We arrived outside the Citadel gates. Arriving without a node and without alerting anyone was a revelation in a way, but one that had both of us tense and listening as we made sure we truly could Travel to the Realm without our arrival being noticed. Tirius had done it, obviously, but he had also had the device for cutting interface access. Neither of us had used our interface since running from Master Ral but that didn’t mean we weren’t being tracked. We kept low and silent as the sun rose in the east with peeks of crimson and gold through the trees and heavy underbrush.
We wore black, our weapons strapped about our bodies and when we made our way through the forest, we did so on silent feet. Though the scenario was not one we’d ever thought to find ourselves, it was not entirely unfamiliar, and we moved with an easy understanding. Whatever had happened the night before slipped into history and I refused to think on it or let it affect how I worked with my partner. We worked together as one, in the way we were trained to do, despite the unusual nature of our situation. As for the situation, we were out to find something that might not exist, though I refused to voice my doubts.
I’d found out about the tunnel while doing research on the Citadel itself, an exercise from my time when Tirius was my mentor. We’d talked of the nature of the Realm, and the inability of anyone to approach it without Travelling, but that had not always been the case, and there were several entrances and exits that had been lost to memory, one of which led directly to the Archives. The entrance, Tirius had explained, was rumored in legend to be near a giant oak tree, so old and so large it stood alone in its magnificence. Kieren was the one to recall such tree, stumbled upon during one of his very first recon trainings.
“It might not be the same tree,” he’d said that morning, sharpening his knives with his ever-present wet stone.
“At least it’s a place to start,” I’d replied.
He’d finished with his weapon, holding it up to the light so it glinted against the newly sharpened steel. “I can Travel us there, to that day in the woods.”
I’d been doubtful and he’d caught my look, flashing me a rare grin. “Trust me.”
I did, but as we made our way through the dark wood, I wondered if I’d been too optimistic; there were a number of giant oaks, the next one bigger than the last. The sun climbed to its peak as we moved through the underbrush. Somewhere behind us, the Citadel’s presence pressed, looming, but the dense forest kept it from sight and with a heavy canopy overhead, and the thick brush below, shadows filled our passageway. Kieren moved as if he knew where he was going, and I followed because at least he appeared to be going in a direction. My default was to trust Kieren’s sense of direction. We’d once walked through a jungle for six days on a planet looking for a runaway Administrator. We were required to walk those days in silence, using our eyes, hand gestures, and bodies to communicate with one another. It had taught us to read each other’s faces, the set of our shoulders, the way we held our bodies. That mission had showed us how non-verbals can communicate more than words ever could, and it had turned out to be an exercise in just that; honing our ability to read one another, even with the carefully established neutral faces that we were also learning to always wear during that time period. In those six days I had not only learned to read my partner, but I had also gained a deep trust for his ability to navigate through any scenario.
Kieren stilled several steps in front of me, alerting me with a hand to move slowly and cautiously forward. I did so, joining him in a crouch and peering through the brush to where he indicated with a pointed finger.
It was a group of Guardians training, and among them, slimmer, less defined, was a younger Kieren. I immediately noticed him, standing towards the back, hands behind his back, the tip of his long black braid just touching the top of his folded fingers.
“You brought us to the exact date,” I breathed, barely a sound, underneath a whisper.
Kieren eased back next to me, sitting on his heels, finger to his lips. I nodded in understanding but kept watching as the group of new Guardians listened to the rest of the elder’s instructions. It only took a moment and the elder clapped his hands. The five young trainees in front of him bowed and, with a lot less finesse then their elder selves, melted into the forest.
Stirring next to me, Kieren started in the direction that his younger self took. I followed, my step with his step, walking where he walked, ever mindful of the sounds about us. Theoretically, if another Guardian came upon us, they would think we were part of the training exercise, but I kept my senses alive to the area, the sound of feet, snapping twigs, leaves rustling against leaves.
We followed the younger Kieren for several moments. He worked to keep quiet and did an admirable job in comparison to his classmates. It had made complete sense for my Kieren to Travel us to where he had once come upon the giant oak, but how the older Kieren had remembered the exact time and day in the timeline was a puzzle that I tried to work out but couldn’t quite. Even when my current Kieren stopped, grasping my arm to still my pursuit, I hadn’t come up with an answer; but there it was, the younger Kieren placing a hand on the trunk of the largest oak tree I had ever seen. The trunk was massive, easily requiring nine or ten people to circumvent the entirety of it, and its gnarled branches rose up towards the sky, twirling and intertwining with the other trees around it. We watched the younger Kieren place his forehead against the tree, pausing in a show of deference, and then pushing back, dropping his hand, and disappearing into the brush on the other side of the tree.
Waiting, I looked over at the older Kieren, judging him, trying to figure out the smoothness along the lines of his face. He had always been one to give nothing away, but since discovering me on the roof, those abilities seemed to have increased tenfold. Even with our long years together and our training, I couldn’t read his thoughts as he watched his younger self vanish into the woods.
Kieren started forward and I followed, low to the ground, listening. There was nothing except the birds, the rustle of leaves and we made it to the giant oak within several breaths, pausing along its massive trunk to look around to see if anyone was watching. We appeared to be alone, but both of us stayed low to the ground, looking for an entrance of any kind.
The door was ridiculously easy to find if one was looking for it, the top edges of the door visible among the high grass that sprouted out around the entirety of the trunk’s bottom. While Kieren watched for anyone or anything, I ran my hands along the edges of the door, pushing away dirt and grass as needed until I found the bottom set sort of sideways into the tree and the ground beneath. The door was about half my height, rounded at the top and straight on the bottom. I didn’t see any hinges and where it looked like a door latch should be, there was only a gaping hole. I sat back on my heels, staring at it, trying to recall if Tirius had said anything at all about how to open the door.
“What?” Kieren whispered from behind me.
I indicated the door with a hand. “Latch?”
Kieren looked down, away from his survey, a frown gathering for a moment between his eyes. “Hidden key? Hidden mechanism?”
I sighed, looking around the door that was our access but not. I had no key, nor did I know where to get one.
Kieren knelt next to me. “Keep watch,” he said, then leaned down and hooked his fingers where it looked like the latch should be. He pulled, shoulder muscles straining against his shirt as he tried to force the door open.
I looked away from my partner’s efforts, keeping watch. Everything was the same until it wasn’t any longer and I heard Guardians somewhere to the right of us. We needed to go, the voices in a whisper carrying to where we were, not yet close enough to be distinct but close enough to know they were voices. Kieren heard them too, letting go of the door, frustration a flash across his face.
“We have to go,” I said needlessly.
Kieren shook his head once. “Where?”
I didn’t know, and the lack of knowing caused a familiar tightness in my chest as my heartrate increased. I knew that Kieren could not be seen, even by unsuspecting Guardian trainees. Glancing beyond Kieren to the door, I studied it for a moment, the curve at the top, the edged wood, the door and grass and then it clicked, like a ping in my head.
Kieren saw the expression, moving out of the way as I crawled passed him. I placed two hands on the door, dug in my heels and pushed down. The door opened with a whoosh of silence and I fell forward into darkness, stumbling to the soft ground on the other side, scooting forward to make room. Kieren quickly followed, hooking a finger in the latch area and pulling it close behind us, plunging us into black. We paused, not moving, listening for any indication someone had heard or saw where we went, but after several moments of nothing, I got up from my knees, sitting sideways so I could pull the pin light out of the pocket I’d placed it in that morning. The light was tiny, barely giving off enough illumination to highlight the dirt walls wrapping up and around us. The air was dry, stagnant, and as I stood up, pointing the light forward, I saw that the tunnel appeared to be made by hand rather than by nature.
“Well,” I whispered into the darkness, and started forward, Kieren a warm presence at my back.
There was a steady downward trend to the tunnel and as we walked the dirt floor gave way to smooth stone, the walls turning into a brick-like layering. “How far do you think it is?” I asked, leading the way, sweeping the beam from side to side, ducking the random cobwebs and stepping over the random rat poop.
Kieren was silent behind me and I let him be, because the answer was in the sudden flicker of light in front of us, flashing like beacons of caution. I turned my pin light out, slowing in my step. Coming up from behind me, Kieren matched my pace as we walked slowly towards the lights, the tunnel opening into a cavernous place lit by familiar hovering lamps. We paused together, staring at the massive stone maze that stretched on into darkness below us.
“That’s interesting,” I muttered, tracing the pathways through the maze.
“The Archivist said nothing of this?” Kieren asked.
I shrugged. “He might have in passing. He said a lot when he said anything at all.”
Kieren started down the steep stone steps that led to the entrance of the maze. “Nothing is a passing comment,” he said over his shoulder.
I agreed, following him down into the dim light.
The maze walls were massive, reaching easily twice Kieren’s height, and as thick as the length of my body. The floor was stone, rough-edged, with dirt in the corners and a weird algae material growing along some of the surfaces. Overhead, the lights that were found everywhere in the Citadel hovered like glowing orbs, moving as if pushed by a gentle wind though I felt nothing, the air stale with the scent of being underground.
Kieren started towards the right and I followed him, knowing that he’d memorized the pattern of the maze from the one glimpse he’d had before descending, but as we walked, the ground rumbled, and the sound of shifting stone echoed in a jarring orchestra of cacophonic dissonance. We stopped walking, placing hands over our ears in an effort to muffle the sound, not able to move forward until the ground stopped rumbling and the sound ceased.
“Well,” I said, peering into the gloom that was a corner. “This will be interesting.”
Kieren said not a word, eyeing the side of the wall and I knew what he was thinking even before he found a toe hold and heaved himself upwards, hands flat against the algae. He made it halfway up before falling back down next to me. I examine the wall, following the upper edge with my gaze, and I saw that the stone was completely smooth, as if the creators knew exactly what a Kieren-type person would try. Goal-oriented was a nice way of putting it, and the goal was to get through the maze. Kieren would do anything to accomplish it.
He too examined the wall, a slight frown between his eyebrows.
“Catapult?” I suggested.
“Might as well try.”
It was a trick we’d perfected two cycles ago and was exactly as it sounded. Kneeling near the wall but not too close, Kieren made a cup with his hand. I walked several paces away, turned, and then started a jog, bursting into speed at the last moment and placing my foot into Kieren’s waiting hand. The momentum was immediate, intense, and I focused on my destination, straining upwards and grasping at the very top edge with my hands.
I caught it, my fingers gripping, pain ricocheting down my arms even as the impact of the wall jarred my teeth. I bit my tongue on impact and bruised at least some of my torso, though my chest took the bulk of the force. With concentration and a good amount of will, I pulled myself up and on top of the maze wall, and then promptly slid off the other side, the wall changing and warping to create a deep angle. I tried to catch hold of anything at all, but there was nothing and I landed on my ankle with a terrible pain that fired up the side of my calf and into my groin, the rest of my body flopping to the ground behind. I lay there on my back staring at the darkness above my head, trying to regain my breath even as Kieren yelled my name over the wall.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I yelled back after I managed to get to a sitting position, looking down at my badly mangled ankle. “The wall did something funny and I slid. I think I broke my ankle.”
Silence from the other side suggested Kieren’s reaction to the situation and I could imagine the glower of forbidding running about his features.
“Don’t move,” he yelled, farther away than before. “I’m going to look for a way to you.”
Not replying, I scooted myself back against the wall, both legs straight in front of me. The wall had changed. There was no doubt. I’d gained the top, a level surface, and then the surface had tilted. It was likely some anti-cheating mechanism, but I was not amused or in awe, rather the pain was a red tinge over everything, and I struggled to focus. I also felt the tears, far off, underneath, a feeling of hopelessness and frustration.
I continued to breathe through the pain, stuffing the tears down, but I knew that if Kieren didn’t arrive soon, I was going to have to set the bone myself so that my fast working antibodies wouldn’t heal the bone incorrectly. But I would give him time, leaning back against the wall and closing my eyes. I would give him time.
The hiss brought me out of the near sleep I’d fallen into, hands automatically going to my back where I pulled my staff from its holster, scanning for the location of the sound. The sound was threatening, a low hiss and then a deep growl, as if what threatened was a snake-dog type animal. As if pulled from my imagination, there emerged from the shadows such a creature. The body was long, snake-like with scales but with four giant paws, and the head was a combination of wolf and snake, the eyes slit like a reptile with a forked tongue slithering out with a hiss, and then the growl somewhere in the lower parts of its serpent-like body. It smelled of rotten meat and I bit down on a gag.
Using the wall behind me, I pushed myself up onto my right foot, tentatively trying to put weight on my left foot. Immediately, my leg tried to crumple to the ground, an intense lightning bolt of pain searing upwards to my hip. Securing the staff in my right hand, I flicked it open with my wrist, blades flashing. Another hiss echoed and vibrated through the chamber, the large head dipping and swaying back and forth in front of me.
“Well come on then,” I muttered, tightening my hold on my weapon.
It obliged, lurching towards me like a snake striking, large dog-like teeth baring as it came up and then down towards my head. I lashed upwards, the staff humming in the air and then vibrating as it made contact with the beast, though not in the stomach area where I’d hoped. Rather, the thing had twisted its body on the attack, and my weapon glanced off, seeming to slide off the scales and into empty air. The beast landed to the right of me, pouncing away as I swung for it, and then circling back and around for another attack. This attack followed the same pattern as before, the thing leaping high in the air. I adjusted, moving in the direction of my injured ankle. Pain screamed through my leg, nearly collapsing, but I kept my balance, ignoring it, and bracing myself against the wall. When the thing descended and twisted this time, I shoved my staff sideways and up, catching its lower chest and slicing deeply into the exposed underbelly, holding on as the forward movement of the large body did the rest of the damage, a long line across to its right shoulder.
It roared, a sound that filled my head and rumbled through my feet, the snake-like body falling as its legs gave way. I hopped back, ripping my staff free and then adjusting, waiting for the next attack, but the monster laid there, still except for the steady rise and fall of its chest.
“Okay then,” I whispered, taking several more hops backward. “Are you going to stay down?”
The thing’s head turned at my words, its slit eyes blinking once and twice at me and then closing.
“Wren!” Kieren yelled behind me, footsteps like a staccato of sound and my body sagged at the sound, relief a far off but known feeling. He came to a standstill next to me, knives in either hand, breathing hard.
“Did you kill it?” he asked, assessing the situation with a quick gaze, knuckles white as he gripped his weapons.
I shook my head once. “I don’t think so, though it’s injured.”
Kieren let out a rush of air, glancing at me, analyzing, and then focused back on the creature before us. “What is it?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
I hopped back a little more, nearly falling. Kieren caught my arm, steadying. “Didn’t heal yourself yet?”
I waved vaguely in the direction of the thing spread out on the stone floor. “Hadn’t gotten a chance yet.”
With Kieren’s help, I sat back down and then looked beyond his kneeling form to where the thing was, watching it. Kieren undid my ankle holster and rolled up my trousers, fingers light along the ankle bone. His palm was warm, assured, as he felt along the injury. “It’s already started to knit together. I’m going to have to rebreak it.”
I nodded my understanding, holding my breath as he grasped the ankle and twisted with a jerk. A jolting, searing pain caused everything to go black for a moment, though I pushed against it, keeping my focus on the monster beyond my partner. Kieren took of his shirt, easily tearing a long section of the black material from the bottom and then with gentle hands, wrapped the cloth around my foot and ankle.
“Okay, then?” he asked.
Managing a grimacing smile, I answered. “Lovely, thanks.”
He sat back on his heels, turning to keep the thing in his line of sight. With him paying attention, I closed my eyes and let the pain wash over me.
“Where did it even come from?” Kieren asked from a little further away and I opened my eyes to see he had walked over to the other side of the maze and was studying the shadows there, poking randomly with his toe at different stones in the maze’s wall. Next to him, the beast stirred, eyes opening, scales sliding. My warning would have been too late, but Kieren was aware and ready, lunging towards the beast and sinking a knife down into its skull before it got off the ground, the sound of metal against stone a ping in the sudden silence.
Quickly, Kieren pulled his knife from the creature’s head, stepping back to avoid the innards that suddenly slid and burst from the wound.
The pain had dissipated somewhat, and I carefully stood, testing my weight before limping slowly towards the now inert being.
Kieren and I stared down at it.
“Have you ever seen anything like it, ever?” Kieren asked.
I shook my head. The beast was huge. I’d been up close to it while fighting but the sheer size of the being had not fully registered. It was easily five lengths of me, and twice that thick. The legs were short but powerful, the paws about the size of my face. The body itself was scaly, but there seemed to be a near translucent cover of fur that I had not noticed before. The head, though, was truly something, with its dog-snake features. Though the head was mostly covered with guts and insides, the tip of the forked tongue was barely visible, jutting from the side of the mouth.
I turned away from the creature and looked down the long maze pathway, the end lost in shadows. “There will be more of these, or other creatures, before we get to the end.”
Kieren, who had kneeled for a closer examination, nodded in agreement. “We won’t move until you’re fully recovered.”
“No. We don’t have water, food, and there is nothing here. We’ve got to move. We have no idea how long it will take to get through this thing.”
Standing, Kieren looked in the same direction as I did; the path forward. “Well, let’s go then; it’s not like we haven’t been here before.”
He was right. We’d been in three or four other situations that involved being without supplies. But this one had no end. If we got through the maze, then what? We were okay for quite some time, having eaten before we’d left, but there was thirst to deal with, and as if on cue I noticed my mouth’s dryness.
“Failed on the planning aspect of this one,” I said, staring down the corridor.
Kieren followed me further into the maze without comment.
The twists and turns kept their secrets for a bit and we walked in silence for a long moment, though I tensed every time I heard a sound. I gripped my staff in one hand, ready, my limp smoothing out into a normal walk as we made our way further into the maze. The walls of the maze steadily changed, going from the smooth man-made looking stone walls to a rougher looking surface, as if the maze had been somehow cut out of an already existing rock formation rather than placed. I studied the area as we walked. As far as I could tell, there were no seams in the wall indicating separate pieces and I couldn’t make out any mechanisms that would allow the wall to move.
“Did you see anything when you were up there?” Kieren asked, startling me, though he kept his voice low.
“No. It was too quick. I was there and then falling.”
That was the last of our conversation, both of us keeping to ourselves as we walked. It was not an unusual pattern of behavior, and for me, it felt comforting even with all the chaos. Kieren kept us on a steady path to the left and eventually we came around a corner to a large area with a slight hill in the middle. The hill was tall enough that, once climbed, we discovered that we had made it to the middle of the maze. Standing there, the quiet descending like a blanket, I felt a flash of rightness that tingled my fingertips.
The feeling of rightness was short lived. Kieren started down from the hill, obviously more confident in his direction, but as his foot landed on the stone floor, a great cry went up above our heads and a pair of winged creatures descended from the darkness above us. They screamed as they dove, gray short fur, black wings like a bat, talons extended. We moved into a back-to-back formation, tensing and then reacting as the two-winged creatures swooped low. Kieren’s knives flashed to my left and I swung my staff to the right, both of us catching a piece of the same creature, though missing the second one.
Both creatures wailed long and high, an echo of pain from both though only one was wounded. Steady, I watched them rise higher into the darkness until I could no longer make out their gray bodies. Keeping our backs to each other, we waited. I scanned the area above, but the winged creatures remained hidden. I stepped forward to create distance between myself and Kieren, turning.
“Do you think that scared them off?” I asked, wiping the bloodied staff along the bottom of my trousers.
Replacing his knives, Kieren shook his head. “I don’t think so but let’s keep moving. Perhaps us not standing still will be enough of a deterrent to stop them from coming back.”
I couldn’t wrap my head around the logic behind Kieren’s reasoning and said so.
“Maybe nothing,” Kieren replied. “But when you stopped because of your ankle, you were attacked. Then we just stopped…”
“…and we were attacked,” I finished.
“Works for me.”
Kieren took the lead and I let him, knowing that whatever he saw on the hill was enough to at least lead us in the right way. I was excellent with directions, but Kieren was a step above everyone I had ever known or worked with, which said a lot.
The next attack came while we were moving, blowing Kieren’s theory up; another snake-like creature slithering up from behind us with scales scratching the stone surface. We dispatched it, my staff a red line across its neck area, blood spurting out in crimson waves, Kieren’s knives a mortal wound in its belly.
“You okay?” Kieren asked, wiping his blades with a cloth he kept for that purpose.
I nodded, the pain in my ankle a dull throb but not enough to slow our progress.
The kill barely stopped our movement forward, leaving the dead body where it lay. We picked up our pace, jogging until we turned a sharp corner and suddenly found ourselves among lush green ivy, a fountain before us sparkling in the middle of a courtyard colored emerald green with grass. We paused at the courtyard’s threshold, just shy of the green grass. I looked up, wondering how the plants were growing and saw that somehow, there was a kind of shimmer following a line of light from the top of a barely visible staff in the ceiling. The effect was peaceful, with the green ivy and grass, gray stone, and sparkling water, but even as my body screamed for the water, my mind preached extreme caution.
“I’ll go first, tell me if you see anything move or otherwise see a threat,” Kieren said, already moving towards the fountain in the middle.
I scanned the area as my partner crept forward. All remained peaceful and when Kieren got to the fountain, I watched as he paused and looked down into the water. I edged forward, keeping my staff low and ready, still scanning the area.
“It’s just water,” Kieren called out over his shoulder.
Nodding, I joined him and then both of us were unable to resist any longer and took up handfuls of water. I expected it to be brackish, or even tinged with poison at this point, but it tasted cool and fresh, and something loosened in my chest as I took another handful. Having my fill, I sat back on my heels and looked around once more, but still, nothing threatened us, and I felt tiredness dragging at me. The pain had receded but there were the residual bodily reactions that lingered; namely, the need to take a nap.
“We need to keep moving,” I said out loud, more to remind myself than to communicate.
Kieren, who stared overhead at the light, nodded a bit absently.
Getting to my feet, I looked around for the exit to our entrance and found only more vines. We’d managed to discover water, but water in a dead end.
“I know where we are,” Kieren said.
I glanced up to where he stared, trying to think of where we came into the tunnel in relation to where the Citadel and Archives were in relation to that entrance. It took my brain a few summersaults but then I knew what Kieren was thinking.
“The room of mirrors,” I said, even as Kieren nodded and looked away. The room of mirrors was a lower level room that the Administrators in the health wing used to grow all different kinds of flora and fauna. “We’re close,” I continued, the mirrored room being very near the Archives. “But, we’re in a dead-end now.” I gestured with a hand towards the ivy-laden walls.
Kieren studied our surroundings, shaking his head in the way he did when in denial of reality. I watched him walk to the wall of ivy and slowly, methodically, start working his way through the vines inch by inch, long fingers pressing and pulling the ivy apart. I sat down at the fountain edge and looked above at the light that was daylight somewhere far above us. I closed my eyes and pretended like I could feel the heat seeping into my skin, warming my face against the chill that had permeated for days now. I wanted a beach, blue water, lots of sunshine, and something to eat that was filled with terrible things that tasted delicious.
Kieren muttered a curse and I peeked a look at him, not surprised to find that he was still working his way through the wall of vines, his tall body in dark clothes a contrast to the bright green. If there was a latch, he would find it. The light changed as I watched him, the angle of the sun changing, creating a different set of rays. The new light direction hit the fountain water, illuminating its depths. I wasn’t looking for anything, but sometimes, that’s when things find us, and I saw the salmon statue along the bottom of the fountain. Before, the statue was lost in the shadow, but with the new light, the stone fish seemed to swim at the fountain’s bottom.
Lying on my stomach, I plunged my arm into the water, indifferent to my sleeve getting wet as I reached for the fish, running my hands along the statue. It was a hunch, an instinctive thing, but the maze above had salmon statues, and one of those statues was a lever that opened the door to an area of the maze Guardians used for weapons practice.
Most of the statue was connected to the bottom of the fountain, but the tail wasn’t, and I pulled on it. At first, nothing happened, and then a groan seemed to come up from the bowels of the earth, rumbling underneath my body, the fountain shifting. I hastily withdrew my arm and backed up, getting to my feet and stumbling towards the ivy wall. The surface of the water became a whirlpool, swirling faster and faster as the fountain’s bottom slid out of view, revealing stairs as the water disappeared into the blackness below.
“More blackness,” I muttered, leaning closer now that the rumbling had started to ease, the sound fading back into something resembling silence but not quite.
“The fish?” Kieren asked, looking down at the exposed stairs, the salmon lever still visible on what was now an exposed wall.
I nodded. “The fish.”
“The beginning of all things,” Kieren said, surprising me. He shrugged with one shoulder at my look as he stepped over the lip of the pond and started the descent. I followed, trying to place his words as they nagged at me with familiarity, but the steps were steep and slippery, and I let the mystery go, focusing on making my way safely down. Kieren brought out his own pen light this time, the small illumination not making much of dent in the heavy gloom. The stairwell was not an overly long one and we soon reached the bottom stair, pausing there, surveying the scene. A cavern reached upwards into nothing and black water stretched out as far as we could see in our limited light. A stone bridge led the way across.
“Can it get anymore redundant,” Kieren muttered. I followed without comment, agreeing with him, but the highest point of the bridge was the end to our journey. There were four stairs, a door that we had to push with a mighty shove, and suddenly we stood at the end of one of the many long corridors that made up the Archives. The floating lamps above our heads gave off their familiar glow, shelves of stone tablets lined up like soldiers along the heavy wooden bookshelves.
“I know where we are,” I said, running a palm across the line of stone tablet spines.
“We need to go,” Kieren said.
I knew my partner was right but being back in the Archives felt like a settling, like waking up in the middle of the night safe and cozy in one’s bed. I wanted to linger, breathe deeply of the dusty, old smell that felt like home. There was no time though, and reluctantly I moved forward, leading Kieren quietly from the stone tablets, to scrolls, to leather-bound books, leading with confidence. The Archives were so massive that it was unlikely we would run into anyone, but even so, I listened, making sure that our quiet steps were the only steps to be heard.
“How do you not get lost?” Kieren asked behind me.
I shrugged. “I spent a lot of time down here.” I knew this approached the subject of my change to a Guardian from Collector, and though Kieren was not in one of his rare talkative moods, I changed the subject by pointing above our heads to the floating lights. “The lights are kind of like street signs, and if you know the map it is easy to find your way. We’re almost there.”
Kieren slowed his step. “We can’t just walk up to the Archivist’s rooms and knock. Everyone would see us, including, possibly, us.”
“I know, that’s why we’re taking his elevator.”
Another turn and the familiar elevator doors appeared out of the dimness as if by magic. The scrolling ivy etched in the stone around the edges of the steel was an ancient-looking contrast to the modern doors.
“A private elevator,” Kieren said.
“To his private chambers.”
“And you can access it?” He pointed to the scanner at the side of the doors.
“We’ll see,” I said, putting my hand on the scanner. Warmth tingled across my fingertips and palms. There was a beep, and though I knew what the likely outcome was, I still tensed for half a moment before the light at the top of the scanner turned green.
“You have access,” Kieren muttered, watching the doors open, a frown line between his dark eyebrows.
“Once upon a time. If I’m right about the timing, you took us back to when I first started my apprenticeship with Tirius. He gave me access because it was easier.”
Shrugging, I hit the close door button, a subtle shift in gravity indicating we were rising.
“So, you could be on the side of this door when it opens,” Kieren said.
Next to me, Kieren looked as relaxed as he ever did, but I knew that he was very much ready for any scenario, which included confronting my former self on the other side of the elevator doors.
The doors opened into dimness, the sun having set at some point, and the lights of the elevator not extending into the darker interior of Tirius’s antechamber. No lights meant no one at my old study desk in the corner and I felt my shoulders relax. Staying in the shadow, I led by memory to where the study door was ajar, a flickering glow evident as we got closer. Pushing the door open slowly I peeked into the room. There was a fire in the large fireplace, providing most of the light though a few hover lamps floated above Tirius’s massive oaken desk. The man himself sat behind the desk; his head cradled in the palm of his hand as he wrote something out on a long curling piece of parchment. Wearing his white starched button-down shirt, the fabric looked a little worse for wear and the several mugs of tea littered about the desk indicated that he’d been concentrating on something for quite some time.
I pushed the door further open and stepped into the room, a slight squeak under my foot giving away my presence. Tirius looked up, his hand going for the large knife that was hidden underneath the desk in a mounted holster.
Putting my hands up, I stepped more fully into the room; Kieren a shadow behind me as he did the same.
“It’s just me,” I said, pitching my voice low and quiet. The room smelled of tea and faintly of wood smoke, a combination of scents that caused an ache in my chest.
I’d missed this place more than I’d realized.
Tirius studied my face. There was always something uncanny about his gaze, the different colored eyes adding to the intensity. “You are but not really?” He kept his hand on the hidden knife.
“So, you’ve broken the rules, have you? And a Guardian as well?”
“A lot has happened, or happens, yes.” I took a step closer, allowing Kieren to come fully into the room. He pulled the door closed even as I kept my gaze on the man in front of me. Tirius remained quiet, not protesting the move, standing up, expanding more fully into his height, letting his hand drop from the knife and stepping back. He looked as I remembered him from my days as his apprentice.
“We need your help,” I started.
He put up an elegant hand, stopping me. “I don’t want the details.”
I nodded in understanding. “I know. And we’ve been careful. We went through the tunnel.”
This caught his interest. “The maze? You survived the maze?”
I allowed a smile. “Guardian, remember?”
“Yes, well,” Tirius said, and then sat himself back in his chair, keeping his hands above the desk, folded and bent in the familiar steeple. “What can I help you and your companion with, then, Wren?”
“Information, about an address.”
“And the address is?”
Kieren spoke up from behind my left shoulder, rattling off the coordinates, which not only let Tirius know the where but the when as well.
I would have missed the initial reaction, the little bit of a jerk backward, but as I was watching closely I saw it, and Tirius saw that I saw it.
He inhaled and exhaled a slow breath. “And how do you know that address?”
“You gave it to me,” Kieren said.
“To bring Wren there, so she’d be safe.”
“And yet here you are. Do you always listen so well?”
I felt Kieren tense behind me. I shuffled to block him from Tirius’s barbs as he was likely not done with them.
“Tirius, some things have happened, some not good things, and there is a reason why you gave Kieren the address, but we’ve searched, we’ve looked through the entire property and there is absolutely nothing to indicate why you would’ve sent us there.”
Tirius pinned me with one of his looks. “Well, I hardly know why I would send you there either.”
“But you know the place,” I led.
He stared for a moment, searching my face and then as if deciding something got up from his chair. Tirius went over to a large side table shoved up against a wall, overflowing with stacked books. Even along the table legs, books were everywhere, and it was hard to tell if the legs were holding the surface of the table up, or if the towers of books were. From the depths of one of those towers, Tirius eased out a slimmer brown volume, opening it even as he walked back to his desk. Finding what he wanted, he put it on his desk and pointed. “This location? It seems very strange I would suggest this place as somewhere safe in the time you’ve indicated.”
I took the book, reading over the words and then handed it over to Kieren. “An extinction event? You have a house in the human timeline next to an extinction event?”
“Humans don’t go extinct, obviously, or at least not completely,” Tirius said in that deeply familiar dry tone that suggested he was barely holding on to his irritation.
“Of course, but why do you have a home there?”
“The better question is why did I send you there?”
I didn’t think that was the better question, but I let him have the change in direction.
Kieren flipped through the pages of the book, reading things here and there. I wondered what else was in the book, but I was also struggling with whether to tell Tirius about Sarajevo as an answer to his question. If he hadn’t yet realized the situation there, I could be the catalyst. “You showed me something, which sort of kicked off a lot of things, and there is a feeling that you had, and which I can confirm more or less, that major events are being manipulated, at least in the human timeline.” Kieren handed me the book and I held it up before placing it on the corner of the desk in front of me. “Do you think this might be something similar?”
Tirius’s face was carefully neutral as he listened but when I stopped talking, he turned away to walk to one of the large windows, the darker side of the room swallowing him. The first moon had risen at some point and though not bright, the orangey glow cast a particular tone to Tirius’s skin, creating an ethereal glow about him.
After several moments of silence, he returned to his desk, settling down and stapling his hands before him in the old familiar way. “I have several locations throughout the timeline, in different periods, to observe some of the more interesting events in human history, though that doesn’t explain why I would send you there.”
“Like the sea cottage?” I asked, my mind circling around to the questions surrounding that place.
Again, with the slight reaction, barely noticeable but still there, letting me know that my words surprised him, or at least induced a reaction. “I took you to the cottage. Why?”
I shrugged. “It was a kind of waypoint for you before you showed me something else. And then I went there by myself later when I was running.”
Tirius put a hand up. “Did you talk to anyone?”
“You mean about my doppelganger?”
This time the reaction was not subtle. Tirius sit back in his chair, sighing.
“Something you want to let us know about?” Kieren said from his silence next to me. The question was not a polite one.
Tirius ignored my partner, his gaze steady and heavy upon me. “Your twin, yes.”
“Why were you observing someone that looks like me?”
“Not simply look,” Tirius said.
Something twisted in my gut. “Actual twin?” I pursued, shaking my head. “I was raised as an only child.”
Tirius waved. “There are many lifetimes.” He spread his hands out in front of him, palms up, studying the skin as if to read the future there. “Many lifetimes,” he murmured to himself.
“Why though?” Kieren demanded, threat an undertone. “Why were you observing someone in the human timeline connected like that to Wren?”
Finally looking over at my partner, Tirius smiled. “That’s interesting,” he said without saying what was interesting. I shifted to break whatever it was that just caught Tirius’s interest.
“Tirius,” I said.
He shrugged, slim shoulders under the white dress shirt. “How much do I tell you? That’s always the question, isn’t it? When going back and forth in a timeline. How much information.” He paused, staring over our shoulders at something. “Let me ask you a question first.” He refocused on me. “Why did you decide to become a Guardian rather than follow your path towards Collector?”
I tensed, feeling my shoulders reach up towards my ears. I forcefully, and with intention, loosed them and let them drop down, even as I attempted to control the sudden uptake in my pulse. I knew Kieren felt those things next to me, but he kept quiet, a steady presence at my side. “There was too much information,” I said after a moment. “I couldn’t handle it. The threads. The pictures. The inability to be involved.”
“The inability to be involved?” Tirius pushed.
I nodded. “You teach, as do the others, that to be a Collector you have to be wholly separate from your subject. It’s not possible, or at least it wasn’t for me. That was part of it.”
Tirius tilted his head, watching me as if he was studying something under a microscope. “And the other part?”
I sighed, giving in to the nerves that rolled in my stomach. “Because I couldn’t handle it, Tirius. That’s it. It was too much. I wanted simplicity. Direction.”
“Someone to tell you what to do,” he filled in.
The tone was sarcastic, but I ignored it. “Sure, yes. Someone to tell me what to do.”
“And you’ve found success in that?”
I remained silent.
Tirius gave me one of his looks, the kind that made me feel like a child. “Let me guess, the reason you’re visiting me has something to do with an inability to follow direction?”
Kieren stepped forward and in front of me, not to block me but to force Tirius to acknowledge his presence and his question. “The twin?”
Tirius switched his intense gaze to Kieren and I wondered what my mentor saw in the tall Guardian. Did Tirius see Kieren’s intelligence? His stubbornness? Or did he just dismiss him as another Guardian, another hand of the Warden, to be told what to do and of little value to what Tirius did as Archivist. I knew Tirius respected the Warden and the role of Guardians, but I had always gotten the distinct impression that he didn’t much like them and didn’t have much use for them either.
Kieren continued. “Why were you studying Wren’s twin?”
Whether because of the challenge in Kieren’s tone or because of something Tirius saw in my partner, he answered. “Because a mistake was made.”
I caught the words and held them. “What?” I asked.
Tirius continued to look at Kieren. “She wasn’t supposed to be the one to move over, her sister was, and yet, here we are; a rather interesting development, don’t you think?”
Kieren watches Tirius the same way Tirius watched me moments earlier, studying him. “Maybe. But you observed a near-extinction event, and from what my partner has told me, you also observed quite closely World Wars, impactful moments in the human timeline. I wonder why this warrants that same level scrutiny?”
Amused, Tirius smiled. It was a strange thing to see the man smile because it happened very little. “If what I know falls into what is, then it is very much an event of the same level, but I’m not telling you my reasons.”
Kieren tensed. I laid a hand on his forearm, feeling the muscles contract under my palm. In the distance, the dinner gong sounded, which caused another flash of a smile across my old mentor’s face. “And now, you must leave, or the now Wren will meet the future Wren, and there is a lot of bad that could happen in that particular scenario.”
“He’s right,” I said even as Kieren remained still. “I used to come up and bring supper every night.”
There was a brief gasp of a moment, the barest of rebellion, then, relenting, Kieren took the book from the corner of the table and turned on a heel to leave the study.
“Thank you,” I said to Tirius before following my partner. “For the book, and the information.”
Putting a slim hand up to stop my departure, Tirius stood and took from behind him two scrolls, both of considerable width. He turned, looking down at the scrolls, face sober, intense, and then walked over and handed them to me.
I took them without questioning, though I knew my face likely showed off my curiosity.
He leaned downwards, the familiar smell of book leather and something earthy reminding me of other times when we worked for hours together. “Timelines are always manipulated, remember. Small amounts. Little tweaks. And sometimes larger manipulations if the timeline is deemed a failure before extinction.” He paused, looking again at the scrolls that I now held. “Take care, Wren. There is a lot more at work of which I only understand a little bit.”
I nodded and turned to the door.
“And Wren,” he said, stalling my exit as I looked over my shoulder and caught his mismatched gaze under that dark curling hair. “I didn’t, and I don’t, think it was a mistake. Remember what I’ve taught you; everything for a reason.”
The sound of commotion on the stairwell barred me from a reply or additional questions. Instead, I nodded once and then sprinted to where Kieren waited in the open elevator. The doors closed just as the top of past Wren’s head appeared in the stairwell.
Originally published 2020, copywrite 2020