Chapter 2

If you are following along, this is the second chapter in the novel This Time. If you missed the first chapter, you can read it here: https://justonesmallcorner.com/2022/04/21/this-time/

Enjoy!

Chapter 2

We left first thing the next morning. 

I’d changed my hair back to its mouse brown, the frizz quickly controlled with a braid. Encased in my black uniform, I attached my staff to its holster across my shoulder blades. I strapped my knives to both calves and hid one in my breast binding. There was no indication that I would need the weapons, but the security of having them on me helped ease the nerves that I always felt before a mission, especially one that the Warden had deemed sensitive.

I met Kieren in the common room, his own hair pulled back from his face, highlighting high cheekbones and his usual grim look. He too wore a black uniform, all his weapons hidden though I knew that he likely also had several knives about his person along with his usual long sword that he was able to shorten for easy concealment at his hip.

“Ready?” he asked, eying my uniform with an up and down. His expression never changed, but something did, and I nodded once curtly, passing him into the hall without a word, feeling defensive at his examination, as if he needed to make sure that I was prepared for the mission, which seven years in was ridiculous. 

The closest node was at the corner juncture between the Guardian’s quarters and the Collector’s. We Traveled together but separated, our destination the very outskirts of the Rushiel city limits. The location was part of our dossier and Travel plopped us in the shadow of a giant wall, the gaping mouth of a sewer entrance before us in all its noxious glory.

I stared, starting to inhale in exasperation but stopping at the stench. The Arrival destination wasn’t a surprise, but I’d hoped for something a little less gross. Engaging my interface, I placed our route over the sewer map provided to us and started for the entrance. Kieren followed behind me.

We worked in silence, moving through the dimness, stepping over piles of trash and kicking at the large rat-like animals that came out to investigate our light, propelled by predator curiosity. The going held only an edge of difficult, the smell the worst part, but we weren’t required to wade through Rushielian waste, keeping to the side walkway that ran parallel with the black sludge. 

“Here,” Kieren said, his voice a normal reassurance in the dripping and squeaking echo of the sewer. I peered around him at the ladder disappearing into the dark, waiting only until his foot was not immediately in front of my face before following him up. The ladder led to a covered portion of the sewer that Kieren pushed open with his shoulders. Emerging from the darkness, we squinted in the early morning light, our location a kind of courtyard bordered by three large stone walls and a series of doorways. All the doors except the one on the far left were chained closed. The one on the left stood ajar, waiting for us.

“How does Pax do it?” I said quietly, pulling the door open to reveal a small hallway with hooks where two black robes hung. Underneath the black robes, two pairs of thin brown sandals were arranged just so.

Closing the door behind us, we quickly undressed, leaving our black Guardian uniforms on the hooks, though keeping our various weapons strapped to our bodies. If one was to glance at us, we would look like Keepers and be given a wide berth. Pulling the robe over my head, the harsh fabric scraped against my skin. The folds gave off an old, decrepit scent and I tried to breathe shallow as I pulled the cowl up and around my face.

Kieren started down the hallway to a door that opened under his push, revealing a set of stone stairs, worn down by time and countless number of footfalls. The passage was narrow, perhaps something for servants or for those like the ones we were emulating but as we climbed the space widened until we could climb the stairs shoulder to shoulder. A door stood open at the top of the stairwell, allowing us a peek into a wide hallway of stone, thick carpets running the length, large windows lighting the space with sunshine. Pausing there, we observed the situation. A great number of individuals moved through the space, some wearing the black and gold uniforms of guards; some the black and white uniforms of servants; and some clearly of neither class but one of the peers. Kieren and I exchanged a look and then left the relative safety of our small stairwell and entered the fray.

As the research suggested, individuals avoided us, making a point to give us an incredibly large berth. That was fine with me; what wasn’t fine was the heat of the robes we wore. The sun shone through the windows, heating the area, and the heavy fabric we were draped in held and maintained not only the heat of the area but the slowly rising heat of our bodies. It wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle, but it was very uncomfortable, and I felt sweat starting to trickle down my spine, pooling around the holster that held my staff. I couldn’t see Kieren’s face, or communicate with him as speech was forbidden, but I knew that he was likely dealing with the heat a great deal better than I. I had noticed on our past assignments that he did a lot better under the sun where I was more comfortable in the cold rain. Though never discussed, I figured it had to do with the timelines we evolved from; mine in the gray filled days on Earth, and his among the tropics of Sideia. 

A scuffle and a shout pulled me into the present fully and suddenly, sharpening my focus, my heart rate increasing at the commotion. I slowed in response, scanning the area for the reason behind the commotion and an exit if we needed it. There were not a lot of exit options, but the commotion was not about us, rather there were two guards in their black and gold, shorter and rounder in stature with massive arms, arms that firmly held another individual, much slighter and clearly younger with the slim bone lines of a Rushiel face not yet developed. 

“I am here for the revolution!” the young individual yelled, my interface automatically translating the words though I knew enough of the language to be able to translate them on my own. “The common will prevail,” the youth continued to shout.

One of the guards cuffed the youngster across the face and the individual’s body went limp in the guard’s grasp, head hanging in unconsciousness.

A part of me cataloged the event, tucking it away for further consideration at a later time, but we were on a mission, so I followed Kieren as he turned down another hallway, away from the commotion and the gathering crowd. Something nagged at me, not necessarily about the boy, but the idea of the words. I knew very little about the current political climate, and truly, I wasn’t supposed to care about the political climate. Rather, I was supposed to go into the situation, complete our mission, and extract ourselves. That was the limit. However, no matter how much I tried to eliminate my Collector training, those traits still insisted on making themselves known, including the curiosity I felt. Kieren would not share the curiosity, I knew, and I wouldn’t bother to bring it up with him. But still, I was curious, and I couldn’t help but look around as we walked to see if I could tell anything from those faces that milled about us. The training for a Collector included an intensive study of the way individuals spoke using non-verbals. Because each species used different versions of non-verbals, it was one of the reasons Collectors rarely specialized in more than one species. Some, like the higher-level Collectors, specialized in two or three, but even then, that took a considerable amount of study. The Archivist was the only one I knew who could read non-verbals across timelines and species. Of course, that was the point of his position, the ability to see all species, to see all stories, and understand them and translate them for collection. That was his entire point of being, and in a flash of weakness, I wished for his insights on what was taking place in these Rushelian halls.

Before I’d left to become a Guardian, I had only ever studied the human timeline and a small amount of T’nGali. I had no reference for Rushiel non-verbals, but some things were self-explanatory, including how these individuals with their portlier bodies and very pale skin held tension in their rounded backs. I saw a lot of that kind of tension, along with a jerking of their eyes as they looked at us and looked away in contained revulsion. Largely, the Rushielian were a bright-eyed, curious species, but as we walked through the compound, I saw little of that in evidence. Instead, I saw more of what I translated as suspicion and unease.

My interface indicated that we needed to go down several stories and directed me to a large staircase the width of the entire hallway. As we descended, the number of guards increased, and I continued to watch them underneath the cover of my cowl. They reacted with the same kind of revulsion as others did, but in a more controlled way, only flinching when we passed too close. In front of us, large doors stood open and I saw that we’d come to the main council chamber. Empty now, the massive room of more than two stories was still an impressive show of power by those in power, with gold gilded light scones, polished wooden throne-like chairs at the head of the room, and crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. 

We did not enter the large doors, skirting the council chambers and the considerable number of guards there, and instead, made our way to a side door that stood partially covered by large potted plants.

I pulled at the door, feeling that moment of paranoia when it did not immediately give, but a breath later it opened, and we walked through into a dim side chamber. A guard stood at the end of the chamber where another door was, and he came to attention at seeing our approach.

“You don’t have authorization here,” he managed before Kieren slipped around me, the dart entering the side of the guard’s neck as Kieren walked forward, catching the guard’s suddenly limp body. This was the only area of complication for us, and for all apparent purposes, it was going rather well, or at least as well as was to be expected.

Kieren propped the guard up against the wall. He would wake in several hours, unable to remember the period immediately before being hit by the drug.

I opened the side chamber’s door slowly, not sure what to expect, but instead of additional guards, there was a single female Rushelian. She was taller than the other Rushielian that we’d come across, dark blond hair falling in a cascade down her back, her robes hanging about her large body in waves of crimson and gold fabric. She stared out a window, looking out at the sunshine and the city beyond the compound. 

Kieren and I entered silently but then I scuffed my foot on purpose. To her credit, the Rushielian barely jumped, turning to regard us in such a smooth action that it almost entirely covered her unease. Almost, though, as I caught sight of her clenched jaw before she smoothed her round face into submission, dark eyes watching us.

We bowed, keeping our heads covered. Kieren brought forth the piece of paper written in Rushiel and laid it on the ground. She stayed where she was and without a word, we backed out of the room, closing the door on her and the message. Glancing around at the dim hallway, the guard still sleeping, I pushed my cowl back to let the cool air touch my heated face.

“That’s it then,” I said, quietly, alert to any movement behind me to indicate being followed, but I’d seen her acceptance of the message in her body and knew that the Rushielian behind those doors would not be pursuing us, having, I suspected, expected some kind of communication.

“I’ve got another something to deliver. I will meet you back at the Travel point,” Kieren said. He turned and left the hallway in long strides before I could formulate a response. Sighing, I stared at the now-empty hallway for a moment until the guard stirred reminding me that I needed to go as well. Pulling my cowl back up around my face, I left the hallway and reentered the stream of individuals going about their business.

The way was clear, everyone behaving as they should, and I made the small stairwell quickly, but as I started the descent towards where we’d left our clothes, the hairs at my neck stood up and I tensed in awareness.

“Halt!” The words behind me were in Rushielian, my translator automatically translating them so I could understand, though the tone left little doubt as to their meaning.

I kept going, quickening my pace down the stairwell. I just needed to gain the courtyard. I could leave my clothes and if I gained the courtyard with enough of a lead, I could Travel without repercussion.

It was a good idea, but as I got to the bottom of the step, two guards in their royal colors were blocking the door, my clothing in their hand, black pistols drawn. I slowed to a stop, putting my hands up, sending an alert over my interface to Kieren, warning him. I ran through my options as the two guards from behind me closed in, demanding that I raise my hands. I could fight my way out of the situation, four guards to one wasn’t entirely outside the laws of probability; but then that would cause a commotion, which would cause more attention to a situation that had demanded the utmost discretion. 

I kept my hands where they were, allowing the two guards behind me to roughly pat me down. They pulled the two knives from both calf holsters and my staff. Their hands skimmed over the tiny pen knife in the lining of my breast bindings. It was not a large knife, but at least it was something sharp and pointy.

I tried not to wince in pain when the guards twisted my arms up and behind me, smug that I kept my step as they shoved me up the stairwell. I wondered what story they would spin for the masses, but instead of entering the fray for everyone to see and inevitably start asking questions, they paused at the very top of the stairwell, holding my arm tightly to stop my movement forward. One of the guards, taller than the other three with bushy brown hair and brown eyes, took out a handheld device and spoke quietly into it. A response cackled back, though I couldn’t make out the words. The intent was clear enough, however, when a small black vehicle arrived just outside where we stood inside the doorway. It was like a golf cart in the Earth timeline, but sleeker, the front open where the driver sat, the back of it a box of tinted windows with a door. 

Their movements were quick and precise, and I was shoved into the back of the vehicle, the door slamming shut behind me. Secure in the back, the windows were such that no one could look in and I couldn’t lookout. The seat was hard and uncomfortable, though with my hands free once again, I was at least able to catch myself when the vehicle took off suddenly.

The trip took very little time, the sound of the vehicle a hum in the air, the occasional bump throwing me about until the hum stopped and I felt the forward motion cease. The door opened and a pistol pointed at me, waving about to indicate that I should exit the tiny vehicle on my own. 

Emerging, I squinted at the bright sunshine. We were no longer inside, but in another courtyard very similar to the one Kieren and I emerged into earlier. I thought about Traveling, but as I followed the two guards in front of me, a third trailing behind me, curiosity to see where I was going and what would happen next kept me firmly in place. As we walked, I reassured myself, even as I looked around, that I could Travel if I needed to. The process of Travelling in front of spectators was allowed when a Guardian’s life was under immediate threat. 

The guards led me to a large wooden door, curved at the top, with a heavy handle. The same bushy-haired guard pulled out a key ring with old-fashioned looking keys and fitted one into the door. The door opened under protest, the squeal of its hinges causing me to wince. A guard behind pushed me forward and I stumbled across the threshold into the dimness of the interior, pausing to allow my eyes the time they needed to adjust. I felt the movement, the sudden shift of energy, and I already started turning to defend myself when the shot rang out, hitting me in my shoulder, knocking me sideways. Vaguely, I realized guards were moving around me, voices raised in anger, but the pain in my shoulder had centered my attention, a searing crazy fire that lit up my shoulder, arm, and chest. I tried to block it, steadying my feet and turning to confront my attacker, but instead of my attacker, only saw the butt of the pistol coming down towards my face. An instant of crashing pain and then darkness.

I woke with a distant ache, emerging from a black well as I floated towards consciousness. The faint sound of water broke in and I forced my eyes open against the too-bright light. I lay in a bed situated in the middle of a circular room. A series of small windows let in light shadowed by bars crossing the glass. The bars were on the inside, flush with the walls, the windows set further back. I turned my head, the movement disjointed and slow, and saw that next to me was a vacant chair and a table with a book. I wondered at the book, the indent of a person’s bottom in the chair’s leather, but I couldn’t move, my brain telling my legs and arms to make movement but my legs and arms not listening.

Feeling the panic then, a slow rising of panic at the base of my spine, I closed my eyes to focus on my breath. It wouldn’t do any good to panic, none whatsoever. Calm, focus, control. My body couldn’t move, but my mind was starting to clear, and whatever they’d given me to partially paralyze my body also kept away most of the pain caused by bullet wounds and being knocked unconscious.

Keeping my eyes closed, I tried my interface. The interior programming seemed accessible, but as I tried to gather the strands to Travel, I felt them slipping away. Like fish between my hands, unable to grasp at the energy that would allow me to Travel, I turned my attention to locating Kieren, but the communication vector of my interface was blocked somehow. The panic edged higher and I felt my chest constricting, growing heavy. I went back to my breath, following the slow inhale and exhale, only emerging from the meditation when I heard the scrape of the chair next to my bed. 

I opened my eyes, turning my head to see a slight man with white hair staring at me. His stature bordered on emancipated, his height barely that of my lying body, but the intensity of his gray-eyed look made up for it, his being large enough that if I’d been able, I would have stepped far away from him.

“Good, you are awake,” he said, smiling with a row of white teeth. “How are you feeling?”

I wanted to demand answers but though my throat worked when I swallowed and I could turn my head, my vocal cords were not cooperating and I squeaked instead of speaking coherently.

That seemed to delight him. He clapped his hands and smiled again. “Excellent. I will get Shias.”

I wanted so badly to know who Shias was; and where I was; and what was going to happen, but again my vocal cords were frozen in my throat and I felt choked, jerking my head sideways suddenly in near panic.

The man tilted his head, studying my face, frowning. “Hmm. That probably won’t work. Too much movement. Shias will not be pleased. I will need to administer another piece.” He muttered something else I couldn’t hear, and I watched him, mute, as he left by a stone door I had not noticed before.

I closed my eyes, the choking feeling subsiding as I focused on the rise and fall of my chest. I was still breathing. I was still getting oxygen. Apparently, I was moving too much for this Shias, which gave me a very bad feeling. I tried to access my communication again, the panic just at bay as I pinged Kieren but the message went nowhere, whether because they’d somehow blocked my interface, or because of the drug that clearly coursed through my body was also affecting my interface system.

Guardians were trained for all kinds of different situations. We were trained to combat any number of opponents; to be stealth-like and creep silently; to climb and to disappear into crowds. We were also trained to withstand torture, including but not limited to being subjected to a great deal of physical and mental pain. Not being able to move was just another form, and I redoubled my efforts to not freak out, following my breath as I’d been taught, retreating to a stillness inside and floating there, on my back, staring up at an imaginary night sky. I sensed Kieren’s presence next to me, so close that I felt the heat from his body, heard the inhale and exhale of his breath along with mine. This was part of the training I’d developed myself, the connection between partners creating a tether and I used that tether against the panic that I felt just outside my moment of stillness. I further imagined his face, the cut of his jaw and how it clenched in reaction to the situation. I could almost hear him, asking for my location. He seemed frightened, angered, I felt the emotions curling up and around us as we floated in that vast expanse of stillness. In response, I imagined the room I was in, the look of this man with the drugs, the events as I remembered them.

Next to me, Kieren’s energy was palatable, and I looked away from the imagined sky to see his face looming above me as if he was at my side, propped up on an arm looking down. His eyes were black fire as he studied my face.

The sound of the door pulled me from the moment, and I opened my eyes to watch the man approach, now with a vial in his hand. I tried to pull away but was only able to turn my head, and then only weakly, unable to fight when the man grasped my face and painfully squeezed my cheeks together. My mouth involuntarily opened, and the man poured the liquid in. I tried to spit the bitter substance out, tried to reject it, but he covered my mouth and nose with his hand, pushing my head into the pillow. I couldn’t breathe, my chest heaving against his pressure and I swallowed.

He grinned down at me. “Good, that should be enough then.”

I started to fade, the room turning gray, losing color, and then an inky blackness. What happened next was a series of disjointed moments of consciousness. Weaving in and out of darkness was reality. There were voices. A female. A male. Hushed whispers and then louder. Falling in and out. Coming to consciousness to hear a woman say: “We’ll take her to Darkside, they’ll be able to get the information out of her there.”

And then the need to struggle, knowing that I did not want to go to Darkside.

Shadow.

Movement.

Rising up to consciousness at the sound of something crashing and then hands pulling my arm painfully; of moving, flying through night air that smelled like roses; of swirling and dancing in moonlight; and finally of being pushed down into a deep pond of water.  I struggled against the heavy water, thrashing outwards and up, my chest squeezing, heat radiating from my heart-center.

Then nothing at all.

The sound of birds woke me. Keeping my eyes closed I paused there, listening, feeling smooth sheets beneath and above my naked body.

I stretched without realizing, the relief of being able to move crashing through me as I opened my eyes, squinting at the bright light from an open window. A warm breeze wafted through the green leaves immediately outside of it.

“Ah yes, there you are,” a voice said. I turned my head, slight pain behind my eyes, at the back of my skull, to see a familiar Diax moving slowly towards me.

“Where?” I asked passed dry vocals, my voice rasping but coming out in fully formed words.

“Home,” the Diax said. 

Nodding, I closed my eyes and fell back asleep. When I woke again, I was still in the medical ward though the light was later in the day and this time Kieren sat in a chair next to my bed going over something on a handheld. I watched him for a moment, taking the opportunity to study his face, the hard jaw, straight nose, high cheekbones. All Sideians held a certain angled look, a product of their warrior environment, but Kieren’s always held a level of sternness unlike others, or at least unlike any I had ever witnessed.

He looked up, catching my gaze, relief flowing over his face before being replaced by stoicism. Reaching over to the table next to him, he took a glass of water and then helped me sit up so I could sip from it, large hands supporting and cradling my back that was now covered in a hospital top. The water felt delicious, cool on my sore throat and I smiled in thanks, leaning back again and closing my eyes. I felt more than heard Kieren settle in his chair, probably thinking I had fallen back asleep, but though tiredness pulled at me, I opened my eyes against it.

“What happened?” I asked, my voice low, gravelly and hoarse.

Kieren looked up, frowning before putting down the handheld to focus on me. “You were ambushed. We aren’t sure by who.”

“The Rushielian?”

He shook his head. “They’re denying it, but there’s no saying.”

“You found me,” I said, making it a statement.

Another emotion crossed his face, this one harder to read. “I heard you.”

“My interface wasn’t working,” I said.

This information surprised him as he sat back to study me.

I looked away, staring up at the vaulted ceiling above my head, trying to recall what had happened. All of it felt distorted, far away, but I remembered floating with my partner by my side. 

“We can figure it out later,” Kieren said, likely seeing the confusion run across my face. “Right now, just recover.”

I nodded in agreement. My memory was fuzzy at the best, but the lingering question that I had risen up sharp and insistent.

“Where did you leave to?”

Kieren’s perfectly blank expression told me a lot and I sighed, shaking my head. “Never mind.”

“It was at the private request…” he started.

I cut him off, finishing the sentence. “Of the Warden. I know. I won’t ask.” I felt his withdrawal at the tone of my voice but I had no energy to cover the reaction. 

There were rumors that Kieren would take the Warden’s place one day and I knew it for truth, which probably explained the tension between us lately as the side missions had increased over the last two cycles. At first, Kieren had told me about them, explaining, but that had stopped and the last few times he’d just disappeared without saying a word. The separation hurt, the lack of information feeling an awful lot like distrust, but I hadn’t said anything and neither had Kieren. We were still close, but the secrecy had created a wedge, which, as I lay back and closed my eyes, I started to wonder if that was the whole point.

*To purchase the full book, go to: https://www.amazon.com/This-Time-H-Hood-ebook/dp/B08FXTX3Q3

Originally published 2020, copywrite 2020

One thought on “Chapter 2

  1. Pingback: Chapter 3 | Just One Small Corner

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