The hooded man returned to the woods, and fell to his knees.
His companion exhaled and paused in his tending of the fire. “Are you in pain?”
“No. Only relieved.”
“Then it worked?”
“He kept his word.” The hooded man stood and cracked his knuckles. “The curse has been lifted. We are free.”
“Where will you go from here?”
“I will find my way.”
The cloaked man lifted a bucket and spilled water across the fire. Flames crackled and sizzled before burning out.
“Have you anywhere to go?” garbled the hooded man.
“For now it is enough to be free to go where and when I please.”
Both men stood in awkward silence; neither turned to move. Then, as if pulled by the hand of a giant, they walked in unison toward a portal.
“Where do you two think you’re going?” A voice called out at the same time a face and an outstretched arm appeared through the world’s entrance.
The man in the tunic grabbed the hooded man, digging fingernails into his gullet.
Gagging, the hooded man pulled back the cowl that covered his face. His eyes glowed white with the glow of the moon. With a piercing gaze, he locked eyes with the man who held his throat.
“I will not listen to your pathetic pleas.” The man in the tunic stepped forward and smiled as he averted his eyes, breaking the connection. “I asked you to do something and it has not yet been finished.”
“We’ve done everything you’ve asked,” said the cloaked man. “Which is why the curse has been lifted. We are free men. We no longer work for you, and we are not in your debt.”
“Oh, but you are. You see, I am no longer in possession of the instrument.”
“That is none of our concern. We are not responsible for your inability to keep it.”
“I would still have the baglamas if you would have explained how to use it. In that you have failed, and you will not be free until you get it back for me—and this time with instructions! Consider your freedom revoked.”
The smile that burned across his lips caused both of the cloaked men to pale. Seemingly satisfied, he dropped his hand, careful to avoid the glowing white eyes. He pulled the hood over the man’s face. The hooded man became hooded once again.
“When did you last see the baglamas?” said the hooded man, rubbing his throat.
“It was stolen from me,” he snapped. “By children.”
The cloaked man snorted. “You were fooled by children?”
“They were vile creatures trained by Evil itself.”
“A girl and a boy, both in their adolescent years. She had black hair and emerald green eyes. She played the idiot—pretending not to know how to play the instrument.”
“And the boy?”
“Dark curls and matching dark eyes. He seemed the more even-tempered of the two. Cautious. Quiet.”
“I didn’t bother learning their names because they were my prisoners!”
The cloaked men exchanged a cough resembling joyless laughter.
“Their descriptions do not match the boy and girl who arrived here,” said the hooded man. “The boy who retrieved the baglamas had black hair and purple eyes. The girl’s eyes were not green.”
“But the boy,” added his companion. “You said he had dark curls. Did he have an aquiline nose?”
The man in the tunic seemed to consider the question for a moment before throwing his arms in the air. “Yes, but why would that matter?”
“The Healer matched that description. Perhaps they are Basileios Plaka’s descendants. The rightful owners of the baglamas.”
The man in the tunic clutched at his chest. He tried to picture the Healer in his mind, the way he was on the night they’d trapped him and found that the baglamas was not on his person. The children—the boy in particular—looked much like the Healer, only younger and with dark eyes instead of blue-green. He gritted his teeth at his own lack of observation.
“I had them…within my grasp,” he choked. “But… They… They pretended not to know how the instrument worked.”
“So you’ve mentioned.”
The cloaked men looked down at the ground, not bothering to mask the smirks that formed across their faces.
“We will help,” said the hooded man. “But you will pay us more than our freedom. This task will be costly.”
“What is it that you want?”
“You will return my dog to me.”
“Eurig is mine.”
“Only because you stole her from me,” growled the hooded man. “You forced her into service. You stole her voice.”
The man in the tunic laughed. “I hear her voice in my head each day.”
“You hear only want you want to hear.” The hooded man pulled back his cowl; his eyes glowed bright in the darkness.
With a mocking sneer, the man in the tunic looked away.
“We can learn from the Time Keeper who Plaka’s descendants are and where they live. But how do we discover how the baglamas works?”
The cloaked man dragged a stick across a new fire pit and stirred the embers. “Perhaps the Time Keeper has learned that as well. If not, we ask the children to tell us.”
“Why should they tell us?”
“We will make them a promise.”
“What could they want from us?” the hooded man’s voice rasped, tilting to a shriek by the end of the question.
“We will explain who sent us to them.”
“But they’ve already encountered and escaped Yannan—slipped like fish through his fat fingers.”
“We will not mention him. We’ll send the children off course, all while telling the truth.”
“That it was the Time Keeper who stole the baglamas, and that it was he who sent us to them.”
“How can you be sure that is what they’ll want?”
“They will be curious about how Yannan retrieved the instrument to begin with, and they will be afraid. They’re children. If they are anything like we were growing up, or anything like we are now, they’ll want their revenge.”
The hooded man sniffed. “And we will promise that revenge? In their fight against another child?”
“Yes. But only if they demonstrate how the baglamas makes one travel through time.”