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A Shift In Time (Saves Pending)

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Consciousness returns slowly, heartbeat by heart. Sensation returns to him first, with a feverish heat resting uncomfortably under his skin. The cool metal of the floor is welcome relief as Stocke breathes against the pain. It takes him some time to remember where he is and how he came to be there; he is where he fell in the thaumtech lab underneath Alistel, having been left untouched since Hugo’s gift of power overwhelmed him completely. The White Chronicle is a heavy, pulsing presence against his leg, somehow both hot and cold at the same time. This is perturbing, as he knows so little about how the White Chronicle functions.

He cannot inspect it, because he is not alone. There is someone else with him, their quiet breathing almost blending into the background of a working lab. He stays still as something cool and heavy is placed on his brow — a hand, he thinks, though the fingers are too long and hard to be flesh — and his hair is brushed away from his face. It is an intimacy that only one person feels entitled to have, and so when Heiss finally speaks it comes as no surprise at all.

“I know you’re awake,” Heiss chides. “I was the one who trained you as an agent.”

Stocke remains still, keeps his breathing steady and shallow. Better that Heiss wonder how conscious Stocke is, rather than him knowing that Stocke is conscious but terrifyingly weak. He feels burned out and empty from the power that rages inside him, his flesh a thin and fragile layer over the destruction that roils underneath. The White Chronicle pulses in time with his heartbeat, and it is a wretched feeling.

“What have you done, my boy?” Heiss sighs. He sounds very tired and worn, but Stocke knows Heiss too well to be lulled into complacency. Heiss is a dangerous enemy, convinced of his own righteousness, and right now he’s kneeling next to Stocke and petting his hair like he is an ill child in need of soothing. He needs to know more, and so does not react. “You should have stayed with me. Now I have to clean up your mess.”

Heiss pats his shoulder, a gesture clearly meant to be comforting.

“Stay here while you recover. Then, leave for Cygnus. Wait until I call for you.” The hand on his shoulder tightens its grip. “That’s an order, Stocke.” The grip on his shoulder tightens further. It’s uncomfortable enough that most people would squirm away; Stocke has been trained to endure pain without flinching as part of his Specint training. The vise on his shoulder eases, and he can hear the rustle of fabric as Heiss moves to stand. His footsteps echo on the metal floor, the impact of their fall reverberating along Stocke’s spine.

Even after he is sure that Heiss is gone, Stocke remains on the floor, unmoving, for another ten slow and steady breaths. He opens his eyes on the eleventh and squints, trying to bring his vision back into focus. His surroundings seem to change constantly, shifting from the brutal efficiency of the thaumtech lab to the greenery of Celestia, and then the hot sands of Cygnus, and he feels the unmistakable sensation of moving from one node to another. The constant changes make him dizzy, but he forces himself to take in his surroundings, to try to mobilize, and to assess his ability to complete his mission. It’s an old habit, even now when his mission is more expansive than following Heiss’ orders. He doesn’t seem to have any external injuries, which surprises Stocke; he remembers vividly the agony of Hugo’s power, and how it drove him to his knees. His balance is off, though, and he swallows against nausea as he turns his head to take in his surroundings. He needs help, and that none has been forthcoming from his allies is disquieting.

He swallows against a dry mouth and calls out to Raynie and Marco, to Aht and Gafka, and finally to Rosch. None answer. The reason for that becomes apparent as his vision improves.

Stocke has grown used to seeing dead colleagues in his line of work. Since possessing the White Chronicle, he has seen his friends’ corpses countless times, and he will always find a way to save their lives. This time will be no different - he will not allow it to be different - and yet the White Chronicle pulses against his leg as if a punishment for his poor choices. The scene changes to the stone of the Sand Castle, the grassy hills that link Alistel with Granorg, the snow peaks of northern Alistel, and in each and every node his friends lie dead before him. He recognises some times as being nodes of history he has already undone. Some, he has never seen before.

He reaches for the White Chronicle now, and is startled at the change in its appearance. It is wreathed in an aura so dark it hurts to look at, the intensity changing in time with his surroundings. Or, he supposes once the shock fades, it is more correct to say that his surroundings change as a consequence of the energy manipulating the White Chronicle somehow. Perhaps that is why Lippti and Teo have yet to pull him into Historia.

Perhaps it is that he does not want to go. Not yet. He must wring something out of this timeline, something that will lead towards the golden future that he’s assured could exist.

He swallows against another sickening shift in time, and finds himself in a desert, sand reaching as far as the eye can see. He is heartsick to recognise the desert as Alistel, because only Alistel is bracketed by such imposing peaks to the north. As he watches, the mountains crumble to sand, a process that is terrifyingly fast to watch. He looks up into the pitiless blue sky, sun beating down on him, and understands that this will be Alistel’s fate if he cannot stop Hugo.

“I’m sorry,” he says to Rosch, when the White Chronicle stabilizes once more and he is back underneath Alistel. “I will choose more wisely next time.”

He does not see Aht anywhere, and the wounds on his friends’ bodies suggest that they were involved in a brutal and prolonged battle. It’s possible that Hugo missed a small girl escaping in the heat of battle, if he was otherwise occupied. Hugo may be akin to a god now, but Stocke also knows first hand how ferociously his allies will fight when their backs are against the wall. It’s that hope that Aht may have escaped somehow that helps him to stand, stiffen his knees as they threaten to buckle under him as he walks, and stumble out into the hallway.

His hopes are dashed at the sight of Aht’s body a short distance from the door. She looks peaceful, hands still clasped together in prayer. Stocke closes his eyes as he slips through time once more, but the scene plays out before him despite his closed eyes. He can see Aht, alive and desperate, hands gripped together in a white-knuckled grip as she fervently whispers words. He can hear the sounds of fighting, screams and shouts muffled by the closed metal door. From the terrible tension that keeps Aht small and compact on her knees as she concentrates, she knows what Stocke knows; the fighting is one-sided and her friends will fall eventually. She should run. Instead, she looks directly at Stocke despite that being entirely impossible, smiles, and then her features are lost in a flash of bright light. As he blinks away spots, Aht falls.

“Thank you,” he says, once he returns to his previous time. It seems poor compensation.

His feet step on sand, grass, snow and metal as he tries to navigate his way to the surface. He uses the constant sound of metal against metal as air is forced into the underground facility as a measure of time, counting down each clang before the White Chronicle sweeps him away to another time. He takes some small comfort in that it seems to take longer to take him away each time. He uses that knowledge, and his memory of how he came down here in the first place, as a guide to find his way out.

It surprises him that Hugo has apparently left the lab completely unchanged. When he last saw Hugo he was drunk on destructive power, and he would have thought that Hugo would have ruined something in his wake as he made his way to the surface. The idea of Hugo simply walking out, like Stocke is, rather than smashing his way through the layers of steel, seems bizarre. Then again, Hugo has always been a pragmatic person, and outright destroying Alistel has never been his aim.

Stocke knows that he will need an army to stop Hugo stoking the fires of war and bringing Granorg to its knees. The desertification and the war are intertwined, and he’ll need the blades of a well-trained force to cut the bonds that tie them together. Where he could hope to find such a force is another story.

First step though, is to leave Alistel.


 

It’s late afternoon by the time that Stocke leaves the labyrinthine passageways of Alistel’s laboratories. The late-autumn sky is pallid and grey, with the metal towers of Alistel’s buildings appearing to disappear into the sky as he looks up to gauge the time. He can’t be certain how long he was underground, but it cannot have been for longer than a day. As he cranes his head to look down the main street of Alistel, he can see people gathering in the square, excited chatter mixing together to create a swell of sound that is impossible to untangle. Not that he needs to understand the individual words to read the mood, as he’s seen it often enough before; the people of Alistel are only this excited if there is to be a speech from Hugo passing on the will of the Prophet Noah.

It makes no sense. The people of Alistel know that Hugo is a fraud. And yet, it seems like they have forgotten it entirely.

Stocke wonders if he needs to hide himself. In all timelines, Stocke is ultimately considered a traitor to Alistel. The last thing he needs is to have to break out of a military prison before he is executed; the desertification will not wait for him. Then he decides against it. The last thing he remembers before waking up with Heiss at his side was accepting Hugo’s gift of power. Under the circumstances, Hugo may even think they’re allies. Or, at least, not enemies, so long as Stocke doesn’t draw attention to himself and incite the crowd to attack him.

It takes some time to reach the plaza, and by the time Stocke successfully infiltrates the crowd, Hugo is in full swing. Hugo is gesturing expansively as he extols about the need to cleanse the filth from Granorg, Forgia, Celestia, and even Cygnus, the importance of bringing them into the light of Prophet Noah. His speech is rambling, and to Stocke completely incomprehensible. He seems to be the only one who thinks so; everyone else is listening with rapt attention, without protest. A few weeks ago, they had known that Hugo lied to them about everything, and were furious at the betrayal of all they held dear. Now, as the crowd sway back and forth in time with the rhythmic cadences of Hugo’s voice, it is like that day had never happened.

Stocke moves in time with the rest of the crowd and considers his options. Assassinating Hugo would require more preparation and resources than he has at hand right now, even if he could find a place in time that had the right sightlines to make a clean shot with a crossbow. He’d need a distraction, something large enough to absorb the attention of someone transformed into something akin to a god, and talking to a crowd is not going to be enough; Hugo had been talking to crowds for as long as Stocke could remember. There would also need to be an escape route, not only out of the plaza, but out of Alistel entirely. None of that is in place, so for now he will need to wait and observe, wait for his moment to act.

“Now go, children of Noah, and spread his message to the world,” Hugo concludes and walks away, unaccompanied by any guards. On any other day, that would have been unspeakable, as even when Hugo was adored by the population as Noah’s mouthpiece, Alistel was at war with Granorg. Now, after making a crowd spellbound by his words just by speaking utter nonsense to them, Stocke can see why Hugo is unconcerned about the threat that a mere person may pose. He mentally files that information away for when he will assassinate him later and studies Hugo’s exposed back. He squints, and thinks that he might see a dark aura wreathing Hugo, but it dissipates before he can be certain of what he has seen.

Then his breath catches as the time shift takes him without warning. He sees Eruca in Granorg, striding through the ruins of her city as it crumbles to sand around her. She is caked with sand, and it cracks away from her skin like dried blood as she walks. Stocke knows, despite knowing that there is no rational way for him to know, that she is the last living person in Granorg, protected from Hugo’s Divine Judgment by the Etherion as everyone else fell around her. She makes no attempt to wipe the sand from her skin, instead moving with purpose towards a familiar room. Her face is resolute and pale, her shoulders set, and Stocke knows that she intends to die to try and stop the desertification. He also knows that it will not be enough.

Another shift, and Cygnus and Celestia begin a doomed march on Alistel. Garland leads the charge, his expression grim as he orders his soldiers on. Elm is at his side, a sign of how desperate the times have become. The Gutrals are scattered here and there, but Stocke can see that their numbers are far depleted from what he had seen in other timelines. Their siege of Alistel could never have succeeded, not while Alistel can defend its borders until Hugo can use his desertification weapon. Stocke stares, sickened, as Hugo uses Flux as a weapon, using the power meant to stop the desertification to turn a battlefield into lifeless sand. Alistel crumbles to sand as Stocke watches, the destruction of the army apparently one thing too many for Vainqueur to suffer. Finally, all that is left is Hugo, god of a dying world with desertification as its shroud.

Then Stocke is back in Alistel, swallowing against nausea, clothes drenched in sweat. The White Chronicle is finally quiescent, and he no longer feels like there is a hot, terrible presence under his skin. Whatever Hugo had done to him, it seems that the worst is over. Now, he must do something with what he has seen.

He starts in surprise as someone taps his shoulder, turning around quickly. The man looks at him, surprise and worry warring on his weather-worn face. Too old to be part of Alistel’s army, even if he had had both of his arms. Stocke doesn’t recognise him, and so tries to memorise his face: dull blue eyes in a nest of wrinkles, stringy white hair combed over the top of his skull, and a nose that looked like it had been broken and set very poorly. One thing being a Specint agent had in common with being the bearer of the White Chronicle was the need to recognise people quickly.

“You all right, friend?” the man asks carefully.

“Yes,” Stocke manages. He smiles briefly, ruefully. “I’m quite all right. I was just taken by General Hugo’s vision.”

At this the man smiles, a surprising bright smile for such a homely face. “Aye, I know that feeling myself. It’s grand, isn’t it?

“Very,” Stocke agrees and lets the man talk. He does, readily.

“Makes me wish I was young enough still to enlist!” He winks at Stocke. “You young ones, you’ll get all the glory now.”

“Surely you’re not as old as that,” Stocke says, more out of form’s sake than anything else. “The army would be fortunate to have you.”

The man laughs and claps Stocke roughly on the shoulder. “Nice try, lad! But you get out there and show those Granorgites what good Alistellian men are made of. Show them for me, won’t you?”

“I will,” Stocke agrees. “As for you, you should stay home and keep Alistel safe. No point us fighting if our home is destroyed.”

“Don’t you worry about a thing,” the man promises.

Stocke shakes his hand, and wonders if this will be the beginning of a series of errands that cross multiple timelines. Hopefully not. He’s had enough of those to last a lifetime, even if they are the building blocks on which a better future is built.

He waits until the man takes his leave before slipping away with most of the crowd, careful not to move too quickly or slowly as he passes by Alistellian soldiers, not to look around too intently or not look at all. It takes a lot of work to look like an bystander.

Once he is certain that he has not attracted any attention, Stocke steps into an alley near the bar. He draws power to him like a cloak, vanishing from sight. This is his opportunity to leave Alistel. He has an idea to deal with Hugo, but he will need Granorg to do it.


 

Stocke’s race to Granorg quickly becomes a race against the desertification. It wasn’t long after he crossed the border that he could see Granorg had been brought to its knees. Alistel’s plant life has always been marginal given its rocky and mountainous terrain, but now it looks lush and verdant compared to Granorg. Even the air is dry and thin, and it hurts to breathe all the way down. He presses a hand against his chest to nurse the ache, but keeps on moving.

The heat is dire. Sand gets into his hair, under his clothes, inside his mouth, and he is not sure if it is simply sand or whether it is the remains of something that had once lived. It doesn’t matter either way; his only way is forward, towards Eruca and Granorg’s army, and the first step in a desperate plan to join Cygnus and Celestia’s siege of Alistel. He notices, but does not allow himself to be distracted by, the absence of any animals in the area. No birdsong, no cries of insects, no rustle of leaf litter underfoot from larger animals. The only sound is himself, his feet slipping in the sand and his breathing harsh and pained.

Finally he can see the imposing structure of the city of Granorg, its stone steps and gate looking impossibly solid after he’s seen nothing but sand for so long. The sight spurs him on for one last push, and he speeds up to a shambling run. He trips on the broken stone of the steps and reels into a pillar, his forearm hitting the stone painfully as he uses it to brace himself. Now that he has stopped he feels dizzy and ill, a sign that he’s pushed himself too far, but he cannot stop now. He pushes himself upright, and then forces himself to walk on.

He catches his breath at the top of the stairs, blinking away black spots in his vision as he gulps down air. When he has recovered enough to walk, he vanishes from sight and heads towards the voices, seeking Eruca.

As it turns out, she’s easy to find: she’s standing on the top of the stairs leading to the palace, directing frantic subjects. Confidence and authority radiate from her; being the Queen suits her. Stocke spares a weary, wry moment of appreciation for her poor security detail, who are nowhere to be seen. In his experience, it’s always been hard to keep Eruca from throwing herself into the fray if she considers it her duty to do so.

Finally, she finishes directing people and takes a moment to look out on her city. Stocke can see the tired line of her shoulders as she sighs, but he cannot see the miserable determination that had driven her on to her death in his vision. He walks up the steps towards her, shadowing her as she enters the palace grounds, before making himself visible.

“Eruca, we need to talk,” he says, his voice hoarse and rough from disuse. Eruca turns around quickly, and her eyes widen when she takes him in.

“Stocke?” Eruca breathes. “What happened? Where is everyone?”

“They’re dead,” Stocke says, making no attempt to soften his words. Eruca wouldn’t appreciate that anyway. “Hugo killed them.”

Eruca blanches, but recovers with remarkable speed. She still looks stricken, but her gaze is alert and fierce as she stares Stocke down.

“How?”

“I don’t know,” Stocke says. It’s even partially true; he never saw them fall. “I was taken out of action. But I do know that he needs to be stopped before he makes the desertification worse. What do you know?”

Eruca turns slightly to look at the boundaries of her city, to the desert that is at her doorstep.

“You see all that is left of Granorg.” There is a world of pain in her simple statement. “I sent scouts to Celestia and Cygnus, but we’ve heard nothing. We do know that Alistel is completely untouched by the desertification. Is it a weapon? How is he doing it?”

“He’s tapped into the power of Flux,” Stocke explains. “When used this way, its destructive capabilities are overwhelming, and it’s transformed him into something impossible. When I was in Alistel he ruled over everyone’s will just by talking nonsense. I can’t imagine that it’s gotten any better. He needs to be stopped. I need your army, Eruca.”

“We cannot lay siege to Alistel,” she says heavily. “I can’t ask my soldiers to march to their deaths with no hope of victory.”

“There’ll be an army from Cygnus and Celestia arriving at the Granorg Hills in a few days. Your army can join theirs and lay siege to Alistel. It’s a distraction only, because I will infiltrate the city and assassinate Hugo. Alistel will surrender not long after that.”

“How do you —” Eruca cuts herself off, shakes her head. “You always seem to know more than anyone ever could. Sometimes I — never mind.”

She smiles at Stocke, sad and tired and resolute. “Very well. I will place them in your hands. But I’ll be coming with you.”

“What?” Stocke says, surprised. “Eruca, that’s not necessary. If I fail, then that’s all the more reason for you to be elsewhere. Who will command your army? Who will lead Granorg?”

“If you fail, then none of those things will matter,” Eruca says simply. She sighs wearily, brushing her hair out of her face and setting her curls into disarray. “I cannot say that I enjoy the thought of killing Hugo, even after what he has done to the world. But it must be done, if we are to have any hope of undoing what he has done. Our chances are better with two. I will be joining you, Stocke.”

There are many arguments that Stocke could use to try and discourage her, and none of them would dissuade her. More importantly, she is right. While he has conducted assassinations alone before and returned to report it, the targets were mere mortals. Hugo will require much more force to neutralise, and the more force Stocke can bring to bear, the better. Eruca may be the Queen of Granorg now, but she is also a battle-hardened warrior with firepower that complements his own. In the absence of specially trained soldiers like Raynie and Marco — the thought of them stings, even knowing that their deaths will be undone if it is the last thing that Stocke does — he will need Eruca’s skills.

“Very well,” he says. “But we will need to move as quickly as we can. How quickly can you rally your army?”

“Tomorrow,” Eruca says, to Stocke’s surprise. “They’ll be ready to march tomorrow.”

“So soon? Are you sure?”

“Yes.” Eruca’s answer left no room to argue. “We need to move quickly to meet the other armies. If we do not meet them in time, then we have failed.”

Stocke’s breath catches at the memory of Eruca, shielded from dissolution by the Etherion, making her way to the ritual room to sacrifice herself for no real gain at all. He grips her shoulder, fingers biting into the flesh of her arm.

“We will succeed, Eruca,” he says firmly, and then lets go of her once he sees her grimace.

“I know you will do everything you can to make that happen,” she says. “I am placing my faith in you.”

She is, and that is a humbling thought. The fate of the world rests in his hands, has rested in his hands ever since Heiss gave him the White Chronicle, and it surprises him every time that people will follow him into what should be certain death simply because he asks it of them.

“Thank you,” he says. “I’ll leave the preparations in your hands then.”

He walks down the stairs, and spares a moment to look back. Eruca is staring at him, her expression impossible to interpret. He’s caught her looking at him like that a number of times, and he thinks he understands why. It’s a truth that, once he has found the golden thread of the true history, he will need to come to terms with, but that time is not now. He waves, and Eruca jumps in surprise before smiling briefly and waving back to him. Then he turns away and heads to the right. He needs a drink and a dark room to rest and recover, and the pub is as good a place as any at the moment.


 

The next day brings news of an entirely unexpected variety.

Stocke is making his way to Granorg Castle, when he hears quick and heavy footsteps after him. The footfalls are consistent with a soldier in armor, which would make sense given that the Granorg army is in the process of assembling to march this morning. It’s only when the soldier calls out ‘Sergeant Stocke’ that he stops and turns to face the soldier. His hand is already reaching for his sword, magic spell on his lips. He hasn’t been called Sergeant in a long time, and the man speaks with an Alistellian accent. He’s young, as fresh-faced as Kiel, and even looks a little like him, with that shock of auburn hair and green eyes. The resemblance is only superficial; it hurts all the same.

“What is it, soldier?” he says warily. He doesn’t move towards him, not yet. This soldier isn’t a threat. In fact, he looks exhausted, unsteady on his feet as he stumbles to a halt a short distance from Stocke. Unsurprising, really, if he had a similar hike from Alistel that Stocke did. Something must have driven him beyond rational thought to bring him to Granorg so quickly.

“Oh, it is you!” the soldier gasps. He manages a smile, weary as it is. “I thought I recognized the cape.”

“It is distinctive,” Stocke allows. It’s not the first time he’s been recognized by it. “But you haven’t answered my question.”

“Right,” the soldier says. He swallows. “I’ve been sent by General Viola to pass on a message to you.”

Stocke relaxes fractionally. Viola’s renowned for her honor, and it’s unlikely that she would lend her name to trickery.

“What does General Viola want with me?” he prompts when the soldier doesn’t continue. He blinks dazedly at Stocke, and Stocke steps forward to catch at his arms to steady him. The soldier wobbles into Stocke’s grip, but rights himself after a moment. He is chalk-white under the sunburn, and if he’s come from the Sand Fortress it’s still a desperate hike to Granorg, with no shelter from the unrelenting sun.

“Sorry, sir,” the soldier continues after a moment. Stocke doesn’t let go of his arms. “It’s General Hugo, sir. He’s dead.”

“What?” Stocke blurts out. “How?”

The soldier shrugs. “I don’t know, sir. No one saw anything except a black shadow. General Viola sent me to find you, sir, because I’m the fastest runner. She said you’d be here in Granorg, and that we had to tell you that Alistel will surrender.”

An assassin, unseen by anyone, killing a demigod inside Alistel’s military headquarters, one of the most protected places in the city. There aren’t many who could do that. Stocke knows he could have done it, but has not met another Specint agent with his skill. None except Heiss, and Stocke remembers Heiss’ instructions underneath Alistel: go to Cygnus while I clean up your mess.

And what did Hugo do when he returned to Alistel’s laboratories to find Stocke gone, with no explanation as to how he recovered?

He’ll have time to consider these things later.

“And what about that hold he had on everyone?” he asks instead.

The soldier shudders, and Stocke looks at him, startled, looking for signs he was about to faint. “It’s gone, sir. It was like a dream. I don’t remember it that well.”

Stocke doesn’t call the man a liar. Let him tell himself he didn’t remember it that well; it was a delusion that hurt no one and comforted him.

He blinks, and then everything freezes for a moment, caught in a moment of time. It passes quickly, but Stocke recognises it for what it is. He doesn’t even have to look to know that Lippti and Teo have appeared, and there is a node nearby. No one sees them as they wait patiently for Stocke to speak to them, despite the fact that they resemble nothing more than a pair of lost children . No one ever sees them. For not the first time, Stocke thinks that their existence is terribly sad and lonely.

“Very good,” he says, clapping the soldier on the shoulder. “Now go report what you told me to Queen Eruca, and that Alistel is surrendering. But first, tell her that I sent you.”

“Sir?” the soldier asks, with understandable bewilderment. “Wouldn’t it be best that you come with me? Why would she believe me?”

“Queen Eruca is a good judge of character,” Stocke assures him. He glances over at Lippti and Teo. “Right now, I’ve got something to attend to. I’ll catch up shortly.”

The soldier looks confused, but he’s been trained to follow orders over good sense. He looks back at Stocke with a puzzled frown, but heads on ahead to Granorg Castle. Stocke waits until the soldier is out of sight before walking over to Lippti and Teo.

“Stocke,” Lippti greets him, as always. “The answers you seek cannot be found here.”

“I know,” Stocke says, and in saying so, realizes that he always had known. He had, ever since he woke up underneath Alistel, Heiss his only living company in the midst of his friends’ corpses.“That wasn’t why I did it.”

“Then why?” Teo wants to know. “Why work so hard to salvage a timeline that could not stop the desertification?”

Stocke thinks about his answer before speaking. It seems this, as much as any other decision he makes, is one that he has to think about carefully.

“It didn’t matter that it didn’t stop the desertification,” he says slowly and precisely. “I made a choice that I didn’t consider properly, and people died as a result. It’s my responsibility to fix this mistake, as well as any other mistakes I make.”

“You could have returned to Historia,” Lippti says gently. “You could have made a different choice, one where you do not accept Hugo’s offer of power.”

“And I will,” Stocke replied. “But when Hugo gave me power, I saw Eruca’s death. I saw the death of this entire continent. I couldn’t walk away from that.”

Lippti and Teo exchange relieved smiles.

“No, you could not,” Lippti says.

“And we are pleased you did not,” Teo adds.

Stocke folds his arms, and asks levelly, “Another test, then?”

“No,” Lippti assures him. “We aren’t testing you. But we are pleased that you did not walk away. There’s still hope yet.”

“But for now, will you return to Historia?” Teo adds.

Stocke considers staying, trying to right further the wrongs that he has done. He considers testing his theory that he was the distraction for Heiss’ assassination of Hugo, and trying to tease out why Heiss would do such a thing. There are questions left unanswered here, and he could spend more time trying to understand them all. On the other hand, there is nothing to be done in this time to stop the desertification, not with Aht’s death. There is nothing he can do here that will bring his friends back from the dead.

To stop the desertification, to save his friends, he needs to find an answer in another timeline, and then bring that answer here.

“Yes,” he agrees, and closes his eyes to the transition of Historia.