"You shouldn't sleep at your desk, you know. Your back will be killing you in the morning."
Syndara stirred, making a sound of protest at being awakened before her unwilling eyes fluttered open. In the soft lamplight, she realized what had occurred. She'd been going through Ysleen's research notes on time travel late last night; she must have fallen asleep while she was reading. Again.
The sorcerer stretched, not really wanting to move. It didn't seem out of the ordinary that someone had woken her up, ostensibly to remind her to come to bed.
What wasn't expected, however, was that the voice that had done so was female.
Suddenly wide awake, Syndara pushed herself up in her chair, turning towards whoever it was who'd somehow managed to get past the guards and into the Symphony manor, and also through the locked door to her suite without waking either her or her husband.
The intruder smiled benevolently. "Hello Syndara. I know this must be very strange for you; please try to remain calm."
In an instant, the sorcerer was on her feet, but the pink-haired daeva standing before her had already activated her orb. Before Syndara could react, she found herself back in the chair, rooted, silenced, and unable to move.
"I had a feeling you were going to do that. It's what I would have done." Another bland smile. "Please relax. I need to speak with you."
Undeterred, and struggling against the magic that had her helpless, Syndara's red eyes flashed at what appeared to be an exact duplicate of herself. The only differences were that the other woman's hair was longer, and the teal and white armor she wore was of a style the sorcerer had never seen. It was fancier than her own, more elaborate…and it looked like it gave her a lot more protection than the soft silk bedclothes Syndara was wearing. Also, the orb at her wrist looked much more powerful than any weapon she'd ever owned.
The woman took a step closer, ignoring Syndara's attempts to free herself. "Excellent…I see you've been reading Ysleen's notes. They're not perfect, of course, but they were a good starting point. It took me a long time to work out the details. But then, I never really started in earnest until…" There was an unreadable expression on her face. "Well, let's not get into that." She re-cast her spells, keeping Syndara firmly in place. "Now, I need you to know that I am exactly what I appear to be. I am not an imposter, or someone who was physically or magically altered to look like you. I am you. What I learned from that notebook, plus my own research, is what allowed me to come back to this point in time."
Unable to speak, Syndara just stared at her skeptically.
"You want proof, I know. That's good." The double took another step back, standing in front of the door to the inner part of the suite. "When you woke up in Ishalgen, the only part of your clothing that was intact was a small patch of rose-colored leather at your right shoulder, under what was left of your top. You also snapped off the tips of two claws on your left foot when you fell and slid down to the mountain path, the one that would eventually lead you to the village where some very kind people found some things for you to wear. The pants, though, were too large, and you used that piece of rose-colored leather to string through the belt loops to hold them up."
Syndara stopped struggling. Nobody else knew about that, how she'd fixed the clothes she'd been given so they would fit, or what color that last link to her old life as a ranger had been. Against all odds, this person seemed to be telling the truth.
"You also knew that the ledge you'd fallen onto was composed of granite, and mentally compared it to other types of rock you were familiar with, even though you had no memory of ever learning anything about the natural sciences."
There was really nothing else she could do, but she still hesitated before giving her answer. "I believe you," Syndara replied slowly, once the silence spell had worn off. She regarded her duplicate through narrowed eyes, trying not to let on how surprised she was that this person was obviously her. For a moment she felt lightheaded, almost intoxicated, but she'd had nothing to drink that evening. "Ysleen's time travel artifact can be duplicated, I see," she said, as the spell holding her down faded away. She rubbed at her arms and legs, trying to get the feeling back into them.
"Yes. With a great deal of study and effort. It wasn't easy, believe me." Syndara's duplicate looked pleased, and she began walking around the room, picking up some of the effects and examining them. Syndara turned in her chair, but made no move to follow her. Why should she? She supposed that the things in the suite belonged to her future self just as much as they belonged to her. It was only logical.
"So you've come up with a way to keep people from Vanishing after using the artifact, then." She rubbed at her eyes, wishing the lightheadedness would go away.
The doppelganger shook her head. "No, I haven't." She said it so matter-of-factly she might as well have been talking about the weather. She was still perusing the items casually as she circled the room and back to her younger self.
Syndara gazed at her dubiously, remembering what she'd learned from Ysleen's notes, in addition to seeing what had happened to Arseni with her own eyes. "Doesn't that mean you'll be dead once its power runs out?"
The double put down the wooden drakie carving she'd been holding. It was cute and silly and it always made Syndara smile. "Yes. Well, no. Not exactly." She paused. "Technically, I never will have existed. The me from my original timeline, I mean. You, on the other hand…you'll be fine."
Syndara blinked. "But aren't you and I the same, just separated by however many years?" she asked. It was impossible to judge how far in the future her double had come from, given that daevas didn't age. The armor she wore was unrecognizable, so it was probably a while. Whether that meant years, decades, or centuries, she couldn't even begin to guess.
"No, we're not the same." Her duplicate's face was impassive. "I'm from what you'd call an aberrant timeline. A piece of history that will never happen." Her jaw set. "That I won't let happen."
The sorcerer regarded her future self with a combination of curiosity and uneasiness. "Why?"
Several moments passed before she replied. "It's not something I can fully explain in the short time I have left. You're just going to have to trust me."
All right. This was a bit frustrating, but if her future self was asking for trust, Syndara knew she had to give it. That didn't mean she couldn't ask about other things, though. "So you're changing…what?" she asked. "Your own history, or someone else's?"
"Our history will be changed, most definitely, and because of it, the history of many others as well," the time traveler murmured, sitting down in one of the nearby chairs. "But it's not as if it's a big change, not in the grand scheme of things. It's not like I'm trying to avert the Cataclysm, or prevent the war between Asmodae and Elysea, or even stop you from falling through the unstable rift that turned you from a daeva and a ranger back into an unascended human." She smiled slightly. "It's so simple, too. Sometimes all it comes down to one little thing, like reaching a fork in the road and choosing to turn right and not left." She regarded her younger self evenly. "A temporal nexus point can be any action, any choice, any situation with more than one potential outcome. In this case, making the alteration is so easy it's almost laughable. One tiny thing that will change so much," she said. "It's making sure you, my earlier self, is not in a particular place at a particular time."
That seemed rather anti-climactic. "That's it?"
"So how your - our - future unfolds is dependent on something so small? Just me not being somewhere?" It didn't sound very plausible. "Where do I have to be instead?"
"Anywhere. It doesn't really matter. Just delaying one specific encounter, one conversation, between you and a certain person will put everything right. Not even preventing the meeting, just postponing it. It will make all the difference in the world."
Syndara frowned. "It sounds like you're sacrificing your life to make a minor change to your own history." She wanted to be sure she understood the what, if not the why. Her future self certainly didn't seem self-destructive or insane.
"Just because it doesn't affect the fate of the world doesn't mean it's a minor change. Not to me, anyway." The woman in teal and white suddenly sounded incredibly tired. Weary. "Do you remember what we used to do in the 35th Legion? All those missions, and rescues, and saving people who never would have been saved otherwise? What I'm doing is just like that. But my actions in the past won't only save the lives of others - including the ones you care about most - this time, you're going to save yourself too."
The sorcerer couldn't keep the faint hint of skepticism from her face. It sounded like her future self was trying to convince her that what she was doing was right. Was she playing god here, by altering her own history? "Saving lives is always a good thing," Syndara replied carefully. "But I'm obviously alive in your version of history…what will changing the past save me from?"
"From all the pain I went through, while I worked on creating the device that brought me here, knowing what had to be done." Her voice was soft as she looked away, and for an instant, an expression of utter desolation crossed her face.
"But pain isn't…"
The other daeva shot to her feet, the grief on her face replaced by resolve, her eyes glowing. "I'm not talking about physical pain. There are things much, much worse than that. Think about what you lost in the 35th…that was nothing, compared to what your future holds, if I don't stop it from happening." She sounded determined, driven. And still utterly, completely rational, even as the glow in her eyes faded. "Arseni went back in time for revenge. I came back for a very different reason, and in the process I will save myself. I managed to escape, but not after I lost everything. My legion, the Circle, my –" She stopped abruptly. "You have no idea what it's been like, what I've gone through. Knowing that I can prevent it is the only thing that's kept me going these past few years." Her eyes darted away for a moment before returning to Syndara's. "So I did the only thing I could. I built another artifact so I could come back, to fix things. But to fix them, I'm giving up more than you can know." Her voice was bitter, but still determined. "There is some pain so terrible that you would do anything to make it go away, even rip out your own heart. And that's what I'm doing here. This is the hardest thing I've ever had to do, but I'm doing it to make sure that I'll…that you'll never have to go through what I did, and you'll never have to face the same choice I had to make." She swallowed hard. "Because once I'm finished, none of it ever will have happened. None of it."
Syndara was shocked to see the tears in her double's eyes. She rarely wept; very few things roused her emotions to that intensity. And in that moment, she knew whatever this future version of herself had been through must have been terrible for her, nearly unbearable…but even so, the process of undoing it seemed to be just as bad, if not worse. She no longer sounded like she was trying convince her younger self she was doing the right thing; now, it sounded like she was trying to convince herself.
There was silence for a few moments. "If what you say is true…you're doing something here and now that will have far-reaching repercussions. Many lives will be saved because of it, am I correct?"
The duplicate nodded wordlessly.
"You're giving up your life for this. And not just your life…you're sacrificing something else too. Coming back here, even though it's ultimately for the greater good…you're going to lose something because of it. Something so important to you that you're hesitant about going through with it, even though you know all those lives will be saved."
"Hesitant, yes. Unwilling? No. I know what I have to do." A weak smile appeared on her face, gone in an instant, and she sighed. "We're so much more insightful now that we have our memory back. Our training in the 35th is serving us well." She sat back down in her chair wearily. "I can't not do this. If there was any other way, I would have found it."
Syndara nodded slowly. "Why did you come here tonight? To talk to me, I mean."
Her duplicate took a deep breath. "You know, I'm really not sure. Oh, I know why I came tonight rather than at some earlier date - I had to wait until Arseni and Ysleen were no longer here, and it had to be after you'd received the book with her notes. The temporal physics behind it…it's rather difficult to explain. But why I decided to visit you at all?" She paused. "Maybe it's for absolution. To ask your forgiveness for what I'm taking from you." She looked away for a moment. "Or maybe it's to see the life I'll be allowed to live now. Maybe it was to know that you and everyone else will be safe."
Syndara nodded again, not knowing what she could add. This was all so overwhelming, and she felt that same lightheadedness again. "When…when are you going to do it? Make the change?"
Her doppelganger's response was ridiculously casual. "Oh, I already did it."
"I already did it," she repeated. At her younger self's look of surprise, she continued. "Now I'm just waiting for the clock to run out." She glanced towards the inner part of the suite. "Once it does, this little bubble of aberrant time will collapse, and I, along with the last remnants of my original timeline, will have ceased to exist. You're probably feeling the effects of history rewriting itself already - it can cause dizziness, weakness, that sort of thing. I'm feeling it too." She picked up the drakie carving again, turning it over in her hands. "Theoretically, everything should have changed at once, but…" She looked a little embarrassed. "I made a few modifications to Ysleen's original design. So I could make sure it worked."
"You came to me knowing you'd already succeeded in changing history?"
She smiled. "You know I don't like leaving anything to chance."
"How much longer do you have?"
She checked the device at her wrist, resting alongside the orb. "A minute and a half, give or take a few seconds."
"A minute and a half?" Syndara tried to stand up but found she couldn't, and she stared at her double helplessly.
"The effects get worse, the nearer the temporal loop is to closing. That's why you can't get up, and why your thought processes are probably more than a little fuzzy right now. The changes are catching up to you."
She frowned, wishing she could do…something. Anything. "There's so much I wish I could ask you."
"I know. But now you'll have the span of many lifetimes to find those answers, as well as people to share them with. And all the pain and loss I've gone through will be erased in the blink of an eye. You will never have to experience what I have, and for that, I am thankful." The duplicate smiled serenely. "Be well, Syndara Soval, and know that - no matter what the changes I've made will bring - everyone you care about will live. Whether you remember them or not, this I can say with certainty. This time, everybody lives."
Syndara woke with a start. She was at her desk, with Ysleen's notebook open in front of her. She'd obviously fallen asleep there while reading the time travel notes; and she winced, mindful of the ache in her back as she slowly rose to her feet. It was early morning, still dark out, but it was almost like she hadn't slept at all. It was more than just being tired, though. She felt uneasy. Unsettled.
She must have been dreaming. She couldn't remember what she'd been dreaming about, though, and she rubbed at her eyes, then stumbled into the bedroom of the suite. She looked around almost suspiciously, as if she was expecting…no. Nothing was out of place. All of her things were there. Still, the room felt strangely empty.
She looked around again, unable to shake the feeling that something was wrong. But she could find absolutely nothing that wasn't where it should be. Everything that was supposed to be there was there. Except…for an instant, an image of a carved wooden drakie flashed through her mind.
She blinked. Of all the knickknacks she owned, she knew she didn't have anything like that. She was certain of it. Still, she went to the outer part of the suite, just to look.
There was nothing like it out there, nor in the inner part of the suite.
Frowning slightly, but unable to determine just what was amiss, she pulled back the blankets and slipped into the empty yet curiously warm bed. Alone.