Winnie leapt off the dragon. He held out his arms and Kai leaped to him. The dragon folded its wings, crouched down and rested, one eye tracking Kai, ensuring no one threatened her.
"Looks like you've been busy since you abandoned us in Graden," Phyllis snapped, folding her arms, her artificial eye burning brighter than usual.
"Did I?" Winnie asked.
"I waited for you with Syd. Syd was dying, and you disappeared. The snakes almost had us before I gave up on you."
"I'm sorry," Winnie said, frowning. "How is Syd?"
"In the turnpike with his father. Last I saw, they were trapped in a cave, fighting off snakes. They sent me to get help, but..."
"But the snakes are everywhere," Winnie finished.
"Yes. She's taken Graden—not that I care about those idiots. But that snake bitch is everywhere, conquering cities and villages, leaving more and more warriors in her wake. I don't know where they all come from. I'd never even heard of snake warriors before her infernal majesty got loosed from the deep."
Phyllis waved a dismissive hand. "Not your fault."
"No, it's not. But in a way, it is."
She frowned. "You freed the lamia?"
"So what are you talking about?"
"I didn't cause this, but someone just like me did. I'm too busy to clean up this mess, and so is he, but you can end it here."
Phyllis scowled. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"They're coming," one an archer cried from the top of the wall.
"I've got to get to work," Phyllis said. "Are you going to help us fight or not?"
Winnie reached into his coat pocket. "As much as I'd like to stay, my time is up. So I will give you this." He held out a small rock.
Phyllis stared at it. "That's... have I seen that before?"
Winnie shrugged. "It's possible. What do you think when you see it now?"
She stared at it. "I don't know. What am I supposed to think?"
"Do you want to throw it in a river?"
Winnie sighed. "Good. This stone is magic. The lamia enchanted it, but friends of mine have modified the enchantment."
"What does it do?"
"It nullifies the lamia's powers."
Phyllis took the stone and held it up. "This is how you flew over her without getting hurt?"
Phyllis shook her head. "Doesn't matter. Her psychic attacks don't do much to me either, but I've never been able to get close to her. There's too many snakes, and she can summon fire."
"Neither the snakes nor her fire can hurt you if you hold this."
"The oracle assured me."
"Oracle?" Phyllis scoffed. "I've met a few soothsayers in my travels. They haven't impressed me."
"This oracle is a minor god. She knew what she was talking about. She's turned Sybil's magic against her."
"And the snakes can't fight me?"
As if on cue, a booming crack hit the village gate. Their enemies had a battering ram. Three snake men leapt onto the wall. Phyllis pulled her sword, the stone gripped in her left hand, and prepared for an attack. One snake spotted her and leapt towards her. As it fell, it stiffened. The creature was already dead when it hit the ground.
Phyllis stared down at the fallen warrior. "Holy shit."
Winnie stood back next to Kai, who stood huddled by the leg of her dragon. The beast stood now, ready for a fight.
"You have the answer," Winnie said, pointing at the stone. "You can kill the Lamia. If you're fast, you can finish her today. She won't see this coming."
Phyllis stared stunned at the stone in her hand as villagers scrambled to secure the gate. "How could she not know about this?"
"Because it's gone through a kind of magic she couldn't conceive of—not in a million years."
Winnie lifted Kai back to the dragon's back, then climbed on behind her. "Time travel," he said.
He patted the dragon on the side. The beast leapt into the air. As they flew away, Winnie called back, "Trust me."
* * *
They flew west, passing over vast stretches of empty land. There were plenty of villages, small cities and fragments of neighborhoods in the endless landscape. The snakes hadn't reached these places. Neither had the Simps. The entire world had been disrupted only two months ago, but life went on. Those who found themselves in this strange new world eventually found a new balance. If they could survive the unknown perils that would arise in the next few days, they'd grow again.
Could they all get along—this diverse collection of refugees from a billion fragments of reality? Or would they form warring tribes and kill each other off? Winnie suspected he'd never know. If things went as planned, he'd be dead in less than two days.
"Where are we going?" Kai asked. "Atrax is getting tired."
"It won't be long now," Winnie said. "You've seen the town before. It's called Holcomb."
"It's the town that sticks up in the air, like a big hammer made of dirt."
Kai leaned closer to the dragon. "I don't like that place," Kai muttered. "They put me in a cage."
"You don't have to go all the way there," Winnie said. "Just drop me close to it."
"You're leaving us?"
Winnie stroked Kai's hair. "Yes, sweetheart, I'm afraid I have to."
"Where should I go?"
"Do you remember Cavaheim?"
"The city with the dragons?"
"Yes. And do you remember the tall mountains that surround it?"
"Yes. I want you to go to the top of the spire closest to where you found me a few days ago. Do you remember the one?"
"That's really high up."
"It is, and if you go that high, you'll be cold and dizzy. But if you can get to the top, you should stay there. There's a man named Kevin. He'll take care of you."
"How long do I have to stay there?"
Winnie sighed. "At least three days. If the world is still around after that, you can go back to Cavaheim. Or if you prefer, you'll find Vayna villages to the north. If I do my job right, then you and Atrax can do whatever you want."
The sun had already set when Atrax landed on a hill overlooking Holcomb. The gaslights were already lit along the odd streets that curved up the base of the narrow column and followed a gravity defying path to the top of the town.
Winnie slid off Atrax's back.
"Stay safe," he told Kai. "You've done more to help this world than you can ever know."
"Will I see you again?" she asked.
"I hope so. But if you do, I won't remember that you gave me this ride and did so much to help me. So I'll thank you now."
"Why won't you remember?"
"It's complicated. And it doesn't matter. What matters is that you find a safe place as soon as possible."
He turned to leave.
"What happened to Bryce?"
"He's still out there," Winnie said. "He's got his flying car back."
"That's good. What about Timmy?"
Winnie's eyes dropped to the ground. "I don't know yet."
"If you see him, tell him I said hi."
Winnie nodded. "Goodbye, Kai." He turned and descended the hill, his eyes fixed on the top of Holcomb, wondering where he might hide.