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Chapter 15 Home Again

ARTEMIS was hauling the bomb when the big shift came. The magical overspill hit him like a rugby tackle, driving him to his knees. For a moment his senses were completely overloaded and he was left gasping in a vacuum. Sight was first to return, distorted by tears and stars.

He checked the bomb's timer. Three minutes to go, providing the pattern did not disintegrate. He glanced to his left where Qwan and N°l were returning to the busi-ness of conjuring, while over his right shoulder Holly was holding whatever demons were left. All around, the world was vibrating itself out of this existence. The noise was hellacious and the smell coated the inside of his nostrils. The bomb was heavy enough to make Artemis's knuck-les crack, and not for the first time, he wished Butler was at his side to take the strain. But he wasn't at his side, and wouldn't be again if Artemis did not get going. It was a simple plan: move the box to the plateau. Object A to point B. There was no sense in thinking about it.

Then Holly got stabbed and the plan got a lot more complicated.

Artemis saw the blade going in out of the corner of his eye. And worse still he heard the sound it made. A clean snick, like a key going into a lock.

This can't be real, he thought. We have been through too much together for Holly to be taken so quickly.

The sound the sword made coming out of Holly was hideous beyond imagination. Artemis knew that he would take that sound to his own grave.

Abbot was gloating now. 'Magic cannot help you, elf. I've been working on this sword for a long time.'

Artemis sank to his haunches, fighting the urge to crawl to Holly's side. Magic could not help Holly, but perhaps a combination of magic and science could. He forced himself to ignore the spurts of deep red blood seeping from her wound. There was nothing in Holly Short's future but death.

Her current future. But the future could be changed.

No.l and Qwan had not seen the assault. They were deep in concentration, building the blue rings. Abbot was moving towards them now. The tip of his sword dripped blood on the ash like a leaky pen joining the dots to his next victims.

Holly spoke her last. 'Artemis,' she said. 'Artemis, help me.'

Artemis glanced at her. Once. Briefly. He shouldn't have. The sight of his friend dying almost threw off his count. And right now, the count was the most important thing.

Holly died without a friend to hold her hand. Artemis felt her go — another gift of the magic. He kept on count-ing, brushing away the tears on his cheeks.

Keep counting. That's all that matters.

Artemis rose, walking swiftly to his fallen friend. Abbot saw him go. He pointed the sword in Artemis's direction.

'You're next, Mud Boy. First the warlocks, then you. Once you are gone, things will return to how they were.'

Artemis ignored him, nodding along with the count in his head, making sure not to rush. The count must be accu-rate or all was lost.

Abbot elbowed his way between Qwan and No.l. They were so focused that they barely realized that he was there. With two strokes of his cursed sword, the job was done. No.l fell backwards, blue magic trailing from his fingers. Qwan did not fall, because the tip of Abbot's sword was keeping him upright.

Artemis did not look into Holly's eyes. He could not. Instead he prised the handgun from her hand and pointed it away from him.

Be careful now. Timing is everything.

Abbot yanked his sword from Qwan's chest, and the small body slumped lifelessly to the ground. Three dead in less time than it would take to tie a shoelace.

Artemis ignored the last breaths and the rhythmic crunching of ash that told him Abbot was coming. Not that the demon was trying to hide it.

'I'm back here, human. Why don't you see if you can turn round in time.'

Artemis searched the volcano floor around Holly for footprints. There were many, but only two side by side, where Abbot had stood as he struck. All the while, he counted, remembering his own calculations.

An hour per second for a count of forty, followed by a decel-eration to thirty minutes per second for a count of eighteen, then a slight jump backwards in time, one minute per second back for a count of two. Then it repeats.

'Maybe I'll keep you,' chuckled Abbot, prodding Artemis's back with his sword. 'It'd be nice to have a pet human around. I could teach you tricks.'

'I have a trick for you,' said Artemis, and he fired a single blast from the gun.

The blast exited the barrel, and then was whipped one minute into the past, just as Artemis had calculated it would be. It faded from the present and emerged just in time to strike the ghostly image of Abbot as he drew back his sword to thrust it into Holly.

The Abbot of one minute ago was lifted and tossed against the crater wall.

The present-time Abbot had barely time to say, 'What happened?' before he winked out of existence, no longer flesh, merely unrealized possibility.

'You didn't kill my friends,' replied Artemis, though he was talking to himself. 'That never happened.'

Artemis glanced down nervously. Holly was no longer there. Thank God.

Another quick glance told him that Qwan and No.l were back building their magic circle, as if nothing had happened.

Of course not. Nothing did happen.

Artemis concentrated on the memory. Picturing Abbot spinning through the air. He wrapped the incident in magic to preserve it.

Remember, he told himself. What he had just done, now never had to be done, and so wasn't done. Except, of course, he had done it. Time quandaries such as these should be forgotten for the sake of sanity, but Artemis was loathe to surrender any of his memories.

'Hey,' said a familiar voice. 'Don't you have a job to do, Artemis?'

It was Holly. She was hog-tying Abbot with his own bootlaces.

Artemis could only stare at her and smile. He still felt the pain of her death, but that would heal quickly now that she was alive again.

Holly caught him smiling. 'Artemis, could you get that box on to the plateau? It's a simple plan.'

Artemis smiled some more, then shook himself. 'Yes. Of course. Put the box on the plateau.'

Holly had been dead and now she was alive.

Artemis's hand tingled with the phantom memory of a gun it may or may not have held moments before.

There will be consequences for this, he thought. You can't alter events in time and be unaffected. But whatever the conse-quences are, I will bear them, because the alternative is too terrible.

He returned to his mission, dragging the bomb the final metres to the plateau. He kneeled, then put his shoulder into the casing, slotting the bomb between Qwan and No.l's legs. No.l didn't even notice that Artemis was there. The little apprentice warlock's eyes were solid blue now, flush with magic. The runes on his chest glowed, then began to move, swirling like snakes, slithering upwards to his neck and swirling on his forehead like an enchanted Catherine wheel.

'Artemis! Give me a hand with this!'

It was Holly, struggling to roll Abbot's unconscious body across the bumpy crater. With each revolution, the demon's horns got snagged in the earth, ploughing a small furrow.

Artemis plodded across to her, legs aching from the climb and descent. He grabbed one horn and heaved. Holly took the other.

'Did you shoot him?' Artemis asked.

Holly shrugged. 'I don't know. Maybe. It got a bit hazy there for a minute. Must be the time spell.'

'Must be,' said Artemis, relieved that Holly didn't remember what had happened. Nobody should have to remember dying, though he would be interested to find out what exactly came next.

Time was running every which way, including out. One way or another, the island of Hybras was not going to be here much longer. Either the time spell would take it in pieces, or Qwan would get a grip of the bomb's energy and transport them back to Earth. Artemis and Holly dragged Abbot into the circle, dumping him at Qwan's feet.

'Sorry he's out,' said Holly. 'It was that or dead.'

'Difficult choice with this one,' said Qwan, grabbing one of Abbot's horns.

Artemis took the other, and between them they pulled Abbot into a kneeling position. There were now five in the circle.

'I had been hoping for five warlocks,' grumbled Qwan. 'One warlock, one apprentice, an elf, a human and a snor-ing egomaniac were not exactly what I had in mind. This makes things a little more complicated.'

'What can we do?' asked Artemis.

Qwan shuddered and a blue film passed across his eyes.

'D'Arvit,' he swore. 'This young one is powerful. I can't hold him in much longer. Two more minutes of this and he's going to melt our brains inside our skulls. I saw that once. Fluid boiling right out of the ears. Horrible.'

'Qwan! What can we do?'

'Sorry. I'm a little stressed here. OK. Here's how it's supposed to work. I'm going to lift us off, with junior's help. When the device explodes, I'll convert the energy to magic. Captain Short, you're in charge of the where. Artemis, you're in charge of the when.'

'Where?' said Holly.

'When?' said Artemis simultaneously.

Qwan gripped Abbot's horn so tightly it creaked. 'You know where this island goes, Holly — picture the spot. Artemis, let your time call to you. Allow it to reel you in. We cannot go back to our time. That would cause so many quandaries that the planet would probably just drop into a lower orbit and fry everything on it.'

'I accept that,' said Artemis. 'But allow it to reel me in? I prefer some facts and figures. How about trajecto-ries? Spatial addresses?'

Qwan was on his way into a trance. 'No science. Just magic. Feel your way home, Artemis Fowl.'

Artemis frowned, disgruntled. Feeling his way was not how he generally did things. People who felt their way with-out hard scientific facts generally wound up broke or dead. But what choice did he have?

It was easier for Holly. Magic had always been a part of her life. It had been her minor in college and all LEP officers had to take regular in-service courses. In seconds her eyes were clouded with blue sparks and her inner magic had added a blue ring to the pulsing circles around them.

Visualize it, thought Artemis. See where you want to go, or rather when you want to arrive.

He tried, but even though the magic was in him, it was not of him. The fairies were lost in the spell casting, but Artemis Fowl could only gaze at the huge bomb at their feet, and marvel that they were waiting for it to explode.

A bit late for doubts now. After all, the whole 'harness the bomb's power' notion was your idea.

It was true he had conjured a few sparks earlier. But that was different; he had done it without thinking. The sparks had been a flourish to make his point. Here, his magic could be what kept everyone on this island alive.

Artemis studied each member of the circle in turn. Qwan and No.l vibrated with unnatural speed. Their eyes were blue, and markings spun on their foreheads like mini-cyclones. Holly's magic vented through her fingers, coat-ing her hand in an almost liquid blue light. Abbot, of course, was unconscious, but his horns glowed blue and continuous streams of sparks shot from them, cascading over the group like a rock band's special effect. In fact, this entire episode would not look out of place in a music video.

Around them, the island was suffering its own trauma. The time tunnel's continued meltdown snatched up increasingly larger plots, whisking them off to other dimensions. The crackling hoops of power round them fused to form a magical hemisphere. It was not perfect though — gaps flowed across its surface, threatening the integrity of the entire structure.

I'm the problem, thought Artemis. I am not contributing.

Artemis felt himself on the verge of panic. Whenever this feeling claimed him, he ordered his mind to change gear and slip into a meditative mood. He did this now, feeling his heart slow and the impossible craziness around him slip awa............

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