[This was written for the "Unresolved" challenge on the Megakatcity forums, and tries to answer the unresolved question "Why did Megalith City seem to have two totally contradicting plans for getting rid of the Pastmaster?". The challenge required a word limit of 8,500, so it's not as long or detailed as it might have been, but I'm still proud of it and hope it will be enjoyed.]
"The king is dead."
The court physician's voice was low and weary as he made the pronouncement. With great reverence, he laid King Edric's lifeless hand across his chest, now fallen and stilled with his last breath
Around him, the gathered servants and nurses murmured among themselves, planning the tasks that would have to come next. Near the door of the royal bedchamber, a waiting page departed to bring the news to the castle's messengers; they would spread it through the rest of Megalith City, and from there to the villages and farms beyond. By tomorrow morning, the whole kingdom would know of its ruler's passing.
Dowager Queen Oriana barely noticed. Her eyes were on the dead king's face as the physician carefully closed his eyes. Only a week ago, Edric had been a tall, powerful tom-kat in his prime. Now, his thick blond hair and beard had faded to bone-white wisps. His muscles had withered, his spine had bent, his hands had grown bony and knotted with arthritis. By the fourth day he had been too frail to walk without help, and on the fifth day his eyes had grown cloudy. But it was only yesterday that his mind had begun to weaken, and that had been the worst – to see his memories falter, hour by hour, until he could not remember those around him, or even his own name.
Oriana noticed two of the nurses crying, but paid them no heed. What did their pain measure against hers? They had only lost their king. She had lost her son, the kitten she had carried and nursed and watched grow up. The only child she had ever borne.
But, she reminded herself, that did not mean she had lost everything. She looked beside her, to her granddaughter, Princess Callista. The young she-kat wore a stony expression, and Oriana knew she was fighting to hold in her own grief and appear strong under the eyes of the others.
Already thinking like a queen, Oriana mentally praised her. At sixteen, Callista had already shown the promises of wisdom and courage that would make her a fine ruler one day. But right now … by the Holy Kats, she was still so young. Too young to have to face the loss of her father to such evil magic, and too young to become queen of a kingdom under siege. And much, much too young to do it all without a chance to grieve.
Oriana stood up, turning to the gathered servants. "All of you, leave us."
The physician looked up from the basin where he'd been washing his hands. "Your Majesty, I still need to attend –"
"That goes for you too, Simeon." Her tone was cold and stern. "I wish a moment alone with my granddaughter."
As soon as Simeon had closed the door behind him, Oriana swept Callista into her arms. The girl hugged her grandmother tightly, burying her face against her shoulder the way she so often had as a kitten. The old queen felt Callista's shoulders tremble, and the dampness of her tears as she cried for her father.
"He's not suffering anymore," Oriana whispered. "Remember that. And he's with your mother now. She's spent ten years waiting to see him again. Now they're together, and they can move on to the next of their nine lives."
Callista's voice was choked as she tried to speak through her tears. "I … I'm so sorry. If … if I hadn't said anything … if I hadn't refused Lord Martin …"
"No!" Oriana hugged her fiercely. "Never, ever blame yourself for this! This is no one's fault but Martin's!"
And mine, she forced herself to silently admit. For not seeing what he was, or what he'd become.
Oriana remembered the first time she had met the sorcerer now responsible for her son's death. She had been no older than Callista was now, a young princess just beginning to discover her magical talents. Following tradition, she had been sent to the ancient city of Leopolis to study under the Council of Magic, the most powerful and learned order of mages to be found in any nation of the Dawn Sea.
Martin had been the only other student from Megalith in her class, so they had naturally been drawn to each other. Even though she was a princess and he was only the son of a stonecutter, they'd quickly become friends, spending hours together studying in the Council's vast library, or practicing out on the mages' training grounds. When it became clear that Martin's magic was vastly stronger than hers (stronger even than some of their teachers), Oriana had only been glad for him.
By the end of their first year, she knew that Martin's feelings for her had grown deeper than friendship. If their places in life had been different, she might have returned those feelings; he was a clever young tom with an impish sense of humor, and not bad-looking despite his bowed legs and stunted height. But Oriana had come to Leopolis already betrothed, and on the day Martin had confessed his love for her, she had known what her choice would be.
"I do care for you," the young Oriana insisted. As much as her heart ached at the thought of hurting him, she had to do this. "I always will. You're the best friend I've ever had. But I made a promise to marry Lord Leofric, and I can't break it. Megalith City needs –"
"To the abyss with Megalith City!" Martin snapped. His eyes, usually as warm and green-gold as springtime, grew narrow and dark with anger. "You're already the heir, you'll be queen no matter who you marry. They can't hold you to this!"
"I'm not being forced into anything." She reached out to him, trying to soften his temper with a smile. "You don't have to save the poor captured princess. This … this is just how it has to be."
He swallowed, and his expression faded from anger to sadness. His ears drooped under his gray apprentice's hood. "It shouldn't. In future ages, it won't be. I know it."
"Perhaps. But here and now, it is." She clasped his hand. "I still want us to be friends, Martin. Do you think we can be?"
He hesitated for a long moment, nervously smoothing his ash-blond hair. Finally, he looked up at her with a smile that was only somewhat forced. "Yes, my queen."
She still did not regret her choice. After completing her studies, she had returned to Megalith City and married Lord Leofric as promised. It had taken them time to get to know each other, but he had proved to be a devoted husband and father, and a worthy king. She had easily grown to love him, and even now, nearly twenty years after his death in a shipwreck, she missed him.
Martin, meanwhile, had left Leopolis to explore magic in the far corners of the world. For decades she had not heard a word from him, but she had smiled every time she heard rumors of a sorcerer calling himself "Pastmaster" – she recognized the nickname her classmate had earned for his eager research into ancient times.
Then, a year ago, he had suddenly returned to Megalith City. Older now, his ash-blond hair gone completely white, his left eye lost and covered by a patch, his face lined with age and strife, but still recognizably her old friend. At her insistence, Edric had welcomed him into the royal court with open arms. The kingdom had embraced the new time-measuring instruments he'd brought from a distant nation – the ticking hands could move day and night, with more accuracy than any sundial or hourglass. When Edric had named him their court wizard (with a lordship thrown in as a bonus), and Martin had requested a clock to be built into the traditional wizard's tower, the king had been only too happy to agree.
And, when young Callista had begun to display magical talent, Oriana had chosen to break with tradition, and had asked Martin to tutor her instead.
Some of it, Oriana admitted, had been selfishness. Just as Edric had been her only child, Callista was her only grandchild, for her son had never remarried after his wife's death – he was no more eager to send Callista across the Dawn Sea than Oriana was. And, perhaps, there had also been some lingering guilt over how she'd rejected Martin all those years ago. If she showed him that she valued him and his talents enough to trust him with her granddaughter's tutelage, perhaps it would finally erase that long-ago pain.
How could I have been so blind?
She hadn't missed the way the normally sweet, outgoing Callista had changed over those months, growing quiet and cold, as if she carried some secret pain. But Oriana had dismissed it as the normal moodiness all young kats went through.
I'll never forgive myself.
Then, that fateful night when Callista had come running into the castle in tears and terror. She told her father and grandmother everything: how Lord Martin had been trying to woo her, telling her she was more beautiful than Oriana had ever been, and that a future queen needed a powerful husband by her side. How she had politely ignored his attentions, pretending not to notice every time he stroked her hair or caressed her arm as she cast a spell. How he had finally grown impatient tonight and seized her, and she had struck back, trying to bring him down with the very subjugation spell he'd taught her.
And, finally, how that spell had stripped away the glamour he'd been using to mask himself since his return, and she had seen the terrible, undead fiend Martin had become.
It had been that creature – that mummified husk with red-stained bones and horrible hollow eyes – who had marched into the throne room the next morning. He'd had the nerve to ask Edric outright for his daughter's hand in marriage, looking past Oriana as if she did not exist.
What happened next had been only the beginning of the terror that now gripped Megalith City. Edric had ordered the guards to seize Martin, only for the sorcerer to cut them down with blast after blast from the golden timepiece he carried. Then, as more guards arrived, he'd resurrected their freshly-killed comrades, commanding them to attack their fellows.
Working together, Oriana and Callista had managed to drive the undead soldiers back with their magic, striking them down again and again until their bodies were too broken to rise. For one hopeful moment, it had looked like they might defeat Lord Martin then and there. But then, Edric – poor, brave, proud Edric – had joined in the fight, wanting the king's honor of taking the enemy down himself.
If he'd been a wizard himself, he might have stood a chance. If he'd even had a shield, it might have saved him. But Oriana's magic had skipped a generation, and her son had charged into battle with nothing but a sword and blind courage.
The Pastmaster's spell had lit up the room with violet fire as it struck King Edric. For a moment, it had looked like there was no effect – then, they had seen the first lines of gray spreading through Edric's fur as he began to age.
"In a few days, Megalith City will need a new king," the sorcerer declared. As he turned toward the broken doors of the throne room, he smirked at the horrified Princess Callista. "Until then, I suggest you reconsider my offer."
That night, with King Edric already looking at least ten years older, the first of the monsters had come.
Oriana knew she could not give in to crying as Callista was, but she allowed herself to weep silently. Grandmother and granddaughter remained locked in their embrace for some minutes, sharing the raw grief they could not afford to show in front of their subjects. Not when Megalith City needed its royal family to be strong more than ever.
"He won't get away with this." Oriana's eyes narrowed as her tears finally began to subside. She cupped Callista's cheek, guiding the young princess to look at her as she spoke. "I promise you. I didn't have a chance to tell your father, but last night, I sent a messenger to Leopolis."
Callista dabbed at her eyes with one hand. "You're calling on the Council?"
"Yes. If anyone will know how to defeat Martin once and for all, they will. But in the meantime…" She sighed. "Dear one, our people are going to be looking to you. Even though you haven't been crowned yet, you're their queen, and they know it. I'll be with you, and I'll protect and advise you as much as I can. But you're still going to have to be strong, and remember everything you've learned. Will you do that?"
Kats who had known Oriana in her youth had often remarked on how much her granddaughter resembled her. There were differences, of course: Callista had inherited her late mother's more rounded face, and her eyes were bright green instead of Oriana's deep amber. But they had the same tall, slender build, the same peach-colored fur, and the same flowing, sun-blonde hair, even if Oriana's had mostly gone gray. Now, as the young princess wiped away the last of her tears and set her jaw with determination, they looked more alike than ever.
"I will, Grandmother. I promise."
The ship from Leopolis arrived a month later. Despite warnings from Simeon the physician that she shouldn't overtax herself, Oriana insisted on accompanying Captain Tabor and his soldiers down to Greenwater, the kingdom's main port town.
The two-day journey took them through village after village, and everywhere, Oriana saw the destruction Martin had wrought. She passed through the churned, muddy wasteland that had once been a thriving farm, and listened to the farmers' stories of giant, terrible lizard-beasts that had rampaged across their lands, devouring everything green in sight. She spoke to the survivors of a church congregation, who told how, on their day of worship, their dead loved ones had risen from the graveyard and torn the priest limb from limb.
It all seemed like mindless destruction, but Oriana knew better. She had heard the anger in her subjects' voices as they poured out their grievances, had seen the accusing way they looked at Tabor and his men.
Their soldiers had been fighting bravely across the kingdom all these weeks, driving back Martin's creatures wherever they could. But they could not defeat them all.
The people were losing faith in their rulers. And a ruler who did not have her people's faith was a ruler who would not last.
But we will last, Oriana told herself. With the Council on our side, Martin doesn't stand a chance.
The Council's chief representative turned out to be a heavyset tom with sandy fur, tufted ears, and an impressive iron-gray beard. It wasn't until he bowed to Oriana that she realized she knew him – Basir al-Nejem, a fellow classmate of hers and Martin's. While he had never been the most powerful of mages, he had always had the clearest head for magical theory, and she wasn't surprised that he'd ended up joining the Council himself.
"It is good to see you again, Basir," she said, with a curtsy normally reserved for fellow monarchs. "If only it were not under such dire circumstances."
"Circumstances we'll have to fix quickly," he replied, unsmiling. "You should have consulted us before you invited Martin into your court, Lady Oriana. The Council's been tracking his doings for years now. He's been to dark corners of the world, seeking out the most dangerous kinds of magic. Now you tell us he's manipulating time itself?"
Oriana straightened her back, drawing herself up into her favorite regal stance. "I've seen it with my own eyes. He summons beasts and monsters from ancient times, and unleashes them on our people. He turns back time on the dead, making them rise again." She did not speak of the aging spell that had killed Edric. It had already been in the letter she sent to the Council, and even now, with her son laid to rest in the royal catacombs, she did not trust herself to keep her composure in speaking of his death.
"I am sorry for your losses." Basir's tone made it clear that he guessed what she was leaving unspoken, and his sympathy sounded genuine. "If Martin were still an ordinary mage, we'd simply arrest and execute him. But your letter … you said that he's changed."
"He's become a monster," she replied. "In every sense. Lich-magic, is my guess. He always was fascinated with immortality." Oriana sighed. "I didn't think anything of it back then. We were all so young, what young kat doesn't dream what it might be like to live forever?"
"Perhaps." Basir sounded grim. "But if he has found a way to make himself immortal, that complicates things. Some methods of immortality are easy to counter. But others … if one doesn't destroy an immortal with just the right method, it can unleash something even worse."
On the night they returned to the castle, Basir and the eleven mages who had accompanied him were given a royal welcome. The new Queen Callista, who had been crowned in a small and hurried ceremony three days after her father's death, was given her first taste of acting as royal hostess, and Oriana watched with pride as she greeted their guests and ordered all their needs seen to.
"We must have a feast to honor such esteemed visitors," she declared. "My grandmother has introduced some of the food of Leopolis to our court. I hope you will find we do them justice."
If Basir found Megalith City's versions of pepper stew and honey-sesame pastry pleasing, he gave no sign of it. The Council representatives ate a great deal, but they ate quickly and in silence, as if they were doing no more than taking on necessary fuel. If Oriana had still been queen, and not needed their help so badly, she might have reproached them for their lack of manners.
"Forgive us," Basir said at last, "but we must get to work right away. The rooms you have provided us are comfortable enough, but is there a place we might prepare our weapons?"
"Seeing as your wizard's tower is already occupied," added his second in command, a gaunt silver-white she-kat whose muzzle always seemed twisted on the verge of a sneer.
To her credit, Callista ignored the jab. "Any part of the castle you wish to use, you are welcome to. I would even give up my own chambers, if you like. But if you wish some secrecy …" She hesitated, but finally offered, "There is an empty ceremonial chamber below us, above the catacombs. It might serve your needs well."
The catacombs … A memory stirred in Oriana. An old legend, passed down through generations of the royal family. She'd been told the story as a kitten, and had told it to Edric and Callista when they were little, but none of them had ever paid it much thought.
But then, our need was never this dire.
While servants cleared the tables, Callista escorted Basir and his colleagues down to the ceremonial chamber. Oriana followed them, watching as porters carried down the supplies the Council had sent. Stacks of tomes and scrolls containing powerful counter-spells, chains and blades coated with a magic-nullifying alloy of iron and electrum, stone vials filled with potions for sleep and memory loss – all their usual arsenal for dealing with rogue sorcerers. The Council put nearly as much effort into researching how to stop magic as they did in learning how to use it, and so far, they had never failed.
Once she was sure the Council representatives wouldn't notice, Oriana took Callista aside and led her deeper into the catacombs. "I do not doubt Basir and the others," she explained. "But I think we ought to use every weapon we can."
"What do you mean?" The young queen glanced about warily in the darkness. "Where are we going?"
Oriana touched the amulet she wore around her neck. The heavy green jewel glowed brightly for a moment, and a fist-sized orb of emerald light rose above their heads, casting eerie shadows through the tunnels around them. "Callista, do you remember the legend of how Megalith City was founded?"
"Of course I do. Queen Xenia the First sailed across the Dawn Sea after her home was destroyed in a war. She found the Great Megalith, killed the dragon that lived on it, and founded our city with the treasure it was hoarding. And she carved this castle out of the solid rock of the Megalith." She shook her head. "It's not true. The castle's made out of stone blocks, everyone can see that."
Oriana chuckled. "Well, all legends get some embellishment over time. But Queen Xenia did exist, and she did kill a dragon. And she's buried in these very catacombs."
Callista drew in a soft gasp, but then her expression turned from surprise to puzzlement. "But how can she help us now?" She hesitated. "You're not thinking of –"
"Oh, no!" Oriana shook her head fiercely. "Even if I had the power to raise the dead, I would never do such a thing to her. But she has something that may be of help to us now."
They had no way to measure time in the deep catacombs, but it felt to Oriana as if they were climbing down for all the rest of the night. The chest pains that had begun troubling her in the last year started to creep back, and she made a mental note to ask Simeon for more willow-bark tea the next time she saw him.
Deeper and deeper they went, until the stone and mortar walls gave way to tunnels carved into solid rock. Towards the end, she began to fear they might never find what they sought – that Queen Xenia's tomb might really be just a legend after all. But then, at the end of a low, narrow shaft, they found it.
The sarcophagus rose up like a small mountain, carved solidly out of the very stone around them. The smooth granite lid showed the visage of a she-kat – not beautiful, exactly, but strong and noble. Regal. A few flakes of gold and peeling paint showed that the sarcophagus had once been gilded and colorful, and Oriana could still make out words in the inscriptions. The lid showed Queen Xenia's arms folded up, her hands clasped over her chest as she held …
Yes! It is real!
The Dragon Sword. The legendary magical blade that Xenia had carried across the sea, and with which she had slain a dragon and claimed a kingdom.
It was shorter than Oriana had expected – not much longer than her forearm – but the blade still gleamed sharp and bright in the faint green magelight. The handle was shaped like a dragon's head and claws, and made from a material that looked like gold, but that Oriana's mage-sense told her was orichalcum, the powerful magical metal from ancient times.
"It … it's real." Callista's words echoed her grandmother's thoughts. "She's real."
"And she can still help us. The legend says that when Xenia killed the dragon, she trapped its soul in the sword and bound it to her will. It was said that if the kingdom ever faced a great danger, a hero could use the magic of sword and dragon to save it."
Callista bit her lip. "If only Father had had the sword."
"Yes …" Oriana knew her granddaughter hadn't meant those words to hurt so much. "But we can't dwell on what might have been."
She reached out and carefully gripped the sword, sliding it out of Queen Xenia's stone grasp. Magic hummed in every atom of metal, and Oriana found herself wishing she had been trained in sword-fighting, so she could wield it herself. "Come. We must get back before Basir and the others set out."
For five days and nights, the Council mages battled the Pastmaster's minions. The skies over the kingdom churned with thunder and lightning as the evil wizard opened portal after portal, summoning every beast and devil he could think of to throw at his enemies.
Every battle cost them lives – including that of Basir's silver-white second in command, who fell to the poison bite of a hydra on the third day. But, inch by inch, the army of mages and soldiers fought their way closer to the wizard's tower. With Tabor and his men now wielding the iron-and-electrum weapons the Council had provided, they were felling monsters with greater ease each time – and, better yet, the people of Megalith were witnessing it. Their faith in their rulers was returning.
Oriana had insisted that Callista stay in the city and watch over her people. The young queen was far too valuable right now to risk on the battlefield. Instead, Oriana herself joined in the battles, using her magic more than she had in decades. Despite the thrill that came with each victory, she had never felt the aches and pains of age more strongly, and every day, she found herself drinking more and more of the willow-bark tea Simeon supplied her with.
I'll rest when we've won, she told herself every night as she gritted her teeth against ever-growing chest pains. When I've truly earned it.
Finally, as sunset burned the sky on the sixth day, Basir and Tabor led the charge as the fighters broke down the doors and stormed the tower. The Pastmaster had clearly known the war was lost, for they caught him in the midst of trying to open one last time portal and escape. But even a lich could not resist eleven simultaneous subjugation spells, cast by some of the most powerful mages in the world.
"Now," Basir proclaimed as he locked the iron-and-electrum shackles over the unconscious sorcerer's skeletal wrists, "we'll find out what's to be done with him."
Slowly, grimacing against the pain in his skull, the Pastmaster opened his good eye.
The only light in the dungeon cell came through the open door, where Oriana now stood, silhouetted against the smoky torchlight of the corridor. For a moment, he considered trying to bolt past her, but a single twitch of his shoulders told him that his arms were chained to the wall above him. He could not even push his hood back to look at her more clearly.
"… Hello, Oriana." His voice was low and cold. "Come to gloat over your newest prisoner?"
"I came to question you." She stepped closer as she spoke, fully entering the darkened cell. He could still see the faint gleam of her amber eyes – full of age and pain now, utterly changed from the innocence he remembered. "I trusted you, Martin. I welcomed you into my city. Why did you betray us? Why did you turn your back on everything we had?"
"Everything we had?" He glared up at her. "You were the one who broke our friendship, Oriana. We didn't speak for forty years. Did you really think I would come gladly back to your service as if nothing had happened?"
"I never broke our friendship! I listened for every word of you after you left Leopolis! I always hoped you would return, but I never sent for you because I thought you were happy in what you were doing."
"Pah!" He spat. "Why would I have come back to a city where I wasn't appreciated? Where I'd have to seek the approval of some cursed Council for every flicker of magic I wished to use?"
For a moment, Oriana hesitated. She couldn't deny that she'd had very similar thoughts herself, more than once.
He saw that reaction, and his voice grew softer, more seductive. "The Council is weak, and you know it. The more they learn about magic, the more they fear it. But I've done things none of them would have dared. I've mastered the timestream itself. And I've made myself into a new being, greater than any mortal kat."
It was that word, mortal, that snapped Oriana back. Her tail bristled as she snarled, "You killed my son."
The Pastmaster sniffed derisively. "I only hurried along what time itself would have done in another few decades. And it was no great loss. Edric was nothing but a foolish sword-swinger with more muscle than brain." He watched the she-kat in front of him, and grinned at he saw the effect his words were having. "Just like his father. Now, if you'd had a son with me, he might have been worth something…"
"How dare you!" Oriana struck out, sinking her claws deep into the leathery skin of his neck as she slammed him against the wall. The chains on his wrists rattled against the stone. "I'd hoped there might still be some piece of Martin left in you, Pastmaster. But I was wrong."
In spite of her choking him, the sorcerer laughed. "Do you honestly think you can harm me? I'm stronger than ever, and you … you've grown old, Oriana. Old and sick. I can tell just looking at you. You were never a great sorceress, but your granddaughter is already better than you." His taunting smile grew. "Lovelier, too. Once I persuade her, she'll make a worthy bride."
Oriana's head turned sharply, and for a moment, the Pastmaster thought she was going to lunge and bite him. But a heartbeat later, there was the scrape of metal on leather, and a gleaming gold-handled sword flashed in the torchlight. Her teeth bared in a fearsome snarl, Oriana raised it above her head, ready to drive the blade through his skull…
The Pastmaster dropped from Oriana's grip as her arms were seized from behind. The two mages responsible – a lanky young tom with rounded ears and a spotted pelt, and a plump, long-furred gray-brown she-kat – looked apologetic, but behind them, Basir's expression was one of grim disapproval.
"I think you've questioned him enough, Lady Oriana. I promised you could have the chance to speak to him first, but now it's time to let my colleagues and I take over." He gave a single, emphatic nod toward the door – not quite ordering her out, but making it clear that he wished he could.
In her anger, Oriana was nearly tempted to turn the sword on him. But she took a deep breath, called on her decades of experience of putting on a diplomatic face as queen, and managed to regain her composure.
"Very well, Lord Basir." She sheathed the Dragon Sword, and smoothed her hair imperiously back into place as she walked out of the dungeon. "Send word to me when you've found a way to destroy him."
The Pastmaster's cackling laughter rang behind her. "You'll be a long time waiting, dear Oriana."
"That is your solution?!"
Oriana's claws were extended as she pointed at the heavy ironwood chest, lying open on the floor of the ceremonial chamber. The smells of woodsap and freshly-forged metal hung strong in the air, along with the stranger, alchemical smells of the magical seals Basir's subordinates had applied.
"It is the best we can come up with for now," the bearded tom replied. He sounded both weary and frustrated, and Oriana was reminded of how their old teacher used to sound when repeating himself to a particularly hard-headed student. "We've questioned Martin over and over again for days now, and we're no closer to finding a way to end his immortality safely."
"You haven't even tried! The subjugation spells worked, so we know he's not invulnerable! He could be drowned, crushed, thrown into lava –"
"We cannot risk it. Do you not remember what I told you, how using the wrong methods on an immortal can unleash even worse things? Martin tells us that if we try to destroy him, his spirit will escape and simply re-form somewhere else."
Oriana bit back a growl of frustration. "Did it not occur to you he might have been lying?"
Basir folded his arms across his broad chest. "Of course it did. But he could just as easily be telling the truth. Can you afford to take that chance, Lady Oriana? Would you risk your kingdom, your granddaughter's safety, just for a moment's revenge?"
"You're already risking them!" Oriana shouted. "This … this is not the answer! Sealing him away will end nothing! Locks rust, wood rots, and even the strongest prison breaks with time. Someday he'll escape, and when that happens, what will stop him from sending himself back through time and finishing what he started?"
Basir sighed. "We don't intend to stop our research on how to destroy him permanently. I only tell you that we don't have an answer now. This way, we'll at least have him imprisoned until we find one."
"And what if you never find a method that works?" Oriana met his eyes in a challenging glare. "Or even just any that you're brave enough to try? I expected better of the Council, Basir. I expected better of you. The Pastmaster said you were afraid of magic, and I'm starting to think he wasn't wrong."
"Perhaps you've forgotten," Basir was struggling to keep his voice calm, "that you were the one who called on us. You trusted us to capture the sorcerer who threatened your land, and to choose a suitable method for making sure he could no longer threaten you. All of that, we have done. If you are not satisfied with it, you are welcome to come before the full Council and challenge our ruling."
That gave Oriana pause. Only a few monarchs had ever dared to directly challenge the Council of Magic in their own court, and it had never ended in the challenger's favor. Even if she could convince Basir and his colleagues that they had not done enough to stop the Pastmaster, the very act of speaking against them could turn the other nations of the Dawn Sea against her.
If Oriana herself were still queen, she might have taken the risk. But Callista was on the throne now – young Callista, who would need alliances to rebuild her kingdom and keep it safe.
Basir was right. She could not endanger her granddaughter's future.
"… That will not be necessary. Megalith City will accept the Council's ruling."
On the night of the next full moon, Oriana and Callista accompanied Basir and the rest of the Council mages back to the clock tower.
They had watched as the mages dragged the Pastmaster from his cell, still bound in the magic-nullifying shackles. The mages had forced their most powerful sleeping potion down his throat, and once his threats and struggles had ceased, they had unchained him and placed his still form in the ironwood chest. To Oriana's uncomprehending dismay, they had even laid that awful golden timepiece to rest with him – to prevent it from falling into other evil hands in the meantime, Basir said.
If Oriana had had her way, she would have smashed that watch on the stones then and there. But she had held her tongue, and watched as the mages sealed the intricately-carved chest with white lead. Now, with the Pastmaster securely locked away, it was time to lay him to rest.
"Sailing him back to Leopolis is too much of a risk," Basir explained, as two of his colleagues used earth-magic to carve out a grave on the empty ground in front of the tower. "This way, we will always know where he is. And you, Lady Oriana," he added, "will have peace of mind being able to watch over him, and know if his imprisonment is ever threatened."
Oriana supposed that, in his way, Basir genuinely did think he was doing her a favor. But she had no more faith in his plan now than she had when he'd first explained it. Indeed, her fear had only grown worse as she'd had time to dwell on what might happen if … no, when the Pastmaster escaped.
After the Council mages had completed their task, they sped quickly back to Megalith City. Tomorrow they would set out for Greenwater again, and sail back to Leopolis. In addition to their remaining supplies, they would be bringing with them the powerful spell tome that the Pastmaster had left behind, recovered from a hidden gap in the tower's foundation. Basir had explained that it would be stored in the Council's library, for what better place to hide a book than amidst thousands of other books?
Oriana did not care.
Once the Council was out of sight, she, Callista, and Captain Tabor lingered behind on the empty swath of land that cut through the forest between Megalith City and the wizard's tower. There had once been a proper road marking the way, but it had been destroyed, smashed and blasted over and over, in the battle to take the tower. She imagined it would be some years before even grass would grow here again.
Halfway between city and tower, Oriana halted beside a large, broken stone that had once marked the roadside. She turned to Tabor and Callista, their faces alight under the cold white moon.
"Speak truthfully, both of you. Do you believe what the Council has done will keep us safe from the Pastmaster?"
Callista hesitated. She had been raised all her life to believe in the Council's wisdom, and was reluctant to speak against them even now. But, in the end she shook her head. "No. If he truly is immortal, he can outlast this imprisonment. All they've done is leave the problem to those who'll come after us."
"Or to our future selves," Tabor spoke in agreement. "I saw what he meant to do when we took the tower. He can send himself through time as easily as he can summon his monsters. He could escape in a thousand years, and still return to trouble us tomorrow."
"Exactly!" Oriana drew herself up. In the moonlight, the others could see just how much the events of the past months had aged her. The last traces of gold were gone from her hair, and dark shadows stood out under her eyes. But she stood, tall and regal, and her voice was as clear as it had ever been in her long years as queen. "The Council has failed us. They may have kept the letter of their word, but they have failed the spirit of what was needed. They should have destroyed him!"
She drew the Dragon Sword, and the reflected moonlight flashed in her amber eyes. In that moment, Callista was almost afraid of her. "Grandmother, what do you mean to do?"
"I mean to keep you safe, Callista." With her free hand, Oriana pulled the green-jeweled amulet from her neck. She held it out to the younger she-kat, who took it, clasping it to her chest as if afraid she might break it. "I cannot go against the will of the Council. But I can give you this, and a promise."
Sword still in hand, Oriana turned to the broken marker stone. "The legend says that if a great danger threatens our kingdom, the hero who wields this sword will save us. Well, we have never faced a greater danger than the Pastmaster, and have never needed the magic so badly. Here and now, I claim that prophecy!"
She gripped the sword with both hands and raised it high, much as she had the day she meant to kill the Pastmaster in his cell. Watching her, Callista could feel the air around them humming with magic. The amulet glowed in her hand, reacting to the power around it.
"Hear me!" the old she-kat's voice rang out, echoing through the night. "When the Pastmaster returns, the one who wields the Dragon Sword will save Megalith City once and for all!I, Oriana, of the blood of Xenia, proclaim this so, as all the heavens look down in witness!"
She struck down.
Blinding light, in all the colors of the rainbow, flashed out from the stone like an exploding star. Callista and Tabor gasped, shielding their eyes as blurry afterimages filled their vision. At last, when the light had subsided and they could finally see again, they approached the stone.
The Dragon Sword stood sealed within it, the blade buried in solid rock.
And the lifeless body of Dowager Queen Oriana lay on the ground beside it.
"Do you think it will work?" Queen Callista asked Tabor the next morning, after Basir and his colleagues had departed.
By mutual agreement, she and the captain had only given the Council mages the barest outline of what had happened last night. They had told them that Oriana had kept them behind to discuss what they might do if the Council's plan failed, and that Oriana's heart had given out on the long walk back. It sounded plausible enough – the old queen's heart problems and her recent displeasure with the Council had been no secret.
If the Council mages had noticed that the Dragon Sword was gone, they said nothing of it.
"I don't know, my queen," the captain admitted. "I know little of magic, except how to fight against it. And I've certainly never heard of anyone claiming a prophecy like that." He managed a smile. "But, an oath spoken with one's dying breath, by a powerful mage on the night of a full moon? And by a mother and grandmother protecting her family? That's something I could put faith in."
"So could I." Callista looked out the window of the throne room, to the empty swath of forest where the Dragon Sword waited. Oriana's green-jeweled amulet now hung around the new queen's neck, and gleamed in the morning sunlight. "And though I pray we will never have need of them, I cannot help wondering. – who might the hero turn out to be, who could pull the sword from the stone?"
A flash of rainbow light lit up the sky over the ancient graveyard.
A moment later, the Pastmaster's scream rang out as he plummeted toward the ground.
The lich sorcerer landed with a sickening crack and rattle of bone, and lay huddled in the dust. If he'd still been mortal, the mile or more he'd just fallen would have left him a dead, pulverized wreck, and while his skeletal body had been toughened by the ritual that made him immortal, it was still no treat to experience.
Groaning and cringing with every fresh burst of agony, he dragged his broken body toward the nearby stone building. As his bruised eye began to heal itself, he realized that it was the ruins of his old tower – the same sight he'd beheld when he'd first been freed from that cursed chest. When he lifted his head (sending a fresh spike of agony down his spine), he could see the familiar, hated skyline of modern-day Megakat City.
It seems the timestream has a sense of humor, he thought bitterly.
How had it happened? The last thing he remembered was being on the dragon's back, and seeing the SWAT Kats' missile heading toward him. That had been bad enough – he'd learned enough about modern times since their first encounter to be wary of such weapons – but then he'd seen the gleam of the Dragon Sword, just before it plunged into his draconic mount's heart.
The magic that had seized both of them a moment later had been more powerful than any he'd encountered in his long years of study. He'd barely had time to cry out in disbelief before he felt the explosion around him, and found himself blasted out of the Dark Ages and cast adrift on the timestream.
How had it happened? He knew the legend of Queen Xenia and the Dragon Sword. When he'd first returned to the Dark Ages – carefully choosing to arrive ten years after his imprisonment, so that the Council would be long gone and Queen Callista unprepared – he'd learned that the legend had grown, claiming that the warrior who pulled the sword from the stone would save Megalith City from him once and for all.
But it had never mentioned that the sword could do something like that. And the SWAT Kats couldn't have caused it – from what he could tell, they were both about as magical as a lump of slag.
Well, he'd soon figure it out. His body would knit itself back together in a few hours, and then he'd simply return to the Dark Ages and pick up where he'd left off.
Except it didn't turn out to be that easy.
The first time he tried to open a portal, focusing on a time exactly one week after he'd been so rudely kicked out of the Dark Ages, the bolt of magic rebounded as if it had struck a solid wall. The force of it knocked the Pastmaster off his feet, and he groaned as his recently-healed back hit a gravestone.
"… Just a mistake," he tried to dismiss it. "That's all. I have to focus more carefully."
But the next attempt, set for a month after his latest defeat, did the same thing.
And the next one, set for a year afterward.
The Pastmaster began to grow annoyed, then frightened. He tried to open a portal to a time – any time – during the ten years after his imprisonment, but bolt after bolt rebounded. In desperation, he tried to open portals to times when he knew Callista would already be dead. A hundred years after his imprisonment, two hundred – any time that might let him return to the Dark Ages!
Finally, as dawn began to creep over the horizon, a very battered and exhausted Pastmaster understood the full magnitude of what the Dragon Sword's magic had wrought.
It hadn't just cast him out of the Dark Ages. It had sealed him out of that stretch of the timestream. That span of eight hundred years, from the moment he'd been locked in that thrice-damned chest to the moment those foolish graverobbers had released him, was closed to his magic.
Megalith City, and Callista, were forever lost to him.
"NOOOOOOOOOO!" His cry echoed through the graveyard. He fell to his knees, unable to stand from sheer despair and weariness. If he'd still been mortal, he would have wept.
But he was not. And it did not take long for despair to turn to rage.
If he could not have Callista, he could still have revenge on the ones who had taken her from him.
The SWAT Kats.
Yes. He would make them suffer every torment he had, and more. Much of the past might be closed to him now, but the future still lay wide open.
Yes, he could use that. Let the SWAT Kats see how it felt to be thrown into a future where everything they had known and loved was gone…