'What happens to one's destiny based on the choices not made? Do they just disappear?' ~ Jack, Dark Savior.
The bells ring for Christmas Day.
As I wander down the street, my feet failing to leave an imprint in the sheet of snow just as my body never felt the cold, I am reminded of the bell that used to ring over and over to herald the return of the same day. Back then, I had learned to set my life to them. If I didn't achieve something by then, if I didn't somehow make it final and permanent, it would be erased by the final toll of the bell.
I don't have to worry about that any more, I suppose. I have other things to concern me. They may even matter more.
I overhear hearty applause from a nearby University building, the one with the big hall they use for graduation ceremonies and other important performances. Chartreuse's security Golems neither challenge me nor open the door for me as I sidle through. Sure enough, I see myself on the podium, several years older, being congratulated by the Headmaster. She is presented with some kind of award. I've seen plenty of them before. They all seem to merge into one, although my sense of the passage of time has become rather muddled lately, what with the slowly encroaching inevitability of my functional immortality and all.
Opalneria steps forward and whispers something into the Headmaster's ear. I am close enough that I almost overlap but I am not detected apart from a slight increase in the already pronounced uncomfortable expression on the necromancer's face. I hear everything they say.
"There is a strong spiritual presence in this room," insists Opalneria, "I can feel it. It shouldn't be here."
"I certainly hope it hasn't followed your from your laboratory!"
Her eyes narrow and take on the cold glint of iron, "I always banish everything I summon! I would not be standing here if I made mistakes! Either this room is haunted, or someone is interfering!"
As she hisses the last word, her gaze fixes on Advocat. I had not seen the school's resident devil before now. He has this way of sneaking up on people. He returns her glare with a smile that is a potential court case on its own, then returns his attention to the newspaper he was reading.
I back away, partly out of concern for an increasingly distressed Opalneria, partly in case she snaps and decides to carpet-exorcise the room. I'm not sure what that would do to me. I don't know if I'm really a ghost or something else that dwells in the cracks between one world and another. I always thought ghosts had to be dead. My fate was not death. My Parallel collapsed into something worse. At least, I think it collapsed.
Hiram walks forward and holds Opalneria's arm in his, gently escorting her from the stage. His presence calms her down. I cannot feel happiness for the mortals who exist in the here and now, who have found a place in the world that has been decided after everything was resolved, but I am relieved she has something else to focus on.
I casually walk through the stage and leave the building. The achievements of a self that is so far removed from me cannot satisfy me any more. In a way, she is my murderer. I wander down the street, muted by a soft blanket of snow, until I reach the pub I used to frequent. My friends have grown up and no longer have enough time to visit, or have gone upmarket, but I enjoy watching the current students drink and laugh as they enjoy their private jokes. Its true that you can get drunk from watching drunk people, even if you yourself can't enjoy a nice beer or several.
"Well, hello there. Haven't I just seen you somewhere else?"
I recognise the voice. Nobody else's voice is so precise or filled with danger.
"Are you sure I can't help you somehow? You don't look entirely satisfied with your situation."
Something like a static shock fills me, a danger sense that I have developed in lieu of any actual senses. I spin around and see that Advocat is looking directly at me. I suppose he is the sort that would enjoy the occasional drink at a more exciting bar. I try to suppress my exhiliration at having someone actually notice that I exist. It isn't good news. Not if its him. He is never good news. No matter what he says, he can never solve my problems.
"Haven't I spoken to you before?" he asks, walking towards me with a glass of expensive-looking red wine balanced in one hand. My curiosity is piqued before I realise what is happening. Has he met me before? If not, is there another of me – another discarded, unused version of me drifting somewhere between existence and nonexistence? If this is the case, could he lead me to her? Is there any way we can talk, through our shared experience of existing in a world that is not?
I remember just in time my policy of never believing a word that Advocat says, and step back as he attempts to grab me by the shoulder. He is quicker than me and his fingers brush against me but he draws his hand back, a suppressed hiss of pain escaping his lips as he regards the burn marks down his slender hands. I suppose I must be something spiritual in origin, if not an actual ghost.
The pain is worse than he anticipated and he staggers back, almost upsetting a table. A hand moves to steady him. I follow it and see two blood-red eyes, blazing like furnaces. The rest of the face I recognise. I vaguely remember that point in the proceedings. I suppose not all of us even made it as far as I did before our fates resolved like the wounds of fate and time healing. Her smile is as predatory as Advocat's as she stares at me, so I leave before she has chance to recognise my face.
I run down the street, no longer sure in which direction to turn. I feel I should be haunting something but I'm no longer sure what, as people go their separate ways over the years.
I almost sprint straight through Gammel and my older self as they amble slowly down the path, chatting like old friends. I hear their words. They are speaking of Lillet's most recent experiments in time magic.
"And you really believe you can extend the human lifespan by another five centuries?" asks Gammel. I am confused. Five centuries really isn't such a long time once you find yourself removed from the official timeline with all its constant demands on you to be in a certain place doing a certain thing at the precise moment it goes wrong and makes your life worse.
She nods enthusiastically, "Its a very simple trick! I can't believe I hadn't thought of it before! You see, the effects of the Philosopher's Stone haven't been completely erased from the world. The timeline isn't completely resolved. We can use some of the time still stored within the loop to prolong our own lifespans."
"And this won't cause any kind of time paradox? I don't want the world exploding or anything!" says Headmaster Gammel, his expression one of genuine concern at something that struck him as a legitimate possibility.
"Of course it won't! This isn't the actual timeline we're playing with! Its just old timelines that haven't entirely decayed yet. If they still had an effect on the actual timeline, we'd know about it. We'd still be going around in a circle!"
"But you said our current timeline hasn't been resolved yet..."
"For our timeline to be threatened, the paradox for the entire timeline would have to unresolved, or at least a certain proportion of it," explains Lillet, "Only tiny amounts of the timeline have been affected in this way. In the grand scale of the space-time continuum, it means nothing!"
"You say that, but our lives mean nothing in the grand scale of things, and I certainly care about my life!" says the headmaster. I smile at the grander import of this wisdom, gleaned from a long life and a brilliant mind. We have been forced to learn such wisdom suddenly and at an early age. You tend to, when you don't have the liberty of actually existing.
"I assure you, it will in no way affect any of us... everyone's timeline has resolved except for a few slight glitches... our future is in every way assured..."
Lillet smiles confidently. At that moment, I decide to look away, deliberately moving straight through them without even checking to see if such a thing made them uncomfortable or not. Maybe one day the research will improve to the point where they know what is happening. I have no way to contact them to speed up the process. No other can join me on this path, now that the only door closed behind me. It has its advantages. I have more time than them to learn secrets and they can never be taken from me. They have a destiny where I never will. I will always walk in a part of the world that they can't even know about. It is a trade-off, a matter of what a person can be willing to sacrifice.
Still, it is tempting to go and talk to Advocat again. It is a lonely existence. He can make it so that I am no longer lonely. It would be so simple.