"Mom called it... quantum entanglement," the girl says, as she stares shyly at her feet. "Two things are connected, no matter the distance between them."
"That would defy our understanding of spacetime," Acheron replies bluntly.
"I... I guess so." Her nose crinkles as she considers the implications. "If we could make it work for other things, we could reach FTL speeds."
Acheron sighs at the bad science. "What is your mother teaching you?"
"How to quiet restless spirits, mostly." She smiles up at him.
He's vaguely aware her name is Finley, and her mother is his granddaughter... but life choices estranged Acheron from his family... and even now, his presence here is regarded with suspicion.
He's less concerned about that and more concerned about what he can learn from Finley. She and her twin sibling have a metaphysical connection, owed to the symbiotic relationship between a physical body and the lifeforce it generates. Two of them formed in close proximity can cause issues... apparently. For their case, anyway. The child is not strictly human, and her spirit isn't either. This was brought to the attention of a doctor in one of the magic sanctuaries, and from there word reached the witch covens and eventually Acheron's ear. The thought of shared lifeforce energy gives Acheron the creeps, but, the man he's hunting may suffer from the same condition.
If he can find one, he can find the other.
If he can find Cayenne, he can find Loki.
If it is a weakness, he will exploit it.
"She says you had to do something bad to keep from aging," Finley continues. "Is that true?"
"No. It isn't."
"Then why does she say it is?"
"Because the only ritual your mother knows to slow aging involves stealing life from others."
Her little kid eyes widen expectantly. "So what is your secret?"
Acheron's tone turns frosty, "I didn't steal."
Finley frowns. "Somebody gave it to you..." She's as perceptive as she is booksmart. "You didn't want it."
"Hmmm, what are you thinking about?" Claire laughs. "You've got that look on your face again."
Why can't he stop this from happening?
"You HAVE to learn to defend yourself," the witch pleads. "To defend your family. A mage untrained will lure in trouble. You have no way of preventing evil from finding you."
In some versions of events, he resists becoming a mage.
But it never seems to change the outcome.
He doesn't know her name.
She fought him with all her magic, all her strength, but somehow he knew what she was going to do and how to counter her. She expected mercy, but he gave her none. He snapped her neck and waited for her to die.
"You killed her." The child's statement is one of shock, but there's a hint of condemnation, too.
"Yeah, whatever," Acheron grumbles. Was it for the greater good? Was there no other way? Or does he just not care anymore? These questions haunt Acheron when he is awake, but do not trouble him in the moment. "I'll be taking you back to your mum."
"That's... good... I'm-"
"Lost," Acheron finishes the sentence for him. "Yeah."
"She was going to hurt me. She said-"
"I know." Acheron scoops the boy up, impatient in his old age. "Now be quiet, if you don't want her entire colony realizing we're here."
A family reunited. They think they understand they almost lost one of the kids, but they don't, really. They haven't had to live in that timeline.
Finley doesn't know who Acheron is yet, but she senses he is another psion.
Mab stares at him. She looks so much like his mother. "You saved my son. Your other failings aside... I can't exactly overlook that. Why are you here?"
"I'm not here for you. I'm studying the dryads in the forest nearby, and the boy got in the way."
"Some of them live in the town, pretending to be human. They've told me about their colony, but I've never seen it. They never mentioned... ritual sacrifices of children."
"They worship a primordial spirit. It's taken the form of a river."
"Well that brings more questions than answers."
"It gives power but it must first be given power."
"I see." Her eyes narrow. "Well obviously they can't be trusted with it. Let's take it out."
Acheron opens his mouth to protest, but before he can find the words, she has more to say.
"You are here to destroy it, right?"
"In a sense," he admits.
"Hmph. You're not studying the dryads. You're studying the river."
In some sequences he ends up here because he's looking for Mab's children. In this one, he is looking for Lethe. "I'm not taking you with me. I'm not risking you being hurt. Your grandmother would never forgive me."
"Well I never knew the woman, so I can't much care what she thinks." Mab folds her arms. "So you listen to me, old man. They tried to kill my son. I'm getting revenge."
The world of magic knows no due process. It is held together by threats and lies, violence and bargains. Acheron despises it, but he can't change it.
"He shouldn't be aging at all," one of Claire's coven sisters is surprised after running a few tests on Acheron. "He's got some kind of blood curse on him though. I can't break magic that strong."
Claire frowns. "Who took your immortality from you, Acheron?"
Acheron shrugs. "Not from me. From my grandmother's great-grandmother." He knows this because he has seen potential timelines where he knows this.
"A multi-generational curse?" Claire gasps. "That's cruel."
"You tried to kill me once," Acheron reminds her.
"These images... they're supposed to be in order," teen Acheron complains. "How can I make sense of them if they're not?"
"They are in order," the cat replies."What's not in order is you."
Acheron rolls his eyes. "Then how do I fix that?"
"Become more cognizant of your feelings. Irrational as they are, they shape your choices, and you experience the result of those choices."
"I wouldn't expect a creature like you to speak of what is rational."
"Hmm. Yes," the cat concedes, "but I must speak a language you understand or we get nowhere."
"You're trying to manipulate me."
"It is a burden, to have sight as you do. I could shield you from it, if you wish."
"You want to steal my soul."
"No! I am your friend. I patiently wait for your strength to return. Until then, if I can help..."
"Leave. Me. Alone."
The first djinn Acheron ever encountered was cursed to live in the body of a cute, fuzzy animal. This one aligns more closely to stereotypes.
Ashen gray skin. Blood red eyes.
Acheron tries to stare the being down. "I want to know how many times we have met."
The djinn smiles indulgently. "For the first few hundred lives you were content to live peacefully by the sea, comforted by your music. Loki ruined this for you in this life... as is his nature. To ruin things. He remembers you as a kind and gentle person, but his interference has changed you. You wait for the last second and stab him in the back before he can imprint the memory of it on anything."
"So my vision has come to pass before."
"Many times now. You worry he will catch on, but he never does."
"How many times?"
"Does it matter? You will have your wife back. Your pain and mine are the same, Acheron. You know its intensity, so you know nothing will stop me. I will have eternity with my beloved. I will never allow her to die. So you see, I don't need you to stop Loki... but you will, because you doubt me."
"I guess so." Acheron mumbles. "I can't risk you slipping up."
"I should punish you for your words, but the suffering you cause your uncle is worth enduring your trivial insolence."
"Suffering," Acheron repeats.
"Betrayal has a certain sting, young one. Have you never felt it?"
"But why do you care? What did he do to you?"
"That is not a nice story," the djinn warns. His tone carries a chill, and the not too subtle promise of pain for any who challenge him to speak of these events that cause him torment to even think of.
Acheron casts a suspicious glance at the jade sculpture Loki is staring at. He feels like he's seen it somewhere before. "So why doesn't this god-like being simply... dispose of you? You've said it yourself: you're not essential to the wheels of reality. You could easily be killed off before you know enough to become a threat."
"Oh, maybe he just likes to watch me squirm," the elf responds breezily.
"No. Really. This is a serious question."
"Who says it isn't a serious answer? Besides, I'm sure Kir sees dealing with me as beneath him. Overconfidence is the undoing of most villains."
Acheron rolls his eyes. "The djinn isn't a villain. He's a being with motivations and thought processes. Has it ever occurred to you that you've never defeated him because in your mind, he's just a cartoon bad guy? Have all your schemes to take him down relied on him being stupid?"
"My father killed Kir's mate."
"H-huh?" Acheron had nearly dozed off in his chair, but the name stirs him awake.
"I can't believe you never guessed. You're such an idiot."
"Well nothing!" Chet snaps. "You keep picking at old wounds, so I thought I'd answer you and this would be the end of it. Now you know. Now you understand why that monster gets off on our feeble attempts to stop him from resetting the universe. He enjoys watching us fail."
Acheron raises an eyebrow. "So everything that's happened... the cycles, Eris's mother being erased from existence... it's all Loki's fault."
"That's one way of putting it. Why do you think he doesn't talk about it?"
"I can't say I haven't gone a-killing a few times," Acheron makes a dismissive hand gesture, "but now I'm just curious. Why did he kill her?"
"He doesn't know. Perhaps it was an accident. Or maybe, just maybe, she was even more absurdly cruel than Kir is? It's impossible to know, now. This warped reality exists for her, yet interacting with her is impossible."
"I take it getting through to her is the first thing 'we' tried."
"We're not sure what her existence is actually like. If Kir could merely bring her back to life... as he does with the rest of us... there would be no need to force her long lifetime to play out over and over again."
"Yeah, that's a thought." Acheron frowns deeply. "Here's another one: what if we're just as limited as she is? What if we're not alive either? Kir doesn't spend time bringing back every single person. It's just a generalized spell. What if ending the spell doesn't set things 'right' and let the universe continue 'as normal', but instead just kills everyone?"
Chet takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. "I know it doesn't because I've seen past it. I've seen us succeed. I don't know if we're on that path, but I know it exists, and we'll find it."
It seems there's no point arguing with that. "Right, then."
"I'm surprised you haven't seen us succeed. Your precognitive abilities far exceed mine."
"That doesn't mean I see everything."
Acheron watches a teenager play some platforming video game. The boy's arms jerk and his head tilts along with surprises and obstacles the game throws at him, even though his avatar does not respond to those movements, and can only dodge, run, jump or attack when buttons are pressed on the controller.
"So June. Your family has known Chet a while," Acheron says.
The teen doesn't look up. "Yeah she's cool."
"Let's say there's something I wanted to keep her from finding out about."
"Like a surprise party?"
Acheron grits his teeth. Is this kid for real? "...Yes. Like a surprise party."
"Finley and I block our telepathy with an artifact. You could-"
"No. I want her to be able to use her telepathy on me without realizing something is amiss."
June never takes his eyes off the game, but smiles agreeably. "Ahhh. Easy peasy lemon squeezy! Here's what you do..."
"At least take your scarf. It's about to rain."
Says the woman in a sleeveless shirt.
"Well, he took the scarf," Acheron says. Beaten up old fuzzy thing.
Claire gives him a look. "Please talk to him. You're his father."
"You can't go in there, he's busy!" The vampire doesn't know who he is yet. She snarls in his face, but she's more bark than bite. He walks right past her, into a small office.
Another first meeting. Acheron slams the door shut behind him, locking it with a quick spell. He doesn't waste any time getting to the point: "I heard you have... strange powers. I want you to find out what happened to a Doctor Nigel Rome. My wife's father."
The elf stands up, and stares at him in dumbfounded surprise. "Acheron?"
"You know who I am?" Acheron feigns confusion, enjoying the troubled look that crosses Loki's face. Loki can't exactly say you're my grandnephew, hi, how ya doin'? because from his perspective, Ceth and her progeny were left behind somewhere safe, a long, long time ago. They shouldn't be showing up now.
After fumbling with his words for a moment and saying nothing, really, it's Loki's turn to surprise Acheron by already knowing where Nigel Rome is: dead.
"He was... unhappy, with the way his test subjects were treated. So he helped us escape, and paid for it with his life."
"I wasn't born with these twitchy ears. Doctor Rome helped create a sort of gene therapy that-"
"Well Claire is going to be distraught. This seems like something I'd have caught earlier."
Caught and corrected. How could he choose to let this happen? What was he thinking?
Why does everything always end badly!?
"Ah. This... none of it is exactly real, is it?" Loki's calm inquiry tears through Acheron's thoughts like a record scratch in an old movie.
"How will Chet and I escape, if you prevent the mad scientist from showing compassion? It's... not as if you can stop the research itself. It predates you."
"No one in my nightmares ever becomes aware of that!"
Acheron wasn't even aware of it.
If he isn't here yet, where is he?
Here. He feels the heavy keys under his tiny fingers, muscle memory, hears the notes as he presses in. He must have fallen asleep sitting up again.
Kir. The creature holding reality together has a name. Acheron somehow thought it would be... longer.
"How do you know so many songs?" Fairuza asks.
Acheron twitches, answering truthfully in his sleepy haze, "I know the right keys because I can see the future... and sometimes... I remember what I see."
"You are such a weirdo," Fairuza laughs. "What are we having for supper tonight then?"
"I... don't know."
"Wow, your psychic powers did not hold up long."
Etc.: It's like you're playing a game, and you keep restarting and making different choices, but no matter what you do your favorite NPC still dies.