Vincent Van Ghoul finished his preparations for their journey and he planted the staff firmly on the ground. "I had hoped to spare you this" he told Scooby softly. Reaching out to touch the hound's shoulder, he sent them spiraling through time once more – to a time almost three months in the future. As they traveled, Van Ghoul grimaced to himself; he was taking Scooby to a crisis and if this came too soon, the dog might never recover his courage. The warlock was taking Scooby to face Time Slime himself. The vertiginous swirling stopped and Van Ghoul and Scooby looked around.
The future Van Ghoul was there, wearing a ragged black cape and sitting with his back against a tree. He was gazing into a chipped crystal ball. As they arrived, he looked up in their direction and raised an eyebrow – he appeared not to have aged at all, save that he stooped as if the weight of his responsibilities staggered him. Scooby saw that he was looking at his friends using the crystal. Shaggy was now leading Jace's band of vigilantes, but he had a driven aspect. It was clear that he was suffering. His flesh hung limply from his face and arms, giving him a hollow appearance – as though something internal had caved in. The fire that lit his eyes was one of revenge. Occasional flickers of grief revealed that Shaggy's fire would not sustain him for long. Flim Flam was in an even worse state. He hung at the rear of the group, ashamed that he had let Jace die alone. Dark circles under his eyes spoke of sleepless nights and his hands twitched spasmodically. His face voiced more eloquently than any words the pain of his thoughts, It should have been me. Van Ghoul turned the crystal to Daphne. She was rummaging through a pile of garbage sitting outside a hall of some kind. Scooby watched as she grabbed a chicken bone with a few scraps of meat from the pile. Daphne limped away as quickly as she was able and put her back into a corner. She attacked the chicken ravenously, but her eyes remained alert, fearful. Van Ghoul put his hand on the crystal, willed it dark, and wearily tented his hand over his forehead, massaging his temples. Abruptly he stood, leaving the crystal ball on the ground. He paced mechanically for a moment or two and appeared to reach a decision. He picked up the time scepter from where it rested against the tree, spoke a quick spell, and disappeared. The Van Ghoul next to Scooby grabbed his shoulder and followed.
The place in which they found themselves was a large, roughly hewn cave, the cheerless light seemingly emanating from all points at once. Clearly, this chamber was a throne room of sorts though there was little to ornament it. The travelers found themselves amidst a flurry of activity. Within the frenzied movement was an eerie center of calm, the eye of the storm, and there a high backed chair, curiously wrought in the likeness of a grandfather clock sat upon a dais. Occasionally, a hand could be seen gesturing imperiously through the moiling servants and one of them would move into the empty space surrounding the throne. Those who went into the circle looked oddly like horses caught in a thunderstorm, the whites of their eyes showing, every muscle taught as they struggled not to bolt. Scooby looked to Van Ghoul for an answer and saw that he had a look of sickened horror on his face; he turned back and began to watch the unfortunate servants more closely. A strange distortion like rising heat hung in the air between the core of inactivity and the onlookers. Slaves who crossed that boundary seemed to become inexplicably exhausted in the matter of a few seconds, stumbling as they walked and mumbling stupidly their praise to the figure in the chair. The cause was obvious – every person who breached the boundary experienced horrifically accelerated aging, with a mere moment adding ten years to the miserable thrall's face. Throughout each transformation, the sadist ensconced in the center of his web stroked what could only be a second staff of time and rocked with mirth, laughing his high and terrible laugh. Howling his mirth, Time Slime beckoned again, summoning a doddering old man – he wanted the floor at his feet scrubbed. The milling people in the hall went on accomplishing the mindless tasks assigned them, averting their eyes; they knew that he would not survive this trip into the penumbra surrounding the specter. A bucket filled with soapy water and a tattered rag forced themselves into his hands, those who brought them not even making eye contact before rushing off. Trembling, knowing that others would force him into the circle to avoid daring it themselves, he shuffled forward.
White with fury, the future Van Ghoul stepped out of the shadows and said in a strangled voice, "ENOUGH!". Everyone froze and turned toward the disturbance and he used the period of startled inaction to hurl a curse at Time Slime's scepter. His magic splintered the staff and the strange boundary rent like a shroud and blew away. As this occurred, Van Ghoul took up the second time scepter and dashed it against the unforgiving stone floor, shattering it as well, "Now you are mortal and may be killed" he told Time Slime. The ghost lifted a hand and inspected it, discovering that he indeed had corporeal form. He shrieked in rage, but to those who looked closely, there was a light of uncertainty in his eyes; Van Ghoul did not miss this and his expression gained an aspect of mocking satisfaction. "You feel it slipping away don't you – your control of the situation?" Van Ghoul crossed his arms, his lips quirked into a sardonic half smile as he continued to insult his foe, "You are weak – the only time you feel secure is when you have absolute control over the lives of everyone around you. The loss of that power makes you rather frightened doesn't it?" Clearly, Van Ghoul was trying to goad the ghost into a false move – his words and expression were carefully gauged to inflame him and at the same time, he watched Time Slime intently, his eyes calculating. All that he felt was a brief surge of energy from the other end of the cave – just enough warning for him to set his defenses. The murderous power arrowed for him, but he made a sweeping gesture, and deflected the attack into the cavern floor, leaving a scorched black mark.
Van Ghoul realized instinctively that while he might possess the greater power, he was at a disadvantage. The scope of the magic which he could use was limited due to his unwillingness to chance harming any of the people gathered behind Time Slime. A wide field spell (difficult to block against but arguably less powerful) would have proved useful – it could be used to knock your opponent off balance, force them to set up a defensive shield all around themselves which would be weaker to a concentrated attack. A narrowly focused spell with enough power if cast at the right angle would pass right through the opponent's protections; indeed, many duels had been won in such a manner in the past. Van Ghoul shook his head negatively, he couldn't use the broad range spell necessary to set up such a win – but Time Slime didn't care about collateral damage. The space behind the warlock was filled with people. Van Ghoul cursed softly – he was not sure if he was strong enough to adequately shield both himself and the fifteen or so which he calculated to be in range of Time Slime's power and he did not want to find out. He read the intent in his enemy's eyes, clenched his hands near his body, and then wrenched them apart, sending out a shock of power which swept those standing around him up against the walls of the chamber.
Time Slime's spell moved toward Van Ghoul, looking like a rolling curtain, billowing strangely in a foul wind. The warlock lifted his hands, fingers spread and quickly moved them in a semicircle around himself, barking a strange word as he did so, "lith!" His spell caught and froze the space around him and the malevolent magic bent off to each side. Time Slime hurled his second, precisely honed curse, but it stopped three feet in front of Van Ghoul and clattered to the ground just as if the air around him were solid stone. The warlock dropped his hands and gazed steadily at his furious enemy. Van Ghoul was untouched; only Scooby could tell that he breathed slightly harder than before by the suppressed rise and fall of his shoulders. Van Ghoul set a second shield in place and looked thoughtfully at Time Slime, running through his options, gauging probability of success against cost in power. The ghost was also searching for his next move, but before he found it, Van Ghoul removed his amulet and clasped it in his hands, holding it level with his heart. He shot a challenging look at Time Slime and began to chant.
Already, the power surrounding him was massive and the warlock's face was beginning to show strain, his jaw was clenched, his eyes closed. Increasing the magic's strength further, Van Ghoul began to delicately tune the spell, lowering its pitch and frequency until it resonated exactly with his enemy's life force; only one thing remained – he reached into his cloak for the small dagger he kept.
Time Slime looked on, fear echoing clearly in the caverns of his eyes, once cast, there would be no evading this curse. He saw the warlock bring out a dagger and this gave him an idea. Throwing a spell at Van Ghoul would be pointless as the shield around him would interfere; however, it would not block a physical object. It was an odd fact of sorcery that to influence something "real" a spell had to be specifically crafted for that object. Time Slime reached for his own knife – a knife with an ebony handle and worn inscription: To my son Jace. Time Slime unsheathed the blade and prepared to throw; he liked his chances. If Van Ghoul were taken unaware, he could be killed. If the knife hit the amulet in Van Ghoul's hands, the stress from the power being channeled through it combined with the shock of a direct hit would fracture the stone, and the spell would quickly lose power. If Van Ghoul saw the blade coming, he would be forced to drop his incantation before it was ready in order to defend himself and, unattended, the magic would dissipate. Should the warlock's attempt fail, he would be too exhausted to try again and would be forced to withdraw or face the slow certainty of death as Time Slime chipped away at his remaining strength.
Van Ghoul closed his free hand over the blade of the dirk but before he made another move, some sixth sense caused him to look up in time to see the specter release his weapon. Grinning, Time Slime waited to see what Van Ghoul would do. Grimly,
he moved the amulet out of harm's way and braced himself. At the moment of impact, the light of the gem in the amulet briefly dimmed. Swaying slightly, Van Ghoul removed the knife from where it protruded, low in his chest, and blinked at the blood that covered it and his hand. Dropping the knife, he raised his hand palm outward, showing the blood coating it to the now terrified Time Slime. Slowly, deliberately, Van Ghoul placed his bloody hand on the gem of the amulet and whispered the final word of his spell. Crushing power pursued and enveloped the fleeing specter and a hot white flash blinded everyone in the cavern.
Little could be seen through the afterimage burned in everyone's eyes, but several people imagined they saw a figure in black stagger forward a couple of steps, nod wearily to itself, and then crumple to the ground. For a long moment after vision returned, those standing in the hall remained motionless, staring at the dark form lying on its side, and at the charred green robe lying emptily twenty feet away from it. Finally the stasis broke and en masse the ex slaves of Time Slime bolted for the door.
From amidst the pandemonium, an old woman came timidly forward. There was something mouse-like about her in her fear, the way she held herself – and in the dim reminder of red in her hair. She knelt painfully next to Van Ghoul and felt his neck for a pulse. A long moment passed before she removed her fingers. She placed a gnarled hand gently on his brow and whispered softly, "Thank you" and then she stood and, squaring her shoulders defiantly, she walked from the hall.
Van Ghoul was staring blankly into the distance, his face inscrutable. With an effort, he shook himself and turned to Scooby. He was dismayed to find that the hound was huddled on the floor, tail between his legs, and making low whining noises deep in his throat. Van Ghoul's expression became one of self-condemnation and he mentally berated himself for permitting Scooby to be exposed so soon to another ghost. Sighing softly, the warlock bent and placed a hand on the Great Dane's shoulder. Obviously, Scooby had forgotten his presence, for when the dog felt the light touch on his shoulder he yelped in fear and cringed away, looking wildly for the source of this new terror. Immediately, Scooby's whole aspect changed from fear to shock. The next instant found him ecstatically throwing his front paws around Van Ghoul and burying his face in his chest. The mystic was stunned, his face slack with amazement. He had attributed Scooby's distress to the simple fear of Time Slime. Deep within himself, he believed that he was unworthy of friends, believed that he had none, but this reaction was proof to the contrary – Van Ghoul had friends. With an effort, he managed to reach around Scooby and set the scepter to take them home.
As they arrived in their proper time, he could sense the path to the dark future they had just visited wrenching aside. The spirits did it all in one night, he thought wryly. Things would begin returning to normal. Very soon, Scooby would be back to his old tricks: eating anything remotely edible, staying up late with Shaggy to read comic books, and occasionally capturing one of the remaining thirteen ghosts. After a few minutes, Van Ghoul sent Scooby to talk to the rest of the gang, gruffly instructing him to avoid trouble. The warlock allowed himself a crooked smile; he knew that like the cart following the horse, trouble and Scooby were never far apart. Still smiling, he settled himself next to his crystal ball to wait.