummies' fen to dry land. Dry, barren land, even for the Lost Desert. It felt as though all the life had leached out of the world.
"What is going on here?" panted Garjan.
"The Haunted Woods forces are advancing again. What else?" snapped the Vandagyre with a shake of her head.
"This may sound crazy, but what year is this?"
The Vandagyre's eyes narrowed. "Don't tell me you're a time-traveller. That's been forbidden ever since the Hidden Tower."
"You really don't know, do you? I honestly can't say for sure what year it is. Ever since the Space Faerie began bending space against us, it's been hard to keep proper track of time. But I think the Faeries' Ruining happened about ten years ago."
Garjan gritted his teeth. "I come from a time after the Faeries' Ruin, and things were nothing like this. What happened?"
The Vandagyre looked around cautiously, then preened a feather. "I'm taking a big risk here. But if you really can go back..."
Garjan snorted impatiently. "I've met with Queen Fyora herself. I can set things right, I'm certain."
"What an odd thing to hear someone say. Very well. It all started when Xandra tore Faerieland out of the sky."
"Yes, yes, I know this part, I was there."
"She thought the Faeries did nothing for the 'Pets and other creatures of Neopia. But she was wrong. The Faeries kept nature in balance, and made the land and sea more fruitful than they would otherwise have been. Fyora originally intended to return Faerieland to the clouds..."
Garjan shivered, despite himself.
"But the project, and Faerieland itself, never got off the ground. At first, everyone was happy with Faerieland on earth, and especially the ease with which Faeries might grant quests to the common folk. But there was a reason Faerieland was aloft: so that the Faeries would bestow their blessings to all lands equally. Once Faerieland became a mundane land, it fell prey to normal social and economic pressures. They tried to annex parts of the Lost Desert and the Haunted Woods.
"War broke out between the three lands. The Faeries withdrew their blessings from the Lost Desert. They had less influence over the unnatural beings of the Haunted Woods to begin with, so they resorted to the Dark Faeries' specialty: poison. After the horrible events in the Gypsy Camp, the necromancers – the followers of Nox – decided to make the Lost Desert into a more inviting target. They turned the undead creatures of the Desert against us... as you just experienced first-wing."
Garjan tried, unsuccessfully, to swallow.
The Vandagyre continued. "When the Faeries weaponised the elements, all of Neopia paid the price. The Snow Faerie let the glaciers melt, destroying my people's ancient home, and flooding Brightvale and Meridell. Neopia Central was ill-equipped to handle the refugees. Without Neopia's farmlands, the people starved and the economy collapsed. The pirates tell us that parts of Krawk Island survived the inundation as the Scurvy Archipelago, but no one wants to brave the stormy seas to find out. Most of the outer lands are completely cut off from the mainland. Moltara, Shenkuu, Altador, even Tyrannia might not even exist for all we know."
Garjan found his voice. "Why in Fyora's name would the Snow Faerie do such a thing?"
"When war seemed imminent, King Hagan sent an espionage team to steal the Chronomobile and stop Xandra before she could bring Faerieland down. It's just a legend, but they say someone had sabotaged the time machine, and the spies were caught. What we know for sure is that the Battle of the Hidden Tower was terrifying. Hagan's people grabbed whatever artifacts were nearby and just started firing. In the end, Fyora lay slain, and the Faeries declared war on Neopia."
Garjan hung his head.
"They started with Brightvale to make an example of them. I'm sorry to say, but anyone you knew from Brightvale or Meridell is probably gone."
Garjan's thoughts went immediately to Pystry. So much for getting Pystry to help me get back to my own time, he thought, and then, to his surprise, came the unbidden notion I'm really going to miss him –
The Hissi clenched his wing into a fist. "No. No. I can fix this. I can get Faerieland back into the air. Or at least warn Fyora so she can stop this before it happens. This is Year 22, give or take?" Garjan looked at his Blaster. After his encounter with the mummies, he had only one good burst of juice left. Fortunately, Garjan really did know his mathematics – when he bothered to make an effort. With one final zap, the dystopic future melted away.
Garjan awoke. Never had the smell of Burnt Grackle Bug on a Stick been so welcome. Whether by luck, skill, or blessing, he had returned only two days after his original departure, leaving him one day before his deadline. One day to make a difference.
I'd like to take you up on your offer. Is there any chance you could proofread my report today?