They sat on Gretchen's front porch. She sat in a rocking chair, knitting, a ball of blue yarn at her feet. Eddie sat in a wicker chair, gazing out at the hazy island below them.
He pondered everything Gretchen had told him. Tim was powerful, but he'd never be able to bring his dead wife back to life. Eventually, his frustration would boil over and he might destroy the whole world. But Eddie could kill him, just by touching him. It was suicide, but it was critical that he succeeded.
"What else do I need to know?" he asked. "About Tim. I can stop him by touching him. Does he know?"
"I suspect he's aware of the danger. He'll do everything he can to prevent that from happening."
"Then I can't get close to him. I have no chance of stopping him."
"You have to. And soon."
"You said you didn't know what he will do."
"I don't have to know the specifics. He's clumsy with his power and he can crush the planet by thinking about it. That outcome is inevitable, and it's the least dangerous thing he's capable of."
Eddie snorted. "Are you kidding me? What could be worse?"
Gretchen laid her knitting in her lap. "He wants to bring his wife back to life. He will fail and fail and eventually, if he hasn't destroyed the world yet, he'll try to get back to The One. That must not happen. It's why I hide from him. If he finds me and reads my thoughts, he'll know it's the only way to get what he wants."
"Why is that bad?"
"The only way to have power over life is to be The One. Tim could put himself in that place, supplant the collective consciousness. And if he does that, all of reality will collapse."
"He can do that?"
"I think anyone who has stepped beyond the veil could do that. I could have done that. But I didn't because once there, I realized I already was The One. I saw the beauty in all things. I was content.
"Only Tim was different. His connection to The One was irrelevant to him. He was so damaged by grief, his only instinct was to take. And if he goes back, he may take it all. If he supplants The One for his own consciousness, then he will essentially become all there is. The collective consciousness becomes Tim consciousness. The universe collapses, and everything will start over."
"Why would he do that?"
"Because he can create a new universe."
"So I must stop him at all costs."
"And it's worth dying for."
Gretchen followed Ed's gaze down to the island. "It's the only thing worth dying for. There is so much beauty. Beauty beyond what you see with your eyes. Billions of years have led to what we have now. It's worth saving."
"Does anyone else know what you've told me?"
"No. And I only tell you because Tim can't read your mind. You must not tell anyone else."
Eddie stood up. He walked out to the edge of the porch, staring out at the island below. There were people down there living their lives, unaware of the danger they faced. Nothing could save them. Nothing but Eddie.
"I don't know how I can stop him."
"Neither do I."
"He's too powerful."
"Then I'll fail."
"I don't see the future," Gretchen said. "But I suspect that there's something guiding you... something beyond my sight."
"Even beyond that. I don't understand entirely. But there's something else at play here. You're not alone, Eddie. I can't say more than that. I don't even dare speculate, because if Tim finds me, he will have that knowledge as well. But there's something at work that will help you on your way."
Eddie pondered this as he gazed down at the island. The wind hissed in the grass. Gretchen's knitting needles clicked as she worked. For several minutes, he absorbed the silence. He felt no comfort in her words. He'd been so alone since he woke up in the desert. He had his friends to help him through past trials, but no one could help him against Tim. Tim could kill them all with an eye blink. Maybe he'd done it already. Stopping Tim was a challenge Eddie had to face alone.
"I have to go back," he said.
"As soon as you can. There will be another duck down in the village in three hours. It will take you back to your own continent."
"Do you have any gold?"
She frowned at him, then sighed. "For the toll. I'm afraid I don't."
He held up his bandaged hand. "Then the dwarves will take another finger."
"It's a small price to pay when compared to what you'll give up when you stop Tim."
"That doesn't make it any easier."
"I've got some Vicodin in the medicine cabinet," she said. "But you should use it sparingly when you get back. You'll need your wits."
Five minutes later, Gretchen led Eddie back to the ladder. "As you ascend the ladder, once you become weightless, turn yourself around so you're facing downward. That will make the descent easier."
"I wish your dog-headed friend had told me that when I climbed up."
They gazed at each other for a few seconds, neither speaking. Gretchen stepped forward and hugged Eddie. "I'm sorry to lay such a weight on your shoulders," she said. She pulled back and looked him in the face. "Your friends will support you. They won't know what you know, but you can rely on them. They're good people."
"I don't want to put them in danger," Eddie said.
"They're already in danger. You can give them the chance to make a difference."
Eddie nodded. "Okay. I guess this is it." He stepped onto the ladder.
* * *
Down in the forest, Eddie stumbled back towards the village, this time alone. His head swam with thoughts of Tim and The One and the end of the world. Tim could collapse all reality. Only Ed could stop him.
But what could Eddie do? He had no magic. What was his plan when he got back? He didn't even know where the duck might take him.
As he struggled to follow the path the dog had shown him, he rounded a corner and slammed into another man jogging in the opposite direction. They both fell backwards, Eddie falling onto an ant hill.
He jumped up, alarmed, his skin crawling with hundreds of insects. Eddie cried out, brushing frantically at the ants. He realized he stood directly on their hill. Screaming, he raced away, batting ants off his arms and legs.
The man he'd run into stood watching him go, scratching his head. His companion, an older woman, moved to his side.
"Well, that was damn rude," the man said, brushing himself off. "Who was that, Miss Sef?"
Sefoni watched Eddie's back. "Someone we've seen before, Skeez," she said. "Someone Barlow was once interested in."