Hammersmith and the cooler, more confident version of me argued for a moment in a language I didn't understand. It wasn't a particularly heated argument, but they clearly weren't seeing eye to eye. Finally the Lord Protector nodded at me and left, closing the door behind her.
"The thing about Lord Protector Hammersmith is that if you can get her to promise something she'll never break her word. Well, almost never. There are a few escape clauses. Anyway, we've got the room to ourselves and a guarantee that there's no eavesdropping. You probably have a lot of questions."
I sat down at the table, as far away from my doppelganger as possible. "How do I know that you're me, and not... hmm. I guess a shape-shifting mind reader is a bit much."
She leaned closer, looking excited. "Oh no, that's totally a thing. Shape-shifters are the Klunlesh, real fuckers. One tried to take my place once, I think. But in this case, it would be someone using enhancement magic like a plastic surgeon, because the Klunlesh can't read your mind without murdering you first. So one person would be the mind reader, and the other would mold their features to look like us. It would probably work, but that's not what's happening here."
"That wasn't very reassuring."
She grinned. "I know. Sorry. It's just really cool to see me like this. Man, I am jealous as fuck right now. I've had a... just a really bad time. I didn't have that bracelet, so I didn't speak the language and had to be terrified of eating anything. I got sick of the hospital and ran away, made it down to Yallowsben on my own but then had an allergic reaction that almost killed me again. Some doctor fixed that, but then since I couldn't pay he wanted me to be his indentured servant or some shit. I ran away again, eventually got to Handoleren where I crashed with some friendly teenagers I met which was nice, but then they both got murdered and I ended up barely managing to kill the dude that did it. So I got arrested, and put on trial, and I lied and said I was from Brinkmar - you know, from the Jake Ross books - and they said 'you mean Brynnklar?' and I said sure, yeah, that's the one. I was just scared I was going to get executed or thrown in fantasy jail.
"But that was a bad place to claim to be from because it turns out nobody can get there anymore except for the crazy king of Halenvar, and they're at war with him. So suddenly I was either a spy or someone that could get them behind enemy lines - or a liar, but they were strangely gullible and I wasn't about to fess up. They dragged me to this portal, I tried to escape like a hundred times on the way but Hugh just kept bringing me back slung over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. You met Hugh, right? Is he here?"
Something felt off about her. She was a little manic, and her eyes looked watery for some reason. She'd seemed so cool and collected when I walked in, but I was starting to wonder if this older version of me was barely hanging on. "Hugh, yeah. He saved my life a few times, seemed pretty cool. He uh... he kinda ditched us at Handoleren after the governor got beheaded."
She rolled her eyes. "God damn it. I'm sorry, I'll explain in a minute but there was a lot of very important shit that had to get done the second I arrived, and I couldn't convince anyone that you were a priority. Hugh is a fucking softie, and he's technically retired and technically doesn't answer to anyone in this place since he's actually from the kingdom of Erathik which is way the hell on the other side of the continent. So I got Lord Protector Hammersmith to ask him, and of course he said yes because he basically worships the ground she walks on. But that attack changed some shit, and... I mean, you probably don't care about the military details and they don't tell me everything anyway, but the short version is that everyone is scrambling around like headless chickens."
I got up and walked to the counter along the wall to pour myself some water. I wasn't that thirsty, but the whole thing was weirding me out and it let me pace around for a second. "It's fine. Everyone seemed really upset about Telen showing up. Second time I've had to be within a few feet of that guy."
"Wait. Stop, back that up. You were within feet of Telen twice and you're not dead?"
"Well he didn't see me in Handoleren, I was listening in on him from the next room over. And the first time he ordered someone else to kill me, and they did a shitty job." I lifted my shirt to show off the scar. "Wait. Wait, that was you they were looking for! That's why they thought I was a decoy! You almost got me killed!"
She raised her hands in surrender. "Sorry. Really. I did everything I could to make sure no soul-trackers could trace me but I guess I fucked up. One came here too, but got too close and was captured. He said that three of them were sent out which leaves one more even assuming yours is dead - yours is dead, right?" I nodded. "But by now the trace should be fading anyway and if they haven't come for you again they've presumably switched gears. Shit has been going super badly for them because of me so they're kinda panicking right now. They were always going to lose, but now they're going to lose so much sooner. Wait, I'm getting ahead of myself. Back to story time, where was I?
"Okay, so they drag me to this portal and I still haven't admitted that I'm not from Brynnklar and that there's no way I can open it, and I'm figuring at this point my best bet is to try and then when it doesn't work just shrug and say 'whoops, sorry, guess it's one way only' or some shit. But then it does open - lets me right through. And bizarre as this is, the place is absolutely Brinkmar from the Jake Ross books. Everything is a little different, but it's recognizable enough. Like, you know the First Throne, from Jake Ross and the Shattered Crown? I have literally sat on it. My theory is that I was able to get in because I was from Earth - Jake Ross, if that was his name even, was some kid from Earth and so maybe when they were locking the place down they put some emergency clause in there.
"But whatever the reason, we get in and I mostly hide while the serious badasses do some recon. And Gilbrect Halenvar, that batshit crazy son of a bitch, had been bringing troops in and fortifying the old observatory - you remember that, right? It was in Jake Ross and the Sword of Destiny. And there was no way for us to get past everyone, and the portal we had access to only opened once every hundred and eighty days so there was no real chance of us smuggling a lot of troops in easily. But they did capture someone important, and found out that Halenvar was building a doomsday device that would destroy literally the whole world.
"Everyone knew he was a religious nut. It's this whole thing, the Volish church, they think that everyone is inherently sinful and basically the universe was a mistake. And in theory they want to see everything returned to nothingness, but most of the actual worshippers probably wouldn't go for it if they had the chance. It's one thing to say yeah, the world is fucked up, not existing might be the best call - but if you really had that big red button in front of you and could destroy the entire planet? No way. But Halenvar is a true believer, and he'd found some flaw in reality. The real Jake Ross was supposed to stop it from happening by killing Thanatos - Tantek actually, almost all the names were changed for the book - but Tantek won or something, it's a little unclear.
"Just like in the books, there was this blight curse that made crops die and made everyone slowly get sick, and so they evacuated. But there was something building power this whole time, like a hundred and sixty years or something. Everyone had evacuated, and a few groups tried to come back and fix things but they gave up pretty quickly. Until they found out Halenvar had been going back in, it had been more than fifty years since an expedition went there and they thought all the people that could open the portals were dead. So anyway, Gilbrect Halenvar finds this doomsday thing and starts fixing it up. He calls in this genius named Ulren to help, and Ulren gets it all working but in the process he finds a sort of kind of time machine.
"I think this was the thing that pulled Jake Ross into this world. There's some obnoxious semi-intelligent force of nature that tries to keep time travel from happening or, failing that, tries to keep the timelines all neat and tidy. So the idea was that you could pluck someone from the future and that would lock in the events leading to their existence because this creepy force would try to make sure everything happened the right way. The main use would be to find a potential future timeline where you've won the lottery or whatever, then yank your future rich spoiled kid back in time for a few minutes before putting them back. Since they need to exist for that to make any sense, this force of nature will manipulate probability to ensure that specific timeline comes to pass.
"But they couldn't get it to work. I studied it a lot and I'm still not sure of the details, but I think it can't work within its own timeline. Earth though, well that's a totally different dimension so they pulled someone from there - Jake Ross - as a kind of test. Before you ask, no that's not how we got here. That thing is old, and busted. It got wrecked right after the big showdown between Jake and Thanatos. Tantek. Whatever his name was. But anyway, Ulren found it and realized he could make a real, functioning time machine out of it. The only thing that was standing in his way was all of existence.
"You can learn temporal magic, and you can use it to speed up time or slow it down or whatever. It's great, it's actually one of the powers I have. Well... kind of. Mine is special, because I dumped every last bit of my mana into developing one specific ability. I can actually go back in time, a teeny tiny bit. Depends on the level of mana in the area, but it's between ten and thirty seconds and it drains me dry so it's not amazing but I needed it to... man. This is a lot. Are you keeping up? You're taking this in okay?"
I nodded and gave a thumbs up. Honestly I did think I was keeping up pretty well, and while I had some questions - was Brinkmar on another plane? - it seemed like it might be best to just let her rattle it all out and save my questions until the end. The last thing I wanted was to go off on a tangent and miss the important parts, and I had this vivid image in my head of Hammersmith interrupting us with some emergency and then all sorts of crazy things happening such that I somehow never got filled in on what went down in the original timeline.
"Okay, cool. So. Magical temporal mechanics. The thing is, if you mess with time normally you're always doing it in a very small area. Even when I go back in time, what's really happening is the area right around me is being reverted to an earlier version of itself and then it's speeding up until it catches up with the rest of the timeline. That's why I can't go back very far. I just rewind this little bubble, and then the rest of the world is frozen - or frozen by comparison - until my bubble catches up again. It's cool as a do-over, but overwriting the entire planet is obviously impossible.
"Except a doomsday device was all set to erase the world from existence. Total blank slate. And once it was gone, Ulren could basically load up a save file from anywhere in history. The whole world. This was all supposed to happen when thirty-four of the thirty-six planes were in alignment, it's the midway point of the big cycle of the planes and it's the second most powerful day in the cycle. There are other times that many planes are in alignment but it's different ones and it's not as good. So Ulren was going to go back to the very start of the cycle, more than ten thousand years ago, to when literally all of the planes were aligned.
"Once he was there, he was going to become a god and then do whatever the fuck he wanted. It might have worked, this upcoming alignment is already a huge deal and in theory all of them clicking into place would let you do some crazy shit. It also might not have, because we don't have any recorded history from back then and who knows what else was going on? Anyway, he was lower priority since by the time they found out about him they felt pretty sure they would be able to stop Halenvar and so long as that happened he wouldn't be able to do his time shenanigans anyway. But then things kept going wrong, and it was really hard to get in and out of Brinkmar.
"Right after they had first learned of the doomsday device, before they knew quite how it worked, they had some people put through Dumineres with very specific instructions. The goal was to gain the magical skills that would be useful in disarming the device, and normally they wouldn't have let me try since the Duminere takes time to build up charges but it seemed like I'd need to be there anyway to get them into Brinkmar they figured why not. And man. I got three abilities. That's really rare. I was excited, but then it ended up being sort of a bad thing because they wanted me to train and get powered up as quickly as possible."
She leaned the chair back at a precarious angle, and managed to thump her boots up on the table without falling backwards. They were the boots I'd been coveting from the statue. She sighed, and scrubbed her hands through her hair the way I do when I'm exhausted. "It was such a pain in the ass. I had to spend every waking second in high mana areas, helping to kill monsters and eating this strange goo. There are a lot of theories about how to increase your power quickly, and we tried all of them. I'm still not sure which ones really helped. I had taken probability magic, runic magic, and temporal magic - we didn't know about the time machine plan, but we did know that there was some time magic involved somehow.
"Between those three abilities the idea is that I would know how to read some of the programming on the device, have some good luck to mess with it, and if I got it wrong I could rewind and try again. But then someone else ended up being better and stronger and just all around more capable than I was, and after I got them into Brinkmar they sent me off to be on the backup team. I was supposed to go with the guys trying to find Ulren, because we knew about the time travel thing by that point, so if the world ended I was supposed to give us another shot. The biggest concern was steering it, so to speak, but since I'd studied the original device from Brinkmar I kinda borrowed the runic code that they used when they tried to insert the person from the future back to the same exact spot they were taken from.
"I figured I could use it - a modified version of it - to go back to the moment we were pulled here from Earth. But I wasn't sure if that would mean you were there too, or if you would never arrive. It was like a fifty-fifty shot. Just in case, I had that bracelet made - remember, the portal could only open every hundred and eighty days and we were still trying to pin down the location of the laboratory so I had some time to plan and mess around. When we found the lab it was pretty much the last second, we hurried over there and almost everyone died in the attack. I got in, they killed Ulren, and I worked on modifying the controls.
"The alignment hit about seven hours later, and the world ended. Just... gone. The lab was the only thing left, in an absolute void. A bubble of stored time kept it stable, and I used the device to go back. It worked, just like it was supposed to. I was there in the lab, but the rest of the world had been restored as it had been when I arrived originally. Ulren was there, super confused but not so much that he didn't immediately try to kill me. He was winning, and I was drained completely dry of mana, and so I ran and then once I was out of sight I doubled back and sabotaged the shit out of his machine. I grabbed some goodies from his lab then ran like hell while he tried to stop the chain reaction I'd started - I barely made it out in time, and I could feel the distorted time bubble all around the area where the lab... well, where it had been a minute before. Because it was totally, completely gone. I saw a bird fly too close and just turn to dust.
"So yeah, Ulren was dead and at this point in the timeline hadn't finished helping with the doomsday device. I had all the intel gained from the war with Halenvar, including secret files from the capitol because we'd won the war and totally taken over the kingdom months before I went back in time - we just hadn't been able to clean them out of Brinkmar. I still don't know what went wrong there in the end, but with all that information we're way ahead of where we would have otherwise been. So it's pretty much guaranteed that they'll be able to win this time, and the world is saved. I got them to send Hugh to look for you, but I wasn't sure you existed and we were super busy putting plans into effect so I couldn't go get you myself. I would have, really, if it hadn't been literally the end of the world at stake."
She looked expectant, like I was supposed to say something. I wasn't really sure how to react. I still hadn't fully processed the idea that there was a future version of me. "So... you saved the world, probably. And now I... I mean, I don't need to do any of that stuff. Right?"
"That, my friend, is the best part. You don't. The world getting destroyed meant the timeline could truly be reset, on a large scale, and so this is a brand new version of events. You get to have what I didn't - you get to just relax and go on an adventure and enjoy being in a world of magic and stuff. One of the things I haven't told anyone is that there's a Duminere that was found in my timeline that's lost still at this point. It's been sitting unused so it has a bunch of charges built up which means if we can get there first you can get magic with no strings attached. I have the notes from the expedition, and we can start planning right away - just us and some guides and stuff."
She still looked mildly... off. But it sounded like she'd been stuck with a lot of extremely tense shit and a lot of responsibility, and that's not really how I thrive. Plus she hadn't had the bracelet, or Hugh, and... yeah, after however long of that I'd probably be pretty on edge too. "Okay. Cool. Good. But uh... I made some friends? I guess? And they're not really experienced but if possible I'd like to bring them along if that's okay."
"Wow, yeah. You work fast, we aren't the friend type normally and you've been traveling this whole time."
"Hah. Yeah, well Errod and Katrin are -"
She flailed, and the chair tipped over backwards with her in it. I heard her head smack against the stone floor, but she shot up to her feet with remarkable speed. "Who? Shit, they're here? They're alive? Oh my god! Come on! Come on! Show me where they are, I have to take that idiot's sword away and give his sister a hug. Now!"
And, tears in her eyes, she ran out of the room.