Chapter 1

“We are part of a network that goes far beyond the few days of our lives and the few square meters that we tread.”

 –The Order of Time

I stepped into the timeline as if stepping off a plankway, placing one foot in front of the other, ignoring the swaying of dry land, and keeping my eyes trained on the ground before me. This allowed me a moment to acclimatize, regain equilibrium, and hopefully not throw up my breakfast on anyone in the immediate surrounding area. 

Taking a deep breath of frigid sea air, I felt my world tilt back to normalcy and I looked around.

“Why this place, Wren?” Kieren asked from where he had arrived next to me, his normally warm brown skin ashen from Traveling.

“He studied this period,” I answered as I took in the scene. Early yet, the French port showed signs of becoming busy. Cold winter air hovered, early sun weak and filling the space with a blanket of soft light. Soldiers in their winter browns shuffled about as they moved in the morning sunshine; dockworkers in heavy patchworked clothing colorfully cursed at one another; various merchants hurried to the warmth of their shops or pulled carts towards unknown destinations.

A particular scene in a particular time.

My partner fell in step with me. “I thought he studied every period, isn’t that the point of being the Archivist?” Kieren adjusted his dark blue jacket and ran a hand over his head to smooth tightly contained obsidian hair, hair that always seemed to swallow light and which he refused to alter for this assignment or any. The black was in sharp contrast to the bright honey-colored hair I’d decided upon for early 20th century France. 

 “He studied this time period especially,” I replied, continuing in the direction that our Intel suggested. I kept my gaze somewhat lowered and my step firm, black boots swishing out from dark blue skirts, falling into the cadence of someone with wealth and power. Those two attributes made moving through most systems and most assignments much easier. Kieren followed, remaining a step behind though I could feel his irritation as people caught sight of us and gave us sideways looks, mostly because Kieren hardly gave off the impression of being a servant despite his brown skin. He despised the role he had to play when entering the human timeline before the 21st century. 

Trying to ignore his forceful annoyance, I focused on maneuvering around horses, carts, and people. I pulled my heavy woolen cloak closer, folding my arms in and tucking my chin into the folds of the fabric to ward against the temperature. With it being the middle of January, the air pricked at my cheeks and nose, fingers succumbing to numbness, toes in their pinched black boots complaining of the sudden shift in temperature. As I turned down a less busy thoroughfare, the sharp retort of my heel on the frozen stones was a jarring echo in the frigid air, seeming to ricochet off the buildings that lined the small alleyway. 

“Sending you the coordinates,” Kieren murmured as we took a turn. A red line appeared over my inlay and I saw that we were headed to a set of sugar sheds converted over to a makeshift hospital. I caught sight of the large sheds and quickened my pace, skimming across the cobblestone. There was no one outside the hospital, not even the usual couple of individuals smoking cigarettes, and the doors were tightly closed against the morning weather. Only a few horses attached to one wooden cart stood steaming in the cold, patiently waiting for someone to unload the stack of wooden crates. Animals were always aware of our passage and these horses were no different, pawing at the ground as we walked past, their heads bobbing up and down a few times. I skirted them, glad no one was around to question the animal’s behavior. Sometimes that caused problems, and as a Guardian, I was not as adept at dealing with those questions as a Collector.  

Kieren opened the door so I could pass through, quickly following me into the interior of the hospital and shutting the door on the winter morning. Pausing within the doorway, I scanned the space. The cavernous area was a sea of beds filled with the wounded and the dying. Hushed even in the giant area, the air was only slightly warmer than the outside, the usual pungent smell of a hospital in early 20th century considerably more pleasant because of the cold. Almost all the beds were occupied, various lumps under thick covers. A staff of nurses administered to the patients. Also bundled up in heavy woolen cloaks, their white uniforms beneath flashed with authority as they went about their tasks. I avoided them, along with the male doctors scattered about, walking along the beds with the same kind of purposeful step I always used when not wanting to be questioned.

Just as my intel described, I found Tirius in a corner bed near the shed wall where the cold was particularly harsh. I stared down at the inert form of my former mentor and took a deep breath. His tall, lean body was bulky in the layers of blankets, his head covered with white bandages, mahogany curls escaping along the edges. Normally clean-shaven, a dark stubble lined his chin and the sides of his face, a startling contrast to too pale skin, deepening the sharp lines of his cheekbones. 

“He’s faking it,” Kieren muttered from behind me. I accessed his scan data and nodded in agreement. Tirius might look like he was near death, but only to those without the technology to see otherwise.

“We need to transport him,” I quietly commented. Travel would be easiest but would break several rules. The man lying in the bed was the one in trouble, and neither Kieren nor I wanted to take on that burden; however, I was entirely unsure what else to do in the situation.

“Excuse me, can I help you?” a woman asked in French from behind me, pulling me from my contemplation. I turned, putting on a face of deep sadness to combat the nurse’s suspicion and guardedness. Her steel gray hair was pulled tightly into a bun behind her head, larger body wrapped in a less expensive version of my own cloak. She eyed me up and down in ill-concealed distrust.

“This is my husband. I’ve come to take him home,” I said on a whim in the same language, working with the instincts that always gave me an extra edge in these situations.

The woman’s face changed, relaxing into lines of sympathy and weariness, her shoulders shifting downward minutely, falling away from her ears. “Oh, my dear. I’m so sorry, but I fear his condition is such that moving him would not be advisable.”

“He’s dying,” I said bluntly. Out of the corner of my gaze, Kieren moved slightly away from us, stepping backwards. I ignored the movement, leaning towards the nurse to keep her attention on me.

The nurse inclined her head. “He’s not emerged from his coma.”

I nodded, turning my gaze back to Tirius. “I understand; but I know him, and he would want to die at home, surrounded by his loved ones. Will moving him cause him any more harm than he’s already in?”

The nurse hesitated, then reluctantly glanced over her shoulder towards where a rather short and round doctor stood talking with two other nurses. The doctor’s body was rigid, and he appeared to be lecturing the nurses in a harsh whisper. 

“I can’t make that decision. You’ll have to speak with Doctor,” she said, turning back to us.

I smiled in what I hoped was an understanding way. “Of course.”

A clatter and smash echoed suddenly from behind us, followed closely by a shout of pain and outrage. The older woman turned to look and then stiffened. “You’ll have to excuse me, please,” she said, already moving towards a large man thrashing about several beds away. Kieren stepped out of her way to make room and we watched as a group of nurses tried to contain the man bucking up and down violently from his bed. Blood ran down from his nose as he continued to scream.

I glanced over at Kieren who nodded. With an internal sigh, I took advantage of the distraction, turning away from the commotion and quickly kneeling next to Tirius’s inert form. I pulled off my gloves and pushed back the blankets to expose his thin body in heavy gray pajamas. Taking both of his cold, limp hands in my own, I closed my eyes, feeling Kieren’s body move in close to me, adding to the energy field. What I did was risky, potentially ban-worthy, but the patient was still screaming, and the chaos was rising about him as other patients became upset at the situation.

I focused, bringing my awareness upwards and out, identifying place of origin and place of arrival. Kieren placed his hands on my shoulder. Secured, I Traveled.

A tearing sensation followed by a smashing force.

We landed together in the middle of a field directly outside the Citadel’s high-rising stone wall, falling to the morning damp ground as Tirius’s full weight landed against my chest. Kieren shuffled next to me, helping to move Tirius off me and lowering the Archivist slowly to the dirt. Surrounding us, golden grass swayed in the mid-morning breeze. The sun was warm, the spring air cloying in our woolen clothing, and I pulled my long coat off even as I studied the man now lying still on the ground, checking his vitals with my limited diagnostics.

Still alive.    

“I’ll contact Administration,” Kieren said, also pulling his coat off, the white linen shirt he wore bright in the sunshine. He rolled up his sleeves against the heat, exposing strong tan forearms and a series of small circular black tattoos along the inside of his wrist. Though currently hidden under the sleeves of my blue gown, the same tattoos spanned across my wrist, a design of rank, position, and identity.

I scanned the horizon for the Administrators. The heavy walls of the Citadel loomed against the blue sky. The walls were several feet thick and made of stone smoothed with age. Towering overhead, they reached taller than the tallest fir tree in the dark forest and were a sheer face of stone except for the very top where heavy windows flashed sunshine in the morning light. They were supposed to be entirely unscalable, though Kieren and I had found out that they could, indeed, be scaled with certain knowledge. The walls made up the Citadel proper, the different departments housed within the octangle shaped structure and within those walls, the Citadel and all that it entailed breathed, living out its day to day existence, the feeling of life a pressure on my senses even from where we stood.

Glancing over at my partner who had continued to examine Tirius, I felt the familiar tightening in my chest. “That was a risk,” I said.

Kieren looked up at me, his expression bland and not at all perturbed. “Easiest and cleanest solution. It was just a small seizure.”

“He had blood coming out of his nose.”

Kieren shrugged, strong shoulders under white linen relaying his lack of concern. “We needed a distraction.”

“They’ll wonder where we went.”

Again, the nonchalant shrug. “They’ll come up with a story; they always do.”

He was right, all individuals told stories to explain the unexplainable, but it still felt like a job gone sideways.

“Why do you think he did it?” Kieren asked, kneeling closer to Tirius’s inert body as if listening for his breath. The Archivist looked even paler under the sunshine’s light. Out from under the piles of blankets, his body clearly showed significant weight loss and I noticed bruises along his collarbone, partially hidden from the striped pajama top he wore. What I knew about the man hardly lined up with the image of the person lying before us. I halfway expected him to open his eyes and give me one of his looks of annoyed superiority. 

“Maybe something broke in him,” I said on a whim, the idea tickling at my brain.

Still studying Tirius, Kieren shrugged with his hands. “What do you mean broke in him? He was the Archivist; he is the Archivist. You don’t come into that position and break under something.”

“How do you know?” I asked. “Seriously. We’ve no idea what he’s seen or witnessed. He has the entire collection at his fingertips, with the ability to see patterns that we could only dream of.”

Kieren straightened up and looked over my shoulder. “Yeah, well, not our job I guess, right?”

In his voice, there was a slight note of warning, and he was right of course; it wasn’t our job to know the reason we were sent after someone. We did what we were told. We did the job. Sometimes the job was picking someone up out of a timeline. Sometimes it was other things. But whatever the case, we did it without question.

Knowing that, however, I still couldn’t help but wonder.

The Administrators team arrived, a various group dressed in their light green and black uniforms. Both Kieren and I stepped out of the way as they brought out silver bulbed monitoring devices. Scanning Tirius’s life signs, one of the Administrators, a large and lumbering Diax with brown eyes and green scales peeling along his tentacles, pinned us with a look. “You brought him over without his permission?” the Diax asked, voice rumbling with disapproval. 

“The mission directive was to locate him and bring him back as soon as possible,” Kieren answered, his tone only suggesting the annoyance I knew he felt at the question.

“He’s fully conscious. You are required to ask a conscious being before Traveling with them,” the Diax continued.

“He doesn’t look conscious,” Kieren replied, and I had to agree. Tirius very much still looked as if he was in a coma, though his brain wave activity did indicate consciousness.

“Yes, well, he is, and if you’d been thorough you would have realized that and not broken the law. But as such, you have, and I will have to report you once I get this taken care of.” The Diax glared in the way only a Diax could manage and then turned away from us.

Kieren and I exchanged a look. We weren’t worried. Diax were notorious for their ethics and most other departments rolled their eyes at the constant barrage of reports coming from the Diax administrators. We’d have to write up a report, but we wouldn’t be disciplined.

A message popped up over my inlays, indicating that Kieren and I were to report back to the Warden immediately.

“And that’s that,” Kieren muttered as he turned from where the Administrators were loading Tirius onto a stretcher. I watched for a moment longer, questions threatening to break through, burning at my throat, and though I too turned from my former mentor and followed my partner through the sea of grass towards the West Entrance, my brain started to cycle in the way it did sometimes. 

I knew Kieren had already dismissed the situation as easily as taking off a piece of clothing, but the situation was so outside the realm of normal that I couldn’t help but dwell. I had worked with Tirius for many cycles before deciding to move to Guardian, and in that time, I mostly saw what others did; a straight, rigid-backed individual with piercing duel color eyes, a mouth that never smiled, and a look of bland tolerance. But I also remembered a night that I had come upon Tirius unaware. Dark clouds had swirled outside the third-story window of his main office, rain against the glass, and I had paused at the office door to watch the Archivist standing there looking out, looking beyond, and looking entirely lost, his profile sharp against the gloom, curling brown hair partially hiding his expression. That moment was the only time I’d witness vulnerability in him, or even something akin to emotions derived from his human roots, but then he had turned from the window, his mask back on, his features smooth and without emotion.

Glancing over my shoulder to where the Administrators now carried Tirius on a stretcher, my brain ticked at the problem, knowing there was more to the story.

Kieren stopped to wait for me when he got to the road leading to the Western gate, turning to watch my approach. “You’re thinking,” he said, partially in reproach, partially in resignation. Our partnership had now scanned six cycles, and Kieren knew me as I knew him. 

“Trying not to,” I replied, falling into step as we walked along the smooth stone that led towards the Citadel’s high walls.

“But yet…” Kieren said.

I nodded. “But yet. There are a lot of questions, Kieren. Why was the Archivist in France? What happened to him? Did you see those bruises? And how thin he was? I mean, he rarely leaves the Archives, only on the occasional diplomatic mission or to collect specific information. How long has he been gone?”

As I talked, Kieren shook his head. “We don’t need this information,” he said as we entered the cool archway tunnel leading into the Citadel’s interior. Four Guardians in their black uniforms stood at attention, one for each of the four corners of the tunnel. We all exchanged greetings, lowering our chins in each other’s direction as we walked through and into the immediate welcoming courtyard, a massive cobbled space lined with various buildings. The Citadel was self-sufficient and much of the goods were created, produced, and fixed behind the wooden walls of the two, sometimes three-story buildings lining the interior walls. Voices buzzed around us, individuals going about their daily business, the warm sun strong above our heads. Kieren and I made our way towards the Guardian entrance to the Citadel, a large wooden door with the carving of two spears in the heavy oak. Ivy played up along the walls on either side, twirling greens against the gray stone. As we got closer, the distant clang of training rose from behind a fence of shrubs that were two stories tall, creating a substantive barrier to the Guardian’s training yard. There were shouts, weapons smashing.

“The Games already?” Kieren asked, looking up at the sky to judge the time, though judging the day was a bit harder. It was possible that we’d been away for longer than a cycle.

“Just the preliminary,” I said, after listening for a moment. The intensity was lacking, shouts a little less vocal than during a Game, the clang of equipment not quite as violent. 

Kieren opened the door for me, and I passed into the darker interior, pausing for a moment to allow my eyes to adjust. The entryway reached up three stories, the walls of stone decorated over with mostly dark green tapestries depicting images of spears interlaced with boars and stags. The edges of the tapestries were golden in color, twirling and swirling about the border as if embracing and denying the edges at the same time. I’d wondered at the images when I first started training. Thinking I was alone, I’d stopped to examine the tapestries and, as was my habit in Collector training, was talking out loud to myself, which was a mistake as one of the senior Guardians overheard me. He promptly let me know that questions were prohibited, and that the tapestries were what they were; no more and no less. 

After the lecture, he’d had me run the parameter of the Citadel ten times, a feat that had lasted the afternoon into night. It was one of the first lessons I’d learned about asking questions, and how, as a Guardian, one most definitely did not do it.

“What do you think it’s about?” I asked, partially in defiance of the memory.

Kieren shook his head, taking the wide long stone steps two at a time. “I’ve no idea.”

The Warden’s quarters were at the top of the octangle building, a pair of heavy doors leading into a large foyer with polished wooden floors lit by the tall windows letting in the sun, warming the area to an uncomfortable degree. I felt prickly heat along my skin, the dress I wore not at all appropriate for a spring day, and I barely kept the glare contained when I caught sight of the Guardian that stood outside the Warden’s office door. The tall Lexion had bluish skin that shined purple when the light hit it just right. The male stood straighter as we approached, ignoring me but bowing at the shoulders towards Kieren. I pretended not to notice my dismissal. Lexions, even in the higher realms, were notorious for their dislike and distrust of females, no matter the culture. I only had a slight understanding of why; something to do with the Goddess in their timeline. This little “quirk” as Tirius used to call it, was what made them of little use for foreign missions, especially when confronted with matriarchal societies. But, they worked out well as personal guards as they were fiercely loyal and most all the higher-ranking male members of the realm had at least two on staff.

“He is waiting inside,” the Lexion said, opening the door. We passed into the room, the Lexion closing the door quietly behind us. 

The Warden, who stood at our entrance, was an ancient being, along the same ranking as the Archivist and the Administrator; all three positions immediately below the Masters, but higher than most all other beings within the timeline. They were the leaders of this realm, powerful, and the Warden made me uneasy because he knew the extent of his power. Added to his general persona was his physical presence, bigger than any being I’d ever encountered. He was from the same timeline as Kieren and had the same smooth brown-colored skin, almost black hair, and deeply set dark eyes. He towered over the both of us and when he greeted us in the way of his former people, his palm encased my entire hand with room to spare. 

He motioned for us to sit in the two, straight-backed chairs situated across from his boat of a desk. There was nothing on the desktop, the surface clean of all clutter or any material to show he’d been working; but he used a mirror desktop that he likely banished before we entered, the small red light in the corner of the desk indicating its presence. 

The Warden looked back and forth between Kieren and me, but unlike Tirius, who would have let us wait until one of us fidgeted into asking him a question, the Warden immediately launched into the purpose of our presence. “I’ve a mission that is rather delicate in nature. It requires restraint and a certain amount of finesse. Both of you have shown that you are able to follow through with such delicate missions, though I fear this is not going to be comfortable for either of you.” The Warden’s gaze encompassed both of us, though I had the distinct feeling that he was speaking directly to Kieren. My partner sat with his back straight, entirely focused.

“I am sending the data over now,” the Warden said, hitting a button on his invisible desktop and immediately a new message icon appeared on my interface. I left it, knowing there would be time to go through it soon. “Again, this is a delicate and important mission, so any resources the two of you require will be automatically approved. Just let Pax know what you will need.”

It was a dismissal and we stood as a unit, bowing at the waist in respect and walking out of the office, me following Kieren’s tall form. We waited until we were back in the Guardian’s common room before accessing the data on the file, settling in front of one of the big fireplaces, empty and stark in the summer heat.

“Rushiel,” Kieren announced, accessing the data first. I followed him in, picking through the layers of information on my interface. There was not a lot but enough to show that we would be going into Rushiel to deliver a package to a member of the Grand Council. The trick was that we had to do so without anyone realizing we were in the timeline.

“Shouldn’t be hard,” Kieren announced, emerging from his interface.

I too emerged, glancing towards him and then towards the tall windows. The cuts of glass cast rainbows across the thick carpet and I traced the multiple colors as my brain worked through the information.

“What is it?” Kieren asked after a moment, knowing my look and that it usually meant that there were complications with the mission ahead.

“Rushiel is a secure state. If we must contact the Grand Council without anyone realizing, it’s going to require an undercover identity. There’s no other way to access the Council outright, the security is insane.”

“We can’t just sneak into the compound?”

I contemplated what I knew, slowly shaking my head. “No. The compound is nearly impenetrable. I mean, maybe if we were given exact details of how to get in, we could, but those details are not in this dossier.”

“I could ask the Warden. Makes sense to make sure and eliminate the easy solution before having to take on the harder one,” he said.

I nodded, agreeing, glancing again out the window but this time to judge the time of day. “Meet back here before dinner to go over what we have,” I suggested.

“Where are you going?”

“I’ll head down to the Archives and see if I can pull any more information about the situation.”

Kieren got up, stretching his long body towards the ceiling before leaving the room. I remained where I was, staring once more at the rainbow colors on the floor. I wondered at the extreme secrecy of the message and as no one had specifically said not to look at it, I opened the deliverable up in my interface. It said one word in Rushiel: betrayal.

“A loaded word,” I muttered into the emptiness, a word that could mean anything at all, or not a single thing. Though why we had to deliver that specific word to the Council was very curious indeed.

“Not my problem,” I reminded myself, closing my interface and getting up from the couch. 

The Guardians’ common area was some distance from the Archives, and as the sun was still up but cooler with the afternoon breeze, I decided on the outside pathway rather than following the series of halls that led to the Archives’s interior doors. A side door led directly into the Guardian practice area and I paused for a moment to watch some of the younger students complete their forms. I had let the practice of my daily forms slip, finding that the longer I was in the role of Guardian, the less time I had to practice the basics. My muscles twitched as I watched, remembering the hours spent learning the moves, pleased to see a particularly younger female better two other bigger and bulkier males, her staff a blur of movement. I’d been that female, having to learn new ways of doing things because the usual techniques were geared towards bigger and more muscled individuals. The female used some of those forms I’d adapted with the staff, and I smiled in private recognition.

A footfall, or perhaps more of a pressure of hostility, pulled my attention and I turned to find the Warden’s Lexion towering over me, his presence threatening in a microscopic way. I refused to step back, keeping my feet firmly planted, connected to the ground beneath.

“The Warden would like to speak with you,” he announced, voice lilting in that particular way that Lexions had, and which never failed to make me feel like they felt superior.

“Kieren just went up to speak with him,” I said.

“He did not request Guardian Kieren.”

Pausing to make sure I wouldn’t say anything sharp, I replied after a moment: “I will be there directly.”

Staring down at me, dark brown eyes a portal of everything I disliked, I maintained a calm exterior though I really wanted to punch him in the face.

The Lexion turned and walked away, back very straight.

Sighing, I looked over to where the students were still working and allowed myself the briefest of nostalgia for the Archives. Lexions were not Collectors, unable to handle the subtleties; therefore, I had never had to deal with them.

Turning away from the training ground, I started for the Warden’s office. I couldn’t leave the Warden waiting but he could leave me waiting. I had to make myself comfortable in a chair near the window when I arrived, the Lexion pointing it out then going back to ignoring me. I sat, staring down at my hands, warring between being very annoyed with the Lexion’s presence, and annoyance with having to wait when it was the Warden who had summoned me. Absently, I tracked the movement of the Lexion as he did his duties along with the movement of time as afternoon bled towards evening.

Eventually, I heard raised voices from behind closed doors, though not loud enough to make out the words. The sound caused the Lexion to look up from his duties, frowning, which piqued my interest further. One voice was clearly the Warden’s deeper baritone, the other a higher female voice I didn’t recognize. I hadn’t realized I’d sat forward to listen until the office door opened and a female Master emerged. I sat back, though she paid me no mind. I recognized her as Master Cynthe, a Master who very rarely graced the Citadel grounds. She wore dark green trousers and a white blouse, her white hair pulled up from her pale face in a complicated bun at the back of her head. I wondered what her and the Warden spoke of as tension filtered from the office and lingered, though her face remained serene, only a small line between her eyebrows indicating any stress.

She walked by, looking neither at me or the Lexion and I startled when the Warden’s office door slammed shut in reaction to her departure. After another long moment of sitting there, the Lexion jumped up from where he’d sat down at his desk and went to the Warden’s door, indicating with a wave of his hand that I should follow.

The room still held the last glow of day and the Warden stood at the window, turning only when I walked fully into the room. The large Sideian nodded to the Guardian behind me and the door closed quietly on us as he walked back to his desk. I studied his face for a moment to see if I could translate what had occurred with the Master, but like the woman, there was not a single piece of emotional evidence to translate.

“Did Kieren come and speak with you?” I asked, deciding to break the silence, remaining where I stood at the door.

“He did. I explained to him that there were no details regarding a way to get into the complex and your idea of infiltrating was the only solution.”

I nodded in reply, then waited as the Warden examined me. Tirius used to look at me in the same way, staring me down to see when I would break under his attention. Tirius contained immeasurable patience and I would always lose the subtle power game. This was not the case with the Warden, and he broke first, settling himself back into his large chair.

“Please,” he said, indicating the chair in front of his desk that I’d sat in earlier. “Have a seat.”

I hesitated because his tone felt off but did do as he offered, sitting myself down on the very edge of the chair, waiting.

 “How long have you been a Guardian?” the Warden asked once I had settled.

The question was an odd one, especially as my records were easily accessible. “It is seven years now.”

“And you and Kieren’s partnership is working?”

I hesitated, looking for any indication of where this conversation was headed. “Yes,” I said after a moment. “We are very different individuals, but that has proven to be an asset.”

The Warden nodded, looking down at something displayed on his work desk, his eyes reading over the data quickly. Whatever it was he read had little effect on his facial expression. If anything, he appeared to grow more distant and blander. 

He looked up, catching my eye. “What can you tell me about the Archivist?”

The request hardly surprised me; I had expected it. “Can you be more specific?

The Warden leaned back from his desk, eyeing me. “You worked with him closely?”

The question was barely a question and I paused before answering, studying the Sideian. His face gave nothing away and not for the first time was I struck by the similarities between the Warden and my partner. I sat a little more forward in my chair and leaned in. “No one works closely with the Archivist, but I did work with him, yes.”

“Some say that you were his apprentice.”

Thinking back at the hours I spent under Tirius’ tutelage, I knew the rumors were likely true, but then I had walked away. I had gone over this with the Warden when I’d first asked to become a Guardian and I knew the conversation was recorded somewhere, which made me wonder why we were having this conversation again.

“I worked under the Archivist for several cycles. He is not one to voice his plans.”

Something like irony twisted the Warden’s mouth for a moment. “I’m not asking after his plans,” the Warden replied. “Can you tell me anything specific, any clue as to why he might be spending a great deal of time in the human experiment?”

“He was human?” I suggested, an answer the Warden met with a hard stare. I shifted again in my chair. “Every Collector has a specific timeline that they are an expert in; usually it is the experiment that they were recruited from. For Tirius, being a human, he is an expert in that experiment specifically.”

“Do Collectors become experts in the entirety of the timeline?”

I hesitated once more, trying to figure out where the Sideian was leading me, but because I could not figure out his motive I answered cautiously. “Not necessarily. Like the human timeline, it continues despite the setbacks. There are limitations to our, or to Collector’s, ability to move about the timeline. The Masters dictate that, specifically the Masters in control of those experiments.”

The Warden sat back, and I knew I told him nothing that he didn’t already know. “Do you know why they are called experiments?” he asked.

The question startled me, which must have shown up on my face because the Warden put his elbows on his desk and leaned towards me, answering before I could. “It is to create the perfect society, the perfect species. Humans, Diax, Rushelian, T’nGali, Sideian and all the others are experiments in social constructs. Parameters are set up, and the species are left to evolve within those parameters.”

“For what reason?” I asked before I could censure myself, but instead of telling me that I was not to ask questions, the Warden nodded with understanding.

“That is the question, isn’t it? The Masters create and we, the Guardians, keep control, maintaining their parameters; the Administrators ensure the smooth running of the system, and the Collectors record and keep the data. A machine, working together to enable the Masters to do their work, their duty.”

I wanted him to clarify. I wanted to ask him who the Masters worked for, who assigned their duties, but the Warden was not done, and he pinned me down with his look. “And this system only works if all players do as they are supposed to.”

For a moment I thought he meant my role, my duty, but then my brain caught up and realized he spoke of Tirius specifically. I thought back to the man we’d found in the hospital bed, with the bruises and too thin body.

“What happened to the Archivist?” I ventured to ask.

The Warden nodded as if I had gotten the answer to a test right, and I supposed in a way, I had.

“He lost his impartiality.” I frowned at the non-answer and the Warden’s mouth flickered a smile. He continued. “The Archivist must maintain his impartiality. You know of what I speak.”

I did because one of the first lessons taught to future Collectors is the absolute need to remain outside no matter the circumstances being recorded. No matter the species. No matter the experiment. Being absolutely separate was perhaps the number one rule, if not the only rule, of being a Collector.

“He became involved?” I asked, looking away from the Sideian and towards the window and the evening sky there, knowing that Tirius had always been involved to an extent, a secret that perhaps the Warden knew, or maybe not.

The Warden answered. “He did. You and your partner extracted him from the situation.”

I realized that the Warden had not answered my question, at least not directly, not with detail. General ambiguity, as always. I spoke to the window. “If you are looking for information to explain why the Archivist went rogue, I can’t help you.” I looked back at the Warden, who watched me closely. “As I said, he spoke very little about his motivations. I was his student.”

“Just a student?”

Surprised, I stared at the Warden and then nodded once. “Yes.”

The Warden sat back in his chair sighing. “Very well.” He waited for a moment longer and I kept myself still, though the need to fidget felt like ants along my legs. After a moment he waved his hand. “That is all. You are dismissed.”

I left because that is what a Guardian does when dismissed from the Warden’s presence, but the brief interaction made absolutely no sense and I could feel the frown forming between my eyebrows as I headed back to the common area to meet up with Kieren. I’d wanted to hit the Archives for more information about our assignment location, but that was not going to happen now that I’d had to wait to meet with the Warden about absolutely nothing.

Kieren was in the common room as planned, glancing up from the book he held in his hand and then closing it with a snap as I walked towards him, giving me a look.

“Sorry, the Warden needed to see me,” I said as way of an explanation.

My explanation wiped the irritation from my partner’s face, replacing it with curiosity. I held up a hand before he could ask. “It was just questions about the Archivist, questions I couldn’t answer.”

Kieren frowned himself, a brief expression before his face smoothed out and I could almost see the moment that he decided not to pursue the conversation. “Well, you were right about the access. We’ll have to go undercover, but I did go to the Archives looking for you and the Diax at the desk helped put together some ideas. I’ll transfer them now.”

I nodded, receiving the data, and then accessing it as we walked towards the mess hall. I was an expert on navigating the world even as I accessed interface data, and I’d gone over all the information by the time we sat down with our food.

“Not the most comfortable of situations,” I commented, reviewing the data on shadow keepers. “But we’ve been in worse.” In Rushiel society, shadow keepers were those who walked among the dead, honoring their memories. They were often shunned by polite society because they were said to hold death in their hands but were an intricate part of Rushiel life. We would have to go through the sewers, which was the most unsettling part, but once we gained the compound, we would be allowed to walk anywhere without question as long as we wore the guide of shadow keeper.

Kieren pointed out the small fact that, if caught, we would be put to death in the most grotesque way, starting with disembowelment, and it would likely force a full-on civil war.

“We don’t get caught then,” I said, tearing my bread into pieces and dipping it into the red sauce pooling at the side of my plate.

Kieren was not amused by my flippancy but refrained from making a sharp comment, eating his own food by shoveling large bites into his mouth. He finished before I did, pushing back and grabbing his tray. “I’ll inform Pax of what we’ll need, then I’m going to go train,” he said.

I nodded, not questioning him, finishing my dinner at my own pace as he made his way out of the mess hall. Technically, I was supposed to train with him, especially as I hadn’t done anything yet except go to France which hadn’t required any physical combat, and briefly I thought about it, but training with Kieren had held an edge lately that I was unable to explain away. We worked well together still, a partnership, but every time I’d thought about training physically my stomach grew tight and upset. I knew it had something to do with the increasing separation that I had noticed, the small assignments that he took on himself without my participation; the informational sessions that he had with the Warden; the growing awareness that something was changing though nothing outward would indicate that was happening.

As I watched my partner walk out of the mess hall and towards training, I wondered, not for the first time in the last few cycles, where the present was leading us.

*To purchase the full book, go to:

Originally published 2020, copywrite 2020

2 thoughts on “Chapter 1

  1. Pingback: Chapter 2 | Just One Small Corner

  2. Pingback: Chapter 3 | Just One Small Corner

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