“Whew,” Samantha says, pausing to calm her nerves. Della is more overcome by confusion than anything else, but the fear is visible on the bramblekin’s face.
“The Hell was that about,” Della asks.
“Those were gods,” Samantha says. “Or at least extremely powerful fae. Either way, bad news.”
“Why’s that,” Della asks as they forge on down the path.
“Gods,” Samantha begins, “or fae in general, are really only interested in two things: their domain, which is the part of the world they have power over, and garnering worship from mortals, which is how they get power aside from the influence their domain has in the world.”
“Is that why the seven seals are there,” Della asks.
Samantha looks sidelong at Della and says, “My, you have been doing your homework. In a word, yes. The gods, from what I understand, proved to be more trouble than they were worth. So they were banished to another side of the Coil behind seven seals. And yeah, from the looks of things, I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that la mujerta succeeds in breaking them. So now we just have to figure out how she does it.”
“So we talk to whoever made it,” Della says, “and see if they can shed any light on how it’s done.”
“That’s the plan,” Samantha confirms. “I’m not quite sure what good it will do, though. Que será, será, or whatever.”
Della thinks this over for a moment. “What do you mean, you’re not sure what good it will do? If we just saw that the gods are coming back, and if we know how the revenant is going to use the Sandstorm Hourglass to make it happen, then can’t we use that information to stop her?”
“Well, you’re sure gonna try, I bet,” Sam replies. “But what we saw back there is the future – not a possible future, but the future. Whatever you do in the coming however-long-you-have, things will unfold in exactly that way when the time comes.”
“That doesn’t seem possible,” Della insists. “I mean, if you knew how things were going to go, couldn’t you alter the course of events to change it?”
Samantha scoffs at her young companion’s naïveté. “You read, right?”
“You’ve heard of Cassandra?”
“Sure. Apollo gave her the gift of prophecy, but then she snubbed him, so he cursed her. After that, nobody believed anything she had to say, even though she was right every damn time.”
Samantha spreads her laden hands wide, as if to gesture, There you go.
“But that’s just a story,” Della presses on. “What would happen if I were to go back and try to stop the sinking of the Titanic?”
“All right, fine,” Samantha says in exasperation, rolling her eyes. “How would you do that?”
“Well, I’d warn them,” Della says.
“Sure. But how? You would need to do something specific, so tell me what you’ll specifically do.”
“For starters, I’d tell them to watch out for icebergs.”
“Won’t work. They’re headed into iceberg territory, of course they’ll be watching out for icebergs. They’d look at you like you’re stupid and nothing would change.”
“OK, then I’d look up the details of the crash, and tell them to watch out for icebergs at that specific time and place.”
“Won’t work,” Samantha repeats. “Your prediction is so specific that you’d be immediately dismissed as a crackpot. Whoever you tell would either forget what you said or toss your note in the trash, and nothing would change.”
“Fuck it, then,” Della says, “I’d bring back money, and since I’m time traveling anyway I can take steps all the way back to get period-appropriate currency, and I’d buy a ticket and warn them my damn self.”
“Won’t work,” Samantha says for the third time. “You’ll either miss the boat, or shit will go down in such a way as to cause you to fail.”
“Like Hell! What if I head up to the bridge and tell the captain, ‘Hey, look, you wanna steer clear of this iceberg coming up,’ how could that go wrong?”
“You’re not crew,” Sam replies. “You’d be kicked out, or if you managed to force your way in, the ensuing scene would distract the crew from the very threat you’re trying to warn them about. You’d go down with the ship, and nothing would change.”
“OK, so I bide my time until just before I need to spring into action, then head up to the bridge and warn them right in time to point at the iceberg itself.”
Samantha stares straight ahead down the path and answers flatly, “You trip.”
Della tamps down the rage rising in her chest. “What?! I trip?! What kind of bullshit is that?”
“You wait until the last second, something comes up to stop you for a second and a half. So you trip, you don’t get there in time; and even if you manage to alert the captain to the oncoming danger, he won’t be able to turn the ship in time to avoid disaster. Nothing would change,” Sam finishes with an air of finality.
Della fumes for a good few minutes as they proceed down the winding bramble path.
“Here’s what you’re not understanding,” Samantha says to break the silence and tension. “You think that time is a path, like this one we’re walking on – if you could see ahead, then you’d be able to change course based on what you saw, and avoid undesirable outcomes. Or attain desirable ones. Whatever.
“But time is not like that. Going back and forth in time like we’ve been doing tonight, it’s not like getting a video feed of what’s ahead. It’s more like taking your own personal timeline and tying it into a knot: you go forward, back, then through, but you haven’t changed the string. It still goes wherever it goes, there’s just a knot in the middle of it now. That knot might be connected to other knots and strings by the threads of fate and destiny, but it still starts where it starts and ends where it ends and it’s the same damn fibers twined together to make the same damn string the whole time.
“Time is more like a river: it carries you through by the force of its current. Though you might look ahead or back every now and again, to see what’s coming and where you’ve been, the whole river is there the whole time. Beginning to end, the course is laid out and set in stone. Or dirt, what-have-you. You won’t change the river by swimming in it, the course is set and all you can do is the best you can. Even if that fails. Which, let’s face it, it does sometimes. But you can’t go back to the start of the river and move its head, nor can you head to the end of the river and move its mouth. The river is just there, it does its thing, and all you can do is go with the flow. Or fight against it, whatever. River don’t care.”
Della chews on this for a few moments before Sam adds, “Also, you should read The Wreck of the Titan by Morgan Robertson. It, ah, might give you a fresh perspective on this sort of thing.”
“So what the Hell is the point of time travel,” Della asks, “if you can’t fuckin’ change anything?”
“What’s the point of what we’re doing right now,” Sam asks in response.
“Well,” Della considers, “forewarned is forearmed, I suppose. Even if we can’t stop or change what we’ve seen, I guess we’ll be better prepared for what comes between, and maybe even a little better-positioned for whatever’s on the other side.”
“Bingo,” Sam says with a wink and a smile. “So you see? Even if the fates cannot be defied, we still have interesting things to do.”
“So what about free will, then?”
“Psh, what about it?”
“Well,” Della asks, “If everything’s fated, if the future is set in stone, then what’s the point of doing anything?”
“That depends on how you decide to make your points, I guess,” Samantha says after a moment’s consideration. “A wise guy once said something to the effect that humanity is free as an undammed river is free. Do you like rollercoasters?”
“Um, sure,” Della says.
“Well, rollercoasters are on rails. Hell, you’re even buckled in with no place to go. You can’t do whatever you like on a rollercoaster, but it’s still fun, right?” Della nods her assent. “So you see? Just because your life is on rails, that’s no reason you can’t have fun along the way.” At Samantha’s beaming smile, Della’s anger and confusion sublimate into a sense of the profound. She is still confused, still angry, but the impression of a bigger picture – a glimpse of transcendence – eclipses the lesser emotions tugging at her mind.
The bramble path winds ever onward. Della and Samantha journey in silence, broken only by the steady rhythm of their footsteps and the occasional rustling of brush in their passing. There are no insects or other woodland critters to disturb the silence – every sound that Sam and Della hear is of their own making.
An hour passes.
Della glances at her watch, but it only has “No signal” to say. It fuckin’ figures. Thing’s great for telling me exactly what time it is when I’m in tower range – but here, it’s just an expensive and stupid-looking bracelet. She wishes briefly that she had gotten the date when she was in the temple with the gods, but a moment’s consideration reminds her that they were in the mountains, and likely well out of signal range. She is done ruminating on time and fate and loops, has grown tired of her own thoughts. She turns to her companion and says, “So this is a real quiet place.”
“Quiet is safe,” Samantha replies without hesitation. “The bramble can be very dangerous, but I made sure to hold a safe route in mind. The writs only protect us between the bramble, when we’re in your world. So I wove another intention into the spell. Otherwise, we’d likely be up to our necks in all kinds of unsavory critters by now.”
“I see. So how much farther do we have to go?”
Samantha shrugs. “No idea. Thomas said he has no clue how old the hourglass is. He’s had it – well, his exact words were ‘over a century’. But it’s quite the curious timepiece, not even the mages were able to figure out what it was for, so it could be very old indeed.” Some moments pass as they walk in silence. “Look around,” Sam says at last. “You see how things are getting greener? Younger-looking? We’re heading into an old part of the bramble – which is to say, a time when it was young. If we found a door now, I’d guesstimate we’d be at two hundred or two thousand years ago.”
“That’s quite a margin of error,” Della says after some thought.
“Well, the bramble’s a funny place.” When Samantha doesn’t add more, Della leaves it at that.
After some time, Della is unsure of quite how much, Samantha’s glamour fades. Della chooses to ignore it. The springs of Samantha’s joints sound in time with her steps, marking the passing seconds. Della counts for a full ten minutes, then loses track and focuses on the path. Massive trees give way to saplings, which in their turn fall away to ferns and plants that Della doesn’t recognize. The one constant is the thorns; always, there are thorns. But their browns give way to greens, with reddish tips that gradually fade to yellow.
After another interminable silence, they turn a corner and another door looms in the distance. Like the last, it is a heavy double door; unlike the last, it bears no carvings or intricate handles. Stained wood and polished brass give the sense of an elegant simplicity.