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  • Random Thought…

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    What if… depression isn’t a disease, but a symptom of something really fucking wrong with the world humans live in?

    Think about it, almost everything that we do is based in some kind of evolutional/ancestral DNA response. For example, we don’t want to be kicked out of the village because we’ll be eaten by wild animals so we do everything we can to stay IN the village. A great deal of how we think can be traced back to this simple idea.

    Depression. The increasing rise of it and its sister, anxiety. So much focus is placed on the biological reason behind it (serotonin anyone?)… But, as someone who deals with it daily and has and does obsessively read every bit of research and study that comes out about it, I am starting to wonder if it is a symptom that our world is fucked and we are responding to it, without realizing we are responding to it.

    No solutions here. Just a random thought…

  • Chapter 8

    We arrived outside the Citadel gates. Arriving without a node and without alerting anyone was a revelation in a way, but one that had both of us tense and listening as we made sure we truly could Travel to the Realm without our arrival being noticed. Tirius had done it, obviously, but he had also had the device for cutting interface access. Neither of us had used our interface since running from Master Ral but that didn’t mean we weren’t being tracked. We kept low and silent as the sun rose in the east with peeks of crimson and gold through the trees and heavy underbrush.

    We wore black, our weapons strapped about our bodies and when we made our way through the forest, we did so on silent feet. Though the scenario was not one we’d ever thought to find ourselves, it was not entirely unfamiliar, and we moved with an easy understanding. Whatever had happened the night before slipped into history and I refused to think on it or let it affect how I worked with my partner. We worked together as one, in the way we were trained to do, despite the unusual nature of our situation. As for the situation, we were out to find something that might not exist, though I refused to voice my doubts.

    I’d found out about the tunnel while doing research on the Citadel itself, an exercise from my time when Tirius was my mentor. We’d talked of the nature of the Realm, and the inability of anyone to approach it without Travelling, but that had not always been the case, and there were several entrances and exits that had been lost to memory, one of which led directly to the Archives. The entrance, Tirius had explained, was rumored in legend to be near a giant oak tree, so old and so large it stood alone in its magnificence. Kieren was the one to recall such tree, stumbled upon during one of his very first recon trainings.

    “It might not be the same tree,” he’d said that morning, sharpening his knives with his ever-present wet stone.

    “At least it’s a place to start,” I’d replied.

    He’d finished with his weapon, holding it up to the light so it glinted against the newly sharpened steel. “I can Travel us there, to that day in the woods.”

    I’d been doubtful and he’d caught my look, flashing me a rare grin. “Trust me.”

    I did, but as we made our way through the dark wood, I wondered if I’d been too optimistic; there were a number of giant oaks, the next one bigger than the last. The sun climbed to its peak as we moved through the underbrush. Somewhere behind us, the Citadel’s presence pressed, looming, but the dense forest kept it from sight and with a heavy canopy overhead, and the thick brush below, shadows filled our passageway.  Kieren moved as if he knew where he was going, and I followed because at least he appeared to be going in a direction. My default was to trust Kieren’s sense of direction. We’d once walked through a jungle for six days on a planet looking for a runaway Administrator. We were required to walk those days in silence, using our eyes, hand gestures, and bodies to communicate with one another. It had taught us to read each other’s faces, the set of our shoulders, the way we held our bodies. That mission had showed us how non-verbals can communicate more than words ever could, and it had turned out to be an exercise in just that; honing our ability to read one another, even with the carefully established neutral faces that we were also learning to always wear during that time period. In those six days I had not only learned to read my partner, but I had also gained a deep trust for his ability to navigate through any scenario.

    Kieren stilled several steps in front of me, alerting me with a hand to move slowly and cautiously forward. I did so, joining him in a crouch and peering through the brush to where he indicated with a pointed finger. 

    It was a group of Guardians training, and among them, slimmer, less defined, was a younger Kieren. I immediately noticed him, standing towards the back, hands behind his back, the tip of his long black braid just touching the top of his folded fingers. 

    “You brought us to the exact date,” I breathed, barely a sound, underneath a whisper. 

    Kieren eased back next to me, sitting on his heels, finger to his lips. I nodded in understanding but kept watching as the group of new Guardians listened to the rest of the elder’s instructions. It only took a moment and the elder clapped his hands. The five young trainees in front of him bowed and, with a lot less finesse then their elder selves, melted into the forest. 

    Stirring next to me, Kieren started in the direction that his younger self took. I followed, my step with his step, walking where he walked, ever mindful of the sounds about us. Theoretically, if another Guardian came upon us, they would think we were part of the training exercise, but I kept my senses alive to the area, the sound of feet, snapping twigs, leaves rustling against leaves. 

    We followed the younger Kieren for several moments. He worked to keep quiet and did an admirable job in comparison to his classmates. It had made complete sense for my Kieren to Travel us to where he had once come upon the giant oak, but how the older Kieren had remembered the exact time and day in the timeline was a puzzle that I tried to work out but couldn’t quite. Even when my current Kieren stopped, grasping my arm to still my pursuit, I hadn’t come up with an answer; but there it was, the younger Kieren placing a hand on the trunk of the largest oak tree I had ever seen. The trunk was massive, easily requiring nine or ten people to circumvent the entirety of it, and its gnarled branches rose up towards the sky, twirling and intertwining with the other trees around it. We watched the younger Kieren place his forehead against the tree, pausing in a show of deference, and then pushing back, dropping his hand, and disappearing into the brush on the other side of the tree.

    Waiting, I looked over at the older Kieren, judging him, trying to figure out the smoothness along the lines of his face. He had always been one to give nothing away, but since discovering me on the roof, those abilities seemed to have increased tenfold. Even with our long years together and our training, I couldn’t read his thoughts as he watched his younger self vanish into the woods.

    Kieren started forward and I followed, low to the ground, listening. There was nothing except the birds, the rustle of leaves and we made it to the giant oak within several breaths, pausing along its massive trunk to look around to see if anyone was watching. We appeared to be alone, but both of us stayed low to the ground, looking for an entrance of any kind.

    The door was ridiculously easy to find if one was looking for it, the top edges of the door visible among the high grass that sprouted out around the entirety of the trunk’s bottom. While Kieren watched for anyone or anything, I ran my hands along the edges of the door, pushing away dirt and grass as needed until I found the bottom set sort of sideways into the tree and the ground beneath. The door was about half my height, rounded at the top and straight on the bottom. I didn’t see any hinges and where it looked like a door latch should be, there was only a gaping hole. I sat back on my heels, staring at it, trying to recall if Tirius had said anything at all about how to open the door.

    “What?” Kieren whispered from behind me.

    I indicated the door with a hand. “Latch?”

    Kieren looked down, away from his survey, a frown gathering for a moment between his eyes. “Hidden key? Hidden mechanism?”

    I sighed, looking around the door that was our access but not. I had no key, nor did I know where to get one. 

    Kieren knelt next to me. “Keep watch,” he said, then leaned down and hooked his fingers where it looked like the latch should be. He pulled, shoulder muscles straining against his shirt as he tried to force the door open.

    I looked away from my partner’s efforts, keeping watch. Everything was the same until it wasn’t any longer and I heard Guardians somewhere to the right of us. We needed to go, the voices in a whisper carrying to where we were, not yet close enough to be distinct but close enough to know they were voices. Kieren heard them too, letting go of the door, frustration a flash across his face. 

    “We have to go,” I said needlessly.

    Kieren shook his head once. “Where?”

    I didn’t know, and the lack of knowing caused a familiar tightness in my chest as my heartrate increased. I knew that Kieren could not be seen, even by unsuspecting Guardian trainees. Glancing beyond Kieren to the door, I studied it for a moment, the curve at the top, the edged wood, the door and grass and then it clicked, like a ping in my head.

    I smiled.

    Kieren saw the expression, moving out of the way as I crawled passed him. I placed two hands on the door, dug in my heels and pushed down. The door opened with a whoosh of silence and I fell forward into darkness, stumbling to the soft ground on the other side, scooting forward to make room. Kieren quickly followed, hooking a finger in the latch area and pulling it close behind us, plunging us into black. We paused, not moving, listening for any indication someone had heard or saw where we went, but after several moments of nothing, I got up from my knees, sitting sideways so I could pull the pin light out of the pocket I’d placed it in that morning. The light was tiny, barely giving off enough illumination to highlight the dirt walls wrapping up and around us. The air was dry, stagnant, and as I stood up, pointing the light forward, I saw that the tunnel appeared to be made by hand rather than by nature.

    “Well,” I whispered into the darkness, and started forward, Kieren a warm presence at my back.

    There was a steady downward trend to the tunnel and as we walked the dirt floor gave way to smooth stone, the walls turning into a brick-like layering. “How far do you think it is?” I asked, leading the way, sweeping the beam from side to side, ducking the random cobwebs and stepping over the random rat poop.

    Kieren was silent behind me and I let him be, because the answer was in the sudden flicker of light in front of us, flashing like beacons of caution. I turned my pin light out, slowing in my step. Coming up from behind me, Kieren matched my pace as we walked slowly towards the lights, the tunnel opening into a cavernous place lit by familiar hovering lamps. We paused together, staring at the massive stone maze that stretched on into darkness below us.

    “That’s interesting,” I muttered, tracing the pathways through the maze.   

    “The Archivist said nothing of this?” Kieren asked.

    I shrugged. “He might have in passing. He said a lot when he said anything at all.”

    Kieren started down the steep stone steps that led to the entrance of the maze. “Nothing is a passing comment,” he said over his shoulder.

    I agreed, following him down into the dim light. 

    The maze walls were massive, reaching easily twice Kieren’s height, and as thick as the length of my body. The floor was stone, rough-edged, with dirt in the corners and a weird algae material growing along some of the surfaces. Overhead, the lights that were found everywhere in the Citadel hovered like glowing orbs, moving as if pushed by a gentle wind though I felt nothing, the air stale with the scent of being underground.

    Kieren started towards the right and I followed him, knowing that he’d memorized the pattern of the maze from the one glimpse he’d had before descending, but as we walked, the ground rumbled, and the sound of shifting stone echoed in a jarring orchestra of cacophonic dissonance. We stopped walking, placing hands over our ears in an effort to muffle the sound, not able to move forward until the ground stopped rumbling and the sound ceased. 

    “Well,” I said, peering into the gloom that was a corner. “This will be interesting.”

    Kieren said not a word, eyeing the side of the wall and I knew what he was thinking even before he found a toe hold and heaved himself upwards, hands flat against the algae. He made it halfway up before falling back down next to me. I examine the wall, following the upper edge with my gaze, and I saw that the stone was completely smooth, as if the creators knew exactly what a Kieren-type person would try. Goal-oriented was a nice way of putting it, and the goal was to get through the maze. Kieren would do anything to accomplish it. 

    He too examined the wall, a slight frown between his eyebrows.

    “Catapult?” I suggested.

    “Might as well try.”

    It was a trick we’d perfected two cycles ago and was exactly as it sounded. Kneeling near the wall but not too close, Kieren made a cup with his hand. I walked several paces away, turned, and then started a jog, bursting into speed at the last moment and placing my foot into Kieren’s waiting hand. The momentum was immediate, intense, and I focused on my destination, straining upwards and grasping at the very top edge with my hands. 

    I caught it, my fingers gripping, pain ricocheting down my arms even as the impact of the wall jarred my teeth. I bit my tongue on impact and bruised at least some of my torso, though my chest took the bulk of the force. With concentration and a good amount of will, I pulled myself up and on top of the maze wall, and then promptly slid off the other side, the wall changing and warping to create a deep angle. I tried to catch hold of anything at all, but there was nothing and I landed on my ankle with a terrible pain that fired up the side of my calf and into my groin, the rest of my body flopping to the ground behind. I lay there on my back staring at the darkness above my head, trying to regain my breath even as Kieren yelled my name over the wall.

    “Yeah, I’m fine,” I yelled back after I managed to get to a sitting position, looking down at my badly mangled ankle. “The wall did something funny and I slid. I think I broke my ankle.”

    Silence from the other side suggested Kieren’s reaction to the situation and I could imagine the glower of forbidding running about his features. 

    “Don’t move,” he yelled, farther away than before. “I’m going to look for a way to you.”

    Not replying, I scooted myself back against the wall, both legs straight in front of me. The wall had changed. There was no doubt. I’d gained the top, a level surface, and then the surface had tilted. It was likely some anti-cheating mechanism, but I was not amused or in awe, rather the pain was a red tinge over everything, and I struggled to focus. I also felt the tears, far off, underneath, a feeling of hopelessness and frustration.

    I continued to breathe through the pain, stuffing the tears down, but I knew that if Kieren didn’t arrive soon, I was going to have to set the bone myself so that my fast working antibodies wouldn’t heal the bone incorrectly. But I would give him time, leaning back against the wall and closing my eyes. I would give him time. 

    The hiss brought me out of the near sleep I’d fallen into, hands automatically going to my back where I pulled my staff from its holster, scanning for the location of the sound. The sound was threatening, a low hiss and then a deep growl, as if what threatened was a snake-dog type animal. As if pulled from my imagination, there emerged from the shadows such a creature. The body was long, snake-like with scales but with four giant paws, and the head was a combination of wolf and snake, the eyes slit like a reptile with a forked tongue slithering out with a hiss, and then the growl somewhere in the lower parts of its serpent-like body. It smelled of rotten meat and I bit down on a gag.

    Using the wall behind me, I pushed myself up onto my right foot, tentatively trying to put weight on my left foot. Immediately, my leg tried to crumple to the ground, an intense lightning bolt of pain searing upwards to my hip. Securing the staff in my right hand, I flicked it open with my wrist, blades flashing. Another hiss echoed and vibrated through the chamber, the large head dipping and swaying back and forth in front of me.

    “Well come on then,” I muttered, tightening my hold on my weapon.

    It obliged, lurching towards me like a snake striking, large dog-like teeth baring as it came up and then down towards my head. I lashed upwards, the staff humming in the air and then vibrating as it made contact with the beast, though not in the stomach area where I’d hoped. Rather, the thing had twisted its body on the attack, and my weapon glanced off, seeming to slide off the scales and into empty air. The beast landed to the right of me, pouncing away as I swung for it, and then circling back and around for another attack. This attack followed the same pattern as before, the thing leaping high in the air. I adjusted, moving in the direction of my injured ankle. Pain screamed through my leg, nearly collapsing, but I kept my balance, ignoring it, and bracing myself against the wall. When the thing descended and twisted this time, I shoved my staff sideways and up, catching its lower chest and slicing deeply into the exposed underbelly, holding on as the forward movement of the large body did the rest of the damage, a long line across to its right shoulder. 

    It roared, a sound that filled my head and rumbled through my feet, the snake-like body falling as its legs gave way. I hopped back, ripping my staff free and then adjusting, waiting for the next attack, but the monster laid there, still except for the steady rise and fall of its chest. 

    “Okay then,” I whispered, taking several more hops backward. “Are you going to stay down?”

    The thing’s head turned at my words, its slit eyes blinking once and twice at me and then closing.

    “Wren!” Kieren yelled behind me, footsteps like a staccato of sound and my body sagged at the sound, relief a far off but known feeling. He came to a standstill next to me, knives in either hand, breathing hard. 

    “Did you kill it?” he asked, assessing the situation with a quick gaze, knuckles white as he gripped his weapons.

    I shook my head once. “I don’t think so, though it’s injured.”

    Kieren let out a rush of air, glancing at me, analyzing, and then focused back on the creature before us. “What is it?” 

    “Your guess is as good as mine.”

    I hopped back a little more, nearly falling. Kieren caught my arm, steadying. “Didn’t heal yourself yet?”

    I waved vaguely in the direction of the thing spread out on the stone floor. “Hadn’t gotten a chance yet.” 

    With Kieren’s help, I sat back down and then looked beyond his kneeling form to where the thing was, watching it. Kieren undid my ankle holster and rolled up my trousers, fingers light along the ankle bone. His palm was warm, assured, as he felt along the injury. “It’s already started to knit together. I’m going to have to rebreak it.”

    I nodded my understanding, holding my breath as he grasped the ankle and twisted with a jerk. A jolting, searing pain caused everything to go black for a moment, though I pushed against it, keeping my focus on the monster beyond my partner. Kieren took of his shirt, easily tearing a long section of the black material from the bottom and then with gentle hands, wrapped the cloth around my foot and ankle.

    “Okay, then?” he asked.

    Managing a grimacing smile, I answered. “Lovely, thanks.”

    He sat back on his heels, turning to keep the thing in his line of sight. With him paying attention, I closed my eyes and let the pain wash over me.

    “Where did it even come from?” Kieren asked from a little further away and I opened my eyes to see he had walked over to the other side of the maze and was studying the shadows there, poking randomly with his toe at different stones in the maze’s wall. Next to him, the beast stirred, eyes opening, scales sliding. My warning would have been too late, but Kieren was aware and ready, lunging towards the beast and sinking a knife down into its skull before it got off the ground, the sound of metal against stone a ping in the sudden silence.

    Quickly, Kieren pulled his knife from the creature’s head, stepping back to avoid the innards that suddenly slid and burst from the wound.

    The pain had dissipated somewhat, and I carefully stood, testing my weight before limping slowly towards the now inert being. 

    Kieren and I stared down at it.

    “Have you ever seen anything like it, ever?” Kieren asked.

    I shook my head. The beast was huge. I’d been up close to it while fighting but the sheer size of the being had not fully registered. It was easily five lengths of me, and twice that thick. The legs were short but powerful, the paws about the size of my face. The body itself was scaly, but there seemed to be a near translucent cover of fur that I had not noticed before. The head, though, was truly something, with its dog-snake features. Though the head was mostly covered with guts and insides, the tip of the forked tongue was barely visible, jutting from the side of the mouth. 

    I turned away from the creature and looked down the long maze pathway, the end lost in shadows. “There will be more of these, or other creatures, before we get to the end.”

    Kieren, who had kneeled for a closer examination, nodded in agreement. “We won’t move until you’re fully recovered.”

    “No. We don’t have water, food, and there is nothing here. We’ve got to move. We have no idea how long it will take to get through this thing.”

    Standing, Kieren looked in the same direction as I did; the path forward. “Well, let’s go then; it’s not like we haven’t been here before.”

    He was right. We’d been in three or four other situations that involved being without supplies. But this one had no end. If we got through the maze, then what? We were okay for quite some time, having eaten before we’d left, but there was thirst to deal with, and as if on cue I noticed my mouth’s dryness. 

    “Failed on the planning aspect of this one,” I said, staring down the corridor.

    Kieren followed me further into the maze without comment. 

    The twists and turns kept their secrets for a bit and we walked in silence for a long moment, though I tensed every time I heard a sound. I gripped my staff in one hand, ready, my limp smoothing out into a normal walk as we made our way further into the maze. The walls of the maze steadily changed, going from the smooth man-made looking stone walls to a rougher looking surface, as if the maze had been somehow cut out of an already existing rock formation rather than placed. I studied the area as we walked. As far as I could tell, there were no seams in the wall indicating separate pieces and I couldn’t make out any mechanisms that would allow the wall to move.

    “Did you see anything when you were up there?” Kieren asked, startling me, though he kept his voice low.

    “No. It was too quick. I was there and then falling.”

    That was the last of our conversation, both of us keeping to ourselves as we walked. It was not an unusual pattern of behavior, and for me, it felt comforting even with all the chaos. Kieren kept us on a steady path to the left and eventually we came around a corner to a large area with a slight hill in the middle. The hill was tall enough that, once climbed, we discovered that we had made it to the middle of the maze. Standing there, the quiet descending like a blanket, I felt a flash of rightness that tingled my fingertips.

    The feeling of rightness was short lived. Kieren started down from the hill, obviously more confident in his direction, but as his foot landed on the stone floor, a great cry went up above our heads and a pair of winged creatures descended from the darkness above us. They screamed as they dove, gray short fur, black wings like a bat, talons extended. We moved into a back-to-back formation, tensing and then reacting as the two-winged creatures swooped low. Kieren’s knives flashed to my left and I swung my staff to the right, both of us catching a piece of the same creature, though missing the second one.

    Both creatures wailed long and high, an echo of pain from both though only one was wounded. Steady, I watched them rise higher into the darkness until I could no longer make out their gray bodies. Keeping our backs to each other, we waited. I scanned the area above, but the winged creatures remained hidden. I stepped forward to create distance between myself and Kieren, turning.

    “Do you think that scared them off?” I asked, wiping the bloodied staff along the bottom of my trousers.

    Replacing his knives, Kieren shook his head. “I don’t think so but let’s keep moving. Perhaps us not standing still will be enough of a deterrent to stop them from coming back.”

    I couldn’t wrap my head around the logic behind Kieren’s reasoning and said so.

    “Maybe nothing,” Kieren replied. “But when you stopped because of your ankle, you were attacked. Then we just stopped…”

    “…and we were attacked,” I finished.

    He nodded.

    “Works for me.”

    Kieren took the lead and I let him, knowing that whatever he saw on the hill was enough to at least lead us in the right way. I was excellent with directions, but Kieren was a step above everyone I had ever known or worked with, which said a lot.

    The next attack came while we were moving, blowing Kieren’s theory up; another snake-like creature slithering up from behind us with scales scratching the stone surface. We dispatched it, my staff a red line across its neck area, blood spurting out in crimson waves, Kieren’s knives a mortal wound in its belly.

    “You okay?” Kieren asked, wiping his blades with a cloth he kept for that purpose.

    I nodded, the pain in my ankle a dull throb but not enough to slow our progress.

    The kill barely stopped our movement forward, leaving the dead body where it lay. We picked up our pace, jogging until we turned a sharp corner and suddenly found ourselves among lush green ivy, a fountain before us sparkling in the middle of a courtyard colored emerald green with grass. We paused at the courtyard’s threshold, just shy of the green grass. I looked up, wondering how the plants were growing and saw that somehow, there was a kind of shimmer following a line of light from the top of a barely visible staff in the ceiling. The effect was peaceful, with the green ivy and grass, gray stone, and sparkling water, but even as my body screamed for the water, my mind preached extreme caution.

    “I’ll go first, tell me if you see anything move or otherwise see a threat,” Kieren said, already moving towards the fountain in the middle. 

    I scanned the area as my partner crept forward. All remained peaceful and when Kieren got to the fountain, I watched as he paused and looked down into the water. I edged forward, keeping my staff low and ready, still scanning the area.

    “It’s just water,” Kieren called out over his shoulder.

    Nodding, I joined him and then both of us were unable to resist any longer and took up handfuls of water. I expected it to be brackish, or even tinged with poison at this point, but it tasted cool and fresh, and something loosened in my chest as I took another handful. Having my fill, I sat back on my heels and looked around once more, but still, nothing threatened us, and I felt tiredness dragging at me. The pain had receded but there were the residual bodily reactions that lingered; namely, the need to take a nap.

    “We need to keep moving,” I said out loud, more to remind myself than to communicate.

    Kieren, who stared overhead at the light, nodded a bit absently.

    Getting to my feet, I looked around for the exit to our entrance and found only more vines. We’d managed to discover water, but water in a dead end.

    “I know where we are,” Kieren said.

    I glanced up to where he stared, trying to think of where we came into the tunnel in relation to where the Citadel and Archives were in relation to that entrance. It took my brain a few summersaults but then I knew what Kieren was thinking.

    “The room of mirrors,” I said, even as Kieren nodded and looked away. The room of mirrors was a lower level room that the Administrators in the health wing used to grow all different kinds of flora and fauna. “We’re close,” I continued, the mirrored room being very near the Archives. “But, we’re in a dead-end now.” I gestured with a hand towards the ivy-laden walls.

    Kieren studied our surroundings, shaking his head in the way he did when in denial of reality. I watched him walk to the wall of ivy and slowly, methodically, start working his way through the vines inch by inch, long fingers pressing and pulling the ivy apart. I sat down at the fountain edge and looked above at the light that was daylight somewhere far above us. I closed my eyes and pretended like I could feel the heat seeping into my skin, warming my face against the chill that had permeated for days now. I wanted a beach, blue water, lots of sunshine, and something to eat that was filled with terrible things that tasted delicious. 

    Kieren muttered a curse and I peeked a look at him, not surprised to find that he was still working his way through the wall of vines, his tall body in dark clothes a contrast to the bright green. If there was a latch, he would find it. The light changed as I watched him, the angle of the sun changing, creating a different set of rays. The new light direction hit the fountain water, illuminating its depths. I wasn’t looking for anything, but sometimes, that’s when things find us, and I saw the salmon statue along the bottom of the fountain. Before, the statue was lost in the shadow, but with the new light, the stone fish seemed to swim at the fountain’s bottom.  

    Lying on my stomach, I plunged my arm into the water, indifferent to my sleeve getting wet as I reached for the fish, running my hands along the statue. It was a hunch, an instinctive thing, but the maze above had salmon statues, and one of those statues was a lever that opened the door to an area of the maze Guardians used for weapons practice.

    Most of the statue was connected to the bottom of the fountain, but the tail wasn’t, and I pulled on it. At first, nothing happened, and then a groan seemed to come up from the bowels of the earth, rumbling underneath my body, the fountain shifting. I hastily withdrew my arm and backed up, getting to my feet and stumbling towards the ivy wall. The surface of the water became a whirlpool, swirling faster and faster as the fountain’s bottom slid out of view, revealing stairs as the water disappeared into the blackness below.

    “More blackness,” I muttered, leaning closer now that the rumbling had started to ease, the sound fading back into something resembling silence but not quite. 

    “The fish?” Kieren asked, looking down at the exposed stairs, the salmon lever still visible on what was now an exposed wall.

    I nodded. “The fish.”

    “The beginning of all things,” Kieren said, surprising me. He shrugged with one shoulder at my look as he stepped over the lip of the pond and started the descent. I followed, trying to place his words as they nagged at me with familiarity, but the steps were steep and slippery, and I let the mystery go, focusing on making my way safely down. Kieren brought out his own pen light this time, the small illumination not making much of dent in the heavy gloom. The stairwell was not an overly long one and we soon reached the bottom stair, pausing there, surveying the scene. A cavern reached upwards into nothing and black water stretched out as far as we could see in our limited light. A stone bridge led the way across.

    “Can it get anymore redundant,” Kieren muttered. I followed without comment, agreeing with him, but the highest point of the bridge was the end to our journey. There were four stairs, a door that we had to push with a mighty shove, and suddenly we stood at the end of one of the many long corridors that made up the Archives. The floating lamps above our heads gave off their familiar glow, shelves of stone tablets lined up like soldiers along the heavy wooden bookshelves. 

    “I know where we are,” I said, running a palm across the line of stone tablet spines. 

    “We need to go,” Kieren said. 

    I knew my partner was right but being back in the Archives felt like a settling, like waking up in the middle of the night safe and cozy in one’s bed. I wanted to linger, breathe deeply of the dusty, old smell that felt like home. There was no time though, and reluctantly I moved forward, leading Kieren quietly from the stone tablets, to scrolls, to leather-bound books, leading with confidence. The Archives were so massive that it was unlikely we would run into anyone, but even so, I listened, making sure that our quiet steps were the only steps to be heard.

    “How do you not get lost?” Kieren asked behind me.

     I shrugged. “I spent a lot of time down here.” I knew this approached the subject of my change to a Guardian from Collector, and though Kieren was not in one of his rare talkative moods, I changed the subject by pointing above our heads to the floating lights. “The lights are kind of like street signs, and if you know the map it is easy to find your way. We’re almost there.”

    Kieren slowed his step. “We can’t just walk up to the Archivist’s rooms and knock. Everyone would see us, including, possibly, us.”

    “I know, that’s why we’re taking his elevator.”

    Another turn and the familiar elevator doors appeared out of the dimness as if by magic. The scrolling ivy etched in the stone around the edges of the steel was an ancient-looking contrast to the modern doors.

    “A private elevator,” Kieren said.

    “To his private chambers.”

    “And you can access it?” He pointed to the scanner at the side of the doors.

    “We’ll see,” I said, putting my hand on the scanner. Warmth tingled across my fingertips and palms. There was a beep, and though I knew what the likely outcome was, I still tensed for half a moment before the light at the top of the scanner turned green.

    “You have access,” Kieren muttered, watching the doors open, a frown line between his dark eyebrows.

    “Once upon a time. If I’m right about the timing, you took us back to when I first started my apprenticeship with Tirius. He gave me access because it was easier.”

    “Convenient.”

    Shrugging, I hit the close door button, a subtle shift in gravity indicating we were rising.

    “So, you could be on the side of this door when it opens,” Kieren said.

    “I could.”

    Next to me, Kieren looked as relaxed as he ever did, but I knew that he was very much ready for any scenario, which included confronting my former self on the other side of the elevator doors.

    The doors opened into dimness, the sun having set at some point, and the lights of the elevator not extending into the darker interior of Tirius’s antechamber. No lights meant no one at my old study desk in the corner and I felt my shoulders relax. Staying in the shadow, I led by memory to where the study door was ajar, a flickering glow evident as we got closer. Pushing the door open slowly I peeked into the room. There was a fire in the large fireplace, providing most of the light though a few hover lamps floated above Tirius’s massive oaken desk. The man himself sat behind the desk; his head cradled in the palm of his hand as he wrote something out on a long curling piece of parchment. Wearing his white starched button-down shirt, the fabric looked a little worse for wear and the several mugs of tea littered about the desk indicated that he’d been concentrating on something for quite some time.

    I pushed the door further open and stepped into the room, a slight squeak under my foot giving away my presence. Tirius looked up, his hand going for the large knife that was hidden underneath the desk in a mounted holster.

    Putting my hands up, I stepped more fully into the room; Kieren a shadow behind me as he did the same.

    “It’s just me,” I said, pitching my voice low and quiet. The room smelled of tea and faintly of wood smoke, a combination of scents that caused an ache in my chest. 

    I’d missed this place more than I’d realized.

    Tirius studied my face. There was always something uncanny about his gaze, the different colored eyes adding to the intensity. “You are but not really?” He kept his hand on the hidden knife.

    “True.”

    “So, you’ve broken the rules, have you? And a Guardian as well?”

    “A lot has happened, or happens, yes.” I took a step closer, allowing Kieren to come fully into the room. He pulled the door closed even as I kept my gaze on the man in front of me. Tirius remained quiet, not protesting the move, standing up, expanding more fully into his height, letting his hand drop from the knife and stepping back. He looked as I remembered him from my days as his apprentice.

    “We need your help,” I started.

    He put up an elegant hand, stopping me. “I don’t want the details.”

    I nodded in understanding. “I know. And we’ve been careful. We went through the tunnel.”

    This caught his interest. “The maze? You survived the maze?”

    I allowed a smile. “Guardian, remember?”

    “Yes, well,” Tirius said, and then sat himself back in his chair, keeping his hands above the desk, folded and bent in the familiar steeple. “What can I help you and your companion with, then, Wren?”

    “Information, about an address.”

    “And the address is?”

    Kieren spoke up from behind my left shoulder, rattling off the coordinates, which not only let Tirius know the where but the when as well.

    I would have missed the initial reaction, the little bit of a jerk backward, but as I was watching closely I saw it, and Tirius saw that I saw it.

    He inhaled and exhaled a slow breath. “And how do you know that address?”

    “You gave it to me,” Kieren said.

    “Why?”

    “To bring Wren there, so she’d be safe.”

    “And yet here you are. Do you always listen so well?”

    I felt Kieren tense behind me. I shuffled to block him from Tirius’s barbs as he was likely not done with them.

    “Tirius, some things have happened, some not good things, and there is a reason why you gave Kieren the address, but we’ve searched, we’ve looked through the entire property and there is absolutely nothing to indicate why you would’ve sent us there.”

    Tirius pinned me with one of his looks. “Well, I hardly know why I would send you there either.”

    “But you know the place,” I led.

    He stared for a moment, searching my face and then as if deciding something got up from his chair. Tirius went over to a large side table shoved up against a wall, overflowing with stacked books. Even along the table legs, books were everywhere, and it was hard to tell if the legs were holding the surface of the table up, or if the towers of books were. From the depths of one of those towers, Tirius eased out a slimmer brown volume, opening it even as he walked back to his desk. Finding what he wanted, he put it on his desk and pointed. “This location? It seems very strange I would suggest this place as somewhere safe in the time you’ve indicated.”

    I took the book, reading over the words and then handed it over to Kieren. “An extinction event? You have a house in the human timeline next to an extinction event?”

    “Humans don’t go extinct, obviously, or at least not completely,” Tirius said in that deeply familiar dry tone that suggested he was barely holding on to his irritation.

    “Of course, but why do you have a home there?”

    “The better question is why did I send you there?”

    I didn’t think that was the better question, but I let him have the change in direction.

    Kieren flipped through the pages of the book, reading things here and there. I wondered what else was in the book, but I was also struggling with whether to tell Tirius about Sarajevo as an answer to his question. If he hadn’t yet realized the situation there, I could be the catalyst. “You showed me something, which sort of kicked off a lot of things, and there is a feeling that you had, and which I can confirm more or less, that major events are being manipulated, at least in the human timeline.” Kieren handed me the book and I held it up before placing it on the corner of the desk in front of me. “Do you think this might be something similar?”

    Tirius’s face was carefully neutral as he listened but when I stopped talking, he turned away to walk to one of the large windows, the darker side of the room swallowing him. The first moon had risen at some point and though not bright, the orangey glow cast a particular tone to Tirius’s skin, creating an ethereal glow about him.

    After several moments of silence, he returned to his desk, settling down and stapling his hands before him in the old familiar way. “I have several locations throughout the timeline, in different periods, to observe some of the more interesting events in human history, though that doesn’t explain why I would send you there.”

    “Like the sea cottage?” I asked, my mind circling around to the questions surrounding that place.

    Again, with the slight reaction, barely noticeable but still there, letting me know that my words surprised him, or at least induced a reaction. “I took you to the cottage. Why?”

    I shrugged. “It was a kind of waypoint for you before you showed me something else. And then I went there by myself later when I was running.”

    Tirius put a hand up. “Did you talk to anyone?”

    “You mean about my doppelganger?”

    This time the reaction was not subtle. Tirius sit back in his chair, sighing.

    “Something you want to let us know about?” Kieren said from his silence next to me. The question was not a polite one.

    Tirius ignored my partner, his gaze steady and heavy upon me. “Your twin, yes.”

    “Why were you observing someone that looks like me?”

    “Not simply look,” Tirius said.

     Something twisted in my gut. “Actual twin?” I pursued, shaking my head. “I was raised as an only child.”

    Tirius waved. “There are many lifetimes.” He spread his hands out in front of him, palms up, studying the skin as if to read the future there. “Many lifetimes,” he murmured to himself. 

    “Why though?” Kieren demanded, threat an undertone. “Why were you observing someone in the human timeline connected like that to Wren?”

    Finally looking over at my partner, Tirius smiled. “That’s interesting,” he said without saying what was interesting. I shifted to break whatever it was that just caught Tirius’s interest.

    “Tirius,” I said.

    He shrugged, slim shoulders under the white dress shirt. “How much do I tell you? That’s always the question, isn’t it? When going back and forth in a timeline. How much information.” He paused, staring over our shoulders at something. “Let me ask you a question first.” He refocused on me. “Why did you decide to become a Guardian rather than follow your path towards Collector?”

    I tensed, feeling my shoulders reach up towards my ears. I forcefully, and with intention, loosed them and let them drop down, even as I attempted to control the sudden uptake in my pulse. I knew Kieren felt those things next to me, but he kept quiet, a steady presence at my side. “There was too much information,” I said after a moment. “I couldn’t handle it. The threads. The pictures. The inability to be involved.”

    “The inability to be involved?” Tirius pushed.

    I nodded. “You teach, as do the others, that to be a Collector you have to be wholly separate from your subject. It’s not possible, or at least it wasn’t for me. That was part of it.”

    Tirius tilted his head, watching me as if he was studying something under a microscope. “And the other part?”

    I sighed, giving in to the nerves that rolled in my stomach. “Because I couldn’t handle it, Tirius. That’s it. It was too much. I wanted simplicity. Direction.”

    “Someone to tell you what to do,” he filled in.

    The tone was sarcastic, but I ignored it. “Sure, yes. Someone to tell me what to do.”

    “And you’ve found success in that?”

    I remained silent.

    Tirius gave me one of his looks, the kind that made me feel like a child. “Let me guess, the reason you’re visiting me has something to do with an inability to follow direction?”

    Kieren stepped forward and in front of me, not to block me but to force Tirius to acknowledge his presence and his question. “The twin?”

    Tirius switched his intense gaze to Kieren and I wondered what my mentor saw in the tall Guardian. Did Tirius see Kieren’s intelligence? His stubbornness? Or did he just dismiss him as another Guardian, another hand of the Warden, to be told what to do and of little value to what Tirius did as Archivist. I knew Tirius respected the Warden and the role of Guardians, but I had always gotten the distinct impression that he didn’t much like them and didn’t have much use for them either. 

    Kieren continued. “Why were you studying Wren’s twin?”

    Whether because of the challenge in Kieren’s tone or because of something Tirius saw in my partner, he answered. “Because a mistake was made.”

    I caught the words and held them. “What?” I asked.

    Tirius continued to look at Kieren. “She wasn’t supposed to be the one to move over, her sister was, and yet, here we are; a rather interesting development, don’t you think?”

    Kieren watches Tirius the same way Tirius watched me moments earlier, studying him. “Maybe. But you observed a near-extinction event, and from what my partner has told me, you also observed quite closely World Wars, impactful moments in the human timeline. I wonder why this warrants that same level scrutiny?”

    Amused, Tirius smiled. It was a strange thing to see the man smile because it happened very little. “If what I know falls into what is, then it is very much an event of the same level, but I’m not telling you my reasons.”

    Kieren tensed. I laid a hand on his forearm, feeling the muscles contract under my palm. In the distance, the dinner gong sounded, which caused another flash of a smile across my old mentor’s face. “And now, you must leave, or the now Wren will meet the future Wren, and there is a lot of bad that could happen in that particular scenario.”

    “He’s right,” I said even as Kieren remained still. “I used to come up and bring supper every night.”

    There was a brief gasp of a moment, the barest of rebellion, then, relenting, Kieren took the book from the corner of the table and turned on a heel to leave the study.

    “Thank you,” I said to Tirius before following my partner. “For the book, and the information.”

    Putting a slim hand up to stop my departure, Tirius stood and took from behind him two scrolls, both of considerable width. He turned, looking down at the scrolls, face sober, intense, and then walked over and handed them to me.

    I took them without questioning, though I knew my face likely showed off my curiosity.

    He leaned downwards, the familiar smell of book leather and something earthy reminding me of other times when we worked for hours together. “Timelines are always manipulated, remember. Small amounts. Little tweaks. And sometimes larger manipulations if the timeline is deemed a failure before extinction.” He paused, looking again at the scrolls that I now held. “Take care, Wren. There is a lot more at work of which I only understand a little bit.”

    I nodded and turned to the door.

    “And Wren,” he said, stalling my exit as I looked over my shoulder and caught his mismatched gaze under that dark curling hair. “I didn’t, and I don’t, think it was a mistake. Remember what I’ve taught you; everything for a reason.”

    The sound of commotion on the stairwell barred me from a reply or additional questions. Instead, I nodded once and then sprinted to where Kieren waited in the open elevator. The doors closed just as the top of past Wren’s head appeared in the stairwell.

    Originally published 2020, copywrite 2020

  • Chapter 7

    The tracker came out with a great deal of blood, but Kieren expertly did what he did, and we were soon fed, warm, a sea storm wailing against the house in the dark of night.

    “Tirius was human,” Kieren announced suddenly into the peace that descended between us.

    “Before he came over, yes,” I said. “I think sometimes that was the reason he decided to take me into his apprenticeship.”

    Kieren watched me. “I forgot you were human.”

    “I still think of myself as human,” I replied. “Just the same way you feel Sideian.”

    He looked away from me, towards the leaping flames. The glow of the fire only just illuminated the large living and dining room area. The stainless steel filled kitchen was off behind us, now littered with pots and pans from our quickly collaborated dinner.

    “What is it to identify in these ways, though?” Kieren asked. “We are Guardians. That is how we identify now. Not human. Not Sideian. Those are no longer accurate.”

    I studied the side of Kieren’s face. “Where is this coming from? Usually, I’m the one with all the metaphysical thoughts.”

    The silence stretched outwards between us until I looked away and I too stared at the fire, unease sharp in my belly. 

    I broke the silence, pursuing the conversation and refocusing on my partner. “I am still human. I still have human traits. Independence. Curiosity. Stubbornness.”

    Kieren smiled at the last one, a flicker of his mouth before it settled back to a grim line. “You gave up the knowing, by becoming a Guardian,” he answered.

    I nodded but didn’t elaborate on his statement. “What about you? I would say you still have Sideian traits.”

    He answered without answering. “I was always going to be a Guardian, it was the calling, the purpose. I was a Guardian before and I became a Guardian when I transferred.” He spread out his hands in front of him. They were a darker brown color than his wrists, with long and narrow fingers, a crisscross of lighter scars across the back of them. The scars were from a particularly nasty brush attack during one of our missions. They should’ve healed without scarring but for whatever reason never had, leaving the crisscross marks that others had slowly started to identify as solely Kieren’s.

    “It was always what I was supposed to do,” he continued. “I grew up in a family that required the leadership of millions of people across vast amounts of space. I was groomed for that assignment. This is not the same, but in some ways it is.”

    Kieren and I had spent a lot of time with each other, but his natural resistance to talking rarely enabled deep conversations, especially on this subject of our past lives. Traditionally, it was a taboo subject, not because of anything terrible or wrong about the experience, but because who we were before moving over to the Master Realm was a deeply personal matter with everyone experiencing different things. Some remembered distinct memories from before, and others had no memory at all. I was somewhere in the middle. A vague notion of requesting the Transfer, of meeting Tirius and knowing with relief that there was something more than my initial world. Kieren and I were as close as any Guardian partner, but our past, before what we became, back when our lives were mortal and we were constrained by the rules of mortality, was something that I, at least, never had a desire to talk about. We were Guardians now, as Kieren said, and that was our identity, no matter what came before.

    Kieren got up from his corner of the couch and went back to the kitchen, clearly unsettled in the direction of our conversation. I watched him, the way he rolled across the balls of his feet as he walked. I wondered, not for the first time, what about his prior life had made him so uniquely perfect for the role of Guardian, and, more pressing to me at least, why I had been paired with him. Pairing was decided by the directive of the Warden specifically, and secondarily the Masters Council, with no input from the Guardians. How partners were decided was a mystery to me and every other Guardian I’d ever broached the subject with, including Kieren. I was glad to have Kieren as a partner, but we were unlike each other in many ways, more opposites than similar. He easily adapted. I was more stubborn. I questioned. He took instructions without comment. That he’d defied the Masters in saving me, even though his life too was in potential danger, still struck me because of the unusual nature of the act.

    And then there was the doubt, a niggling thing, about the conversation with Master Ral and his comment about Kieren’s transfer; about the secret solo missions; about the abduction in Rushiel. Things and events not explained, and I was too much of a coward to broach them.

    I watched Kieren walk away and wondered.

    He came back to the couch with a glass of water and settled back, and I thought about bringing it up, but sleep pulled at me, sinking my bones further into the couch cushion, the sound of rain calming and comforting now that I was encased in warmth. Earlier, Kieren had briefly explained that the house was Tirius’s, opening the door with a key he’d taken from one of his hidden interior pockets, but had deflected any further questions and I had let him. 

    There would be time for questions. Later. 

    I got up, uncurling and stretching my arms overhead, still feeling the burn in my shoulder and the tightness in my thighs and calves, but looser, mostly because at least there seemed to be a resemblance of safety with Kieren here in this place. 

    “Take the big room,” Kieren said.

    I nodded and dragged my suddenly too exhausted body to a large room down the hallway towards the back of the house. There, another marble fireplace was also lit with electric flames, the yellow light cheerful across the bed frame’s heavy dark wood and the plush blue bedding. I pulled the covers back and fell face first into the pillows there, curling into a ball and barely pulling the blankets up before sleep took me, even a busy brain unable to keep me awake.

    The next few days were an exercise in discovery. Kieren explained that Tirius had written down the coordinates for Travel but hadn’t shared any other details because of their lack of privacy. Knowing Tirius, however, I knew there was a reason for the location, just like the cottage, and relayed my experience there to Kieren.

    “She looked like you?” Kieren asked. It was midday and he stared out the window at the sparkling blue-gray sea just beyond the dunes.

    “A likeness for sure.”

    Kieren glanced away, catching my gaze. “Is it possible she was a twin? In your life, before you came over?”

    I had thought of that explanation, mulling it over since the moment I’d seen the picture. “Maybe? I don’t remember a huge amount from that time, but I think I was raised by my father, though I don’t think he was home very much. I do remember my mother was not around. My father said she ran off with a sailor or something, but I don’t know. Maybe she was raising this other person, this twin, and I was raised by my father.” I paused, looking down at my hands. “It’s possible. But we lived in the States, a half a world away from where this woman said Katie was born and lived, and my father never spoke of living anywhere but in the United States.”

    “Sounds like he didn’t tell you a lot of things.”

    I nodded. “Nope. I was alone a lot, with random nannies that never stayed around. I didn’t mind I don’t think, but my father and I were never close, not ever.”

    Kieren tilted his head in that way he did when he realized something. I braced myself for it.

    “Tirius is your stand in father, the father figure that you never had,” he said.

    I grimaced because the thought had also crossed my mind. “I guess I disappointed him too,” I said quietly, to myself more to the man across from me. But he heard, and something softened in his face, causing my throat to close tight on itself. I waved my hand as if to wave away the moment.

    “Whatever the case, obviously there was a reason that Tirius led me to that spot, with that possible connection. It’s frustrating because I know he is trying to lead us somewhere…”

    “But why the games?” Kieren finished for me, letting me change the subject.

    “Exactly.”

    We paused for a moment, both staring outwards at the sunshine lit dunes. We had walked them earlier in the day, the wind sharp against our cheeks, shifting the sand under our feet, cut grass brushing at our clothing. The sand went on north and south for as far as the eye could see, the glass house we stood in, a lone house in a vast expanse of grass-like dunes. Somewhere there was civilization, but it was hard to tell in what direction. There was a vehicle in the garage, a sleek black thing that we looked over the first day. We were very isolated in this timeline, which I knew was likely one of the reasons Tirius had chosen this specific spot. Other than this isolation, there was nothing in the house to indicate time or place, nothing to show us why Tirius had sent us to this location.

    “What if we kidnap him? We know essentially where he will be, or you do,” Kieren said suddenly, turning to me with a sort of jerk of movement.

    “Return the favor?” I asked.

    He shrugged. 

    I shook my head. “The rules are pretty clear about manipulating the timelines.”

    He turned to look more fully down at me, his gaze intense. “Does it matter?”

    “Rules?”

    “Yes.”

    I studied Kieren because the words were wrong, and the intent behind them. Kieren followed the rules, always, even when circumstances were such that breaking them could help things along. The rules were in place for a reason, he constantly lectured me, and it was not our purpose to find those reasons and challenge them. The fact that he had just suggested taking Tirius out of a timeline was so outside of his normal behavior, a feeling of dread developed at the bottom of my stomach and refused to budge. The sun rays prickled my skin as I turned to look back over the dunes at the sea.

    “We have no way of telling what kind of consequences such an action would have,” I said after a moment.

    “That didn’t stop the Archivist.”

    I shrugged. “I’ve been thinking about that, thinking about what it must mean to be the Archivist, to have that knowledge there, always, and be in charge of it; the amount of information that exists, the way that it all forms together to create a picture. I think that Tirius knows a lot of what is going on, that he understands more than we ever will, or if not understands, he sees the connections. We can’t mess with timelines, even the Master Realm timeline, because we don’t understand. Somehow he does.”

    “That’s putting a lot of faith in a person.”

    “He’s not a person.”

    “He’s not a god either.”

    I bit down on the reply that came to mind because I knew he was right, but the idea of messing with timelines went against every instinct. Instead of answering, of continuing the conversation, I turned from the window and went to the kitchen. There were plenty of supplies, another oddity among all the oddities, and I started on a cup of tea, bringing the tea box down from the shelve I’d spied it on the day before. I read the directions on the side of the box, pretending to ignore my partner and the sudden tightness in my chest.

    Kieren followed, moving so he was parallel with me and a hand’s reach distance away.

    “He’s not, Wren. He is not some Master that knows all and sees all, and even if he was on the Master level, obviously being some Master level evolutional being does not exclude them from murder, cover-ups, and manipulations of timelines. This isn’t an evolved world that we’ve stepped into, it’s just a different one, with rules that can and are broken. Unless we learn what those rules are, and quickly, we’re dead.” 

    I put the kettle on the burner and turned the knob. With a blue flame lit underneath the kettle, I reached for the brown teapot on top of the fridge. I turned the faucet on hot, watching the stream of water, listening to the sound of it falling and pooling in the deep stainless-steel sink.

    Kieren turned the water off, his presence large as he looked down, inches between us. He had angled his body in such a way that he was mostly in front of me. I refused to look up at him, staring at his black-clad chest. I felt his body heat and even the slight flicker of breath across the top of my head. He smelled of sea air and wind with something else that I’d noticed before; a kind of cedar that reminded me of a deep forest glen. 

    “Break the rules to figure out what the rules really are,” he repeated quietly above me.

    Shivers lit across my skin, a rolling awareness as I swallowed, mind working through his statement, working in an attempt to figure out what exactly to say, to argue, to counter, but coming up terribly blank. “And when we destroy an experiment in our search for answers?”

    “Then we’ll figure out what’s really important.”

    I inhaled slowly.

    Kieren’s hand cupped my jaw, gently pulling my head up to meet his gaze. I met his dark eyes and searched them for a clue as to where he was going with this conversation. His palms were warm, calloused along the pads, rough on my jawline. “We need to know. We have to understand why,” he continued. Close up, his eyes were a dark green and the intensity there paused time.

    I swallowed on a dry throat. “Why?”

    “Because only then can we act,” he responded quietly.

    I tried to read him, but I was having trouble breathing, my stomach tight, skin tingling. “We can’t hurt people. We can’t destroy timelines,” I said.

    “Then we won’t.” He dropped his hand but remained where he stood, body heat enveloping me, looking down from his height.

    Somewhere behind me the kettle started to whistle.

    Kieren stepped back, paused and then turned and retreated to the living room. I watched him, broad shoulders under his black tunic, black hair in a tight bun at the base of his skull, the ease of his step as he walked away from me, that particular scent lingering for a moment before disappearing as well, floating away.

    I took the kettle from the stove and poured water into the waiting pot, ignoring my shaking hands as I added the tea as it said on the instructions.

    “We need to figure out a course of action,” I agreed out loud after a moment. “So, we talk to him,” I said, joining Kieren with my tea, picking up as if nothing at all had just happened, and perhaps nothing had. “Let’s talk to him. We will go to him. I know where and when he was, so we go there, not to kidnap, but just to talk to him.”

    Kieren continued to stare forward; his profile sharp. “Back to the realm, to talk. And if he doesn’t believe us?”

    I spread my hands out, one of them still cupping the tea that I had managed to make somewhat edible this time around. “How can he not, our very existence is proof. But more. He knew, at least, something even back when I was with him. Maybe not this scenario, or this existence, but something. He can at least tell us why this house in this timeline is important.”

    “So, back to the realm.”

    “Break the rules. But not to kidnap. We’ll Travel to before all of this crazy, when I was still working for him and there was no inkling to me and the situation. We take the tunnel. If we can access the Archives, I can access Tirius.”

    Kieren glanced over at me; eyebrows raised. “The metaphorical tunnel?”

    I shook my head. “No. It’s real. We just have to find it.” At some point the sun had started to set and shadows crept in the corners of the room, even with the lights on and the fire softly glowing in front of us. “We go. We ask. We get answers.”

    “And if he doesn’t have answers?”

    “Then we figure out something else.”

    I could tell Kieren would rather not agree to my idea by the way he held himself apart, perfectly still where he sat, but instead of arguing or presenting a counter to my idea, he nodded once. “Tomorrow,” he said, finally looking over at me. His face was a careful mask of non-emotion, his hands loose in his lap. “We will go tomorrow.”

    He got up from the couch and grabbed the red rain jacket he’d thrown over the chair earlier in the day. We’d found a pair in the front hallway the day before.

    “Where are you going?” I wondered out loud, though at the same time knew there wasn’t going to be an answer, and there wasn’t, Kieren disappearing around the corner, the front door a whisper of open and close in the gathering darkness.

    I drank my tea and pretended not to care.

    Originally published 2020, copywrite 2020

  • Yard

  • Chapter 6

    Darkside. 

    Instinct had brought me here, though I wasn’t sure what instinct. All the information I had about the city was from Kieren’s stories. He had trained in Darkside the first two cycles of his training after requesting the most difficult location to assimilate. I’d asked him why he would want to train somewhere like Darkside. At the time we’d just met and hadn’t yet know if we were to be partners, so he never answered. Through the years, though, he had described his fascination with the timeline, and only much later did he admit that his former life was from Sideia, of which Darkside was a major city. He knew the city from those stolen memories from before, intertwining with the knowledge he’d gained while training among the streets.

    As I made my way forward, I saw his words painted in reality. Night lay upon the town, but a deeper darkness existed even in the alley I navigated, brick buildings rising on either side of me, the smell of dank dirt, piss, and an overly sweet herbal smell hovering above it all.

    Anarchy. 

    Those that lived within the Darkside parameters lived without the rules of society. It was one of the few experiments existing that truly took anarchy to the level of play. There were no laws. There was no overseeing authority other than the authority eked out through power-grabbing, usually in the form of war. Kieren had spoken very little of his family on the planet or their role within Darkside, but there lingered a taste of Kieren’s familial power in the way he carried himself and in the way he occasionally spoke of those days.

    To rule among these dark alleyways, among these lawless people, was to take aggression to an entirely different level.

    The pain in my back faded as I navigated puddles, rodents, trash, and unidentifiable piles. By the time I finally found a main thorough way and paused to assess the scene, the pain was at a manageable level, though the back of my tunic was uncomfortably sticky. I needed a place to hole up and though I vaguely knew what the currency was thanks to Kieren, I wasn’t sure how to get it, and I wasn’t going to access my interface for the information. The search for my doppelganger had most definitely set off my location and I would rather not get another knife in the back.

    Hiding just inside the corner of a side road, I surveyed the chaotic scene. There were Sideian individuals everywhere in various stages of dress. One individual walked by clothed entirely in purple from the hat on the head to the boots on the feet. Another wore nothing at all, all the bits hanging out and sashaying with the rumbling beat that came from somewhere unidentifiable. There were yellow capes and red dresses that were easily the width of several individuals. There was a small type individual with a hat that rose up as tall as the substantially taller individual walking alongside. There was a great deal of color that almost, but not quite, hid the tattered nature of the clothing and the dirty human-like faces. Above the crowd, levitating transportation vehicles zipped here and there, small or large seemingly dependent on the direction. The lights were the most distracting, laser lights of random colors filling the air, and what looked like human neon lights mounted on every building.

    All the buildings were constructed of a hard type material that shone dully, the unyielding surface bouncing the piercing lights and overloading the sounds. Individuals yelled, some screamed, there was the rumble of a deep thumping music, and the smell was a mixture of body stink, exhaust, and something food-like that made my stomach twist in horror. I tried to find reason in it, an event to explain the number of individuals, or the loud music, but all seemed random, the flow and sway of bodies. 

    One thing I could tell, however, was that those entering and exiting the levitating transportation vehicles onto rooftop pads and bridges appeared cleaner and better dressed than those on the ground. There were flashes of jewelry, sequins, and elaborate hair as they disembarked, flowing underthings of rainbow colors apparent even from where I stood. The scene above was in direct contrast to the scene among the streets. As I watched from my hiding spot, I could see that the individuals above were not only Sideians but other species as well, which rocked my concentration for a moment as my mind tried to understand the situation. Timelines never intertwined. Experiments were strictly separated, and Sideia was an experiment, just as the human timeline was, and as such the only visiting species other than Sideians would be Collectors or Guardians.

    The crowd above looked like neither.

    I frowned, the memory of my abduction floating upwards into consciousness as I viewed the scene above. Clearly, someone had wanted to take me to this place, and I wondered who and why. Suddenly, an answer to that question is all I could focus on.

    I slipped into the crowd without worrying about being noticed, the flashing lights helping to mask the blood-soaked tunic and my bloodied appearance in general. I felt a hand immediately, a small hand reaching inside my tunic. I grabbed at the wrist, holding tight as I pulled and turned. The thief appeared young, with large brown eyes and a bald head. A scar slashed across the right side of his face, puckered at his cheek and splitting his mouth. He grinned, a lopsided, grotesque grin, then expertly twirled out of my grasp. He disappeared into the crowd. I shifted, taking my staff out from where I’d put it in my holster, grasping it with my left hand though keeping it closed, and then proceeded through the crowd. The tiny hands were everywhere, patting at me and crawling along my skin, but I had nothing of value and after a moment, the hands disappeared. Clearly, they had gotten the message that I had nothing and left me alone, but the thieves gave me an idea and I eyed the side of a building. These people pushing and pulling at me were as destitute as I was, and probably as desperate. But the people overhead were clearly of a different class and of different timelines.

    The opportunities I needed lay above my head.

    When I came to another alley, I turned, stepping out of the crowd and into the stench. Among the people, I hadn’t noticed the smell but caught in the more claustrophobic alley, it was overwhelming, and I gagged.

    “No deep breaths here,” I said to the wall, securing my staff once again and studying the sidewall made of some strange material looking a lot like brick. There might be security measures along the wall, discouraging individuals from taking the rooftops, but curiosity drove me forward, reaching for the first handhold in the bricks and pulling myself up. I expected a jolt, razor-wire, something to stall my progress but I made it to the top of the building in moments even with the wounded shoulder, refusing to look down to see if anyone noticed my ascent. 

    Catching the ledge, I pulled myself up slightly, toes on a small line of jutting building, the wound in my back protesting with a tear that I ignored as I peaked over.

    The roof was flat, but not without obstacles, two Guardians in black standing on either side of a glass doorway. The presence of Guardians further spiked my curiosity and I felt something tighten in my stomach, the memory of Rushielian and a woman’s voice telling someone to take me to Darkside prominent in my thoughts.

    Shaking, I took a few deep breaths and looked around, surveying the best way to gain access to the doorway. Partially hidden by a dome of glass, I pulled myself up and over, lying on my back for a moment and looking up at the sky above. The level of light pollution hid most everything, but one or two stars shone brightly through the mist.

    I rolled over to my stomach and pulled myself across the roof, keeping the glass dome between me and the two Guardians. Surprise was the only way that I would beat the two. My first thought was to break the glass, either of the dome or the doorway to distract the Guardians long enough to slip by; however, that would alert others to my presence and I discarded the idea. I was going to have to fight my way past.

    Easing the staff from my back, I elongated it with a flick of my wrist and without thinking, relying on instinct, catapulted myself up and over the glass dome. I took the first Guardian by surprise with a heavy whip of my weapon, knocking him unconscious with an impact to the side of his head.

    The other Guardian, also male but shorter and slight turned in surprise though already moving, attacking me with knives that appeared in both of his hands. The Guardian was unfamiliar, his fighting style was not, and I crouched low as he went high. It had been a long time since I’d fought one on one with another Guardian, but the rhythms were the same and we exchanged blows, mine across his back, his to my stomach. He wanted me to double over but I’d learned the hard way not to double over on a punch, and went the other way, bringing my leg up and catching him in the jaw with my foot, a jarring blow that made his head fall backward.

    Already the fight had taken too long and I crouched low bringing up a right hook that caught him across the face. He blinked as if in surprise and then slumped to the ground.

    Hand throbbing, I eyed the two Guardians and decided to leave them where they were knowing they wouldn’t stay unconscious for long. I had only moments, so quickly I eased inside the building and crouched low to take in the scene. I stood on some kind of deep walkway that led to a wide staircase lit by several hanging chandeliers. In the shadows, I crept closer and looked over the edge of the walkway to where a large group of individuals mingled. I bit back a word as I caught sight of the now familiar figure of Master Cynthe speaking to a larger, older male Sideian. Shadowing her were two Guardians and as I looked away, I caught sight of four more Guardians in black. They were guarding two other individuals I didn’t recognize other than they held the aura and personhood of Master. One was tall and large and very pale, bald head tattooed with swirling blue suggesting that once upon a time he was T’nGali. The other was slight, barely bigger than a human child, with long green tentacles flowing from the back of the head and into the crowd. Neither Master I knew, but that there were three Masters along with their Guardians left room for a lot of questions.

    I started to back slowly away. I’d just barely taken down the two Guardians outside. I wouldn’t be able to beat six Guardians and I most definitely wanted to avoid the Masters’ attention. Crouched in the dark, contemplating the situation, the decision of what to do next was taken from me, glass shattering from above, the dome imploding inward as a dozen or more individuals fell from the sky, all of them dressed in gray with black masked hoods over their heads. The new arrivals held guns at ready and when they hit the floor, they started for the Masters. The Guardians moved, weapons appearing in their hands as they took on the attackers. Screams echoed, Sideians shoving each other out of the way as they ran. The music screeched to a halt and somewhere something let out a smell of smoke and brimstone. 

    I watched, warring with myself, feeling that I should help but not sure who to help. A rather large part of my psyche believed that Master Cynthe had something to do with my abduction, which pushed me towards indifference when it came to her safety. Along with that small detail, there were a lot of Guardians, a lot of attackers, and I couldn’t see what help I could give even if I was sure of a side.

    I returned the way I came, staying to the shadows, pausing at the door to see if there were more individuals in gray outside. Seeing nothing, I sprinted across the rooftop and let myself down the side of the building, retracing my climb from before. I kept alert for anyone following but the commotion was enough to hide my retreat and I made the alley floor without problems. There I paused, trying to make sense of what I saw. Clearly, Master Cynthe, along with two other Masters, were meeting with Sideians. And then there were the attackers. Who were they and why had they targeted the Masters in the room?

    I shook my head, running a palm across the front of my face as if to gain insight through physical contact. Nothing had made sense for a while and I added what I just witnessed to the growing list. The alleyway was a short one and I went to its entrance, looking out over the crowd, mind still on the matters above. I had no destination and I withdrew from the corner back into the alley to think on my options, glancing again up towards the commotion going on above my head.

    “Hello, ladybird,” a heavily accented voice said from behind me, causing all the hairs on my arms to stand up. 

    Putting a hand at my back as I turned, I face a trio of medium built males, all wearing orange and red, bright blond hair spiked above faces painted gold. The color scheme was obnoxious, but not out of line with the rest of the people on the main thoroughfare. The large knives in their hands, however, were very much not part of most everyone else’s ensembles. It also appeared as if they knew how to use them, holding the knives at an angle, low to their hips.

    Keeping my stance loose, but not liking the scenario, I tried for a smile.

    “Hello.” I glanced at each one, meeting dark eyes, pulling out my staff and extending it with a button, blades extending on either end. “You should move on.”

    They exchanged looks. The one in the middle took a step forward, creating a triangle between him, the other two, and the wall behind them. To the right of them and the left of me, individuals passed by without a glance. I doubted even if they did look over this way it would have made much of a difference, but the distraction would have been nice. 

    The front one grinned, showing gold teeth. “No. We don’t think so.”

    I shrugged.

    Moved.

    I would have won easily. I knew how to fight within tight quarters, and even without Kieren playing off of my moves, I easily unarmed two by striking the wrist of the one on the right, and with a twirl, downwards and up with my staff, the wrist of the one of the left. Nursing sore wrists, those two goons stepped back, the leader moving into a crouch that exposed his entire upper body to a quick stab downwards across the shoulders. My strike caused him to stumble towards the ground where I caught him with a knee into the chin. He failed backward, falling to his back.

    I should have won, but at some point, in the brief time it took me to disable the three, four more showed up, shadowing the entryway to the alley, one of them holding what looked like a human pistol with additions. My mind quickly clicked through the different options. I could go up the wall and be caught exposed to the gun fire that would surely come, or I could back into the corner and try to take out each one at a time. Neither option had a high rate for success and with the gun, there was little I could do 

    With a sinking feeling in my stomach, I focused inward, making the decision despite the likely consequences. I had already broken several Guardian rules and justified breaking another one to save my life.

    I closed my eyes to establish Origin and Destination.

    Nothing was there. The strings of energy, the field of operation that always hovered just outside of my awareness, imprinted upon entrance to the Master Realm and which was as easily accessible as breathing, was entirely gone. The feeling was very similar to the way my interface felt when Tirius had used the device to shut down my access.

    I was dead. 

    Without that resource then, and with nothing to lose by trying, I decided on the element of surprise, running straight for the four individuals. Their faces did, indeed, contort into surprise, the one with the gun just barely raising it in response by the time I gained them. But I was slight, much smaller than the four, and instead of barreling into them as Kieren would have likely done, I veered towards the brick wall, and using the wall for momentum, leaped, hitting the shoulder of the one on the right and vaulting over his head.

    I barely made it, stumbling on the awkward jump and slamming down hard, twisting my ankle with a searing pain that radiated up my leg. Ignoring it, I pushed myself into the crowd at a hobbling run. Behind me there was a shout, a voice telling everyone to move, but I stayed focus on the path ahead of me, losing myself further and further into the crowd of colorfully dressed individuals. I stood out in my black though, so I deftly snagged a brightly rainbowed scarf from someone who wasn’t paying attention, hurriedly covering my head and shoulders as I continued to run. A velvet purple hat was next, placed over the scarf, and then a yellow and red shawl that smelled like rotten fish, which I wrapped around my waist in a poor resemblance of a shift. I bent over, still hobbling with a steady throb of pain in my ankle, but my height was now lower than the top of the crowd.

    I slowed to a meandering walk.

    I had no direction. The individuals around me moved in a sea of bad smells, bright colors, and loud voices. They joked and snorted, puss coming from mouths, pock-marked skin underneath layers of grime, a throng of the decrepit enjoying their world as they knew it. I wandered among these groups, listening to their different voices talk about what appeared to be the mass murder of several individuals. Why there was a celebration of murder, I couldn’t discern, though Darkside had its own rules and ways. I wished for Kieren’s input. Knowing Darkside as he did, he would’ve been able to tell me what was going on, at least to a degree. I was clueless, trying to stay out of everyone’s way and out of their notice.

    Beyond the occasional glance, I succeeded, seeming to also lose my pursuers. As I moved with the crowd, letting the mass of bodies take me, I noticed the crowd starting to thin. Straightening to my full height, I adjusted the shawl around my waist, trying to ignore the poof of stench that arose with the movement. I’d made a rooky mistake, not blending into the crowd immediately, wearing my entirely well-sewn black outfit among the color and poverty, walking purposefully through the crowds instead of wandering about randomly. I’d stood out as an easy mark, as someone not of the area, and further, as someone with money.

    A tourist.

    I’d been stupid and I was lucky that I’d come away with only a swollen ankle, which was already starting to heal. It was the tired that dragged my steps, that clouded my mind. Tired and hungry and frustrated and clearly not making good decisions. Surveying the area immediately around me, I tried to surmise what kind of neighborhood I had wandered. The crowd continued to grow smaller and soon I was of only a handful of individuals walking down the wide street. On either side, the buildings were spreading apart, growing squatter and more warehouse-like, and as I walked further into the area, I took a random turn on purpose, isolating myself from the remaining Sideians. I couldn’t judge the time, though I figured it was somewhere in the early morning hours, the temperature reaching towards uncomfortably cold, and I studied the structures around me.

    Commercial buildings, I thought, as I caught sight of signage naming some shipping company. I needed a place to rest, that tiredness pulling down at my bones, and I needed to explore the reason for not being able to travel, though I had a suspicion it had something to do with the knife wound in my back, now closed over and nearly healed. The buildings all appeared to be empty, no lights shining out of the few windows, the sound of my own step the loudest sound in the area. Distantly, I could still make out a low thump, but the rest of the night had settled down into quiet. In a way, it was eerily silent, as if no life existed at all, but that was likely my own imagination and I tried very hard to shake the feeling of doom that crept along with me. Too much had happened, and I realized, even as I surveyed the buildings for the perfect mark, that I was not processing all the events. I held them, in my brain: the abduction; the manipulated timeline; the breaking protocol and leaving the realm; the fight of fellow Guardians and masked attackers. All those things had happened, yet it felt like they had happened to someone else, somewhere else.

    I wondered when it would all hit. 

    I hoped that I would be somewhere safe when it did. 

    Picking a two-story brick building off the wide road, I peeked into the one window that was next to the double door made of a metal I couldn’t identify. The warehouse was a little more run-down than others, with a decided feel of neglect, and I hoped that was the case, though I couldn’t make out anything through the window.

    I tried the door. Maybe another cottage scenario, but it was locked. The windows were inaccessible as well, a line of solid glass along the top of the building. I could pick the lock, but I preferred not to, especially because I had no kit with me. Kieren was that good; I was not. The roof was flat, and I decided on trying that way before looking for something else. My ankle felt considerably better, and my shoulder no longer hurt, so it was an easy climb, the brick allowing for toe and finger holds as I pulled myself up and eventually over the lip of the roof and onto the flat rough surface. I’d hoped for a door, access, but the roof was smooth except for the occasional pipe jutting upwards.

    I stayed there, lying on my back, staring at the stars, arms tired from the constant climbing. Cold, exhausted, discouraged, and hungry, I went through my options. I had no desire to initiate my interface, even if I could, knowing that it was tracked somehow. But did it really matter? I could survive, find a way into the building, find food, but without the ability to Travel, what was I going to do on Darkside but survive? I had no way of contacting Tirius. No way of contacting Kieren. And no way to go anywhere. Did it matter if I was tracked, picked up, and brought back to the Citadel? It would be bad for me, I knew that, especially as I had run away from the situation. But what was I going to do otherwise? Lie on a random roof and freeze under a cold night sky?

    As if an answer, I felt the familiar pull and tug of an Arrival. I let it happen, not moving, not tensing. They’d found me again likely because of the very same thing that was causing my inability to Travel.

    “What are you doing lying there?” a very familiar voice said, the tug on my awareness an instantaneous thing.

    I turned my head only, expecting a ghost, or an image, or something other than my partner standing there, dressed entirely in black per usual, green eyes assessing.

    “How’d you find me?” I asked, though I surmised the answer.

    He held up a hand device.

    I nodded, looking away, closing my eyes. “I could have used your Arrival a little while ago,” I said into the air.

    “It took a while to pinpoint the timeline.”

    I smiled at myself, at the situation. I opened my eyes and slowly sat up, curling my knees around into a cross-legged position. Kieren still stood where he’d Arrived, watching me with something that I thought might have been concern. I couldn’t be for sure though. “You’ve come to take me back then?”

    He nodded. “You ran. They want to know why.”

    “I wanted answers,” I replied.

    “Here?” he asked, sweeping a hand to encompass all of Darkside.

    “An accident. I didn’t mean to Travel here; it was the first location that popped into my mind during a very stressful moment. Honestly, I didn’t even know I knew the timeline location. And they did something that made it so I can’t Travel.”

    “The tracker,” he confirmed.

    “And they sent you because they knew I wouldn’t fight you.”

    He shrugged, broad shoulders under black rising towards his ears and then falling slowly downward. It was such a curious movement. “They thought I could reason with you, yes.”

    I shook my head. “You heard my story, and you don’t think it strange that some guy shows up at that exact time? And more than that, you don’t find a small amount of strange that the Archivist, The Archivist, is on the run too?” I paused and looked down at my hands still stained with blood from my shoulder wound. I decided right then not to tell him about Master Cynthe and the other Masters, or about the attack on them. Shaking my head, I looked up. “No. Something is going on, something that is bigger than us, or Tirius, or Master Ral. Something is going on and I wanted answers, so I left to see if I could find them. They shouldn’t have taken away my archive access.”

    Kieren stood staring out over the warehouse rooftops. He didn’t answer me, neither did he indicate that he’d even heard. I sighed and then got to my feet, brushing the dirt off the shawl I still wore draped around my waist. At some point, I’d stopped noticing its noxious smell.

    “Well, let’s go then. Take me to your leader,” I said, walking towards Kieren who slowly returned my gaze, but sideways, his eyes slipping away each time they met mine. 

    The outfit, however, caused a raised eyebrow.

    “It’s been an interesting night,” I said as way of an explanation and then undid the shawl, took off the velvet hat, and slipped out of the scarf. The bright colors pooled against the black rooftop.

    “They just want to talk with you,” he said evenly.

    “And they know I’d go with you.”

    Again, the shrug.

    I studied my partner. Kieren took orders and rarely did he ask questions, it was one of the things that made him such a good Guardian, but the set to his shoulders, his weight along the balls of his feet felt wrong, at odds with the quiet night. “Why are you here, really?”

    “Because they’ve asked me to get you,” he said.

    “And you do as you’re told.”

    “Because it is my duty as a Guardian to bring you in.”

    I blinked several times and then nodded slowly. “Right. Then, I suppose we should be going.” I’d stopped right in front of him, looking up as I always had to, spying the scar that ran along the underside of his chin. It was white now, finally healing from the puckered red that had marred his usually smooth skin for cycles. I felt like touching it, putting my finger on the white tissue, running my fingertip along the puckered skin. Instead, I put my hand out. “Let’s do this, then.”

    Though he didn’t have to, he took my hand in his own, long fingers wrapping around my smaller ones in an easy embrace. His hand was cold, icy, uncomfortable.

    He pulled.

    We Traveled.

     Arrival was disorienting, but I kept my feet and immediately opened my eyes, taking several deep breaths to steady the dizziness. We’d arrived outside the Citadel, the stone walls just visible in the distance, the ancient wood behind us in all its twirling darkness. I wondered at the location, taking in the scene, glancing at Kieren who barely shook his head.

    Master Ral waited for us, along with two Guardians and another Master I only recognized as being a Master because of the royal blue robe he wore, a formal robe that I only knew by description. Tall, very thin in the draping robe, the Master wavered back and forth as if moved by an invisible wind. Entirely without hair, dark eyes stared out from a triangular face.

    “These two, then, Master Ral?” this other Master asked in a soft, pleasant voice with a lilting accent I didn’t recognize.

    Master Ral nodded once, then turned to look at the two Guardians. I didn’t recognize them, which was not entirely unusual because Guardians numbered in the hundreds. They were also a lot older, a male and male pair with graying hair pulled back into low cues, lines at their dark brown eyes. They wore their black uniforms and stood at attention with rod straight backs.

    Everything happened very fast. 

    Kieren’s grip tightened to a painful degree as the Guardian on the right pulled out a handheld weapon I had never seen before. 

    We Traveled.

    Travel is never pleasant. There is always the feeling of dissociation while Traveling, and then the dizziness and sometimes nausea on Arrival. That time, it was as if my body was being torn apart. Pain jolted across every piece of my existence, pulled in all directions while simultaneously being turned inside out. There was a screaming, that was me, but wasn’t me, and then a tearing of reality. 

    Everything stopped.

    Then just as quickly resumed.

    Pressure and falling.

    And then Arrival.

    I threw up.

    On my hands and knees in the sand, panting in the strong wind, distantly I was surprised I had anything to throw up. I’d not eaten anything since the soup in the cottage.

    “You okay?” Kieren asked from somewhere next to me. I opened my eyes, squinting in the bright sunlight. Around us, dunes of grass stretched in three directions and a sparkling sea was in the fourth. It wasn’t warm, the wind a biting thing, and I wondered if I was going to ever Travel somewhere with a pleasant temperature.

    “Surviving,” I answered, looking over to where Kieren lay on his back, staring straight up. “You?”

    “Yeah,” he said, then rolled over, pushing himself up. Sand clung to his skin and clothing, bright flashes in his black hair.

    “You expected that,” I said, not asking.

    “Yeah,” he repeated, then looked around. “I did. I didn’t know how to tell you, they were recording everything, or at least Tirius said they were going to record everything.”

    “Tirius. You’ve talked to him then?”

    Kieren looked over and caught my gaze, holding it steady. “Yes, right before he died.”

    His words struck me, the sudden thump of reaction somewhere in the vicinity of my solar plexus a physical reaction. “Died?” 

    “I went to see him in the medical unit after you disappeared, to see if I could get some answers. He didn’t say much, just that I needed to protect you at all costs and to know that everything we do is recorded by our interface. Then we talked about random things. He told me about his time as a child growing up in the human timeline, his first mission as a Collector. Interesting guy, that Archivist. I went back a day later to ask more questions and the administrator on duty said he had died during the night.”

    I studied his face. “You don’t think so, then?”

    “Did you see any wounds when we picked him up?”

    I shook my head, sighing deeply. “No. But, there could’ve been something we missed.”

    Kieren stared at me. “You really think so, after what just happened?”

    I pulled my knees towards my chest, putting my forehead down against them. “No,” I said to the sand. “No.”

    “Come on, the house is over there,” Kieren said, and I looked up at his words, first to look in the direction he pointed and then to look at him.

    “You know where we are?” I asked as I gained my feet, pushing up a bit slowly and unsteadily.

    Kieren rattled off the coordinates, though he put a hand up. “But, before you ask, it can wait. You look and smell terrible. Let’s get you cleaned up and then we’ve got to get the tracker out.”

    I ignored the tracker comment. “And food? Maybe a bed?”

    Kieren laughed. It was a golden sound that warmed my numbness. “Yes. And food and maybe a bed.”

    I followed him across the sand, grass sharp in the wind, steps slow and difficult, but truly, I would have followed Kieren to the end of time for food and a bath. I kept walking, one foot in front of the other, moving forward as I always did.

    Originally published 2020, copywrite 2020

  • To Have Fun

    Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

    I am jealous of certain writers.

    JK Rowling and JRR Tolkien pop to mind. Not because of the usual reasons, or well the reasons one would assume (ie fame and popularity), but rather because these two authors, in particular, created a world in which they lived in… in which they wanted to live in.

    Most people know the story of Tolkien, but just in case it’s something new to you, Tolkien was a language genius. He loved to study language and did it obsessively. He especially enjoyed learning the Nordic language and fell in love with Welsh the first time that he heard it.

    This obsession allowed him to understand the concepts of language; the building blocks used in languages to… almost universally… create meaning. This understanding, then, led to him creating his own language, slowly building it, piece by piece. Eventually, he got to the point where he had the language, yet had no utilization for it.

    The language needed a mythology.

    And thus, Middle Earth was born.

    More people know the story of Rowling; how she was on her way home via train when the story of Harry came to her like a flash of lightening (haha!). She has since let the public peek into this world, and even discounting the bits that she has let out, one can tell that the world is much more extensive and detailed than what anyone would need to write a story.

    It was her world. Her playground.

    And this is what I am jealous of.

    These worlds in which the authors are fully immersed. In which they “play.”

    There is so much focus on what sells, or could sell. And it is what it is… I am not advocating for change. Seriously. When there is a monopoly in the publishing industry, of course there is formulaic writing, or writing that is done just to sell (interesting story about Sparks in this vein).

    I do, however, find it sad. Sad that writers are so focused on the business of writing (not all, but a good amount) that they lose the magic that comes with world building… that comes with playing.

    This includes me.

    I am not a famous writer (obviously, ha!), but I do write for a living and that writing follows very clear guidelines with very little flexibility. Again, “it is what it is,” but is so much the case that even when I want to create a world to “play in,” I find it almost impossible… no, I do find it impossible… to, well, have fun.

    I want to create a world in which I am eager to return again and again. I am very familiar with the aspect that writing is work, including writing novels or other versions of fiction; however, I want to explore the idea that writing can be something enjoyable… at least, some of the time.

    How to get past this blockage?

    Because it is a blockage. A weird blockage that is something like writer’s block but not really. Basically, somewhere along the lines I forgot what it meant to have fun writing.

    What about you dear readers? Do you write because it’s your job? Or do you have fun with it? Play around, throw sand, and swing so high that you can almost touch the sky?

  • Chapter 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Perhaps me being here meant nothing at all.

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

    The cold woke me. 

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

    Time to explore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    I attempted a smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Something lurched in my stomach. “I do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Her name was Darla Walhburg.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    My smile grew. “Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Sally waved a hand. “See you then.”

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

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

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

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

    Curiosity won out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Sorry, no,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    I’d arrived in Darkside.

    Originally published 2020, copywrite 2020

  • Chapter 4

    Kieren waited for me. Or at least it seemed that way for as I arrived, a familiar strong hand pulled me up to my feet. Rubbing at my eyes, I swayed for a moment, taking in the scene. Kieren stood immediately in front of me dressed in his black training gear, a carefully neutral expression on his face though I immediately noticed the tightness around his shoulders.

    I looked beyond Kieren’s gaze to the individuals directly behind him; an unknown Administrator in a gray uniform, the state of his tentacles putting him at a rather mature age, and Master Ral. Master Ral was half my size, entirely without hair, dark-skinned, with eyes of bright blue. Those eyes were assessing me calmly, but I felt Kieren’s tension as he stood in front of me, as if to shield me from the Master and the Administrator. I had arrived via the node point, tucked away in the corner of the second floor and used for Guardian official business only. That I had a welcoming committee was very interesting as I understood that it was impossible to track anyone’s Arrival, or so I’d always been led to believe.

     “Guardian Wren Oridian,” Master Ral said in a rolling deep voice. “You are to follow me.”

    I glanced at Kieren but he gave nothing away, not meeting my gaze. Keeping the questions to myself, I followed Master Ral without a word. 

    We walked along a short passageway towards heavy double wooden doors that led out of the secure area and into a main thoroughfare. Massive glass windows lined the hall along the left side, the evening glow of a setting sun illuminating the space in soft orange and yellow light, casting shadows along the smoothly polished stone floors. My heels clicked along the stone, echoing, and I wondered how long I’d been gone.

    Gaining another pair of doors, I followed Master Ral into the busier main hall. Individuals stopped and stared, watching us as we moved through the crowd. I recognized a few faces, but the majority were Collectors and Administrators, both of which I knew very few. It wasn’t that they knew me, or that they knew my story, it was that a Master was in their midst and leading, Kieren, clearly a Guardian, and me, an unknown individual dressed as a human from the early 20th century. The rumors would now begin in earnest, even if no one knew about my “kidnapping.”

    Master Ral walked with a steady pace, ignoring everyone, leading us away from the main area and into a section of the Citadel I had never been before. This was not unusual as most of us stayed in our section of the massive building as there was no need to visit the other areas. The building was a continuous line creating an octagon surrounding a large interior courtyard separated into different sections. Each piece of the of octagon contained a specific branch of the Realm, where the training, lodging, and administration of that branch was located. Master Ral was currently leading us in the opposite direction of the Guardian section where I had arrived, and towards the area that housed the Master’s temporary quarters, set aside for when they visited the Citadel.

    The area seemed older than the Guardian or even the Collector wings. The floors were still stone but worn down into grooves, the tapestries along the walls heavy and a bit more faded. Dark fell, and floating lanterns automatically engaged above our head. Several antiques lined the corridor, items that I was unable to identify without closer examination but looked to represent many different evolutions of many different species. Nothing, however, prepared me for the four-story circular room that Master Ral eventually led us to. There, the number of scrolls lining the walls counted in the millions. I stopped on the threshold and stared upwards into the gloom. Lights floated about the interior, mobilized to allow for continuous illumination and I saw that the records reached up to the top, only broken by the ladders and the three large windows viewing the darkness of the courtyard. During the day, the light from those windows was likely massive and all-encompassing.

    Master Ral sat down at a heavy wooden desk in towards the middle, settling into the large wooden chair behind it before indicating that Kieren and I should join him in the smaller wooden chairs directly opposite. Taking our seats, I stilled as Master Ral stared at me, his blue eyes hard to look at, though I endured it without fidgeting, especially as my improvised thigh holster was digging into skin and muscle.

    “Would you like to explain?” he asked after a moment.

    I hardly wanted to explain, not really. There was a definite aura of being placed on trial, which made me immediately defensive and the Master sitting across from me was not helping the situation; however, outside of flat out denying the story, there was not much else to be done about it, so I told him.

    Kieren’s considerable attention hung on my every word and I glanced over at him occasionally as my story unfolded. His expression remained hard to read, his body language of someone at ease with the situation and the story I told, and it was only when I mentioned the Traveler that he tensed. I wondered with a flash of paranoia if Kieren knew about the manipulation but dismissed the idea as soon as I thought of it, labeling it absurd.

    Finishing, silence descended, and I watched and waited for Master Ral’s reaction.

    There was none. His face gave nothing away and the longer he stared at me with those neutral bright eyes, the harder it became to stay still and not start confessing things that never even happened.

    “You don’t know what happened to him?” The Administrator interrupted the silence, its considerable bulk near the door. 

    I looked towards it, slightly startled having forgotten that the Administrator was also in attendance. “Who?”

    “The Archivist, of course.”

    I shook my head. “I don’t. He was there, and then he wasn’t there. My interface rebooted and I came here, where you all met me.” There was a question in my statement though everyone ignored it.

     “This is a complicated situation, very complicated,” Master Ral began, bringing my attention back to him. I very much understood how the story I told could cause all sorts of complications, but his gaze seemed to pin me to my chair, and I had a distinct feeling that I was the complication, not the situation. Master Ral continued. “The circumstances what they are, I am temporarily relieving you of your duties until we conclude a more formal investigation.” 

    I nodded despite my unease. That they did not react to the assassination story created questions that pecked at the back of my brain, though I did my best to ignore the questions and focus on the now. It appeared as if I would have plenty of uninterrupted time to pursue any train of thought.

    Master Ral switched his intense gaze to Kieren. “Additionally, Guardian Kieren Taninian, as requested, you are being reassigned to another Guardian.”

    I stared, the words circling about my head before landing with a thud. Something shifted in my stomach. As Guardians, we were assigned from the second cycle of our training to a partner who we then trained, ate, and slept near throughout the remaining six cycles of training. Only upon graduation were there separations, like different living quarters, but by then separation was harder than being together. That was the point of the training. To separate Guardian partners was to severe a carefully nurtured bond required for assignments.

    My mind flashed to the Rushielian debacle. 

    Kieren sat forward, his profile giving nothing away. “Respectfully, sir, I would prefer to wait,” he said.

    Master Ral stared at Kieren, studying him for a moment. “Administrator B’jin, please escort Guardian Wren to her quarters.” He pointed to Kieren. “You will stay, I wish to have a word.”

    There was nothing to be done. I controlled my panic out of habit, keeping my face neutral because it was my default when faced with an unknown and difficult situation, but I felt the pressure of the future pushing me towards the ground. I followed the Administrator’s large body out of the room without another word and without looking at Kieren, who remained seated staring impassively at Master Ral.

    The walk to my quarters was a blur and once in my room, I absently sat on my bed, kicking my low-heeled shoes off, and stared at the stone wall thinking of what just happened, allowing my brain to circle for any sign of logic. Understanding remained elusive as I glanced around my chambers. The room was as I left it, the messed bed with too many pillows, clothing spread out along the lounge chair in the corner, desk covered in books and scrolls. It was a small space, but my space, one that I would usually retreat to after an assignment with a kind of familiar comfort.

    Right then, the room felt foreign.

    To me, it felt like a day had passed, but accessing my interface, it indicated more than three days. Three full sun cycles had passed between the time I’d been released from the medical wing, and now, sitting in my room, questions circling and circling my brain. The feeling of the unknown, of being untethered reminded me of earlier days, of days before my decision to become a Guardian, when I trained as a Collector and I would wander through the courtyards in the middle of the night and wonder about all that I was learning, all that I was reading, questioning the process, the effectiveness, the reason why. A Collector collected the stories and I had started to realize that I could not handle the totality of the position, the requirements of leaving myself out of the story, to only record what is witnessed, not what it was that I felt. I couldn’t separate myself from the reality, the stories as told to me. A Collector collected stories, without personal emotional interjection or influence but I was unable to make myself impartial. 

    After experiencing the complexity and intricacies of Collector training, Guardian training had felt simple. Felt clean in the way there were parameters and rules, and a Guardian operated within those parameters and rules. And when I had paired with Kieren, things had progressed even further, and I had felt secure for the first time since coming into the Realm. 

    But now I was at sea.

    Lost. Again.

    A hollow and empty feeling in my gut. An ache at the base of my spine as if someone was pushing there. And the inability to access my feeling center, as if I was cut off from tears that I should have been crying. 

    I rubbed at the spot between my eyes, reminding myself that I was not permanently suspended; I was not permanently without a partner; this was a temporary thing that would be cleared up upon investigation. I had done absolutely nothing wrong. I was a victim of circumstances. They would see that, and then it would be fine. 

    Tirius was still in this timeline and he might have been already talking, already clearing my name, and though how that would fit into the current timeline I was a little hazy about, things would return to the way they were, and Kieren and I would be off to another assignment.

    The assassination, though, I thought. What had happened with the assassination? Was the Traveler an abnormality, outside the parameters of normality? Had a Traveler caused the world wars that so decimated the human timeline?

    What would have happened if Tirius and I had stopped the Traveler from ever making contact? Would the events still have occurred? And if they hadn’t what other chain of events would have happened? We were taught to never make changes to the timeline. That was why it was so important for a Collector to remain uninvolved with the stories they collected. It was essential that the experiments were not tampered with, but it sure seemed as if the human timeline had been manipulated; if not to the extent of creating wars, enough that surely the Traveler in question should be under review. 

    A soft bell alerted me to someone at the door. For a moment I thought to ignore it, but instincts prevailed, and I got up from my spot on the bed, smoothing out my features once more to show whoever was at the door that I was neutral and disinterested. I expected to see an Administrator or even Master Ral, but it was Kieren, his face carefully expressionless as he looked down at me. He was always the taller one, by almost a foot, and right then seemed larger, far away, faded. At some point in that small window of time, he’d changed clothing and was now dressed in a long black tunic and black trousers. He had his hair pulled into a braid down his back and a satchel crisscrossed his chest.

    “An assignment already?” I asked without inviting him in. There was something final about his appearance, as if this was a goodbye that was just barely allowed.

    “Yes, from Master Ral.”

    I wanted to ask if it was dangerous. I wanted to ask where and when was the assignment, and if he’d be assigned a new partner or if he was going solo. I wanted to ask him why he seemed very far away and what Master Ral had said after I left, and if he was the one that had requested the transfer.

    “You know this will work out, right?” he said in an even and matter of fact voice.

    I wasn’t sure, not really, but at the same time, I wasn’t sure what to say. He seemed to understand, a ghost of a smile playing across his face. 

    “It will,” he said, and then he pulled me into a hug. I stiffened, surprised. Though we were partners we rarely touched, an unspoken rule between us. But the hug continued, a moment, then another and I put my arms up to return it, resting my head against his chest for a breath, 

    He smelled of cold air and cedar.

    I closed my eyes, inhaling, feeling.

    I felt a pressure at my side.

    A drop.

    Tilting his head down, I felt his exhale along my hairline, across my cheek. “You are not safe here. You need to get out as soon as you can.” His words were a sigh, barely a sound. Pulling back, looking down, he scanned my face. Again, I had the feeling there was something different in the gaze, something I was unable to categorize. I bit down hard on the questions as he barely shook his head at me and stepped back.

    “Good luck,” I said to cover up the surge of nerves in my belly, the sudden feeling of loss that tripped through my chest. 

    “You too.”

    Then he turned and walked away.

    Not watching him leave, I closed the door to my rooms and went to the lavatory where I thought there was less of a chance of anything being recorded. Staring at myself in the mirror, seeing but not seeing the 1914 version of myself, the green and blues of the bathroom a sea-like backdrop, I put my interface into sleep mode. Theoretically, that was supposed to turn off all external communication, allowing for sleep, but I now wondered if that was even possible. It was as much privacy as I could create though, and I pulled out a thin slip of actual paper that Kieren had placed between my belt and dress.  

    It said one phrase: In the belly of the Archives.

    I dropped the paper into the toilet, closed the lid and hit the incinerator button. 

    Apparently, I needed to get into the Archives, but at the same time, Kieren had said I wasn’t safe. I trusted Kieren with my life. With my everything. That was the nature of Guardian partners.

    Not safe.

    But. I needed to get to the Archives.

    I unbuckled the dress’s belt and pulled the early 20th-century dress over my head, finally unstrapping the holster and staff from my thigh. I left the dress on the floor but put my weapon to the side, staring into the mirror once more before deciding on the quickest shower of my life. Adrenaline low-key pumped through my system as I hurried in the hot water, finally cleansing myself of the different kidnappings, the dirt, grime, and less tangible things washing down the drain.

    Emerging dripping, I hurried to the massive closet on the other side of the bathroom. Scanning the closet, most of the clothing was from past assignments, cataloged and hanging in saved bags. All clothing and costumes were easily recreated for assignments, but I had started to collect the different pieces, cycles of assignments arrayed in precise rows within the closet. 

    I ignored the assignment clothing, standing naked among the rows of bags for a moment before making the decision to go with a neutral all-black look. The official Guardian uniform was a black tunic over black trousers with a lining of red along the sleeves and pant legs. Made of loose and smooth material, the uniform was to train and work in. The clothing I picked was of the same design and material but was without ornament or anything to identify me as a Guardian. Pulling it on, the familiarity of the clothing helped center and ground me, and I stood in the middle of the closet with closed eyes, taking deep and even breaths.

    The precipice. I knew the feeling, but it was one that I had never fully embraced.

    I opened my eyes and took stock, choosing black boots that laced up my calves but leaving the heavier coat that matched. It was spring, the warmth already cloying, and though I wasn’t sure where I was headed other than to the Archives, the extra fabric would likely be more of a hindrance than a help. But I would not leave without weapons. I touched the front of one of the three drawers that were inlayed within the wall. The front slowly opened to reveal several different kinds of weapons and gadgets. Weapons were always necessary on assignment. Some species displayed their weapons proudly and prominently and used them proudly as well, but most timelines required a subtle approach, which included easily hidden devices that slipped up sleeves, along calve muscles and into holsters at the small of backs.

    I chose two long stiletto type knives, strapping them to both calves just under the boot lip, and two very small stars at my right forearm underneath the tunic. My usual staff waited for me where I’d left it and I picked out a comfortable back harness that I secured around my torso against my skin, the staff nestled into the curve of my lower back. Weapons secure, I hoped to have no need for them, but instincts propelled me along, the assassination echoing and echoing in the back of my mind as I prepared. 

    I glanced at my reflection, the mirror showing a slight human-like woman with freckled skin, gray eyes, brown hair, dressed entirely in black, with an equally black expression.  

    I neutralized my expression, dropping my tongue from the roof of my mouth, relaxing my jaw and around my eyes, watching my reflection’s face smooth out into neutrality. Glancing around the room one last time, I left without bothering to lock the door.

    The Archives were close to where Master Ral had taken me earlier, but instead of retracing my steps, I went the long way through the Guardian wing and into the Administrator wing. It was a few hours after peak, the moon bright and insistent through the tall windows, the halls empty except for the occasional individual. I kept my eyes relaxed, roaming, not so much to be suspicious but enough to know if anyone was noticing me. But, no one seemed to pay any attention and I got to the main doors of the Archives without incident. Pulling the heavy wooden door open I stepped into the perpetual gloom. The immediate space was massive, six stories high, the ceiling completely lost in shadows, smelling of must, books, and ink. A horseshoe-shaped circulation desk, cubbies, and offices took up one half of the large room, the other half filled with long tables that, even in the middle of the night, were occupied by random individuals studying and working. It was a place for Collectors, their home base, with the Archivist overseeing it all. The actual archives were located behind the desk, into a darkness that descended for miles and miles. All the collections were written out on various mediums and stored within the vast reach of the Archives. The collections were so numerous that no one, including Tirius, had ever fully cataloged or even laid eyes on the full collection. All the experiments, all the timelines, all the outcomes, and disasters and successes were represented within the halls that reached back so distant as to take days to find the end.

    A Diax was sitting behind the desk typing something out in front of it on an invisible keypad. I walked by, keeping my footstep silent, but as the Archives were open to all in the realm, I figured I wouldn’t be stopped until I was, the Diax’s voice gravelly between us as it commended that I go no further.

    The Diax looked vaguely apologetic, though I was likely assigning the emotion to it as there was no way to really tell without having them communicate it. The Diax’s emotions and feelings never played out on their scaled faces, which made them particularly apt at their position as Administrators and Collectors.

    “I’m forbidden to access the archives?” I asked, clarifying because I had never heard that happen before.

    The Diax’s tentacles waved slightly, as if in apology, though I knew I imagined that response, putting my human emotions on it. “Yes. All-access rights have been removed at this time.”

    I nodded slowly.

    “You are to direct any questions that you may have to Master Ral,” it continued.

    “Of course,” I managed, already trying to figure out how I was going to get into the belly of the Archives without the ability to go in through the front door.

    Turning, I started for the exit, but the Diax stopped me again.

    “Wait. I have something for you.” It shuffled from behind the desk and made its way towards me. Tentacle extended, it handed me a small pinky file, very similar to the one that Tirius had shown me but never given me.

    I took it. It was so small, thin, barely there and I held it gently, not sure what to do with it.

    “What is it?” I asked.

    “A data file.”

    “Yes, of course. What kind of data file?”

    Diax shook its entire body, a swinging motion. “No idea. It was left for you several cycles ago if we at the circulation desk ever saw you come in. You’ve not been here for a while.” The last comment was a reproach, or at least it sounded that way.

    “Cycles ago?” I asked, wondering if it really had been that long since I visited.

    It nodded and then turned, dismissing me. I stared at the drive, and then carefully palmed it. Cycles ago, which could mean anything at all, and without the knowledge of how to access the data on it, the file did me absolutely no good.

    I needed to get into the Archives. 

    It was possible that I could gain access to the Archives through Tirius’s office. He had a private elevator that descended directly to the stacks. Likely, however, that office was being watched, and I only knew of one other way to get in and that involved a theoretical tunnel that no one really knew about, the entrance being in a theoretical location somewhere outside the Citadel walls that again, no one really knew about.

    I took a door leading outside rather than walk aimlessly through the empty halls. Looking up at the sky, I found the familiar constellations hanging there, so close and so far away. Kieren and I had visited some of those stars on assignment, a concept that still caused chills. To be among the stars was something that I had always desired and one of the main reasons I’d become a Guardian.

    I took a deep breath, dropping my gaze, the smell of rosemary heavy from the bushes that lined the walkway. I absently walked towards the training maze that took up a large section of the massive courtyard. The maze was rarely used officially now that there was an interior maze, but the Administrators still maintained it, and younger generations used it to get lost and to do their personal things outside of the attention of any of the more evolved. Usually, I found walking it soothing even if I did occasionally come up on a personal tryst. In the middle of the night though it was deserted. I took one of the entrances, wandering randomly, counting my footsteps as I focused on one foot and then another, paying attention to those steps and those steps alone. After taking several corners, I was lost, though I could see the Citadel walls rising in the gloom to the front and right of me. I continued to walk, trying to arrive at a solution for gaining entrance to the Archives but without thinking of the solution. It was a method Collectors used to focus without focusing, accessing information lost in the depths of the subconscious and thereby unable to directly access. Focusing without focusing allowed for a different kind of brain pattern, a different kind of access.

    It worked some of the time, but as I tried to keep my attention on the steps and the steps alone, there was too much whirling about my brain. Rushiel. Disappearing Tirius. The suspension. Kieren off on an assignment without me. Being truly alone for the first time in six cycles. 

    Too much, circling and tumbling about.

    I stopped at a fountain, the water no longer running so that the pool was stagnant and overrun with moss and plants. The entirety of it was overgrown and untended. There was movement in the water as I watched, maybe some kind of fish, or reptile. It reminded me of an assignment Kieren and I had before Rushiel, located on a planet that had the same neglected, overgrown appearance. The object had been a stone box, located somewhere within the ruins of an ancient civilization. The assignment was to enter the ruins, locate the box that was giving off a magnetic signature, and return it. No one had told us that the ruins stretched for miles and the signal was sporadic at best. We had spent days moving through those ruins trying to locate the box and trying not to get killed by the various ancient boobytraps that existed everywhere. On the third night in the ruins, we had huddled close in front of the fire that only somewhat penetrated the heavy dark. To keep our minds off the sounds behind and around us, Kieren had talked about a theory of data transfer.

    Data transfer that included absorption.

    I blinked, looking around. The memory was very clear, as if I still sat there with Kieren, body warm next to mine, voice quiet.

    Absorption.

    I pulled the file out of my pocket. It was so tiny. So delicate.

    “In the body of the Archives,” I muttered, staring, knowing a lot could go wrong.

    I put the file in my mouth, gathering saliva and swallowed it, sitting down with my back against the lip of the overgrown fountain. I had no idea what to expect, and a part of me expected nothing at all. It was foolish to think that I could absorb a data file, but then my interface activated, an exterior file requesting access. I had to take my interface out of sleep mode to access it, but I wanted to know what was on the file, my stomach clenching with excitement and nerves.

    My interface woke, red letters informing me that the data was currently being downloaded. I expected loads of data, at least enough to tell me what was going on, maybe even a message from Tirius, or at least something letting me know how to start to make sense of the tangled web I’d found myself in, but no such luck

    Most of the data was corrupt, an error message lighting up my interface.

    Most of it except for a picture file of a very familiar cottage, the Travel location listed next to it.

    “Of course,” I whispered, pushing myself up to my feet and putting my interface back to sleep. “Of course.” I stared into the distance, thinking it through. If I left, I would be in violation of an unsaid assumption that I was to stay in the Citadel until the investigation was complete. But it was an unsaid assumption. No one had forbidden Travel, not technically. Of course, I knew that it was highly unlikely that I would be able to access a node for Traveling. If I wasn’t allowed in the Archives, Traveling was most assuredly off-limits as well, but I now knew a work around. Perhaps Travel was not possible within the Citadel, except by using a node but Traveling outside of the Citadel appeared to be entirely doable. 

    I left the maze quickly, moving through the different directions expertly. There was no way that I could leave the Citadel by the usual exits, all exits being manned by Guardians that were probably told to watch out for me; but I knew a few places that were not guarded, and I made for one of those, specifically the one near the Masters’ temporary chambers. Seeing the tall windows that I now knew belong to Master Ral, I grinned, spikes of ironic pleasure lighting up my chest as I moved into the very darkest of shadows. I’d written a security paper about this very situation. The serendipity of things, I thought, as I found the corner between the straight wall of the Citadel Hall and the curve of Master Ral’s tower. There the stone jutted outwards, not quite smooth, and very much scalable, at least for a Guardian.

    I moved up the wall steady and precise, fingers and toes finding the smallest of purchases. It was the second time I’d scaled the wall and as such, not nearly as nerve-wracking as the first time. The key was to keep my movement slow. Up, pause, look around, and up again. In this way, I gained the roof in a matter of moments, pulling myself up and over the threshold with a last push of arm strength. Secure on the sloped roof, I lay on my back, staring at the sky that had just started to lighten in the west. 

    I needed to move even as I continued to catch my breath. Allowing myself another few moments, I watched the lighter sky take hold until paranoia propelled me back into action. Calmer, I rolled over, crawling on my belly up the slant of the roof, over the peak and down the other side. This was the tricky part as the descent to the ground was significant, with no ability to climb down. But I had resources, including my staff that I extracted from the small of my back and extended. I pulled my tunic over my head, the cooler air causing goosebumps, and attached either end of the tunic to either end of the staff, securing it tightly with rope that I uncoiled from the end of one of my knives. Putting the knife back in the holster at my calf, I surveyed my contraption. Guardian clothing was multifaceted. It had to be because of the situations we sometimes found ourselves, which often included a severe lack of resources. Kieren and I had used this trick several cycles back, though we had used the Guardian uniforms. Theoretically, the outfit I now wore was supposed to be of the same caliber. I was depending on it, glancing over the edge at the ground I could just barely see in the growing light.

    “Now or never,” I muttered out loud to the air, taking hold of the staff with both hands. I made my way back towards the peak, staying low in a crouch. I scanned the area for anyone watching but there was no telling really, not from where I kneeled. “All or nothing,” I said, as if Kieren was next to me and then took off, the slope causing me to gain speed immediately, nearly tumbling me. I kept my feet, jumping up and out into the air at the last moment, constructed hand glider above my head.

    It worked. Sort of. The ground came up considerably faster than I would have liked, but I adjusted, keeping my feet tucked and landing into a roll, the damp spring earth softening the blow. I still laid there dazed for a moment after the landing, but morning was growing with the light, decreasing the amount of time I had of not being noticed. I was about as far away from the Citadel walls as I had been when Tirius had Traveled with me, so I stayed where I was, holding tight to my staff, closing my eyes and creating a space for Travel even as I initiated my interface. My thoughts were sticky, the process feeling as if I moved through something, but I was able to grasp the energy as I identified my place of origin, and then the place of arrival.

    I Traveled.

    Originally published 2020, copywrite 2020

  • Chapter 3

    If you are following along, this is the third chapter in the novel This Time.

    If you are just joining, the first chapter can be read here and the second chapter can be read here.

    Enjoy!

    Chapter 3

    The Diax released me two days later with stern instructions that I was to rest.

    “We are not yet sure what drug they used on you and so we don’t know what kind of lingering effect it may have,” the Diax told me as I prepared to leave.

    I nodded in understanding, but I needed to get out of the medical wing, see if I could find any more information about what happened. It gave me a look of knowing, or at least that is how I interpreted it as I exited the sterile environment back into the Citadel proper. I was thankful to not receive a lengthy lecture on the need for rest.

    Using the deserted hallway, I slowly made my way toward my quarters, trying to ignore the black that threated my vision, focusing on placing one foot in front of the other. As such, I almost ran into the Collector before I realized she stood in front of me. Full face framed with dark brown hair cut close to her chin, the Collector looked vaguely familiar and I glanced down at her wrist to read the tattoos. They indicated her second ranking, but the information didn’t help with her name or where I knew her from.

    “Guardian Wren?” she asked, the Rushielian lilt causing me to tense in response.

     “Yes?” I responded, glad my voice came out normal.

    “The Archivist wishes to speak with you.”

    In a way, I’d expected it. “I’m headed to my room to change and then I will attend to him. Is he back in his main office?”

    The Collector shifted from foot to foot, barely a movement, but I caught it and my focus narrowed. The tattoos on my wrist indicated a third level Guardian, but once upon a time they’d indicated a fourth level Collector, therefore, once upon a time, I had outranked her in training and experience. Perhaps this woman knew it, or not, but her non-verbals said she brought a message that she felt was dangerous.

    “He is getting sun, out beyond the West gate,” she replied.

    It was a lie, but I trusted the Archivist, if the message did come from him; and if it didn’t then I wanted to know who waited for me there.

    I thanked the Collector who visibly relaxed at my acceptance and then hurried away. I watched her disappear around the corner then closed my eyes for a moment, leaning up against the stone wall, feeling tired in my bones. Sighing, I pushed myself up and then walked to my rooms, not to rest but to change out of the hospital jumper and into a pair of regulation Guardian black. I felt a stab of thankfulness in my chest at the sight of my staff lying on my bed. Kieren had likely retrieved it and I needed to remember to thank him. With staff strapped to my back and clothed in Guardian apparel, I felt closer to normal and made my way to the West gate.

    Summer closed in and the heat felt good atop my head as I wound my way through the interior courtyard, life a constant hum of activity around me. I nodded at the two Guardians standing at attention at the exit, who replied in kind. Passing underneath the heavy walls and back into daylight on the outside, I started off on the road that circled the Citadel. The pebbled road branched off in a pathway towards a garden-type area where I figured I would find Tirius. 

    As I walked, I caught sight of Kieren, his long stride a familiar one, back straight. But, though he looked normal, something suddenly felt off, a ping of instinct, and I slowed, scanning the Citadel walls and the field of grass stretching out towards the old forest. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, but still the feeling persisted. I quickened my pace again and Kieren turned at my approach, surprise flickering across his face before it smoothed out. He waited for me, his black hair catching the sunlight, hands easy at his sides. I suppose there could have been a moment of realization, a tensing in the air, but suddenly we were not the only ones on the path, a figure looming in front of me, grabbing my hand and tearing me out of reality and into Travel.

    We Arrived.

    The tilt and whirl of Arrival was pronounced, and I leaned over without looking and vomited.

    A long-suffering sigh came from somewhere on my left and I opened my eyes in a squinted glare. The light was not particularly bright, grayish and watery, but still stung in reaction to the jerking out of one timeline and into another.

    Tirius looked down at me from his tall height, not at all amused, mismatched blue and green eyes watching, lips compressed.

    My mind worked to make sense of what had happened, looking around in a daze at the sudden change from bright hot sun to gloomy gray cold.

    “I thought you Traveled better than that,” Tirius commented. 

    Glaring, I got to my feet unsteadily. “Well, if you hadn’t just pulled me into a Travel, I wouldn’t have vomited,” I said, not adding the part about recently being drugged and in the medical wing. If Tirius didn’t know about that, I didn’t need to inform him. I dusted dirt from my black uniform, shivering at the biting wind coming off the gray sea. 

    I refused to ask the obvious questions, instead taking in the sea cliffs, the rolling green and yellow fields, the smell and taste of salt on the air. There was a village or town some ways away, the dark brown roofs just apparent against the sky heavy with clouds. I tried to access my interface, to pull up my location or any information, but nothing happened. The interface should have worked immediately upon thinking, but what I saw was only the scene before me.

    I turned back to Tirius, my glare deepening. He put a gloved hand up, the sleeve of his woolen black coat falling to show the tip of his tattoo, a swirling of lines around five dots. “You have questions, I know, but they will need to wait. You will have time to ask them. For now, follow me.”

    I did as I was told because not knowing where we were, I had no form of reference for Traveling. I could have left Tirius, refused to follow him, and made my way to the village to discover where and when I was located. Instead, I followed out of an ingrained habit of obedience, and because curiosity tugged at me, the need to know like a burning in my chest. 

    Walking behind Tirius, I examined him. Without knowing his timeline, this Tirius could be prior to the pickup in France, or sometime in the future. As I caught his profile, I noticed his face was a little less gaunt and a little more on the healthy side than the man I had left with the Administrators. His hair length, though, was about the same, the color a dark chestnut, the wind picking and pulling at the curls.

    “Careful here,” he said as he descended a step onto a path that switchbacked along the cliff wall. I followed his warning, watching my footfalls on the wet stones, my Guardian boots helpful against the slick rocks. Despite the danger of slipping, the view pulled me from my concentration, the gray sea with white caps flowing out to an equally gray horizon, the color so closely matched as to give the impression of continuity, as if we were in a bowl. White seagulls chattered and flew overhead, and though the wind continued to batter me, as we made our way down the gusts lessened as giant rocks out at sea took on some of the wind’s impact. Reaching the beach, I pulled my arms tightly around my body, shivering at the dampness, once again paying attention to my footing as we made our way along the cliff over the wet pebbled beach. 

    “Not too much farther,” Tirius threw over his shoulder as we simultaneously turned a corner, the change in direction revealing a small, squat, slate-roofed cottage nestled against the cliff wall. Because we approached from the backend of the cottage, a stone wall greeted us, but as we walked closer, the side of the cottage came into view, two green-shuttered windows looking out at the sea. The smell of woodsmoke hit and I spied the chimney to the side of the cottage, a twirl and spiral of smoke reaching upwards.

    The door was the same shade of green as the shutters and I saw that both the door and the shutters needed paint, but the peeling did not detract from the overall charm of the place. When Tirius opened the door to usher me in, I was not at all surprised to find the interior equally cozy and quaint.

    “I’ll make tea,” he announced.

    I shivered once and then twice, the cheerful fire casting warmth and orange and yellow light across the room, though not quite reaching the chill that had entered my bones. I sat down on the low-slung leather chair in front of the fireplace, leaving the couch next to it empty. 

    From where I sat, I watched Tirius as he went about his business in the small sloped-ceiling kitchen on the other side of the cottage. He first shrugged out of his woolen coat and placed it on a hook near the door, then got the kettle and a box of tea from one of the open shelves behind a small battered kitchen table. The house pipes groaned and complained when he turned on the tap at the white ceramic sink next to the stove, but after a moment, they gave up clean running water that Tirius used to fill the kettle. The stove was just within my eyesight and I saw it was three-burner gas one that needed matches. The flare of blue flame lit Tirius’s features up in a weird glow before he covered it with the kettle.

    He came back to where I was sitting, settling in on the couch and giving me the familiar knowing look that I used to get from him while still a student. 

    “You have questions,” he said, making it a statement.

    I gave him a look right back.

    Something like amusement flickered across his face, pulling at his lips, crinkling the corners of his eyes. “You always had more questions than you were supposed to,” he said. “And yet, you chose Guardian over Collector.”

    I frowned at the old judgment. “You know why,” I said, leaning forward as if to push his amusement away.

    He waved a hand. “I don’t. Your words were an excuse that I feel holds not an ounce of truth, but I am starting to understand that perhaps it has nothing to do with you and having to do more with an interesting mistake. But that is a different conversation. So, what are you going to ask me first?”

    I stared at him and he waited, easy, leaning back in his chair with black trousered legs in front of him. It was a test of sorts, and one that I would fail, but I still wanted to give it a go, so I remained stubborn in my silence until the kettle whistled and Tirius got up to fetch it. The process of steeping the tea took a moment and I took that moment to look around me. There was very little in the room besides the two low chairs and a sofa in front of the fireplace and a scarred wooden table between a window at the side of the room, one of the two windows I’d seen outside that faced the sea. The table was similar in construction to the kitchen table and the two equally scarred wooden chairs with high backs pushed underneath mirrored the kitchen ones as well. There was a hallway directly behind me which I assumed led to a bedroom and bathroom combo, though the dimness made it impossible to tell.  

    Tirius brought the tea he’d poured into a large ceramic mug of dark blue. I took the mug, the heat immediately seeping into my palms, the waft of black tea engulfing my face.

    Tirius took his seat and sipped peacefully at his own mug, even closing his eyes briefly as he took the first taste. The action was familiar, and I found myself smiling at it. My former mentor had always liked his tea.

    But, even after he opened his eyes once more, he remained silent and I sighed in frustration. “Fine,” I said, breaking the silence. “Before or after France, and how is my interface not working?”

    The knowing smile on Tirius’s face scraped over my annoyance and I clenched my jaw against showing it on my face, though I likely did anyway.

    “After France,” he replied.

    “How did you take me out of the Master Realm without using a node? I thought that was impossible.”

    “Within the Citadel yes, but as you move further away from the Citadel walls it is doable, albeit difficult.”

    I studied him closely. Though he filled the position of mentor for cycles, I honestly knew very little about the man. I knew the contours of his face, the very straight nose, mismatched green and blue eyes, bored mouth; however, as I’d explained to the Warden, he was never one to talk, confess his deepest darkest secrets, of which I knew were many and varied. The Archivist was an oracle, a knower of all things and I’d held him in awe. I had a hard time moving beyond that to question him, to ask him what was going on. Instead, I sipped at my tea and waited because there was a reason. If nothing else, Tirius did everything for a reason. 

    The wind outside increased a bit as we sat, the fire leaping in protest from the breeze finding its way down the chimney. There was a crescendo of sound, the waves a rolling rhythm of water against the pebbled beach. 

    “And the interface?” I prompted.

    Tirius nodded towards where his coat lay. “A device granted to Archivists to ensure complete privacy.”

    I frowned. “Complete privacy?”

    “For conversations that are not to be recorded. Everything that you say and do is recorded on your interface. It is a center for information, of course, but you are also monitored and tracked through it.”

    It made sense; our world, interactions, and lives collected like any other.

    “Why didn’t you pull Kieren as well?” I continued.

    When Tirius did not immediately answer my question, I glanced over. He was staring down into his mug, a slight frown around his eyes. 

    I waited.

    “Do you feel the separation?” he eventually asked.

    My initial reaction was “no,” but old habits die hard and I paused before I answered; really examining the question, rolling it around in my mind. The process felt odd, like an old machine being started up for the first time in a long time, which in a way that was the case. I used to think in theoretical circles, taking a subject and examining it at all angles, throwing around the questions and answers and leading down avenues of thought; a process of creating. But as a Guardian, those type skills were not needed and were discouraged from the point a candidate entered the training program.

    And I did feel the separation, like a strange pull at the base of my skull, at the top of my spine, as if a piece of myself was being pulled outwards towards wherever Kieren was currently located, which I described to Tirius.

    “Part of the Guardian partnership, no doubt,” Tirius said, though I had a feeling that was not his complete thought on the matter. He looked over and then put his mug down on the hardwood floor next to him. “The Warden and Masters place the most compatible recruits together as partners. You and Kieren have always been an interesting match, though a match nonetheless.”

    I thought about my partner and my differences. I knew what Tirius spoke of; we were different when compared to the other Guardian pairs. Most Guardian pairs seemed to be inseparable, as if they were two pieces of a whole. Kieren and I had never gotten to that point, very much different individuals working together, but also separately. I’d always assumed it was because of my time as a Collector.

    “Probably has to do with your initial assignment,” Tirius said, echoing my thoughts.

    I changed the subject. “Why am I here?” I tried again.

    He tilted his head, looking towards the fire, gazing at the flame for a moment before answering. “What do you know about timeline abnormalities?”

    I shrugged, trying to recall what I had learned under his tutelage. “Timeline abnormalities exist and are considered wholly normal as long as they remain within a certain parameter.”

    “And if they are outside the parameter?”

    “Then it indicates a manipulation,” I answered immediately, the information coming back to me. I studied Tirius. I noticed a thin scar across his temple that I had no memory of from before. 

    He turned and pinned me with the look that always made me feel young and untried, characteristics that were most definitely not accurate any longer.

    “Those manipulations, outside of the parameters, are the ones that you and your partner assess.”

    I shrugged one shoulder. “Sort of. We don’t assess the situation, someone else does that, usually a team of Collectors and the Warden. Once they’ve determined the situation, they send us in to stop whatever or whoever it is that is creating the abnormality.”

    “You do a lot of these?”

    “No. There have only been maybe four, though due to the nature of our command, I don’t always know the reason for our missions.”

    Tirius stared at me, then slowly shook his head. “How you have survived as a Guardian is beyond me.”

    I tried not to let the comment rankle, though it did, because the unknowing had bothered me, despite my vows to the position.

    Tirius stood up and I sat back in my chair as his form loomed over me, but it was only for a moment. I watched as he walked over to the table, pushing down on what seemed like a random location. A piece of the table created a seam then popped up, revealing a small square shape with an opening in the side. Tirius took out a file, smaller than my pinky nail and just as thin, then pushed the box down where it descended and then disappeared into the woodwork once again.

    He thrust it towards me, but I stared at it, not taking the small, paper-thin data file. “What is it?” I asked.

    “It’s the information I have right now about what is going on within the human timeline.”

    I looked away from the file and up to where he stared down at me. “The human timeline.”

    “Yes. It’s being manipulated. The abnormalities are significantly outside of any parameter.”

    “And the information showing that is on this disk?”

    “Some of it.” He paused, then appeared to decide on something. The file disappeared and he put his hand out for me to take. “Come, I have something to show you.”

    “Another Travel?”

    “Yes.”

    Narrowing my eyes, I looked at his outstretched hand. In that one word, he asked for my participation, for my trust and I knew if I agreed to travel with him that I would be giving some kind of answer to a question that he hadn’t bothered to ask.

    It would no longer be kidnapping at that point, but a decided action on my part.

    “Are you still in trouble with the Masters?” I asked.

    He kept his hand out and smiled. “I am. In a lot more ways than I was, but I want to show you why. I am still the villain in this story, still the one that kidnapped you from the Master Realm. No one need know more.”

    I put my own mug down, glancing around the small room and then leaned over and took his hand. The Travel was not as jarring this time around as I knew it was coming, still, my world tilted, the air in my lungs pushed out violently and then just as violently returned. I kept my tea down though and when I opened my eyes the world stopped spinning sooner rather than later. 

    We were in a bedroom, sunlight streaming through the curtain in soft, warm waves. A four-poster bed took up a great deal of space, with an armoire in one corner, and a stand with a washbasin in the other. Between those stood a window, opened, allowing the sound of horses, people, the smell of summer to waft into the room.

    Tirius went to the armoire and opened the doors, pulling out a pressed black suit and a pair of shining black military shoes. “There is clothing in there,” he indicated with a nod, going to the other side of the bed and stripping out of his clothes, pulling his shirt up and over his head before I could turn away, revealing thin white scars along his back.

    Questions, I thought, going to the armoire. “Time period?” I asked as I pulled out a dress in a heavy silk fabric, the matching belt hanging behind it.

    “1914,” he said from behind me.

    “World War I again,” I commented, hardly surprised, glancing over my shoulder.

    “Indeed,” he said, buttoning up his white, linen shirt.

    I sighed, pulling off the black Guardian shirt and trousers, letting them fall to the floor and unstrapping my staff. Pulling the shimmering summer dress over my head, I was hardly surprised that the dress fit, the fabric swinging about my legs. The braid I’d used on the Rushielian mission, and easy solution for the cowls we’d worn then, wasn’t an ideal look and I hurriedly redid the braid and then wrapped it around itself, creating a low bun at the base of my skull, pulling at some of the looser strands around my face to soften the look. My time in captivity had not been kind and the strands felt dirty under my fingers, but I covered the dirty hair with an elaborate feathered hat. A pair of low-slung heels completed the look of early 20th century European wealth.

    I kicked the Guardian clothing to the side, towards the bed. The clothing could stay, but the staff had to come with so I readjusted the strapping, pulling the dress up on my leg far enough that I could strap the holster to my thigh, reducing the staff to its smallest setting before putting it into the strapping.

    “You could leave it,” Tirius said from the other side of the room.

    I didn’t bother to answer, letting the dress fall back down. The holster felt awkward, uncomfortable, but I wasn’t leaving it.

    Tirius tamed his curls with promenade, the slickness of the style almost shiny. He examined himself in the mirror before turning to examine me, frowning. The style of his hair made the frown particularly hawkish, and I squirmed before catching myself with irritation. He might be the Archivist, but I was a Guardian and of my own expertise, and I squared my shoulders in defiance.

    He caught the change and his expression lightened in amusement, but he refrained from making a comment, opening the door to the room, jerking his head towards the exit.

    “Where are we?” I asked, following Tirius out the door and into a plush hallway of dark red and gold.

    “Sarajevo,” he replied.

    The connection was not a hard one. Even when I worked under him as an apprentice, Tirius had shown an obsessive need to know everything about World War I human history. A giant portion of his personal archives had an impressive number of Collections from that time period, and the rumor at the time was that he even had a Collector assigned solely to study World War I, though I never met this elusive Collector while apprenticing. Surprising enough, I had never gone to the timeline while working for him. Other human timelines, yes, but never that one. I still knew my history though and I knew the significance of the location.

    “The assassination?” I asked, just to make sure, following him down a broad stairway into the lobby of the hotel. Tirius nodded as we entered the lobby, shoes sinking into plush carpet. It was not an overly fancy hotel, but it was clearly for the wealthier class. The individuals lounging about were all dressed immaculately with fine clothes and heavy jewelry. The women eyed Tirius in the way they always did, allowing me to blend into the scenery and observe, though honestly there was not much to observe. If my recall was correct, it was June 1914, and the Hungarian-Austrian prince was about to be assassinated.

    We stepped outside into the sunshine and I raised my face towards the light for a moment, eyes closed, letting the warmth sink in. There was nothing like Earth sol in the early 20th-century. Still calm, still gentle, the rays felt like a balm, my aching body absorbing the light.

    “This way,” Tirius said, breaking my reverie.

    With a breath, I opened my eyes and followed him down the sidewalk. We were located somewhere along the river, the name of which I could not remember, but the canal-like water sparkled in the morning light. It was quiet, or quieter than I thought it would be with what was about to happen, but then that was always the case. A great event and the people that lived in it were not aware of its significance until later, sometimes much later. Everything normal, going about day-to-day chores and engagements, and then, something so huge rocking the entire foundation of their reality. Or not. Like this assassination, that was tragic and terrible, but which would eventually lead to one of the deadliest wars in human time and was the precursor to the deadliest war.

    Or, perhaps, they did know, or someone knew, if an abnormality truly had taken place in the timeline.

    Tirius turned to cross the river and I followed in step, trying to recall what I knew about the day, which, honestly, was very little. Though my interface would usually give me the information, I was still unable to access it. Thankfully, my ability to translate languages was untouched and I saw the sign for the infamous Schillers deli as we made to the other side.

    “Here?” I asked, surprised as it seemed like an obvious place to observe and we would be noticed.

    Tirius shook his head. “No.” He pointed towards the building across the street from the store. It was a regular building, nothing remarkable, but as we approached, Tirius increased his pace so much that I had to break into a jog to keep up, an action that caused a few curious glances my way.

    “Slow down,” I called towards his back.

    “No time,” Tirius threw over his shoulder without slowing.

    Grumbling, I kept my gaze down to ignore the looks, thankful when Tirius led me down a smaller alleyway to a door in the building across from the deli. Taking the narrow stairwell’s steps two at a time to the second-story landing, Tirius opened the door to a dusty storage room lined with smelly leather. Pausing at the threshold to the room, the smell noxious, I watched Tirius go to the window at the far end and push it open with a mighty shove upwards. I expected the sound of resistance as the window looked ancient, but it moved without a sound, letting in a wave a cooler, sweeter smelling air.

    “Here, and shut the door,” Tirius said.

    I stepped into the room, putting my hand up to my nose against the still overpowering smell, and did as he said, shutting the door behind me.

    “Hurry now,” he said with a hand wave.

    I went to his side and peered into the street below us. Our location was a bit down from the corner, the deli just to the right and front of us, but only just. I watched, but there wasn’t much to see, only a carriage went by, a few men dressed in timely clothing, nothing that seemed out of the ordinary.

    And then there was something; not to see, really, but all the hair on my arms stood up, a shiver of awareness down my spine.

    “There,” Tirius said, pointing.

    I have seen people Travel, the sudden appearance and disappearance of Collectors or Guardians moving about the timelines, so I saw the shimmer for what it was, not a heat shimmer or an illusion, but the shimmer of Arrival.

    A man dressed in black emerged from seemingly nowhere. He was shorter, thin, dark hair slick, his clothes not quite fitting, his cleanliness not quite what it should be, but he easily blended as he walked towards the deli.

    “Who is that?”

    “The first domino.”

    I spared a glance at Tirius who was watching the scene with such intensity I could feel the push of his attention.

    “I can narrate, if you’d like,” Tirius said, still not looking my way, his normally neutral tone holding an edge. “I’ve seen it dozens of times now. He goes to the deli, where he bumps into Gavrilo Princip. He talks with the lad, stalling him out front of the deli, laughing with him, keeping the lad there until the motorcade arrives with Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. The fateful wrong turn, the shots fired, the man disappears into nothing. I’ve never been able to track him through the commotion.”

    “He disappears,” I said.

    “He Travels,” Tirius confirmed.

    I stared at Tirius, studying his face, then turned from the window, picking up my skirts to walk quicker. There wasn’t a lot of time, and I needed to be closer. Taking the stairs quickly, I gained the road then walked towards the deli’s front entrance. I hadn’t heard him follow but Tirius grabbed my arm from behind, stopping me. 

    “Not too much,” he said, and I realized what he meant, slowing my step so I wouldn’t have to walk by the man and Princip, both of them in my line of sight as they stood there in front of the deli talking.

    Princip was young, so young, his body lean and wiry, his face open. 

    “Stop now,” Tirius said from behind, and as I did, I heard engines and voices. The boy and the man turned towards the oncoming car that I couldn’t yet see. The man pointed at the car that then came into view, with the catalyst and his wife inside, the wind pulling at Sophie’s feathered hat. 

    The driver took the fateful wrong turn down the road towards where Tirius and I stood and then events happened incredibly fast.

    The car stopped, reversed, the shots, the boy with the gun, the eruption of chaos, and though I tried to keep my attention on the man, on the Traveler, it was as Tirius described; he seemed to disappear in the aftermath of shouting and screams.

    Tirius, hand still on my arm, pulled me back away from the scene. I watched as a sudden mob descended on the boy, another around the car, the black feather of Sophie’s hat waving in the air before lurching forward.

    “Come on,” he said, turning, pulling me with him. I complied, keeping in step as we walked away from the scene. There were whistles, shouting, and additional screams. I kept my pace steady, moving forward, even as I looked over my shoulder.

    “Do you see,” Tirius said as we took a corner, moving west.

    “I saw something,” I acknowledged, though doubts crept in as we walked. Would the scene have occurred if the man had not stopped Princip from moving down the street? It was possible, though the evidence seemed to suggest otherwise.

    “All it takes is a single push,” Tirius said, musing, voice distant.

    I nodded in response, knowing what he meant, that in a single push, one small change, the effect rippled on forever. 

    “Do you know who it is, the Traveler?” I asked, looking over at Tirius and then coming to a halt.

    He was no longer next to me. I looked around, scanning faces, though there were not many faces to scan; an old woman with a headscarf and a deeply engraved face, a tall fat man with a bowler hat, a tall thin woman with an elegant gray chignon looking into the window of a shop, and a girl child with dark hair and a dress that looked as if it had been slept in. We had walked far enough beyond the scene that no one seemed to have realized the world-altering event that had just occurred. 

    I retraced my steps, looking in doorways, up at windows, coming up to the corner that led to the road now overrun with people. I saw no sign of Tirius, and there was nowhere he could have gone so quickly unless he had Traveled, or been pulled by someone else Traveling. I would have felt something if he had Traveled, a trace of his disappearance, but I had felt nothing at all. He was with me, and then he was no longer.

    Once more walking away from the scene, I winced as my interface reappeared, a soft chime in my head alerting me to messages and incoming data, along with my exact location as it related to the Master Realm. Something had happened to Tirius, that was obvious, but as my data continued to scroll and information poured in, it became clear that there was no way I could stay and look for Tirius, or do anything except return to the Warden and report on what I had witnessed. If I didn’t, they would come for me, and I had a feeling that wouldn’t end well.

    *To purchase the full book, go to: https://www.amazon.com/This-Time-H-Hood-ebook/dp/B08FXTX3Q3

    Originally published 2020, copywrite 2020

  • Society

    Can a person be truly separate from social conditioning?

    Meaning, are we only creatures of the social world we live in? Do we truly have independent thought, or do the social circumstances we live in (and can never separate ourselves from) inform every aspect of who we are?

    It is taking the question of nature and nurture a bit further, to question whether or not every aspects of ourselves are but constructs made up of the things around us. We cannot live separate from society. Even when we attempt to do so, it is usually in reaction to society. I am thinking of the book Into the Wild that was turned into a movie. Eddie Vedder put together the soundtrack and in one of the tracts, he sings:

    “There’s those thinking, more or less, less is more
    But if less is more, how you keeping score?”

    How are we keeping score? Indeed. Because our existence is only in relation to those existing around us.

    Or is it?

    It’s like a Zen Buddhist Koan.

    There is no answer. Just thought.

    This is my thought today.