Prologue: A Timely Encounter
A chaotic blend of static noise and the sound of fabric tearing overwhelmed his ears. Strobing fractal patterns folded in on themselves around him, making his eyes cross and his stomach churn. The wind whipped his flesh, peppered with hot, electric stings, overwhelming his senses. The pungent smell of ozone hung thick in the air.
Somewhere, it felt as if he was experiencing all this in reverse.
He opened his eyes.
For a moment, he was numb to his surroundings, the storm's fury still echoing on his skin, in his ears. His nerves tingled with vertigo and overstimulation, slowly replaced by an almost painful calm. His heart pounded in his ears as he remembered to breathe, gasping and sputtering as he sat up. The world sharpened into focus around him.
Inhaling deeply, then exhaling, he centered himself. Remembering. His name was Ballan. He had been traveling along this road last night. Something about dinner had clearly disagreed with him.
Such a strange, vivid dream, he thought.
As he regained his bearings, the first thing he noticed was the fresh, earthy scent of nature after rain. The air was damp and cool, but not cold. Dappled light filtered through the trees, casting multifaceted shadows on the mossy forest floor. He was lying on a bedroll, next to the road where his travel supplies were neatly placed, a long-extinguished fire pit near his feet.
Suddenly, Ballan remembered, and started frantically searching his cloak for the hidden pocket where he kept the medallion. A surge of disappointment overwhelmed him upon touching the cursed thing through the fabric, but he pulled it out anyway. A silver amulet, depicting a clock face, about the size of his palm, glinted in the midmorning sun. Despite the clock design, the medallion was cast in a single piece, always showing the same time: noon, or perhaps midnight. It had always been this way as long as he had it - which was almost his entire life.
It had never changed. Until now. The hour hand had moved backward by an hour, pointing at the numeral 'XI'. Eleven.
Grimacing, he silently prayed to any Gods that may listen - undoubtedly not very many of them. This must be the start of it - the bizarre dream, the altered medallion... the beginning of his destiny, the one he had been fleeing from. For the medallion was more than just an object; it was a mark, a brand. Once it was in your possession, it was yours until death. Those who received these medallions were known as the 'Destined', and the name carried a heavy implication, as the old saying goes: "Destined for what?"
Like all Destined, he was bound for a life filled with peril, strife, and possibly fame - or infamy. He had been ostracized from the village where he grew up when they found out. The other villagers did not want to risk becoming part of his tragic story - yet, in doing so, they became exactly that. He had always accepted his destiny with silent resignation, resenting the normal life he was denied, mourning a life that he could never live. So, he had hidden the medallion, keeping his burden a secret, until the day it came to claim him.
Because, as he had always heard, it always would.
His life had been a nomadic one since he departed his home. He had an interest, if not exactly a talent, for spellcraft. Being born in a poor farming village would have been enough to exclude him from any sort of sorcerous tutelage, but being Destined also meant he had no one to support him anyway. He had never had the means to attend an arcane academy, his few attempts at securing sponsorship failed, and his magical skills were average at best. With no one to teach him, he had to learn by himself - through trial and error, if he could even get his hands on the materials he needed - educational and practical.
The problem was, getting those materials was either expensive, or dangerous. Without money, Ballan could only reliably obtain them the other way...
The World was a dangerous place for a layman, anyone smart stayed well within their local Wards. However, outside of the Wards - the Wilds - was a World of danger, mystery, knowledge... and money. Relics of ancient civilizations, artifacts of evil cults, remnants of cataclysmic spells... the list went on and on. Outside of the wards there was profit and knowledge for anyone who dared venture there.
These 'Venturers' had a knack for danger and a mercenary worldview, so Ballan was not necessarily proud to be counted amongst their number, but although he had never been signed onto a party, he was still technically part of the League. The League was a guild formed to mediate between the venturers and clients, the business model generally being 'you want something out there and we'll go get it'.
If asked, Ballan would admit he had been pretty lucky. His magical abilities made him useful for smaller jobs, but his mediocrity prevented him from taking on more lucrative, dangerous tasks. He had seen enough of the Wilds to improvise a few spells, though not enough to keep a spell book. Hedgemages like him were common, and he had never impressed anyone in the League enough to be formally recruited. That left him mostly with grunt work and surveys. Thus, his life had been a cycle of dangerous work and, when money allowed, intense magical study.
Only recently had he started considering himself a true student of the arcane.
Glancing at the altered medallion again, he wondered if it was just a fluke - the dream, then this. Maybe it was last night's rabbit. Maybe he could ignore it, just like before.
Suddenly, a deep voice startled him.
"I say, did it always look like that?"
Ballan had not noticed the shadow looming over him. Spinning around, he came face-to-face with an enormous bear. Panicking, he dived for his staff lying next to his supplies. As he grabbed his magical focus and rolled into a crouch, he blasted a concussive sound wave at the bear, hoping to scare it off.
The bear lazily waved a paw, turning his spell into a harmless cloud of bubbles, and then chuckled.
"Bubbles! Delightful, you never know what sort of nonsense someone's magic will unravel into!" The bear mused, lowering his shaggy head to Ballan's level. "It's different for everyone, you know."
As the animal spoke, the initial shock faded, and Ballan noticed the bear's peculiar attire - a voluminous cloak, a rumpled hat, and enormous traveling boots, worn only on his hind legs.
"I didn't mean to startle you," the bear continued in a friendly tone. "I understand how overwhelming it can be to encounter my magnificence so suddenly!"
Ballan frowned, but the bear chuckled and waved a paw dismissively.
"I jest - let me make it up to you," the bear gestured, and suddenly, the nearby cold firepit burst into flames. A teapot, grill, and two teacups - one comically large - floated out from under the bear's cloak.
Watching the display of magic, Ballan hesitated briefly. Focusless magic was... impressive. Focusless and voiceless, as a matter of fact. No incantation.
"...Who are you?" Ballan asked, brow furrowed.
"My apologies, let me introduce myself," the bear said, bowing as the tea prepared itself. "I am known by many titles, some forgotten by time. The one of most interest to you would likely be Archmage. Like my titles, my names are many. However, you can call me what all my friends do..."
The bear settled down in front of the tea, which shook the ground slightly.
Ballan stared at 'Boots' in disbelief. A talking bear wizard? He had heard of talking animals and powerful wizards, but never both in one.
...Consider his curiosity piqued.
Ballan sat down across from Boots, carefully lifting the teacup. He watched as Boots' cup, several times larger than the pot itself, filled nearly to the brim before the pot settled back down. He started to introduce himself, but Boots cut him off.
"I already know all about you." The bear said quickly, before drawing himself up, in order to seem... more important? "Our fates are intertwined from our first meeting."
"...We've never met." Ballan pointed out flatly. Boots nodded enthusiastically.
"Well, you've never met me!" Boots replied. "But I've met you, just this last week, in fact, and when I had met you, you had already met me!" Boots laughed heartily. "I had much the same reaction then that you are having now. You - the other you - said I'd get my revenge, and you -oh, still the other one - were right." Boots beamed.
Ballan understood that this bear was a wizard, but he was beginning to realize that the bear was also probably insane. Boots, seeming to sense the growing anxiety in the clearing, cleared his throat. "What I mean to say is, you, from the future, went back to my past, and spoke with me. He said we needed to work together - that you were my apprentice, and that together, we would discover the secrets of time travel!"
Boots looked at Ballan with an expression of unrestrained excitement. Ballan... stared back. Time travel was supposed to be impossible. That was... his destiny? To discover time travel? To what end?
What did that future version of himself know?
"You look like you've swallowed a toad," Boots commented after a few moments, an expression of mock concern on his face. "You haven't, have you? Not without sharing, I hope."
"I..." Ballan shook his head. "I don't eat toads." It took him half a second to realize what he just said, but he grimaced and pushed forward. "Let's say I believe you - great. I still don't know anything about you. You're a bear that is also a wizard? How did you learn magic?"
Boots nodded amiably as a small pot of honey began pouring into his nearly full cup. Instead of spilling over, the cup simply got larger.
"Well, you see after being awakened to my current state I took up salmon fishing. I should say it was quite the hobby before I achieved sapience but my, what a rush it was after!" Boots launched into this explanation almost like he was anticipating Ballan's question, leaving Ballan powerless in the face of the bear's enthusiasm. "Maximizing my effectiveness at catching salmon required me to be rather inventive, and so I moved swiftly through the basics of problem solving, mathematics, tool use, and critical thinking in short order. Magic was simply the next logical step!"
"So you're self-taught?" Ballan ventured.
"Just so!" Boots affirmed. "Though I wouldn't suggest that path for everyone. Functional immortality is a boon when you're attempting to manually chart leylines!" He laughed uproariously, though Ballan failed to see what was funny about that. "After I attained a certain amount of proficiency, I decided it was worth it to attempt to venture out of the Wilds and see what civilization could offer me. Next thing I knew I was on the Mage Council of Avony for my exceptional contributions to the field of theoretical arcane applications, and seven hundred years had passed!"
"You really are an archmage?" Ballan asked, dumbfounded.
"I am." Boot confirmed. "I am also causally obligated to make you my apprentice."
Ballan put a hand on his head, taking a deep breath as a swell of emotions overwhelmed him. Apprenticed to an archmage? That would be a dream come true. Archmages almost never took apprentices. Even if this one was... a bear.
By what Gods may be, that was still strange.
So this was it. The culmination of his hardships to this point - the beginning of his destiny. Apprenticed to what had to be the World's only bear Archmage, and delving into the secrets of time travel.
"If... that is amenable to you?" Boots was looking askance at him, and Ballan suddenly realized he had been dead silent for almost a minute. He cleared his throat.
"Yes, that... Alright. Yes." Ballan's teacup floated up in front of his face so that he would notice it and, after startling slightly, nodded at Boots, taking the cup and drinking deeply. It was surprisingly good, not too hot and not too sweet. The... power of magic tea?
Boots put both paws on either side of his cup and upended the contents into his mouth. Some of it sloshed down the side of his face.
"Then we have an accord!" Boots declared, standing up. He clapped his enormous hands together with a solid thud, and the various dishes he had summoned - as well as Ballan's belongings - rose into the air. Then, the objects neatly began to stash themselves exactly where they belonged - either within Boots' robe, or on Ballan's back. "Ahh, nothing like some tea to start a day of travel! Onward!" Boots began marching down the road, and Ballan felt compelled to follow him.
"Where... are we going?" Ballan asked, Boots just laughed.
"I have no idea, my apprentice!" He declared proudly. "None at all!"
Despite the literal lack of reassurance in that answer, Ballan's steps felt lighter than they had in years. It still felt like this whole time travel thing was going to be a lot of work... but he had a feeling that it would be worth it. Somehow.