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That Alfric was a chrononaut was, in some sense, a surprise, but in another sense, made certain things fall into place. That was almost certainly what Filera had seen in him during their encounter at the temple, and it explained some of his rush to get things moving when they’d all started out. He’d wanted to do as much in a day as possible, because that way, if things had gone poorly, he could have started the entire thing over. Perhaps he hadn’t even been thinking like that, it was just something that had been ingrained in him by a whole family who had that ability. Hannah wasn’t entirely sure.

“Is Verity going to be okay?” asked Mizuki, looking at the closed door. “Also, that was going to be my room.”

“She’ll be fine,” said Hannah. “Alfric had a safety net he didn’t tell us about, and he wasn’t keen to use it.” She hoped Verity would be fine. She furrowed her brow and looked at Alfric. “But why didn’t you want to go after the bear then?”

“We had done well enough,” said Alfric. “I didn’t want to put anyone in danger.”

“But if one of us had died,” said Mizuki. “You’d just … redo the day? Make different choices?”

“If I’d been on the second day through, I’d have postponed the dungeon and not risked it without the ability to undo it,” said Alfric. “And, obviously, I would have told you all what had happened.”

“Obviously, ay?” asked Hannah. She pursed her lips. “The temptation wouldn’t have been there to make some excuse?”

“I don’t want to pretend to have a purity that I don’t have,” said Alfric. “I would have lamented the fact that it had to be that way. I might even have thought hard about whether it was possible to not follow through on the commitment to disclosure. But I want this party to last, and I was always going to tell you eventually, it was just a question of whether it would be on my own time or whether it would be necessitated by a reset.”

“But you told us now because you were worried that this ‘Lola’ was going to say something?” asked Mizuki. “Or that she already had?”

Alfric hesitated. “Yes,” he admitted. “Not ideal.”

“But as I said,” Hannah frowned. “It’s a safety net he didn’t tell us about, and there’s good reasons not to.” Something else slipped into place, which was the way Alfric had reacted when there was some question about his honor. He was protective of it, because a chrononaut depended upon trust. Otherwise people might think he was lying about days that had been redone, and whether days had been redone. Or, possibly, he was defensive because people had questioned his honor before on this very issue. He seemed to be handling it well. “Decent reasons, anyhow, since I’m not sure about ‘good’.”

“Wait,” said Mizuki, looking at Alfric. “You’re worried that I’ll do something risky if I know you could just undo it?”

“You did something risky without knowing that I could undo it,” said Alfric.

“Well,” said Mizuki. “I mean, yeah, people do risky things all the time. You have to take risks in life.”

“Chrononauts call it risk hazard,” said Alfric. “If people know there’s something that can protect them, they’ll take more risks, which makes things more difficult for us when we’re trying to undo things and get a good day in place.”

“I guess,” said Mizuki. “But shouldn’t we take more risks? To get more from the dungeons?”

“If you died — you understand that seeing a party member die isn’t something that I want to have to go through?” he asked. There was something about the way he was handling the conversation that was … well, like he’d had it before. Hannah didn’t think he was lying, just that he’d probably had these kinds of conversations many times before, and been mentally preparing himself to have this talk with them. “That not only would we have to delay a day for safety’s sake, but that I’d have to go through more brutal fights and injuries in a newly created dungeon whose layout and contents I wouldn’t know? Going through the dungeon that first failed time would be for nothing aside from the experience of it.”

“But you like dungeons,” said Mizuki.

“I’d lay off him,” said Hannah. “He’s the one taking beatin’s for us. Makes sense not to want more.”

“Just trying to understand,” Mizuki shrugged. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“I’m not sure I understand the scope of your powers,” said Isra.

“I can undo a day,” said Alfric, turning to her. This, too, seemed like it was something he was well prepared for, but there were obvious mundane reasons for that. “Not a full day, just back to the witching hour, in the dead of the night, before the sun is up. That’s the common point for all chrononauts, varying a bit by how far east or west they are.” He had a particular way of talking to Isra, which she seemed to take to, and Hannah resolved to mimic it as much as possible the next time there was something that Isra didn’t know. The girl did seem to know quite a bit about religion though, more than expected. “It’s the same for all chrononauts, only a single day back in time, with the only thing that varies being how many times we can do a day. My second time through a day I’m fine, but a third time through, I feel somewhat ill, and I can’t do a fourth. My parents can both do six, and I’ve heard of people being able to do as many as twelve. It takes some conscious effort, so I can’t do it if I’m knocked out, and it happens automatically if I die. There’s a complicated system of priority, but for now I think all you really need to know is that Lola takes her days before I take mine, meaning that either this is what she’s settled on for today, or the events of today that were impacted by her will be undone, and we’ll have no memory or experience of this conversation.”

“You said that you had an arranged marriage,” said Isra. “With this girl.”

“With Lola, yes,” said Alfric. “And not a marriage, necessarily, just a pact that we would propagate the power, and if we didn’t, we would find replacements for each other. Chrononauts have chrononaut children, but only if they breed with other chrononauts.”

“Seems the wrong word there, ‘breed’,” said Hannah. “You’re saying it’s recessive.”

“No,” said Alfric. “Or not quite. It doesn’t skip generations like some recessive traits do. If you have any non-chrononauts in your family tree, you don’t have the power.”

“How’d the first chrononaut get born then?” asked Mizuki.

“Unclear,” said Alfric. “Legend goes that seven hundred years ago in Tarbin, three large families either chanced into it or somehow earned it from one of the gods, and careful marriages saved the line from going out. Those careful marriages aren’t as necessary today, because there are so many of us, but they’re still practiced to make sure there’s another generation.”

“But you didn’t want to marry her,” said Isra. “Or have her children.”

“It’s complicated,” said Alfric. “But no.”

“She seemed a little intense,” said Mizuki. “A little frightening.”

“She was always like that,” said Alfric. “And she was always cavalier about using her power, much more than we’re supposed to be.” He hesitated. “She’s an alienist.”

“A potent combination,” said Hannah. “If things go wrong with how she tries to bind, she undoes and tries again, ay?” Alienists were scary, mostly because the binding needed to be done with utmost care, and if it wasn’t, then people could die. Flaws in the binding could also crop up later on, resulting in self immolation, or decapitation, or worse. It was something people didn’t go into unless they had both the natural aptitude and tolerance for risk, but for a chrononaut, at least some of the problems could be swept to the side.

“The extent of the risks she’s taken,” said Alfric. “The things she’s done and then undone … there’s no way of knowing. Entads don’t work with our power. The most you could do is comb through her memories, but if there’s a method of involuntary memory combing, I haven’t heard of it. There were suspicions though. Things she knew that she shouldn’t have known. Metaphors that she’d drop which … weren’t the kind of metaphors that someone would make unless there were certain things they’d done and seen. She admitted a few things to me, mostly petty crimes and social transgressions, but there was often the hint of something more. She said that she’d stabbed someone once, but she never revealed who, because we got in a fight about it.”

“Is there a chance she killed me?” asked Mizuki, eyes wide.

Alfric’s lips went thin. “It’s not clear if she’s ever killed anyone. I don’t want to slander her. It’s all rumors, and I know how rumors that you can’t possibly refute can be. I … would think it likely that she’d spoken with you before, but unlikely that she tried to hurt you.” If it had come to that, an alienist against a sorcerer … well, Hannah didn’t know enough to say, but her money was on Mizuki unless it was a surprise attack. The problem was that it very probably would be a surprise attack.

“She sounds horrible,” said Isra. She had her arms folded and was watching carefully.

“She wasn’t,” said Alfric. “I mean … you have to understand how it is for us. We live through days that we know aren’t going to matter. She came into her ability early, around ten, and I think at that age, she felt more of a need to push the boundaries. And then after that, when we were older, she knew exactly how far the boundaries could be pushed, how easy it could be to steal things, how people would react if she said something obscene, and — all of that would have been fine, maybe, bad things that got undone, but I never played those games with her, and she didn’t like that.”

“You never did any of that stuff?” asked Mizuki. “You never once insulted someone who you knew wouldn’t have any memory of it?”

“When I was younger I wasn’t perfect.” He took a breath. “I went into dungeons,” said Alfric. “Alone.”

Mizuki gaped at him. “City dungeons?” she asked.

“Ones on the city outskirts,” said Alfric. “Using a key that I stole from my parents. I just … wanted to see what they were like. I never made it out alive. Six times total. It was something Lola and I bonded over, though we probably shouldn’t have.”

“And then later on you had a fight and went your separate paths, ay?” asked Hannah.

“Not quite. I had plans,” said Alfric. “I was a part of the Junior Adventurer’s League, training, getting ready, recruiting a team, training with a team. I had maps and plans,” he turned to Mizuki. “And yes, I know, that’s very funny.”

She frowned. “Not in this context, no.”

“We were a week, a week away from heading out,” said Alfric. “We were just waiting for our last member to turn seventeen. Then, very suddenly, I was out of the party, and it was her party instead. I don’t know how long she had been working on it, but she pulled the rug out from under me.”

“And that’s why you have us,” said Isra.

“No,” said Alfric. “No, she was going to undo it, if I bowed to her will. If I was going to be her … partner in crime, I suppose, on those undone days. There were arguments that nearly swayed me. I wouldn’t have any memories of the transgressions. But I said no, and that was that. I undid the day, trying to get to them, to talk to them, but she’d laid all the groundwork. It was like a trap that had been waiting there, hidden, and the only way to get her not to use it would be to convince her, which I failed at. I don’t even think she wants to be a dungeoneer. So the reason that I’m here, with this party, is because I didn’t want to bend for her. I didn’t want to be that kind of person, even if I wasn’t going to remember it.”

“And her turning up here is no coincidence,” said Hannah, nodding. “Seems a thorny situation we find ourselves in.” She was very careful to include that ‘we’. Alfric needed help, that was clear enough, and it was better to reinforce that they were a team. It would probably also do to say it out loud.

“No coincidence?” asked Mizuki, looking at Hannah. “Meaning that she followed Alfric here?”

“It seems likely,” said Alfric. He let out a groan and slumped against the couch. “All I want is to be left alone.”

“Like Verity does,” said Isra. She still had her arms folded and a cool expression on her face.

“Point taken,” said Alfric. “I’m hoping she’s more upset about keeping the secret than she is about the ability, because if it’s about the ability, there’s nothing much that I can do.” He sighed, then stood up. “Are there any other questions that I need to answer before I take a bath and then sleep the sleep of the dead?”

“Are we in danger here?” asked Mizuki.

“No,” said Alfric. “Absolutely not. Lola isn’t what I would consider a good person, but she’s not going to assault anyone, even in an undone day.” In Hannah’s opinion, his conviction was just slightly lacking. “And if anything happens to any of you, from Lola or anyone or anything else, I’ll undo it and protect you.”

“Well,” said Mizuki, who seemed somewhat warmed by that. She looked at the door to the room. “Is Verity just going to sleep in my room?” asked Mizuki. “Because that’s the one with the big bed, and I was going to share it with someone, but I don’t just want to go in and say that’s what we’re doing. I should have arranged it over the channel, sorry.”

“I’ll see if she wants me to sleep next to her,” said Isra. “We shared a room last night.”

Hannah felt like she was the only one that noticed that offer from the usually quiet Isra. It was good that they were finding friends in one another, and she wondered whether it was something more, though neither of them were giving any of the usual signals.

“So no other questions, especially about the chrononaut stuff?” asked Alfric. “We can talk about this more in the morning, and on the way back, but I’ve done too much today, and my body is aching.”

“You’ll tell us, if you ever reset the day?” asked Hannah.

Alfric hesitated. “I’ll tell you if I saw you that day. I do, from time to time, take a day off and go out to train on my own. I’ve done that, since we’ve known each other. I leave a note, when I do.”

“So if there’s a day when we see a note, we’ll know you’re going to undo the day?” asked Mizuki. “What do we do then?”

“Act normal,” said Alfric. “There’s no good protocol. Keep your head down, do your work, don’t take risks, don’t try to find me. We can talk about some of the ethical questions later, so I can have your opinions, if you still want to be in a party with me.”

“Why wouldn’t we?” asked Mizuki. “You can literally undo it if I get a scratch. Seems good.”

“People have complicated opinions,” said Alfric. “I’ve been dealing with those opinions for years. I won’t take for granted that you don’t feel awkward about it, or that you don’t hate me for it. It’s one of the reasons I was putting it off.”

“Go take your bath,” said Hannah. “You stink of dungeon. And we’re a team, ay? If she needs it, I’ll help you smooth things over with Verity, but I don’t think she’ll need it, she’s just tired.”

Alfric nodded, then trudged off to the bathroom.

“Wild,” said Mizuki once he was gone. “So we were never in danger this entire time?”

“Seems like,” said Hannah. “Puts him in a bit of a different light.”

“Does it?” asked Isra.

“The ‘nauts are tricky ones,” said Hannah. “They’ve a reputation for both taking risks and being conservative, but I’d guess they’re more than their power, and I confess I’ve never met one.”

“More than their power?” asked Isra.

“Most people are, more than their power, more than their profession,” said Hannah, nodding. “You’re more than a druid, Zuki is more than a sorc, and I’m more than a cleric of Garos, though I hew close to the mold.”

“Zuki?” asked Mizuki.

“I don’t know what people say about druids,” said Isra.

“We should probably go over that,” said Mizuki. She rubbed the back of her head. “The other woods witch, Dom, is part of the whole reason that we’ve come to Liberfell. I’ve got no idea whether she comes from the same ‘mold’ as a typical druid, but you should at least know what to expect.”

“Distant, a bit haughty, comfortable in their own skin but not around others,” said Hannah. “Save that you eat meat, and bein’ from Tarbin, I think you’re close enough.”

“They don’t have druids in Tarbin?” asked Isra.

“They do,” said Mizuki. “Probably. At least, I haven’t heard otherwise. But coming from Tarbin means that you’ll be different from a normal woods witch anyway, right?”

“I suppose,” said Isra.

“Territorial,” said Hannah, snapping her fingers. “At least, so I’ve heard.”

“But they also congregate, right?” asked Mizuki.

“I wouldn’t say that,” said Hannah. “It’s more like … well, like a family reunion, ay?”

“Never had one,” said Mizuki, shaking her head.

“Aunts and uncles come from all over, and you see them like you were old friends,” said Hannah. “And then you go back to your respective corners of the world, not expecting to see them again for another year or two.”

“Oh, yeah, that does make sense,” said Mizuki. She turned to Isra. “Druids are definitely like that. And I’m seeing from your face that it's not helpful to you.”

Isra shook her head. “I’ll talk to Dom. She might understand me better.”

“Can I see the incubator and the containment?” asked Hannah, moving across the room to where they had been stashed. When they’d gotten back to the room, Isra had been carrying them, and Mizuki had been much more interested in talking about the mysterious girl, which in fairness, was the more interesting thing to talk about. Then after that, there had been the whole business with Alfric being a chrononaut.

“I need to eat,” said Isra. “Are we all on our own tonight?”

“For food, I think so,” said Hannah. “We’ve made no plans, and Verity’s already wolfed something down.”

“Are you up for finding something with me?” asked Mizuki. “Liberfell has some great food.”

“Ay,” said Hannah. “Isra?”

But Isra only shook her head and slipped out the door.

Hannah looked down at the incubator. “Expensive, was it?”

“The old bastlekeeper seemed keen on her,” said Mizuki, nodding in the direction of the door. “After I talked to the crazy girl, Lola, I went into the back to see what was taking them so long, and Isra was just going through the animals, one by one, telling him what they each needed. ‘This one needs a small rock in its gullet’ or ‘this one needs more fresh air’ or ‘this one needs natural moonlight’. She was amazing. She was just tossing it all off, like it should have been obvious to him, and he was hurrying to keep notes and ask her questions. I’m not sure that she even saw what she was doing as labor, but by the end of it, she’d probably saved him hundreds of rings, and he gave us what we needed and insisted that we don’t pay him. It does make me wonder how much the other druid might have been charging, and whether Isra inadvertently undercut her. Probably something to talk about. Usually she’s got more of a head for business.”

The egg was in a heavy glass jar, sitting on a bed of linen fibers, and affixed in place with wires, which led down to a wooden base at the bottom of the jar. Also affixed with wires were two stones.

“Ventstone, to give it air,” said Mizuki. “And a warming element, to give it the ‘heat of a summer day’. You should have seen her going through what he had for stock, touching them. She had no idea what temperature she wanted in terms of degrees, but she could rest a finger on the element for like, two seconds and say that it wasn’t warm enough, or was too warm. She was smelling the ventstones.”

“Does that work?” asked Hannah. She didn’t know enough about ectads. “Do they … smell different?”

“I’ve got no idea,” said Mizuki. “If you’d asked me before today, I’d have said not, but,” she shrugged.

“We’ll have to get a voidstone to make it work with the book. And this,” said Hannah, moving over to the second acquisition, which was a stack of cages made out of a thick wire mesh which could apparently be folded. They were folded up, so they could pack flat. “Not somethin’ we could put into the book.”

“No,” said Mizuki, frowning. “But if you want it entirely sealed, that’s way more expensive.”

“Ay,” said Hannah, giving the folded up cages a dubious eye. “Not sure that we’ll be able to pull out much, using these.”

“Small things,” said Mizuki. “We could have taken some of those flying books out.”

“Ay,” said Hannah, sighing. “Well, Isra will be the expert on the bastles, I expect.” She stood up. “Now, to find something to eat?” She wondered whether Mizuki was going to want to talk more about the chrononaut business, but it seemed like the girl needed more time.

“I’m starving,” said Mizuki. “And I know a few good places around here.”

Maybe it would take her quite a bit of time.

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A note from Alexander Wales

This chapter uses the phrase "the witching hour", which here means the dead of the night, sometime around 3am. Some people use "the witching hour" to mean midnight, which I fundamentally disagree with, since we already have a word for midnight. The witching hour is more of a feeling than an actual time, the point when you're the fartherst from normal waking hours, when the roads are mostly empty, when the bars are closed, when it's deathly silent and you feel like you're transgressing by being awake. The time we call midnight is not that time, because midnight is not actually the middle of the night. And yes, I do feel strongly about this.


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Alexander Wales

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