It took several minutes to reach the huge, imposing castle in the sky. The castle's walls appeared to be hewn out of the rock, carved in place at the top of the spire. Bryce made a wide circle around it.
"This is it?" Bryce asked. "You think Tim is in there now?"
"This castle wasn't here before," Ruby said. "It would have been impossible to miss. Tim made this."
"So, what do we do?" Bryce asked. "I doubt we can sneak up on him."
"No," Eddie agreed. "I don't know of any strategy we can come up with here. We have to go in there. I have to. If you want, you can drop me off and leave. This doesn't have to involve either of you."
Bryce and Ruby shared a glance, irritation on both their faces. "We do this together," Bryce said.
"That's right," Ruby agreed. "We're your friends, and we aren't abandoning you now."
"But I'm the only one that can—"
"Eddie!" Bryce barked. "Shut the hell up. We're all going."
As Bryce cranked the wheel towards the castle, Ruby said, "Wait!"
Bryce hit the break. They slowed to a hover.
"Down there," Ruby said, pointing. "Isn't that Montrose?"
Eddie moved to the passenger side window. Far below, a distant figure in black and red sat at the base of the rocky pillar, sitting astride a motorcycle.
"Who is Montrose again?" Bryce asked.
"The woman with the motorcycle," Eddie said.
"The truth knight," Ruby added.
"The what knight?"
"Just put us on the ground," Eddie said.
"What?" Ruby asked. "Why? I thought we were in a hurry?"
"We need her," Eddie said. "At least, I think we do."
Bryce eased the car downward. "A second ago, you said you didn't even need us."
"I didn't say... I didn't mean..." Eddie sighed. "I just have a feeling about her. She's going to want to be there when we go to the castle."
The ground beneath the rock column was black as if it had been scorched or poisoned. Montrose left her motorcycle and approached the car as it landed.
"Oh, her," Bryce said.
Montrose stopped at Ruby's window, her hands on her hips, her lips pressed together. Ruby rolled the window down. "Uh, hi."
"You didn't tell me you had the means to fly."
"It's new to me, too."
"I need to get to the castle."
Ruby opened the door. "You want to put your sword in the trunk?"
"I'll keep it with me."
Ruby slid into the back seat, allowing Montrose to have the front. Montrose sat down, holding her sword in front of her. She turned to Bryce. "I've seen you before."
Bryce pulled back on the wheel. The car rose. "That's right. We did time together. And you were in Cavaheim."
She turned to Eddie. "What are you doing here now?"
"We've come to kill Tim."
"Tim. The one with the power. The one who has seen God."
"That's the one."
"I must speak to him before you harm him. He has seen the truth."
Eddie frowned. "Tim wouldn't recognize truth if it was printed in letters eight stories high. He's gone insane."
"But if he has touched the infinite—"
"He's not the one you want to talk to. If you want to talk to someone who understands the way the universe works, you should talk to Gretchen. She's seen The One."
Montrose's face went white. "What did you say?"
"Gretchen Atwater. She's seen behind the veil, and unlike Tim, she's learned from the experience."
"Where is this Gretchen?"
"I think Tim has her. She's his prisoner."
"Then we must save her."
Eddie stared at her. He remembered Winnie's last text. She may be the only one who can rescue a person worth saving.
"Rescuing Gretchen is your job," he said. "I can't deal with Tim if I'm worried about her."
Montrose turned to face the column of rock as the car rose. She noticed Skylar on the dashboard and nodded. "Fairy," she acknowledged.
"Grouchy," Skylar said back.
As they crested the top of the column, the castle appeared before them once again. At the base of the black structure, the huge main doors hung open, revealing only shadows beyond. Bryce set the car down just outside of them.
"Are they inviting us in?" Bryce asked.
"Nothing about this looks inviting," answered Ruby.
Montrose threw her door open and leapt out. She rushed to stand beside an open door and peered inside.
The others gathered behind her.
"What does Gretchen Atwater look like," Montrose asked.
"Dark skin, short black hair. She was wearing a white blouse and a long skirt when I last saw her."
Montrose nodded and rushed inside.
"She's crazy," Bryce muttered. "I'm glad she's on our side."
"Montrose isn't on anyone's side," Ruby corrected.
"True," Eddie agreed. "But she might be useful." He squinted at the darkness. "I should go in alone now."
"Why?" Ruby demanded.
"Because Tim can't see me coming if I'm alone."
They were silent for a moment. "Fine," Ruby said. "But at least take Skylar with you."
Skylar, who'd been sitting on the top of the door, slipped off and spun around Eddie's head. "Sounds good." She shot into the darkness. Eddie hesitated. As he worked up his resolve to enter, Skylar shot back out. "Come on," she said. "There's cool stuff in here."
Eddie followed. Skylar flew back down the corridor. The passage took two corners, then opened out into a huge chamber. The room extended up as high as the castle itself, open to the sky far above. Along the length of the walls, stairways lead up dozens of flights, opening onto balconies and doorways. Hundreds of tapestries hung from every flat surface along the vast space. Eddie scanned the room, then spotted the fixie urging him forward. "This way," she called.
The floor of the room itself was bare stone, but in one corner, a tiny space held brown carpet, ratty furniture and bad wallpaper. There was a kitchen table with chairs against one wall. Another table held a computer terminal, and a loveseat rested along another wall. In the space between the furniture, an assortment of gadgets and cables lay connected. At their center, a metallic frame stood above the rest, looking like a doorway.
The portal. Tim had re-created his front room, complete with everything except the rats.
Nothing moved, except for the fixie, who flew over the cables and circuit boards, examining every detail. "This is so cool," she exclaimed in her tiny voice. "It's like some sort of temporal manipulation machine."
"It's a time machine," Eddie said. "Haven't you been listening?"
Skylar ignored him. She was too engrossed in the details of the strange technology.
Eddie stood and stared. Tim had all the pieces back in place. He only needed to send someone through and it would be all over.
"Behind you," came a whisper.
Eddie spun. Montrose stood there, her sword drawn. Beyond her, Ruby and Bryce approached.
"This place looks abandoned," Montrose said.
"But it can't be," Eddie groaned. "Where is Tim?"
"Gone," answered a voice.
Eddie flinched and spun, looking for the source of the voice. "Who's there?"
A clawed hand reached up from the back of the loveseat. Eddie watched, preparing to run. A creature stood up, humanoid, but with the face of a rat with a shaggy brown mane. The creature stood hunched behind the loveseat, staring at Eddie with miserable purple eyes.
"Who are you?" Eddie asked.
"I am nobody," the rat said miserably. "I was nobody before, and then I was the master's chief servant. Now the master has left, and I am nobody once again."
"Where did the master go?"
"I don't know. He left this morning, seeking a place where his god machine might work."
The rat stared at the floor, miserable. "I'm not sure."
"He must have said something," Ruby said.
The rat looked up and stared at Ruby, mouth agape. "You," he said.
"Uh," Ruby said.
"You've come back."
"Do I know you?"
The rat's face fell from wonder to misery. "No," he said.
"What happened here?" Bryce asked. "What was Tim up to?"
"I will not betray my master," the rat said.
"Your master who abandoned you?" Eddie said.
"He is still the master."
"Well, maybe we can help him," Eddie suggested. He pointed at the portal. "I am the one who did this experiment with Tim the first time."
The rat looked confused. "You?"
"I'm Eddie. Hasn't he mentioned me?"
The rat's eyes widened. "Yesss. You're the one he sent me to protect. I fought the Lamia for you."
"The..." Eddie swallowed. "The Lamia?"
"Yes. Tim wanted you alive. He sent me to convince the Lamia to protect you from her snakes."
Eddie stared. "Is that why... holy crap."
"You are the master's friend."
The rat sat up. "I will tell you what I know, but you must do something for me."
"Anything," Eddie said.
"If you find the master, remind him that his loyal servant is still ready to provide assistance should he need me."
"I'll do that."
Bryce and Ruby sat on the kitchen chairs. Ed leaned against the table identical to the one he'd known before in Tim's apartment. Montrose remained outside the facsimile of Tim's apartment.
"The master needs this machine to work," the rat explained. "It will complete his journey to godhood. He's already powerful, but this will make him the most powerful." The rat frowned. "Unfortunately, it does not work."
"Why?" Eddie asked.
"He said it was his own aura. His powers interfere with the machinery."
"That makes sense," Skylar said as she puzzled over a circuit board. "This is delicate equipment. A substantial energy field or any unusual radiation would render it inoperable."
"Do you know how it works?" Ruby asked.
Skylar frowned down at the equipment. "Pieces of it. I can't figure out the whole enchilada. This guy was crazy."
"Do not speak of the master that way," the rat warned.
"So, where did Tim go?" Eddie asked. "Where is the master?"
"He went to a place where his power might not interfere with his machine—a place where physical laws are bent. He calls it Hammertown."
Eddie and Bryce shared a look.
"Holcomb," Montrose observed from the shadows.
"Did he take anyone with him?" Eddie asked.
"Just the woman. Everyone else is dead."
"Gretchen Atwater?" Montrose asked.
The rat nodded. "Yes, the holy woman of wisdom. The master had many questions for her. She did not want to answer, but he could see her thoughts."
"Is she okay?" Eddie asked. "Has he hurt her?"
"No, not her. The rest he killed."
"People he'd bring in. Before he tried all this..." The rat man gestured at the time portal, "he tried reviving people from the dead. He'd bring them in from all over I think—people, animals, creatures that were somewhere in between. He'd kill them with the wink of his eye. Then he'd try to bring them back. When he failed, he'd make the bodies disappear and find someone else to try again. He tried the same thing on my fellow servants. Then he found the holy woman, and that's when he built the time portal. I was to be the one that would walk through, but..."
"But it wouldn't start," Skylar finished. "Not if he was nearby."
No one spoke for a moment. Finally, Ruby said, "Skylar, could you make that machine work?"
Bryce started. "Are you crazy?"
"I'm not trying to cause another paradox. But maybe it wouldn't cause too much damage if we went back to before the mishmash event. What if we stopped Tim before he pushed Eddie into the old time machine?"
"You can't travel back before the singularity," Tim said, standing behind her. "I've already tried that."