No amount of willpower could disguise the fact that Tom was pleased. His face twitched all over as he looked over the Castle Under the Cloud.
Percival had found the Castle with the help of a chart left with Thoris by his mysterious former self. It showed the wind currents in the area and helped Percival track it. Using his smartphone’s Dial-A-Dragon app, he got a ride for himself and Tom up to the Castle, which was over Egypt and heading west. The Castle was different than Percival remembered, but it was from a different time, after all. He doubted there was electricity.
“What do you think?” Percival asked Tom. The hermit was quite plainly amazed that he could be Lord of such a place, and they hadn’t even gone through the giant revolving door into the Castle.
“It’s… big,” said Tom.
“Yeah,” said Percival, expecting a more intelligent answer. He led the way inside, helping Tom through the revolving door. Turning, Percival stopped short. A man was standing almost in his face, black hair chopped short seemingly with a chisel, blue eyes as sharp as the same hypothetical chisel. Almost exactly as tall as Percival, the man stood unmoving. Percival tried to stare the man down, but the man was as well-trained in the art of staring contests as he himself; they both gave in at the same time, blinking as one. They began another contest to decide the outcome of the first.
“You two could be brothers,” said Tom. “Except for the weird fashion sense,” he added, looking at Percival’s greatcoat.
“Who are you?” asked the man, still staring at Percival.
“Percival Tospockingtonham,” Percival replied, his eye twitching. “This is Tom the Hermit.”
“I’m Tom the Lord of the Cave,” said Tom indignantly.
“You said Percival?” asked the man, blinking.
Percival laughed in triumph. “I win! And yes, I’m Percival.” Was this yet another person recognizing him from a time he didn’t remember?
“No, you’re a Percival,” said the man, laying stress on the “a”. “I am Percival Nolinbogshire.”
“Hey, you have the same first name!” remarked Tom.
“Always good at grasping the obvious,” said Percival. He looked at the Nolinbogshire. “Are you from—“
“That little island in the south Pacific where the Percival clan originated? Of course. I assume you are as well.”
“What’s going on?” asked Tom. “Are you two related?”
“Distantly, I should think, but yes,” said Percival. “The first name is the surname in our culture. The Percival clan is one of the greatest.”
“It gets rather confusing in the large families,” said the other Percival, “So we have distinctive middle and last names. Anyway, why are you here, Tospockingtonham?”
“I’m giving this Castle to Tom the Hermit.”
“I am not a hermit—“
“It isn’t yours to give. It belongs to me.”
“You live here alone?”
Nolinbogshire hesitated before replying, “Yes.”
“Shouldn’t be much of a loss, then.” Seeing Nolinbogshire stiffen, Percival said, “Hey, this guy lives in a cave. I need him to get this Castle. Could you possibly share?”
Percival drew Nolinbogshire away from Tom. “I’m from the future,” said Percival quietly. “In that future, Tom’s descendants have possession of this Castle. If I don’t give it to him peaceably, he’ll be taking it anyway. This is the path of least resistance, as it were.”
“Can’t we change the future?”
“From the present, theoretically we should be able to, but not if the future is certain. And if I’m here from that future, it’s already set in stone and nothing you can do can change it. You might change how it gets that way, but never how it ends up.”
“But nothing from your future says that I can’t stay here, does it?”
“If you stay here without Tom, you’ll eventually be kicked out. I think. Or he might just end up in your will as the sole inheritor of your possessions.”
“Well, that’s cheery. So whatever I do, I’ll be giving the Castle to him eventually anyway?”
Percival nodded. “I’d suggest you comply sooner rather than later. There isn’t a law against sharing, however.”
“You realize that you’re really annoying?”
“I’m a Percival—of course I’m annoying.”
“Too true.” Nolinbogshire brushed by Percival and walked to Tom. “My annoying relative here has convinced me to let you stay.”
“Can I be Lord of the Castle?” asked Tom.
Nolinbogshire looked questioningly at Percival, raising an eyebrow. “Does he have to be?”
Nolinbogshire nodded to Tom. The hermit crowed happily. “And can I drive the Cloud around?”
“We don’t have a way to control it,” said Nolinbogshire.
“But if you do?”
“Yes, you can drive the Cloud around.”
Tom gave Percival a big smile. “You’re the best stranger I’ve ever met.” He looked at Nolinbogshire. “You’re second best.”
Nolinbogshire grimaced at Percival, who ignored it, tipping his hat as he strode away toward his waiting dragon.
Drums beat slowly as Liam and Phoenix walked side by side through ranks of the medieval army.
Boom… Boom… Boom… Crack!
Liam stepped out of his way to thank the spearman who had destroyed the drum, then kept marching toward the Aardvark’s tent. Putting on sunglasses as he stopped before the orange tent, he waited for the Aardvark.
Percival had obviously been waiting and watching through a hole in the tent, because immediately after Phoenix halted beside Liam, the tent flap was flung open and the Aardvark emerged. Applause sprang from the army behind the Head Phil as Percival soaked in the attention.
“Thank you, thank you,” he said, waving to the crowd to quiet them down. “Thank you,” he said again as a lone person kept clapping with a huge smile on his face. Eventually someone behind him clubbed him down. “Thank you,” said Percival again, visibly relieved. “Army of the Aardvark—we have our sacrifice!”
Beside Liam, Phoenix stiffened. She obviously still wasn’t completely comfortable with two of the highest Phils offering her as a sacrifice.
“As per our agreement,” Percival continued, “She will be burned at the stake!”
“No!” shouted a man from the crowd. He was dressed entirely in a dark suit of armor, almost black but not quite. “That was not our agreement!”
Percival’s smile drooped like a flower without water. “Yes, it was,” he said, making an effort to keep his lips curved in an upward fashion.
“Our tradition demands that the sacrifice be made by decapitation.”
“How about we burn her at the stake, and then you can cut the ashes up?” asked Percival in a jolly tone.
A man whispered to the almost black knight, who nodded and spoke again. “There are also options for the sacrifice being stabbed to death, thrown from a high place, or drowned.”
“No burning?” asked Percival in a slightly less jolly tone.
“No,” said the man, shaking his helmeted head to get the point across even better.
Percival smiled wider and said, “Can I confer with the Head Phil?”
Liam and Percival ducked inside the tent as Phoenix waited outside. The crowd’s muttering, which had begun as the man had challenged Percival, grew louder and louder until at last, the two came out. Percival’s smile was back like a tax collector—and just as annoying.
“We have decided!” Percival proclaimed, sounding quite pleased with himself. “The sacrifice will be…” He rummaged in his pocket for a small piece of paper, which he unfolded slowly. Placing a pair of reading glasses on his nose, he said, “The sacrifice will be thrown from a high place!”
A cheer went up from the crowd. It was obvious that these people were starved for entertainment.
“The sacrifice will take place tomorrow at high noon!”
With his future cleared up, Percival felt he could now concentrate on the past. The next morning he rode out with Thoris once again to one of the Not-So-Black Knights’ favorite haunts. He needed to put them away once and for all.
As they rode, Percival was lost in thought as to what the Phils were doing, and how they were doing without him. He was sure Quirk was fine, but the rest… His overinflated ego couldn’t wrap its mind around the fact that the Phils might indeed have been able to move on in their lives. Perhaps they were already engaged in another mission. Who knew?
“Ah, Percival…” said Thoris, breaking him out of his thoughts. “There’s something behind you.”
Percival looked around. A large hole in the air was just behind him, into which was streaming the tails of his coat. He kicked his horse to speed up, but the pull of the hole was too strong. Percival swore and pulled at his coat, not trying to remove it from his shoulders but to pull it from the hole. He was partially successful and kicked at the horse again. Straining against the hole, the horse was leaning forward at an impossible angle, trying to gain headway.
Thoris grabbed Percival’s reins and galloped ahead, viciously tugging the other horse after his own. As Percival’s coat finally came free from the hole, it closed and disappeared.
Percival looked at Thoris, then at the sun. “What time is it?”
“About three hours before noon,” replied the Head Phil. “Why?”
“It’ll happen again tomorrow.” Percival led the way on.
“Why was the air trying to eat you?”
“It’s my original time trying to claim me back. I think. Or perhaps it’s just a quantum zombie. You never know.”
“What’s a zombie?”
“A dead body brought back to life usually by arcane arts called makeup and Photoshop.”
King Thoris had a wise look on his face as if he knew what that meant. “Dead bodies are bad news, I suppose?”
“Yeah. They go around trying to kill other people and make them into zombies too. Misery loves company.”
“I knew a guy named Misery once…” said Thoris.
“I lived in a state called Missouri once, but that’s not important. Where’s this knight of yours?”
“He’s right up there behind that oak.” Thoris pointed and Percival could see a few elbows poking out. Three of them, in fact.
“Is there only one?”
“Yes, since this is the road we use least.”
“Why did you take me here, then?”
“He needs some entertainment now and again. I figured you were perfect for that.”
“You sound positively chummy with these knights.”
“Well, when this one gets bored he tends to set fire to things. Last time, our entire hedgehog-housing complex burnt down.”
“Terrible loss, I’m sure,” said Percival sarcastically.
As they drew abreast of the tree, a knight with dark blue armor jumped out in front of them. Or rather, he tried to—his metal-clad foot got caught in a tree root and he fell painfully on his face. He struggled to right himself, then gave up and rolled over. “I have thee now, foul Phils! Prepare to meet they doom!”
“Does he always do that?” asked Percival quietly.
“No. Last time he was swinging upside-down from the tree.”
“In a full suit of armor?”
Percival shook his head pityingly and dismounted, offering the knight a hand.
“Nay!” shouted the knight. “It beith against my honor to be helped. Kill me, Phil, while thou hast the advantage. After that, I’ll kill thee.”
“I look forward to it,” said Percival. He rummaged in his greatcoat pocket and produced a rubber kitchen glove. He looked at it, shrugged, and reached down and slapped the knight’s face with it.
Before he could speak his challenge, the fallen knight interrupted him. “Thou canst not challenge me! I am defenseless!”
“I’m not challenging you,” said Percival. “I’m challenging you and your friends. Tomorrow, an hour before now, we will fight in a place of your own choosing, with weapons of your choosing.”
“That beith not correct,” protested the knight, still struggling to rise. “The challenged only picketh the weapon, not the place!”
“Well, I don’t know the places around here very well. Head Phil, name a spot. Preferably empty.”
“The tilting grounds, where all the tournaments and challenges are held,” offered Thoris.
“That was easy enough,” said Percival to the knight. “Why couldn’t you have just said that at first?”
“Because it is against the rules!” said the knight, grunting in his efforts to rise. “But the weapons I mayst pick. I and thou shall fight with whatever weapons we choose at the time.”
“I’m beginning to wonder why I bothered to let you pick anything at all. It seems so obvious to me.”
“Thou art not schooled in the arts of knightly combat!” said the knight. “Neither am I, but I do my best.”
Ignoring the knight’s protests, Percival grabbed the edge of his cuirass and hoisted him to his feet. If he hadn’t been senseless, in the literal meaning of the term, he couldn’t have done that. Both Thoris and the Not-So-Black knight looked at him in shock.
“Ta-ta,” said Percival, swinging himself onto his horse and riding away. “See you and your friends tomorrow.” He turned to Thoris and said, “You won’t need those hedgehogs.”