“Is that it?”
I blinked, and frowned at my daughter, sitting on her bed. “What do you mean?”
“Is that it?” she repeated. “Is that the end of the story?”
“Of course it is the end of the story!” I insisted, ruffling her hair. “I died!”
She pouted. “But not yet! The story cannot be over yet!”
“Isabelle,” I said with a sigh. “This is my story. I am well aware of when and how it ends.”
“I am not Isabelle,” the ten year-old girl reminded me.
I nodded at my eldest child, Gerian. “Of course, dearest, of course. Apologies, it has just been a very long day.” I smiled and laughed at the silliness of my mistake. “Why, Isabelle will not even be born for another…” I stopped laughing, as it dawned on me. “…two…years.” I frowned. “How…how do I even know who Isabelle is, Gerian? Your mother is not even pregnant.”
“I never said I was Gerian, either.”
The girl looked like Gerian, seven years ago. She sat on Gerian’s straw bed with the quilt her mother made for her, in the small but private room I had bought for her using wages earned in the army. The walls and shelves were covered in Gerian’s toys and trinkets.
But the girl was not Gerian.
Her eyes were deep, and her smiling knowing. My daughter had tried to effect such an appearance more than once, and even succeeded on occasion. But the girl I was looking at was not wearing a mask, pretending to be old and wise. She wore her deep eyes and knowing smile as easily and naturally as anything I had ever seen in the world.
She was not old and wise. She was age. She was wisdom.
I stood up from the small stool next to my daughter’s bed, where I had been sitting while telling her the story. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
“Good questions,” she admitted. “But you are missing a rather important one.”
I frowned. “What…what am I doing here?” I looked around for my weapons. They were nowhere to be found. “I…I was on the battlefield. Fighting the dire knight. And then…” And then I remembered the story I had been telling this girl. “And then I died.”
She sighed. “You people and your obsession with the finality of death. Seriously, you’re like one of those angsty goth kids on LiveJournal, bitching about how life is pain because daddy wouldn’t let them date who they wanted.”
I blinked. “…what?”
“Short version: You are not beyond the realm of the living. You still may return.”
I swallowed my anxiety. I did not understand all of what this girl was saying, but I certainly understood that. “How much time do I have?”
“Not long,” she replied promptly. “Your body will be dead—permanently—within a few seconds, but your mind is…” She paused, as though searching for the proper word. “Accelerated at the moment. To give you more time to think.”
I wanted to ask more about the girl, but I had a feeling she would dodge the question again. “All right, fine. How do I return?”
“Agree to my terms, and it will happen presently.”
“…what are your terms?”
Those deep eyes did not so much as blink. “Once you return, you may only harm monsters.”
I frowned. “That is it?”
“That is it,” she repeated. But her eyes were still hard. “Do not underestimate this price, Sir Nicholas Wreth. You will not be allowed to kill humans or animals of the natural world. You may not raise your blade against any bandit or murderer, not at your king’s order or any other.”
“And I assume if I do so anyway, I die?”
“No,” she insisted. “You are not getting it. You will not be allowed to do it. You will not be able to do it. If you attempt to raise your sword against a human, you will not be punished, you will simply fail.” Her eyes were deeper than the midnight sky on a moonless night. “Think long and hard, young knight. Ask yourself how many of the men you killed needed to die. To protect yourself, your kingdom, and your loved ones.”
Not many, unfortunately. But…enough. Enough that if I had not been able to kill them, I knew with absolute certainty that I would be dead now, and my family lying in the grave beside my own.
“…I accept,” I said grudgingly, after remembering too many terrified faces. What other choice did I have? “But I do have one more question, if you do not mind.”
The girl nodded once.
“The dire knight,” I started. “He knows me. He knows my fighting style, knows my moves. And…” I frowned. “He knew this was going to happen, did he not? He called me a revenant. Said killing me might…knock some sense into me.”
The girl closed her eyes and sighed.
“You…do not have the proper context to understand fully,” she said slowly. “I do not mean this as an insult. Let me attempt to explain.” Suddenly, in front of her, there was a long glowing line in the air, like a string with a thousand fireflies attached.
“This,” she began. “Is history. The timeline.” She tapped the end of the string, and a glowing knot wove itself. “This is a choice. Any choice, really.” A thousand more glowing strands sprouted out of the end of that knot, like iridescent hair. “And these are all the possibilities following that choice. A thousand thousand new timelines, born from something as small as what to have for breakfast.”
“…all right,” I managed. “I believe I follow.”
She took one of the glowing strands. “Now, say the choice is the one you are making right now—whether to live or die. This strand is a timeline where you chose to live.” She looked me straight in the eye. “Following me?”
A meek nod.
“Good.” She looped the strand back, until it touched the knot in the string and connected. “This is the source of the monsters. They are from a future. The tale of their creation, and subsequently arriving here, is long and complex. But they are here, and one of them, the dire knight, remembers you.”
I swallowed. “You are saying…I created these monsters? Will create.”
“I am saying no such thing. Your survival or demise has no bearing on the creation of these creatures, or their arrival in this time. They are simply from a timeline where you survived, nothing more.”
“But…” I frowned. “So the dire knight…is someone I will meet in the future.”
“Not necessarily—” the girl who bore my daughter’s face stopped mid-sentence. “…I do not think I should confuse you further. Yes, the dire knight is someone who you will meet in the future. Multiple times.”
“Who is he?”
The girl looked me in the eye. “You really do not want to know.”
“Oh yes, because that makes me feel better.”
She smiled, and for a moment I could forget that she was not really my daughter. “Of course it does.” For some reason, she glanced at her wrist, as though looking at something there. “But I fear we are out of time. I assume your decision stands?”
I nodded. “Send me back.”
The room began to fade. “It is done.”
“Thank you, dire spirit,” I whispered.
The last thing I saw as darkness closed on me once more was the girl’s broad grin.
“Oh, you are a clever one…”