It's time for a story.
Once upon a time, in the prosperous kingdom of Guardia, there lived a young boy named William, who had been named for his mother's father. William's parents were the King and Queen of the land and were loved by all their subjects. Anyone who didn't love them was murdered by William's father, Crono. William understood that this was good and proper and that to do otherwise would be the height of foolishness. So he was told by his father. Such was the way to protect the future.
His mother, Nadia, told him a different tale. She spoke of days before the future, days of the past when she and Crono had fought monsters and warlocks and all-around bad people for the sake of the world. William liked these stories, even if it was difficult for him to look at his beautiful, serene, mother and imagine her shooting arrows through the hearts of Imps and Shetakes and Reptites.
Crono took a lot of care in raising his son. He showed him how he did his work. Some of it was politics, but more of it was war. He tutored him personally in the use of the blade. William became so good with a blade that he came close, several times, to beating his father. But Crono was always stronger and never let his son forget it. He controlled the power of the elements and could turn suddenly from a kindly mentor, sparring with a favored student, into a warrior fighting for his pride. The change was swift as the breaking of a storm.
Swordplay wasn't the only thing Crono taught William. He taught him how to measure out death in terms of liters and degrees; the proper mixtures of chemicals and biologies. He showed him how a dose of Shinrock in a glass of wine could level an enemy from within their own home. He showed him how a certain plant, if pulped along the edge of a blade, would paralyze an opponent after it cut. He showed him antidotes, too, but only a few of these. There are many ways to kill a man, went the lesson, but only a few to save his life.
His mother gave him lessons, too. She taught him how to read people, how to know that the man praising you meant to turn your followers against you; how to know that the man criticizing you was your best friend and closest ally. She taught him other things, too. Crono showed him how Shinrock could kill; she showed him what it looked like when it flowered. From her he learned the names of plants and animals and came to love the world he lived in with a fervor that made him want to protect it from any enemies. More than that, he would do anything to protect her.
He fought in his first war at thirteen. He had thought his father would not let him come. Crono had always been protective, in his own way. But he ended up encouraging William, putting him on the front lines, even. He smirked with pride when William conquered every enemy that came against him. And William fought in the next war. And the next. For three years he fought, until he turned sixteen.
William had never asked his father what these wars were about. He didn't have to. He was happy and he was gaining Crono's respect and adoration in a way that was foreign to him, but which he enjoyed immensely. And the kingdom was safe. And so was his mother.
The girl changed all of that. She was young, maybe fourteen, when he took her life. It was pure chance that knocked her helmet from her head, a sloppy misstep of hers as she ran to spear his horse. His downswing, aimed from the saddle at her neck, hit the helmet instead and split it, knocking the two pieces to the side. The horse reared. The girl, her blonde hair now spilling down her shoulders, looked up with him in complete fear and then the horse's hooves caved in her face.
He would never know her name. He had never known any of their names. More importantly, he had never known any of their stories. He had never asked what they were fighting for or against. He had always gone where his father told him to and killed whomever was standing against them. He felt a weight settle over him that soured the wine and food he consumed, exhausted him at all hours of the day, and crushed his enjoyment of life. Women had once flocked to his bed, to the mild distaste of his mother; now he pushed them away and spent more time alone, to her moderate concern. He had always accompanied his father on hunts. Now he preferred to watch their passage from the Eastern Tower of the castle, the room where he'd been born.
Fighting became harder. The wars continued and he continued to fight in them, but now he felt less like a leader of men and more like just a single man. He'd never thought that he could be injured before, at least not seriously. He'd never thought he could lose. Now he began to see himself as not so different from everyone else on the battlefield. Every enemy he felled could be him in a few minutes time. If the father noticed the change in his son, Crono made no sign of caring. Crono was still a storm. He controlled a blade like a third arm and he had power over the elements that could only be called magic. His concerns were unfathomable.
One day William was cut down when his horse was killed in battle. He was trapped underneath the beast and the wild blow that was aimed at him from his attacker cut his right arm clean off. The peasant who cut him down was a nondescript middle aged farmer with a rusty axe. William never saw him again. He never knew his name or whether he survived the battle.
Crono went to great lengths to save his son. He found him after the battle and brought him home, where Nadia used her own magic to keep him on the very brink of life. Crono, meanwhile, set about finding a solution to his arm. He found his answer in Lucca Ashtear, who worked for the Poorian military as a technological developer. She invented the metal that would become his new arm, calling it the Strong Arm. It was strong, stronger than his old one and weighing no more then his old muscle, flesh, and bone had. William hated that arm.
Something in the strain and effort of keeping him alive damaged his mother. Nadia lost her energy and her vibrancy. She took to sitting in the Eastern tower for hours at a time, sometimes spending the entire day alone in a chair, rocking back and forth and not speaking or eating. Crono, meanwhile, continued winning his wars and William continued to fight in them. Now that he had faced death, the battlefield seemed surreal. It felt like he was playing a game. He could see lists in front of him of all the possible futures, branching out from single sword strokes. All he had to do was choose which one he wanted and it would happen. But his victories no longer seemed to please his father as once they had. Crono fought more viciously in each war, until his support shrunk and his kingdom, once encompassing the very idea of protection, became known simply as "The Fell."
Eventually the people would stand for no more. The servants of the castle revolted, taking Nadia hostage and saying they would release her if the King would come to his senses and parlay with them. Crono listened and for the first time in a long time, William thought that maybe his father had a heart. He marveled that his mother, even in her dilapidated state, could melt his frosty countenance. But the people wanted more than Crono was willing to give. They wanted him to step down from his throne and leave The Fell, to be banished to the isles of El Nido. He didn't just refuse. He murdered the entire envoy. That night, Nadia's head was sent to the castle in an iron box. She was forty two when she had died. William was twenty years younger.
William fled into the Guardia forest. It was like he was in a battle. The myriad paths of the future were pounding through his mind, giving him no rest. They showed him option after option and only one ending. Guardia would fall, but not before the world burned. There was no future left.
It was in this aurora of clarity that he found the gate. He didn't realize he'd walked through it until he felt how cold everything was. It had been summer when he'd entered the woods: now a fine snow dotted the ground. He continued to walk, knowing his way and yet recognizing little. Trees that he knew had been cut down were miraculously regrown... or never cut down in the first place.
He eventually found his way back to the castle. There he saw his mother, only she was much younger then he could ever remember seeing her. She was also very pregnant. Like most single children, his instant reaction to this was that he didn't care to have a little sibling running around the castle. Then the greater realization of what he was seeing struck him. His mother was alive. She hadn't died... yet.
Stories he'd grown to disbelieve came rushing back to him. They were his mother's stories about a future that couldn't be allowed to exist, about journeys that took his parents through time to change their fates. Had it been Lucca who had once told him about the Time Gates? It had been after a feast and she'd been drunk that night. He'd assumed she had been leading him on. But now he was positive she had been telling the truth.
So he learned that it was "when" he was and not "where" that mattered. He withdrew from the castle and took up residence in Poore, which he had visited often enough in his own timeline that he figured he'd be able to find some foothold there. How wrong he had been. Poore existed, yes, but it wasn't the Poore he'd known at all. This Poore, just now celebrating its creation of a city-wide sewer system, was woefully underdeveloped compared to the one he'd left behind. Where were the skyscrapers? the well dressed businessmen and merchants? the parks containing specimens from all over the world? and, on the edge of the city, the weapon's factories that belched black and yellow smoke into the sky? William was lost. More than lost, he was homeless. He had never had to provide for himself, before. The few coins in his pocket were minted for a year that didn't yet exist. They were useless. He soon found himself starving on the streets of Poore, hiding his arm (which frightened people) and begging for bread (which was often so stale it caused his mouth to bleed). For two months he lived in this manner, until news came from the castle that the queen's son had died in childbirth.
It is a strange thing to hear of your own birth. It is a stranger thing to hear of your own death immediately after. Days after hearing the news William would wake in a cold sweat, look at his body, and expect to see it fading into nothingness. But no. The past hadn't changed his present. He had no longer been born and yet here he was, still existing. He was already in this world. He supposed the timeline wouldn't handle a second version of him.
William stopped thinking of himself by his birth name. He shortened it to Bill and turned to the tools his father had taught him, those of the assassin. There is a saying in Guardia: the path of the murderer leads either to the noose or to Choras. Bill ended up in Choras. It was in Choras, no longer starving and no longer lacking shelter, that he heard of his father's military occupation of Truce.
How to describe the feelings that went through him upon learning of this event? It was like standing still in front of a swinging axe. He'd been here before. He'd seen this happen and he knew how it ended: the kingdom embroiled in war; his mother dead. The answer, the way to dodge the axe, came to him from his mother's own stories, his favorite story, the one where she and father went back in time to save the future. Mother was never sure how much he should hear of these stories. Father was always telling him the gory parts, about monsters in cathedrals dressed in human skin and a horror, something like a giant shelled beetle, raining fire upon the world. Mother liked to tell the parts about her and father and their friends, loving each other and looking towards life's little joys. It was confusing, like each one of them had lived a totally different version of the events. Bill had asked her, once, if she had killed anyone. She had hesitated. The she had nodded solemnly.
"We killed to save the future."
The answer now was the same. Bill would kill to save the future. He would kill his father. He wasn't anything more than a monster in human skin, anyway.
Crono turned out to be weaker than Bill had expected. In the old days (the future days) Crono would have charged an assassin's bones with enough electricity to bake him from the inside out. But what Bill faced was no mage. He faced a man already passing his prime, fighting with polished but predictable sword techniques. In the battle, Bill felt the touch of destiny. He was destined to win this fight. What else could it mean, when a man he had always feared was suddenly, unexplainably, weaker than him? Then he felt the touch of fate, and it was a heavier touch. It scorched his arm, turned it into a mangled mess, and it did it through Crono's hand. The only thing he could think, as Crono won the fight, was how disappointed his father would have been in him. He'd made a miserable assassin; all that training gone to waste.
Bill waited for his father to end his life, the way he'd ended his mother's. But it didn't happen. Instead Crono had hesitated, spared his life and, when Bill had requested it, given him a place at court. Over the next few months, Bill would feel he was getting to know two versions of his father. One was a man foreign to him, someone who loved Nadia so much he ached for her. It hurt Bill and confused him. He would spend hours getting to know this man, this new father. He grew close to him. He loved this man. This was the man he'd heard about in her stories, the man who would sacrifice himself to save everything he loved. This wasn't a man who had killed to save the future. This was a man who had given everything he had to save the future.
He almost didn't do it. He almost didn't put the poison in the wine. It was a desperate plan at best. He couldn't poison all of the wine because of the dilution. Shinrock was a deadly poison but the little bit he'd brought with him from Choras would do no good added to an entire cask of wine. Not to mention he couldn't risk his mother drinking it. He'd have to put it in the right cup, which meant dropping it in at the banquet table itself. He'd debated the entire night whether to do it, carrying the poison in a small vial in his robes. Then he'd seen her.
"Do you require aid, my lady?" he had asked.
"I'm fine," Nadia had replied.
Then he had watched her flirt with Ghetz. Later, Crono had watched her dance with Ghetz. Bill watched his eyes. There was an old fear that stayed hidden close to Bill's heart. It was the fear of the child who hides under his bed or closes his eyes to make monsters go away. It was the fear of his father. In a single glance that night, the glance Crono gave Nadia and the ignorant Ghetz, he saw the man who had burned a nation. The fear returned and with it his resolve. However much he loved the man his father was now, he had to kill the man he would become. The poison entered the glass and Bill told himself that he wouldn't cry when the man drank it.
When the glasses were passed to the left, Bill's whole skin went cold. It was an old tradition. He had known it. But he had forgotten it. One simple mistake and he was responsible for the death of his grandmother. More than that. Truce was blamed for the poisoning. It was like watching a building collapse, little by little and stone by stone, with the people still inside. Bill had never known how the wars between his father and the rest of the kingdom had started. He'd never known his grandmother either. She had died, he had been told, before he was born. Killed by an assassin. Things were coming together in his mind in a way that sent spikes of fear into his heart. He had thought that he was coming back in the past to prevent something, not to cause it. The future was refusing to change.
It is an odd thing, but when a man has watched his plans crumble around him he rarely pulls out. Logic would tell us that when the path we've chosen has turned sour, we should turn from it and choose another. Instead, disaster tends to bring an overwhelming desire, a painful desire, to make things right. Or no. It is not about making things right. It is about proving that we weren't wrong in the first place. That, though today may be destruction and fire, if we stay on the path long enough it will prove to lead us to paradise. Bill felt that now. If he turned away from his decision to murder his father, then what had his grandmother died for? What had Truce burned for? He continued to plan Crono's death, now with a fervor that had before eluded him. He had attempted stealth, now he would turn to subterfuge. His plans were laid instantaneously. The very night that Truce burned he helped Nadia and Ghetz escape. Then, when Crono sent Grecco after them, he countered by sending Thanojax. Thanojax was to keep Grecco from finding Nadia as long as he could. If that failed, he was to kill Grecco. With that situation under control, Bill turned his efforts to taking over the military. This time there would be no mistakes. This time he would march Crono in front of his own firing line. He would watch him die.
* * * *
The crossbow made a quiet sound. The bolt didn't have far to travel. It dissapeared through Bill's right side, just underneath the metallic plating that covered his chest and made up his arm. The man's entire body tensed and he began to shake. Nadia had seen men break before. She remembered the wounded at the bridge of Zenan, so long ago, and how the injured had run blindly, as if running would take them away from their pain. She recalled one man whose head had half been smashed. His scalp had hung loosely on the left side, with his brain filling it like a pustule sore where his skull had broken. He had run for a good three hundred meters before collapsing. It had taken him minutes to die.
Bill didn't run. He was shirtless. She could see the hole where the bolt had pierced him. The shaking continued, his stomache muscles tightening and loosening. A thick smell filled the room. His bowels had emptied. Bill sat down heavily on an upholstered chair near the closet and continued to shake.
"I wish you wouldn't have come here," he said, his voice catching. "You seeing me like this wounds my heart."
His red hair was slicked back into a mane that spread out behind him. With the hair pulled out of his face, he looked almost exactly like Crono. He had her dead husband's cupid features, with the small mouth and the prominent chin. His eyes were hers, though. They were so blue. She'd only ever seen eyes like that in the mirror. Something settled deep inside of her as her blue eyes met his. It was a hole that her insides were disappearing into.
"Nadia... mother..." Bill reached out a hand. For a long time it stretched towards her. She didn't know what to make of it. The voice was shaking. It was begging her. The man in the chair had become a boy. The hand alone was steady, though, and the pendant hanging from its fingers was her own. She took it and tied it around her neck, feeling the voice inside of her bubbling up past her desire to cry.
"My name is Marle," Nadia heard the voice saying. A moment later, she realized Bill had heard it, too. The voice was no longer inside of her. It was her own voice. She had no more need of Nadia. Marle turned away from Bill and left via the window. The roof tiles would be slippery with the recent rain. The word treacherous never crossed her mind.
Bill watched her go until his pain turned to a numbness and his eyes closed of their own accord. He would have smiled if he could have. He'd saved his mother. He'd changed the future, after all. All was good.