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The Choice

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"If you claim me, you can still stop Kalen. You can save Julia, you can save Stephen, you can save Raven's Roost. You can save this life that you earned. Take me, and we can do it together."

A soft gasp, the first breath Magnus has taken since Julia walked into the vision that the Chalice is showing him. Could he really do this? Could he really save Julia, save his home, save his life?

It is everything he ever wanted. Everything he ever needed. He can have it all back. And all he needs to do is take this opportunity.

"Wait," a soft rich voice murmurs, somewhere in the back of his head, but Magnus doesn't want to wait. He doesn't want to think, or plan, or consider the consequences of erasing the last several years of his life. Magnus doesn't sit back and contemplate all the ramifications of his choices. Magnus rushes in. So without another thought, he reaches out, curling his left hand around the Chalice.

"I accept."

June lets out a quiet sigh of triumph. "And so do I." She lays her own small, withered hand over his, and everything swirls into clouds of white.

-x-

As the whiteness dissipated, Magnus found himself staring at a wooden door. His right hand rested on the doorknob, and the rocking chair hung heavy on his back.

He blinked, twice. That was the door leading out of the Hammer and Tongs, all right, the door that Stephen had hewn out of solid oak, then hung in the empty door frame, the finishing touches on the workshop that the two of them were to share, remodeled and expanded after the fight ended.

Stephen. Magnus looked to the right and there he was: Stephen Waxman, tall and solid and tending a bit to fat in his middle years. Stephen. His mentor, and the closest thing he'd ever had to a dad, since-- since as long as he could remember. Here, and alive.

Which meant.... Magnus swallowed, then looked over his shoulder. She was there, too, just as she'd been in the memory the Chalice had just shown him, the memory he still revisited in dreams. Dressed simply, her dark curls slipping out of a bun, the tendrils framing her smiling face, hands resting lightly on her hips. Julia, the last time he'd ever seen her.

Except this time... this time he could fix it. He could leave and come back and find her here, alive and well.

If this was real. Was it real? Or was it just another vision, or a dream, something that would fall apart as soon as he touched it? If he tried to touch Julia, and she wasn't there, if his hand passed through her-- he didn't dare. That would break him, for good.

He tightened his hand on the doorknob. It felt solid enough. As did... he looked down into his other hand and realized he was still clutching the Chalice. June's final words rang in his ears. "We can fix it together."

"Magnus?" He turned around again, and her expression was -- not serious, exactly. More like quizzical. "Is something wrong?"

He opened his mouth to tell her-- but no. She could never know, nothing about what happened or why he came back. Nor could he drop everything and run to her, pull her into his arms, cover her face with kisses. No matter how deeply he longed to do it. That would break him, too. And he couldn't afford to break. Not yet, not when everything depended on what he did next.

So he took a deep breath and forced a smile while holding the Chalice close to his waist, out of her view. "Nothing. Bye, Jules. I love you. I'll see you soon."

She smiled back. "Good luck, darlin'."

"Thanks." And with a barely-controlled nod to Stephen, he pushed the door open and let it fall closed behind him, then went down the stairs to the cart that was waiting. He loaded the chair, got in the driver's seat, and clicked the reins to start the horses and turn them around. Not toward Neverwinter. Toward the palace, where Governor Kalen surely waited, plotting his impending revenge.

-x-

The journey to Kalen's palace took half a day by cart, three hours on horseback. Given what he knew about the ambush, Magnus figured he had less than day to make his move. About half an hour out from Raven's Roost, Magnus pulled the cart over and hid it behind some trees. It would slow him down, and he also didn't want to risk anything happening to the rocking chair. It would be the centerpiece of their home. The home they would finally get to build together.

That thought, crossing his mind as he tied up the horse that would be staying with the cart, finally broke through his calm facade. He wrapped his arms around the horse's neck and put his face against her warm flank, and he wept. With fear, with joy, with relief. Julia was alive. Alive. And if he played this right, he could rewrite history to keep it that way.

It took a few minutes until he was steady enough to stand up under his own power. Wiping the tears from his face, he pulled the Chalice out of his pack. "So," he said. "How does this work?"

June didn't appear, but he heard her voice, coming from everywhere and nowhere. That's up to you. I can't tell you how to fix things. All I can do is give you the opportunity.

He nodded. "How many chances do I get?"

She chuckled. As many as you need. I may not be able to give you much, Magnus. But second chances? Those I have, in plenty. But I will warn you of one thing. She paused. You saw what happened to June, back in Refuge. Too many times through too short a loop will take their toll on you. Especially if you need me to preserve someone else's memory, as I preserved yours.

"Got it." He put the Chalice back in the back. "I hope I can get it right the first time. Well, the second." He closed his eyes, shook his head. "I should have known that Kalen wouldn't give up so easily."

That's why I'm here, the Chalice said, her tone soothing. No one should have to get everything perfectly right on the first try, should they?

"Right," Magnus murmured, pushing away a vaguely disquieting feeling that something was wrong in what she'd just said. He'd made this decision; he wasn't about to start second-guessing himself. Especially not now that he'd seen Julia again. He would save her. He had to save her.

He left the mare on a lead long enough to get to creek that ran just under the trees, then saddled the second horse. From the cart, he pulled out a day's worth of food and his weapons. No Rail Splitter, no Shield of Heroic Memories, but his old battle axe, shield, and short bow had all served him well. And, it occurred to him, not so old right now. Swinging himself up on to the other horse, a spirited gelding -- he wished he could remember either horse's name, but those details had been lost in the intervening years -- he clicked his tongue and snapped the reigns. Just a few hours ride, and he'd be at the palace gates. He could decide what to do once he got there.

-x-

As the gates came into view, Magnus had the vague shape of a plan in mind. Only a vague plan, though, and he sighed with frustration. He much preferred to read a situation and decide what to do on the fly. If only Taako and Merle were with him -- not that either of them was a master tactician, really, but Taako in particular had a way of thinking through the options and coming up with a creative solution, and it was good to bounce ideas off them. Or Carey. Yeah, he thought, Carey would be the perfect companion for this mission. She would come up with some clever ruse to sneak into Kalen's palace and then set up Killian to take Kalen out from behind. Not exactly the noble route, but more effective, he suspected, than just charging the gates on horseback.

But none of this was how this deal worked. The Chalice had never come out and said that he was on his own, that he needed to tell no one, bring no one in on the secret of its mystical power. But he knew. No competent woman was going to swoop in and save him this time. He had to figure it out for himself.

At least he could take another shot at it if he messed everything up. That had been a comfort, back in Refuge -- and a familiar feeling, too, in a weird way.

So, charging the gates on horseback it was, at least this time around. As the palace came into view, Magnus lowered his head and urged his horse into a gallop. He put one arrow between his teeth, then pulled out another, setting it in his short bow and bracing himself against the horse's neck. Before a shout could come up from the guards, he fired; the arrow caught the man to the right of the gates in the chest, and he staggered and fell. Magnus took a second shot, up at the guard on the wall, but that went wide.

"To arms! It's Burnsides!" The shout was followed by a volley of arrow fire. Before Magnus could reload, an arrow caught him in the arm, and as the bow fell from his hands, another arrow found his neck. Pain, burning pain, he couldn't breathe, he was falling, falling from the horse, and everything went white.

-x-

And he's back in the white room, lying on the ground, June standing over him. She clicks her tongue at him as he gets up. "Really? A one-man full-frontal assault?"

Magnus glares at her. "I thought you said you couldn't help me with the plan."

She spreads her hands wide. "Some things should be obvious."

He sighs. "All right, I'll come up with something else. Do I have to do the full loop again, or--"

"No." She cuts him off with an upraised hand. "You can go as far forward or back as you wish."

"Really?" Magnus cocks his head to the side. "Then why didn't you go back to before your father died? Or go even further back and keep the miners from disturbing the purple worm in the first place?"

"Most people can only go back to the point where they took the chalice." June sits down at the table, and Magnus realizes that he's back in the Davy Lamp. "But you can exert a bit more control."

Magnus furrows his brow. "Why?"

June shakes her head; he's not getting an answer. "Where shall I take you?" she asks instead.

Magnus thinks about it. "Back to town, right before I left," he says. "I have an idea."

June waves a hand and the familiar white is back, filling his senses until the room disappears.

-x-

This time, Magnus found himself sitting on the cart, the reins already in his hands. Instead of turning the cart around and heading to Kalen's palace, Magnus drove in the direction of Neverwinter. Then, two hours out of Raven's Roost, he hid the cart again, tied up the mare, took his weapons, saddled up the gelding, and doubled back toward town.

Going to the palace had been a fool's errand; he had known it as he did it. Magnus could be a lot of things, but a one-man siege engine was beyond his capabilities, especially with time so short. But taking out a team of men waiting in ambush, setting up to bomb Raven's Roost? That he could do. Then, once the town was safe, and with evidence of the governor's treachery in hand, he would rally the troops and take Kalen out for good, like they should have done in the first place.

So he rode back toward town, taking care to keep out of sight of the main road, until he reached the section of forest where he had found the remains of the enemy camp the last time around, when he had come home to a deserted town and a pile of rubble. Except it was closer to the road than he remembered, and the first he knew of the sentry was when the point of a crossbow bolt found his eye. Just like before, he fell off the horse, and just like before, the world went white.

-x-

Even though it hadn't worked last time, the plan to sneak up on the camp seemed sound. So Magnus retraced his steps: out of Raven's Roost, to the hiding place two hours out of town, back toward the enemy encampment. At least he knew he was heading for the right place, right?

He skirted the trees where the sentry hid, making a wide curve around the camp, coming back around from the other side... and the horse let out a scream as it stepped through a pile of boughs into an open pit; Magnus had only a split second to feel bad about the horse before he hit the row of sharpened wooden stakes, the blast of excruciating pain followed, once again, by the white.

-x-

"Again?"

"Again."

-x-

Ten more times Magnus tried to sneak up on that damn camp, and ten more times he failed. Even when he left his horse behind, even when he came from a different direction, even when he thought he'd found every sentry and every trap, some new wrinkle would come out of nowhere to stop him. And, usually, kill him, although on the sixth attempt, when he stepped on a net that swept him up into the trees, he managed just enough reach to put a finger on the Chalice, which had been jostled half out of his pack.

"Do I have to die in order to try again? Because I gotta say, I suppose I could manage something, or wait for them to come get me, but I'd really rather not."

He heard the Chalice chuckle in response. No. Just will it, and it will be so.

"Thank God," Magnus muttered, and he closed his eyes and went back into the white.

-x-

On the thirteenth try, or maybe it was the fourteenth, Magnus pulled the cart into its hiding place, then took a moment to consider. He had been so sure that going for the camp was the right approach, but was it just too well guarded?

Maybe storming the camp wasn't the right approach. Maybe he should catch them in the act.

So instead of his past routine, he tied up both horses, took his weapons and two days worth of food, and went in a slightly different direction: straight back to town, to stake out the vulnerable spot where the explosives would be set. A bit risky -- someone might spot him and wonder why he wasn't in Neverwinter. But anything had to be better than getting killed on his way into that camp, over and over again.

So he returned to Raven's Roost, still sticking to the shadows, thanking Carey for her training every time he heard someone coming down the road and ducked behind a tree. Once he got close enough, he circled around to approach town from the back, then settling down in a secluded spot to wait.

And wait, and wait, and wait.

Magnus checked the sky; night would be falling soon. Could he really just sit here and wait?

Patience, Magnus, the voice said, tone soothing. Time is the one thing you have in abundance.

"Can’t you make it go faster?”

A distant chuckle was the only reply he got. “Fine," he muttered, “be that way.” He closed his eyes and let himself relax, and the same picture as always came into his mind: Julia laughing, Julia smiling, Julia sitting in the rocking chair and breathing the scent of lavender polish.

It tormented him, knowing that she was so close by. But he didn't dare go to her, much as he longed to -- it would give the game away. He had to get this right just one time, and then they'd be together forever.

He settled more snugly against the back of the bluff and with that thought in mind, he drifted into sleep.

-x-

Magnus opens his eyes and he's in the Davy Lamp again, an ache in the back of his head the best clue to his demise.

"Dammit!" He pounds the table. "How could I be so stupid?"

June looks up at him with her large weary eyes. "Back to the cart?"

He shakes his head. "Back to just before I drifted off. I'm not making that mistake again."

She nods, and the white returns.

-x-

Magnus opened his eyes and jumped to his feet, but he was alone. Whoever had snuck up on him last time clearly wasn't here yet, but he had to think they wouldn't be long. The bombing had been-- would be two days after he left, and that meant setting up the charges tomorrow, or maybe the day after. So he'd assumed a good day, day and a half to wait, but the attack that had ended the last cycle suggested otherwise. Someone would be here no later than the dawn.

He rummaged around in his pack, and pulled out the piece of wood that he kept on hand for situations like this one, along with his carving knife. He took the knife and tossed it in the air, watching it flip around in the air before he caught it. Then he held the wood up to the moonlight and considered what shape might be hiding in there. Maybe a dog? Or a duck? He held the knife against the knotty surface of the thick branch and, after a moment of consideration, took the first cut.

-x-

Full darkness had fallen and the crescent moon was setting when Magnus heard the soft snap of a twig behind him.

Without a moment's pause, he jumped to his feet and whirled around, battle axe in hand; he barely had time to see the shock in the soldier's eyes as he took the man's head off in a single sweep.

The body crumpled at Magnus's feet, and he set the axe aside with a grunt of satisfaction before kneeling down to search the corpse for some clue to Kalan's specific plans: explosives, written orders, whatever might be helpful. But half an hour later he had turned up nothing, and he stood up with a sigh. Next time, if he needed a next time, he'd keep the man alive and question him instead. Or... "A boy," he said, softly, out loud, with a brief pang of guilt as he looked at the surprised expression on the young face. He looked away and set his mouth in a grim smile. It didn't matter; boy or man, anyone who chose to work for Kalen deserved what they got.

Magnus covered the corpse with some brush and returned to his half-finished carving -- he had decided on a dog, a racing dog, maybe a whippet -- while he waited for the rest of his foes to arrive.

-x-

Night passed into morning and slowly crept into afternoon; the sun was already halfway down the sky by the time Magnus heard any indication that anyone else might be coming: the sound of footsteps and a few muttered words in the distance. He set the ration he'd been gnawing back into his pack, then got behind a tree to watch. A few minutes later, a group of five men came into view, all armed but none carrying explosives. Magnus crouched lower to the ground and leaned as close as he dared, hoping to catch some of their conversation.

"...don't know what that idiot boy is up to," the one in the middle said. "He was supposed to scout the area and come right back."

"Maybe he got lost," another soldier volunteered. "First time out of his momma's house, and all."

They sniggered, and Magnus felt another unexpected stab of guilt; he brushed it away and refocused his attention. One of the others shook his head, then glanced up toward Raven's Roost. "Hope the others are in place," he said. "This is a long trip for nothing if they ain't."

"They'll be ready," the leader said. "Come morning, this place'll go sky-high, and all we have to do is pick off the stragglers." He patted his longbow, and Magnus fought back a surge of rage. How dare these people speak like this, so cavalier about sending people to their deaths?

He settled quietly back into place as the troupe of five made camp, and thought about his next move. It seemed clear that he'd picked the wrong place -- these were just a rear guard, and the actual explosives that would take down Raven's Roost were being placed elsewhere. So, what to do? Wait here for an opportune moment, then sneak out to search for the main force? Reset the cycle and start over again to find the correct spot? Either way, maybe he needed to take these guys out first.

Magnus's hands twitched around his axe; he wanted to hurt these men, to kill them, with a violence that surprised him a little. But would it be the smart move?

Carey would say no. He could almost hear her now -- "Remember, bud, you don't have to take the big hit every time." With a sudden pang, he realized that Carey would never meet him now. Well, he still remembered her, and maybe he always would. And her advice had its place, but not today. So once the soldiers were settled down around their small campfire, Magnus burst out of his hiding place with a bellow, axe swinging down on top of the leader's head, cleaving it in half before the other soldiers had even noticed his battle cry. He whirled around and caught the next man in the neck, and then the rest of them jumped to their feet.

Time slowed to a crawl -- was it just the frenzy of battle, heightening his senses? Or was some deeper magic at work? Magnus didn't pause to question it, focusing instead on fighting the man in front of him, whoever it happened to be. They had been armed mostly with ranged weapons -- longbows, crossbows, one spear thrower leaned up against a tree -- and so even once they had come to attention they were only fighting him with daggers and knives, and Magnus made short work of them, pausing only when the last man fell with a deep gash in his chest.

"Burnsides? How did you find us?" The soldier gasped as Magnus placed the axe right over his neck. "You were supposed to be out of town."

"Yeah, well maybe Kalen isn't as clever as he thinks he is." Magnus pressed the blade right up against his flesh. "Now tell me. Where are the rest of you?"

"Around to the north side. Weaker construction there." The soldier gave him an evil grin. "But you'll never get there in time."

"What do you mean?" Magnus pushed a little closer, and a line of blood welled up around the axe blade. "Tell me?"

The soldier let out what might have been a laugh. "Why should I? You won't let me live either way."

"No," Magnus agreed. "But you can die fast or slow. Up to you."

He paused, as though considering his options, then shook his head. "Fuck you, man. Do whatever you want."

What Magnus wanted was to keep pushing on the axe and kill him right then and there, but a promise was a promise. "Fine," he said. "Good luck. There are wolves in these woods, you know." And he swiped at the man's gut one more time and walked away, pushing the sound of screams into the background.

-x-

It took two hours of picking his way through the forest, moving as fast as he dared but still slow enough to stay out of sight, before Magnus understood the soldier's meaning. Because up next to the bluff, on the north side as promised, was a shimmering bubble of magic, not too different from the field that surrounded Refuge, except better camouflaged. The bubble around Refuge kept people away by being visible, by being a signpost that no one was getting past it. This force field was much subtler, merely providing a suggestion that nothing of interest was inside. If he hadn't been looking for it, or something like it, Magnus would probably have never noticed. Especially not the Magnus of six years ago. But now, thanks to spending more time around magic, he was more attuned to this type of trick, and he pulled his axe, charging the wall.

Because anything could be behind that shield, anything could be cutting its way through to destabilize the rock, any explosives could be placed there, and he had to get there in time to stop it. He had to.

So he ran straight for that shimmering wall and swung his axe at it -- and it passed through, harmlessly, its edge disappearing as it broke the plane of the wall but encountering no resistance.

Magnus frowned, and reach out to touch the wall with his hands. Instead of passing through, he stopped short. It didn't hurt, but it felt like solid rock, no give whatsoever, even when he leaned on it with all his strength. He tried the axe again, and it cut through the wall like it was air.

"What the fuck?" Magnus prodded at the surface with his finger, poked it, then ran his hand along the edge. It all felt just like rock, plain, ordinary rock, no different from the actual cliff wall on either side. With a grunt of frustration, he swung the axe against what he assumed was the cliff, and he heard the clang of metal against stone. Then he tried the shimmering area again, and the axe passed through without a sound.

The silence was followed by a crack, then a boom, followed by an earth-deep rumble that almost -- but not quite -- drowned out the screams from above.

"No!" Magnus let out a howl and whirled his axe again, but there was nothing to fight: the shield fell, and there was no one behind it, just the gaping hole that whatever unknown weapon had left, already rapidly filling with rubble; there was another rumble, and Magnus looked up just in time to see the giant boulder headed straight for him.

-x-

Magnus watched Raven's Roost fall many, many more times.

For the next cycle, and several that followed, he went back again to the place where he had first fallen asleep, but rather than waiting for his assailant, he got up and made straight for the shielded area. It was already there, already silent and completely impassable to him, unassailable by any weapon. No matter how hard he pushed against it, ran into it, pounded it with his fists, he couldn't pass through. His axe could -- including the one time he threw it through in a fit of frustration -- as could pebbles, and sticks, and even a pinecone. But nothing did any damage, and it remained standing. Until the following afternoon, when without fail the explosion happened, and the walls fell, and Magnus was crushed.

He tried other tactics: approaching from the opposite side, heading straight for the shielded area instead of hiding the cart, watching from a distance, running headlong into the force field. Nothing changed. Every time, he saw no one, made no progress, and watched his home die -- and more often than not, he died with it. Dozens of times. Fifty. A hundred. No change. No hope. How the hell was he supposed to stop this?

-x-

Magnus is back in the white, and June is starting to show signs of strain. Not as badly as she did in Refuge, but the crows feet are creeping back around her eyes, her breathing becoming more labored.

"Again?" She stands up, hands resting on the table, which almost hides how hard they tremble.

"Screw this," Magnus says. "I need to try something else. How far back can I go?"

"As far as your memory goes."

Magnus nods. "Then I know what I need to do."

-x-

Magnus came aware again, and he was exactly where he needed to be: outside Kalen's throne room, exhausted and beaten soldiers scattered throughout the grounds, a troupe of farmers and craftspeople and merchants behind him, the haft of his battle axe smooth in his hand. The town cooper standing to his left, and Julia to his right.

Julia. He looked at her, and saw the exhaustion and triumph in her face, just as he remembered it. He remembered everything about this moment, and the battle that had led up to it -- his friends and neighbors who fell, but in lesser numbers than anyone had expected; the soldiers who fought back, but knew their cause was lost.

He knew that his next move was to walk into the throne room and tell Kalen that he was finished, that he would bother Raven's Roost no more. They would spare his life and be on their way.

That had been the plan, but plans changed.

Magus looked over at Julia. "Jules, do you trust me?"

She turned back to him, startled. "Of course."

"Will you follow my lead if I have to change the plan, even if I can't tell you why?"

"Well, sure." She shrugged. "I'm sure you have a good reason."

"Oh, I do." He risked touching her, laying his palm quickly on her face. Her warm, sweet face, and even that was almost too much, feeling her alive for the first time in-- he'd lost track of how long. He swallowed the lump out of his throat and pulled away. "Okay. Let's do this." And he turned forward and marched straight into the throne room.

Kalen's soldiers knew they were beaten, so Magnus faced no resistance as he walked up the stairs. The doors had been closed, but as he approached they creaked open, swinging out over the landing. He entered the room to find the Mad Governor Kalen in all his glory, flanked by a few soldiers and advisors, sitting on his throne, dressed in gleaming armor. The armor's high polish and lack of dents betrayed its ceremonial function -- Magnus had never seen Kalen in the field, only directing his troops from far behind the lines. The man had never fought his own battles, and clearly he wasn't about to start now; he gestured from the throne with a look of angry contempt, and one of his advisors stepped forward, a scroll in his hands.

The advisor cleared his throat and held out the scroll. "Our terms of surrender. I hope you will find them agreeable."

Magnus looked down at the offered scroll, clearly remembered taking it, unrolling it, scanning the contents, and being satisfied. He'd been such a fool. This time, he knocked the scroll out of the advisor's hands, then punched the man in the jaw, sending him reeling backwards. Behind Magnus, Julia gasped, and he heard a murmur rising up from the rest of the crowd.

"There's only one term of surrender I'll accept." Magnus pointed his axe at Kalen. "Your head. Right here, right now."

The murmur grew louder, and Magnus felt Julia tug on his sleeve. "Magnus, wait." He half turned his head toward her. "I thought we decided..."

He looked fully at her, saw her eyes wide, confused. "Please," he said, just loud enough for her alone to hear. "You said you would trust me. Please."

She was still for a long moment; then she nodded and let go of his arm. "I trust you."

Magnus turned back toward Kalen and took a step closer toward the dais. "We can do this the easy way, or the hard way," he said. "Up to you."

Kalen laughed, hard and bitter. "I'm surprised to hear you suggest anything might be done the easy way. Well, it's your funeral. Guards!"

The governor had never fought his own battles, and he wasn't about to start now. He didn't stir from his throne as all four guards rushed Magnus, swords in the air. Magnus caught the first blow with his shield, the second with his battle-axe; he twisted the axe to flip the sword out of that guard's hands, then swung the axe back to knock him over with a blow to the head. He pushed the first guard back with a heave of his shield even as he felt a blade bite into his upper arm. Whirling to face this third attacker, he saw that Julia was already engaging him, swords locked. The fourth was also occupied, surrounded by three other Raven's Roost folk.

Magnus caught Julia's eye, and she mouthed "Go!" With a nod, he faced the first soldier again, just in time to dodge out of the way of her sword.

"Thanks, Carey," he muttered as he stepped past yet another attack, then dropped his shield to catch the guard's arm. He planted his feet and shoved her backwards; she lost her footing and fell, head hitting the stone floor with a sickening crack. Magnus stepped over her and strode up the stone dais to the throne. Kalen was sitting up straight, hands on the armrests as if about to stand, the cockiness entirely drained from him, his face pale and frightened.

"Wait," he said. "Wait! Surely we can come to an accommodation, there must be something, anything..."

"There's only one thing I want from you." In a single motion, Magnus pulled the dagger from his belt and slashed it across Kalen's throat, left exposed by the shiny, impractical golden armor. Gold stained with red, now, as Kalen grabbed his throat and gasped uselessly for air. "And now you've given it to me, you murderous son of a bitch." He dropped the dagger and swung the axe, and Kalen's headless body slumped back into the throne.

For a moment Magnus just stared down at the body and breathed. His revenge, finally, for all the long years without Julia, without home. Years that would never happen for anyone else. Years that he could never forget. He'd expected it to be more satisfying, but somehow his heart felt hollow, like the victory hadn't really been earned.

Then he turned around to a room full of soldiers and townspeople and Julia, all staring at him in stunned silence. Julia. She slowly lowered her sword, as did the soldier, who then knelt at her feet.

"It's over," he said. "The Mad Governor's reign is done, and now we're free to rebuild in peace."

The soldier who Magnus had knocked to the floor sat up, dazed, a hand to the back of her head. So, not dead; he wasn't sure how to feel about that. "Who will rebuild?" she asked. "Who will lead?"

Magnus shrugged. "Frankly, that's not my problem. But hear me now: anyone who tries to retaliate, to take back Raven's Roost or take any revenge? This is how we deal with them." And he gestured toward Kalen's bloody body. "Do you understand?"

The soldiers nodded, the townsfolk nodded. "Good," Magnus said. He stepped down from the dais and finally, hesitantly, took Julia's hand. "Let's go home."

-x-

And so they did, but it was a subdued procession, the mood quiet and thoughtful, not the jubilant victory parade that Magnus remembered from before. To be expected, he supposed; he and Julia and Stephen and the other resistance leaders had agreed that a surrender would be sufficient victory, so for Magnus to change the terms, suddenly and for no apparent reason, had probably thrown them off.

It was their plan, but it had been wrong. Magnus risked a quick look at Julia, who walked beside him, still holding his hand, but silent, pensive. But still, they all should have known that Kalen would never hold to the terms of his surrender. Magnus was correcting a mistake, that was all. A mistake he should never have made in the first place. She would understand-- except he could never tell her.

He shifted to look straight forward and held back a sigh. This weight would be a lot to live with. But if the alternative was living without Julia... keeping a few secrets from her was absolutely a price worth paying. Anything was a price worth paying.

It had been early afternoon when they left Kalen's palace, and with a group this large the journey would take most of a day, so shortly before nightfall the group set up camp: lighting fires, pitching tents, preparing the game that they'd hunted along the way. Magnus took the haunch of rabbit and mug of ale he'd been handed, and he sat down next to a fire to eat. With full bellies, plenty of ale to go around, and some distance from the day's battle, the mood began to lighten, and soon people were chatting and laughing. A few folks pulled out musical instruments, and before long a small group had started to sing and dance.

Next to him, Julia took one last swallow of her drink, then held out a hand. "Dance with me, handsome stranger?"

Magnus opened his mouth to gently refuse, then realized that despite his pensive mood, his toe was tapping in time with the music. So he set aside the rabbit carcass and wiped his hand on a cloth before putting it in hers. She helped him to his feet, then pulled him into the crowd of dancers, walking backwards with a smile on her face. The tune was upbeat, and within a few steps Magnus found himself swept up in the music, the dancing, the renewed sparkle in Julia's eyes. He held up their joined hands, and Julia twirled beneath, stepping right and left and right again; he spun her around and against him, wrapping his arm around her chest.

She laughed and leaned into him, and his breath caught at the suddenness of the touch, at the realization that, finally, after longer than he could possibly imagine, he held Julia in his arms again. The music was slowing, and he pulled her even closer, closed his eyes, buried his face in her hair and took a deep breath. She smelled just like she always had -- a hint of juniper soap, the clean sweat of battle -- and the scent filled his heart, and it took an act of will to keep from breaking into sobs. He steadied himself, then looked up and opened his eyes, still holding her, still swaying to the music; he saw the musicians, the campfire, his friends and neighbors smiling, but all he really knew was Julia.

He leaned down, got close enough to murmur in her ear. "Wanna get out of here?"

She tilted her head backwards and grinned, eyes lighting. "I thought you'd never ask."

He loosened his arms and she turned around, their hands still joined as they walked toward the tent reserved for them. Magnus lifted the flap, and Julia pulled him inside, both of them ducking through the low entrance. Inside, it was barely tall enough for Julia to stand upright; Magnus lowered himself to the floor, sitting cross-legged, and Julia settled herself into his lap, framing his face with her palms.

"It's over," she said. "We won. Maybe not the way I imagined, but we did it."

He nodded, a lump rising in his throat as he laid his hands on her shoulders. "I'm sorry I changed the plan, I--"

She stopped him with a finger to his lips, and he shivered at her touch. "It's okay. Like I said, I trust you. Even if you can't tell me why."

Magnus lowered his eyes. "I wish I could."

"I hope someday you can." Julia shrugged. "But I know if you don't, there must be a good reason."

"There is," he said, running his hands down her arms, then up and over her back to cup her shoulders. "I promise."

Julia smiled. "Just like there's a good reason that you aren't kissing me already?"

He leaned in, pressed his forehead to hers, closed his eyes. "There's never a good reason for that." And then, finally, he let himself kiss her.

She kissed him back, and he was undone, so many years of loss and grief and longing all bursting to the surface with one single kiss. "Jules," he whispered. "Oh God, Jules," and then his arms were around her, pulling her close, so close, needing to feel every inch of her against him, leaning back into the bedroll and pulling her with him as he kissed the breath out of them both. Though Julia could not know his reasons, still she responded in kind: hands in his hair, down his arms, then underneath his tunic to run up his bare chest. He kissed her over and over; he could not be not kissing her, not ever again.

They stretched out together, Julia lying fully on top of him, exchanging kisses with him, pulling his tunic over his head, undoing the buttons of her own. He tried to help, but he fumbled at the buttons, and then at his belt buckle; he realized his hands were trembling, and he could only still them by touching her. So right, so perfect. How had he survived so long without her?

Julia loosened his belt, then pulled down his pants in a single motion. She leaned back just a little with a small smile. "Already? That didn't take much."

Magnus tried to chuckle, but it came out more like a sob. "I'm always ready for you, Jules. Always."

Her eyes softened at the hitch in his voice. "Magnus?" She laid herself back down, next to him instead of on top, hand resting on his chest. "You sure everything is okay?"

He propped himself up on an elbow, looked into her warm brown eyes. "Positive," he murmured. "More okay than it's ever been." He buried his hand in her soft curls and pulled her in for a long, slow kiss, robbing them both of breath as she rolled back atop him and they lost themselves in one another.

-x-

Julia fell asleep after, nestled in Magnus's arms. He curled himself around her: to cradle her close, to feel every inch of her skin against his, to hold her safe from every potential danger in the world. He'd lost her once; now he had her back, and he was never going to lose her again. Not ever.

As she slept, he relaxed, and at long he allowed himself to cry. He buried his face in her hair and held himself still, not wanting to wake her with loud sobs or shaking, but the tears flowed freely, free at last to express the joy, the relief, the years and years of pent-up grief that he would now never have to feel. He wondered if those memories would fade, be replaced by this new timeline, or if he would have to live with both sets. He'd have to ask the Chalice later.

But it didn't matter. Either way, it was worth it.

After a few minutes, Julia did stir. She opened her eyes, shifted, and looked at his face, and then she touched it, wiping the tracks of tears away with her thumb. "Oh Magnus, honey. What is it?"

He shook his head, choking the words out between the sobs he could no longer hold back. "I'm just-- I'm so-- relieved. That it's over. That it's-- really over." He closed his eyes and took a few calming breaths before continuing. "That you're h-- here, that you survived, that I survived. That-- that's all."

Her hand curled against his cheek. "Me too. God, Magnus, me too. I worried every single day that your luck would run out. The way you lead every charge..." Magnus could see her swallow, see her eyes flick away. "Well, you can't blame me."

"Yeah." Magnus tightened his arms around her. "I guess-- when you met me, I was kind of lost, you know? Looking for a cause. Something to die for." He leaned forward, kissed her forehead -- a kiss he meant to be swift, but instead he lingered: smelling her, tasting her, feeling her. When he spoke again, it was muffled, with his lips still pressed against her skin. "Instead I found something to live for."

Julia let out a gentle sigh. "And I'm so grateful."

"Me too." He took another deep breath and pulled himself away to look in her eyes., then made a decision. This would be different, too, not the formal proposal he remembered from last time -- down on one knee, a carved rosewood ring in his hand, Stephen standing proudly in the background -- but he couldn't imagine a more perfect way to ask. "Julia. I love you. I've always loved you and I always will. So-- will you marry me?"

Her breath caught, and her eyes went wide, and her mouth broke into an enormous smile. "Of course. Of course!"

He blew out the breath he'd been holding. "Thank you." It came out in a whisper, all he could manage. He shifted enough to kiss her again, and now they were both crying, tears mingling with passion as they kissed and touched and spoke words of love and reassurance, both of them finally believing that they would never be parted again.

-x-

By the time they got back to town the next day, word of their victory had preceded them, and the residents of Raven's Roost were already throwing a party, the streets filled with music and food and drink and jubilant celebration, and with none of the ambivalence that had permeated their camp the night before. Almost immediately, Magnus and Julia found Stephen and shared their news; hugs were exchanged and more tears were shed, and before long this information had spread, too, with townsfolk toasting their upcoming marriage just as heartily as the victory over Kalen. Already this new memory was starting to merge into the old, and finally Magnus could relax and accept that the change was real, that it had taken, that the timeline of his life could start to heal.

Still, before he joined Julia in his small bedroom off the workshop -- he would expand the shop and build her a home now, cozy and elegant and perfect, just like he'd always dreamed -- he took a moment alone in a quiet corner and pulled out the Chalice.

"So," he said, speaking quietly, "that's it?"

That's it, she murmured into his mind. You've got your happily ever after. All that's left is to live it.

"Will I always remember what happened in my other life?"

The Chalice paused, as if in thought. I think so, she finally said. With almost anyone else... but no, you'll most likely remember. But it may fade, feel more like a dream. Or a nightmare. It's hard to say. One thing, though. He could picture June in the Davy Lamp, standing a bit straighter, expression a touch more stern. You've committed to this timeline now. No seeking out your friends, or the Bureau of Balance. No becoming a Reclaimer or looking for relics. And you will protect me from them. If they take me away... He heard a ghostly finger-snap. Then all this goes away, too. Understood?

"Understood," he said. Why would he want to join the Bureau? He had what he wanted, right here. And Taako and Merle could surely reclaim the other relics on their own. They could find someone else to be their muscle. As for the Chalice.... his grip tightened around the stem, its metal ridges biting into his fingers. Well, Lucretia could just live with finding six relics instead of seven. He'd keep this one safe, out of the hands of anyone who could do any damage. All he'd done was right a wrong, fix his own mistake. There was no need for anyone else to ever use it. Not even him.

He set the Chalice in a wooden crate, already stuffed with shredded wool. The crate had been meant to ship something else, but he could use it to keep the Chalice safe here, where no one would find it. "Thank you."

No, thank you. You freed me from June and used me to a noble purpose. He thought he heard a smile. And if you need me again, you know where to find me.

"I'm good," he said. "Thanks again." He nailed the crate shut, put it at the bottom of the pile, and went to his room, where Julia and the rest of his life awaited him.

-x-

And so Magnus slipped back into his old life, his new life, almost as if he had never left it. It took him a month to build a gazebo for their wedding day; two months later, he finished the rocking chair for the Continental Craftsman Showcase in Neverwinter. He hesitated over going -- was it tempting fate, to leave Julia here alone? But in the end he found it too complicated to explain the change of plans, and so he went, two tendays there and back. When he returned with his blue ribbon and master carpenter certification in hand, Raven's Roost stood ready to welcome him, exactly like he had left it, Julia running down the stairs and whirling him into an embrace. He held her tight and let out one final breath of relief. This was it, the last test. He had changed his fate. He had won. He brought the rocking chair upstairs, and built a sitting room around it.

Before long, he all but forgot that he ever had another life, although the oddest things would remind him: a tasty pastry from the local shop, almost but not quite as good as Taako's macarons; a stray bit of music from the local shrine to Pan or a whisper of wind far above; a glimpse of the Bureau's moon base through the trees of the Roost. But for the most part, he didn't think about it. Instead he focused on his work at the Hammer and Tongs, joined the occasional adventuring party if the cause was worthy and the coin was good, and settled into a routine with Julia.

Ordinary life with Julia was better than his fondest dreams. Early morning breakfasts, working together in the Hammer and Tongs -- she ran the business side of things and was frighteningly efficient at it -- star-gazing in the evening, long lazy afternoons when the day seemed to call for it.

On one such day off, about five and a half years past the defeat of Kalen, Magnus and Julia were sitting in their favorite tavern, splitting a hearty lunch, when a stranger walked into the bar and started looking around.

Or.... no. Not a stranger. A chill crept down Magnus's spine as the dwarf's head swiveled around, and he caught his eyes. This was not a stranger: this was Boyland. One of the top regulators at the Bureau of Balance, who had been-- was? would be? Magnus could only guess at the timeline now -- on Killian and Carey's team. How had he.... no, he realized, no, Boyland couldn't possibly recognize him. Even in the timeline Magnus had erased, they wouldn't have met yet.

So what was he doing here, an axe resting on his shoulder, a Bureau bracer around his left arm, and the ubiquitous cigar clenched in his teeth, making a beeline for Magnus?

Had the Director sent him? How would the Director even know where to find him? Might she somehow have known about what Magnus had done? At the thought, the hairs on the back of his neck stood straight up. She shouldn't know. She couldn't know. But-- Lucretia was a powerful wizard. Magnus didn't know much about her specific abilities -- could she have some command of time magic? Maybe she had figured out that he had broken his deal with the Bureau and used a Grand Relic. Was Boyland here to drag him back through time?

Well, that would never happen. He curled a hand protectively over Julia's, and she looked at him with an eyebrow raised in surprise. "What is it?"

"Nothing, just saying hi." He tilted his head in Boyland's direction just as the dwarf approached their table. "Hail and well met, Sir Dwarf. What brings you to Raven's Roost?"

"You," Boyland grunted through teeth still clenched around the cigar. "Magnus Burnsides, right?" Magnus nodded. "My name is Boyland. I'm putting together a team to clear out some bandits around Phandalin, and I wondered if you were interested."

"Phandalin?" Julia shook her head. "That's pretty far. I'm surprised you've had to come all the way here to find someone."

Boyland shrugged. "I don't want 'someone'. I want the best, and I hear that's you. Especially after the way you kicked out that mad despot, a few years back."

Magnus glanced at Julia, then back at Boyland. "I appreciate the compliment, friend, but as you said, that was awhile ago. I'm mostly out of the game these days. If you want a chest of drawers made, I'm your man, but if it's a fighter you need? Leave me out of it." He gestured around the tavern. "There are other skilled folks here, many of whom fought by my side before and who still join adventuring parties today. I can give you some names if you like."

Boyland paused for a moment, as if in thought, but from the far-off look in his eyes, Magnus suspected that he was actually listening to orders via a Stone of Far Speech. Then he grunted again. "Suit yourself," he said with another shrug. "Sure, I'll take those names."

"I'll do you one better." Magnus turned in his seat and waved at two women who were sitting at the bar. "I'll introduce you." They stood up and started to walk over, and Magnus let out the breath he hadn't realized he was holding.

-x-

"So." Julia looked over at Magnus from her accustomed place in the prize-winning rocking chair, later that same night. He sat next to her in a matching one he'd made a few years back. "What was that all about?"

"What was what all about?"

Julia reached over the table between the chairs and swatted his arm. "Don't play dumb with me," she said. "In the tavern, with that merc. Boyland. Why did you say that you're out of the game? You took that job to drive back a family of bugbears just a month ago."

"Oh. Well...." Magnus put his hands behind his head and rocked the chair backwards. "It's just, Phandalin is so far. And I didn't want to leave open the possibility of him coming back to ask about another job. Because I really am stepping back from the hero business, you know?" He turned his head to meet her eyes. "I want to focus more on being the best carpenter. And the best husband. And, hopefully, soon...." His throat went suddenly dry, and he swallowed. "You know, the best dad."

Her eyes went wide, and she sat up. "Really?"

He nodded. "Really. It's been over five years, you know? Kalen is gone and no one has risen up in his place. I think--" he stood up, then knelt down in front of her. "I think I'm ready."

She rocked out of the chair and into his arms, kissing him hard on the lips. "Then I'm ready too."

He kissed her some more, and then he swept her up, carrying her into the bedroom, ready to put this new-formed plan into action.

-x-

"Can you hand me the big wrench?"

There was a rustling noise behind him, and Magnus turned to see Julia setting down an enormous stack of papers on the table before she reached up on the wall and took down the largest wrench from the tool rack and handed it out to him.

He smiled as he took it. "Sorry, babe. I didn't realize you had your hands full."

"No problem," she said, relinquishing the wrench and then rolling her shoulders. "Gets me off paperwork for a few minutes." Magnus got back to work, tightening the large nut that held the legs of the chair he was working on in place. "Have I told you today how weird that contraption is?"

"It's not weird," Magnus said, craning his head to look at her with fake indignant look. "It'll spin around when you sit in it. See?" He put his hand on the back of the chair and gave it a turn; it whirled up and around and out of place, clattering to the floor. He jumped back as Julia's laughter rang in his ears. "Yeah, fine." He held up his hands in surrender, turning to look at her as she fell into her seat. "You won't laugh when I get it working."

"I'm sure I won't," she said, still grinning. "But let me have my fun in the meantime." She glanced at all the paperwork awaiting her. "I'll have to get back to all your orders soon enough." Picking the top one off the pile, she squinted at it, and frowned, held it back, then pulled it close. "What-- I can't read the address on this one. Don't tell me I need spectacles already."

She held the sheet out to Magnus, and he took it, after setting the wrench next to the dismantled chair. "Looks okay to me," he said, then read it aloud. "A table and four chairs, polished cherry wood, for delivery to Phandalin."

Julia's brow furrowed. "What did you say?"

"A table and four chairs," Magnus repeated. "To be delivered to Phandalin. It's far, like you said the other day -- I wonder how they heard about our shop?"

Julia stood up and shook her head. "I'm sorry, I must be going deaf as well as blind. You said the piece order, but then you just... cut out. Like you opened your mouth, and this weird noise is coming out. Or-- are you okay?"

Magnus froze, and his heart went cold. Julia had talked about Phandalin as recently as-- when was it Boyland had come to town? A month ago? He did some quick math, glanced at a calendar... yes. The timing was right.

But he didn't have time to think all that through right now. He turned his head to the side and coughed a few times. "Sorry, uh, something must have gotten caught in my throat. I guess can't read it either. I'll have to go back through my records, see who ordered it." He set the paper back down on the table and wrapped an arm around Julia's shoulders. "But it can't hurt to go see the clerics, right? I'll take a break and walk you over." And he steered her out of the workshop, pushing down the creeping dread at the back of his mind.

-x-

Late that night, after Julia had fallen asleep, Magnus carefully extricated himself from the bedroom, crept through the kitchen, and went into the workshop. The pile of papers still sat on the table where Julia had left it. He sorted through and found the order bound for Phandalin. Pulling the sheet out of the stack, he carefully ripped it to tiny shreds, which he buried in the bottom of the wastebasket. Then he went outside, climbing up into the tree house to think.

The tree house wasn't much more than a platform, really. He had built it mostly as a place to have a picnic or stargaze. Often Julia would come up with him, but on the rare occasions that he needed a moment of quiet contemplation, this was his favorite spot to be alone.

He sat cross-legged on the smooth planks, let his hands fall in his lap, and looked up at the stars, twinkling in the blackness. The moon was out of sight, and that was just as well -- otherwise he'd be afraid to look up and see Lucretia looking back at him.

So, it was happening. Somehow, even without his help, Gundren had gotten into Wave Echo Cave, taken the Phoenix Fire Gauntlet, and destroyed Phandalin. The events had still transpired, if perhaps not in exactly the way he remembered them. But close enough that his inoculation to the voidfish still held. He'd wondered if its potency would fade, if he'd eventually forget everything he knew about the relics, the Bureau, his life before. The Chalice had thought it might. But it was all still clear in his mind, even if it was now clouded in everyone else's.

Julia had remembered Phandalin as recently as a month ago -- she'd evidenced no discomfort when Boyland mentioned the name, even said it herself. But of course events were still catching up to the moment he'd diverged from them and created a new timeline. He had to wonder how much things would change, and what might stay the same. Had Taako and Merle still joined the Bureau? What would happen to the Rockport Limited? To Goldcliff? Was the world less than a year away from being transformed into rose quartz by Lucas and the Philosopher's Stone?

Magnus started to shiver, and found he couldn't stop. This choice he had made by using the Chalice... what would it mean? What had he set in motion? Had he doomed everyone and everything?

It was too late to undo that particular choice. Not without losing all he had gained. But maybe...

He stood up, climbed down the ladder, and returned to the storage area of the workshop, where he had hidden a crate almost six years ago. It was buried beneath a pile of supplies to make other crates, but he knew exactly where to find it. After pulling it out, he brushed off some cobwebs, then set it on the floor. He knelt before the crate, placed his hands on the top, closed his eyes, and murmured, "Are you there?"

The response was immediate, warm and friendly. I'm here, Magnus.

He nodded, not opening his eyes. "You know why I'm here?"

Of course. A pause. You want to ask if I can help you stop the disasters that you remember from your previous timeline. Is that it?

"Yeah." He considered his next words. "I mean, I know you said I couldn't join the Bureau. That I had start over again. And I won't do that. I'd do this on my own. But, if I can help, surely I should try?"

Magnus. The reply was still friendly, but there was a firm note to her voice now, a backing of steel that he'd never noticed before. I thought I made my terms clear. That was your old life. If you want this one to continue, you need to embrace it, and trust that events around the Grand Relics will unfold in this new timeline as they were meant to. Now, if there are other injustices you want to correct, injustices not connected to the other relics or the Bureau of Balance, you may. Just ask, and I'll be there. But if we start making changes to that aspect of the timeline, I can't guarantee that the original ones will hold.

The words hung in the air, the threat unspoken but clear nonetheless. If he protected the world from the other relics, he risked losing everything.

For a long time, Magnus stayed on the floor of the storeroom, eyes closed, hands on the crate that contained the Chalice, and he didn’t really know why. Was he praying? To whom? To Isthus? He knew what she would say. He knew was Julia would say, too. He also knew he didn't want to hear it.

Finally, he opened his eyes, buried the crate as far in the back of the storeroom as he could, and returned to bed without another word. The future would just have to take care of itself.

-x-

The first sign that things had gone wrong came a little over a month later, when Julia walked into the workshop with a distracted look in her eyes.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing-- well. I guess you didn't hear about the train crash?"

"Train crash?" Magnus raised his eyebrows.

Julia nodded. "In Neverwinter. Something went wrong on the Rockport Limited, and the train jumped the tracks as it pulled into the station, plowed into a nearby market. Dozens of people died, including almost all the train staff and passengers." She sank down into her desk chair with a sigh. "It's a real tragedy. I hear there was a kid on the train. His grandfather was waiting for him on the platform, and they were both killed."

The hammer Magnus had been holding crashed to the floor, sliding out his hand. Fortunately, the hammer fell an inch away from his feet; a second later, he grabbed at the workbench to keep from crumpling down next to it. All the air left his lungs, and darkness swam at the corners of his vision. Angus. Oh God, Angus. What had he done?

Julia jumped out of her chair and ran to his side, eyebrows raising in alarm. "Magnus? You're white as a sheet! What's wrong?"

Her voice, and the warmth of her hand on his arm, shook him into taking a deep breath, a gasp of air that cleared his head and his vision, and he straightened. "I'm just... well, it's-- tragic, you know? Kids dying. And now that we're trying to have one of our own..." He gathered her into an embrace, and she hugged him back, fiercely. "It just hits harder."

"Yeah," she said, voice muffled as she buried her head in his chest. "Yeah it does."

And with that, Magnus felt free to let a few tears fall for Angus, poor young Angus MacDonald, who had only ever wanted love and respect and would now never live up to his incredible promise. He thought he had known the price he was paying by taking the Chalice; now he felt every copper of the full cost. Angus, his grandfather, dozens of other citizens of Neverwinter, and everyone who had been on the Rockport Limited. And he could only hope against hope that Merle and Taako had made it out, if they had even been on board.

The next sign came about a month later, at the Midsummer celebration. The sky went black and filled with white eyes again, and only Magnus was able to withstand the terrible noise. And his dread only increased when no one else remembered the incident afterwards. Had Lucretia always fed this memory to the voidfish? Or had something about his decision changed things, forced Lucretia to make a different choice?

It was almost five months before the next jarring reminder arrived, as fall crept closer to winter, with the news that Goldcliff had been destroyed by an invasion of vines; but before long Magnus was the only one to remember that, too. People still talked about the train crash in Neverwinter, but everything else related to the relics and the Bureau was gone, vanished from memory. And Magnus looked at the sky, dread creeping in his heart as he wondered how the Bureau, unable to save the Rockport Limited or Goldcliff, could ever stop the crystalline disaster he knew was coming.

-x-

Two days before Candlenights, Magnus crawled into bed just before midnight. Julia, already half asleep, rolled over into him, then shivered. "You're cold."

"Yeah." Magnus laid on his back, put his hands behind his head, and stared up at the ceiling. "Just went up to the tree house to think."

"In this weather?" Julia glanced out the window to see the early snowfall already piling up against the window. "Goodness. You'll catch your death." She snuggled closer to him and put a hand on his chest. "Let me warm you up."

He glanced down into her warm eyes and smiled, lightly touched the tip of her nose. "Thanks."

She half sat up to kiss him. "You know you can tell me, right? Whatever it is?"

Magnus looked soberly back at her. "Almost anything," he said softly. "Not this. I--" The breath caught in his throat as he forced down all the words he wanted to say. Keeping this secret from Julia was the hardest thing he'd ever done. Except for losing her. Which was the only reason he even had a chance of not telling her the whole truth. "I-- what would you say if you knew I'd done something terrible? Something maybe unforgivable? For really selfish reasons?"

Her answering smile was soft, gentle. "Don't be silly. I know you too well. I know you could never do anything like that."

He closed his eyes, swallowed, turned away. His next words were almost a whisper. "What if you were wrong?"

She was silent for a moment, her hand still on his chest. "Is this about Kalen?" she finally asked. "And why you decided to kill him after we'd agreed we wouldn't?"

"That's part of it." He risked a look back at her; her eyes were sober, but not angry. "I still can't tell you why. I'm sorry. It's the one thing I can never tell you."

She ran her hand up his chest to cup the side of his neck. "I'll say the same thing today that I said six years ago. I trust you. You wouldn't keep secrets from me without a reason."

Without allowing himself another thought, Magnus sat up, wrapped his hand around Julia's cheek, buried his fingers in her hair, and caught her mouth in a kiss, long and deep and fierce, pouring all of his love and fear into a single moment. She pulled him in and curled herself around him, her warmth filling him up and pushing back the fear for one night more.

-x-

Magnus was startled awake the next morning by a pounding knock on the front door. He sat bolt upright, clutching the blanket to his chest; Julia was already on her feet and pulling on a robe.

"Who on earth..." The knock came again, louder this time, and Julia glanced out the window; a chill pink dawn light reflected off the snow that had fallen overnight. "The sun in barely up. Shouldn't everyone know we're closed?"

"Must be out-of-towners," Magnus said, projecting a calm he didn't really feel. He got up and pulled on a shirt and a pair of overalls before sliding his feet into slippers. Then he leaned out the bedroom door, in the direction of the workshop. "Just a minute," he called out. As he passed through the kitchen, he paused, then picked up his battle axe. Better safe than sorry, especially if this was who he feared it might be.

As he approached the door, the visitor knocked yet again, this time followed by a gruff male voice, a bit raspy with age. "Magnus? Magnus Burnsides? We need to talk to you."

Magnus's heart sank into his feet. He knew that voice. Knew it almost as well as his own. But he didn't dare let on, and so he called back, "We're closed. Come back in two hours."

There was a pause, and another voice responded, this one much higher in pitch, with a cadence so distinctive that no question remained in Magnus's mind. "I'm afraid we can't really do that. We're not here on business -- or, not that kind of business. It's not like we want to order a table or something. Our business can't wait."

It's waited six years, surely it can wait another two hours. But Magnus didn't dare say that out loud. He put his hand on the door handle, and held it there, uncertain of what to do next.

Magnus. The voice was soft, distant, but firm. Remember our deal.

"I remember," he snapped back, under his breath. "Gimme a minute." He dropped his hand from the doorknob and wiped the suddenly-sweaty palm on his overalls. Then he took a deep breath, hid the axe behind the door, and plastered a friendly smile on his face.

As he had expected -- deep down had been expecting for awhile now -- Merle and Taako stood on his doorstep, shoulder to shoulder, Bureau of Balance bracers on their arms, a forbidding look in their eyes. What he was not expecting was the person who stood behind them, arms folded: Lucretia, the Director.

"What can I do for you, gentlemen? And, uh, lady," he added, acknowledging Lucretia with a nod.

She was the first to speak. "Magnus Burnsides," she said, voice hard with anger and... disappointment? How could she know enough about him to be disappointed? They'd never met, in this timeline. Then again, if she had indeed sent Boyland to recruit him.... "You have something that doesn't belong to you."

"Sorry, ma'am." Magnus spread his hands and kept his face carefully calm, free of guile, eyes wide open. "Unless you placed an order and I didn't deliver, I'm afraid I've got no idea what you're talking about." He stepped back from the door and started to close it. "So if our business is done--"

Merle's arm shot out, warhammer in hand, and slammed up against the door, holding it open. "Look, kid. I think it'll go easier for all of us if you don't play dumb. Don't you agree?" He glanced up at Taako, who folded his arms with a nod.

"Fine." Magnus pushed the door back fully open. The last thing he wanted was for Merle to break out the Zone of Truth. Safer to play along for now. "Why don't you have a seat and we'll talk whatever this is out?"

Lucretia stepped forward. "Merle, Taako, if you could wait here for a moment? I'll call if I need you."

They looked at each other. Merle raised an eyebrow; Taako just shrugged. "Whatever you say, boss," Merle said. "We'll be right outside." They moved out of Lucretia's way, and she came through the door.

As Magnus turned to let her by, he saw Julia in the doorway to their living quarters, hastily dressed and her hair pulled up, a crossbow quiet in her hand, down by her side. Magnus gestured toward her. "My wife, Julia."

She acknowledged Lucretia with a nod, then sent a quick glance toward Magnus, wild with curiosity. Magnus shut the front door without meeting her eyes. "Welcome," she said. "Would you like some tea?"

"No, thank you." Lucretia stood by the chair, hand on the back, but did not sit down. "I'm hoping we won't be long."

Magnus ignored the hint and settled down in the chair opposite. "So, now I've made my introductions. I'm afraid you have the advantage of me, Miss--"

"Call me Madame Director," she said coolly.

"And what brings you to the Hammer and Tongs?"

"A hunch." Lucretia tipped her head to the side. "Just a hunch. Tell me I'm wrong, Magnus. I'd really prefer to be wrong."

Julia stepped forward from the door. "Wrong about what?" she asked, a bit of steel coming into her words.

Magnus turned around and, catching her eye, mouthed "It's all right." Then he turned back to the Director. "You're going to have to give me a bit more than that."

She slowly shook her head. "I don't think so."

He got to his feet and put his hands flat on the table. "Then I think you need to leave. You come into my house, start making demands, and won't even tell me why? I don't have to tell you anything."

"No, Magnus, you don't," the Director replied. "But I think you will. I think you want to stop what's coming as much as anyone, and I think you know that being honest with me is the only way to do it."

The chill down his spine returned tenfold, leaving him momentarily silent. How did she know??

Although he hadn't really been expecting an answer, one came back anyway. She doesn't know anything, the Chalice told him. It's a hunch. She's just guessing. You were right; you don't have to tell her anything. And you'd best not, unless you want to break our deal?

Magnus fell back in his chair, head in his hands. He didn't... he couldn't... but what if it was the only way?

A hand fell on his shoulder, and Magnus turned his head to see Julia, staring down at him. "Magnus. What's wrong? Please, please tell me what's wrong."

The chair that Lucretia was holding skittered across the floor as her ands jerked. She turned her attention to Julia. "Something is wrong? Please, Mrs. Burnsides, tell me what you know."

Magnus started to shake his head, but Julia only tightened her grip on his shoulder. "It's-- well, Magnus hasn't been quite himself for the last few months. Ever since a strange mercenary came to town and asked him to go on a job to...." Her brow furrowed, and she frowned. "Well, I can't rightly remember where. But wherever it was, Magnus turned him down. I can't put my finger on anything else specific. Nothing's really happened since then, just that terrible train accident in Neverwinter. But he's seemed distant. Out of sorts. Spending more time than usual by himself." She looked down at Magnus and raised an eyebrow. "Tell me I'm wrong, darlin'. But I don't think I am."

He stared at her, deep into her beautiful dark eyes, and then he tore his gaze away. His eyes closed, and a tear spilled down his cheek. "You-- aren't. Wrong. But I can't, Jules. I can't."

"This is about your secret, isn't it." Julia sat down in the chair next to him, hand still on his back. "That's where things really started to go strange. All the way back in Kalen's palace."

He shook his head, swallowing down his terror. This wasn't happening. Couldn't be happening. "Please don't make me tell you. Please. I'll lose everything!"

Julia rubbed his back, her hand moving in a slow circle. "You won't, you won't. Whatever it is, we'll face it together."

"No. No, this... it's the one thing-- we can't, we can't!" Magnus choked back the hysteria that was about to break forth, in sobs or in laughter, he wasn't sure which. He turned his face up to the Director, stared at her, pleading. "Please, Lucretia. Please don't make me do this."

The Director finally sat, drifting down in the chair, folding her hands on the table. She lowered her eyes at him, and almost smiled, and Magnus realized his mistake. "So, I'm right," she said, quietly, calmly, but with no sense of triumph. "We have met before, in another timeline. But you claimed the Chalice for yourself. And you used it. Perhaps to save your wife?"

"Oh God," Magnus whispered, and he dropped his face back in his hands. This was it. The nightmare scenario, come true. He was going to lose Julia all over again, and he wasn't sure he could stop it. Or whether he even wanted to stop it.

"Magnus." Julia's hand was still on his back, but it had changed from a comforting pat to a grip of iron. "If you don't tell me the truth..."

He took a sharp breath, past the tears that were already falling, wiped them off his cheeks as he looked up. He turned, then reached forward to take Julia's hands. "I... you're right. It was Kalen. I let him live, just like we planned. And then he broke his part of the bargain. Three months after the last battle, when I left Raven's Roost for Neverwinter..." He closed his eyes, then opened them again, tightening his grip on her fingers. "He sent his men to destroy the town. With a magical explosion. And you-- died." Julia's eyes went wide, and he continued. "You died, and so did Stephen, and so did a lot of other folks. Everyone else fled Raven's Roost, and by the time I came back from the Craftsman's Showcase, the town was an empty shell. You were--" He stopped, and swallowed down the lump in his throat, and shook his head. "I-- I-- it was hard. So hard. But I lived without you, because I had to. And then I found another option." He glanced at Lucretia, and then he let go of Julia's hands. "Let me show you."

Magnus. The Chalice was deep in his brain, almost shouting Don't you dare, don't you even... we can still fix this... we can...

"No," he said, out loud. "I'm sorry, but I'm done running from the consequences of my decision." And he stood up, then strode into the storeroom, digging through the pile of boxes until he found the crate that held the Chalice.

And held it, standing there, stock still, unable to move. The sudden silence in his head was as deafening as a roar. Maybe it wasn't too late. Maybe...

"Hey." Julia's voice came from behind him, quiet and afraid and terrible. "Show me what you have to show me."

He breathed out, and opened the crate, and turned around to show Julia its contents. She leaned close, peering at the ornate object within, then looked up at him. "A cup?"

"The Temporal Chalice." Lucretia stood in the doorway now, and she let out a sigh. "I wish I had been wrong."

Magnus caught Lucretia's eye. "How did you know?"

She responded with a tiny shake of her head. "A hunch. I can't explain why, not really. But-- does it really matter? I was right. And now-- I'm sorry, Magnus. But you know what will happen if you don't give me that Chalice." She raised an eyebrow. "Depending on how much further forward you were in the timeline, you may even know better than I."

Magnus nodded, reluctantly, and set the crate on the floor. "The Philosopher's Stone. Lucas has it." Lucretia sucked in a sharp breath, and he continued. "If he's not stopped, the entire planet might turn into quartz, a day or so from now." He exhaled. "But I can't help you, Lucretia. I can't. I've already said too much. If I give you the Chalice, if I go back with you..." He turned to Julia, who had stepped back from him, her eyes narrowing. "I can't lose you again. I can't."

She was shaking her head. "What... what did you do? What have you done?" She glanced at the chalice again. "Why can't I understand half the things you say? Tell me, Magnus. Tell me."

"Yes." Magnus hung his head. "I-- after you died, I eventually joined a group led by Lucretia. We hunt down dangerous magical relics like this one. It's-- you won't hear the name if I say it, but it basically lets you change time. Fix the past. Normally I'm able to resist when the relics tempt me to use them, but it offered me the one thing I could never resist. You."

"But at what cost?" She crossed her arms and looked daggers at him. "I don't pretend to understand everything that's going on here, but it seems like you just traded my life for the whole world. And that's not right, Magnus. It just isn't. I'm not worth--"

"Don't you ever say that!" Magnus let go of the crate, uncaring of what might happen once the Chalice fell to the floor, and took Julia by the shoulders. "You don't understand. You never had to-- you don't know-- I missed you so much. So much."

Her eyes softened . "I do understand," she murmured, laying a hand on his cheek. "If it were me, and if you had died, and I had the chance to bring you back..." She closed her eyes, and shook her head. "But it still wouldn't be right. You said there were other magical items? How far back in time did you go? How many--"

He looked away, then looked back. "The train crash in Neverwinter," he admitted. "That never happened. I stopped-- well, we stopped it." He gestured back toward the front door. "Me and Merle and Taako. We were a team."

Julia gasped. "You mean the little boy-- and his grandfather--"

Magnus nodded. "And most of the others. That boy-- I knew him, in my other life. And losing him hurt. Knowing that I could have stopped it hurt. And other people, too -- people you don't know about, stories you couldn't remember if I told you. But..." he ran his hands up and down her arms. "I thought it was worth it."

She took a sharp breath through her nose and wrenched herself out of his embrace. "No," she said. "No. You're wrong. If that's the price I paid to be alive..." She shook her head. "I don't want it. I would never have wanted it."

He collapsed, the life going out of his legs, all the air out of his lungs. She... she... couldn't...

Magnus, you know what to do. Take me and go back. Just a few minutes should be enough. Just a few...

"No." But it wasn't Magnus who spoke aloud. It was Julia. "No. It's wrong, lady. I don't know who you are, but I do know you should go away, and leave us alone." Magnus turned his head and saw Julia, putting herself between him and the crate. She knelt down next to him, enfolded him in a hug, leaned her forehead into his. "I know, darling. I know why you did it. Thank you. But you can't. And if you can't put it back right, then I will." She stood up, and turned around, and started walking toward the Chalice.

"Stop!" Lucretia raised her arms, wooden staff in her hand; at the same time, Magnus found his strength again and sprang to his feet, putting his arms around Julia from behind, holding her back as she reached forward, her hand almost touching the Chalice, almost reaching...

"Julia, no, please." The words came out of Magnus's mouth before he had consciously decided. "Don't do this. I'll do it. I'll put it right. Just..." He started to tremble, and Julia paused, turned to face him. "I'm so sorry. I'm sorry I didn't do it right the first time."

Julia tipped her head sideways. "Oh Magnus." She wrapped a hand around his neck. "Showing mercy is never the wrong choice. It's not your fault that Kalen wasn't worthy of it. Just because it didn't work out doesn't mean it was a mistake."

Magnus let his hands rest on her hips, then pulled her close. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Lucretia retreat, let them have their space. Their moment, the last moment. And so he turned his full attention to Julia, memorizing yet again every line of her face, the curve of her waist, the warmth in her eyes. "God, Jules. I missed you so much."

"I can only imagine," she murmured. "I still think it was the wrong choice. But... even if I don't remember, if you don't remember, these past six years were magic. And nothing will ever change that. So thank you for giving them to me. To us."

He could only shake her head, all his words lost to his closing throat; he leaned down and kissed her, soft and slow; she kissed him back, and he knew that even eternity with Julia would never be enough.

The moment passed, as all moments do, and he let her go, tangling their hands together as he reached out and took the Chalice. Tightening his grip on Julia, he spoke the words. "Do it. Take me to Refuge. Back to right before I took your deal."

You're making a mistake.

"No," he said. "I'm doing the right thing." He glanced at Julia. "I love you."

"I love you, too." She squeezed his hand. "Now go save the world."

He managed a small smile. "Bye, Jules. Until next time." And everything -- Lucretia, the Hammer and Tongs, Julia's warm hand in his -- went away in a swirl of white.

-x-

And he is back, standing in the tavern, Merle and Taako by his side, standing in front of a little girl -- a girl he suddenly realizes must be June. She finishes laying out the rules of her deal, and then silence falls.

Magnus didn't give her the time to explain the rules before, because he knew there would be a price. A high price. Too high. He turns to his friends and breaks the silence.

"I'm ready to give my answer, but..." He sighed. "Listen, boys. I know what my offer was, and I can only assume that yours was just as powerful. So I'm not gonna judge either one of you for whatever you say. It was everything I've wanted, for a really long time. And it would mean that I wouldn't be there to help people who really needed help, and save many lives, and I don't care. Because it's what I want." He takes a deep breath, and lets it all go. "But... it's not what Julia would want. So I'm gonna have to pass."

The waves of disappointment from the Chalice are palpable, but Magnus only turns away. It's the right choice, the only choice. He knew it the first time, and he knows it without a doubt now. All he can do is live with it. No matter how much it hurts.