Sunlight beamed onto Gareth Then's face, forcing him awake.
It was the morning after Gareth had arrived at his Uncle Turif's cabin on the island of Belmopan. The cabin was in a clearing of the isolated Zel Forest, and Turif lived there alone.
Gareth was there against his wishes. Dinner the night before had been a silent, simple meal of meat and greens, and his uncle had turned out to be cold and grouchy.
But that wasn't the worst of it: Gareth had seen Turif do Time Magic.
As he lay in the chair that had been his bed, Gareth thought back to the day before, when Turif had used his Magic to speed up a tree in Time, causing it to age and then die in a minute. Gareth shuddered. Time Magic was believed to be evil.
Gareth's father, Seramon, always said that Turif was the black sheep of the family With cold eyes, Seramon would tell of the day he had found Turif practicing Time Magic, playing with Time itself.
"Bad stuff, Time Magic is," said Seramon. "Normal magic's fine and all; it's OK. Time Magic, though, well you want to keep clear of that. Messing with Time, you never can tell what's going to happen." Luckily for Seramon, Turif was one of the few Time Magicians left in the known world, if not the only one.
Gareth stretched, and listened for any telltale sound that Turif was awake. He heard nothing, and tiptoed across the hall into the kitchen to find something to eat; he decided upon a juicy red apple. He bit into it as he tiptoed back across the kitchen—colliding with the scowling Turif.
"Stealing now, are we?" said Turif dryly, stepping past Gareth and into the kitchen. He grabbed a loaf of bread for himself.
"I- I... Gareth stood there, looking at the apple. "I wasn't trying to steal, U- Uncle. I was just... hungry."
Turif snorted, munching on the bread. "Well, that apple's your breakfast, boy," said Turif. He walked outside into the clearing, calling, "Follow me."
Turif sat on the trunk of a fallen tree, and motioned for Gareth to do the same. "Boy," he said, taking a deep breath, "you have potential."
Turif sighed. "Has your father told you nothing?" he muttered.
The boy blinked.
"You're a Time Magician. Well, not a Time Magician in full," frowned Turif, considering.
"Wait," said Gareth. "I'm..." he coughed, "I'm a Time Magician?"
"Are you listening, boy?" hissed Turif "You have the potential to become one! And I'm going to make sure that that potential is fulfilled."
"I- I don't understand."
Turif stood up and began to pace in irritation. "With my help, you can become a Time Magician," he said slowly and with a calm that threatened to break at any second. "Then you and I will be the only two Time Magicians in the world."
"Well, do I have to be one?" asked Gareth, not fully comprehending the situation.
Turif roared with irritation. He swung his hand in the air, causing the fleeting sound of a stream. Then, everything stopped.
Except for Turif and Gareth, the world was frozen. Butterflies were suspended in the air. The wind ceased to blow, and the birds were silent and held unnaturally still.
"That," said Turif quietly, "is what you will do when I finish with you."
Still, he was divided. Part of him wanted to accept Turif's offer, wanted the power of Time Magic. The other heard the echo of his father's voice: "Bad stuff, Time Magic is... "
As the clearing around him came back into motion, Gareth worried that Seramon was right. Turif was interfering with Time itself, and although it was amazing, it was also terrible.
"Sorry" replied Gareth, "but I can't be a Time Magician."
Turif stared at him.
"I'm not asking you if you want to," he said, anger edging his voice again. "You will be a Time Magician: When I die, the art of Time Magic will die with me if you aren't. And I'm not about to let that happen."
Without waiting for a response from Gareth, he stood.
"Your lessons will begin now."
Gareth began to argue, but Turif's glare made him decide to cooperate, for now.
"First, you must learn about The River of Time," Turif said. "It is everywhere, always there, always flowing. Normally, The River flows at a certain speed, and everything is drawn along with it. All Time Magic really does is manipulate it.
"What a Time Magician needs to do is change The River's speed. If you can make it go faster, Time goes faster. And vice versa. You can also make it stop flowing. The only thing you cannot do to The River is reverse it. You cannot go back to the past.
"People around the Magician, even those who are not Magicians themselves, hear The River flow when Time Magic is used."
"That's what I heard yesterday when you sped up the tree!" exclaimed Gareth, excited despite himself Turif nodded, and continued.
"You never change all of the river. That would take enough power to kill a Magician. What you have to do is manipulate parts of it. For instance, when I stopped Time just now, Time outside of the clearing didn't stop moving. And we weren't frozen in place.
"Time Magic can also have disastrous results. For instance, if I had let Time escape my control it could have frozen the entire forest. Time Magic can be very dangerous.
"And now it's time for you to try feeling The River."
Gareth admitted that Time Magic sounded amazing, but he remembered what Seramon had said. He would pretend to go along, and maybe Turif would forget the whole thing.
"Sit still," said Turif "Close your eyes. Don't move. Don't talk. Don't even think. Try to feel The River flowing around you."
Gareth did as he was told, although he was starting to feel a little silly He tried not to think, but his mind kept wandering. He had to use all of his concentration to think of nothing.
Suddenly he felt something around him. It felt like water, currents and eddies. He yelped, his concentration shattered.
"I- I felt it," he stammered, his eyes wide. "It felt like water!"
"It was The River," said Turif "Try again."
After concentrating for a while, Gareth felt it once more. This time, he didn't let The River surprise him. But the longer he concentrated, the harder it got. Finally, he let go of his concentration and opened his eyes, panting. It felt like he had been concentrating for ages.
"That was less than a half minute!" frowned Turif "You have to be able to do better than that. Try again."
For the next hour or so, Gareth practiced holding onto his concentration. At the end, he was tired, even though he hadn't been fully trying and his concentration never lasted longer than a minute.
Turif was disappointed.
"Well," he said, "it'll have to be good enough. Now, you'll try to control The River." He walked around the clearing, and eventually came back with a fallen tree branch, which he placed next to Gareth. "First, feel The River in your mind."
Gareth concentrated, and soon felt it.
"Now, sense the branch, sense how The River is pulling it along. Sense how the branch is aging in Time."
Gareth thought hard, and surprisingly, he could subconsciously feel The River flowing around the branch.
"Feel each eddy and each current," continued Turd. "Then take hold of one of those currents."
Gareth felt the eddies and the currents, but when he tried to take hold of one, his concentration broke.
"Try harder!" yelled Turif, irritated. "Catch the currents with your mind, boy! That's the magic of it, the reaching out with your mind. You have potential; you can do it. Pretend that your mind is another hand. Reach out with it, but only when your concentration is complete."
Gareth tried again, but failed. In the end, he was totally exhausted.
"Hmmmmm..." muttered Turif, thinking. Then an idea came to him. "Maybe the branch is too big. Go take a rest and have a snack, then come back here and we'll try again."
Obliging, Gareth went to the cabin. In a few moments, he was asleep in a chair.
* * *
After Gareth woke up and had another apple, he decided to try again. Even though he didn't intend to become a Time Magician, he was curious.
"Let's try something small," said Turif, picking a blade of grass and setting it on the tree trunk next to Gareth, who eyed it incredulously. A blade of grass?
"When we finish training today, you will be able to make this blade of grass wither far faster than it would normally Now, do what you have been doing, but concentrate harder."
Gareth concentrated, but immediately felt nauseous.
"Ohhhhhhhhh... " He moaned in pain and discomfort.
"Stop groaning, boy," shouted Turif "You're just feeling the aftereffects of using Time Magic! Once you're used to it, you won't feel anything. Now concentrate!"
Mad at Turif for yelling at him, Gareth wanted to prove that he could do it. He tried again and again, but failed each time; the nausea got worse as he kept trying. Turif egged him on, and didn't let him stop until well past noon. Gareth was exhausted, angry, and sick.
"Pitiful," spat Turif disgustedly, shaking his head. "When I was your age, I could stop Time for minutes on end without getting sick at all. You're weak, just like your father."
Then Gareth cracked.
"How dare you!" he shouted at Turif, jumping up in rage. "My father isn't weak, and neither am I! Who cares about Time Magic, who cares if you're the last Time Magician in the world?"
For a second, a shocked look came over Turif's face. Then anger replaced it.
"What are you going to do, then, boy?" he hissed. "Without me, you'd be in the middle of a brewing war! You'll do as I say Sit down and be quiet, now, or you'll regret it!"
Gareth was too angry to do anything. He seethed and stood eye-to-eye with Turif. It was as if Turif had stopped Time again.
Gareth turned away Anger boiling within, he stomped from the clearing, not knowing where he was going; somewhere, anywhere was better than being with Turif.
He crashed through the foliage. He decided he wouldn't stop until he got to the edge of Belmopan, and then he would run and run and run all the way across the Vanere Sea and back to his parents in Daria, his home.
But a war was brewing on the mainland, between his home country of Aargaria and their age-old enemies, the Nadere Empire.
Because of the danger, Seramon and Gareth's mother, Tara, had sent Gareth away to the neutral island of Belmopan, where Turif lived. Although Seramon hated Turif, he was the family's only relative, and he would (hopefully) keep Gareth safe.
But now, he ran and ran and...
Smack! Gareth ran straight into what seemed to be a strange-shaped tree. He backed away, rubbing his bruised forehead, and prepared to run on. But then the tree started to move.
It arranged itself, and turned to face Gareth. It was a huge, cat-like thing with dark brown fur, which gave it the impression of a tree trunk. Its eyes were golden and full of anger at being awoken. It yelped, and jumped at Gareth.
Fear paralyzed him. As the cat bore down on him, all he could do was watch in terror. And then...
The cat-thing stopped in mid-leap, less than a foot away from Gareth's face. It was frozen in Time, along with a small area of forest. Gareth was also frozen, and this time not with fear.
Turif stepped into the frozen space slowly, keeping a bubble of moving Time around him.
"What have you gotten yourself into now, boy?" he asked with a hint of laughter. He came level with Gareth, and looked at him, considering.
"Why did you run off like that?" Gareth could not answer, of course. "Cat's got your tongue?" laughed Turif.
He pushed the cat-thing down, until it was lying on the ground. Then he released his hold on The River around Gareth, letting him move once again. The cat-thing, however, was still frozen.
"Y- You saved me," he breathed, checking himself, making sure he was all right.
"Now do you believe in the power of Time Magic?" asked Turif, smiling slightly.
"Uncle Turif," said Gareth, "I felt the magic when you froze Time. I should have trusted you when you said I have potential."
"I suppose I've been too hard on you," replied Turif "It's just that... well, after spending many years by myself, I sort of forgot how to be lcind. And I couldn't let you not become a Time Magician.
"Now," he continued, "let's go back to the cabin and call it a day. Tomorrow we'll start practicing again."
"I promise I'll do my best!" said Gareth.
They left the spot, Turif letting the Time Magic go. The cat-thing lay on the ground, confused and disoriented. It curled up, and went to sleep once more.
* * *
For the next few days, Turif and Gareth practiced. The former was trying to be kinder, and the latter was giving it his all. No longer was dinner silent, and the two were starting to become friends. Gareth even read a few of the books on Time Magic in Turif's library, and was getting better and better at the art.
Three days after the cat-thing incident, the message bird arrived. It alighted on Turif's arm. "Turif Arnolged Pastest. One message for Turif Arnolged Pastest. Would that be you?" Its voice was loud and surprisingly nasal.
Message birds did not literally carry messages like homing pigeons, with the note tied around their legs. Instead, the sender of the message related it to the bird, and the bird remembered the message. Then using some unknown magic, it found the message's recipient and recited it.
"Yes..." replied Turif to the bird, sounding concerned.
"This message is from Queen Elisa Barona Simonia." Gareth's eyes grew wide. The Queen of Belmopan? Turif obviously had some secrets.
"Message begins: Turif! Nadere has officially declared war. I must send our troops to Aargaria to aid them. Come to the castle at once. I will deploy the troops in one hour whether you are here or not. Aargaria must be helped! Message ends."
For a second, there was silence. Turif was numb with shock, and Gareth was confused, trying to figure out the strange message.
The message bird broke their silence. "Will there be a reply message?"
Turif jumped into action, tossing the bird into the air. "Tell her I will be there and that she must not enter the war! Now go! Fly fast!" He ran into the cabin. The message bird fluttered around, then took off, muttering something about humans that did not sound like a compliment.
"What was that about?" Gareth asked Turif, following him into the kitchen. Turif was packing a bag of food for himself.
He said hurriedly, "Gareth, you must stay here. Do not leave the clearing until I return. I'll probably be gone overnight, but you'll be fine. I'll see you soon." Before Gareth could ask more, Turif ran through the house and out of the clearing, already formulating a spell to make Time around him flow faster.
Gareth stood there, not knowing what to do. He thought of what the message bird had said. "Nadere has officially declared war. I must send troops to Aargaria." Something clicked in his mind.
Nadere had declared war on Aargaria.
And Daria, his home, would soon be in the middle of a war zone.
Miles and miles away from the conflict, Gareth felt helpless, totally helpless. How could he help stop Nadere from attacking his homeland? He was only a child; he had no power.
Or did he?
Gareth knew what he needed to do.
He ran through the house and grabbed his bag, some food, a canteen of water, and—after a slight hesitation—one of Turif's Time Magic books.
Gareth looked around the cabin once more. He took a deep breath, then stepped into the clearing.
Aargaria was waiting.
Gareth was coming.