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Variations on a Theme of Sacrifice

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Ernst dies at age three, blood on his lips as he coughs with a force that breaks ribs. Heinrich goes back more for his own sake than the child's; Victor made it quite clear he didn't have a choice in the matter. The first time, Victor accuses him of lying to achieve... something, Heinrich can't fathom what. The second time back, resentment twists in his stomach as Victor reads a letter from himself, casting suspicious glances at Heinrich. Still, he eventually agrees to send the prince away from court for a week. Ernst lives.

Ernst dies at age six, shot with a crossbow by an assassin aiming for the king. Another letter, another suspicious look. Heinrich wonders briefly if it would be possible to instead nudge the assassin's arm so her aim goes true. (The answer, he finds much later, is no.)

Ernst is poisoned at age eight. Two-year-old Eruca succumbs first, but the poison was well-chosen, and by the time anyone realizes what happened it's already too late. They don't conclusively identify the perpetrator, but when Victor skims the letter in the past he growls, "I knew it," and sends the guards out after the Marquise Lasarr, Speaker of the Assembly and a prominent critic of many of the king's decisions. Two weeks later, the poisoning happens again, entirely undeterred, and Heinrich finds himself fleeing his brother's screaming wrath into Historia, accusations of treason, murder, and attempts to usurp the throne echoing in his ears. He has to track down the culprit himself- it turns out to be a servant, just a young boy whose family would have still been alive were it not for certain of Victor's policies. Heinrich kicks up a fuss and demands a food taster at the right time and the servant hangs.

Ernst is crippled at age nine, falling from a high wall as he tries to sneak out of the castle. Heinrich removes the seal on Victor's letter with a hot wire and burns it after he reads it. He shows Ernst one of the passages out through the sewers- Heinrich isn't particularly fond of children, but he can't help but sympathize a bit. He helps the boy out of the castle sometimes afterward, and has a suspicion that in doing so he's preempting a dozen timelines where Ernst is found dead in an alleyway. The prince is still a child, and while he learns his way around the city quickly, he is, in Heinrich's opinion, far too quick to trust.

Ernst dies at age eleven as he's being rushed to the royal physician, his body covered in burns. The radicals who kidnapped him hadn't thought to suppress his magic; the resulting fire had killed all but one of them, who was now bound for a particularly messy execution. Heinrich breaks the seal on Victor's letter as soon as he's confident he's alone, glances through it, rolls his eyes, and feeds it to the flames crackling merrily in the hearth in his room. He sends an anonymous tip to Victor's secret police with the rebels' location, and smiles darkly at the irony that it will be taken far more seriously than if he'd said it in person.

Ernst loses an eye in a sparring accident at age twelve, and Duke Heinrich tosses the letter into the fire unopened before going back and inviting him out for a ride that day. The weather is clear and dry and beautiful, and Ernst seems to relax in the silence, something coiled tight inside loosening the farther he gets from the castle.

Ernst dies in front of him at age thirteen, trying to protect Eruca from a mugger down in the city. Victor never hears about it. Heinrich cleans the mugger's blood off his hands, changes his clothes, and tells Eruca's tutors to keep a closer eye on her. It still amazes him how little it sometimes takes to change everything.

Heinrich flees the castle when Ernst is fourteen. He tells himself he'll be back if the prince needs him.

Ernst dies at age eighteen, of a crossbow bolt to the back as Heinrich drags him behind him, fleeing the castle guards. Invisibility becomes far less useful when they know to expect it, and he finds himself faced with sleep gas and hallways limned with magical frost so thin that it melts underfoot and leaves clear, damning prints. Heinrich curses himself for not predicting that Victor would order the guards to kill instead of capture- Victor doesn't need the boy alive when he takes him to the Royal Hall. He'd be dying there anyway, after all.

Ernst dies, once, but Heinrich gets to him before the guards assigned to take him to a cell do. Ernst shivers in the corner of a filthy abandoned house in the slums, his eyes glazed as he tries to turn his magic to burn out the infection in his arm where an earlier wound went bad. Sometimes soldiers stomp by outside; whenever a patrol decides to search the building, the two of them huddle, invisible, and try not to breathe too loudly. Heinrich could kill one patrol, but it wouldn't be enough to get them away, not with Victor secure in his power and soldiers roaming the streets-

Ernst dies at age eighteen, and his uncle does nothing. The world ticks on toward its inevitable destruction with barely a pause for a weak, unwilling sacrifice. Victor never really did understand the mechanics of the ritual. Heiss makes a note- six weeks.

Heiss loses count of how many times Ernst rejects him. The boy calmly disagrees, shouts at him, demands to see his sister, makes noncommittal noises and runs away in the night. Heiss can't understand why he doesn't see sense when it's so simple and obvious. It must be Victor's fault, the boy would understand if he hadn't been told all his life that this was good and right-

Stocke dies in his first battle, bleeding to death after taking a stroke intended for another soldier. Heiss carefully alters memories to poison the soldier's mind with a vague feeling of antipathy toward the young man with the accent of the upper class, then skips ahead to the battle. He's pleased to see that this time Stocke stands by as the sword blow goes through the other soldier's chest. (He wonders, briefly, why Stocke has a black eye- it looks at least a few days old, and he doesn't remember it being there the previous time through this battle- but he dismisses it.)

Stocke dies in his third battle. Heiss hadn't even thought to put one of his Shadows there to watch, since Stocke's unit hadn't been meant to engage at all, and so he learns of it from the survivors, who speak of it in hushed, awed tones. The group had been ambushed from the side, and so many had fallen in the initial chaos that they'd had to retreat through a narrow pass. A few had stayed behind, and of those, Stocke had been the last to fall. As he died, he had summoned a last roaring wall of white-hot flame to buy them a few more minutes. Many of the soldiers hadn't known he was a fire mage, and the rumors of a sign of Noah's blessing had already spread throughout the army. (Heiss sends a few reanimated monsters to attack them in camp before they reach their position; a quarter of the group dies, and the rest are slowed just enough to miss the fighting.)

Stocke dies in a field hospital among a dozen others, of wounds he could have survived if they'd been treated at all. It's standard procedure to get the walking wounded patched up and sent back out first, then to stabilize whoever it will be quickest to treat, and so when the casualties are high those who would take a little longer are often past saving by the time the doctors get to them. Stocke drowns in his own blood, and Heiss bribes a doctor to treat him before anyone else.

Stocke dies four times in one battle before Heiss figures out exactly what to do to kill everyone but him. It's tricky, but Heiss wants the best for him, and so it needs to be done. The boy has been letting a few of the other soldiers get far too familiar with him, and Heiss refuses to let him fall in with a crowd of the thugs and zealots that are never in short supply in Alistel. There are nights Stocke wakes up screaming from dreams of dragging himself over the corpses of people who were almost friends.

Stocke dies on a march back to Alistel after a battle, of a stomach wound he'd been concealing. It's only when he collapses, gray-faced, that anyone notices, and no amount of investigation can seem to turn up any reason why he hid it. Heiss sends a Shadow to take the hit instead, and Stocke watches the body fall in front of him with a horrified expression. The wound is no more enough to kill the Shadow immediately than it was to kill Stocke, and Heiss has it crawl away before he pulls back the thread of mana sustaining it and lets it collapse into sand.

Stocke dies no less than eight times as Heiss tries again and again to orchestrate events so the man with the metal arm dies. He can't understand why this bit of history is proving so recalcitrant- Stocke even dies when he never meets the other man, but Heiss can't fathom why his nephew would want anything to do with the muscle-headed idiot in the first place. He gives up in frustration eventually, and settles for starting the paperwork to move Stocke to Specint where he can keep an eye on him directly.

Stocke applies for a transfer after his first mission with Specint. Heiss briefly considers making the paperwork disappear, but decides against it- perhaps he threw the boy in too deep too fast. It's simple enough to send him on a different assignment once he's out of training- the retrieval team for an illegal weapon shipment by a dissident group, rather than the team that brought them in and interrogated them for the weapons' location. (It's more than a year before Heiss tries him on an interrogation again. He'll turn out to be quite good at it, as long as he plays the part of the excellent listener who acts like he doesn't know what happens when he's not in the room. Heiss won't notice how sick he always looks afterward.)

Stocke deserts after failing a mission. He was sent to intercept and kill a Granorgite spy escaping the city with stolen plans for the latest thaumachine models, and Heiss goes back to follow him, silent and invisible, to see what went wrong. The boy finds the spy with the efficiency Heiss expects of him, finds a concealed location to lie in wait, and as she passes... simply stands there, a slightly darker shadow among shadows, until she's gone out of both sight and earshot. Only then does Stocke slam his hand hard against the stone wall behind him in frustration, cursing and covering his face with his other hand. Heiss is scarcely any less confused than he was before- perhaps it was a case of overcaution? It's the first job like this that he's given the boy, after all. If so, providing a distraction should be enough. (When Stocke gets back to his room in the barracks he collapses to the floor, shaking, remembering the moment he realized in slow-motion horror that if he didn't kill the spy now, she'd notice what he'd spotted. His thoughts chase themselves in circles- perhaps she wouldn't have seen the child, perhaps she would have ignored them, and why does that matter to him when the fate of the entire nation was on the line from the beginning? He'll get no sleep that night, and little more for a long time after. He's killed before, but this is the first time he's ever murdered in cold blood, and if he was religious, he'd say that he could feel the tarnish spreading across his soul.)

Stocke is blinded when a thaumachine's experimental weapons backfire, scalding-hot gas searing his eyes. All it takes is a quick bit of sabotage to delay the model's deployment by a week, and this time, when it malfunctions, it's in a different place, around different people, and for some reason, it's far more violent. (Hopefully, Heiss tries arranging for Rosch to be caught in the explosion, but even now Stocke always seems to die soon after.)

Stocke takes a blow to the head in a fight, and doesn't wake up the same person. Heiss goes back and lurks invisibly near where it happens, and when he sees a member of the illicit slave-trading ring preparing to swing a heavy club, he sends the faintest breath of a sleep spell toward her. She staggers for just a moment, but that's all the time Stocke needs. After the mission debriefing, Heiss takes him aside to compliment him personally; he wants the boy to know there's someone looking out for him. Stocke says nothing in response, and his expression is entirely unreadable.

Stocke is sent to investigate an insurgent group against Alistel's government and ends up joining them instead. The boy has apparently not lost his taste for associating with lower-class radicals with more idealism than brains. Heiss smiles a little despite himself at the reminder that even military life couldn't crush Ernst's streak of rebelliousness, but still begins to arrange events to prevent it- these rebels are far too few and weak to make a difference, and will eventually be hunted down. Besides, he would prefer to keep his nephew close at hand. A light touch to the memory of the agent he'd sent along with Stocke to first infiltrate the rebels is all it takes to ensure a mistake, a blown cover. Stocke makes it out alive, but isn't eager to go back.

Stocke loses an arm when he happens to be standing too close to a bomb another agent was trying- and, as it turned out, failing- to disarm. At first, Heiss looks into getting the boy a Gauntlet, until he hears Stocke, lying bandaged in the hospital, say dryly to Rosch, "I guess we match now." Only rarely has Heiss wanted to kill someone more than he does Rosch at that moment. (He sends another agent to remove the bomb instead. This time, Stocke is a long way away when the explosion rips them apart.)

Stocke's initial enrollment in the military was only for two years, and when the time comes he chooses not to renew it. Heiss is baffled; the boy has been racking up commendations, and he's becoming well-known for his skill. But then the boy moves in with a baker in the second ward, a man with curly hair and dark eyes who seems to smile more often than not, and a dark suspicion forms in Heiss's mind. The man is found dead in an alleyway before Stocke ever meets him, and Heiss smiles to himself. He may not know what hold the man had over him, but he didn't need to- he can protect his nephew anyway.

Stocke is killed by a tiger on a pickup mission in the wilderness near Lazvil. Heiss sends another agent with him and he makes it back, barely- the tiger's initial pounce breaks her neck, but when it turns on Stocke its aim is off, and its claws leave deep scores down his back before a fire spell manages to frighten it away. By the time Stocke finishes the long walk back to Alistel (still carrying the package of thaumatech books stolen from the Granorg palace library he was sent to retrieve- Heiss isn't sure whether to be impressed or worried) he can barely stand, and he's rushed to the hospital almost as soon as he arrives. Heiss goes down to see him once he wakes up, and as he enters the room sees Stocke chatting with the attending doctor, a familiar crooked smile on his face. It vanishes when he sees Heiss, replaced by a look of carefully-schooled blank neutrality. So serious about his job, Heiss thinks, with a mixture of pride and sadness.

He's ready, Heiss thinks, as Stocke gives a report on the deployment of troops near the border. He won't fall for their lies now.

Heiss loses track of how many permutations of history he goes through to get Stocke to survive. He'd thought it would be easier than this- it's well-known that the best way to awaken the Chronicle is for the bearer to be in a situation they won't accept, and what could fit more than the failure of the mission and imminent death? He has to tip off the army, or else Stocke succeeds with little trouble, yet when he does the boy always seems to die to enemy scouting parties. He dies with his back to an impassable barricade, shot down by snipers, caught between two forces on his way to the bridge. Palomides kills him in one stroke, and Heiss goes back to kill and resurrect the man as a Shadow, then guides his weapon off from the killing blow it should have been. Yet always the boy stands at bay and keeps fighting, and while one stroke can go awry, more than that and he'll realize he's being toyed with. Heiss tries sending other agents with him, but most of them resent the boy, jealous of his successes and favor, and more than one stabs him in the back or leaves him to his fate. He finds others from outside, with enough skills to be useful but too dim to question his motives and generosity, and does his best to ensure that while they don't hate the boy, they'll know they aren't meant to be friends. They usually make it to the bridge, now, and when they do he directs Palomides to kill the other two first. Yet Stocke still won't run from the fight, and Heiss takes to reminding him before they leave that the others are expendable. And then... he doesn't even know what it is, but everything goes differently. Heiss is sure that the boy must have finally awakened the Chronicle until he talks to him, and then confused- but why would his nephew lie to him? He decides to leave the timeline alone for now, though- he'll have plenty more opportunities to get the boy to awaken, and he's tired of going through this part of history again and again...

Stocke dies in a collapse at Alma Mine. It was sheer incompetence on the part of the Granorg army- they had little experience using explosives, and their attempts to open the sealed mine entrance collapsed the tunnel impassably farther in. They had no idea Alistellian soldiers were coming through to engage, and never found out. Heiss pays a pair of thugs to attack the merchant bringing explosives to unseal Alistel's side, hoping to stop Stocke from entering; they somehow fail to kill the merchant, but the delay is enough that the collapse happens differently. Stocke survives.

Stocke dies outside the Sand Fortress. With the fighting in Alma Mine, they had no other choice than to slip through the border into Granorg, despite how heavily the fortress is manned. Stolen uniforms get them past most of the security, but they're caught as they try to leave, mistaken for deserters by a knight. Heiss goes back to when the fortress was captured and prompts Palomides to suggest his division accompany Colonel Dias back to the castle; by the time Stocke arrives, the fortress is far less defended than it had been. He gets through easily this time, trusting in speed rather than subterfuge, and Heiss frowns- this wouldn't have been enough to awaken the Chronicle, and he wants to ensure the boy can use it before he reaches Granorg. He gives Stocke's description to the border guards through a Shadow hidden among the soldiers still stationed at the Sand Fortress, and hopes it will be enough.

Stocke dies at the gates to the Sand Fortress. As the main force engages on the plain above, a Granorgite special agent laboriously scales down the cliffs to the other side to plant bombs inside the building. Stocke notices him and gives chase, but the man detonates the last explosive he's holding when he gets close, killing both of them. Heiss kills and reanimates the agent, and takes control of the Shadow as Stocke spots it, making it flee to draw Stocke away from the explosions. Strangely, though, the bombs don't go off; Heiss wonders if perhaps he reduced the Shadow's ability to act independently too much, and it failed to arm the explosives properly. He doesn't care, though- an idea is already forming for how to use this to his advantage to eliminate an annoyance. This will make Hugo want that idiot Rosch gone even more, after all...

Stocke dies in Granorg Castle. None of Heiss's Shadows were close enough for him to see it, and he first learns of it when the rumor reaches him that the princess was assassinated and the three perpetrators killed as they tried to escape. He hadn't expected them to move that fast; he'd thought the boy would do enough research on the target beforehand that he'd stumble onto the truth. Heiss tips off the guards that they're coming, and how they got in- he wants to give the boy the chance for revenge on the person responsible for what was done to him, but he'd rather Stocke know what she did first. (Heiss never sees his nephew staring sightlessly as Eruca's blood drips from his sword, his eyes going from blue to red. What was done to his mind was almost beautiful in its artistry, but it has its limits, and as the other half to his soul comes rushing into his body something shatters like paper-thin glass and he finds himself teetering over the thought-sucking abyss at the center of his memories. Raynie's shaking him, trying to get him to snap out of it and run, and maybe with enough time he could reconstruct enough of a sense of self to do so, but for now he can't hear or see anything but the hungry emptiness inside...)

Stocke is killed by soldiers pursuing him from Alistel. Heiss does his best to send as many soldiers as he can out of the city beforehand, but can't get rid of nearly as many as he would have liked. While he continues on with the timeline, he's sure it won't be enough- he'll either have to find another way to lessen the boy's pursuit or prevent him from fleeing in the first place. Heiss intercepts him in Hugo's office, hoping to change his mind, but instead... he already knew he'd trained the boy well, but he's still, frankly, impressed. He'll do so much, Heiss thinks, once he realizes the truth...

Heiss can feel the tidal shift in the world's mana when Stocke sacrifices himself. Damn damn damn damn DAMN... He doesn't even need to think to realize what his mistake was this time- he'd assumed Stocke would turn on Eruca when he figured out the whole story, but she must be far more cunning than Heiss had thought. He goes a long, long way back, to get to before Eruca gets her hooks into the boy, and- (thinks of something and grins. He can solve two problems at once, can't he, and no matter what happens, he profits...) realizes with some annoyance that most of his resources are tied up by the split in leadership that idiot Rosch caused. He settles for telling a slaver the location of their camp; the Beastkind girl alone is valuable enough to be worth the man's while.

Stocke dies in battle, and Heiss is almost used to it now. The single thaumachine dispatched against the Satyros army is one of the models with a self-destruct mechanism, and the soldier inside activates it when he realizes he won't win this fight. Heiss was already annoyed to see the man Rosch on the battlefield despite how hard he'd worked to remove him from the equation (it must be the boy's doing somehow, and Heiss wishes he would apply the White Chronicle to something more productive), and seeing Stocke push the man out of the way makes Heiss want him dead all over again. At least the system is easy to sabotage- disconnect one small hose deep in the mechanisms and a dangerous explosion becomes a sad sputter.

Stocke dies on the sands of a gladiatorial arena, in front of a crowd cheering his victory. He'd taken a fatal blow but kept fighting, killing the other gladiator before collapsing. Heiss is enraged- no subtle manipulation this time. He'll raze the city to the ground if that's what it takes. His Shadows in Abyssia stir up as many dormant Hell Spiders as they can find and drive them across the desert to Cygnus- as he expects, every guard and soldier in the city streams out to confront them, and when one spider breaks through the line and crawls over the walls, crowds of citizens begin to flee the city in a panic. It's a perfect opportunity for the boy to escape- who would even blame him? But instead... (Heiss suspects Eruca is behind this, throwing the boy's safety into jeopardy for a chance at political gain. But he leaves it- there's plenty of time still for Stocke to see through her.)

Stocke loses a hand in a fight in Skalla over a Beastkind child. Alistel's religion frowns on slavery, but with the recent trend of Hugo's dogma, none of the occupying soldiers have been particularly inclined to do anything for the cage full of captive Gutrals but hurl insults at them. Heiss isn't sure what the boy thinks he's doing trying to break the shivering Gutral child out- is he hoping to curry favor with the Beastkind, or try to use the child to gain passage into Forgia? The soldiers spot him on his way out- when a blade takes his hand off in the melee, he cauterizes the stump with a fire spell and keeps fighting. Pointless, Heiss thinks. He goes back and tells the slaver to hide his prisoners to avoid them being freed by the Alistellians; the cage is gone from its usual spot before the army arrives, and the slaver only dubs it safe to put back some time after Stocke has come and gone.

Stocke isn't even injured in the battle in Itolia Wastelands, but something about it, maybe just the way the boy protects his sister in the fighting, makes Heiss nervous. He goes back as Stocke is pulling a spluttering Dias out of the sand and resting a blade at his throat, thinking- the longer he can extend this war and keep them out of Granorg, the more time the boy has to realize the truth before the girl has a chance to hurt him. Heiss infuses Palomides with as much of the Black Chronicle's power as he can; all he needs is to delay them long enough for Dias to escape, and if the boy dies Heiss can always go back and use a little less power...

Stocke is killed by the Divine Judgement. Hugo waits until the majority of the rebel forces have returned to the Sand Fortress, trusting falsely in the prisoners they took to protect them. Everyone in the fortress dies, loyalist and rebel alike, but it still isn't a killing blow to the rebel army- Raul had anticipated the possibility of the weapon's use against them, and spread their forces out widely. Heiss has always had access to the Divine Judgement- his help on it was so invaluable that the fools never questioned his motives, let alone where his knowledge came from. He adds a minor error in calibration and convinces Hugo to fire it earlier, always easy enough with him. The man will agree to anything if it serves his ego, so all it takes is to tell him the reminder of the power he wields will awe and inspire his troops.

Stocke takes a crossbow bolt for Eruca and dies on the floor of the throne room. It was sheer bad luck that Protea, with her one inexpert, terrified shot, had been able to hit anything, and the soldiers who followed them in catch her easily as she tries to flee. Stocke collapses to his knees as someone screams for a doctor. He shakes his head- he already knows he can't get up from this. None of the onlookers hear what he says to Eruca as she kneels in front of him, heedless of protocol, but they'll all say later how she sobbed over his body. Heiss, boiling over with rage, doesn't care. Easy enough to remove the little spring-powered crossbow the queen keeps in her throne. He can't believe anyone fell for that theatrical false grieving in the first place...

Heiss has never seen Stocke angrier than when they meet at the bottom of the laboratory below Alistel Castle. Heiss follows Hugo down to the deepest sub-basement as he flees the invading troops, keeps him occupied with plans and schemes that are utterly meaningless with all his loyal servants gone, and as Stocke arrives, neatly stabs the man in the back. He leaves the body where it falls, and walks toward Stocke, already choosing his words for how he'll explain himself to the boy now that he's proven he's not an enemy. The first fireball hits him in the chest, and he stumbles back from surprise and the heat of it even through his spell-reinforced clothing. He dodges the second, and Vanishes reflexively just before a Gauntlet-claw crashes into the place he'd just been standing. "Aht, Volt Stars. As many as you can," he hears Stocke say in a voice of cold fury.

"Really, my boy-" A cross of fire blazes up, barely missing him, and Heiss is impressed- he's never seen a spell like that before. He wonders where the boy learned it.

"I don't care what you have to say, Heiss," says Stocke, deadly calm. "Do you really think betraying Hugo matters now? After everything you've done?"

Heiss will remember those words when he goes back later. The boy might as well have been pointing him to the node. Yes, he'll leave, give the boy time, and then make him listen...

Stocke dies at the bottom of the Imperial Ruins. The others with him have been disposed of, though they put up more of a fight than Heiss was expecting. Heiss has a threat to make good on- if the boy won't see the truth, he'll protect him whether he wants it or not. He limps forward, leg still screaming from where he ran afoul of the Satyros girl's magic, toward where Stocke lies on the ground, coughing for breath as he tries to get to his feet again. The boy pulls out a knife as he approaches, and for a moment Heiss almost wants to laugh at the futility of it. But then the blade moves in one quick, sure motion, and the look of absolute calm on his face as he cuts his own throat is a memory Heiss knows he'll take to his grave. Stocke has had plenty of practice killing people by now, and knows how to do it well. Heiss goes back, because what other choice does he have?

Heiss is beaten, bloody, and out of tricks, both his stolen and his borrowed power gone. Stocke stands in front of him, his expression almost calm, but fear and resigned determination showing in his eyes. There's still blood on his clothes, scorch marks from the black lightning, and a patch of suspiciously smooth skin above one eye that's obviously from a hastily-healed cut. Heiss notices with a pang that here, his eyes are green again. Stocke looks up as Eruca's voice echoes through the empty space around them, sourceless, and-

Heiss hasn't had a vision of a possible future before he made a choice in more years than he can count. He's always lived the events they caused, rather than seen them in advance. He'd forgotten what it felt like, to see the White Chronicle glowing, to hear a heavy thudding heartbeat that seems to fill the universe as he watches Stocke- Ernst- consumed by the ritual's power, leaving nothing but a book, a sword, and empty slate tiles. There's a dizzying feeling of reality rushing back, or as much reality as there ever is in this place, and then-

Time splits in front of him.

He sees the guides watching him. He's never hated them more than at that moment.

It's not even really a choice.