A Matter of Time

By Robert Moriyama


"This is a very bad idea, Al," Githros said. "Screw around with time and causality and you get screwed in return." For the purposes of the first meeting of the Board of Directors of Majius Magical Services, Incorporated, Githros had chosen a size closely approximating that of an average human. His arms and legs were too long, his ears were the size of saucers and pointed (and mismatched, thanks to Alís clumsiness), and he had the usual complement of scales, fangs, claws, and bony spurs in odd places, but at least he could sit in a chair for a change.

Githros had a nice chair, befitting his new status as Vice President, Research and Development. It was the most expensive one in the room, too; the leather had to be magically-reinforced to stand up to the various jagged edges on Githrosís hide.

Al Majius, President, Chief Executive Officer, and (he liked to think) head of the Majius household, shrugged. "I know itís a bad idea. Iíve read the stories about sorcerers trying to correct some mistake they made, and winding up with things worse than when they started. But Iím running out of ideas and Morgenstern is gonna be in my face -- in all our faces -- any day now, in spite of every trick and defense the College has been able to provide."

"Youíre worried because of me, arenít you, Al?" Janine Majius, Vice President, Finance and Purchasing, asked. "That message Morgenstern burned into the side of Mount Tresmegistus said that he would destroy you and your family as punishment for your insolence -- "

"Our insolence," Githros said. "We insolently refused to be burned to crispy critters to serve as Morgensternís warning to the College."

"And weíve insolently refused to make ourselves conveniently available for him to try again," Al continued. "But insolence and tricks wonít hold him off forever. This is the only way we can hope to survive."

Billy Taylor, Janineís cousin and the Majius corporationís attorney, said, "I say let him come. Iíll tear his reanimated throat out -- "

Janine gasped. "Billy -- itís not even That Time of the Month! Iím surprised that you would say something like that."

Billy grinned. He meant it to be a sheepish grin, but his slightly elongated and more than slightly pointed canine teeth spoiled the effect.

"Guess thereís a little bit of wolf in me all the time," he said. "Although as a lawyer, you might expect more shark than wolf ..."

Al shook his head. "I appreciate the sentiment, Billy," he said. "Unfortunately, any competent wizard could stop you or any other werewolf even at the peak of an F.A.C.T. episode. I did, and I have only a fraction of Morgensternís power and skill."

"A really small fraction," Githros said. "I know, Ďshut up, Githrosí. But Alís right. Al managed to tangle you up and put you into a cage -- not a great cage, and certainly not a large cage, but a cage that could hold you. Morgenstern -- Morgenstern would make a rug out of your hide and mount your head on his wall. And he wouldnít even have to try very hard to do it."

Billyís grin faded, leaving one almost-fang hanging over his lower lip.

"I thought we agreed to refrain from hunting, dog, wolf, and trophy jokes," Janine said.

"It wasnít a joke," Githros said. "Morgenstern wasnít exactly a nice guy when he was alive, and now heís insanely powerful and -- well, just plain insane. If he doesnít incinerate Al and me, our heads might wind up over his mantel, next to the snow globe with the real Eiffel Tower in it."

Al winced. "Thank you for cheering us all up with that image, Githros."

"I thought the Eiffel Tower thing was a nice touch," Githros said.

"Yes, it was lovely," Al said. "But to get back to the plan I was trying to explain, the only way I can see to keep Morgenstern from killing us and anybody else who irritates him by not grovelling is to prevent him from rising from the dead in the first place."

"Which means going back in time and not doing the Summoning of Harry Finkelís spirit," Githros said. "And somehow preventing anybody else from doing the Summoning."

Al nodded. "Edna Finkel hired me to contact her husbandís spirit so she could find the keys to their safety deposit box. But we donít need to do a Summoning now, because we know the question and the answer already: she threw the key out when she went on a cleaning spree, but the bank can break into the box with her consent and Harryís death certificate."

Githros scratched his head with one exquisitely sharp black claw. "So -- when she calls us, we just tell her what she needs to know, and she never hires anybody to do a Summoning. Morgensternís forty-nine deceased employees never get the wake-up call, and Morgenstern stays nice and snug in his crypt."

"Exactly!" Al said. "No resurrection, no nut-job demi-god trying to kill us. Itís all good."

Githros sighed, filling the room with the odors of blood and other less pleasant demon fare. Billy snorted and whimpered; this sort of thing was very hard on a nose with near-canine sensitivity, and wasnít much better for merely-human senses.

While Al and Janine waited for the room to stop spinning, Githros said, "Itís all good, except no Morgenstern, no Morgenstern books. No Morgenstern books, no boost for Alís career, no rescue for Billy -- which means his hide might wind up on some Hunterís wall, if not Morgensternís. Oh, yeah, that sounds just peachy to me."

Billy and Janine exchanged looks of horror. "Al, you canít do it," Janine said. "The old you couldnít have used the spells that let you capture Billy. And that would mean that the Hunters would get Billy in the end."

Al frowned. "Githros would still be able to grab him. The cage would still hold him. The viewing wand would still find the dart that was screwing up Billyís F.A.C.T. cycle ..."

"But youíd be dead without the spell you used to protect yourself when Billy first jumped us," Githros said. "And anyway, without the boost in your powers you got from all that study and practice, my powers would be more limited, too."

"There has to be a way," Al said. "A way to prevent Morgensternís resurrection and still get me the books, or their equivalent."

"Youíd have to steal the books," Githros said, "before you told Edna Finkel she didnít need to do the Summoning. Because as soon as the Summoning was cancelled, all the subsequent events would be nullified, and you wouldnít even know the books existed."

Billy snorted and shook his head. "Is anybody else getting a headache from this discussion?"

"Oh, like all that contract law talk was easy to follow," Al said.

"Can it be done?" Janine asked. "Can Al go back in time, grab the books, and cancel the Summoning, without losing everything heís gained?"

Githros rolled his eyes. "Itís a bad idea," he said again. "I wasnít suggesting a new plan, I was pointing out that this is complicated as Hell -- and I mean that literally, bureaucracy in Hell makes the Federal Government look like Wal-mart in terms of getting things done. Letís say Al succeeds in going back -- which is something even the College Masters would hesitate to try -- or sending a message back to his former self -- which is still extremely chancy. He gets the books, without really knowing why, committing a felony in the process. He cancels the Finkel Summoning, earning Ednaís gratitude, but no money. He studies the books -- maybe. Maybe the lack of cash drives him to sell them because he needs the money. Maybe he doesnít study very hard even if he keeps them, because thereís no crazy demi-god hovering in the background.

"The point is, even at best, things will not turn out the same as they did before. They might be better in some ways, but they will not, can not be the same."

"What if I send detailed instructions to myself, to make sure Iím ready to help Billy when the time comes?" Al asked.

"What if your past self just refuses to break into Morgensternís crypt? Or he tries, but screws up and gets fried by some warding spell or just plain thrown in jail?"

Al shook his head in resignation. "You have a point. The pre-Morgenstern Al Majius wasnít notable for daring, initiative, or even competence. I needed that push, that opportunity handed to me -- "

"That threat hanging over your head -- "

"Yeah, yeah, that too. So trying to make major changes using time travel or time communication spells is out."

"Thatís right, Al," Githros said. "Making major changes is out. But that doesnít mean that time jumping isnít worth pursuing as a tactic rather than a strategy."

Al stared off into space. "I seem to recall a fight between two time jumpers in a novel I read a long time ago. It got very complicated -- there were whole armies of each of the original two combatants popping in and out, trying to outmaneuver each other."

"I think I know the one you mean," Githros said. "Great book, a little weak on temporal mechanics and paradox resolution. That scene with hundreds of each guy coexisting on the battlefield just wouldnít work -- oh, here, let me draw you a diagram ..."

Janine and Billy rose from the table in unison, nearly identical expressions of panic in their eyes.

"If weíve settled the issue of trying to prevent Morgensternís resurrection, I think Iíd better get back to trying to track down those artifacts you wanted for the time spells," Janine said. "We probably wonít need the big stuff if youíre just going to try short hops for fight-or-flight tricks, but I seem to recall most of it can be used for other high-end spells."

"Iíll go finish up the draft version of your new standard consulting contract," Billy said. "And maybe grab a little steak tartare ... "

Githros licked his lips. "Dibs on any leftovers!"

###

"Itís a simple exorcism, Mr. Majius. I understand youíve handled quite a few in the past month or two, with good results, according to my sources."

Al nodded. "From what youíve told me, it sounds like a relatively low-level demon has taken up residence in your office file server. No major damage yet -- just mischief?"

Frank Drysdale sighed. "Mischief. I suppose you could call it that. But itís the kind of mischief that can cost a business a lot of money. We depend on fast and accurate retrieval and processing of data -- payroll transactions, fund transfers between businesses, that sort of thing. Last week -- an entire batch of several thousand payslips was ruined. Amounts were randomly switched between checks, deduction codes were replaced by obscenities -- it was a disaster."

"Iíve seen a few of Janineís pay stubs from back when she was working for Avalon On Line, Al. Some of those deductions are obscene to start with," Githros said. The demon was back at flea-size in Alís left ear, as experience had taught them that his presence at larger sizes tended to distract clients from the business at hand. In response, Al tugged on his left earlobe -- the non-verbal equivalent of "Shut up, Githros".

"Iíll need to have a few minutes alone in the server room," Al said. "Usually, demons of this type just need a little persuasion to get them to leave."

Drysdale smiled. "The faster itís gone, the faster we can start cleaning up the damage. I believe you said that you could supply us with protection from a return visit?"

Al reached into his pocket and withdrew a silver disc that resembled a CD-ROM except for the odd symbols etched on its surface. "One of these will repel most demons of the class weíre dealing with here," he said. "I canít guarantee that something nastier might show up, but itís highly unlikely."

"Unless this isnít a random possession," Githros pointed out. "A business rival or a disgruntled ex-employee could be deliberately sabotaging the place ..."

Drysdale led Al to a small room at the far end of the offices from the reception area. "Here we are," he said. "We have two Recording Angel InfoStore Devices slaved to the main server, the Asmodeus Model 666."

"I donít know much about computer hardware, but I presume that the brimstone stench and the flickering red glow is unusual," Al said.

"Way to sound like an expert, Al," Githros said.

Drysdale smiled weakly. "At first, we thought it was that last upgrade we had installed, but the technicians told us that upgrades donít usually make the system swear in dead languages." He backed toward the door, never taking his eyes off the server. "Iíll just leave you alone to do your work."

As soon as Drysdale closed the door, Githros clambered out of Alís ear and launched himself from Alís shoulder in a competition-worthy triple gainer. At the apex of his trajectory, Githros ballooned in size so that his feet touched the floor before he had fallen more than a fraction of an inch.

"Ta daaaaaa!"

Al clapped politely. "Impressive. Not such a good idea in a small room full of expensive equipment, but impressive."

"Itís bigger than that cage you built -- "

"But you werenít doing fancy dives in there," Al snapped. "Anyway, the cage was as big as it could be and still fit in the garage."

"Back to business, partner," Githros said. "The client is waiting."

Al winced. The idea of Githros as a partner, not bound by the usual spells, still worried him. Githros had nearly taken his head off -- admittedly after Al had carelessly sliced off most of the demonís ear, but Al had apologized for that ...

Githros sniffed the air and peered closely at the Asmodeus 666. "I know that pattern," he said. "Yo, Zithiel! Get your butt out of that machine!"

The brimstone fumes contracted into a billowing cloud, yellow with threads of crimson flame.

"Githros! You used my True Name in front of a wizard!"

Githros shrugged. "Heís my partner. He wonít use it against you -- unless he has to."

Al said, "Youíve caused a lot of trouble for the owners of that hunk of hardware, Zee. You have to vacate the premises -- under your own power, or under mine."

A face formed in the cloud. "All right, Iíll go. But what did Githros mean by saying you were his partner? Youíre that Majius guy, right? Heís been bound to you for years!"

Al grimaced. "He -- performed a service for me, one that wasnít covered by the binding spell. So -- I freed him."

Githros snickered, but said nothing. In point of fact, Githros had effectively freed himself when he had risked his own existence to protect Al from a deadly attack without being ordered to do so. Most bound demons would never have the opportunity to take such a risk -- or the inclination to do so -- but he and Al had agreed that it wouldnít be good for the loophole to be common knowledge among demonkind. There were a lot of demons that even Githros figured should stay bound.

Zithielís cloud-form contracted even further until it resembled a long yellow snake with crimson-edged scales. The snake writhed its way through the air to a ventilation grill and began to slither into the ductwork.

"Some demons have all the luck," the snake hissed. "Do I get summoned and bound by nice guys? No. I could tie myself in knots for them, and not even get a Ďway to go!í"

"Zithiel, I command you," Al said. "Before you take your leave, tell me: did you possess this machine of your own volition, or were you sent by another?"

The snake stiffened momentarily as the sound of its Name clamped down on its essence. "I was sent," Zithiel hissed, "by a bald wizard among many other bald wizards. His name I do not know, but his summoning-place bore a symbol -- a wolfís head enclosed in a red circle, with a red stripe running diagonally across the wolfís face."

"The anti-werewolf guys?" Githros said. "A bunch of baldies?"

"Master, may I take my leave?"

"Huh? Oh, right. Zithiel, go freely, unbound by me, but do not return to this place or any other like it."

Released, Zithiel zipped through the ventilation grill and vanished.

"Is he really gone, Githros?" Al asked.

Githros leaned closer to the A-666 and sniffed. "Nothing left but the stink," he said.

Al attached the silver talisman to the front panel of the server, then tied a second disk to the ventilation grill. "I think weíre done here, then. Back into your luxurious travelling quarters, pal."

"Sure thing, partner," Githros said. Shrinking from two meters to two millimeters in height took a fraction of a second; scrambling up Alís clothing from the floor to Alís shoulder, and then into Alís ear, took considerably longer.

When Githros was comfortably settled among Alís ever-more-luxuriant ear hair, Al opened the door. "Mr. Drysdale, your A-666 is now demon-free. I placed a couple of the talismans I showed you to provide a little protection, but I have a question for you."

Drysdale paused in mid-step, one hand holding the check to cover Alís fee, the other extended for a handshake. "Is it bad news?"

Al shook his head. "Iím not sure. It depends on whether you know of any reason why an anti-F.A.C.T. organization would want to harm your company."

Drysdale gasped. "But nobody knows outside the family! Itís such a mild case that it didnít really affect anything ..."

Al reached over and hooked one finger under Drysdaleís collar. As he had guessed, the starched Egyptian cotton concealed a crop of body hair that would have made a mink jealous.

"Youíll be needing more powerful protective spells, here and maybe at home, too," Al said. "The group that was responsible for your problems here may be the same one that did something a lot worse to my wifeís cousin a while ago."

Drysdale listened with increasing horror while Al told him about Billy and the hex dart that had turned him from a lawyer with a problem under control into a real monster. "I donít suppose you handle personal security services?" he said at last.

###

"Whoever slipped this clause into the boilerplate must think youíre an idiot," Billy said. "I mean, seriously, Ďsacrifice of first-born childí as a penalty for early termination of the contract?"

Janine sighed. "Al and I have been putting off starting a family for years, waiting for his practice to bring in enough money for me to take some time off. Now, we have money coming in -- but we also have Morgenstern out there."

She propped her chin on one hand and used the other to punctuate her thoughts. "Itís bad enough we have to worry about magical attacks on Al and Githros," she said, striking the table with her fist. "Itís worse that Morgenstern might come after me." Another thump, a little harder. "But worst of all would be if he came after a child of ours." This time, she left her hand on the table, but her fist tightened until the knuckles turned white and the tendons in her wrist creaked from the strain.

"If you had fangs and claws, youíd tear Morgensternís throat out," Billy said.

"Iíd try," Janine said. "But Iíd end up as a rug and a trophy. Al and Githros are pretty strong; I have a pretty good arsenal of stuff from my import business, plus customized charms and amulets that Al has made with help from the College. We might be able to survive long enough to escape an attack. But a child -- our child -- couldnít defend itself at all. No, having a helpless infant to protect while weíre in a fight for our lives just doesnít make sense."

"So no way youíre having children until things are a little safer," Billy said.

"No way in hell, heaven, or points in between," Janine said. "Still, also no way that some demon is getting his claws on any child of ours, hypothetical future rugrat or not. Mark that clause for deletion and zap it back to Argiel, Hagiel and Weinstein for another round of changes."

"No claws clause," Billy said. "Noted."

Janine mimed aiming a rifle at Billy and said, "Bang!"

Billy ignored her.

"Billy! I said Ďbangí!"

"Unless itís a silver bullet, I donít care," Billy replied. "Did you know that only a silver weapon can hurt me now, even when Iím not in fur-and-fangs mode?"

"Bet you wouldnít say that if I ran over you in the Buick."

Billy winced. "Oooh. I just had a flashback to an old cartoon. I think Iíd heal, but yeah, that would probably be pretty painful."

Janine grinned. "Billy! Vroooooom!"

Billy tumbled out of his chair, laughing. "Aieeee! Crunch! Splat!"

The first dart slammed into the back of the suddenly-vacant chair. The second caught Billy in the shoulder as he climbed back to his feet.

"Billy!" Janine screamed. She threw herself across the table, reaching for the dart lodged in her cousinís shoulder. If she could pull it out in time --

Billy Changed. Janineís fingers brushed against empty cloth as Billyís grey-furred wolf-form squirmed free of the shirt, slacks, and undergarments that entangled it. For a few seconds, Billyís socks clung to the wolfís hind paws, then Billy pulled them off with quick movements of his powerful jaws.

Janine froze. If Billy was completely feral again, he might harm her before he recognized her. The thought that she might be be killed or cursed by someone closer to her than her own brother brought sorrow rather than fear to her eyes, and the Billy-wolf seemed to sense this, gazing at her with a calmness that seemed strange for an animal that embodied the essence of The Wild.

The Billy-wolf raised its head, letting the small bundle around its neck dangle from the gold chain where Janine could see it.

"Alís amulet! Itís keeping you sane," Janine said. "Oh, Billy, Iím so glad youíre still you -- "

Billy snarled and for a moment, Janine thought that Alís magic had failed, and Billy was going to attack her. But instead, Billy shouldered past her, turning his head aside so that his curse-laden saliva did not touch her.

Once he was past her, Billy leaped. Janine turned in time to see Billy crashing into a rough-looking man in a hooded robe, driving the intruder to the floor. The man screamed once as Billyís jaws closed on his throat, then fell silent.

Billy backed away from the bloody corpse and turned to grin apologetically at Janine, his long pink tongue busily squeegeeing the gory evidence from his muzzle. He didnít see the second man emerge from a deep pocket of shadow that should not have existed in the sunlit room.

Janine didnít even have time to scream before the man drove a silver-tipped spear through Billyís body, pinning him to the floor.

Billyís howl tore through Janineís heart like a brick through a stained-glass window. Memories of Billy at her side during the best and worst moments of their shared childhood spun through her mind like many-colored leaves in a sudden wind, leaving a terrible emptiness in their wake.

When the spear-carrier drew a knife from his robes and moved toward her, Janine felt nothing, no fear, no sorrow, no rage. Her hands moved without conscious direction, drawing a small red wand and a crudely-faceted blue gemstone from small pouches attached to her belt.

The man stepped closer, using his free hand to pull back the hood that had concealed his face in shadow.

"Am I supposed to know you?" Janine asked. "What did we ever do to you?"

The man laughed. "Wolf-lover. The beast is dead, and now his bitch is going to join him."

"He was my cousin, you bastard," Janine said. The first shock of seeing Billy impaled receded in the face of this new outrage, and fury flooded in to replace it. "I loved -- love him. You want me to join him -- come on."

The man raised his knife, and the sunlight gleamed from its silver blade and glinted from the tanned, hairless dome of his head.

Then Janine brought her hands together, and blue-white light flared from the gemstone and sprayed from the tip of the wand and the man and his knife vanished like a chalk-painting in a rainstorm.

Janine let the wand and the gemstone, both now blackened and cracked, fall from her hands. Carefully, she approached Billyís quivering form; any contact with his blood (so much blood!) or saliva could infect her with the F.A.C.T. curse.

"Billy, can you hear me?"

The wolf raised its head and met her tear-filled eyes with its brilliantly-reflective green gaze. It whimpered and stretched its right paw toward her.

Janine tore a large piece of rough brown cloth from the robe of the man Billy had killed and used it to cover some of the blood spattered floor, allowing her to move closer to her dying cousin.

"Iím so sorry, Billy," Janine said. "I should have stopped him, but he was so fast."

She stroked the great wolf-head gently, as gently as she had once caressed the new kitten Billy had found for her when her cat, Boots, had been struck by a car. Her anger had faded with the erasure of the second attacker, and now fear for Billyís life made her whole body tremble.

"Donít you die on me, Billy, you canít die, you just canít," she said. She was babbling, she knew, but the words wouldnít stop. "Al and Githros will be here soon, and theyíll be able to get that dart and -- and the spear, theyíll get the spear out of you. And Githros, he can help heal you. He can do that, heís fixed Al lots of times, lots of times, when Alís gotten himself hurt. So you just wait, you just hang on."

Billyís breathing slowed and grew more shallow. Janine thought that she could actually hear his heart beating, a soft thump-thup at the very threshold of what her ears could detect, growing softer by the moment. Then there was a louder sound and a gust of displaced air blew her hair back and almost dried her tears.

"Janine! I felt the blasting wand go off, and came right away. Are you all right? What happened here?"

"Al, itís Billy, another dart, they shot him again, and -- "

"Githros! Get out here!"

Githros appeared in mid-air, growing from a speck to sumo-size in an instant. Moving quickly even by his inhuman standards, he pushed Janine aside and pulled the spear from Billyís side.

He lowered his mouth to the wound and sucked in a token amount of blood, then spat it back into the wound, quickly rolled Billy over, and repeated the process on the exit wound.

"The wounds are closing, Al, but I think the spear got his heart and maybe a lung. Heís lost a lot of blood, and whatís left is more in his chest cavity than in his arteries."

"A transfusion -- " Janine said.

"We canít get him a transfusion while heís like this, but I think Changing will kill him."

Janine shook her head so violently that Al caught her and held her for fear that she might break her own neck.

"Please, Al, please help him!"

"Thereís nothing he -- we can do, Janine," Githros said. "Weíre out of time."

Al suddenly pushed Janine away from him, holding her at arms length so he could look into her eyes.

"Janine. Janine, look at me. This is very important. How long has it been? When was Billy injured?"

Confused, Janine blinked and moved her lips soundlessly.

"Sheís in shock, Al, you canít expect -- "

"Shut up, Githros!" Al snapped. "Janine! How long?"

"Three oíclock," Janine mumbled. "The mail came at three oíclock. We opened it, and looked at the contract from Argiel, Hagiel, and Weinstein. It was a bad contract, we laughed, Billy fell out of his chair, and then they came ..."

Al glanced at his watch. "Twenty after three. What do you think, Githros? Will ten minutes be enough?"

Githros looked at the spear, then at the pool of Billyís blood. "Something like that. I know what youíre thinking, and I donít think youíre ready. Get this wrong, and Billy might not be the only one whoís -- not around anymore."

Al drew his general-purpose wand from its belt holster, said, "Shut up, Githros," and vanished.

###

Time travel was exactly as nasty and unsettling as the College Masters had warned him it would be. Al had never been prone to motion sickness, but he suspected that it must be like this -- if it was scaled down to about one-tenth the intensity. Al felt as if his soul was being torn apart -- which, in a sense it was. For as long as this version of himself existed, there would be two Alís sharing the same universe.

Fortunately, the condition was self-limiting. In the timeline he had just left, at ten minutes after three, he and Githros had just left the Frank Drysdaleís office, and had paused to do a quick survey of the building to ensure that there were no more demons (aside from Githros) on the premises. If he succeeded in changing things, in saving Billy, he would generate a paradox (with Billy uninjured, he would have no reason to time-jump); this time-jumping version of himself would vanish after a very brief delay while Time sorted itself out.

With his wand at the ready, Al appeared in the Majius Magical Services office. Billy was on the floor, laughing; as Al watched, a dart like the one he had removed from Billyís shoulder only weeks before struck the chair. As Billy began to climb to his feet, Al spun toward the source of the dart and muttered "shelach", bringing his wand down in a slashing motion.

A sizzling shaft of electric blue light surrounded Alís wand and grew to half a meter in length as the wand arced downward. The robed thug shrieked as the blade of magical energy sheared through his arm, and the dart gun and the hand that held it tumbled to the floor.

The wounded man stumbled backwards into the pool of shadows that shouldnít have been there, almost colliding with a second, larger man, this one holding a silver-tipped spear.

"What -- "

"Shelach," Al said again, and this time his blade cut the silver tip from the spear haft and left a long, bloody slash across the face of the hooded figure.

With a gesture, Al sent a blast of light into the unnatural shadows and burned them out of existence. Then he turned his attention back to the spear-wielder, who had pulled a silver knife from his belt.

"Allow me, Al," Janine said. She brought her hands together, and blue-white light erased the hooded man from existence.

"Nice one, Janine," Al began, but Time had run out for him, and he faded away before he could continue.

###

"Janine! I felt the blasting wand go off, and came right away. Are you all right? What happened here?"

Janine looked up from the dart she was attempting to pry from the back of Billyís chair. "Youíre back!" she said. "Where did you go? You did the magical swashbuckler thing, and then you just faded away."

"Githros, get out here," Al said. "I think I need some technical advice."

Githros strolled out of Alís ear, surveyed the scene, and said, "Dibs on the blood. You can keep the gun and the hand, but Iím taking the blood."

"Yeah, whatever," Al said. "But something weird just happened here."

"Weirder than usual?"

"Janine -- you said that I did this?"

Janine smiled. "You were great. Some jerk in a hooded robe showed up and tried to shoot Billy with another one of those darts. He missed the first time, then you went samurai on him and he took off, leaving us with a few souvenirs."

Billy said, "Then a second guy showed up, this one with a spear. Man, he could have done me some serious damage with that thing, but you tagged him, too." He pointed to the silver spear point and the spray of blood around it.

"Did he get away, too?" Al asked.

Janine blushed. "I -- uh, you mentioned the blasting wand you charged up for me. Do you remember those amplifier gems I had?"

Al winced. The wand alone would have stunned a dinosaur. With its power boosted by an amplifier gem, the effect would have been spectacular. "Oy. Itís a miracle the wallís still there. Well, at least we wonít have to explain a whole dead body. Just a hand, and some miscellaneous blood spatters."

Githros, who had finished doing a creditable impression of a wet-vac on the blood pooled around the severed hand, said, "Were these guys bald, by any chance?"

Janine and Billy exchanged glances. "I donít know for sure," Billy said, "but I got the impression that there wasnít much hair under those hoods."

"Great," Al said. "So now we know that thereís a gang of bald loonies with a mad on for werewolves -- sorry, F.A.C.T. victims. Theyíre willing to use demons to sabotage businesses, they can travel through shadow gates -- a trick I havenít learned yet, by the way -- and apparently, theyíre willing to kill."

"Kinda makes me miss old Morningstar," Githros said. "At least thereís only one of him."

"On the plus side," Billy said, "we came out of it with some more hard evidence, and if weíre lucky, our pal Leftyís fingerprints might be on file somewhere." He pointed to the severed hand -- which was missing.

"Githros, you didnít eat the hand, did you?"

Githros grunted. "I donít do solid food," he protested, forgetting his liking for steak tartare. "Just blood. What do I look like, a barbarian?"

"Some kind of retrieval spell," Al said. He moved quickly across the room to tap the dart gun and the spear point with his wand, muttering a brief spell as he did so. "That should anchor them, for a while at least. Janine, call the College and the cops before the rest of our evidence evaporates."

"You got it, Zorro," Janine said, winking.

"I really wish I knew what I did," Al said.

Billy shrugged. "If you donít know, donít look at me. Iím just a lawyer who really goes for the throat."

"Iím guessing you time-jumped," Githros said. "Of course, as soon as you accomplished what you set out to do -- probably saving Billy from the baldy brigade -- that version of you got paradoxed out of existence."

"So it works, the time travel spell, but itís confusing as hell to whichever me is left when the space-time continuum unties itself."

"Apparently," Githros said.

"Maybe not such a good thing to try against Morgenstern."

"If you say so."

"Shut up, Githros."

"I donít have to, being your partner instead of just spellbound. But hey, Iím a little drowsy after that baldie-blood snack, so if you donít mind -- "

Githros shrank to flea-size and was back in Alís ear before Al could think of anything to say.

The End

Copyright © 2003 by Robert Moriyama

Robert Moriyama is a systems analyst who somehow wound up in Airport Planning at Torontoís main airport. He has been writing sporadically for most of his life (with readership limited to family and friends) but has placed stories in various webzines over the past several years, including Dementia (now Demensions), Titan (now defunct), and Aphelion. His most recent Aphelion appearance was A Matter of F.A.C.T. in June, 2003.

E-mail: bmoriyam@pathcom.com

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August 2003