Once up the stairs, I nervously gesture to Pepper that we need to get going, adding the last statuette to the pile.
“Gods damn me,” she replies, scratching the back of her head. “Alright then. Let us hope I got my calculations right. I will send them back six months ago, that should be more than enough to ensure even those cursed earliest will turn back.”
She grabs a piece of chalk and meticulously reproduces the ritual circle according to a drawing she made on a piece of paper. I look out the window and see Ashen and a man in a shouting match, weapons drawn. The other soldiers seem confused, but they start to separate themselves by their allegiances - a small group seems to stick with Ashen, readying themselves to defend the tower, while the rest move to the opposite side.
When I turn my head back towards Pepper, she’s looking at the newest addition to the totem pile with an inscrutable expression. She grabs it, then goes to pick up a few bottles off her shelves. She opens them up and carefully pours their content out on the floor according to the chalk. I see her hesitate for a second.
“What’s taking so long?” I ask, before approaching her and placing myself next to her. She looks up at my worried expression with one that matches it.
“No, six months will not work. They would just be stranded in a swamp without food nor clean water. I need to send them back to a time before these plains became a bog.” She looks down at the circle. With one wave of the end, she erases a glyph and replaces it with another one, then matches it with one of the liquids from her bottles. She then silently finishes filling up the circle, before dusting off her hands. “Get to the statuettes. We will need to chuck them in fast, the portal will not be open for long.” I reluctantly oblige. I hear through the window that the standoff has turned into a full-on battle.
Pepper takes a step back, focusing her magic. Wispy green strands come out of her hands, which she looks at with curiosity before refocusing herself to the task. They swirl in the air in front of her, faster and faster. I can feel the floor of the old tower groan in disapproval, papers start flying through the room, soaring straight for the magic as it starts to suck in air.
And then a flash of light. Right in front of Pepper appears a gate, if I can call it that. Some sort of floating hole, sucking air and loose material in. There is a flow of energy inside that runs upwards, like an upside down waterfall.
I shake my head and lift a dozen statuettes in my hand. I go to chuck them in the stream and get surprised - they pass through perfectly fine, but the moment I try to put my hand in, it’s like a glass pane. I touch and prod the portal confusedly. Next to me, Pepper throws another set of statuettes and I can clearly see her hand pass through that invisible barrier that seems to only stop me.
I don’t have the time to think about this. We continue the menial task in silence. I put a statuette on the other side, then look at it get thrown upwards by the energy flow. Keeping my eyes on it for a second, I see the statuette shift from wood back into an animal, then the animal turning back into a human. The person blinks and holds their head in pain, then they get too far for me to continue seeing them from the opening. At the very least, this is working exactly as intended. We’re… actually saving them. I can’t believe it.
A minute later, our work is done, save for the last totem in Pepper’s hands. The portal still hums ominously.
“What an adventure that has been…” I mutter to myself. I turn my head towards Pepper, she does the same.
“I hope they will forgive me for displacing them from this era.” She looks at the last statuette in her hand forlornly, then throws it in. We both follow it with our eyes, as it turns into a white tiger, then a woman, who seems to be unconscious… My eyes go wide. She still has the animal’s ears and tail.
“What…?” I look at her as she disappears up and away into the stream. I add it to the list of mysteries I’ll never get the answer to.
Pepper looks uncomfortable. She tightens her arms reflexively, before glancing down. “Where is plushie Cherry?”
I shrug, then points towards the stairs. “Maybe you left it in the workshop?”
She runs downstairs.
I take a moment to look through the window. There are but a few soldiers left standing, including Ashen. But… she looks severely wounded. She slumps against the building, breathing heavily. It seemed to have been a game of numbers in the end, and too many had stood with the King’s order. I grimace. We can’t have much time left, if any.
Pepper comes back up, still empty-handed and crying.
I’d never seen her cry before.
Was the plushie this important to her? Of course it must’ve been, with the ways I messed with her brain.
She walks up to me and hugs me tight, sobbing. I reciprocate, gently stroking her back. I nudge her away from the window before she gets a glance at Ashen’s nearing final fate.
“So I guess that’s how it is…” I tell her, even if I know it’s fruitless. “I can’t see a happy ending, but at least we saved as many people as we could.”
“Cherry…” She mutters.
I turn my head down towards her. “Yes?”
She shifts in my arms, her hug getting even tighter. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. I guess since I’m made of magic I’m immortal now or something. At least I hope so.” I contemplate my possible future, stroking her hair absently. “Could be worse.”
“I think I understand what happened to our connection.” She mutters, nudging her head in my arm.
I perk up. “Hmm?”
She looks up at me with big, round and watery eyes. “In case this is goodbye, I want you to know you’re the best friend I’ve ever had.”
I grimace. “Don’t talk about goodbyes. We still have a whole trip to the capital’s worth of time together, don’t we?”
She glances at the time portal. “I will be back. I promise.”
She’s not thinking of going in there, is she? “Pepper, that’s a bad idea, I don’t know if you’ve noticed but I can’t follow you in there…”
She shakes her head sadly. “I noticed. Why do you think I know I am going in there alone?”
My eyebrows shoot up in surprise. “Wait, you can hear me again!?”
She giggles, pulls herself out of the hug and removes her hat. Her ears are pointy and long. “Courtesy of your cuddle just now.” She smirks, her two cheeks still lined with tears. “Cuddle… Maybe that is the name I should give to your plushie when I find her again.”
“Pepper…” I try to articulate something, but I just don’t find the words. I try to ignore the hum of the portal and keep my ears open to any noise from downstairs, and the silence worries me.
“My appearance is all courtesy of magic, is it not?” She sighs. “Let us hope the travel to the past will not wash away my new identity, at least.”
Oh gods, it would work like that wouldn’t it? My head swivels back in her direction. “What!? No! Pepper, you can’t take that risk! What if your mind also reverts back to the warlock!?”
“If it does, and that is if… Maybe he will have learned a thing or two. Maybe he will want to be me again, who knows? And even if it does not work out, now you know you just need to change someone’s eyes and ears to be perceived again. You will not ever be alone. You do not have to worry.” She turns towards the portal. “Plus… Considering a few clues, I have a feeling this will work out.”
I hear the door downstairs getting smashed open.
“See you soon, Cherry. I will miss you.” Pepper tells me, giving me a last embrace before jumping into the stream. I try to grab her before she passes through the portal, but it’s too late, and my face bumps against it. I look up at Pepper. She looks extremely uncomfortable as I see her clothes and her self slowly revert all the changes of the past week, yet she can’t help but throw me a hopeful look, even as her appearance shifts back to that of the monster that started this all.
“No…” The words get stuck in my throat. “No!”
I see her clutching her head and I fear the worst. When they look back at me, I see the same expressionless snark I had hoped to never encounter again. The last thing he does before leaving my line of sight is throw me a glare.
“NOOOO!” I pound my fists against the portal. “Give me my friend back!” I punch, and punch again in frustration. “Gods, familiars, fairies, whatever else is out there, as long as you do something! Bring her back!!”
I hear footsteps coming up the stairs.
I slump to my knees. Turning my head reveals a man with neatly cut forest green hair cautiously approaching the portal. I take a guess that he’s the Leon Ashen warned us about.
“Is that a time portal?” The man mutters to himself, before uttering out a malicious sounding laugh. “Oh, Ashen, betrayed again by a man you love.”
I shakily get back on my feet. Even if he hadn’t misunderstood the situation, the mere fact that he found the suffering of someone else something to mock makes me see red. I growl and pounce on him, feeling my body shift into a tiger in mid-air, and he grunts when I enter him.
We wrestle against one another for the control of the body. At this point, I’m just rolling with the punches when it comes to the weirdness of being made of magic. I’m not sure he understands what’s happening and at this point I don’t care. I push and lash out against his will, just enough to direct us to the time portal.
Using his hand, I push my own through the barrier preventing me from getting through…
And he gets immediately blasted backwards, while I remain stuck in the stream. The energy flows through me and explodes, with me at its epicenter.
With a deafening growl, I can feel the world shift around me. The ricketiness of the tower disappears as it redresses itself, the weight of decades of neglect fading away. The warlock’s numerous magical apparatus vanish, replaced by a delicate rug, two comfy chairs, a low table and a recently used tea set on it, still faintly smelling of leaves.
Leon, caught in the blast, dissipates altogether, soon followed by his armor.
It is as if I can feel the edges of the shock wave as they grow to encompass the whole swamp, the whole region, the whole country, soon, the planet, and finally, the universe - time itself shifting around me, change pouring out from my body.
I get thrown back against the wall. It hurts. I hold a hand against the back of my head in pain.
I take a few minutes to calm down from what just happened. The portal is gone. I lift myself back to my feet and look out the window, only to be faced with a sprawling, clean and colorful city. People down in the street go about their business as if nothing had just happened. I guess that to them, it did.
I turn back around to the room surrounding me. Everything is cleaner and well maintained. The rug feels nice under my paw pads. I pause, and look at myself. I’m physical again! No more transparency, no more blueishness. I shift myself back to human, then back to humanoid feline - I’m naked and I don’t know if the wardrobe is still upstairs.
Just as I feel melancholy start creeping into my thoughts, I hear a loud crack in front of me. I see Pepper - yes, Pepper, not the warlock - heading out of a new portal. She looks two years older, and is holding my plushie - more beaten up, more repaired, more loved. “Told you I would come back, did I not?”
I run towards her and tackle her into a hug. “I thought you’d died! I thought the warlock was back!!”
She sighs in a way that tells me she is more tired than she is letting on. “Need I remind you the warlock never died? I am him. He is me. Why would I not have wanted to be back to my best self?”
I exhale a gigantic breath as relief washes over me. We continue to hug for a few more moments, before I give her some space. “How long were you stuck in the past?”
“Oh, hmm…” She thinks for a second. “Eighteen months, give or take. We had a calendar but keeping track of days is not my forte. First I had to clear my name to the victims I made time travel, then we had to set up the town to grow - that was rather easy with technological knowledge brought three hundred years earlier - and finally, it took me a bit more time to gather the ingredients to open a new portal.” She glances around the room, and spotting the chairs, sits in one of them to rest her legs. “Amelia and Devei asked me to give you their greetings, by the way.”
I tilt my head to the side, these names ringing no bell to me. “I’m sorry, who?”
She seems confused for a moment, before she realizes she skipped an explanatory step. “Amelia is the white tiger woman, and Devei was my familiar in the past. Also they are your ancestors.”
Gears creak and rattle in my brain. I blink a few times. “Wait- wait- wait… So… The ancestral witch I turned you into… was yourself?”
Pepper just heartily laughs, before falling asleep there and then.
I sigh and sit down, joining her in resting from the tumultuous events of the day. "I am going to need so many explanations," I mutter to myself before dozing off.