Torches gleamed and flickered high on the towers of Chronia, the capital of Time. The moon had risen in a now-cobalt sky, lording it over a host of attendant stars. Its light also found out a figure clad in black, standing on the roof of a tower, surveying the area below keenly, he put a hand to his lips and whistled, a low but penetrating sound. In response, as he watched, first one, then three, then a dozen, and at last twenty men, most clad in black, some with blood-red, green or azure cowls or hats, all with swords and daggers at their belts, emerged from dark streets and archways. The gang of dangerous-looking creatures fanned out, a cocky assuredness in their movements. He looked down at the eager faces, pale in the moonlight, gazing up at him. He raised his fist above his head in a defiant salute. Black Figure: We stand together! He cries, as they too raised their fists, some drawing their weapons and brandishing them, and cheered: ‘Together!’ He quickly climbed, catlike, down the unfinished façade, and from it leapt, cloak flying, to land in a crouch, safely in their midst. They gathered round, expectantly.
Black Figure: Silence, my friends!
He held up a hand to arrest a last, lone shout. He smiled grimly.
Black Figure: Do you know why I called you, my closest allies, here tonight? To ask your aid. For too long I have been silent while our enemy, you know who I mean, Timascus, has gone about subjecting us to the Fates. Normally I would not stoop to kicking such a mangy cur, but –
He was interrupted as a large, jagged rock, hurled from an unknown direction, landed at his feet. A voice called.
Timascus: Enough of your nonsense, Grullo.
The Black Figure turned as one with his group in the direction of the voice. Already he knew who it belonged to. One of Grullo’s followers spoke up.
Follower: An aged man comes to stop our fun? What do you plan to do, old man? Bore us to death with your tales of the old days? Fart at us?
Timascus: Old men tend gardens or spent afternoons pondering in their studies, reading and thinking about those they had loved and lost: they don’t get involved in fights. Especially not when they are outnumbered by younger opponents.
Grullo: We were just talking about you.
And he bowed with exaggerated courtesy, while assuming a look of surprise.
Grullo: But you must forgive me. We were not expecting you personally. I thought you always hired others to do your work.
Timascus: Take yourself from here before I’m forced to thin your ranks further. You play a dangerous game
Grullo: I assure you this is no game.
Timascus: So be it.
Grullo moved with the speed of a cobra. He shot up and kicked out, catching Timascus square in the chest. Surprised, Timascus staggered back as the other came forward, mouth set and fists swinging. He had a gleam in his eye, knowing he’d rocked Timascus, who dodged one flailing punch only to realize it was a feint as Grullo caught him across the jaw with his other fist. Timascus almost fell, tasting blood and cursing himself. He had underestimated his opponent. A novice mistake. Grullo was smaller and faster, and caught Timascus high on the bridge of his nose. The Time Lord stumbled, blinking away tears that split his vision. Sensing victory, Grullo came forward, throwing wild punches. Timascus stepped to the side, but Grullo went low and swept Timascus’s feet from beneath him, sending him crashing to the ground. Grullo spun and dropped, sinking his knee directly into the Timascus’ groin. He was gratified to hear an agonized bark in response, then stood, his shoulders rising and falling heavily as he collected himself.
Timascus: What you plan is no less an illusion. To force men to follow you against their will.
Grullo: Is it any less real than the Fates you follow now? Those craven gods who retreat from this world that men might slaughter one another in their names? They live among an illusion already. I’m simply giving them another.
Timascus: Ah. Now logic has left you. In its place you embrace emotion. I am disappointed. I know you blame the Fates for your family’s death, but nothing can excuse the horrors you’ve committed... I have been was like a father to you, Grullo... You have betrayed my trust, and sullied the League.
Grullo: You are weak, Timascus... a relic just like your precious League of Paradoxes...
Timascus: Grullo. We can fix you.
Grullo: Fix ME? I am the solution.
A shrill shriek, unsuited to his grim expression, leaked out from the depths of his throat. Grullos posture crumbled as he stumbled over.
Zubaaa!! A ray of dazzling light shot out from the staff the time lord propped up with that buzz unlike any sound he had heard before. It stabbed through the right side of Grullo’s chest without any resistance. The white light vaporized part of Grullo’s right ear. Grullo thrusts his hand and grabs Timascus’ shoulder. Timascus screams as Grullo lashes out, grabs him by the coat, draws him breathlessly closer, inch by inch, eyeball-to-eyeball, grinning his awful rictus grin. Softly:
Grullo: What kind of Fates are they to will this? I resent their monopoly. Why should they alone have the final say?
Timascus: What’s to be done then?
Grullo: You will not follow me and I cannot compel you.
Timascus: And you refuse to give up this evil scheme.
Grullo: It seems, then, we are at an impasse.
Grullo’s followers were shifting uncomfortably, talking among themselves, still in shock at the turn of events. Seeing Timascus bleed had cheered them and, encouraged, they came forward with more stabbing, stinging sorties. Timascus fought off three followers, picking up new wounds, bleeding profusely now, limping, out of breath. Fear was no longer his weapon. That advantage was lost to him. All he had now were long-dormant skills and instincts, and he cast his mind back to some of his greatest battles. The warrior who had fought those battles would have sliced these followers dead in seconds. But that warrior lived in the past. He had aged. His combat skills, great as they were, had been allowed to wither and, so it seemed, die. He felt blood in his boots. His hands were slick with it. He was swinging wildly with his staff, not so much defending as trying to swat his attackers away.
A chase between Timascus and Grullo ensues.
Grullo: Run all you like, Timascus. I will catch you... I need only follow your scent...the scent of a wounded animal... There is nowhere you can hide from me.
Grullo manages to pin Timascus down before he is able to get too far. He knocks him out, ending the fight. The following day, Fred is making his way to the main tower on Chronia. The area lay almost deserted. He looked around him, at the towers overlooking them, seeing black windows. Time Sentinels on the ramparts, massive bodies entirely clad in purple crystalline armor, and wearing mirror masks, so their faces could not be seen, stared dispassionately down at him. Fred’s mood darkened further as he was about to make his way to the main tower but Deck directed him instead to the steps that led up to the defence room, then into the main hall. There, the League of Paradoxes was gathered. Ten professors were seated on opposite sides of a table with an empty chair for Fred: a wooden, high-backed chair. Fred looked around the rest of the table.
Paradox #1: Welcome Fred.
Fred: Professor Paradox. Why exactly have you had me summoned here?
Paradox #1: The T.C.T.F. and I have been hunting Grullo ’round the clock for months now, and we’ve nothing to show for it...
Fred: What has Grullo to do with me? Timascus has had me summoned here from Hathor--can’t this wait?
Paradox #1: Timascus is nowhere to be found.
Fred: And you believe this is no coincidence. You think Timascus is dead.
Paradox #1: I dare not believe it. But if he is, you may be the only person who can stop Grullo now. Have you any questions?
Fred: Only where to begin.
Deck: We think he and his followers are on a small rural planet not too far from here.
Fred: I’ll get right on it.
Fred was leaning on a crate in the shadows of a market on his target planet, almost hidden by the tradesmen’s carts. His arms were folded across his chest, chin supported in one hand. And as the afternoon dwindled into evening he stood, silent and still. Watching. And waiting.
Ah, he thought, what is this? He straightened and shook the rest from his muscles as he peered through the crates into the market. Traders were packing up. And something else was happening too. The game was afoot. In an alleyway not far from Fred lurked a follower of Grullo. He wore a tattered shooting jacket and a broken hat, and he was studying a pocket watch. Next he eased himself out of the alleyway, looked left and right and then made his way into the dying day of the market. As he walked, his shoulders hunched and his hands in his pockets, he glanced over his shoulder to check he wasn’t being followed and, satisfied, continued forward, entering a slum. The change in the air was almost immediate. Where before his boot heels had rung on the cobbles, now they sank into the ordure of the street, disturbing a stink of rotting vegetable and human waste. The pavements were thick with it, the air reeking. The follower pulled his scarf over his mouth and nose to keep out the worst of it. In the same moment the mist ahead of him billowed and striding out of it came an elephant-like figure, who before he could react had grabbed him and pulled his fist back as though to punch him. He had squeezed his eyes shut. When he opened them it was to see Loxodonta behind the tusk that was held steady an inch from his eyeball. He wet himself.
Loxodonta: Now, my friend, why don’t we start with you telling me your name?
Follower: It’s Aion.
The follower squirmed, the point of the tusk digging painfully into his flesh.
Loxodonta: Good policy, the truth. Now, let’s you and me have a talk, shall we?
Beneath him the fellow trembled. Fred took it as a yes.
Loxodonta: Where can I find your leader?
Aion: I … I don’t know...
Loxodonta: You’re a worse liar than you seem.
Loxodonta exerted a little more pressure with his tusk.
Loxodonta: You feel where that tusk is now?
Aion blinked his eyes yes.
Loxodonta: That’s an artery. Your carotid artery. If I open that, you’ll be painting the town red, my friend. Well, the street at least. But neither of us want me to do that. Why ruin such a lovely evening? Instead, how about you tell me where I can find your leader.
Aion: He’ll kill me if I do.
Loxodonta: That’s as maybe, but I’ll kill you if you don’t, and only one of us is here holding a tusk at your throat, and it’s not him, is it?
Loxodonta increased the pressure.
Loxodonta: Make your choice, my friend. Die now, or later.
Aion opened his mouth. Maybe he was about to give Fred the information he required. Or perhaps he was going to tell Fred where he could stick his threats. Or more likely it was to simply whine that he didn’t know. Fred never found out, because just as Aion went to reply, his face disintegrated. There was the sound of running feet, so Loxodonta wiped the shards of bone and bits of brain from his face, switched to Clobberilla, and then leapt for a wall.
Feet only just gaining purchase on the wet brick, he shinned a drainpipe to the roof of a tenement, finding the light of the night sky and able to follow the running footsteps as the killer tried to make his escape. From below he heard the boots of the killer clopping and splashing on the cobbles and Clobberilla shadowed him quietly, unable to see the man but knowing he’d overtaken him. Coming to the edge of a building, and feeling he had a sufficient lead, he let himself over the side, using the sills to descend quickly, until he reached the street, where he hugged the wall, waiting. Seconds later came the sound of running boots. A moment after that the mist seemed to shift and bloom as though to announce this new presence, and then a humanoid mole, with a bushy moustache and thick side whiskers, came pelting into view.
And though Free would later tell Professor Paradox that he struck in self-defence it wasn’t strictly true. Clobberillla had the element of surprise; he could – and should – have questioned him before killing him. Instead he engaged his fist and slammed it into the killer’s heart with a vengeful grunt and watched with no lack of satisfaction as the light died in the man’s eyes. And by doing that the Fred was making a mistake. He was being careless.
Professor Paradox’s voice echoes in Clobberilla’s ear.
Paradox: A shame then that you had to spill his blood. Presumably you needed to know more about him?
Clobberilla reverts back to normal.
Fred: This will make Grullo even hungrier for my blood.
Fred stooped over the killer’s corpse. From his light armor he extracted a letter, which he opened and quickly scanned:
It is with fear in my heart that I write this. Grullo has arrived. I feel it. The very birds don’t act as they should. They swirl aimlessly round the sky. I see them from my tower. I will not attend our council meeting as required, for I can no longer remain thus exposed in public view, for fear that the he may find me. Forgive me, but I must heed my inner voice.
Fred is spooked by a deep-throated, booming laugh. He dials the Novatrix faceplate and pushes the faceplate back down, and transforms into Haywire. Haywire morphs his hand into a sword.
Grullo stepped forward from the shadows, wrested Haywire’s sword/hand from him with unbelievable grace, and snapped it over his knee as easily as if it had been a twig.
Grullo: I don’t think that’s a very good idea, little Fred, though I must say you live up to your name.
Haywire: Why? Why have you done this?
Grullo: You wouldn’t understand. Haywire: I have a question for you? What is the truth?
Grullo: We place faith in ourselves. We shape our own destiny. I see the world as it is and hope that one day everyone else might see the same.
Haywire: What is the world, then?
Grullo: An illusion. One we can either submit to – as most do – or transcend.
Haywire: And what is it to transcend?
Grullo: To recognize that laws arise not from the Fates, but reason. I understand now that the Fates do not command us to be free.
Haywire: They command us to be wise. Do you now see why you are a threat?
Grullo: Whereas I would dispel the illusion, the Fates use it to rule. Yes, to reshape the world in an image more pleasing to them.
Haywire: Is that what you fight for?
Grullo: Even if they don’t say it, it’s what the people want. It falls to men like me to do what’s right. Make up your own mind, Fred. The conclusions you reach shall be your own. I can only hope you embrace the potential you have to fulfill your destiny.
Haywire switches to Psychollect who paralyses Grullo on the spot with his telekinesis.
Psychollect: Enough of this pointless talk!
Grullo: Ah, I see I am getting through to you.
Psychollect: Tell me where you’re keeping Timascus!
Grullo: He is on Chronia, beneath the Temple of the Fates. You must go into the abyss to retrieve your prize.
Psychollect: You’re coming with me, Grullo.
Psychollect switched to Chrononaut. He envelops Grullo and himself in a golden light teleporting them to Chronia.
They found themselves standing before the League of Paradoxes.
Chrononaut: I have Grullo. He will be accompanying me to the Temple of the Fates to rescue King Timascus.
Paradox #1: So be it. But the T.C.T.F. will also go with you.
Chrononaut nodded yes. Again they teleported, this time, with the T.C.T.F. They teleported into the upper level of a vast chamber, and for a moment Chrononaut stood taking it in, feeling suddenly overawed. This was the ruin of the fabled Temple of the Fates, said to have been built at the start of creation. If Chrononaut was correct, they now stood overlooking the Temple’s greater house, its holy place. Deck: Early writings spoke of the holy place as having its walls lined with wood, carved Chronians, and open flowers embossed with gold. But the Temple was now a shadow of its former self. Gone were the ornate wood, the Chronian carvings and the gold finishing. Yet even stripped from its gilding it was still a piece of reverence, and despite himself, Fred found himself filled with wonder to see it. Upon entering a hidden staircase leading to maze of interweaving catacombs, Fred heard coughing nearby. It was no doubt Timascus. He was there, sitting on a wooden chair. He looked horrible - his clothes were torn, and he was very dirty.
Timascus was struck with fear at the sight of Grullo.
Timascus: No. You shouldn’t have brought him here.
Grullo looked pleased.
Grullo: It is time at last for us to depart.
Grullo exits the catacombs, but not without blowing it up afterwards, sealing it with rubble.
Fred dialed the Novatrix and transformed into Swallowstone. He gulped down the stone and rubble blocking the exit, and rushed to catch up with Grullo. He found himself in what looked like a catacomb corridor, but, as he cautiously advanced, the rough walls and dirt floors gave way to smoothly dressed stone and a marble floor that would not have disgraced a temple. And the walls glowed with a pale, supernatural light, contrary to what they looked like when they first entered the catacombs. The T.C.T.F. and a weak, tormented Timascus followed. In the center of the room was a pedestal, and on it stood Grullo.
Swallowstone: Stand off!
Timascus: What do you even want with the vault that lies beyond that wall? Don’t you already have all the power you could possibly need?
Grullo looks surprised.
Grullo: Don’t you know what lies within? Hasn’t the great and powerful King Timascus figured it out?
His torvid tone stopped Swallowstone in his tracks.
Swallowstone: What is he talking about, Timascus?
Grullo’s eyes glittered.
Grullo: It’s the Fates! It’s the Fates who dwell within that vault!
Fred was too astonished to reply immediately. He knew that he was dealing with a dangerous madman.
Timascus: Listen, do you really expect me to believe that the Fates live beneath this Temple?
Grullo: Well, isn’t that a slightly more logical location than an Island of Creation. All that makes for a lovely image, but the truth is far more interesting.
Swallowstone: And what do the Fates do down there?
Grullo: They wait to be set free.
Timascus: Let’s say I believe you – what do you think they’ll do if you manage to open that door?
Grullo: I don’t care. It certainly isn’t their approval I’m after – just their power!
Timascus: And you think they’ll give it up?
Grullo: I’ll just have to find out, won’t I?
The outline of a great door appeared. It revealed a broad passageway, with glass walls, inset with ancient sculptures in stone, marble and bronze. As Grullo passed along the passageway, he was struck by the unfamiliarity of the architecture and the decoration, and of shapes he did not recognize, but which his instinct suggested might belong to a distant future. Along the walls there were carved reliefs of ancient events, seeming not only to show the evolution of the Universe, but the Force which guided it. And at last, in the depths of the Vault, he encountered a huge granite sarcophagus. As Grullo approached it began to glow, a welcoming light. He touched its huge lid and it lifted with an audible hiss, though featherlight as if glued to his fingers, and slid back. From the stone tomb a wonderful yellow light shone – warm and nurturing as the sun. Grullo shielded his eyes with his hand. Then, from the sarcophagus, rose a figure whose features Grullo could not make out, though he knew he was looking at a women. She looked at Grullo with changing, fiery eyes, and a voice came from her too – a voice at first like the warbling of birds, which finally settled into his own language. The now-exposed eyes were pure silver, a color he had never noticed in anyone’s eyes before. The mirror-like irises were tinted faintly in the brilliance of seven prismatic colors, wavering as though on a water surface. A divine radiance that could make any rare gem in this world appear dull in comparison. Upon gazing at his own dumbfounded expression projected on those two small mirrors, her glossy, pearly grey lips made a slight movement. Her voice, sweet as honey and pure as crystal, with a hint of enticement, spoke.
Grullo bent his head.
Goddess: Greetings. I have been waiting for you for ten thousand seasons.
Grullo dared not look up.
Goddess: It is good that you have come. We must speak.
She tilted her head, as if considering something, and Grullo thought he could see the trace of a smile on the iridescent face.
He dared ask.
Grullo: Who are you?
Goddess: Oh – many names… When I died, it was Clotho. Before that, Lakhesis… and back again and again through time… Atropos.
Grullo was transfixed.
Grullo: You are the Fates…
There was a noise like glass breaking in the distance, or the sound a falling star might make – it was her laughter.
Goddess: I simply came… before. Your kind struggled to understand my existence. Your minds were not ready for me… And perhaps they still are not… Maybe they will never be. But it is no matter.
She drifted into silence. Into that silence, Grullo spoke.
Grullo: None of what you are saying makes sense to me.
Goddess: My child, these words are not meant for you… They are meant for…
And she looked beyond the Vault, at Fred, the Splixson unbounded by Fate or time itself.
Grullo: What is it? What are you talking about?
The Goddess bowed down to Fred, close to him, and he felt a mother’s warmth embrace all his weariness, all his pain.
Goddess: I do not wish to speak with you, but through you. Please be silent now… that we may commune. Listen!
Fred could see all the sky and the stars, and hear their music. He could see the galaxy spinning, as if he were looking down from space. A vision of war appeared. Savage aliens of countless species fighting with weapons against each other. They were strong. They were many. And they craved war. Worlds burning until naught remained but ash. The last vision showed a hangman preparing nooses with the New Splixsons fighting back in tears and the executioner pulling a lever set into the scaffold.
And then there was darkness and silence, and the Temple of the Fates became a dark Temple again, with nothing in it at all.
Grullo: No! This cannot be happening!
Shadoweaver rammed his arm clear through Grullo’s body. Fatally wounded, he is dropped on the floor where he would be left to die.
Grullo: My legend will live forever. You cannot kill me.
Timascus: And that is why your memory must be erased for all time. Rest in peace now, Grullo, you and your twisted acolytes. Live by the Fates, die by the Fates.
Shadoweaver reverted back to normal.
Timascus: Before we leave this place forever – tell me, in your visions – what did you see? Fred looked at him.
Fred: Nothing. Nobody.