Ashlyn’s version of a time bomb was unreliable and impractical. It was counterproductive to prepare a batch in advance, because the time bombs she made were flimsy and liable to fall apart, which meant they were tricky to store and carry. To use them to their full potential, they had to be wrapped in a hurry, with sweaty fingers, in the presence of hungry zeitfressers.
Composed as always, Curio waited for his time traveller to finish her task. While he waited, he observed the walls of time sands they had frozen.
‘Everything is melting,’ he said.
‘Almost done,’ said Ashlyn as she tied a knot in place. ‘There! I’ve made three!’
‘That’s not enough,’ said Curio.
‘I can stop six fressers,’ Ashlyn proclaimed. ‘Seven if I’m lucky.’
‘Zeitfressers hunt in packs of sixty,’ Curio reminded her.
‘You can deal with the remaining fifty,’ said Ashlyn.
‘You don’t have the ability to stop ten,’ Curio assured her. ‘That time bomb is leaking.’
‘I’ll throw that one first,’ said Ashlyn.
She turned and was alarmed to face a pair of cat-like eyes. Instinctively, she didn’t want her own eyes to get scratched out, so she lurched backwards by losing her balance. The time bomb in her hand was released, smacking the zeitfresser in the face like a water balloon and consuming the cottage in a fog of bright and pure time sands. Ashlyn was unable to see, but her fall was broken by what felt like a collection of small, furry cushions – cushions that seemed to have the odd sewing needle jutting out of them.
Ashlyn ignored the little claws and leapt to her feet, but didn’t try to find her way through the flying sands. If any part of her body touched a surface that had been frozen by a zeitgeist, it would glue fast and literally get stuck in time until the ice melted.
‘Zeitfressers are interesting up close,’ she heard Curio say.
‘Q!’ Ashlyn called. ‘How many are there?’
‘They hunt in packs of sixty –’
‘– inside. How many got inside?’
Curio carefully considered this and replied, ‘Eighty-two.’ He shortly added, ‘I am tired.’
The time sands settled and the dark forms surrounding the time traveller and the zeitgeist took shape. Zeitfressers are no bigger than guinea pigs. Those that had invaded the cottage were suspended in time and space, baring their teeth and claws. Some were lying on top of one another, squashed together on the floor by Ashlyn when she fell. When mealtime is imminent, they move in a frenzy, but for the next few minutes, they would hardly be able to match a runaway tortoise. Ashlyn was astounded.
‘Eighty-two,’ she said, turning the weight of the number over in her head. ‘I’ve nuked eighty-two!’ she squealed hysterically.
Curio watched as his time traveller fist-pumped zeitfressers into the walls and ceiling.
‘Ash. The glass in your hair,’ he said, ‘is flying into zeitfressers.’
‘Eighty-two’s like – one and a half packs! I have octupled all expectations of me!’ Ashlyn cheered.
Despite her whooping, Curio spoke calmly.
‘I don’t understand. The time bomb hasn’t done anything.’
His time traveller went as still as the zeitfressers. The recent drama had made her forget some fundamental facts.
‘My time bombs can’t slow time down, can they?’ she said quietly.
Curio shook his head.
‘You were the one who… stopped them,’ Ashlyn said with a weak wave of a hand.
‘I just wasted a time bomb, didn’t I?’ said Ashlyn.
Curio nodded sadly.
If Ashlyn had dropped the time bomb with good timing, it would have been like keeping a pack of wolves busy with only one lamb or one stack of pancakes or one leg of cured meat. But she didn’t have good timing, so Curio happened to cast his far more reliable, useful and powerful ability to manipulate time fields. He slowed the zeitfressers' time fields down, so Ashlyn had effectively launched a portion of pancakes at an army of statues. Hungry zeitfressers won’t heed the sands beneath their feet if there’s a bigger meal before their eyes – in this case, the sands in Ashlyn’s pockets and the sands that Curio is made of.
Ashlyn's hands flew to her head, which by now was free of broken glass.
‘Will I never show the world that I don’t need schooling?!’ she screamed.
It was only a matter of minutes before mayhem broke loose inside the cottage. Knocking aside floating zeitfressers, she hurried to the door and recoiled from the handle, which was still icy. She grabbed Curio from the air and scrambled out the window.
‘Right. Eighty-two inside… Packs of sixty… So there are thirty-eight outside – AH!’ she shrieked and threw another time bomb.
Ashlyn couldn’t see how many zeitfressers happened to get caught in the cloud, but much hissing and teeth gnashing could be heard from a furious scuffle. She darted away and ran into plain sight of more zeitfressers, who eyed the very last time bomb in the palm of her hand. That was the problem when she bagged time sands in miscellaneous rags: scraps of old cloth do nothing to inhibit a zeitfresser’s senses.
She couldn’t rely on Curio’s power to influence time fields. The zeitgeist remained out of sight beneath her cape coat and, in an effort to stay awake, was re-reading what was left of their time sands.
In the darkening light, she saw patches of weeds, wild flowers and grass, trails of dirt and tall, spindly trees. In between the shrubbery sat a jumble of cottages that varied in size and shape – all empty and crumbling with age. As the zeitfressers bounded closer, she spotted a gap and hurried straight toward another cottage. Leaving the door ajar, she shook the last time bomb, waving it around until puffs of sands flew into the air. When the catty snarling caught up with her, she fled to a window at the far end of the building, forced it open and jumped out.
Zeitfressers have incredibly time consuming habits and aren’t the cleverest of creatures when hungry. They would throw themselves at food, but fail to consider how much easier it would be if they opened the door to it first. A time traveller only really needs to know one thing about the zeitfresser: the fact that it is called a time-waster. Anything is capable of slowing down a time-waster. All Ashlyn had to do was hop from cottage to cottage and leave behind whiffs of time sands in her wake.