Where has Inifra gone? Our guides have set themselves at a ferocious pace downstream. All they will tell us is that we must hurry. They take turns poling the bottom of the river as hard as they can, and only trade places to rest. It is as though we are in a race against time itself.
Time. Though I can suppress the urge to shift it, I cannot so easily resist the curiosity to wonder what would happen if I did. How could I change things? This has been the persistent question that has plagued me all my life.
If I went back and, instead of running, stood and fought the chief of the KoraKora on the borders of the Deadwood, what would be different? Would his death have dispersed his tribe?
They mourned a week for his brother, how long would they mourn him? Would it have led to a struggle for succession? Perhaps they would have forgotten us completely in the midst of their own political infighting. Or perhaps I would have died right then and there, surrounded and overwhelmed by a savage nation.
Second-guessing the decisions of our past is one of the things that makes us human. What doubles that burden upon me, unlike anyone else, is that I could go back and change any one of those decisions. But what if I go back too far? What if I never wake from the shift? No one knows what happens then, when you careen past the day of your birth into the oblivion of preexistence.
Similarly, I could explore the future. I have before. I could shift forward just long enough to see what’s coming. But what if I shift too far and pass my death?
That, to me, is the greatest of the curiosities. I want to jump ahead, to gain an advantage on my enemy. If I am to be defeated tomorrow, learning that today can show me what I need to alter so as to win. I have done so before, but the potential effects have always scared me. How many divergent histories have I cut short by shifting forward? Not many, I think, for it was a rare excursion of reckless youth when I did so.
Still, my recklessness somewhat curbed, it is a challenge not to entertain the idea again today. Shift ahead a week and unravel this mystery of Inifra’s location. See where the KoraKora might meet us along the way and avoid it or turn it into an ambush.
Yet in doing so, with every shift, I increase the chance that I will lose my grasp on consciousness. I run the risk of losing myself to the shift and never waking again.
I met a Timeshift who had done just that before I entered the scourge.
My mother found him in a poorhouse in Silverdale, a week’s journey from Silver Hall. Rarely is the Beacon allowed to leave his or her post. The risk is almost always considered too great. But somehow, only a fortnight before I was taken into the scourge, she managed to get away and take me to Silverdale.
We went in secrecy, boarding a small vessel on its way to Calheart only to slip off in the night before it weighed anchor. We left in a carriage whose windows were covered with thick curtains so no one could see us. My mother was not nearly so famous in the Old Empire back then, but still, prudence was always her way. Risk and Syltra na Tetrarch do not frequently fraternize.
The carriage itself was rickety, nothing to draw attention. It smelled musty, bathed in the odor of neglect. The driver was a friend of my mother’s, a man I had never met before nor would ever see again.
In that poorhouse there were more than a few men whose sanity had long left them. Cared for by the generosity of the Crestwards, they were left lying on their cots to live out their days in whatever hazes had settled on their minds. Except one.
That’s the first thing I remember: this man in a cloak, hood casting his face in darkness, standing in the corner of a long cell. The shaft of light that poured into the room without touching him only heightened the sense that he was somehow dissolving into shadow.
He didn’t say anything. He didn’t do anything. He just stood there. One of the passing healers explained that he would do as he was told. He could eat, drink, and use his latrine as normal. But he would always return to that corner. He had been there for years.
The hood, the healer said, was for the sake of the poorhouse staff. It was there to hide his eyes.
When the healer left, my mother approached and told the man to step from his corner. He did so, casting a long shadow across the room. She reached out, slowly pulling back his hood and lowering it to his shoulders. I will never forget that gaze.
His pupils were gone, as were the iris and any sign of human vein or color. They were as glass orbs containing a swirling mist. He was handsome, a stern jaw with salted stubble only a few days old. His head slightly bowed, he stood as if he had been waiting for orders before suddenly losing himself in thought.
“Touch his hand,” my mother said to me, distracted by the swirling of the man’s eyes. I refused to budge until she repeated herself in a command. “Take it and hold it in your own.”
I stepped forward. My heart races even just to remember that man’s presence. He was powerful. I could sense it, feel it like walking into the wind. I reached out my hand and for a trembling moment I contemplated running from that place.
Then my mother commanded the man to take my hand. He did so quickly, and in his grasp the world fell away. I could see his eyes. They were restored, lost, and so terribly sad. I cried out. He shook his head silently, then looked off beyond me. My gaze mirrored his own, looking beyond him to where the world flitted by. They were not images of my past nor my future that rushed past us, flickering in no discernable order or direction. They were his.
I saw him as a boy, as an old man dying somewhere far from Silverdale. I saw him born, I saw him wed, I saw him lose and I saw him gain. Contradicting stories of past and future. All that could have been and everything that would never be.
The moments of his life were compressed into the briefest of instants, then dragged out for agonizing eons. His pain became my own. His joy flooded me to bursting, then drained and left me hollow.
All of this was confusion. I looked at him again, neither of us able to speak. Help me, his eyes said now that their maple rim and coal center were returned to them. I cannot find my way.
And then I was back in his room. My mother’s hand on my arm, her other pulling his away from my own. I raged at her, screamed at her, and beat her back. I had to help him, to draw him into himself. She couldn’t see it. I knew that, because she held his hand now and nothing happened to her.
Let me help him! She held me by the shoulders and knelt to my level. She had never once spoken to me on my level. Her words then became the warning by which I have lived since.
“He is beyond the help of all men,” she said. “As will you be if you ever lose control of your ability. You can see and understand him, for he is a brother to you in a way no other man shall ever be. Let his fate be not in vain. Heed his warning.”
She let me look at him for a while longer. I have never felt so helpless, standing in the shadow of a man whose name I never knew, yet whose soul had coursed through mine. How could I just leave him there?
We were in the carriage and riding back to New Rinoa before I realized it. Neither of us spoke the rest of the trip. Not as we snuck into the port, nor as we pretended to disembark with the crew of the vessel we had supposedly taken out. We kept our silence among the Tetrarch escort sent to bring us home. In fact, we never said a single word about that visit to Silverdale all the rest of our lives.
I found out that man’s name years later: Goldrindal. I have prayed for his soul to find its way home every night since I met him. In the same breath I always pray mine never joins him.