Chapter 18

Cana led me to her office. Colm already sat in one of the chairs looking at a giant screen that had emerged from somewhere, taking up an entire wall. There was nothing but static.

“What is it?” Cana asked as she crossed the threshold, frowning at the screen of static.

“Blocking,” Tirius said from the doorway, startling all of us into turning towards him. Diana stood at his elbow, almost touching.

He nodded towards the screen. “We’ll not be able to witness their arrival from the safety of the ship; we’ll need to go down there.”

“No,” Colm said immediately, directing the negative to Cana who had taken her chair behind her desk.

Cana looked at him with a slight look of pity that I found interesting. “It must be done,” she said. “Prep the shuttles.”

Colm shook his head stubbornly, not moving. “We have eyes down there; we can get access without your presence.”

Cana opened her mouth, about to speak, then looked over at me, studying the situation. I shifted, not liking the gaze. “Agreed, prep the shuttles” she repeated, not looking at Colm. This caught Colm by visible surprise, which made the developing knot in my stomach harden even further.

I read her nonverbals and turned from the room, heading out before she could give me instructions. I knew what they were going to be anyway. Tirius and Diana followed me.

“You know what you must do down there,” Tirius said, catching up with me.

“I know what you think I must do,” I snapped at him, my stomach a ball of nerves.

Tirius stopped, Diana stalling next to him.

I kept walking, not surprised when he didn’t continue to follow me.

I’d wanted to take control when I went after Tirius, and in a way I had, but only slightly. The invisible hand of fate had squeezed the actions from me and never had I felt it as much as I did walking towards those shuttles. Cana wanted me to kill Cynthe and all the Masters. Tirius wanted me to magically heal everything and become the next Archivist. Kieren wanted me to trust him.

And I didn’t know what I wanted, or even at this point if what I wanted mattered. From the moment I had moved over to the Master Realm, even before with the murder I don’t remember from a life I don’t remember, my actions were dictated. There was no escaping and it felt vise-like.

I arrived at the shuttle bay having retraced my steps from before. There was a great deal of activity, individuals moving this way and that in an orchestra of tasks that clearly demonstrated Cana’s forethought. I tried to figure out which shuttle was going planetside and wondered why we were using shuttles in the first place.

“That one,” Colm said, appearing at my elbow. He pointed to a small shuttle in the corner and I started that way, checking the staff at my back and the knives at my calves.

“Why aren’t we just Traveling, or whatever it is you all are able to do?” I asked, climbing aboard.

“It causes an energy signature,” he explained.

I nodded. I should have known that little piece of tactical information.

The shuttle was only big enough for four. Colm strapped in at the front, immediately starting on the control panel before him, keying in a sequence of numbers. I took the seat next to him and only turned my head a little bit when Tirius and Diana followed. I halfway expected Diana to say farewell but when the doors closed, she was still on board, taking a seat next to Tirius.

Glancing at Tirius’s neutral face, I wondered what he thought about the idea.

“Brace yourself,” Colm said, then talked into a headset at his ear. There was a brief wait and then something shifted, and we plunged downward as if pulled by gravity. The movement was so sudden and abrupt, my stomach clenched in surprise and dinner sloshed uncomfortably about, threatening to come up. I swallowed several times, keeping my eyes on the horizon as Colm maneuvered the shuttle down to the planet.

I’d wondered where we were when Tirius and I had first arrived and as we got closer to the planet, I was still unable to figure out the location by familiarity alone. Like most habitable planets, or planets made to be habitable, there was a great deal of blue, some green, and the occasional browns. As we entered atmo, the little shuttle sliding about against the barrier between space and life, I glanced over at Colm’s read-out display to see if I could make anything out that way. Though I vaguely recognized the language, I couldn’t read it and I switched my gaze back to the scene in front of us. I could use my interface, knowing that it would cause no more danger than my very presence, but I stubbornly refused.

Not using it felt like a statement.

Colm spoke a word of warning again and the shuttle swung downwards a little steeper, angling us towards a massive body of water and then straightening as we came upon a coastline that I could just make out in the distance. We were on the day side of the planet, the sun bright against the shielded front window and as we approached, dropping lower towards the water, the choppy waves created flash and glints.

“It’s going to get rough,” Colm announced to the four of us and indeed, because of our altitude, when we hit the coastline the shuttle jerked about as Colm controlled it over the top of tall trees immediately below us.

I looked for signs of others, anything that would indicate that we were in the same location that Tirius and I had arrived in earlier, but there was nothing but a vast amount of green trees intercepted by sparkling deep blue water. Rising in the distance was a massive mountain range peaked in white snow.

Colm turned the shuttle, following the spine of the mountain range, though keeping a good distance between us and it. The number of trees started to decrease, giving way to open farmland with animals that looked like cows and then, as we approached the mountains, rolling hills of vines.

“Coming in,” Colm said to us and to whoever he was speaking to on his headset. I consciously braced myself as he took another steep turn downwards and landed in a small grove surrounded by short trees.

“They’ll know we’re here,” Tirius said into the sudden silence.

I unbuckled my straps and stood up, extracting my staff. “Let’s move before they find us then,” I said, making my way to the back of the shuttle and hitting the latch key. The door opened with a hiss. Heated air hit me in the face, and I paused for a moment to look around at our location.

“Where?” I asked Colm who came up behind me.

He pointed north and I nodded, hopping down from the shuttle and starting in that direction. The others followed. Cynthe or the other Masters would come and investigate the shuttle, that couldn’t be helped, but we didn’t have to be there when they did, and in a way, I knew that this was part of the entire set up.

The walk started upwards and the heat descended in a blanket of humidity without even a breeze for relief, sweat starting to trickle down my spine and gather along my hairline. Glancing back, I checked on Diana, but she seemed to be taking the heat fine, matching step with Tirius. Colm marched in front of them, a gun in one hand pointed downwards and a scanning device in the other.

At first we walked through a thick grove of trees but as I descended the hill, the trees thinned, and I slowed for Colm to catch up with me. When he did he stopped and I remained where I was, looking around, ears tuned in to any and all sounds but all I heard was the drone of insects and the twitter of birds.

“What are we looking for?” I asked Colm.

He showed me the screen of his device. On it, there were several blue dots layered over a topographical map. Below the blue dots were four white ones.

“What’s the distance?” I asked, trying to read the measurements and not having much luck.

“Over the ridge,” he said, nodding his chin through the trees lining a hill in front of us.

“The Chateau is this way,” Tirius said, coming up on us and walking by, heading straight up the rather steep incline towards where Colm had indicated.

I shared a look with Colm and then followed Tirius and Diana.

“Do we have a plan?” I asked, hurrying to walk right behind Tirius.

“Not get killed,” Diana answered immediately.

“Other than that?”

She flashed me a smile and I saw her fear and knew then she joked because of it.

“We are here to start a war,” Colm said from behind me, an equally unhelpful answer.

Tirius continued to walk with long strides and said nothing at all. I liked his answer the best.

We came to the top of the ridge, slowing once more among the trees and then stopping altogether when we came to a rather significant cliff edge. Before us, rolling hills of vines stretched out as far as the eye could see and in the middle of those vines a massive castle complete with turrets and archways.

“That’s where we Arrived?” I asked.

Tirius nodded. “That’s where we Arrived. It is owned by Master Ral, or, as much as anything is owned by a Master.”

“You knew this?” Colm asked and Tirius gave him one of his looks that caused the bigger man’s skin to darken in embarrassment.

Before Colm could press despite Tirius’s look, I pointed to where I could just make out individuals moving. “Is it staffed?”

“No, not currently,” Tirius replied and I nodded, glad that at some point Tirius had thought about that aspect.

“What do we do now?” Diana asked and I wondered the same thing. We couldn’t observe from our location, and I had a feeling that observing wasn’t what I was there to do. Staring, I unfocused my eyes, letting my sight go inward to that particular feeling at the back of my head, to that connection that was always just beyond my awareness unless I focused specifically on it.

Kieren had not yet arrived.

When I refocused, I found Tirius staring at me. I shook my head at his unspoken question and though he nodded in understanding, something else like triumph flashed across his face for the barest of moments. I realized then that I had just confirmed something to him, specifically Kieren and my connection.

I turned away, scanning the ground about me for a way down and when I couldn’t see one, walking away from the other three in search of a path.

“This way,” Tirius said next to me and then led me in the opposite direction, Diana trailing behind him. I looked over at Colm who shrugged and then we both followed Tirius away from the castle and back into the woods. After a moment, the path we followed diverged and started to wind its way back towards the vineyard, the trees becoming sparse as we walked until we came to the edge of the fields. The angle of the hill being what it was I could no longer see the chateau, but I knew the approximate location and started down one of the dirt strips between vines.

Behind me, Tirius paused as did Diana, Colm hesitating behind them. I turned my head, still walking, and realized in a flash that Tirius had not wanted to bring Diana but that Diana had not wanted to leave Tirius. I couldn’t imagine the feelings between the two, the heaviness of it, and I continued walking away from the couple, letting them have their privacy. I felt in my bones that Tirius was not needed, but I also knew that he would not walk away from the situation, especially this situation. In many ways, this was the finale of his orchestrated performance. I doubted very much that he would miss it for any reason. That didn’t mean, however, that he couldn’t limit the chance for harm.

Colm caught up with me, jogging, his large footfalls causing poofs of dust to rise, coloring his dark brown trousers in a fine filament of gray. He no longer had the handheld and I smiled.

“They’re going to monitor from the hill?” I guessed.

Looking at me in surprise, Colm glanced back at where Tirius and Diana had stood but were no longer. “How’d you know?” he asked.

“It’s been lifetimes that they’ve missed one another. Now that they are together, you think they’d want to chance losing one another in an untimely death?”

Colm frowned. “That’s secondary to the situation,” he said.

“Tell that to them.”

He had no answer, and we continued among the vines in silence for some time. I thought of Kieren and wondered if he would make that kind of decision if faced with something similar and knew immediately that he wouldn’t, the mission always being a priority. I knew that Colm, being Sideian as well, had similar thoughts and nothing I could say would convince him that what Tirius did wasn’t cowardly.

“We should be close now,” Colm said, his voice dropping a level as we approached the chateau. I still couldn’t see through the vines, but I trusted his direction and as we walked, I gathered myself, preparing for whatever was to come.

“You’ve done somewhat of what I requested,” a familiar voice said from behind us.

I tightened my hold on the staff and came to a stop, slowly turning to face Cynthe who stood behind us. She wore another long dress, her hair pulled up on top of her head. Next to me, Colm raised his gun as if to shoot her but before he could get it up, a Guardian appeared next to us, his own gun pointed at Colm’s head. He was in a black Guardian uniform, older with gray at his temple, dark hair close-cropped to a scraggly face and though pasty with the effects of Travel, his hand was steady.

He would die for Cynthe.

Meeting Colm’s gaze, I saw the conflict there, the desire to tempt fate and see if he could get a shot off before the shot that would kill him entered his brain. I shook my head; there was no way he could get the shot off. He saw the truth of the situation and lowered his gun, letting it fall from his hand and land with a poof of dust at his feet.

“Good decision,” Cynthe said and then nodded at the Guardian.

The shot was loud, echoing but likely not as loud as I thought it was, my shock amplifying it as I watched Colm’s temple disintegrate. Green eyes blinked at me, time slowing. He slumped to the ground, to his knees and then his large body fell forward into the dirt, twitching in death next to the gun I’d just told him to drop.

With the line drawn, instinct kicked in. Staff in hand, I flicked my wrist to elongate the blades, vaulting towards the Guardian all within a breath of awareness. Quite a bit bigger than me and with a gun, it would have been a tough fight if not for the element of surprise and fury on my side. I knew somewhere distant that the Guardian was not at fault, only doing as ordered, but that hardly mattered as I came down with my staff, a whirling movement towards the Guardian’s hand that held the gun. The edge of the blade caught his wrist, slicing it open with a spray of red across the dirt. The gun dropped. I brought my staff up and pivoted, slashing at the Guardian’s back, opening his black tunic, exposing white skin that split under the blade. He stumbled, catching himself. I was already moving, angling the staff to slice across his belly, but then pain bloomed in my shoulder, a bright light of pain that caused the corners of my sight to go black.

I ignored the searing heat at my shoulder, stepping back from the killing blow and whirling into a defensive stance, staff before me, blinking against unconsciousness. Another Guardian stood next to Cynthe, a woman, her gun pointed at me, her expression one of controlled aggression. Cynthe had a hand on the Guardian’s arm though, and as soon as she saw I was done attacking dropped her hand, the Guardian lowering her weapon.

Between us, the male Guardian gasped in pain, but was likely already healing.

“Go,” she said to the woman Guardian who rushed to her kneeling partner’s side.

I swayed on my feet, the blood loss a rivet down my arm, dripping from my fingertips, though just as the Guardian on the ground, I’d started to heal immediately.

“Why?” I asked, watching Cynthe but alert to the possible threats. A thick line of vines was at my back, but it was possible to penetrate them, and I kept my grip tight on my staff even through the pain.

“He is a worker bee,” Cynthe replied, knowing what I asked. “We need the queen. Come along, Guardian Wren, we have much to do before her arrival.”

I paused, scanning the area, eyes skipping over Colm’s dead body before glancing up towards were Tirius and Diana had retreated. I wondered if they’d witnessed the killing and wondered what Tirius was doing in reaction.

Cynthe led me to the chateau walls, another two Guardians emerging from the lines of vines to walk next to her, both Lexions. I thought that was interesting given the species’ view on women, but as we approached I saw the two Masters from that night in Darkside and knew that those Lexions were likely guarding either of those male-types rather than Cynthe. The Collector piece of me, the aspect of myself that saw and categorized and made connections and knew things, wondered if the Lexions knew how ridiculous their gender partiality was as the Masters held no gender but what they deemed for themselves and that Master Cynthe could just as easily be a male as a female.

The irony of it along with the blood loss caused a giggle to escape.

No one looked my way, as if nothing had happened, which made the situation even more surreal.

“Master Dyriarian, Master Px,” Cynthe acknowledge and I saw in their two faces that though Cynthe thought she led, the two males were not of the same opinion.

“The Archivist?” Master Dyriarian asked, pale bald head shining, the blue tattoos seeming to come alive under the heated sun. Master Px stood near the taller man, his tentacles looking wilted in the heat.

“In the hills,” Cynthe said, pointing in the general direction that we had descended.

 Irritation flashed across Master Dyriarian’s flat face and he turned to the open doorway that led into what appeared to be a courtyard like the one that Tirius and I had arrived in before. “Go get them,” he said, and I watched as two other Guardians, these both Rushielian females, emerged from the courtyard and then disappeared into the vineyard.

I sat down in the dirt. Because it was hot. Because Colm was dead. Because the loss of blood made me woozy. I sat and put my staff on my lap and waited. All three Masters looked at me in surprise and another giggle threatened to escape.

Master Px was the first to look away, focusing on Cynthe. “Will she come?”

The woman nodded, gesturing back the way that we’d come. “Her lover is killed. She will know it.” The two Lexion Guardians moved toward where Master Px stood and from another direction, four more appeared, a male and female pair, and a male and male pair, all four of them human. The four collected around Cynthe, creating a U-shape about her.

She continued. “This Cana will not be able to ignore the death.”

I wondered then if Colm and Cana were pairs and thought back at their relationship. Nothing had indicated that but then I hadn’t ever really thought to examine the situation from that angle. I needed to start to examine things from different angles if I was to become Archivist. I shook my head, snorting, looking down at my staff, catching the thought and imagining myself throwing it away.

I wasn’t going to become the Archivist, or anything else the way things were going.

I felt the Travel energy field tighten at the same time as the other three did, the Masters positioning themselves with a wall of Guardians about them. Master Ral was the first to emerge, followed by the tall, thin Master from the forest, Master Syphon, Master R’tell, the Warden, and a dozen Guardians. Kieren was the last to Arrive, his appearance coordinating with a sudden rush of rightness I felt down to my toes. The feeling held relief, yes, at someone I trusted with my life now in attendance, but also something else, a feeling of right, of same, of knowing.

His gaze immediately found and held mine, green eyes hardened and focused for a moment and then he scanned my body, only a flicker of reaction to my state betrayed by the clenching and release of his jaw.

“You’ve come to join the party,” Cynthe said to the group, her voice languid and smooth. The Guardians around her pointed guns at the new arrivals.

The Warden’s Guardians looked at the guns with surprise. “We don’t use guns,” the Warden said to the four guarding Cynthe, his voice rumbling in displeasure.

Cynthe laughed in reaction. “Oh, you believe that these are yours still? No, my dear Warden, they’ve not been yours for some time. I warned you if you remember. Things are outside of your control now.”

The large Sideian watched Cynthe with a look of ill-concealed dislike, but he said nothing in response. Instead, Master Ral took a step forward, dark skin drinking in the sunlight. “It is time to be done with these games, Cynthe,” he said.

She tilted her head and then looked over at Master Px and Master Dyriarian, both of which had rather smug looks on their faces. “But playing is what we do,” Cynthe replied, her voice liquid and almost sensual.

Master Ral nodded slowly, taking in the scene. “It is, but we face a threat to all of us.”

“Yes of course, and it is being dealt with as we speak,” she said.

Master Px stepped up. “We’re ahead of you, old man,” he said, looking at Master Ral and the thin, wafe-like Master from the forest, the one who had given the order to have me killed. “As always, we’re already solving the problem.”

“Solving it or making it worse?” the wafe-like Master asked, his voice as thin as he looked. The Master tilted his head, giving Master Px a smile. “I would hope that your solutions are more viable than the ones you apply to your timelines.”

Master Px’s coloring deepened into an unhealthy-looking red. “Nothing like your failures,” he said.

Master Ral put up a hand before anyone else could speak. “That is all well and good, but Cynthe, what have you done, there are steps being taken?”

“Yes of course,” Cynthe replied with condescension.

I’d been listening as they spoke, back and forth, this comradery, this common enemy speech, and something tightened in my gut.

“There you go, doing it again,” I blurted, surprising myself along with everyone else. I felt more than saw Kieren tense. I shook my head looking at each Master in turn. “You are so far removed from reality, from the way of things, that you can’t even see what is happening, can you?”

Cynthe raised an eyebrow at me.

“Who is this?” Master Px asked, his color returning to normal.

“The Guardian that delivered the Outsiders to us,” Cynthe replied.

She said the words because she wanted the words to worm into my brain, to cause me to question myself, to have me shoulder Colm’s death, to bring on the guilt and horror of my supposed actions. But. I saw the connections, the truths as much as the truths could be understood, and I snorted at her.

“Yeah, good try,” I said, which caused several looks of confusion. I stood up, a bit unsteady, blood still dripping down my hand and into the dust but a lot less. I pointed at Master Ral with my good arm. “Master Cynthe has manipulated your human timeline to ensure failure,” I said.

Master Px waved a hand, looking at me with disdain in every line of his thin face. “Of course she did, that’s part of the game.”

I didn’t look away from Master Ral who watched me, his arms wrapped in the black robe he wore. I continued. “Manipulations that would have resulted in the complete extinction of humanity. I believe she feels it is warranted, deserved, or something along those lines.”

Master Ral turned his gaze to Cynthe.

“Does she speak truth?” he asked her.

“What is truth?” I replied before Cynthe could answer, again garnering the attention. I pointed to the Warden who watched me with the neutral face of a Sideian in an unknown situation. “He speaks only in straight lines that he deems important but only holds aspects of truth.” I turned to point at Tirius who had appeared with the two Lexions, Diana at his side, blood running from a rapidly swelling lip. Diana limped behind, covered in dust, hair red from a wound somewhere in her scalp. I ignored my flash of concern, continuing, voice hard. “He speaks only in circles that hold entire truths but which no one but him can understand.”

I pointed to the two groups of Masters, first the three that included Cynthe and then the three that included Master Ral. “You all control everything but yet control nothing because you play a game that allows for no winners or losers. Your words and your stories are only those ones that you deem important, that you speak because you know that it will gain you power. So, truth. What is this? What is this word? Is it the order to kill someone? Is it the order to wipe out the entire species because it will garner more leverage? Is it the decision to attack a group of what is called Outsiders because some Master of some realm deemed them the term Outsider?” I looked around. “Truth does not exist. Get it? Not any of it.”

Master Dyriarian turned to Master Cynthe. “Can we kill her now?”

Master Cynthe inclined her head in affirmation but in that small breath of a moment in which the Guardian raised her gun, a lot of things happened at once.

Kieren moved and I moved with him. Later, much later when things shifted into that weird gray area of memory and story, they would say that we moved as a unit, as if combined suddenly though still separate; but really, it was more that we saw and knew what would happen and reacted as a pair would, as two individuals long trained together and knowing one another.

I fell to the ground and rolled away, towards Tirius and Diana.

Kieren crouched low, taking the Warden down with him, knives flashing in his hands.

The other Guardians, all of them from both sides, reacted to our actions a split moment later, shielding their Masters even as soldiers in gray swarmed out from the vines, guns firing.

The guns. They were instantaneous. Bullets faster than movement, faster than sight.

The Outsiders rained down chaos on all that was not of their tribe.

The Guardians replied in kind, desperate to do their duty of protecting their Masters.

The taste of dirt and blood as I gained Tirius and Diana, pulling at Tirius’s arm and dragging him down. He had a hold of Diana’s hand and she came with, low as the bullets went above, slicing the air where their heads just were.

“I’ve got it, go, help your partner,” Tirius said, shoving me away as he pulled Diana and ran.

I turned from him, saw what he meant, Kieren and the Warden fighting against a swarm of Cana’s soldiers in hand to hand combat, the Guardians now without their guns. I had no idea where the guns went, but I was taking gunfire from another direction and had no time to analyze the situation, diving behind the wall of the courtyard, a spray of rock stinging my skin. A flash of white caught my attention and I saw Cynthe running away, Guardians behind her.

The Masters had not Traveled. They were stuck somehow, and I closed my eyes for a moment, focusing on gathering the strings of energy. I felt the same thing I had before, the energy slipping away like eels in water.

I opened my eyes and located the disappearing woman. She was going for the high ground, outside of whatever field was keeping her from Travelling. I sprinted after her, focused on her retreating figure, leaving the gunfire behind.

The impact came from the right, a familiar body slamming into my side and taking me to the ground. “Move,” Kieren breathed in my ear, the effect buzzing through my body even as I rolled over to my belly and started through the dirt, small puffs of dust rising up as someone shot at us. We rolled together into a ditch along the wall, rocks digging in my skin when I ducked as more bullets ricocheted around us.

“Are you hurt?” Kieren asked, his body solid next to mine, chest heaving with exertion even as I could tell he tried to control it.

“Nothing I won’t survive,” I replied in kind, my own pulse racing. I jerked my chin in the direction Cynthe had taken off. “She’s going to get away and if she Travels we won’t be able to find her.”

Kieren nodded once, looking in the direction I indicated. “On three,” he said.

We took off on three, low to the ground. Whoever was shooting at us before had lost sight of us and for the first 50 yards we were clear but then there were shouts of pursuit. In sync, we picked up the pace, our feet slapping the dirt, ducking at the sound of gun shots.

The white appeared before us, Cynthe and her two Guardians. I slowed slightly, also spying Cana’s soldiers and more Guardians, all coalescing on the same place, and then pain, bright and brilliant in my chest. A distant shout, panic, and fear like nothing I had ever felt racing upwards from my spine.

And darkness.

Stillness.

Silence.

A complete pause of all action and thought.

A moment.

I sat in the dirt, lines of trellised grape vines on either side of me. The sun rays beat down on my head. Insects chirped and birds twittered. It smelled of heat, dust, and something sharply sweet.

I was alone.

No. I blinked several times.

No, I wasn’t alone. A very old Diax shuffled its way towards me, green tentacles flowing out behind it as it walked, dark brown eyes nearly hidden in its giant face. As I watched, the Diax changed to a Rushielian, white-haired and pale-skinned, then to a Sideian, a Triaxon, a T’ngali, a human, and finally to Cana.

She stood before me, looking down at me in her skin that did not quite fit her skin with eyes that saw more than they should.

“What happened?” I asked, looking around at the empty space.

“We skipped reality,” she said simply then lowered herself down into the dirt next to me. She wore the same light-blue dress she always wore, and it pooled like water around her as she sat.

“Why?” I asked and my question made her smile.

“Not how?” she asked in return.

I thought about it, looking at the scene. “Yes, how, but more, why?”

“Because these things happen.”

As in the past, the answer that was not an answer tugged at my brain and I wanted more but at the same time the quiet, the heat, the feeling of safety that seemed to well up from my feet and encompass my body created a space and I suddenly no longer wanted the answers, not really.

“It’s quiet,” I said.

“It is.”

“Do Masters exist here?”

Smiling, she looked around. “In a way, once, but not for a long time. There is always conflict. That never goes away. It just takes different forms.”

“I’m tired,” I said, feeling it at the word conflict, at the way the word brought up the memories, more memories then I could reasonably have, of being different genders, of being different species, of my time before moving into the Master Realm.

“You may rest here,” she said, nodding slowly. “You may rest.”

I caught her tone and studied her. “And if I do?”

“Then you do.”

“And the result?”

“Will be that you’ve rested and that when the cycle moves back to the beginning you will have the energy to complete the task.”

I sighed, knowing. “Can’t you just snap your fingers and the whole thing will disappear, solve itself?”

Another smile. “I could.”

“But you won’t.”

She shook her head. “That is not my role here.”

“A being from another reality.”

“Just so.”

Tilting my chin down, I studied her face. “Let me guess, not the Cana I know.”

“A version.”

“Of course.”

She studied me. “You’ll return?”

I didn’t want to, not at all. I wanted to stay here. I wanted to sleep. I wanted to be born anew and not worry and not have the responsibility and live my life without the burden of carrying some purpose that I only half believed in.

Kieren though, and I knew what would happen there, as I knew that this woman was and was not the Cana I knew. If I stepped away from this reality, born anew in another life, Kieren and I would search one another out, of course we would because that is how pairing works, but it would be over lifetimes. Long lifetimes.

Lifetimes of being alone in exchange for rest.

I wanted it, the wariness bone deep, but slowly I shook my head, looking at the Cana that was not Cana. “No. I will return. But what do I do when I get there?”

“Do what you must,” she said.

Chaos rained down on my head.

Kieren at my side pushing his hand on my chest, screaming at something, looking forward, eyes a blaze of color.

“I’m alright,” I murmured, touching Kieren’s hands. When his hands stayed in place, I pushed at them, speaking louder. “I’m alright.”

Kieren paused in his yelling, my voice cutting through his panic, taking his hands away from my shirt where there were bloodstains but beyond that nothing, no wound, just the blood. He helped me sit up, the chaos around us fading as he took in my face, scanning me with eyes that bordered on black. “How?” he asked and I shook my head because I wasn’t sure but it was what it was, which was something that my partner was having a hard time accepting. He still scanned my body, hand at the place the bullet went in, probing fingers as he looked for the wound, eyes half crazed, tears creating lines down dust-caked cheeks.

I grabbed his hand, cradling it in my own, leaning towards him so our foreheads met. “I’m okay,” I whispered and then he kissed me, hard, lips demanding confirmation that I was indeed fine, his hand gripping mine. I answered, pulling him close with my free arm, confirming our existence with physical touch, with the bond that vibrated between us, with the rightness of it, the feeling of wholeness.

We ended the contact simultaneously, breathing hard, pausing for a moment before the chaos around us re-entered our reality. Moving as one, we rolled away from each other, gaining our feet and facing the scene of fighting. Several Guardians lay still in the dust, alongside them gray-clad soldiers, their blood mingling together in the dirt, creating mud. One of Cana’s soldiers came for me, raising his gun, but I slid downwards, bringing my staff up and cutting at his arm, twirling away as he fell. A knock on his forehead laid him out cold and I turned to see the thin Master slip away from the carnage. Kieren easily fought two Guardians protecting Master Dyriarian, more soldiers coming into the clearing to aid in the matter so I followed the escaping Master, leaving Kieren though I could feel his awareness as a physical thing behind me.

I caught up with the thin man at the wall Kieren and I had sheltered at earlier. Cornering him, I kept my staff in front of me.

 “This ends,” I said.

He smirked. “You can’t kill me, you’ve no idea what you’re doing, what you’ve done by siding with the Outsiders, by siding with the traitor.”

I shrugged, his words not bothering me. “Maybe,” I said. “But I don’t plan on killing you.”

Something flickered in his face, an emotion like surprise but not, maybe even relief, short-lived though as his head blossomed into red matter. I turned, my ears ringing from the shot. Cana stood behind me with a gun in hand. Her face was sheet-white. In her hand, the black gun trembled.

She turned it on me.

I put my hands up, glancing at the scene just beyond her. The remaining Guardians were gathered together in a circle of gray-clad soldiers. Master Cynthe sat against the ivy wall, blood running down her face, hair falling about her shoulders. Next to her sat Master Ral, his own face puffy from a fight, shoulders slumped and head bowed.

Something twisted in my gut, at the submission of these individuals, the smell of blood in the air. I turned my attention to Cana, the human woman who was not a human woman. “You will kill me?” I asked.

“You were going to let him live.”

“I am not a judge and executioner,” I said.

I saw the words register but she kept her gun on me. “No, no you are not. That is the mantle I choose to wear, to protect those I am responsible for protecting.”

Jerking my head towards Master Cynthe and Master Ral. “That is different from them, how?”

“Vastly,” she said, refocusing on me and finally lowering her gun. “But that isn’t something you would understand.”

A commotion to the side caused both of us to turn and I started, my hands clenching on my staff as I saw Kieren being pushed along by two soldiers in gray. Behind them came more soldiers with the Warden in custody. The Warden was worse for wear, his entire body having deflated at some point. In contrast, Kieren stood straight and tall, searching me out and holding my gaze before turning his attention to Cana.

She caught the interaction. “Your partner?” she asked and I knew she asked about more than just our relationship as Guardians.

“Yes,” I replied without hesitation.

She looked between us and then to the Warden, nodding slowly. “So be it.”

Cana turned away, but I kept alert, watching for the order that would kill Kieren, that would place him beyond my ability to find him, but instead of ordering his execution she went to the Warden. Though defeated, he met Cana’s gaze with defiance.

“You will come with us,” she said. Before the Warden could say anything at all she turned from him as well, nodding once. The Warden and his guard disappeared in a shimmer.

I only partially relaxed, meeting Kieren’s gaze and barely shaking my head. He knew what I meant and let his body fall slightly as if in submission. I hoped it was enough, hoping for a distraction to keep Cana’s attention away from my partner, and then caught sight of Tirius walking from the interior yards. His clothing was torn, a bruise forming at his temple but he stood upright with his normal piercing gaze. I let out a soft sigh to see Diana come up from behind him covered in mud but with only the earlier head wound. I wondered what the story was there.

“Cana, are we done here?” Tirius asked, quietly and with gentleness as he approached the woman.

“How many Masters are not here?” she asked Tirius.

“Three,” he said, watching her closely. I knew the look; it was the one he got when he wasn’t sure of the situation’s outcome. In response, I felt the tension in my stomach ratchet up a level.

“And you will tell them what happened here.”

Tirius inclined his head, somber. “Your new envoy will.”

Cana glanced back at me, nodding once. “See to it.”

Feeling the winds of fate, I merely nodded.

“We must make a point,” she continued. Before I could protest or do anything else, she raised her hand and the Outsiders in unison raised their guns and executed the remaining Guardians and the last Masters kneeling in the dirt. I watched as Cynthe slumped sideways against her former rival Master Ral, her face frozen in a look of surprise.

I locked my knees, witnessing the deaths.

“Why?” I asked no one.

“For Colm,” Cana answered and then disappeared in a wave of energy.

The gesture made no sense, it brought no one back from the dead, it didn’t erase the manipulations or the civil wars or the deaths that had happened before, it just added to them. I saw the cycle as I saw so many things and knew that the conflict would never end, not as long as there were threats and power struggles and paranoia, and most of all, an inability to see more than just the immediacy of the situation.

It would cycle again.

Kieren came up to stand next to me, close but not touching. We waited as a unit for Tirius to approach.

“Does it get easier to bear?” I asked when Tirius joined us. The soldiers were disappearing in waves of energy and soon it was only the four of us, the dead, and the heated smell of smoke, of metallic, of dust and blood.

“What?” he asked, staring at the dead bodies, Diana leaning on his arm either to support the Archivist or to support herself.

I waved my hand, feeling the tightness in my throat. “Understanding the inevitableness of violence.”

“No,” he answered, studying me. “Not if you think of it in those terms.”

“What?” I asked, not caring that my voice cracked.

“It only gets easier to bear when you believe you can do something to stop it.”

I looked at him, dry-eyed and exhausted. “And can it be stopped?”

He studied me, those familiar mix-matched eyes, the familiar look of patience but not patience. “That is for you to discover,” he said after a moment.

It was a normal Tirius non-answer and I swallowed against the feeling in my throat.

“What will you do?” I asked, including Diana in the question.

Tirius glanced over at the woman at his side, his face softening in a look I had never witnessed. “We will travel.”

“Will I see you again?” I asked.

Tirius shrugged, a nonchalant shrug and I smiled in response. “Never mind,” I said.

Nodding once, Tirius put a hand out and pushed the air and I nodded at the meaning.

The two of them disappeared in a shimmer of Travel.

Alone, Kieren allowed himself to wrap his arms around me and I leaned back into them, closing my eyes for a moment.

“What do we do now?” I asked the darkness behind my eyelids.

 “Our duty,” Kieren said above me, resting his chin on the crown of my head. He smelled of dust, sweat and underneath, the Sideian smell that was entirely his own.

I knew that would be his answer and the knowledge created a comforting familiarity.

“Cana, the Outsiders, the other Masters?” I asked.

“Will do as they do, and we will do what we do.”

“And what is that?”

He turned me around in his arms and I looked up, opening my eyes to see the scar that ran along the underside of his chin. This time I touched it, running a fingertip along the edges, causing a reaction for my stoic partner in the way his jaw clenched for a moment. But his green eyes were serious, focused as he answered me. “Our duty, to protect the timelines, to ensure they’re untampered with, to collect the stories.”

 I shook my head in stubbornness. “Why? Who has assigned this duty?”

Kieren smiled and it was such a strange sight that I had to smile back. He took my hand possessively. “Something bigger than us. I know you have a hard time with that, but you have to concede a certain amount of fate in these events.”

I felt like laughing, not a natural laugh, but a crazed one because there were those ideas again; purpose, and fate, and the way of things. I wasn’t too sure that they existed, but, then, I wasn’t too sure about most everything, so I decided there amongst the dead, protected by my partner, to believe and it was such a simple thing, to decide on faith in something bigger, to believe that there was some kind of purpose, such a simple thing, and it should have been easier, but it wasn’t and I knew it would never be.

Sensing my thoughts, Kieren squeezed my hand and I squeezed back, looking around us, at this life that I had partially chosen, and which had partially been forced upon me. Like the timelines, I was a product of something bigger but the freedom within those parameters was entirely my own to manipulate. This was, at least, what I told myself as we closed our eyes and Traveled.

The End.

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