Chapter 5

As usual, the world tilted, twirled, spinning and rocking before re-righting itself. I switched my interface off, breathing deeply. Immediately I smelled the tang of salt, felt the frigid wind cutting across my still bare upper body. I squinted into what appeared to be mid-afternoon light, though the gray day made it hard to tell for sure, the sky weighted with rain that was not yet falling. I was in the same location as before, the sea cliffs immediately in front of me with the gray sea meeting a gray horizon. A path led to the right towards the village mostly hidden except for the slate rooftops, and to the left into rolling flat greenery interspersed with brush. Shivering against the cold, I fumbled to untie my tunic from my staff. It was probably best if no one was to see a half-naked girl in the middle of nowhere anyway, especially with a four-foot weapon in her hand. 

The tunic did very little against the cold, the rain starting up like ice pricks against my skin. Retracting the staff with a button, I replaced it at the small of my back and started off at a jog towards where Tirius and I had descended to the beach.

I suppose a part of me believed that Tirius would be at the cottage. There was no reason for him to be there, but I wanted it so desperately that I thought I saw smoke rise from the chimney right up to the point that I got to the front door. But all was quiet, the windows shuttered, the chimney cold. I tried the door, not expecting it to open, but it did with a squeak that seemed to echo around me. Glancing back, the beach was deserted, sea pushing and pulling at the rocky sand, spray against the giant boulders, and rain starting in earnest now, frigid cold.

Letting myself in, I blinked in the gloom. It was dark, shadows in every corner with only the limited light from the unshuttered window in the kitchen illuminating the space. There were lamps though, one at the table between the two low-slung chairs, and one in the kitchen. I went for the one in the kitchen, relieved when it turned on. My shaking had increased as my body temperature dropped a little more. Though my interface was in sleep mode, a small warning signal lit up in the lower-left corner, alerting me to my physical situation.

“Tea then,” I said to the empty space, eyeing the kettle that sat on the back burner of the stove. I hadn’t actually brewed tea in my new life nor in the life I remembered from before, but looking at the situation I had to do something, and it couldn’t be too hard. I filled the kettle up at the sink, the groan of pipes seeming to come up from the bowels of the earth, giving up the water after a few moments. The water was clear though and the boiling would take care of the bacteria if needed. I lit the gas flame with an expert flick of the matches, placing the kettle atop it. As the water boiled, I found a tin of loose-leaf tea in the cupboard along with a can of condensed milk. I left the milk and turned to the brown teapot on the counter. The pot was chipped but usable and I poured in the tea leaves, creating a small mound in the bottom’s center. I hopped from one foot to another as the water boiled, blowing on my cupped hands, watching intently until steam leaped out from the silver kettle and a thin whistle sounded into the air. I poured the water over the leaves and stared down at the potion-looking result. The result looked wrong, but it would have to do and I put the lid on. I found the mugs from last time in another cupboard, both clean. After counting to six hundred, I poured the tea into one of them, the leaves floating about as I grimaced. Not right, but my temperature had dropped further, and I hardly cared.

The first sip I spit out, my mouth puckering in horror. 

It tasted nothing like what I’d had before. Harsh and bitter, I stared down into the mug. This was not tea, this was a terrible abomination; however, warmth was settling into my belly, the effect already moving my body temperature upwards, so I choked the rest down, then rinsed and replaced the cup and the teapot. 

Somewhat warmed, though feeling nauseous, I went to the stone fireplace, switching on the light next to the chairs, relieved to see that Tirius, or whomever, had stacked logs along the front of the fireplace, and next to those logs, kindling and a starter. I was warmer but needed more heat. Unlike the tea, I did know how to build a fire and did so quickly, flames soon licking upwards as the cheerful light filled the area.

“Now what,” I said to no one at all, looking around the room. I wanted to believe there was a reason I was there, a reason the cottage location was on that file, though that might have been entirely accidental, and the picture was just a piece of the data that had somehow been corrupted. 

Perhaps me being here meant nothing at all.

I sighed and fell into one of the chairs, staring into the fire. I needed answers. I had no idea where to find them. The rain continued outside, a pattering of sound above my head, interspersed with the increasing sound of waves as the tide came in. I hadn’t slept for what felt like days and the fire, rain, and waves blended in such a way that I could not resist the sleep that was dragging at my eyelids.

The cold woke me. 

The fire had died down to a few embers and the room was so cold I could see my breath. At some point, night had fallen, and the wind had increased, battering at the walls of the cottage and howling about the eaves. Throwing a few more logs on the embers and stoking it with a piece of kindling, I crouched before the limited heat and shivered some more. My neck hurt from sleeping funny, my body hurt from the earlier landing, and I was hungry. 

Time to explore.

I first went to the table by the wall between the shuttered windows, drawing my hand across the surface and pressing in random places. I hadn’t exactly noted the location Tirius had pressed and though I eventually pressed every piece of the surface, no little hidden area popped up. 

I stuck my tongue out at the table and turned away. I could always get an ax and take it to the table if I needed to. Later though, tomorrow.

The cabinets in the tiny kitchen were mostly empty except for the horrid tea and the milk. Obviously, Tirius had not spent a lot of time at the cottage recently, the bareness covered in dust. After the kitchen and the main room produced nothing at all, I wandered down the hall to a small bedroom with a four-poster bed covered in a large number of blankets and a single pillow. A table on the left side of the bed was bare except for the dust, and a peak under the bed only showed several large dust balls. 

The bathroom was directly opposite from the bedroom, with indoor plumbing I was pleased to find, though again the single cabinet was empty and only a roll of toilet paper sat alone on the sink counter. Trying for hot water, I let the tap run for several moments but the water remained stubbornly cold. Hopes dashed for a bath, I left the bathroom and looked around the hallway. There was one closet, and opening the one closet in the entire cottage, I was relieved to find a large puffy coat hanging up and a pair of wellies. Both were several sizes too large for me, but I could hardly complain.

“Something at least,” I said out loud, the sound carrying a mournful air to it.

I ignored the thought and searched the jacket pockets, pleased to find a wad of currency in the interior pocket and a lighter and key in the other.

That would do for tomorrow. Supplies were going to be necessary if I was to stay for any amount of time, and as I had nowhere else to go, that was my tentative plan.

Tomorrow, I thought, closing the door to the closet.

I grabbed the blankets from the bed, pulling them into the main room to curl up on the floor in front of the fire’s warmth. I unstrapped the holster at my back and pulled off my boots. The knives went in a pile with the staff and I lay down on my side so I could watch the flames, my weapons within hands-reach distance. I tried to ignore the rising panic, the tightening in my throat, but as I continued to stare, the flames blurred with tears I couldn’t stop. I was very much alone and the ache I felt resonated deep in my chest.

I closed my eyes, to get away from the feeling, to get away from the thoughts, and counted my breath towards sleep. 

It was a restless night of interruptions. The fire had to be fed as the night progressed. Every time it got too low, I woke shivering, even in the blankets. It was a wet kind of cold that got in the bones and I curled into myself even as the fire kept most of it at bay. In the brief snippets of sleep, I dreamt dreams that made no sense but were filled with the faces of 1914 Sarajevo, with Tirius, with long stretches of cliffsides and dunes sparkling in the moonlight.

It was sleep but not rest, and when morning light woke me for the final time, a gray glow that indicated at least a somewhat later hour, I felt lethargic with a raging headache. 

Shrugging out of the covers, I threw more wood on the fire, though the pile of logs had grown significantly smaller. I would need wood, adding that that to the growing list of things I had no idea where to get. But first, I needed supplies and hoped it was late enough in the morning that the village would be awake, and that there would be a store there in the first place.

Rubbing a knuckle in my throbbing temple, I surveyed the closet’s contents once more. I left the wellies, my boots a good enough quality to withstand the wet, not to mention built to hide my knives, but I did put on the heavy coat. The puffy material nearly swallowed me, looking ridiculous, but it was warm and seemed waterproof, and as the rain was once again hitting the side of the cottage, it would help on the walk to the village.

I banked the fire, returned the blankets to the bed, and then looked around the small interior. I’d left nothing behind so if something happened and I wasn’t able to return, there were no indications that I’d stayed the night.

Stepping outside, the wind immediately pushed at me. As I squinted up at the gray sky, rain pelted my face with icy water. Hurrying along the beach and up the side of the cliff, the coat somewhat did its job. The rain soaked it, but not through, and by the time I trudged towards town I was cold but not freezing, and though wet, my hair plastered against my head, not wet to the skin. The footpath I had Arrived on led directly to the village, and as I got closer, I saw that the village itself was more modern than not, with a road going through, lights along the roadway, and stone buildings lining the streets. From the slight hill I stood on, it appeared to be a ten block by eight block village, with homes, a restaurant, and a grocer that I immediately spied located nearly on the outskirt of town nearest to where I stood. I wouldn’t have to walk through town, which I was thankful for, though still, the village was small, which meant I would be noticed as a stranger, which meant I would need a story; however, not knowing the time period or the location, I would have to wait to create the story until I knew more.

At a slight jog, I followed the path to the road and then cut up to the grocers. The store doors slid open automatically as I approached, a wave of heat greeting me as I stepped over the threshold. Immediately I was noticed by a woman employee in a black apron standing at a cash register. She wore a bulky oatmeal-colored sweater over black leggings, her bright copper hair coiled up in a messy bun on her head, looking only a little older than me.

She stared at me, blue eyes wide, looking shocked.

I attempted a smile.

She continued to stare for a moment, then she blinked several times and replied with a “good morning,”

The accent was not entirely familiar, but the language was human, and my implant easily translated it.

“Good morning,” I replied and then grabbed a basket and walked down an aisle away from her. I refrained from turning around to see if she was still staring.

Trying to ignore the paranoia that dogged my step, I walked the aisles looking for anything that appeared familiar. I had training in human timelines and was, after all, human, even if my memories from that time were fuzzy, so I wasn’t entirely out of my depth. Still, the woman’s stare had unnerved me, and I resisted the urge to rush. I picked out several cans of soup, a thing of oatmeal, and dried fruit. I was always struck by the lack of fresh food in human timelines, but this time I was grateful. It was easier to cook unfamiliar food if it was already mostly prepared. I stalled in an aisle of kitchen supplies and carefully studied the display, noting the different things until I saw one that said can opener. I grabbed that for the soup and for the can of milk back at the cottage and then took everything up to the woman who seemed to be waiting for me. 

I’d counted the money out the night before and calculated as I shopped to ensure that I would have enough, but as the woman started to scan my items, I glanced at the door to see how far it was if a dash was required.

She named a final price and I inwardly sighed in relief, bringing out the amount and handing it over. The woman took it, held it, and then shook her head. “I’m sorry, I know I’ve been staring and that’s terribly rude, but you look exactly like my friend, Darla. The resemblance is uncanny,” she said in her particular accent.

Something lurched in my stomach. “I do?”

She nodded, ringing up the cash amount then giving me the change. “Yes. It’s a little crazy, to be honest.” She smiled, suddenly nervous. “Sorry. I’m Sally. You’re one of those nature types that hike the cliffs even in this weather, aren’t you?”

“Yes, the nature types as you say,” I agreed.

She leaned against the counter, hip out, crossing her arms as she studied me, giving me the same kind of nervous but curious smile. “You don’t happen to be from around here, are you?”

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. The question was too much. “No.”

Sally nodded, smiling herself. “Yeah, yeah. Still, you look exactly like her. Maybe you’re adopted?” She put a hand up as if to stop my answer. “I know, that’s silly. But really, wait here for a moment.”

I wasn’t sure if I should. I had my groceries and I’d paid, leaving me free to leave. I didn’t though, because there was a reason, there was always a reason, and I stayed watching as she disappeared towards the back, reappearing within moments with a giant black purse in hand. She plopped the purse on the counter and began to dig through, pulling out random items until she found what she was looking for with an “aha.”

It was a wallet, or sort of like a wallet except for the insert that was full of pictures she let drop open. Along the long line of pictures, several of them had a woman that did look like me in them. 

“See,” she said, pointing to one of the pictures that depicted her and my doppelganger sitting next to a campfire, arms around each other. “We were young, fifteen maybe in that picture, but you still see the resemblance. It’s totally weird.”

“Who is she?” I asked, taking the plastic-covered picture and bringing it closer for a better look. The young girl had the same mouse-brown hair, though cut short around her face, emphasizing a small, sharp chin, and perky nose. Her eyes were the same gray, shaped like almonds under light brown eyebrows. Freckles littered her nose and cheeks.

“Her name was Darla Walhburg.”

A chill ran down my back, the hairs rising at my neck. “She’s your friend?”

“Best friend, since childhood when she moved here with her mum. We did everything together. Except, well, until she went to uni and then met Mac and they moved to the States. She was a biologist, crazy smart. Mac is a biologist too, and something else though I can never remember the word for it. Scientist, the both of them.” Sally took the pictures back, flipped through and pointed at a little girl with dark, curly brown hair. “That’s Lila, her daughter.”

“Daughter,” I murmured, looking at the picture of the little girl. I felt like her small face should be familiar, but she wasn’t and that bothered me. “She was a biologist? Darla?” I asked, emphasizing the “was.”

Grief played about Sally’s face, pink mouth pulling down, red splotches appearing along her pale cheeks. She stuffed the picture wallet back in her purse and straightened her spine. “Yeah, she died. Murdered walking home from work. They don’t know who did it, never caught him. Mac and Lila moved back here actually, right after, so Lila could know where her mum came from. Mac does his research from home now and Lila knows her nan and aunts and uncles.”

My heart pounded slowly and steadily in my chest. “They live here? In this village?”

“Well yeah, though now they’re on holiday. Mac has to go to London a lot and he takes Lila with him. I don’t think he can bear to be apart from her.”

It was a lot of information. A lot of information to add to the growing list of unusual information. Doppelgangers existed, of course, something that every Guardian and Collector knew because it affected the assignment on occasion, but to have a doppelganger here, in the village. The coincidence was too much, and I felt the unseen hand of Tirius orchestrating a symphony I could not hear.

“That’s really odd,” I said as way of an exit, picking up my paper bag of groceries. 

Sally had regained most of her composure. “Are you going to be around for a while? Or taking off soon?”

I shrugged. “Probably be around for a bit.”

She nodded. “Staying at the old cottage? The one that the traveler gentleman owns? I haven’t seen him for a while but tall, dark and handsome? He has got the most gorgeous eyes and that hair? Yeah. He’s a wanderer I would wander with.”

I smiled at the description of Tirius. “Yes. He offered it up for me to stay while I traveled.”

Sally shrugged, growing pink. “If you ever want to introduce me proper like.”

My smile grew. “Okay.”

She giggled a bit and shook her head. “Stupid. Anyway. So yeah, weird. It isn’t every day you get to see the ghost of your dead best friend. I knew I’ve been a bit cuckoo, but welcome to our village.”

I smiled. “It’s okay. It is weird. And thank you.”

“If you’re around for the next couple of days, Mac should be back, maybe you can meet up with him.”

I shook my head, shifting the weight of the groceries to my other arm. “I don’t know if he’d want to see a woman who looks like his dead wife.”

“True enough. Though, for some reason, it feels good, not at all sad like you would think it would. I mean, Darla has been dead for six years. The grief comes and goes. But seeing you is like a warm hug.” 

“Good,” I said. “Thank you, for the story, and the groceries.”

Sally waved a hand. “See you then.”

I nodded and then made my way out of the grocery. The rain still came down and I took off at a slow trot towards the path back to the cottage. There was a lot of information to dissect and I wasn’t sure where to start but first I needed to take care of my hunger and the cold that still threatened my equilibrium.

Once back at the cottage, I opened two cans of soup and partially warmed them on the stove before devouring the food directly from the cans. It was sloppy and messy, but my stomach was thankful, and my headache started to recede almost immediately. I was also warm for the first time since I had arrived. I rinsed out the cans and put them under the sink, putting the other groceries away before sitting in one of the chairs and once again staring at the fire. The warmth and full belly made thinking easier and I review what I’d learned. 

Tirius had clearly used the cottage enough that the locals were aware of him. Apparently, there was a woman who had lived in the village who had looked exactly like me. She had been murdered six years ago. Time, of course, was a funny thing when time was no longer a consideration, so the six years meant very little in the scheme of things, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the reason Tirius had a cottage here was because of this Darla. Or was it just a coincidence? 

I mused for several moments, weighing the pros and cons of accessing my interface. I had left it in sleep mode, and I was still uncertain about activating it, not sure of what kind of tracking, if any, was possible.

Curiosity won out.

The red lettering came up immediately upon activation, messages alerting me that I was to return to the Citadel immediately. I ignored them, deleting the entire 100 messages without reading over them. I knew I was in trouble; I didn’t need screaming messages to let me know. Instead, I went to the search area. It was late enough in the human timeline that I would be able to access their net information system. Within moments I was able to connect and start searching.

My doppelgänger came up quickly and I enlarged a professional picture of her in her mid-thirties. In the picture, her hair was pulled back into a severe bun, eyes partially hidden behind a pair of blue-framed glasses. She wore a black dress and a white lab coat in front of a sign for a research facility. Underneath the picture, it said, “Bioworks mourns the passing of famed biologist Darla Wahlberg.” Scrolling through, I skimmed the press releases about her death, highlighting the murder. It wasn’t until I got to the information on her research that I slowed down to read: “Husband and wife duo, Dr. Darla Wahlberg and Dr. Mac Devine, along with their partner Dr. James Fisher have worked together for over a decade to identify the cause behind one of the deadliest cancers known to humans. Lauded by research institutes worldwide, the three biologists explain they are within striking distance of being able to identify susceptible DNA strands, which would allow for a targeted therapy that could, potentially, eradicate the disease.”

I scrolled more, reading about their work, though most of it made little sense. I paused on a picture with the caption: “Dr.’s Darla Wahlberg, James Fisher and Mac Devine.” All three wore white lab coats, the color washing out Darla’s complexion but a stark contrast to Mac’s dark skin tone. I looked closely at Mac’s face. He wore glasses with heavy black rims and his eyes were smiling, and though a part of me waited for some kind of familiarity or a reaction in my gut, I felt nothing. He was an attractive human, and that was the extent of it. The other man in the photo, James Fisher, was not as dark skinned as Mac but still much tanner than Darla and he stood whip thin between them, leaning slightly towards Mac.

I cut the search and put my interface back into sleep mode.

A biologist on the brink of a great breakthrough. Living in a village next to a cottage that Tirius used on and off. Perhaps he’d been studying her, or perhaps not. There was no saying.

I stared at the fire, listening to the crackle of popping wood, the wind, and the sea, musing about the information, looking at it from different angles. Cozy, I had started to get sleepy, eyes drooping, when all sound stopped.

It was barely a second, just enough for a breath, but I was already moving from my chair, staff in hand. The Guardian pair entered in a gust of wind. They wore their black uniforms, faces covered, both about the same height, though the one on the right slighter in build. They paused, not making an immediate move, but I knew they were there to take me back to the Citadel, which meant that I was in a whole lot of trouble.

“Guardian Wren Oridian, we have been tasked with bringing you back to the Master Realm to face trial,” the one on the left said, voice pitched lower than what was probably natural. I was not supposed to figure out who these Guardians were, which meant that I probably knew them, which meant this was going to be awkward.

With a flick of my wrist, I extended the staff.

“Sorry, no,” I said.

I had one advantage over them as they split apart to circle me, and that was for the first time in many cycles I was fighting without a partner. I only had to protect myself. Partnered Guardians were a force and rarely did a pair lose a fight, the efficiency of trained Guardian partners just too high, but that was when faced with other species and types. I was a Guardian, and I knew all the moves, all the faints, all the choreography that made up a Guardian pair arrest.

I bucked it all, coming in low as the one on my left went to strike high, while their partner simultaneously came up behind me to cage my retreat. But I wasn’t moving back, I was moving forward, taking out the knee of the one in front of me, my staff fully extended and the blunt end popping the Guardian’s kneecap even as I slid under and around.

The Guardian in front of me turned, hobbled with one leg and I slashed out, my staff connecting with the masked face hard enough that their head jerked backward. The partner vaulted one of the chairs, preparing to come down on top of me and cage me with a leg scissor, but I knew that move too, it was a move Kieren and I would have used in a similar situation, and instead of trying to get out of the way, opening up the opportunity for the legs to make contact and bring me in, I placed my staff vertical, catching the Guardian in the inner thigh. The impact jerked my arm, pain searing down to my hand, numbing it, but instinct and experience helped, and I held on to the staff, shoving it and thereby the Guardian away from me.

I scrambled to my feet. There was no way I could win this fight, only surprise caused by my unusual tactics giving me an edge, but even now I knew the Guardian pair were communicating along their interface and reassessing. I ran for the door. I needed open exposure and some distance. At the threshold, I reached down and grasped a knife at my calf, whirling around to throw with precision at the stomach of the Guardian who was immediately following me. The knife was batted away, but it slowed the Guardian’s forward movement enough that I was out the door and running towards the cliff with a small lead. 

The wind pushed at me and I stumbled on the wet rocks. I only had a few breaths before they caught me, but I only needed a few breaths. Closing my eyes and accessing my point of origin and then my destination point, I felt the knife at my shoulder, a hot burst of pain, even as I pulled, pushed, and Traveled.

I had Traveled wounded before, but never by myself, and the disorienting nature of the process nearly caused me to pass out as I arrived, blackness threatening the sides of my vision. Sheer stubbornness kept me from succumbing to unconsciousness, dropping my staff with a clatter. I opened my eyes, heart pounding a drumbeat in my head, swaying on my feet. The pain in my shoulder caused a red tinge to my surroundings as I surveyed where I’d managed to Arrive. The view was not reassuring. Dark, dank, smelling of rotten everything, two brick buildings rose up on either side of me, nearly eliminating the night sky above my head. The night was filled with noise, but the noise was muted, as if far away, and I ignored it for the more pressing matter of the knife sticking out of my back. With my left hand, I could just barely grasp the hilt of the knife, having to move my right arm forward to make it accessible, causing a rush of darkness to narrow my vision.

I blinked away the black, took a deep breath and pulled on the exhale. The angle was wrong, and I couldn’t extract the knife cleanly, causing additional damage as it came out. I had to sit down before falling, my knees hitting the pavement hard, pants soaking up whatever vile liquid was pooled there.

Hardly noticing, I continued to breathe, bloodied knife in hand, my interface warning me of blood loss and the activation of emergency procedures. I ignored it, trying not to pass out as my body did its thing and slowly started to repair itself. The benefit of being a Guardian was that we dealt with wounds all the time and our bodies were equipped for minimal damage control. The knife was not necessarily minimal, but my implants still worked to close the wound. It would scar, for sure, but as the wound closed, I felt strong enough to at least stand up out of the stink, grabbing and retracting my staff as I did.

I’d arrived in Darkside.

Originally published 2020, copywrite 2020

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