The tracker came out with a great deal of blood, but Kieren expertly did what he did, and we were soon fed, warm, a sea storm wailing against the house in the dark of night.
“Tirius was human,” Kieren announced suddenly into the peace that descended between us.
“Before he came over, yes,” I said. “I think sometimes that was the reason he decided to take me into his apprenticeship.”
Kieren watched me. “I forgot you were human.”
“I still think of myself as human,” I replied. “Just the same way you feel Sideian.”
He looked away from me, towards the leaping flames. The glow of the fire only just illuminated the large living and dining room area. The stainless steel filled kitchen was off behind us, now littered with pots and pans from our quickly collaborated dinner.
“What is it to identify in these ways, though?” Kieren asked. “We are Guardians. That is how we identify now. Not human. Not Sideian. Those are no longer accurate.”
I studied the side of Kieren’s face. “Where is this coming from? Usually, I’m the one with all the metaphysical thoughts.”
The silence stretched outwards between us until I looked away and I too stared at the fire, unease sharp in my belly.
I broke the silence, pursuing the conversation and refocusing on my partner. “I am still human. I still have human traits. Independence. Curiosity. Stubbornness.”
Kieren smiled at the last one, a flicker of his mouth before it settled back to a grim line. “You gave up the knowing, by becoming a Guardian,” he answered.
I nodded but didn’t elaborate on his statement. “What about you? I would say you still have Sideian traits.”
He answered without answering. “I was always going to be a Guardian, it was the calling, the purpose. I was a Guardian before and I became a Guardian when I transferred.” He spread out his hands in front of him. They were a darker brown color than his wrists, with long and narrow fingers, a crisscross of lighter scars across the back of them. The scars were from a particularly nasty brush attack during one of our missions. They should’ve healed without scarring but for whatever reason never had, leaving the crisscross marks that others had slowly started to identify as solely Kieren’s.
“It was always what I was supposed to do,” he continued. “I grew up in a family that required the leadership of millions of people across vast amounts of space. I was groomed for that assignment. This is not the same, but in some ways it is.”
Kieren and I had spent a lot of time with each other, but his natural resistance to talking rarely enabled deep conversations, especially on this subject of our past lives. Traditionally, it was a taboo subject, not because of anything terrible or wrong about the experience, but because who we were before moving over to the Master Realm was a deeply personal matter with everyone experiencing different things. Some remembered distinct memories from before, and others had no memory at all. I was somewhere in the middle. A vague notion of requesting the Transfer, of meeting Tirius and knowing with relief that there was something more than my initial world. Kieren and I were as close as any Guardian partner, but our past, before what we became, back when our lives were mortal and we were constrained by the rules of mortality, was something that I, at least, never had a desire to talk about. We were Guardians now, as Kieren said, and that was our identity, no matter what came before.
Kieren got up from his corner of the couch and went back to the kitchen, clearly unsettled in the direction of our conversation. I watched him, the way he rolled across the balls of his feet as he walked. I wondered, not for the first time, what about his prior life had made him so uniquely perfect for the role of Guardian, and, more pressing to me at least, why I had been paired with him. Pairing was decided by the directive of the Warden specifically, and secondarily the Masters Council, with no input from the Guardians. How partners were decided was a mystery to me and every other Guardian I’d ever broached the subject with, including Kieren. I was glad to have Kieren as a partner, but we were unlike each other in many ways, more opposites than similar. He easily adapted. I was more stubborn. I questioned. He took instructions without comment. That he’d defied the Masters in saving me, even though his life too was in potential danger, still struck me because of the unusual nature of the act.
And then there was the doubt, a niggling thing, about the conversation with Master Ral and his comment about Kieren’s transfer; about the secret solo missions; about the abduction in Rushiel. Things and events not explained, and I was too much of a coward to broach them.
I watched Kieren walk away and wondered.
He came back to the couch with a glass of water and settled back, and I thought about bringing it up, but sleep pulled at me, sinking my bones further into the couch cushion, the sound of rain calming and comforting now that I was encased in warmth. Earlier, Kieren had briefly explained that the house was Tirius’s, opening the door with a key he’d taken from one of his hidden interior pockets, but had deflected any further questions and I had let him.
There would be time for questions. Later.
I got up, uncurling and stretching my arms overhead, still feeling the burn in my shoulder and the tightness in my thighs and calves, but looser, mostly because at least there seemed to be a resemblance of safety with Kieren here in this place.
“Take the big room,” Kieren said.
I nodded and dragged my suddenly too exhausted body to a large room down the hallway towards the back of the house. There, another marble fireplace was also lit with electric flames, the yellow light cheerful across the bed frame’s heavy dark wood and the plush blue bedding. I pulled the covers back and fell face first into the pillows there, curling into a ball and barely pulling the blankets up before sleep took me, even a busy brain unable to keep me awake.
The next few days were an exercise in discovery. Kieren explained that Tirius had written down the coordinates for Travel but hadn’t shared any other details because of their lack of privacy. Knowing Tirius, however, I knew there was a reason for the location, just like the cottage, and relayed my experience there to Kieren.
“She looked like you?” Kieren asked. It was midday and he stared out the window at the sparkling blue-gray sea just beyond the dunes.
“A likeness for sure.”
Kieren glanced away, catching my gaze. “Is it possible she was a twin? In your life, before you came over?”
I had thought of that explanation, mulling it over since the moment I’d seen the picture. “Maybe? I don’t remember a huge amount from that time, but I think I was raised by my father, though I don’t think he was home very much. I do remember my mother was not around. My father said she ran off with a sailor or something, but I don’t know. Maybe she was raising this other person, this twin, and I was raised by my father.” I paused, looking down at my hands. “It’s possible. But we lived in the States, a half a world away from where this woman said Katie was born and lived, and my father never spoke of living anywhere but in the United States.”
“Sounds like he didn’t tell you a lot of things.”
I nodded. “Nope. I was alone a lot, with random nannies that never stayed around. I didn’t mind I don’t think, but my father and I were never close, not ever.”
Kieren tilted his head in that way he did when he realized something. I braced myself for it.
“Tirius is your stand in father, the father figure that you never had,” he said.
I grimaced because the thought had also crossed my mind. “I guess I disappointed him too,” I said quietly, to myself more to the man across from me. But he heard, and something softened in his face, causing my throat to close tight on itself. I waved my hand as if to wave away the moment.
“Whatever the case, obviously there was a reason that Tirius led me to that spot, with that possible connection. It’s frustrating because I know he is trying to lead us somewhere…”
“But why the games?” Kieren finished for me, letting me change the subject.
We paused for a moment, both staring outwards at the sunshine lit dunes. We had walked them earlier in the day, the wind sharp against our cheeks, shifting the sand under our feet, cut grass brushing at our clothing. The sand went on north and south for as far as the eye could see, the glass house we stood in, a lone house in a vast expanse of grass-like dunes. Somewhere there was civilization, but it was hard to tell in what direction. There was a vehicle in the garage, a sleek black thing that we looked over the first day. We were very isolated in this timeline, which I knew was likely one of the reasons Tirius had chosen this specific spot. Other than this isolation, there was nothing in the house to indicate time or place, nothing to show us why Tirius had sent us to this location.
“What if we kidnap him? We know essentially where he will be, or you do,” Kieren said suddenly, turning to me with a sort of jerk of movement.
“Return the favor?” I asked.
I shook my head. “The rules are pretty clear about manipulating the timelines.”
He turned to look more fully down at me, his gaze intense. “Does it matter?”
I studied Kieren because the words were wrong, and the intent behind them. Kieren followed the rules, always, even when circumstances were such that breaking them could help things along. The rules were in place for a reason, he constantly lectured me, and it was not our purpose to find those reasons and challenge them. The fact that he had just suggested taking Tirius out of a timeline was so outside of his normal behavior, a feeling of dread developed at the bottom of my stomach and refused to budge. The sun rays prickled my skin as I turned to look back over the dunes at the sea.
“We have no way of telling what kind of consequences such an action would have,” I said after a moment.
“That didn’t stop the Archivist.”
I shrugged. “I’ve been thinking about that, thinking about what it must mean to be the Archivist, to have that knowledge there, always, and be in charge of it; the amount of information that exists, the way that it all forms together to create a picture. I think that Tirius knows a lot of what is going on, that he understands more than we ever will, or if not understands, he sees the connections. We can’t mess with timelines, even the Master Realm timeline, because we don’t understand. Somehow he does.”
“That’s putting a lot of faith in a person.”
“He’s not a person.”
“He’s not a god either.”
I bit down on the reply that came to mind because I knew he was right, but the idea of messing with timelines went against every instinct. Instead of answering, of continuing the conversation, I turned from the window and went to the kitchen. There were plenty of supplies, another oddity among all the oddities, and I started on a cup of tea, bringing the tea box down from the shelve I’d spied it on the day before. I read the directions on the side of the box, pretending to ignore my partner and the sudden tightness in my chest.
Kieren followed, moving so he was parallel with me and a hand’s reach distance away.
“He’s not, Wren. He is not some Master that knows all and sees all, and even if he was on the Master level, obviously being some Master level evolutional being does not exclude them from murder, cover-ups, and manipulations of timelines. This isn’t an evolved world that we’ve stepped into, it’s just a different one, with rules that can and are broken. Unless we learn what those rules are, and quickly, we’re dead.”
I put the kettle on the burner and turned the knob. With a blue flame lit underneath the kettle, I reached for the brown teapot on top of the fridge. I turned the faucet on hot, watching the stream of water, listening to the sound of it falling and pooling in the deep stainless-steel sink.
Kieren turned the water off, his presence large as he looked down, inches between us. He had angled his body in such a way that he was mostly in front of me. I refused to look up at him, staring at his black-clad chest. I felt his body heat and even the slight flicker of breath across the top of my head. He smelled of sea air and wind with something else that I’d noticed before; a kind of cedar that reminded me of a deep forest glen.
“Break the rules to figure out what the rules really are,” he repeated quietly above me.
Shivers lit across my skin, a rolling awareness as I swallowed, mind working through his statement, working in an attempt to figure out what exactly to say, to argue, to counter, but coming up terribly blank. “And when we destroy an experiment in our search for answers?”
“Then we’ll figure out what’s really important.”
I inhaled slowly.
Kieren’s hand cupped my jaw, gently pulling my head up to meet his gaze. I met his dark eyes and searched them for a clue as to where he was going with this conversation. His palms were warm, calloused along the pads, rough on my jawline. “We need to know. We have to understand why,” he continued. Close up, his eyes were a dark green and the intensity there paused time.
I swallowed on a dry throat. “Why?”
“Because only then can we act,” he responded quietly.
I tried to read him, but I was having trouble breathing, my stomach tight, skin tingling. “We can’t hurt people. We can’t destroy timelines,” I said.
“Then we won’t.” He dropped his hand but remained where he stood, body heat enveloping me, looking down from his height.
Somewhere behind me the kettle started to whistle.
Kieren stepped back, paused and then turned and retreated to the living room. I watched him, broad shoulders under his black tunic, black hair in a tight bun at the base of his skull, the ease of his step as he walked away from me, that particular scent lingering for a moment before disappearing as well, floating away.
I took the kettle from the stove and poured water into the waiting pot, ignoring my shaking hands as I added the tea as it said on the instructions.
“We need to figure out a course of action,” I agreed out loud after a moment. “So, we talk to him,” I said, joining Kieren with my tea, picking up as if nothing at all had just happened, and perhaps nothing had. “Let’s talk to him. We will go to him. I know where and when he was, so we go there, not to kidnap, but just to talk to him.”
Kieren continued to stare forward; his profile sharp. “Back to the realm, to talk. And if he doesn’t believe us?”
I spread my hands out, one of them still cupping the tea that I had managed to make somewhat edible this time around. “How can he not, our very existence is proof. But more. He knew, at least, something even back when I was with him. Maybe not this scenario, or this existence, but something. He can at least tell us why this house in this timeline is important.”
“So, back to the realm.”
“Break the rules. But not to kidnap. We’ll Travel to before all of this crazy, when I was still working for him and there was no inkling to me and the situation. We take the tunnel. If we can access the Archives, I can access Tirius.”
Kieren glanced over at me; eyebrows raised. “The metaphorical tunnel?”
I shook my head. “No. It’s real. We just have to find it.” At some point the sun had started to set and shadows crept in the corners of the room, even with the lights on and the fire softly glowing in front of us. “We go. We ask. We get answers.”
“And if he doesn’t have answers?”
“Then we figure out something else.”
I could tell Kieren would rather not agree to my idea by the way he held himself apart, perfectly still where he sat, but instead of arguing or presenting a counter to my idea, he nodded once. “Tomorrow,” he said, finally looking over at me. His face was a careful mask of non-emotion, his hands loose in his lap. “We will go tomorrow.”
He got up from the couch and grabbed the red rain jacket he’d thrown over the chair earlier in the day. We’d found a pair in the front hallway the day before.
“Where are you going?” I wondered out loud, though at the same time knew there wasn’t going to be an answer, and there wasn’t, Kieren disappearing around the corner, the front door a whisper of open and close in the gathering darkness.
I drank my tea and pretended not to care.
Originally published 2020, copywrite 2020