Chapter 17

I hesitated because of course I did, not sure what to make of this new situation, but scanning around me at the empty nothingness and knowing nowhere else held answers, I followed Master Cynthe towards the fort, though kept my staff in hand, knives secure about my body. She’d slowed her walk and I soon caught up with her, falling in step but a few paces back to create distance. If I had to kill Cynthe, I would, though I honestly didn’t know if killing a Master was even a possibility despite Colm’s reassurance that it could be done. I also continued to scan the land around us as we walked as I was sure that there were other Guardians around. But either they’d been told to leave or stay out of sight entirely because as we gained the smooth grassy lawn immediately in front of the fort, I’d yet to see a peep of anyone besides Master Cynthe.

She opened a heavy oak door, waiting for me there at the threshold. A flickering light lit the interior and I could make out a large fireplace with a black pot over the top of it steaming. The smell hit me and though I’d just eaten, the warmly cooked meal sounded a great deal more pleasant than the rations I’d swiped from the kitchen.

I followed slowly, alert to any potential threat.

The interior of the fort smelled of baking bread and stewed meat. The fire cracked and crackled in the large fireplace and the stew bubbled up, the scene like something out of a fairytale.

“Are you the wicked witch then?” I asked without thought. When I saw the confusion cross her face, I waved a hand. “Never mind. How did you know I’d be here?” I continued, though I’d surmised the answer already, which she obviously knew because she gave me another one of her smiles and I nodded. “So, I am being tracked.”

She put out a hand, twisting her wrist in a curious gesture that gave an aura of equality, friendliness. “It is easy enough to do if one knows how.”

I ignored the gesture. “And you know how?’

“One of the few,” she replied, then settled down in a large, straight-backed chair in front of the fire. An identical one was positioned away and at an angle, more fully towards her than the fire, and Master Cynthe indicated I should sit with a wave of her hand. For whatever reason, the gesture reminded me of the Warden and I felt my muscles tense in reaction, but I still had my weapons, she hadn’t demanded them or even commented on them, so I sat slowly down and stared at the woman across from me.

I studied her face. “You’ve known where I’ve been the entire time? At any point, you could have swooped in and arrested me or had me killed?”

A frown appeared between the woman’s eyebrows. “Why would we do that?”

I eyed her. “Well, so far I have at least one very apparent attempt on my life, and several not so apparent attempts, so my question stands, why, suddenly, are you talking with me now and not killing me? Or, if you could track me the entire time, why haven’t you killed me already? I mean, I am here. You could just swarm in with your Guardians and end it. It’s plenty cold out there to keep the smell down. By the summertime there would be no indication that poor Guardian Wren had met an ending of her own.”

As I talked, rambled really, I watched Master Cynthe’s face undergo several changes in expression, ranging from surprise to a strange amused expression, though the amused expression she wore held an edge of annoyance and perhaps even some anger.

“Are you done?” she asked, playing with her hands by rubbing at her palms.

I shrugged my shoulders, shivering now that I had started to warm up. My hands still lay on the staff that I had carefully put in my lap should I need it, but the Master only sat there watching me. So far I hadn’t heard anything to indicate there were others in the fort, though I knew Tirius, and perhaps the past Kieren, were somewhere in the structure. But, sitting there in that cozy space, it seemed that Cynthe and I were the only ones that existed.

She put her hands, palms down, on her lap. “I know there’s a lot taking place that you might not understand. There are great things at work, moving and shifting, which, when they happen, though they happen not very often, are always catalysts to great change. Great change is not bad, but it can be very difficult. You, despite your wishes perhaps, have become part of that catalyst, and have helped usher in the change.”

I frowned. Master Cynthe explained things like Tirius did; talking but not actually saying anything. She must have seen some of my confusion because she put a finger up as if to stop a question I had not yet even thought to ask. “I know. That makes no more sense than anything else that you’ve experienced, so let me be plain. We are manipulating timelines; we have always manipulated timelines to ensure that the strongest line survives. Our mission is to create a superior species, something that we can go to The Council with, but there is some dissidence between two groups of Masters. The other group, a group of four and the Warden, believe that we have overstepped our bounds though nothing is farther from the truth.” She spread her hands in front of her. “Manipulation is not a violation, per se, but it is something that must be treated delicately.” Tilting her head. “Do you know what the timelines are for?” she asked, changing the direction of her speech.

At first, I thought her question a rhetorical one, but when she continued to stare at me expectantly, I nodded slowly in reply. “They are different versions of the evolutional process.”

She smiled and again waved her hand back and forth. “Sort of, in a way. There is a creation process and the creation process triggers a series of events that leads to the development of a society. As Masters, we watch the society to see if the creation process is successful. Your human timeline, the one you are from, is the second version of the human timeline. The first one ended in a vast watery grave. Not, that time, because of what the Masters did or did not do, but because of the inherent nature of those within the timeline failing to proceed from one situation to another. To sum up the entire 3,000 years of history, there was too much greed, aggression, and hunger for power. It failed.”

I rubbed at my forehead, not caring that it gave away some of my weakness. “Seems to me what you just described is pretty similar to the way I’ve come to view Masters; all a big game to garner power.”

A sad smile. “Yes, there are similarities.”

“But let me guess, you’re different?” I asked, not bothering to keep the censure out of my voice.

“Yes, and no,” she replied. “I too wish for power and I too have acted in aggression to gain that power. I am a Master, but I was first a human and those traits don’t always go away.”

“A human from the first timeline?” I asked.

She inclined her head in answer.

I sat back at that, staring at her, wondering where she was going with this, and more, what role she wanted me to play.

Master Cynthe continued, describing a power struggle that currently existed between the two different fractions of Masters and how that was unfortunate and was, if I could believe it, a first. I had no comment, not knowing the history there, and declining to mention that I’d heard about the killings. Instead, I let her explain how the Masters had timelines that they oversaw, the point of their existence was to create and maintain timelines, but then some Masters had started to succeed where others failed.

“That introduced competitiveness,” she explained. “This competitiveness led to the situation that we now find ourselves, and as you have been shown, a competitiveness that has created a vulnerability that will soon be exploited by these Outsiders.” She sat forward when she said “outsiders” and I stared at her for a moment, my mind catching up.

“You mean Cana?”

“And her government, yes.”

“The Outsiders?” Questioning the name.

“They are outside the realm, it makes sense to call them that,” Cynthe said and in her tone, I heard what I had not heard before; disdain.

“What is your plan with the Outsiders?” I asked, keeping my voice surprisingly neutral.

“I would like to continue living, so in the age-old instinct, they must be stopped.”

I watched her. “They were provoked.”

Cynthe sat back in her chair then and stared at me, bright eyes holding me still. “Is that what they told you?”

I remained silent. I’d witnessed the attack on Cana’s planet, but I’d also witnessed the attack in Darkside, an attack I had long determined was driven by Cana’s troops in gray. It mattered not who threw the first stone, but that they continued to throw stones.

I changed the subject. “Does that mean that Tirius is here, safe? Not actually in danger of anything?”

The switch in conversation surprised Master Cynthe and I saw the flash of annoyance on her face. She wanted to continue to complain about the Outsiders, spinning her story for me to fall into, but she answered, nevertheless. “He is here and Tirius has never been in any danger. He is the Archivist; it is in his nature and his position to know all, including information that occurs outside the realm’s reach.”

“Then why do you have him drugged?”

This question startled her, and I saw, in a flash of insight, that she did not know about Diana. I had no doubt that Tirius would protect Diana’s identity to the ends of his life. It was a feeling, a feeling born of the relationship I had with Kieren and the understanding I would do the same for him.

“He’s been sick,” Cynthe answered, covering.

“I’d like to see him.”

She nodded. “Of course. But first, we must discuss what you will do next.”

I frowned, knowing I should have seen this coming all along. Though the Master across from me hardly posed a physical threat, her manipulations were threatening, and she had a plan for me. She saw the frown and smiled at it as if she were a parent smiling at a child who did not want to take a bath or go to bed. It held an edge of gentle, but underneath it, steel. I carefully let my frown fall away, but I slowed my breath, slowed my awareness and moved into a position of listening, just as if I were about to hear a testimony as a Collector. At that moment, my sole purpose was only to listen and record what Master Cynthe was about to say.

She felt the change in my attitude and her smile widened as if she felt my reaction was the appropriate one. Distantly, her assumption bothered me, but only distantly.

Cynthe started in on her speech. “We’ve come to an impasse with the other Masters, four of them to be exact, who feel that they have the right to retaliate against the changes that some of the other Masters have done to their timelines. There are always reasons for slight changes in the timelines, but these four believe that the changes are not being equally distributed and as such have created an advantage over the other timelines’ success rates. They have taken steps to ensure that these changes no longer take place. What they don’t understand is that their timelines are corrupt. Master Ral and his precious human timeline, for instance.” She paused then and even in the space of listening I was surprised at the sudden venom in her tone. Piercing me with her gaze she continued. “He doesn’t see how flawed they are; how selfish and irresponsible. He thinks they’ve learned from last time, that they are doing better, but they’re still controlled by instincts millennium old. But that is where you come in. Tirius showed you evidence of our manipulation, our gentle push towards the greatest test the timeline has ever known. Tirius fed into my agenda beautifully and unknowingly. The irony is that Master Ral took steps to ensure the stupid timeline didn’t implode, all the while convinced, and convincing the Warden, that you were and are part of the attempt to make the timeline fail; a pawn in my game, though you weren’t, at least not then anyway. But I fed the story, creating the tension between Tirius and the Warden. It wasn’t hard to do. It isn’t a hard story to believe. The Warden distrusts the Archivist, a feud that has a long history, so anything Tirius did was subject to scrutiny, including taking you on as an apprentice, and then you walked away to become a Guardian. This isn’t done, ever, and without knowing it you solidified the story I’d been feeding the Warden.” She allowed a smile that I felt with a sick twist in my stomach. “It was almost ordained, how beautifully that worked out, and when Tirius took you to France, you clearly showed your loyalties, further strengthening their beliefs up to that point that you were indeed the enemy. They needed to eliminate the perceived threat, which they attempted to do but your partner, the next Warden, saved you in a weird twist of events.”

She sat forward slightly. “What is your relationship with the Sideian?”

I resented her tone, feeling her digging into my psyche with her words, though I knew she couldn’t have that ability.

“We are Guardian partners,” I answered.

“Just,” she said.

“Just.”

She gave me a knowing smile. “No. He is Sideian, for him his duty is everything. I’ve worked with Sideians, many, and they follow orders. Either he is not truly the Warden’s apprentice and is working for someone else, or his loyalty to you supersedes all else.”

 I ignored how her words caused a jump in my pulse, the hope that flickered, because that was likely her point, some kind of manipulation again. “He picked his side and it is with the Warden,” I replied.

She shrugged, clearly not convinced. “Whatever you say. Your partner is secondary because it worked out in the end. Your connection to Tirius has been my greatest gift. Again and again, you have proven to be invaluable in providing information. You were even picked up by the Outsiders, which brings us here, to your plan to rescue Tirius, because that is what you are doing, right? Planning to rescue the Archivist?”

She didn’t wait for my reply.

Continuing.

“And you have rescued him because now the two of you will go back to Cana and your Outsiders because that’s the only thing you can do.” She spread her hands out. “You and Tirius are hunted by those Masters loyal to me because I have deemed you a threat. The other Masters and the Warden hunt you because they believe you are in league with me. The only safe space is with the Outsiders. You have no choice.”

Sitting back in my chair, I stared into the fire. I had a choice. I could leave the situation, disappear into the timelines by Travelling one last time and then melding into the human world. I would take Tirius with me. We would create a new life, a life outside the Realm, a life of being human. But as soon as I had the thought, I dismissed it because I knew that Tirius had tried to do just that. Perhaps he was trying to find Diana when he’d been captured in Germany, or just trying to get away in a time period that he knew best, but he’d been found, found and brought back by me and my partner.

There was no running, so indeed Cana was our only option.

“What does Tirius think of all this?” I asked, knowing the questions I wanted to ask would be answered with lies.

A flicker of something crossed Cynthe’s face and though unable to fully catch it, I thought there existed a tad of annoyance underneath her features, though when she answered her voice came across as unbothered and calm. “Tirius is recovering from his illness and has not been fully briefed on the situation. But he is the Archivist, he understands the complexity that exists and that not everything is as black and white and well-defined as we would like. When you collect as many stories as he has it is only natural for him to understand that there are multiple layers of understanding. We must all do what we must all do, and sometimes what must be done is to create situations that put others in their place.” She shrugged again, thin shoulders rising up and down. “It is what it is.” She smiled then, a flash of teeth in the firelight. “It is an ancient way of things, something more ancient than the oldest Master.”

“What is?” I couldn’t help but ask.

“Killed or be killed,” she answered simply. Cynthe stirred from her seat and stood up. “Now though, let’s get you settled for the night and we can discuss strategy in the morning.”

I followed her because I didn’t know what else to do. A definite chill permeated the air and the wind moaned outside the stone walls. When she deposited me into a small room midway up the rounding stairwell, the room itself was threaded with cold air. Someone had placed a fire in the fireplace though and there was a tray of food set out, covered and waiting for me.

“The facilities are through there, just basic ones, but it is only for the night,” Cynthe said, and then closed the door on me, a lock clicking in place.

I sat on the single bed, the mattress sinking under my weight. I felt no surprise at the locked door, but I still felt the claustrophobia like a creeping shadow up my body, tightening around my throat. Briefly, very briefly, I thought about contacting Kieren, but I dismissed the idea, mostly because of the unfamiliarity of the situation and because I had doubts as to Kieren’s position in all this mess. That he was the Warden’s heir seemed to be entirely true, but what did that mean? From the conversation just now, I no longer believed that the Warden and his Masters were the bad guys but then, I didn’t really know who the bad guys were or if there even were bad guys. Perhaps everything just existed in a never-ending gray tone.

My stomach rumbled at me at the same time a particularly nasty gust of wind pushed at the outer walls, icy fingers of night air finding their way in and attacking my limited clothing. Sighing, I went to where the tray waited for me, fire roaring in welcome, and sat down to the quiet, the calm like that before a horrific storm.

I slept wonderfully. If I dreamed, I couldn’t remember on waking and with the sun a bright light through my window, I felt refreshed despite the situation and my state of cleanliness. The fire had died to embers at some point in the night and even with the sunshine, the room felt decidedly chilly. I used the facilities and then tried the door, surprised when it yielded under my hand. I followed the stairs downward, about to make my way back to the room I’d been in the night before but then paused, looking up the stairs. Cynthe hadn’t let slip Tirius’s location but the fort only consisted of the one tower and the bottom floor where we’d been the night before.

I changed directions, going up the stairs, just to see. I suppose if I’d thought about it, I wouldn’t have been so startled when I came to the top floor and pausing there, spied Kieren’s profile, sharp against the single window’s light. Alert, Kieren stood at the doorway in rest, hands behind his back where I knew he kept two throwing knives easily accessible. He knew I was there, I caught the flicker of his eye, though he didn’t acknowledge my presence, staring straight forward. He hadn’t mentioned in his description seeing me and not wanting to change anything, I turned around and headed back down the way I’d come.

I found Cynthe in the kitchens speaking to a tall man I didn’t recognize but who wore the deep purple of a higher-ranking Administrator. His pale bald head shined in the morning light, so bright as to be reflective. I gave them space, not coming up to a hearing distance, lingering on the threshold. Cynthe said one last thing and the man bowed low and then disappeared in a Travel.

Cynthe turned to regard me. She’d changed the night before, no longer wearing the gray dress but soft-looking black trousers with a crimson sweater. She’d pulled her white hair from her face into a complicated bun at the back of her head and she wore a string of large pearls around her neck.

“Going somewhere?” I asked, studying her.

She smiled with her lips, none of it reaching her eyes. “I am. I just realized that your partner is the one guarding Tirius’s room, so I’ve instructed Administrator Brie to have him replaced with another Guardian, one that you do not know so intimately.”

I nodded, thinking through her words, knowing that she not only informed me of the situation with Kieren but also that Tirius and I would be observed if not controlled by this other Guardian. I wondered who it would be and wondered if I could outfight him if I needed to.

She confirmed my suspicions with her next words. “The Guardian is there for your protection and the protection of the mission, but I will also communicate with you through your interface.”

I frowned and something a little more amused flit in her eyes. “Yes, I know that you haven’t used it, but it will not be a problem now. The Warden will not be able to track you using it, in fact, they’ve never been able to track you using it.”

“I could’ve used it the entire time?” I asked, tight.

She shrugged under her pretty sweater and I had the distinct image of punching her in the face. Instead, I focused, enabling my interface. The cacophony was instantaneous, messages and voices and data filling my vision field in an array of chaos.

Somewhere distant I heard Cynthe say: “That won’t do,” and a moment later the chaos disappeared and all that was left on my vision field was my biological stats and my current location coordinates. I blinked away the field and refocused on Cynthe who watched me. “One day you’ll have to document how it was to work without an interface for so long,” she said, true curiosity in her voice.

I nodded because what else was I supposed to do.

She continued, waving a hand to a small table in the corner that held a tea set. I had been so focused on watching Cynthe and the Administrator that I’d not noticed it. “Cook left us some things. Let’s break fast while we talk about the next steps.”

I did as she said, taking a seat at the table and watching her pour out the tea. She handed me a large mug with a dollop of milk. That she knew how I drank my tea was filed away with all the other weird things that she appeared to know about me, which of course, put me at a significant disadvantage, which was probably the reason why she did it. I’d started to realize power was a game that Cynthe played constantly.

“Plans then,” she said over the edge of her mug. “You know how to contact the Outsider leader, this Cana?”

I thought about lying, thought about coming up with something that would get me out of this particular line of questioning but instead, I nodded once. “I believe I can contact her, yes, or if not her, Colm, her first in command.”

She nodded slowly. “Yes, Colm Mac. We don’t have a lot of intel about him. Tell me a little more.”

I took a sip of tea, glancing away and then back again. “He is her first in command, or at least however that translates. He’s Sideian.”

She raised a groomed eyebrow at this. “Really?”

I nodded.

“How did a Sideian get to be an Outsider?”

Again, with the flash of insight, realizing that there was a very good chance that Cynthe, and by extension other Masters, didn’t realize the bleed over from timelines. I had no idea how the bleed-over worked, but I’d seen evidence of it, and I wondered at its significance.

Instead of voicing those thoughts, I shrugged in reply. “I’m not sure. Perhaps she recruited him?”

She stared at me, thinking. “I know they have the ability to move into timelines, so it only follows.”

A headache knocked on the back of my brain and I tried not to close my eyes on the pain, trying not to show I was reacting to anything she said. But she appeared to be in her own thoughts, her finger continuing to tap at her lips as she stared in the distance.

“But who is helping them?” Her eyes flickered upwards and I knew she suspected Tirius.

“I have no idea,” I said honestly, though I suspected Tirius as well.

She nodded, sitting forward. “We need to know how they are accessing timelines and if they have the ability to Travel. You have your interface now, I want it all recorded.” She tilted her head. “You will do this for me, Guardian Wren, it is not a request.”

At the ill-concealed threat, I nodded.

She smiled, the first genuine smile I’d seen on her face. “Good,” she said, sitting back.

I sat my mug down, looking into the liquid now half gone. “But if that is not possible? To get the information back to you.’

The smile fell away. “Failure is not an option here. I will not fail, and you will not fail.”

I let the comment lie, pushing back from the table. The tea in my stomach sloshed about uncomfortably. “No time like now,” I said.

She put a hand up, stalling me. “Hold for a moment, I’m sending you a data package that will give you all the details that you need for contacting me and when you should.”

I waited for it, the light in my lower left field of vision blinking green once to indicate I’d received the file. I opened it and looked over the contents quickly. It mostly contained coordinates. “These are?” I asked.

“Safe houses, places that you can contact me once you’ve succeeded in gathering the information.”

“None of them are in the Master Realm?”

“Of course not,” she laughed. “I don’t trust you.”

I shrugged. At least it was out in the open.

She leaned forward, pinning me with her gaze. “What you do is very important. I know that you have loyalties, both to Tirius and to your partner; however, your first loyalty should be to your own existence.”

Holding her gaze, I nodded once and then very significantly turned my back on her, exiting the kitchen area and going back up the stairs to where a new Guardian stood at the door. He was a male Rushielian with dark eyes and darker hair against paper-white skin, waiting for me. He opened the door without comment, and I walked into Tirius’s room, blinking in the sunshine.

A part of me expected him to still be in a coma-like state, but he sat in a chair near the fire. Wrapped in blankets, he barely looked up at the sound of the door though when he saw me, I saw a glint of something in his eyes before it disappeared into dullness. I expected the Rushielian to follow me into the room, but he closed the door once I crossed over the threshold, leaving the two of us alone.

“You look terrible,” I commented, walking further into the room and then taking the other chair near the fire. His dark curly hair lay flat, stubble pebbling his jawline in patches. Like my room the night before, a frigid draft seemed to flow across the stone flooring.

“I’ve been better,” he said, voice gravelly and the words more croaked than spoken.

I glanced around the room, judging our situation, but there really wasn’t anything to be done other than to go by Cynthe’s instructions. Somewhere in the coming string of events, we could figure out a way to give the Rushielian the slip. I looked back at Tirius who had turned his gaze away and once again stared into the fire.

The door opened behind us. I startled though Tirius remained impervious. The Rushielian entered with a stack of clothing. With long strides but no words he put the clothes on the bed and then left again. I frowned, wondering if I needed to help Tirius get dressed but after a moment realized that Tirius now stared at me as if wanting to know why I remained in the room.

I excused myself and left to the hallway, closing the door on the man who very much did not resemble the Archivist I had always known.

“Do you know what kind of sickness he had?” I asked the Rushielian who stared straight ahead from his position next to the door. His eyes flickered towards me and then he shook his head once. I wondered if not speaking was something that Cynthe had insisted on or if it was a particular trait of this Guardian.

When the door opened, both the Rushielian and I turned and watched as Tirius slowly, with movements of a very old man, came to stand before us.

“Well, shall we?” he asked, the question directed towards me.

I looked at the Rushielian. “How do we coordinate this?” I replied, knowing that simply disappearing with Tirius in a Travel was not going to happen.

The Rushielian paused for a moment then stepped forward. “Same as all pairs,” he said, and I resisted the urge to tell him that he was not my partner nor would he ever be my partner. But the point was made, and I stepped towards him, taking his hand and then reaching for Tirius who, with some reluctance, also took my hand and the Rushielian’s.

I closed my eyes, expanded my energy field using my interface to include the Rushielian who used his own interface, adding to my strength. We Traveled. I took us to the beach house approximately a day or two after the last time I’d been there. In a way I did it because I thought perhaps the Warden would have the location watched, which meant I might be able to communicate with Kieren. Mostly though, I used those coordinates because I had no idea where else to go and I knew that there was a good chance that Tirius had contacts or information here that we could use. We arrived about midday with the sun high overhead and the sea breeze whipping about us in the same way it always did. Tirius looked around, bent under the wind and sun, his too-long hair tangled about his face.

“No,” he said, catching sight of the house and then looking back at me. “The cottage.”

The Rushielian refrained from commenting but looked at me with a question. It was the most communication I had gotten from the Guardian and perhaps because of that, I answered truthfully. “It is another location in the human timeline. A good century before this.”

The Rushielian put out his hand and I took it. This time, instead of pulling up my own coordinates, Tirius sent me via his interface the coordinates he wanted to Travel to. I flashed them to the Guardian who nodded and then we Traveled again. Colder this time, much like the location of the fort, the wind held ice and the sky was heavy and gray. I wondered if summer ever came to this cottage or if it existed in perpetual winter.

Tirius started for the path that led down to the beach. The Rushielian and I followed without a word. The tide was in, leaving a small area to navigate as we walked towards the cottage. Pebbles lay wet and loose under our feet, rolling this way and that, threatening to land us in the water. Soon though we turned the corner and the path widened making it easier to navigate. Tirius picked up his pace towards the empty cottage, his hurry a shuffling gait rather than the long strides I remembered. I wondered what had happened to him in that fort, knowing that he would likely never tell me the true story.

We entered the cottage. Now familiar, I headed for the fireplace and started a fire there, watching out of the corner of my eye as the Rushielian positioned himself at the door. Tirius went to the table and pressed the hidden lock mechanism I hadn’t been able to find when I’d done it. A portion of the table popped open and Tirius pulled out the pinky drive.

“What’s that?” the Rushielian asked, his voice deeper than I thought it would be and hard-edged.

“The location of The Outsiders,” Tirius said. I just barely kept myself from jerking around to stare at him even as the Rushielian crossed the cottage, hand out to take the drive. The next moments happened in slow motion, or at least they seemed to; the Guardian getting close enough to take the small drive from Tirius; Tirius stepping forward to meet him while simultaneously bringing from beneath his jacket a syringe that he stabbed without hesitation and with tremendous speed into the Guardian’s neck.

The Rushielian looked shocked, hand going to his neck, stepping backward once and then twice before falling to the floor in a heap.

Tirius looked down at the man and then nudged him with a boot. Satisfied, he put the syringe on the table, his body straightening up into its normal posture. “Now, that should give us some time.”

I shook my head. “She assigned a new Guardian to us?”

“The biggest mistake people with a tremendous amount of power make, is assuming that everyone without their power is weak and without resources,” Tirius commented as he dragged the Guardian back towards the sofa. I helped place the Guardian on the sofa, grabbing his legs and heaving upwards and then went to the bedroom where the blankets from before were still stacked in the middle of the bed. Grabbing those, I threw them on top of the Guardian and then stoked the fire. He would get cold, but he wouldn’t freeze to death.

“Now where?” I asked, turning to Tirius who was accessing the data file with his interface. Alarmed, I said the Archivist’s name once, sharply. When he looked my way, I spread my hands out. “Don’t you think our interfaces are being monitored?”

Tirius gave me his usual long-suffering expression. “Of course they are, that’s why I am using my secondary system.”

I frowned. “We have secondary systems.”

“You do not. I do,” he said, immersed once more in whatever data was on the pinky file.

I waited because there was no use in questioning him as to what he saw and what he thought. He would tell me in his own time and only as much as he felt I should know. The situation was familiar, an interaction I’d had with Tirius on numerous occasions now, but for some reason, at that moment it reminded me of when I apprenticed under him. There was a feeling of being on the edge of a great piece of knowledge but being held back at the same time. Though a part of me hated the feeling, a rather larger part felt at home, comforted by the familiarity of Tirius’s actions.

He stopped viewing whatever he was viewing and then put a hand out. “Ready?”

“You can Travel?” I asked.

“I was acting before. Turned out quite well,” he commented, looking pointedly at the Guardian passed out on the sofa.

I shook my head with a slight smile and took his hand.

We Traveled again, though for the first time in a long time I was not the one tearing up and recreating the energy field.

We Arrived somewhere entirely unfamiliar and as I tried to contain my nausea, I looked around in interest. Remote like so many of the places Tirius seemed to prefer, the area spanned as far as the eye could see, a type of grain swaying gently under a rather fierce sun.

“Where are we?” I asked, following Tirius who had started off in a direction.

“Somewhere to get answers,” he said, long legs eating up the ground.

I kept up with him though my effort to match his stride elevated my heart rate and I soon gave in and started to jog next to him. I felt a flash of irritation, at not being in control anymore, of not making the decisions when I had so recently decided that I was going to, but I put it aside as I followed Tirius. There was nothing to be done, really, as Tirius had more knowledge of the situation than I did, and besides, I had no plan whereas he appeared to have at least a part of a plan.

Eventually, the field gave way to a dirt road and we followed that. The heat weighed down on us and I stripped out of my shirt to my tank and tried to ignore the flies that had appeared as soon as I started to sweat. They didn’t appear to be dangerous and Tirius didn’t comment on their arrival, so I tried to ignore them, only swatting at their presence when they got too close.

The dirt road ended at a two-story white country house with a wraparound porch. Maples shaded the yard and a dog sat on the step, his tale thumping once and then twice at our arrival. Tirius paused at the edge of the lawn, partially hidden from the house by a maple tree. I paused next to him, peering around him and the tree to get a better look at the house. It seemed familiar somehow, though I couldn’t have told you why it seemed familiar. A woman appeared at the screen door, pushing it open and stepping out. She wore jeans and a gray t-shirt, both faded but clean looking. Her dark hair was pulled away from her face and in her arms, she held a baby wrapped in a pink-checkered blanket. I frowned, watching the woman who sat down on the steps and absently patted the dog while still holding the sleeping child.

“Who are they?” I whispered to Tirius who watched the scene with interest.

“Wait,” he said.

I waited and after a moment another figure appeared at the doorway. The man stood there, looming and I felt my entire body tighten in response. I hadn’t realized that my hand had unconsciously gone for my staff until Tirius lay his own hand on my arm, stalling me from elongating my weapon. I looked at him, heartbeat high and tight in my ears. “What is this?” I asked.

He studied me. “What I thought it was. We don’t need to see the rest.”

I looked beyond him to where the man still stood in the doorway.

“What is this?” I repeated.

“That is your mother. You are the child. The man is your father who will come out of the house and will get into a fight with your mother. He will throw you to the ground, beat and rape your mother, and then leave. You will be unharmed except for a bruised shoulder and a deep cut on your left bicep from a rock that you will fall on. Your mother will take you from this place and move across the world to another place. There you will grow up along the seacoast, best friends to a girl who becomes a clerk at the grocery store, and you will eventually become a world-renowned biologist.”

I stared at Tirius trying to make sense of his words. “No, that’s my twin, doppelganger.”

Tirius studied my face. “I thought so too. I thought so because I was made to think so, but no, you are that person who will eventually be murdered in a manipulation only to be reborn to a mother who, this time disappears on you and a father who leaves you eventually for another family. You weren’t supposed to be born into that life. You were supposed to transfer over as Darla Wahlberg. But already then, Cynthe and the Masters knew of your importance. The irony is they don’t believe you are you, some kind of strange coincidence like a twin or a doppelganger, but someone insignificant.” He flickered a smile. “They lost your thread in all the manipulations. Sometimes knowing everything means you know nothing at all.”

The door opened in front of us and I looked away from Tirius to the man who’d stepped out onto the porch. He too had dark hair, but it was sparse, his face stubbled and his eyes deep and haunted. He radiated hatred, fear, ignorance, and violence.

Everything in me wanted to kill him.

Tirius took my hand and we Traveled.

Because of the abrupt nature of the Travel, I spent the first bit of the Arrival sick on the side of the road. I had no idea where we were, but I didn’t care, my stomach heaving up the tea I had a bit ago when everything still made a certain amount of sense. Now, everything seemed sideways. Again.

After a moment nothing remained in my stomach and I opened my eyes, not to look around but to find Tirius. He stood away from me, watching but not really, obviously thinking of something quite far away and distant.

“How do you know?” I asked, my voice cracking from the remnants of being sick.

Tirius returned to the present, focusing on me. “How do I know what?”

“That I am this person?”

“Process of elimination mostly. It did throw me when you decided against becoming a Collector and moved over to Guardian. But I see now that this is just part of it. I observed you at the sea house, the way you interacted with Kieren, the way he responded to you. Pairs, remember.”

I shook my head. “We aren’t, not really.”

Tirius smiled again, more smiles than I had ever seen him make and all within a short amount of time. “That’s another twist. You are not Sideian, and by all accounts, shouldn’t be paired with Kieren, but when the Warden made you partners because of your relationship to me, he tipped the first domino.” Shrugging, he looked beyond me to something distant. “So strange how things work, isn’t it?”

I straightened, looking around us, not answering. We were in a courtyard of some sort, high brick walls on all four sides with a cast-iron gate in the one furthest away from us. The air smelled of heat and rich earth.

“How do you know that change is coming, by me or by anyone?” I asked.

“Observation, mostly. When you’ve seen as much as I have, lived through as much as I have, and have all the knowledge of the Archives at your disposal, things start to fall into a pattern,” Tirius answered and the answer made sense.

“You’ve seen this before, what is happening?”

“No. Not entirely. The Outsiders is a new development, but in this new development, they fulfill a portion of what has happened in the past. Powers rise and fall, you know this from your training. They rise, they topple. This is just another occurrence of that, this time with some of the most powerful beings in existence. No different though than what happens in the timelines they create. The Masters believe that they are separate from those timelines, creating experiments to study the way that individuals interact, and society moves forward, or self-destructs, but really, they are but creating mirrors of their own beings. Humans creating human timelines. Sideians creating Sideian timelines. It is all there for anyone to notice. Eventually, just as the timelines they create, they too will fall to their greed, lust, and megalomania. It is the nature of creation.”

“All creation?” I asked, trying to wrap my head around Tirius’s words.

“All. Even the most basic of living things are destroyed in time, by something bigger, or by their own species. It is what it is, one of the only constants in all of this madness.”

The heat had become a bit oppressive and when I wiped the sweat from my temple, my hand shook a bit. “Then, if it is all to be destroyed because that is the nature of all things, what are we trying to do? What are you trying to do with the Outsiders? Cana said you were the one that developed their resistance, that you were key in helping them move forward with their idea to destroy the Masters.”

Tirius grimaced. “They have taken what I started and created something else. But yes, in the beginning, I did help them because no matter what the Masters do among themselves, it is not right nor fair to allow their pettiness and power plays to destroy entire timelines and all those who exist within them. Those individuals that exist in timelines are no different than the Masters themselves, though they would never believe me if I were to say it.”

“Because, though one is in power, that does not allow one to avoid the responsibility of stewardship,” I quoted back to him. The words were straight from a lecture he’d given many cycles before and he recognized them, nodding in recognition.

“Just so,” he replied. “In fact, one may even argue that it requires even greater stewardship and to deny the responsibility is to fall victim to one’s own ego and hubris.”

I inhaled slowly. “So, you’re attempting to take on that mantle, to step into that position of stewardship.”

Tirius put his hands up and pinned me with a gaze. “No. I’m here to help you and Kieren into that position.”

At my partner’s name, I frowned and shook my head. “He is the Warden’s heir.”

“As you are mine,” Tirius immediately replied.

I stared at him, my brain running through the words a few times. “I am a Guardian,” I said, a bit stupid.

Tirius tilted his head and gave me one of his stares. “Are you, really?” He didn’t wait for me to answer, instead, he looked up at the bright blue sky. “Either way, it is time to go,” he replied. There was a shimmer of light towards the edge of the garden and Colm appeared. The Sideian looked exhausted, dark circles under his eyes, and neither surprised nor relieved to see us standing there, just resigned. His appearance caused all sorts of questions but one look at Tirius and I held my tongue. The questions could come later when I understood more of the situation, more of the bigger picture.

“Is she waiting for us?” Tirius asked Colm, voice amused though I couldn’t tell what would have caused amusement.

“She is, though you could’ve picked a better time,” Colm replied.

Tirius gave him one of his looks that seemed to have the same effect on Colm as it did on me; a shirking down into his skin. “I had very little choice,” Tirius said and then walked over to where Colm stood. After a breath, I followed. I felt more than saw the shimmer and we left planetside, appearing in the cargo hold of a very familiar ship. Waiting for us stood Cana, which I expected, and Diana, which I should have expected but hadn’t. I’m not sure, looking back at the memory, what I thought would happen when Diana and Tirius came face-to-face for the first time. Perhaps I thought there would be fireworks or an obvious shift in some universal constant, but they only stood staring at one another for a moment, Diana with her too-bright eyes and pale skin and Tirius with his unbent spine and mismatched eyes.

They stared, something communicated between them, and then reality moved forward, the interaction mere moments though it seemed to last a lot longer.

Cana broke into whatever took place between Tirius and Diana, oblivious. “Welcome back, Tirius,” she said, her voice warm.

Tirius bowed slightly at the waist, the movement respectful and oddly graceful. “Lady, the plan did not work quite as well as I would’ve hoped, but here we are.”

Cana nodded, searching me out. “You were able to retrieve him?”

“By chance,” I said truthfully.

Cana inclined her neck and I was reminded anew of the oddity of her body and movement. She answered. “Sometimes that’s all we have. But please, I will hear the story over dinner. It is night here and we have much to do before tomorrow.”

We followed Cana out of the cargo hold. I fell behind Diana and Tirius who, like magnates, walked side-by-side though neither of them had spoken to one another or touched. Colm fell in step next to me and I found it strangely ironic that his presence felt secure and safe.

“It went well, then?” he asked as we walked.

I gave him a look out of the corner of my eye. “No. Invisible strings everywhere.”

Colm frowned, brushing back a piece of blondish tipped hair that had fallen into his face. “What do you mean?”

I nodded towards Tirius. “He’ll have the story, but I’m hoping at this moment you’re not going to regret bringing us on board.” This statement stopped Colm in mid-stride. I slowed and looked back, meeting his green gaze straight on and he stared at me, his hands tensing at his side, large shoulders hunching forward. “Don’t ask me because I don’t know the answers, but we were told by a Master to come here, to lead them here, and here we are.”

Colm studied my face, trying to calculate the threat and I let him, keeping a loose stance. I, personally, was not a threat, but then I never had been and yet here we were, standing in the middle of a ship orbiting a planet, a mismatch of an alliance that was, I was starting to see, not actual alliances but players on several vast game boards.

Cana called over her shoulder, startling us both. “Don’t dawdle, the two of you. All will be explained.”

We continued walking, though Colm’s body spoke of an internal tension that he could not hide. He wanted to trust me, I know he did, but he was unable to, which I also knew and understood. But things had somewhat started to clarify, falling into place. With some certainty, I knew Cana and Tirius were going to attempt to lead the Masters into a trap. I said as much when we all sat down at the long dining room table, staff placing plates of greens before us.

 “We’ve had the plan since the beginning,” Tirius nodded. “It was a complicated one, with lots of room for error.”

Colm looked at me in question, to explain my theory, but I just shook my head. “Just as much of a pawn as you are,” I said.

Cana waved a long hand. “There are no pawns here. Soldiers, perhaps, asked to do things that don’t always make sense at the time, but no pawns.”

“Seems the same to me,” I muttered.

“You are about to become much more, if that makes you feel any better,” Tirius said, giving me a look that I interpreted as amused tolerance.

I refrained from replying, though my curiosity was piqued as he knew it would be.

“What’s the plan then?” Colm asked, directing his question to Cana and I shot him a thankful look that he caught, nodding in response.

Tirius answered. “The Masters will arrive shortly. They will have their Guardians. However, because of the nature of Travelling, they will not be able to Arrive on the ship but must Arrive on the planet.”

“They’re tracking me,” I said. “They’ll be able to get the coordinates in the same way they’ve been able to this entire time.”

“They tracked you to the planet, yes,” Tirius replied, then reached into the pocket of his trousers and pulled out the device he’d shown me so long ago.

I raised an eyebrow at him. “And where, exactly, did you hide that while you were prisoner?”

Colm groaned and Tirius actually smirked, the expression a strange one on him. Diana, who had been silent and quiet since our arrival gave me a peek of a smile and I smiled back. I was glad she was there, if for nothing else than the fact that Tirius seemed to be happy, relaxed, smiling and joking.

Those were things I’d never witnessed before and whatever it was that was going on between the two of them, I knew it was having a positive effect on the Archivist.

 “The Warden will be there along with his heir,” Cana was saying, snapping my attention back to the conversation.

“That will be all the Masters then?” Colm asked.

Tirius shrugged. “There are no guarantees they’ll all be present, but it is in their nature to not want to miss out on anything, even if they are not involved in what is going on.”

“Kieren said they are killing one another,” I offered, the sentence bringing the conversation to a standstill as all eyes turned towards me.

Tirius raised his hands in a gesture of agreement. “Yes, so I’ve suspected.”

“Does this change things?” Colm immediately asked.

Tirius paused, thinking, but I too had been thinking about the situation and as I looked at Tirius and Diana, Colm and Cana, something clicked in my brain, as if a light switch turned on and suddenly the connections started, the lines of understanding between individuals.

Suddenly I understood.

“This isn’t about power,” I said, looking around the table at the different players. Tirius’s gaze refocused and pinned me. I met it forthright. “Is it?” When no one answered, I continued. “That’s what everyone thinks. The Masters think it is about maintaining their control over their timelines and their experiments. Cana and Colm think it is about taking control of their lives and the lives of those under them by eliminating the threat. It isn’t those things, not really.” I shook my head, smiling to myself as pieces of the puzzle came together, creating the picture, the image, the outlook that had evaded me, or perhaps, that I had evaded.

“How long have you known?” I asked Tirius, ignoring everyone else’s puzzled looks.

“Only recently,” he replied.

“Because you were a player for the first time, instead of the observer.”

Tirius nodded.

“Will someone please tell me what she’s talking about?” Colm asked the room.

I smiled at the Sideian. “Master Cynthe said something to me that struck me at the time, about being a harbinger of change. A catalyst, she called it. I think she meant it in the way that the Masters are taking control of the timelines, of the manipulations and how they’ve changed the dynamics and how I’ve had a hand in it, but she missed the mark. She sees her world, the world of power struggles, just as you and Cana see your world and the threat inherent in the Masters’ presence, but this is but a small aspect.” I looked at Tirius, who watched me. “It is but a piece of a greater change, a complete removal of a system and the placement of a new system. It is about the failure of an experiment and the re-introduction of a new paradigm.”

Cana shifted in her seat. “You speak of something greater, of something beyond our understanding. An unknown, powerful player.”

I shrugged. “There is the Council,” I replied, not surprised when Cana barely blinked at the introduction of this new aspect. She knew about the Council, which meant that she likely knew a lot more than she let on. I continued. “But I don’t think so. I think this is something we can’t understand with our limited capabilities. I think we are unable to see anything but the evidence of a greater purpose. Like the pairing.”

“Pairs change the world,” Diana said into the room, her voice quiet but strong.

All attention shifted to the woman at Tirius’s side. She blushed but kept her composure. “It’s something I’ve noticed, or at least I noticed after it was pointed out to me.” She shrugged. “It’s so normal in human history, I don’t think people even realize the significance.”

Colm spoke up, face uncharacteristically contemplative. “I think Sideians have something like that too.” He glanced over at Cana who watched the conversation with her particular level of intensity.

His words surprised me, and I took the implication for what it was, thinking of my own pair, the tether that seemed to exist somewhere at the base of my skull, the knowledge of another’s existence. I wondered, with a Collector’s curiosity and need to understand, if such pairings existed throughout the timelines and even beyond the timelines, and what it meant for the existence of an inherent connection between all individuals, no matter their origins.

“This information, it does not change what we must do,” Cana spoke up then, lilting across the silence.

It did, I knew it did, but at the same time, it didn’t because what was to occur was what was meant to occur. The mere idea of something so planned out caused my brain to hurt and I closed my eyes against it. There was feeling like a pawn in the games that Tirius and Cana played, and then there was feeling like a leaf on the vast expanse of river that was reality.

Something greater.

“It does not,” Tirius answered and I knew he kept the same knowledge to himself.

We more or less ate in silence for the rest of the meal. I kept my gaze down, eating quickly as did everyone else. Cana was the first to push her bowl away, an indication that the meal was at an end and we all followed suit, sitting back and reverting our gaze to the woman at the head of the table.

She leaned back in her chair. “Colm, you have your orders. We don’t know how long it will be until the Masters show up, so make sure that everything is ready to go at a moment’s notice.”

Colm nodded and stood up, shrinking the room with his presence.

Cana turned to Tirius and Diana, who had ceased talking as soon as Cana had started. “The two of you?”

“Have some things to discuss,” Tirius replied. “You can reach us in my quarters.”

I raised an eyebrow at that but refrained from making a comment, waiting for my orders. Tirius and Diana left, leaving Cana and me alone. The woman stared at me intently and I remained still under her gaze.

“Can you tell me my story?” she asked, studying me.

The question caught me by surprise, mind running through the different reasons she would ask me that question and landing on the obvious one; I had acted like a Collector in my summarization of the events before.

I shook my head in reply. “If you mean, can I tell the story of someone just by looking, no, that’s not how it works.”

“That always seems to be how Tirius does it.”

I smiled then because I knew exactly what she spoke of. “No, he’s just really good at making it seem that way. Collectors are not fortune tellers or psychics, we’re just individuals who can listen very closely and in doing so see the connections. It’s not something I do much of.”

She tilted her head. “Really?”

I started to answer immediately but paused because truthfully, I had always done a version of collecting, always seeing a little more of the connection between people, the way they interacted, speaking between each other, moving back and forth in conversation, or even sitting by themselves in their own world. Individuals speak on so many different levels, and I had always understood that piece of truth. It was why I had easily fallen into the role of Collector. I could see things, understand the connections, but it had been too much, the understanding that came and the responsibility.

But.

Purpose.

Because if I hadn’t turned away, I wouldn’t have met Kieren or followed this path.

I realized with a start that Cana still watched me, waiting for more of my input. I ran a hand across my face as if I could wipe the circular thoughts from my mind, focusing on Cana who clearly wanted, if not an answer to her question, something.

“I see that you are not in your original body,” I started with.

Cana nodded. “That is rather apparent, though I am always surprised at the number of people that don’t notice.”

“Individuals don’t often look beyond themselves,” I said, then tilted my head, trying to see beyond the skin that never fit quite right to something below the skin, hidden. “What species are you then?”

She hesitated; I could see it in a sharp intake of breath that barely surfaced. She spread long fingers in front of her, studying them. “I have worn this body for so long, I have nearly forgotten my original form,” she said quietly, pausing. I waited because that is what a Collector does. I didn’t entirely believe what Tirius said about becoming the next Archivist, but I knew that my time as a Guardian had ended, that no longer would I partner with Kieren on missions, that no matter what happened in the next little while, that particular chapter of my life was finished.

She looked up and caught my gaze, bringing her hands to the side in a kind of shrug that reminded me of something, though I couldn’t have said what it was right then. “I was of a species outside the timelines, outside any influence of the Masters or any other species. We live a long time, a very long time, and our memories are old, older than our lives, passed down from one to another to another. I came into this reality with fully formed knowledge and ideas and understanding, but uncertainty because I also came into this reality without any recollection of what I was before.”

I frowned, listening to her. “You’re not from here?”

“I am from here, but not of here. There is complexity beyond what you know, beyond even what I know. We are but a piece. That is the Masters’ primary sin, thinking that they are the pinnacle of some existence, but they are not, because there is no pinnacle, and if there were, if there is, it does not exist here but beyond, like you said, somewhere entirely outside our understanding.”

I searched through her words. “Did you come here, then, because you are supposed to break this up, to reset this reality, these circumstances?”

She paused and looked once more down at her hands. “Do you know that I think in another form I had four fingers instead of five. I also think that I had more appendages other than two arms and two legs. I can’t quite feel how many or the exact nature of the previous form, but sometimes I catch myself forgetting I only have two legs to walk on.” Continuing, she waved her hands through the air. “There are other differences, biological ones that took a while to get used to, though Colm helped me with some of those, but there are others that I will never be able to emulate no matter how long I live among humans.”

When she didn’t elaborate, I gently pushed, asking what she meant, hoping that I wasn’t going to be given a description of her and Colm’s intimacies.

“Hatred, jealousy, coveting,” she said, naming them off as if reading from a list.

I frowned. “You don’t have those things where you are from?”

“Oh yes, we do, or I think we do, but it seems that those traits rarely allow for someone to gain power. In fact, if I recall, it tends to be the opposite.”

“A better society?” I suggested.

She immediately shook her head. “No, not better. I think there are things that are worse than here, which I think might be part of the reason I am here. Just. Different.”

We fell into silence and I thought about Cana’s words. From her description, she was a being not of this reality but from somewhere else, living in the body of a human, though not easily, and trying to make sure that ultimate power did not reside in the hands of a few. A noble cause, and especially if she was doing it all by herself. She spoke as if she was without complete knowledge of her past and the reasons for her presence, which of course made me wonder who was in control of her and had sent her on this life purpose. I wanted to ask her more, follow up with questions, but just then one of the Sideians from the bridge came into the room, walking with long strides towards Cana. I watched him bend towards the woman’s ear and whisper something in a clipped, harsh tone, too quiet for me to gather the intent or meaning but the fear that hid behind the harsh words was apparent.

Cana nodded once, looked at me and bowed her head. “It is time.”

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