Eddie's mind reeled. You already did. Did that mean he'd already gone back in time? There was already another Eddie out there?
Was that possible? And why would he come up with such a stupid name as Winnie?
Edwin —> Eddie. Edwin —> Winnie. It made a weak kind of logic, something cryptic enough that Eddie wouldn't figure it out until now. Was that important? It must be. Tim couldn't know of Winnie's existence. If anyone knew there was another version of himself out there, Tim might read their minds. No, Winnie could only give Eddie hints, not letting him in on the whole secret until this moment.
Skylar remained in the windowsill, knocking her heels against the wall. "So, when do we do the old switcheroo," she said.
"As soon as they bring me back to the time portal," Eddie said. "But there's a chance... a chance that we've already done this."
"Hmm. I guess it's possible."
"Stay close. Listen, can you give me a minute to think? I'm trying to figure something out here."
"Suit yourself." She flew across the room and stopped beside the oil lantern. "Wake me up when it's time to move." She lay down in the flickering light and went still.
Winnie said he had Kai. Eddie hoped she wasn't around. The last thing he wanted was to put her in danger. But Winnie was Eddie, right? He wouldn't allow that.
What else had Winnie done? Eddie thought back. Then he remembered, Ruby had said she'd been rescued by someone who wore the same clothes as Eddie. Same hat, same coat, and he'd been missing two fingers. Winnie. And Devick and the colonel were disturbed when they saw Eddie in the hat. Devick had actually checked his hand, expecting him to be missing fingers. Again, Winnie had been busy. But why?
Winnie had rescued Ruby. What would have happened to Ruby if he hadn't? And why had he appeared to Devick and the colonel? Things must have gone poorly for everyone the first time.
The first time .
Eddie was living an alternate timeline from what Winnie had first experienced. This was the second version of events after the time portal disaster. Winnie had perhaps experienced a harsher reality, one in which Ruby was injured or dead. Winnie—Eddie—had appeared out in the desert, experienced two months within this strange world, ended up here in Holcomb, gone back in time when Skylar modified the time machine, and re-lived those same two months. He'd been working behind the scenes, fixing things all along.
Eddie was so caught up in his astonishing discovery, he didn't notice Dennis until the rat man stood over him, reaching to grip Eddie by the throat.
"Wait," Eddie cried.
"The master will see you now," Dennis said as he gripped Eddie and pulled him to his feet. He dragged Eddie towards the outer door. Eddie glanced back and saw Skylar sitting up, watching. She nodded as he passed.
Dennis said nothing as he dragged Eddie towards the columned shelter where Tim worked. There was no light now except for stars peeking out from the circle of clear sky above the churning black storm. The columns ahead still flickered with torchlight.
Dennis hummed as he walked. It took a moment for Eddie to place the song. Enter Sandman , an old Metallica classic.
"You know he's going to erase us all," Eddie said, struggling to ease the grip on his windpipe.
"Shut up," Dennis said. "The master will be a more powerful god than ever."
"And that's why everything is going to end. He can't be God. He's a deranged lunatic, and the universe will collapse if he tries to take the power."
Dennis shook Eddie by the throat. He lifted him in the air. "Shut up," he demanded. "Shut up. Shut up. Shut—up!"
As he spoke, his claws gouged deeper into Eddie's throat. Something popped in his neck. Eddie stiffened, wondering if his throat had collapsed. He clutched at Dennis's claws, gasping for air. Dennis dropped him, staring wide-eyed at the now struggling form.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry." He took two steps backwards, then ran. "I'm sorrryyyyy!"
Eddie lay helpless. He tried to breathe. Fire shot up and down his throat. Something was broken there. Something vital. He could take in oxygen, but it felt like something was catching in his airway—something swelling, closing his windpipe.
A moment later, Tim stood over him, looking down. "Dennis, what did you do to him."
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry."
Tim held a hand out towards Eddie. Nothing happened. "I can't fix him. I can't touch him. You've really screwed this up, you idiot."
"I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm—"
Dennis fell silent. Eddie's eyes darkened as he still fought for breath, wondering if he'd already reached his end. It was too soon. He had to finish things. How could he help Winnie if he was dead...
* * *
Ruby knelt over him, wiping sweat away from Eddie's face with a rag. "Are you okay? Eddie?"
He tried to speak, a painful croak was all that came out. He put a hand to his throat and found it intact, but the shape was wrong. Something was crushed there.
"I'm so sorry, Eddie. It was my brother. I didn't even know he was my brother, but he did this. He did this and now he's..." She let out a sob.
Eddie wanted to comfort her, but he could barely move. He couldn't speak. Something rattled when he exhaled.
"I need to get you out of here," she said, leaning over him. "We should have planned things better. We should have scouted things out. This is awful."
Eddie tried to sit up. His head spun. Ruby helped him. He turned to her. He couldn't say the word, so he mouthed it. Bryce?
"He's... well, he's alive." She pointed toward a column, Bryce hung there, a stone ring pinning him in place. Next to him...
Next to him was Dennis, hanging with iron bars piercing his outstretched palms. He hung from the wounds, crucified on a wide column.
"Is he awake?"
Movement caught both of their attention. Tim stood at the portal, the gap within churning with waves of distortion. "It's time." He chuckled. "At last, at last."
He turned to the four bodies suspended on columns. Dennis looked miserable. Bryce gazed down defiantly. Tim's eyes swept past them to where Gretchen and Montrose hung. With a wave of his hand, the stone tendrils holding the two women withdrew. Both fell to the ground.
"You will be my honored witnesses," he said. "Gretchen, baby, I couldn't have done this without you."
When Gretchen hit the ground, she collapsed in a heap. Montrose kept her footing. She knelt by the other woman, taking her hand.
"What's wrong with her?" Tim asked.
Montrose glared at him. "How long did you have her trapped here?"
Tim shrugged. "Can't say. I've had a lot on my mind."
He waved a hand, and Gretchen was drawn to her feet like a marionette. She stood at attention though her face betrayed weariness and fear. "Tim, don't do this," she pleaded.
"Are you going to give me trouble again?"
"You can't control what you seek," she said. "You can only destroy everything."
Tim's face darkened. "You are running out of second chances."
Tim thrust a hand towards her. a wave of power erupted from his hand. It shot like lightning, yet somehow, Montrose leapt at Gretchen at the same time. The burst barely missed them. It hit a row of columns, pulverizing them to dust.
"Hey," Tim said. "I was making a point."
Montrose scooped her hands under Gretchen's arms and hoisted her up. She drew her away by the hand. Gretchen found her footing and ran after her.
Tim watched them, his hand still raised. As they passed through the shadows between the columns out into the night, he shrugged. "Oh, well. As long as they don't bug me. Dennis, could you keep an eye out for..." He stopped and chuckled. "I guess you can't."
Tim snapped his fingers and a rock wall rose from the ground just outside of the columns. A dust cloud spread into the chamber, and Ruby coughed.
"That should keep them out long enough," Tim said. He turned to Eddie. "Okay, let's do this."
"Can I say goodbye first," Ruby asked.
"What goodbye?" Tim asked. "This isn't the end, Ruby. It's only the beginning. You won't believe how cool things will be when I'm through here. This world will be—it'll be a paradise. You'll see."
"I've heard that promise before."
"In Cavaheim?" Tim scoffed. "Those guys were assholes. They were idiots. I'm the real deal, sweetheart."
"Let me say goodbye anyway," Ruby demanded.
Tim folded his arms. "Fine. But make it quick."
Ruby leaned in and hugged Eddie. He hugged back, wishing he could say something to her.
"I really thought we had a chance," she said. "I'd been thinking about you. All those weeks when we texted and talked, I thought about you. I couldn't wait to see you in person. But these last few days have been just..."
Eddie held her back. He looked in her eyes and nodded. He pointed at himself and nodded again.
"I know you feel the same. I'm sorry things went this way, Ed. And none of it is your fault. It never was. I don't blame you."
She kissed him. In spite of his pain, he kissed back, and the pain didn't matter anymore. For a moment, the whole fight was worth it.
Tim clapped once, loud. "Fantastic. You love each other. When we're done here, I promise you the honeymoon suite in paradise. But for now..." He gestured towards the portal.
Eddie climbed to his feet. He could run. Tim couldn't stop him. But what would happen to Ruby and Bryce if he did.
As he turned to the portal, he spotted Skylar zipping away from the controls behind Tim's back. She gave Eddie a quick salute as she faded into the shadows.
So, the portal wouldn't cause a catastrophic paradox. The world wouldn't end if he stepped through. That was reassuring. But he hoped he wouldn't have to step through. Maybe Winnie was here.
"It's all ready, Eddie," Tim said. "I won't be pushing you through this time, but the stakes are much higher if you back out. I'll make your girlfriend implode like a black hole. I've done it before, and I can assure you it's a nasty sight."
Eddie scowled at Tim. He walked to face the portal.
Stone bars pushed up through the floor, creating a cage around Eddie and the portal. It took the shape of a long channel.
"Just like the path Aloysius took back in the old days, right?" Tim taunted. "Now you're the rat. And I promise you a fat piece of cheese if you go through."
Eddie straitened. He would walk through. He would go with dignity. He would show Tim he wasn't a coward, and if all went well, he'd be able to stop Tim the next time this moment came along—
"Master, look out!"
Eddie turned. The warning had come from Dennis, still hanging on the column. Tim turned just in time to see another Eddie, almost identical to himself. He was mere steps from Tim, rushing forward now. Tim leaped back and rolled out of the way. He shot out a hand to stop Winnie, but his warding had no effect. The other Eddie corrected, lunging after Tim.
More stone erupted from the floor. A rock the size of a fist hit Winnie in the face, knocking him backwards. The moment he was down, sinewy vines snaked out of the ground, wrapping his chest, trapping him in place.
"What the hell is this," Tim demanded. "Two of you? Where did you come from?"
The vines tightened around Winnie. He cried out, his voice low and hoarse.
"What kind of cosmic voodoo brought you here?" Tim demanded. "As if things weren't weird enough."
Eddie watched this drama play out. He was powerless to help. There was only one option. He'd run through the portal. If Tim could take on two versions of Eddie, maybe three would be enough to stop him.
The stone bars cracked behind Ed. He turned to find Ruby tugging at them. Her strength was strained to the limit. She screamed, and one of the stone bars crumbled in her grip. "Come on, Eddie," she urged.
Eddie was torn. He could go through the portal or he could escape with Ruby. Either way was uncertain. He took only a moment to deliberate.
Eddie raced through the gap. But as Ruby urged him towards an exit, Eddie turned and raced around the stone cage.
"Master," Dennis cried. "Master!"
Tim only had time to turn when Eddie was on him. He gripped Tim around the waist, knocking him sideways away from Winnie. The burst of energy that blasted out between them was blinding and loud. Eddie felt the ground shake beneath them. He felt waves of vibration tearing him apart. He heard Tim scream in agony. He heard laughter. He saw...