• Wandering


    It never goes away. It fades sometimes, especially if I am working on a project, but now that the future is a dystopia of boredom, the restlessness lingers.

    I miss goals. I miss being optimistic about the future and having these ideas that if I just strive, hustle, put in the work, things will land in my favor. This, of course, is not true. It doesn’t matter how much one strives, or hustles, or puts in the work, sometimes dreams remain dreams until they wither and become bitterness.


    I try not to be bitter.

    Or brittle.

    I fail an awful lot.

    I’ll add it to my list of failures.

    Some days, I wander. Most days I wander lost.

    No. All days I wander lost.

    I’ve not had direction in so long, I don’t even know what it means to have direction anymore.

    Wandering. I guess the whole purpose of wandering is to have no destination. The journey.


    Yet. Humanity is a mass of wandering, destination-less individuals.

    Asking why.

    And never receiving an answer.

  • Chapter 18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Tirius stopped, Diana stalling next to him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “It causes an energy signature,” he explained.

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

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

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

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

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

    Not using it felt like a statement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Not get killed,” Diana answered immediately.

    “Other than that?”

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

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

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

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

    “That’s where we Arrived?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

    Kieren had not yet arrived.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Tell that to them.”

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

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

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

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

    He would die for Cynthe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Yes of course,” Cynthe replied with condescension.

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

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

    Cynthe raised an eyebrow at me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Master Ral turned his gaze to Cynthe.

    “Does she speak truth?” he asked her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    And darkness.



    A complete pause of all action and thought.

    A moment.

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

    I was alone.

    No. I blinked several times.

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

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

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

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

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

    “Not how?” she asked in return.

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

    “Because these things happen.”

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

    “It’s quiet,” I said.

    “It is.”

    “Do Masters exist here?”

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

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

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

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

    “Then you do.”

    “And the result?”

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

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

    Another smile. “I could.”

    “But you won’t.”

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

    “A being from another reality.”

    “Just so.”

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

    “A version.”

    “Of course.”

    She studied me. “You’ll return?”

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

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

    Lifetimes of being alone in exchange for rest.

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

    “Do what you must,” she said.

    Chaos rained down on my head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “This ends,” I said.

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

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

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

    She turned it on me.

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

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

    “You were going to let him live.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Yes,” I replied without hesitation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “And you will tell them what happened here.”

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

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

    Feeling the winds of fate, I merely nodded.

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

    I locked my knees, witnessing the deaths.

    “Why?” I asked no one.

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

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

    It would cycle again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Will I see you again?” I asked.

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

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

    The two of them disappeared in a shimmer of Travel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “And what is that?”

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

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

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

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

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

    The End.

  • Chapter 17

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

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

    I followed slowly, alert to any potential threat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    She inclined her head in answer.

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

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

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

    “You mean Cana?”

    “And her government, yes.”

    “The Outsiders?” Questioning the name.

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

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

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

    I watched her. “They were provoked.”

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

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

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

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

    “Then why do you have him drugged?”

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

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

    “I’d like to see him.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “We are Guardian partners,” I answered.

    “Just,” she said.


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

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

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

    She didn’t wait for my reply.


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

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

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

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

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

    “What is?” I couldn’t help but ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Going somewhere?” I asked, studying her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    I nodded because what else was I supposed to do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    I nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    At the ill-concealed threat, I nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “None of them are in the Master Realm?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    I frowned. “We have secondary systems.”

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

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

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

    “You can Travel?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Wait,” he said.

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

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

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

    “What is this?” I repeated.

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

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

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

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

    Everything in me wanted to kill him.

    Tirius took my hand and we Traveled.

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

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

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

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

    “That I am this person?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “As you are mine,” Tirius immediately replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “By chance,” I said truthfully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Seems the same to me,” I muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Does this change things?” Colm immediately asked.

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

    Suddenly I understood.

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

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

    “Only recently,” he replied.

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

    Tirius nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Something greater.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    She tilted her head. “Really?”

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “A better society?” I suggested.

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

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

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

  • Chapter 16

    Though we could’ve used a night of rest, the chance of being discovered, along with the tension that now existed between us, made the decision to leave the house an easy one despite our exhaustion. I dropped Colm off in the small town near Tirius’s beach house, staying only long enough so he could get his bearings. I’d provided him money, human clothes, and a backpack with supplies and watched for the briefest of moments before nodding at him and closing my eyes to Travel away.

    “Wren,” he said, interrupting my concentration.

    I opened my eyes to find that he’d taken a step towards me, towering over me with his height. “What are you going to do?”

    I thought about telling him the truth, that I was going after Tirius myself; but decided I didn’t want to share that information. Instead, I smiled up at him, squinting in the sunshine. “No longer running,” I said and before he could ask me anything else, closed my eyes once again and Traveled.

    The woods were cool, the overhead canopy letting in the light but not the summer warmth, a touch of wind against my cheek as I regained equilibrium. I’d Arrived some paces away from where I’d intended and I crouched in the bushes for a while, observing and listening. The leaves whispered above my head in the slight breeze; several different species of birds twittering about; and more distant, the sound of the Citadel itself. The time was somewhere before we’d left for Rushiel, as best I could remember it, which had no significance other than I had been able to recall the coordinates. Theoretically, the Citadel wouldn’t be on high alert for my presence, but there was no saying for sure how the Masters moved through time, and besides, if Colm was right about the tracker, they would know shortly where I was and likely be able to surmise why, which meant that I needed to move and I needed to move quickly.

    I did, making my way through the thick underbrush towards the giant oak tree. For whatever reason, I halfway expected it to be gone, but there it was, that massive tree standing proud and straight in the middle of the forest opening. Crouching in the shadows just outside the space, I surveyed the area with all my senses, but besides nature’s summer activity, I was alone.

    I ran low to the ground towards the oak. All in one motion, I opened the partially hidden door, dropped down into the dank passageway underneath, and closed the door behind me. Heavy roots hung above my head, dirt sprinkling me, the smell of wet earth pungent.

    Having done this before, I made good time, jogging down the tunnel until I emerged into the cavernous area where the maze stretched out before me. I remembered my way, my Collector memory helping. I started in, taking the turns, alert, staff in my hand with blades fully extended. Nothing came after me, not from the ground and not from the air and I came to the fountain in the middle of the maze in half the time it had taken Kieren and me. The fountain was still a stairwell and I realized that likely no one had walked the maze since Kieren and I had left however long ago that was, which would also explain the lack of monsters. But I refused to trust the situation and crept down the stairs, staff in front of me, muscles tight with the adrenaline of moving into the relatively unknown.

    I found myself in the Archives, just as before, but unlike last time where the intent was to make it to the Archivist’s office, this time I went the opposite way, towards the Archives main entrance. I’d played defense since the moment Tirius had taken me to France, forced to play in a game I never wanted to play in. I was going to take control of the game, or at least my portion of it. I just hoped I could break into the Warden’s office without anyone realizing, while also hoping that it was not a trap of some sort. But Colm had spoken true when he’d questioned why I’d never been caught, why I’d been able to Travel out of situations, which lessened the likelihood of a trap. They could have stopped me more than once, but they hadn’t, which meant that I likely had a purpose, some reason for the Masters to let me live despite the theatrics otherwise. I had an idea what the reason was, but it didn’t matter really because I was no longer going to play pawn.

    Moving through the stacks of old leather-bound journals from years and years of Collecting, I tried to keep focused on the path ahead of me, but my mind wandered, wondering about Colm and if he’d found a way back to the fleet; to Kieren and our connection; to Cana and whether or not she was actually the villain in the story.

    I had no answer to any of those musings and forced my mind to list the things I did know for sure. I knew for sure that the Masters were manipulating timelines as a series of power plays. Those manipulations had terrible consequences, like causing a civil war on Rushiel, which resulted in massive deaths, all aided by the unknowing actions of Guardians. There existed societies outside the Master Realm, not part of any experiment, and now that the Masters knew of their existence, they wanted to destroy them. Tirius knew more than what he had let on and was much more involved than I had originally thought, including being one of the founders of the resistance that was currently planning to kill all the Masters.

    Oh, and then, apparently, there was a war between factions within the Masters themselves.

    Coming to a familiar door that led to a small courtyard, I hesitated there, thinking, going over my options. There were many, and for a moment I sat in those many options and let them settle around me. I did this because I had come to realize some things about myself too.

    Perhaps I wasn’t supposed to be there staring at the door, about to pass through. Perhaps this other woman was the one who was supposed to be pulled over to the Master Realm. That had bothered me, bothered me a lot, to not be special, to be a mistake. But even if it had been a mistake, that no longer mattered because I was the one there, facing that door, not her.

    And then there was my role as Guardian. I’d decided to walk away from being a Collector because I didn’t want the responsibility that entailed, I didn’t want to be the next Archivist. I wanted to follow orders, not think, not worry about my actions, allowing others to dictate where I went and not having to know the why. But that had gone wrong too, terribly wrong.

    But then, I was starting to realize that is how life worked, not only for me, but with everyone. Missed opportunities. Missed cues. Paths that we were not supposed to walk but did anyway; and paths we were supposed to walk and missed or ignored.

    All the zigs and all the zags; that was normal. Chaotic. But normal. As long as I could make the decision, at least something was in my control, and that is what I took from these thoughts.

    My decision. My control.

    I opened the door and stepped out into the warm afternoon air.

    Having a background as a Collector had its definite advantages, among which included an intimate knowledge of all the Archive’s many entrances and exits. This door led into a small gardening space with leftover gardening and building supplies, including gardening cloaks worn by Administrators. In addition to pots, dirt, tools, and other random material, those brown Administrator cowls were hung up along one wall. Having been used to protect the clothing of the Administrators, the cowls were dirty, caked with dried mud. They were exactly what I’d hoped for when I chose that door.

    The heavy brown wool stunk of earth and sweat and was beastly hot over my leggings and t-shirt, but there was nothing for it, especially because as an Administrator a cowl was what was worn, always. I pulled my long hair back severely from my face in a knot at the base of my skull, bringing the wool up near my chin and scrunching my neck downwards into the folds. Administrators were mostly Diax, but there were human Administrators too, though usually placed in lesser positions. Gardening would be considered one of those lesser positions, so I took a pail and a shovel and then opened the gate that led out into the courtyard.

    Individuals milled everywhere, including Guardians, though no one I recognized immediately. I kept my gaze down, face bent into the folds of my cowl and shuffled into Citadel traffic, keeping towards the edge of the pathway. I only needed to get to the kitchen, 100 yards or so, but the process was a slow one as I emulated the shuffling of those gardening Administrators. Truthfully, I had paid Administrators very little attention unless they were upper rank, and I used that same arrogance in others to my advantage. “No one look at me,” I kept repeating mindfully, shovel growing heavy on my shoulder and sweat starting to pool at the small of my back and under my breasts. My intent was another side door that led into a passageway that wound its way with limited light to the kitchen. The cooking Administrators used that area mostly for autumn canning and as it was still in the middle of summer, I hoped it would be empty.

    I shifted the shovel to my other shoulder, inadvertently digging my staff into my hip, the pain a pressure that radiated up my side.

    I paused, observing the pain.

    “Are you alright, friend?” a voice asked me. For a moment I froze, for sure that I recognized the voice, the situation and possible outcomes whirling about my brain before I dared look up from my downward gaze. Relief was a rush of warmth as I realized that I didn’t actually know the older human Administrator that watched me with a concerned expression. His graying hair framed a long face with equally long lines etching out his age and his past experiences. There were older individuals within the Master Realm, but most of them were Administrators of higher rank. This Administrator wore a gardening cowl.

    “Just tired,” I replied, biting down on my initial instinct to comment on how incredibly hot I felt. Administrators were used to the heat and the cowls. It would sound highly suspicious if I started to complain about the heat. I nodded towards the door that led into the kitchen. “Getting myself some water.”

    The Administrator tilted his head at my words and I thought perhaps that getting water wasn’t something that was done, but then he nodded and smiled. “Good day then, friend,” he said and turned to walk away.

    I watched him go, my instincts nagging at me, knowing that I’d said the wrong thing and made him suspicious. But it mattered little and I too turned, not bothering to hide my hurry, shuffling my feet still but dropping the pail and the shovel as soon as I gained the side of the building, reaching for the door.

    A part of me expected a shout, an alarm, but nothing sounded, and I slipped into the interior of the kitchen passageway, closing the door on sunlight and immersing myself into partial darkness. Pausing, I let myself catch a few deep breaths and then headed down the passage. I found what I looked for just beyond the door. It was a storage area filled with last year’s harvest, partially hidden because the doorway went down into the floor. I had once used the area to hide in after a rather terrible training bout where a male human Guardian had beaten me so badly that I’d had blood coming out of my ears and mouth. Ridiculed by the Guardian in charge, a Lexion, I’d left the training ring dizzy and nearly blacking out. I’d been told to stop, but had ignored the order, some kind of animal instinct pushing me to get away from the situation. I had stumbled into the kitchen, seeking darkness and found the storage area because I’d fallen to my knees. There on my left had been a small door wedged open and inside a single lamp showing shelves and shelves of canned produce.

    I’d hidden there for almost an entire day, bleeding in humiliation until Kieren had eventually found me. He’d brought me back to my quarters where he had helped clean me up, his touch gentle as he had wiped the blood from my face and helped me out of my torn clothes, all the while not saying a word.

    The memory was tinged with light and dark and I dismissed it as I let myself down the small ladder into the space. In the very corner of the area, I stripped off the cowl, breathing deeply in relief as the cooler air hit my skin. The coolness helped reduce my body temperature which had started to creep steadily higher as I had moved under the sunshine. I felt a bit of awe for the Administrators who worked in the woolen material even in the middle of the summer. Though we were trained to fight and move in extreme heat, Guardian uniforms helped cool our bodies rather than gather and hold the heat next to our skin.

    Settling down, I prepared to wait the day out. As time passed though, the air grew too chill for the t-shirt I wore, and I used the cowl as a blanket. I nodded off at some point, leaning my head back against the stone wall and closing my eyes. The area lay in deep silence, only the occasional distant sound from the kitchen permeating the space and for the first time in some time I felt a level of safety. This helped me relax and even though I would have rather not slept, I did anyway, falling into a slight doze as the morning passed from afternoon into night.

    I woke with a start sometime later, my body stiff and my neck pinched. My internal clock had alerted me to the time passage though I had a moment of panic thinking perhaps I had slept through the night, thus missing my window of opportunity. Pausing at the ladder, I listened but heard nothing from above. I crawled out of the cellar type area, stretching arms over my head to try to release some of the stiffness. The sound of dinner preparation echoed down from the main kitchen area. Pulling the cowl over my clothes once more, I made my way towards the kitchen. As I got closer, the clatter of activity increased and when I came upon the baking area, I saw several Administrators putting together dough for a series of dinner pie plates laid out on massive tin sheets.

    “No snacks. Be gone,” one Administrator said, a Rushielian by the look of it though he remained focused on the dough in front of him and barely glanced up at me.

    I nodded, not speaking, sliding out of the baking kitchen into a hall that led to the dining room and then taking another smaller side passage. The entire Citadel was made up of a series of passageways and hallways. Like an anthill, the passages were numerous and sometimes didn’t make sense, but Tirius had insisted I learn the layout. At the time, I hadn’t understood why he demanded I learn it, and still I wasn’t sure, but I was thankful as I navigated the Citadel corridors using nothing but side passageways.

    I stopped at a door that led to a more main thorough way and waited for the dinner gong. When the deep sound vibrated through the building, I took a steadying breath and pulled the door open. Peering into the heavily carpeted hallway, tall windows lining the hall on the left-hand side, hovering lamps lighting up the space, I watched as two Guardians walked away from the doors that led to the Warden’s office. Tall and slim, their white-blond braids hung down to their waists, kissing the swords that crisscrossed their backsides. I wondered at their presence but dismissed it as they disappeared around a curve, heading towards dinner.

    Other individuals followed in their wake, a few Administrators and a group of four Collectors, but I waited for the doors at the end of the hall to open. I backed up slightly when they did, more into the shadows, watching as the large Sideian and the smaller Lexion emerged from their offices. The Warden closed and locked the heavy wooden office doors and then they disappeared around the curve as well. With the hallway now empty, I studied the series of windows. I needed to access the roof immediately above the Warden’s office and I had come up with an idea that I hoped would be easier than scaling the walls outside.

    I entered the hall, closing the door quietly behind me and shuffling quickly towards the three windows right before the Warden’s office doors. As I came up to them, a Guardian came around the curve in the hall. He was a human that I vaguely recognized as being around the same class as Kieren and me, and I hoped he would move on when he saw the Warden’s office doors were closed, but he paused in his step when he saw me.

    “What is a garden Administrator doing in this part of the Citadel?” His tone was disdainful, as if my very presence offended him, which, despite the uptick in my adrenaline caused me to pause and wonder if I too had talked to Administrators in that way.

    “Asked you a question,” he continued.

    I kept my gaze lowered, thinking quickly. “I was told a lock needed to be attended to,” I said, pitching my voice with a nasal accent.

    “Which lock?” he asked, still suspicious. I was really starting to not like Guardians.

    I pointed with a hand to one of the windows I’d been planning to crawl out of, though my plan was falling apart the longer this Guardian kept talking to me. I only had a small amount of time. Soon the hallways would again fill with normal foot traffic and the Warden would return.

    When the Guardian remained silent, staring at me, I wanted to look up, meet his eyes in a challenge, my hand itching for the staff at my back, but I kept my gaze downward knowing that I couldn’t afford a fight even if I could beat the idiot standing in front of me.

    “Get to it then,” he said after a moment.

    I didn’t wait for a second reply, nodding once with head bowed and continuing towards the windows. I felt his gaze on my back and I wondered what I would do if he planned to watch me fix the window, but I felt more than heard him turn and leave the hallway. Breathing deeply, taking one long look around me, I picked the window closest to the office doors and shoved at the lock. It remained stubbornly in place.

    That was not part of the plan.

    The lock was long, curved into the windowsill. I pressed my palm fully on the lock and pushed with my body weight, digging my heels into the carpet. It moved with a groan and a screech that had me cringing and stepping back, looking up and down the hallway, but all remained quiet thanks to the dinner hour. I opened the window quickly and without noise, shedding my cowl to the ground and pulling myself up and out onto the ledge, evening breeze caressing my face. Leaving the cowl would cause suspicion, so I bent inward, grabbed the fabric and pulled it out, holding it tight to my body as I let the window slide shut, toes curling in my boots instinctively to keep me in place on the small ledge. If anyone was to look closely, they would see the lock no longer locked the window, but I hoped no one would look too closely, and if the human Guardian came back, I hoped he would assume that I was not yet done fixing it.

    But there were too many variables, including my current exposure. The ledge that ran below the windows faced the outside of the Citadel, towards the vast prairie, which made it highly unlikely anyone would notice me balancing there precariously. But, there was always a chance and I moved as quickly as I could, shuffling along the ledge until I could go no further, a large gap between the window ledge I stood on and the window that would lead me into the Warden’s office.

    Angling my body slightly, I tied the cowl around my waist and started the climb up towards the steep roof. Slowly and methodically, but not without a certain amount of paranoid speed, I kept my gaze on the area slightly above me as I climbed. My arms started to protest and my breath grew ragged, fingers cramping as they grasped at the nearly invisible gaps in the stone exterior.

    My body had been through a lot, and it was with a groan that I came to the roof’s threshold and pulled myself up and over, lying there for a moment and staring up at the partially overcast sky. The first moon was up, a slender thing with an edge of red, and the coloring felt apocalyptic, though that likely had more to do with my mood than with anything else.

    Sighing, I rolled to my stomach, gaining my knees and hands, crawling along the steep slate towards where I’d judged the Warden’s office windows to be. Leaning over the edge, I ignored the long drop and tried to make out where I was in relation to the Warden’s quarters. There were lights, but the angle was wrong, and I was unable to make out where the lights were coming from. I’d have to wing it.

    I’d become good at winging it.

    I lay back, angled upwards, watching the moon and the stars play peekaboo with clouds, hearing the end-of-dinner bell and then waiting more as the evening hour continued. I imagined Cana’s fleet out there somewhere, preparing to attack this place. Then my mind caught up with me. That attack would be in the future, not in the past where I now found myself. I had never thought about the physics of what took place when we Traveled, just that we could move in and out of time, jumping in the stream here and there and then jumping out again. There were limits it seemed, though limits set by Masters or by the act itself I didn’t know. One could only Travel so far down a timeline before there were no coordinates, or access was denied. I had never tried to push those boundaries, only heard the stories, mostly because it hurt my head to fully explore the idea. As the second moon rose in the east, I knew that my problem lay in my linear thinking. I saw time as something that moved in a straight line, when really time was more all-encompassing, something like a painting but not static, moving. I couldn’t quite grasp the thought, but as I had moved in and out of so many timelines recently, it felt more like a vast sheet of reality than a single line of reality moving forward.

    Sighing, I turned to lie on my stomach, again looking over the edge. How time worked really didn’t matter, only that I could move within it. And now it was time to break into the Warden’s office. I scanned the surface of the wall, noting the footholds and handholds and then pushed myself backwards, rolling up and onto my butt. I edged down the slate roof until my feet hung over the side, my arms protesting as I hung on, rolling onto my stomach once more. My toe found a foothold and I secured myself as I edged downwards and vertical. Going down was worse than going up, taking even longer, each foothold and handhold a precise orchestra. I knew that whatever slip I made would cause me to fall and I would end up broken and dying at the bottom of the Citadel wall. I really would rather that not happen, so I moved as slowly and precisely as I could. Though because of my pace my legs, arms and finger muscles were screaming by the time I came to just above the windows and it was with sheer will that I continued to hang on.

    The Warden’s office had several windows, large and elaborate affairs with curling colored glass that cast different pictures depending on the height of the sun. They also had large bases, which I thankfully utilized by dropping down onto and resting, my muscles immediately starting to cramp. I slowed my breathing, standing as tall as I could on the window ledge despite the exposure and went through the muscles mentally, tensing and releasing until the pain became manageable and I no longer feared pitching off the side of the building.

    I turned my focus to the windows and the interior. I halfway expected the Warden to still be in his office, the Lexion at his side, but no one moved about, the moon giving off enough light to see that it was empty. Light came from the hall windows, which meant that there was a chance the Lexion still lingered, so I stayed there on the ledge, back against the side of the building, waiting some more.

    Eventually, those lights went out as well and I moved.

    Taking the cowl from my waist, I wrapped the heavy fabric around my hand and arm. Then, crouching low, I punched a corner of the glass as hard as I could. More pain radiated up my arm as my hand went through the glass, shattering it and shattering the quiet of the night. I hesitated, sure that the sound would cause alarms, but nothing happened. Everything remained dark and no one suddenly appeared below.

    I adjusted the cowl around my arm and wrist, wiggling my fingers free. I reached through the broken glass, searching blindly for the window’s lock. Finding it with the tips of my fingers, I had to angle my arm in such a way that the glass shards pressed hard against the cowl, but even when I twisted my arm further, I couldn’t quite grasp the lock.

    I withdrew my arm. I could break more of the window, but my luck wouldn’t last forever. I unwrapped the cowl and now with bare skin exposed to the edges of the glass, put my arm in the break and twisted. The glass slashed at my exposed skin, opening a wound that started to bleed, but my fingers had purchase on the lock, and I pushed it open. Withdrawing my arm again, I pulled my t-shirt over my head and wrapped it around the bleeding cuts before opening the window and shimmying into the Warden’s office.

    I paused under the window, straining to hear anything at all and though there were distant sounds, nothing came from the immediate area. I stood up, hurrying over to the Warden’s desk and swiping a hand over the surface. The password box immediately appeared. Heart thudding in my chest, I typed in the word “Sideian” as Kieren said.

    The screen turned red, alerting me that the password was wrong.

    Biting the inside of my cheek, I thought about that scene. I had felt Kieren, the knowledge that we shared for a moment, the idea of getting to the office and of breaking into the computer. He’d known what my plan was, and because I now stood in the Warden’s office showed that I still trusted my partner. And I’d been so sure that the word he’d said was the password.

    So sure.

    I tried it again, changing the influx.

    Nothing. Red-lettered words let me know I had one more chance.

    Staring out the window at the night’s darkness, I thought of the Sideian heritage, of their pride and their stubbornness to hold on to that heritage. Perhaps, I had misconstrued the word Kieren had thought at me.

    I typed in the word “Sideia.”

    The desktop opened before me.

    Letting out a rush of air, I studied the Warden’s screen. I needed a location. I knew that there wasn’t going to be a note or spreadsheet indicating where they had relocated Tirius, but, thanks to Kieren, I had the location and a vague idea of the time period. I brought up a database of Guardian assignments, filtering them down to list only the ones that had taken place on Sideia. I skimmed over the names and dates, the number of assignments reaching towards several hundred. I wondered if all these missions were manipulations. But there were so many, and the idea that every single one had affected the timeline in some way seemed wrong. Cana had said the manipulations were about power, power plays between Masters, but I wondered if what was taking place was much more complex.

    I slowed my search when I got to a section that contained the approximate dates Kieren had mentioned. There were two missions, within a week of each other, the coordinates listed like a gift. I memorized the coordinates, turned the desktop off and went back to the window, leaping onto the ledge. I looked up the way I came and then down at the long fall and then at my arm wrapped in my shirt. My muscles were spent, and though the cuts were healing already, the wound added to the difficulty of making it to the roof. There was no way I would be able to scale the wall.

    Climbing back into the office, I untied the cowl and put it back on, the stink enveloping once more. I closed the window, the broken glass apparent to me but hopefully not apparent to anyone else until morning. Opening the office door, I almost expected the Lexions, but everything was quiet and remained dark with the late hour.

    I moved down the hallway, quickly to the door I’d emerged from earlier. Opening it, I slipped into the passageway that led to the kitchen. Later, I would chide myself for not realizing the ease that I gained access to the Warden’s office and the ease in which I escaped. Sure, I had to climb buildings and break windows, but I still got in and out of the Citadel with relative simplicity.

    I should have known better.

    I came to the kitchen unchallenged, grabbing supplies that I hid under my cowl and then making my way back through the Archives. Once in the maze, I threw off the cowl, pausing to let the cool air caress my face before speeding through the rest of the maze at a slow jog. When I gained the woods, I paused again, looking over the cuts that were clean and straight and mostly healed. With the forest as protection, I brought out my supplies to fill my grumbling stomach and sooth my parched throat. I wanted to linger, of course I did, sleep a real option, but low-level adrenaline still coursed through my blood and sleep likely would be a long time coming, so instead I retrieved the hated cowl and Traveled.

    I came out on the edge of a cliff, heavy gray clouds above my head. The wind pushed at me as it does on sea cliffs, and I crouched in the long grass to view my location and any potential threats. Peeking up from where I crouched, I saw the old fort, a crumbling stone structure on the edge of the cliff facing outwards towards the sea, smoke rising from the two chimneys.

    Scanning the overcast sky, I tried to judge the time of day, but it was hard to say. It could be any time between lunch and dinner, with a six-hour difference in between. Obviously further north than Darkside, and judging from the chill in the air, sometime towards winter though not quite, the light would be fading already if it were closer to dinner, so I judged it a bit after lunch.

    A long time to wait for darkness.

    I sat, reviewing my options, my mind struggling to focus as I looked down at my hands, hands that had a line of callouses along the top of my palm from staff use. My fingernails were blunt, broken from all the abuse they’d endured the last little while, and I knew that I needed another shower, the stink at bay only because of the cool air and not because I was clean. Normalcy had drifted into shadow and I wondered if this way of life was my new normal.

    I looked away from my hands to the sky, tracking a bird with great brown wings floating along with the wind current. I envied its freedom, and then shook my head to clear the darker thoughts. I had a mission and I needed to focus on that and that alone. Restless then, I glanced back towards the fort, scanning the exterior for any indication I could climb it and descend from the roof. My arms ached at the thought, but I accomplished nothing sitting in a field, rain starting in small plats of cold.

    Getting up from my spot amongst the grass, I tensed, seeing an older woman walking towards me, the wind pulling at long strands of white hair she had pulled back from her face and the simple, long gray dress that she wore draped about her body. My hand went to my staff without thought, not extending it, but ready as I scanned the scene for others, glancing behind me to see if anyone had flanked me and were now closing in.

    The wind pushed the grass and seeing anyone crouching in the field bordered on impossible, but I remained where I stood as Master Cynthe walked towards me.

    She put a hand up when closer, a smile lifting the wrinkles at her nose and the corner of her eyes. “Well met, Guardian Wren,” she said, a musical voice carrying her words like song across the distance, very different from the harsh tones she’d used with the Warden forever ago.

    My hand tightened on my staff, not taking my eyes off her even as I continued to monitor the area around us with my peripheral vision, looking for her Guardians or other Masters.

    “I am Cynthe,” she said, stopping a little way away from me and bowing at the waist, though I noticed she kept her head up and eyes pinned on me throughout the entire gesture.

    I realized that she had no idea that I knew who she was, information that allowed for a small edge. “Why are you here, Master Cynthe?” I asked, using her title for formality and to show that I knew exactly who she was.

    “You bring me gifts?” she asked, looking around me as if to see if I had someone or something with me.

    I shifted from one foot to another, pretending. “I didn’t know I was supposed to.”

    She gazed back at me and did a weird shrug thing. “I knew it was a possibility, but I see it is only you.”

    “Sorry to disappoint.”

    She smiled again, this time with a level of real pleasure that hadn’t existed in the first smile, though I’d not noticed it at the time. “You are very much not a disappointment,” she said, and then turned to walk the way she came, looking over her shoulder. “Come on, the Archivist is waiting.”

  • Chapter 15

    Diana told us about her journey with halting words and long pauses. She described a place of stark beauty, of rolling hills dotted with low brush and a wind that felt like ice against bare skin. “He’s being held in a castle, or a fort, something that is made of great pieces of stone and is several stories tall.” She paused here, looking over at Kieren again, her face carefully controlled. “He is being guarded by someone that appears to be you. A doppelganger?”

    But, looking over at Kieren and seeing the surprise just hidden under the surface of his blank expression, he caught my eyes, barely shaking his head, and I knew that the story was more complicated than someone who just looked like him. I refocused on Diana, pretending as if nothing about Kieren’s reaction struck me as out of place, knowing that I would need to speak with him privately so Colm would not become suspicious.

    “How did you find him?” Colm asked. “Can you describe the method?”

    The question was clinical, but I too felt the prickle of curiosity, also relieved that Colm had failed to notice the exchange of looks between Kieren and me. Diana looked down at her hands, long fingers intertwined with one another. They were pale with natural pink nails ragged along the edges, though perhaps due to recent events rather than a regular state. She flexed her fingers outwards and then inwards, closing her eyes for a moment as if thinking of a way to phrase the experience. Without opening her eyes, she took a deep breath in and then a slow breath out. “It is as if I can feel a thread of his being at the back of my head. It isn’t a physical sensation as much as it is a sense of presence. In the beginning, when I first realized the feeling, and really, when I thought I was going mad, the sense of him flitted about and I could rarely focus on it long enough to manifest it into anything. That is no longer the case.” She opened her eyes and stared above our heads seeing something that wasn’t there with us. “Now, the feeling is concrete and if I focus on the presence of it, the reality that it is Tirius, that creates a tether kind of mental image. It is a rope, or I imagine it is a rope, and I can follow that rope.” She smiled in Colm’s direction. “That really is the best way to describe it.”

    “Can you speak to him?” I asked, thinking of my time in Rushiel.

    She shrugged. “I can sometimes, yes, or I think I can, but this time he was under sedation, or at least I think so. He felt really sluggish, as if he was not altogether present, though I don’t think he was just sleeping.”

    “They have him drugged,” Kieren said.

    We all looked over at Kieren who sat forward on the edge of the couch, sinking in the old cushions, elbows on his knees, hands dangling between his legs. His face held the usual bland expression, but his jaw clenched.

    “You know this by her small description?” Colm queried, clearly already knowing that was not how Kieren knew the information.

    Kieren glanced over at me, green eyes catching and holding mine, asking me a non-verbal question that I couldn’t understand. When I didn’t answer, he looked back at Colm. “No, because I was the one guarding his room, though I didn’t know who it was at the time.”

    Credit to Colm that he remained seated, only tensing at the information. “You know this for certain?” he asked Kieren.

    Kieren sat up straighter, stretching his spine backward, focusing his gaze on Diana who watched him without comment. “Within a certain parameter, but yes. The description, the location as Diana tells it, fits with what I experienced. It is a northern coastal area of mainland Sideia. It is an old fort, abandoned until we moved the prisoner there.”

    Diana frowned. “But, how does that work? I mean, how are you there and here? Did I go back in time?”

    I answered for Kieren. “Not necessarily. I mean, perhaps, but where you found Tirius is in his now. The Masters or whoever took him could have moved him within any timeline, at any point.”

    Diana frowned. “This timeline thing is incredibly confusing and doesn’t make sense. How do we know that it is the current Tirius? How do we know it is not some Tirius at some other point? How do you keep this all straight in a straight line?”

    “Time is not straight,” Kieren said, which was not at all helpful.

    I talked over him. “Time is not linear in the way that most individuals think it is, more like a circular construct. We know that the Tirius you made contact with is the current Tirius, in a sense of the word, because there is no other Tirius anywhere in any timeline.”

    “Because Tirius cannot be found at any point in any timeline,” Colm added.

    “And that is the part that doesn’t make sense. How did they erase his existence so completely? The only way we found him is through this bond with me?” Diana asked.

    She directed her question to Colm, but she included Kieren in her glance.

    Both Sideians shook their heads, unable to answer the question.

    “Does it matter?” Colm asked after a moment, addressing all of us. “If you can locate him, and Wren and her partner can Travel us there, then we can put him back in this timeline and we can reconvene with Cana.”

    Kieren caught the name and frowned over at me. I shook my head. I would tell him about Cana later, but Kieren ignored my reaction and gave Colm a look that I knew meant he wasn’t going to let go of the situation. “Who is Cana?”

    Colm frowned back at the other Sideian. “My superior.”

    I broke in, cursing internally for not making time to fill Kieren in on the situation. “She is the one that requested we find Tirius,” I explained.

    “A leader of our people,” Colm answered, sounding a little closer to a fanatic then I would have liked.

    “Your people?” Kieren queried, raising an eyebrow. “You are Sideian. Just because you no longer dwell on Sideia does not mean that you are not still of our people.”

    For the first time since Colm took me out of my timeline, he looked embarrassed, bordering on something else that looked a lot like guilt. “I am for every species of every reality. That is what we are fighting for.”

    Kieren wanted to pursue it, ask about the fighting, ask about the reasoning behind this war that Colm kept hinting at, but I needed to avoid that conversation, mostly because I knew that it would likely lead to an argument at the very least, and more likely a physical altercation.

    “You know that location, then?” I asked Kieren, deterring him the only way I knew how; by asking him questions.

    He nodded, though stubborn enough to keep staring at Colm.

    “Enough to get us there with Travelling?” I confirmed.

    He hesitated and I groaned.

    “What does the groan mean?” Colm asked, following along with the disjointed conversation. Diana stayed quiet, watching the three of us interact.

    “It means we need the coordinates,” I replied.

    “How do we do that?” Colm asked.

    I shared a look with Kieren and both of us knew that there were two ways to find those coordinates. Colm would not like either option.

    I answered for both of us. “We either have to go to the Warden’s office and look up the coordinates for that particular mission, or we have to somehow detain an earlier version of Kieren and convince him to give us the coordinates.”

    Colm worked through my explanation. “But if Kieren had the coordinates before, why doesn’t he have the coordinates now?”

    “It was cycles ago. I can guess, but you don’t want guesses,” Kieren replied.

    “What about this computer inside your head? The interface or whatever it is that you call it. Is it stored there?”

    That Colm knew about our interface capability hardly surprised me, but it did surprise Kieren and I felt his edge. To once again redirect the potential aggression, I calmly explained that Kieren and I could not use our interfaces because they could be tracked.

    “You’ve had them turned off this entire time?” Colm verified. “Even when we were ambushed?”

    I knew what he was implying; I just stared at him. After a moment he put his hands out as if to placate me. “Fine I get it. You had nothing to do with the ambush. I believe you.”

    “Which one is it, then?” Diana asked, bringing us back to the reason we were all convened in some gamer’s cottage in Sideia, following her question up with another: “Which one is easier?”

    “Neither,” Kieren and I said at the same moment.

    I continued. “One is breaking into the Citadel. Not easy. The other option includes trying to get a prior Kieren alone and have him trust one of us enough that he provides the information, but making sure that he does not interact with this Kieren. Bad things could happen, or at least that is what they tell us.”

    “That sounds more like the time travel I’ve heard about,” Diana chimed in, causing me to smile at her because she was right. The idea that two versions of the same person could never meet did fit more with popular movies and books in the human timeline. I had started to wonder if that was even true.

    The two Sideians barely noticed her side comment.

    “We could torture him,” Colm offered, smiling slightly.

    “I wouldn’t give up the information even if I was under torture,” Kieren deadpanned.

    Colm turned his smile towards me, pointing at Kieren as if my partner had just proven something.

    I scowled, irritated. “We are not going to torture any version of Kieren.”  Looking down at my hands that lay still in my lap, I sighed. “We are going to have to break into the Citadel.”

    “Is that even possible?” Diana asked. “I don’t know anything about this Citadel, or this Warden, but I’ve seen you two fight. How are we going to get through without being caught? Or killed?”

    “You’re not,” I said immediately.

    She looked offended, pushing a strand of blond hair behind her ear.

    I explained. “You are the only way we can contact Tirius. If he is moved at some point and we can’t trace him, we can rely on you to show us where to go. But not if you are dead. This is going to be nearly impossible. You need to stay safe.”

    “We’ll take her to Cana first,” Colm said.

    All eyes turned to him.

    “You are in contact?” I asked, slowly.

    Colm again looked embarrassed but resolute. “Yes.”

    “You’ve given away our location?” Kieren asked.

    “She isn’t a threat to you unless you make it so,” Colm immediately countered.

    Diana was the one to cut in this time. “Then we contact her. I stay with her. The three of you go and retrieve the location.”

    “Three?” Kieren asked.

    “Yes,” Colm replied.

    “Where is Cana? Can we Travel there?” I asked.

    Colm hesitated. “It is possible. It might take her some time to get there, but we can just Travel, or whatever you call it, to the point that she would arrive.”

    I nodded. “Let me guess, the place that you took me when you kidnapped me.”

    Diana snorted a laugh. “They kidnapped you too?”

    I gave her a look that made her smile grow, eyes lighting up.

    Kieren shook his head, bringing us back to all business. “This plan would work considerably better if it is just me and Wren. We can at least pass for Guardians.”

    Colm started to reply but I cut him off by standing up. I was tired and the debate would go on between the two Sideians for as long as the night held hours. Also, it was going to be Cana’s decision of whether Colm was going to go with us, though I doubted that Colm realized that small tidbit yet.

    Stretching arms up and over my head, I couldn’t contain a face-splitting yawn. With blurry eyes I looked at the other three. “I’m going to bed. Tomorrow we’ll Travel wherever we need to go to meet up with Cana, and then we can take it from there. Colm, do what you need to do to ensure we know her arrival time.”

    I left them. Diana followed me, leaving the two men to do whatever they needed to do to hash it out.

    “Are you worried they’ll kill one another?” Diana asked, catching up with me on the stairs.

    I glanced back down the stairs and shrugged. “Honestly, it might be easier.”

    She smiled. I was pleased to see some color had returned to her lips and cheeks.

    “They are not human?”

    “They are not from the human timeline, no. They are from this timeline. Sideian is their timeline name.”

    “They appear human,” Diana continued as we came to her room.

    I nodded. “There are a lot of individuals that have similar characteristics to humans, only differing in social terms. Sideians are a combative people, in which there is little law but that which is fought over, and held only until replaced with a more powerful group.”

    Diana sniffed, glancing back towards the stairway. “Well, that explains some things.”

    I nodded in agreement, wished her goodnight and then wandered off to another room, sleep dragging at my step.

    I woke with dawn glittering through the dirty window. My back muscles were sore, not because of the bed but because of the workout I’d had with Kieren. I grumbled, wiping sleep from my face with a hand. The fact I felt sore showed me that I had most definitely lost an edge I shouldn’t have lost. Though no longer a Guardian, at least officially, I shouldn’t have let my training fall to the wayside through all the random kidnappings and moving about from timeline to timeline.

    Sitting on the edge of the bed, I closed my eyes against the light and breathed in deeply, holding the breath down low in my solar plexus before letting it go with a slow exhale. Standing, I did a series of quick stretches then pulled on my boots, strapping on my weapons as I headed for the door. I knotted my hair as I walked, not hearing anyone else moving around as I made my way downstairs.

    I found Kieren in the kitchen, poking around the supplies with a frown on his face. His hair was pulled back as well, highlighting high cheekbones. His face looked thinner than I’d ever remembered it. I knew he felt a great deal of turmoil over the situation; I saw it in the way he held himself and interacted with Colm and Diana. But I also felt it in that connection I wasn’t even sure existed. It was a pull of wariness. I doubted the feeling, but seeing him in the morning light, the connection strong and insistent, I couldn’t deny something existed there, even if he didn’t believe it himself.

     “Good morning,” I said, startling him, which was weird. “Anything for breakfast?”

    Kieren nodded towards the fruit laid out on the counter. I stuck out my tongue, not wanting fruit, but contained my complaint and took an apple-shaped fruit from the pile. I took a stool and watched Kieren continue to poke around as I took a bite of the apple-thing. It tasted sweeter than an apple, the juice spilling down my chin. I grabbed a random piece of cloth to wipe at my face.

    “The other two are not awake yet?” I asked, taking another bite, though more careful to eat over the counter and let the juice fall there instead of onto my shirt or face.

    Kieren nodded. “Colm slept in Diana’s room. Something about keeping her safe.” He paused then, glancing up at me. “Do you believe that she can actually contact the Archivist in the way she described?”

    I shrugged. “You more or less verified it.”

    Kieren nodded and then looked down at the pile of goods. “There is a lot here that I don’t understand,” he said, a confession I know he would have rather not made.

    “I know. Me too.”

    He shook his head, taking the stool next to me though not looking at me. “There’s more at play than just Tirius and these others.”

    I frowned, examining the side of his face. The sparring yesterday had reminded me of our partnership in the past, before the secrets and the realization of this awareness. Before Rushiel. “Do you know more?” I asked, yearning for those days when we were just Guardians; for the simplicity of our relationship and the missions. I’d walked away from being a Collector because I wanted simplicity. The irony felt heavy on my shoulders.

    Kieren remained silent, staring out the window.

    “Kieren?” I prompted.

    He refocused on me. “They’re at war with one another,” he said quietly.

    I frowned, not catching his meaning. He felt my confusion, refocusing on me, green eyes darkening in response to whatever he saw. “The Masters are at war. I don’t know all the details, I am only privy to some, but they are killing one another.”

    Blinking, I tried to process the information. “Killing, as in murder?”

    He nodded. “It’s hard to do apparently, but yes.” Tilting his head, he studied my face and the gaze felt physical. “What we are doing, this situation with Tirius, Colm, Diana, us; it’s just a small piece, barely a blip in the real situation, almost insignificant.” He waved a hand towards the door. “Even the existential threat, just a small piece.”

    Tirius had hinted at the same thing and I had suspected that was the case for a while, but to hear it from my partner seemed to solidify the information. “Do you know what the bigger picture is? Do you know why they are going after one another?”

    Kieren shook his head and then stood up, rolling broad shoulders under his black t-shirt. “No, just bits that I’ve put together.” He looked down at me. “You know more than I do.”

    I put my halfway eaten piece of fruit down and stared at him, my stomach flipping with sudden nerves because here it was, the moment when we were alone, Kieren in a mood of self-reflection and my own frustration of not knowing rising up into my chest. I caught and held his gaze, though it was difficult because in his face I saw vulnerability and that vulnerability tore at me.

    I cleared my throat slightly, forcing my hands to relax, letting go of the fists that I’d curled my fingers into. “I know some things, but other things, like the reason you wanted another partner, are not as clear.”

    Perhaps the partner situation was not the most important thing we needed to discuss, but it was there and had been there, lingering, pressing on my consciousness, demanding.

    My words caught Kieren in a grip that physically moved him backward with a jerk, his face turning away so I only saw his profile stark against the morning light. I pushed. “Kieren? I heard the conversation, I heard what Master Ral said. I know that we are not as compatible as other partners, but why? I thought we were, are, a team.”

    For a moment I believed he wouldn’t answer, or else stall so long that Colm would appear and interrupt, but a few breaths later he looked over and caught my gaze with his familiar one. “When you made the move from Collector to Guardian, the Warden assigned me to be your partner not because of any connection, like other Guardians, but because he didn’t trust that you truly wanted to be a Guardian.”

    “He believed I was a spy,” I said, not entirely surprised when Kieren nodded. It fell in line with what I had started to learn about Tirius and the Warden’s relationship, though hearing Kieren confirm the information shifted my foundation of reality. “So, this,” I said, waving a hand between us. “This is not a pairing.”

    He shook his head. “No. As I said, those partnerships are never across timelines. They are always within the same kind. There is a predetermined connection between a Sideian and a Sideian or human and human, Diax and Diax.”

    I got it, though the fact I understood only intensified the sick feeling in my stomach, the tightness wrapping around my throat, contradicting the very real feeling I had at the base of my skull connecting me to the man that stood next to me, close and far all at once.

    Pushing through the hurricane of threatening emotions, I continued. “I understand. But you were requesting a new partner. Had I not proven my loyalty to the Warden? Something else? Why?” I managed to keep my voice steady, but just.

    The sudden emotion that crossed Kieren’s face startled me so completely that it took a moment for me to identify it as grief. The sickness in my stomach intensified. “Kieren?”

    He refused to meet my gaze, looking down at the counter, jaw clenching and releasing. “I felt it was time that I broke off the partnership.”

    I pressed. “Why?”

    “A Warden does not have a partner,” he said, voice flat.

    This line confirmed many things, though did not answer my question. “Master Ral said you requested reassignment,” I replied. “Not just getting rid of me because you were becoming Warden. You requested another partner.”

    Kieren ran a hand down the front of his face as if to erase his reaction, but when his hand fell his face still held grief, something else, and my own emotions broke through the tightness in my throat. I felt tears. I blinked rapidly to try to dispel them. Instead of making them disappear, they fell, and I wiped a palm angrily against my cheek to erase the evidence of my emotions. It shouldn’t matter that Kieren wanted to walk away. It shouldn’t matter because what I had started to feel for this Sideian standing before me shouldn’t exist.

    “To be Warden is to have no connection,” Kieren said after the silence held like glass between us. He looked up finally, meeting my eyes with his own, holding them. “The Warden has no connection,” he repeated, his voice heavy with the meaning behind the words. He took a step toward me. We were close physically, but I felt the distance between us, the wedge that had developed over the last while.

    “Did the Warden do this, demand this of you?” I asked, voice far away as I looked up at Kieren, at the scar on his chin, at his lips, avoiding his eyes.

    “It’s my duty,” he answered. “There is more at work here than us, Wren, threats that are bigger than us.”

    He was right, of course, he was right, but I still couldn’t stop the ache that seemed to press down on my chest, the vice-like grip on my heart. Kieren’s face seemed to mirror what I felt, the pain an echo across a bond that might just be a figment of my imagination.

    “And what happened on Rushiel?” I asked, whispered more because I couldn’t find the volume.

    Kieren stood above me now, looking down at me. I tensed then stilled as he brought a hand up and wiped away the moisture on my cheek. The touch jolted me, feeling it in my toes, in my stomach. Such a simple touch, but I felt it everywhere and saw that he did as well, his jaw clenching, his eyes darkening.

    “I heard you,” he said, touch lingering against my face.

    “I called you,” I replied, not breaking the contact.

    He cupped my face then, his palm rough against my cheek, warm, familiar without being familiar. “Pieces that we don’t understand,” he said.

    I leaned into his hand, closing my eyes for a moment, hearing his breathing change. “Doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”

    “I know,” he agreed.

    I opened my eyes and caught his gaze, the gaze that flickered down to my lips and back up again. I felt more than saw the hitch in his breath, the rapid pulse in his throat.

    “You feel it too,” I pressed.

    At first I thought he wouldn’t reply, thought maybe he would stop the conversation with a kiss, and I wanted him to, just as much as I wanted him to answer me.

    He brought a hand up to the back of his head, to the top of his spine. “Here,” he said.

    I nodded. “Yeah.” I searched his eyes, looking for answers and found only the same confusion, uncertainty.

    The same desire.

    “Do you think…” I started.

    “I don’t know,” he interrupted.

    “But duty,” I reminded him, wanting him to take the step back, wanting him to make the separation because I very much knew that I wouldn’t be able to do it.

    The reminder didn’t work, Kieren moving his hand just enough that he could touch my lips with his thumb, his body angling closer, inches separating us. His touch intensified the heat coiling in my belly, the tension in the center of my person.

    “Duty to what though?” he asked, leaning down so all I saw was him. “Do you trust me?”

    I nodded without thinking because despite everything I did trust him. Perhaps we weren’t paired, but there was something else, something that created this tension between us, that allowed us to find each other when we were apart, an undeniable bond of some sort. Right then I was done believing the bond was something of my imagination. I could feel the man in front of me. I could feel his reaction to the situation as if it was my own reaction, but separate too, as if another being had entered my consciousness. And perhaps it was like that, perhaps that was the pairing that Tirius spoke of. I didn’t know, but standing there looking up, feeling Kieren’s breath across my temple, I started to believe.

    Colm clattered into the kitchen, asking about breakfast. Kieren took a step back and I turned away, wiping at my face. In a split-second decision, I decided that wiping the tears would not erase the evidence of them and so got off my stool and went for the back-kitchen door. I heard Colm ask after me, and Kieren’s reply that I needed a moment.

    As I stepped outside into what was once a kitchen vegetable garden, the ice-like air hit with knife precision. I only wore the sweater and slacks that Diana had provided me, and I shivered violently, wrapping arms around my middle. I looked up, eyes wide, letting the cold erase the emotions, letting the chill descend over me, breathing deeply of the frigid air until the tightness in my throat eased and my stomach stopped rolling in waves of nausea. Only when I felt as if the ice had entered my bloodstream did I look down from the sky.

    If we survived the Masters killing each other, Colm and Cana attacking, and Kieren becoming Warden, we would have to figure out our relationship. I knew my partner and knew that he would withdraw after such an emotional display, but there was something there, something that needed to be explored, some kind of partnership that I needed to understand.

    But not yet, maybe not ever. Though I absolutely trusted Kieren, I didn’t trust the Warden, and I knew that Kieren would adhere to his duty no matter what that would entail. This meant that, at some point, Kieren would be forced to take sides, and though I trusted him, I didn’t know which side he would be on.

    This was not the time to dwell though. I needed to move on, and I took one last deep breath to do just that, letting the air settle in my lungs and then turning to reenter the kitchen. All three were now present, three pairs of eyes looking at me as I entered. I brought in a wave of cold air and Diana, who sat nearest to the door, shivered at it.

    “Are we ready?” I asked, directing my question to Colm, intentionally ignoring Kieren who sat in his corner of the kitchen though I felt his green eyes on me.

    Diana pointed to one of the duffel bags we’d brought with, large on the counter next to her. “I packed the clothing, though I’m kind of sad we have to leave. I like it here.” She tried for a smile, understanding something that I had not voiced, and I smiled back at her attempt.

    I looked at Colm.

    He nodded. “Yes. We have a rendezvous.” He told us the date and time. I did the calculation in my head and then finally looked over at Kieren. He confirmed my calculations and I nodded, unemotional and proud of the fact.

    “Then, we’re ready,” I said, moving further into the kitchen to pick up the duffel Diana brought down with her. Colm picked up the other duffel that I hadn’t noticed on the floor. The three of them came to me and as before we held hands. At the contact with Kieren, I saw a flash of something in his eyes before he closed them, enveloping us in a field. I closed my eyes in response, briefly panicking, wondering if he was going to go somewhere else with Diana, fulfill his mission, whatever that might be, and I braced for the tearing sensation that would indicate that he was breaking the Travel field.

    Nothing came and when we Arrived, all four of us Arrived, wind whipping at us, the sound of the sea a flowing awareness, the smell of salt in my nose and on my tongue. The sun momentarily blinded me, but it took only a moment to blink away the change. I immediately glanced over to check on Diana, but she looked better than she had the first time she’d Traveled and instead of throwing up in the dune grass, she looked around in curiosity.

    “I’ve been here before,” she said to no one at all.

    “Physically?” I asked, instinctively knowing what she spoke of.

    She shook her head, confirming my thought. “Only in dreams,” she replied, somewhat absently, then started walking off in the direction of Tirius’s house.

    We followed her.

    The way that Colm described it, we would not have to wait long to get into contact with Cana and indeed within moments of letting ourselves into the house, Colm indicated that he’d received information from his boss.

    “They will be here in a matter of minutes,” he said, looking around the interior of the house with some curiosity. Diana had crossed the threshold and immediately walked towards the living room, falling slowly on the white couch and staring absently at the fire she’d turned on as she walked by the switch. I let her be, though Colm kept looking over at her with questioning glances, not yet connecting Diana’s mood with the fact we were in Tirius’s home and how that might be jarring for the woman.

    “I’m going to go see if Tirius’s notes are still in your room. Maybe Diana can make sense of them,” Kieren said, already moving towards the hallway. The me from yesterday would have followed him, taken the opportunity to be alone, to speak to him quietly, but after our conversation earlier, I was not in the mood and I let him disappear down the hallway without saying anything at all. Instead, I went to the kitchen and opened the fridge, pulling out water in glass canisters. I took two and brought one over to Diana who was still sitting very quietly and staring at the fireplace.

    “What notes?” she asked as I sat next to her.

    I glanced over my shoulder towards where Kieren had disappeared. “Notes from Tirius. Maybe with your connection, you can figure out what he is alluding to.”

    Diana studied me and I tried not to squirm under her scrutiny. “Something is wrong between you and your partner,” she stated, not making it a question.

    “I don’t want to talk about it,” I replied.

    She left it alone, and once again I was struck by her kindness as well as her underlying wisdom. Though she was not at all like Tirius, the feeling of her was similar, as if she was a lot older than the 50-year-old body she currently inhabited.

    There was a slight beeping sound and we both turned to where Colm stood in the kitchen. He held a communication device and was checking over whatever it was displayed on the screen. There was a moment of silence and then someone knocked on the front door.

    The door opened before any of us could move and Cana walked into the hallway, long dress flowing about her, looking around even as Colm moved towards her with a swift step. “You shouldn’t be here,” he said, urgently, voice pitched low though Diana and I could still make out the words from where we sat on the couch.

    Cana waved one of her hands, the movement still off, still not altogether right in the way of things. She stepped further into the house, glancing around as she did. Perhaps she hoped Tirius would be with us already.

    Kieren emerged from the hallway, stilling when he caught sight of Cana. His face showed no emotion, as usual, but I felt his tension, seeing it in his shoulders and that feeling again at the base of my skull. It was like a pressure, informing me of his tension, of his weariness in the face of the leader of this coup.

    He looked to me, eyes seeking me out and I suddenly realized with a clenched stomach, tensing myself on the couch, that Kieren posed a threat, something that hadn’t gone unnoticed by Colm who placed himself between my partner and Cana’s swaying form.

    Diana got up, sensing something but instead of bringing attention to it, smiled at Cana. “I am going with you apparently.”

    Cana replied in kind, moving around the couch to take Diana’s hands. “I’m so glad that you were able to find him. His help is invaluable, and so are you.”

    There was a shift of air as if something shimmered and I knew that feeling even as I instinctively grabbed at my staff, bringing it to the front of my body with a smooth movement, elongating it with a flick of my wrist. In the amount of time it took me to do that, Cana had taken another step towards Diana, wrapping her arms around her and disappearing. Whether in protest of her departure or something else, Colm moved towards the now empty space where the two women had stood moments before.

    Guardians burst through the front door, the large door ricocheting back toward the wall. There were two of them, tall and lean, clad in their familiar black uniforms, blond-white hair pulled back from sharp features. The Guardians were Lexion, my mind whirling at the implications even as I went to intercept them, Colm positioning himself to cover my back. There was a loud ping as something hit the back windows, cracks appearing. The glass shattered even as I turned to engage the two Lexions, my staff coming up to block the long sword coming down towards my head. Lexions always used swords, which was an advantage for me and my longer and more versatile staff, but as I twirled out from under the reach of the first one, the second one closed in on my side.

    Colm met the second set of swords with a long metal staff that he’d pulled out of somewhere, though I’d never seen him use anything of the sort. The staff clanged loudly against the sword’s steel; the crash swallowed up by a cacophony of sound as another two windows shattered behind me. I took a step away from the Lexion, putting a wall between myself and whoever was coming through the windows, wind whirling into the house with the sound and smell of the sea. I leaned away, a bend towards the wall as the sword came up to catch me lengthwise, the steel a hair breath from cutting across my clothing. I dropped into a sideways crouch, my staff whipping low, catching the Lexion’s ankles. An involuntary yelp of pain from above my head sounded as my staff’s sharp edge cut tendon. The Lexion fell and I leaped out of the way, looking over to where Colm engaged with the other Lexion. Behind them, a Guardian vaulted the couch, knife in hand. Without thought and on instinct, I reached for the knife at my boot and in the same motion brought my arm up and threw it. The shot turned lucky, the angle off, the timing off, but my knife still catching the other Guardian’s shoulder. The Guardian, a human, dropped to the ground, putting a hand at the knife in his shoulder even as he struggled up, leaping with strength towards Colm, intent on stabbing the Sideian in the back.

    My other knife was in my hand and then it was embedded into the eye socket of the Guardian. He fell, disappearing behind the couch.

    A hand grabbed at my leg; the Lexion at my feet. He tried to get up even with the injury to his Achilles making it nearly impossible. I brought my staff up, around, and across his neck, the blood spraying out and away.

    Another shift in pressure indicated that more Guardians had arrived. I looked around, Colm still engaged with his Lexion, and I realized with a tightening throat that Kieren was not there fighting with us.

    The fourth Guardian caught me with her whip, the long leather wrapping around my arm. She jerked the whip towards her. I fell that way, stumbling as I tried to gain hold of the whip so I could use it as leverage. But she knew what I did and kept jerking me forward, knife in her other hand as she twirled the whip along her forearm. I tried to scramble backward, tried to angle my body and gain control but the jerking movement kept me off balance and her knife was ready as I came within arm’s length of her.

    Colm popped up behind her and struck her across the temple with his staff. The Guardian crumbled to the floor.

    “We have to go now,” he said, breathing heavily, his hair a mess around his face, sweat at his temples.

    “Kieren,” I managed, looking around.

    “As I said,” Colm replied, waving a hand through the broken windows. I saw my partner then, tall and lean in the sunshine, hair perfect, face precise and composed, without weapon, without violence, talking with the Warden who had bent his large head to listen. As if sensing my gaze, both men turned to me. The Warden gestured, saying something, and four more Guardians appeared from behind him.

    I stared at Kieren who watched, face without emotion, not moving even as the four Guardians ran towards the broken windows.

    “Wren,” Colm said beside me, urgent.

    Not taking my eyes from Kieren, I nodded, grabbed his hand and Traveled.

    We arrived in the United States, circa late 20th century, in the middle of winter, in the middle of an alley in a city I’d not visited in a very long time. Cold winter rain fell in a mist, chilling me to the bone within moments. I retracted my staff, placing it in its holster and started for the alley’s entrance.

    “Where are we?” Colm asked, hurrying behind me as I made my way into the flow of morning foot traffic. The city had its share of homeless, as such the mass population gave us a wide birth, not looking at us directly though we both were covered in blood, me more than Colm, the red turning to a rusty color against my pink sweater.

    “Hurry,” I said, which was not entirely an answer but all I was going to give him at that moment in time.

    I tried to avoid the main streets, taking the alleys as I could, but there were not a lot of options and I hoped that we could make it to the three-story brick house before someone realized we were covered in blood and called the police on us. Colm kept up with my clipped pace but as we took a giant hill he lagged and when I turned to look, saw that he was holding his side, his face ashen, his lack of color apparent even with the overcast skies.

    “The sword,” he said as a way of an explanation when I went back to him.

    “It’s only a little bit further,” I said, coming up close and carefully wrapping my arms around his sturdy torso. Supporting him, the two of us continued up the hill, creating a different kind of spectacle and people were even more inclined to look the other way. Cities were good that way, and Seattle was one of the best when it came to people minding their own business. I knew it was only a matter of time before the Warden thought to check this place, but I was running out of options and this place was better than any other I could think of, especially as I was intimately familiar with it.

    Down a side street and another, the rain soaking through our clothing, icy against our skin. I lead us into a small back garden area, sided by large hedges, the ground entirely bricked over. I found the heavy black iron key underneath the planter that lined the tiny porch right outside the backdoor. Fitting the key in, for a moment I thought it wouldn’t work, but the lock groaned in protest and then clicked.

    Halfway dragging Colm inside, I flipped on the kitchen light, illuminating the space with a calm artificial glow. The kitchen was small, dark wood and tiles creating a cozy, cave-like space.  The dim light wouldn’t do however, and I brought Colm through the kitchen into the dining room, depositing him into one of the upholstered dining room chairs. I flipped on the lights there, the chandelier casting a considerably brighter glow.

    “I’ll get the first aid kit,” I said, walking through the dining room and into the hallway that led to a small bathroom under the stairs. The medkit was in the same place I’d left it and I grabbed it along with pain medication from the cabinet above the toilet. I brought everything back to Colm who had stripped out of his shirt. Goosebumps littered his skin, but I barely noticed as I caught sight of the gash in his side.

    “Well,” I said, kneeling so I was eye level with the wound and then opened the medkit. It was the 20th century, but the medkit was from the 22nd and I quickly cleaned the wound with air antiseptic. This caused Colm to hiss out in pain but like before he made no other noise, taking the cleaning with a clenched jaw. The sword gash was a lot longer and nastier than the bullet wound from last time, but the method was the same and I soon had the wound closed with the stitches. He sat up slowly from the chair so I could wrap bandages around his middle, circling his torso several times, securing the pads of gauze over the wound.

    I sat back on my heels, looking down at my bloody hands. “You got to stop getting hurt around me,” I said, trying for wry amusement.

    Colm wasn’t having it, his silence and gaze both heavy on the top of my head.

    I sighed. “I know what it looks like.”

    He cut me off. “No, Wren. Not what it looks like. What it is.”

    I got up, wanting to rub at my face but my hands were still covered in blood. I shook my head once. “I’m going to go get cleaned up. You should too.”

    Leaving the dining area, I walked slowly and with measured steps down the hallway and then up the stairs to my old room. Opening the door, I stopped at the threshold and looked in. My father had bought the house in the early 70s when Seattle was not yet the booming town it would become in the late 20th century and well into the 21st. When he had to sell it because the new wife had demanded it, I’d been the anonymous buyer who had purchased it, with Tirius’s help of course. Everything had stayed, the new wife wanting all new things and nothing to do with any of my father’s unfortunate past. That had included my 16-year-old self and it was at that 16-year-old’s room that I now stared. The room had a single bed covered with a faded quilt and a raggedy stuffed dog guarding the pillow. The blinds were partially open, but the gray day was stingy with light and I turned on the desk lamp, glancing over the pictures and quotes stuck under the desk’s glass surface. Nothing there caused me to smile, rather inducing a deep wariness. I sat down on the side of my old bed, the mattress sinking under my weight. I stared at my reflection in the mirrored closet door.

    I looked like hell. My sweater was ruined with slashes of Lexion blood, my hair falling in lanky strands on either side of my too pale face. Bruise-like smudges created racoon circles around my eyes and my skin seemed strangely tight across my cheekbones. I looked as if I was barely holding it together, and with that thought came unbidden the image of Kieren as I last saw him.

    Standing up quickly, I swayed for a moment, blinking away the darkness that edged across my sight, walking towards the bathroom in the hallway while taking deep and steady breaths.

    This time the shower was clean, the towels plentiful and I knew I would find a change of clothes in the closet. I put the water on as hot as I could stand it and then stood under the spray and watched as the red pooled at my feet, disappearing down the drain. When the water ran clear, I reached for the shampoo and soap, scrubbing my skin raw, trying to wash off the feelings that were threatening, stuffing down the thoughts, the worry, the uncertainty, the sense of betrayal.

    “You don’t know for sure,” I said out loud. “You don’t know.”

    I turned off the water, wrapped myself in a towel and stood in the steam for a moment, closing my eyes until the shakes went away and the tightness in my throat lessened. Then I opened the bathroom door and went back towards my room where I found clothing that fit. Pulling socks on I heard the shower in the master bedroom start up and I briefly wondered if Colm needed help, but the image of the Sideian needing help was enough of an oddity that I left him to it. Leaving my weapons on the bed, I made my way back down the stairs and into the kitchen where I started the coffee pot. I would have preferred tea, but I’d yet to become a tea drinker when I’d walked out of the house at 16 so there was only herbal in the cupboard. The memory of trying to make tea the first time in Tirius’s cottage made me smile, in a desperate kind of way.

    “But coffee. There is coffee. I know how to do coffee,” I said out loud as I filled the pot up with water from the sink’s faucet.

    By the time Colm joined me in the kitchen, clean but wearing his dirty and bloody clothes still, the coffee was almost done, and I had gotten down two mugs, adding two small containers worth of cream to each one. Without asking, I poured Colm’s coffee out and handed it over, then did the same for me, wrapping cold hands around the warmth of the mug. I walked through a small hallway to the living room area at the front of the house. There was an old brown leather sofa there and two matching leather chairs, all well-worn in and covered in soft-looking throws. I’d added the throws when I’d purchased the house, the memory of Tirius and I standing in the living room a strong one. He’d surveyed the room. “Make it your own,” he’d told me, eyeing the shelves of books, the antlers on the wall, the heavy wooden furniture. “We all need a place of our own,” he’d went on to say. I’d gotten rid of the antlers and added the throws but everything else was as my father had left it.

    It felt like home, which was why I’d avoided it up to this point. There were no secrets from the Warden, and the Masters would look for me here soon. It was only a matter of time, but both Colm and I needed rest.

    Taking in the room, I nodded to myself. We would stay for a bit and hope it wasn’t too long.

    I sat in one of the large chairs, pulling the cream-colored blanket up and around my shoulders. I wore black leggings, a big sweatshirt and socks but still, the cold seemed to permeate my bones. I knew it likely was shock and had nothing to do with the temperature of the room, but I chose to ignore that as well, snuggling deep in the blanket and sipping at my coffee.

    “This is delicious,” Colm said, putting his mug up in a kind of salute. He’d taken the couch, his large body making the normally large couch seem smaller.

    “How was the shower? Your wound?” I asked.

    He shrugged and then squinted at his coffee, clearly running ideas for conversation through his mind before he decided on tackling the most obvious. “We were set up.”

    “You don’t know that.”

    “Seems pretty apparent.”

    I shook my head, stubborn, looking out the front window at the grayness. “The place was likely under surveillance. We’d used it too many times.”

    I knew Colm studied me, but I remained impassive under the scrutiny.

    “He was speaking to the Warden. Not fighting. Not negotiating under duress,” Colm continued.

    “I know,” I bit out, pausing and then sighing. I looked over to meet Colm’s gaze.

    “I know,” I repeated, a little more civil because there was no use arguing with the Sideian. I refused to believe Kieren had betrayed me, but I was not going to be able to convince Colm, so instead of pursuing that line of conversation, I changed the subject.

    “Cana and Diana are safe?”

    It was Colm’s turn to look out the front window. He took another sip of coffee before answering. “I don’t know. I left the communicator on the counter.”

    Adrenaline spiked through my system. “Can it be used to track Cana?”

    Colm shook his head. “No. It is pass guarded, but even if they can get through the security measures, they still wouldn’t be able to use it to trace Cana or the fleet.”

    I nodded. That was something at least, though how we would get a hold of them in the future was an entirely different matter. “Okay, so we keep to the plan.”

    “Kieren knows the plan,” Colm said, words falling sharply between us. “You don’t think he’s going to have the Warden move Tirius as soon as possible?”

    Gripping the coffee mug a little tighter, I tried to focus on the pressure and the warmth against my palms. “Maybe. But what else is there to do? We need to get to Tirius. The last location we have is the one that Diana gave us, and we don’t even know when and where that is without breaking into the Citadel.” I shook my head, once, hard, as if to try to dislodge my thoughts.

    “We proceed without Tirius,” Colm said, quiet.

    I frowned, looking over at him. “What do you mean?”

    Colm sat a little bit forward. “We go to the fleet. We proceed as planned without Tirius.”

    “I thought Tirius is essential for whatever it is that you and Cana are trying to do.”

    “Tirius would make things easier but is not essential.”

    “So, we just leave him to be tortured?”

    “There is no saying that he is being tortured.”

    I gave Colm a look and he put his hand up to stave off my words. “If we can get to the fleet, if we can proceed, there will be no need to rescue Tirius because the threat will be neutralized.”

    He meant the Masters of course and I thought about telling him what Kieren said, about the Masters killing each other, but then any information from Kieren would be suspect, and I kept the information to myself. What I did know with certainty is that killing a group of people was not going to solve the problem, no matter what Colm and Cana said. Cut off the head and the body would keep whipping about, especially if there were others to step up and take over as Masters. Of course, perhaps Colm and Cana had already thought of that, and they planned to take over the Realm, though how they would do that was beyond my understanding. Unless, I thought suddenly, sipping my coffee, they had the Archivist’s help. But I couldn’t see Tirius wiping out an entire group of individuals, even if those individuals were corrupt Masters. That was the whole point of why he’d gotten involved. He’d said the game was no longer a game. Innocent lives.

     Hoping my thoughts were not too apparent, I changed the subject. “How would we meet up with the fleet? I thought your communicator was gone?” I asked.

    Colm answered immediately, having not picked up on my thoughts. “It is, but I can give you an approximate time and place in relation to the dune house. We can make our way from there,” he said.

    I wanted to find Tirius. I wanted to somehow prove that Kieren had not betrayed us, but as I sat there in the dim light of my childhood home, I realized that those things, though possible, fell outside of common sense. “Okay,” I agreed, standing up. “Let me gather some things from upstairs and then we can go.”

    Colm sat back, his body relaxing. He’d been prepared to argue. His stomach growled and he flashed me a smile that created a dimple in his left cheek. “Food in the house?”

     I nodded, gesturing towards the kitchen. “There’s stuff in the kitchen. I’ll be down in a minute.”

    Not waiting for his reply, I walked out of the living room back to the kitchen where I topped off my coffee and then headed upstairs. I had no reason to go back upstairs, to go back to my old room and sit on the bed, but I did anyway, taking the same position as before. My reflection looked much cleaner but still exhausted and frail-looking. To gain strength, I wrapped the staff holster around my middle, secure in its place, then cradled my staff in both hands, the contact building up my courage. My heart rate spiked at the thought of what I was about to do, and I closed my eyes against the tightness, against the flutter of dread, and inhaled and exhaled slowly. I gathered my stillness to me as if pulling the soft blanket from downstairs around my shoulders. I let the stillness envelop me, from my toes to the top of my head and only when I felt the calmness as a piece of my being did I focus on the pressure at the back of my skull. It had always been there, something I’d always felt, though never having realized it until Diana had described the sensation. When she had explained it, saying it was like a tether, like something connecting outwards, I knew exactly what she spoke of.

    I focused on that tether, allowing my breath to dictate the pace as I moved along the connection. A part of me felt like this had to be my imagination, that what I did was entirely fake and not at all based in reality, words that Diana had also echoed, but as I moved along the tether, closer and closer, I knew there was something very real about what I did.

    I reached across space and time.

    Felt him, as a presence next to me, phased out and not at all solid for a moment but then suddenly very solid and very real. In my mind, I was in a room in the Archives. It was a study room and familiar to me. I zeroed in on Kieren, his tall form in the corner, his face lost in shadow. His eyes flickered towards me as if he sensed something and then flickered away to focus on what was going on. I turned my gaze to where his attention had gone and saw the Warden’s Lexions bent over a human male Collector, clearly interrogating the individual. It was the tall male from the lab, and I knew Kieren had been the one to bring him in.

    My gut tightened, in nerves, in betrayal maybe, but the emotions were so intertwined I could make no sense of them, so I turned my focus away from the scene, not able to hear anything and not wanting to see anything. Instead, I focused on Kieren, on his familiar face.

    “Kieren,” I whispered. I would have missed it, his jaw clenching, his fist tightening if I hadn’t been looking for those responses. I watched him, watched as his eyes glanced towards me and then away again. “Colm thinks you betrayed us.” I took a step towards him. “Did you betray us?”

    His head turned more fully this time, but not enough of a movement that others in the room would notice. Though I was not there physically, I felt his gaze as if I stood directly in front of him, as if those dark green eyes grasped me and held me steady in the chaos that was reality. Warmth, assurance, something soft and vulnerable flowed along our connection. “Trust me,” he said not making a sound, but the words echoed between us, the warmth flowing between us.

    He turned back to the interrogation, profile stark. Our bond existed, I felt it like a pulse, this tether and I watched him for a moment longer, studying him.


    A loaded word.

    He knew my thoughts as if they were his own and he looked once more in my direction, catching my gaze and holding it. Through this gaze his presence intensified, consuming, but wasn’t the heated desire or the confusion, rather, his presence was gently familiar. A warm breeze. A soft blanket.

    An understanding.

    He mouthed one word at me: Sideian.

    I frowned, wondering at the word. Kieren very slowly looked over at the Warden standing to the other side of the prisoner. Sideian. The Warden. Access.

    I nodded, meeting Kieren’s gaze again.

    Then a feeling of being pushed backwards, of Kieren physically moving me, and in my mind, I backed up, away from him, away from the scene. His voice echoed and echoed in my brain as I followed the tether back to my bedroom where I opened my eyes and stared at myself in the mirror. My face looked haunted, dragging down at my eyes. He asked me to trust him, and I did, despite everything, a trust that went deep into the places of my body and mind I couldn’t even access.

    On the instinctive level of an animal, I trusted Kieren, I trusted the warmth I felt, the bond that existed.

    “Where are you?” Colm called out in the hallway, causing me to jump, heart rate spiking in fear that Colm would realize what I’d just done. He was still out of sight though and I composed myself as he came to the doorway. He paused at the threshold and then leaned against the door jam, looking around my room in curiosity. “This is an interesting house. Whose is it?” he asked. His question was not at all what I thought he was going to say, and the comment stumbled me for a moment.

    I answered truthfully. “I lived here with my father until I was 16.”

    Colm looked around the bedroom. “It’s nice. Why’d you leave?”

    I rubbed a hand over my face, wondering where Colm was going with his line of questioning. “I didn’t, not really. My father picked his new wife over me. Part of that was selling this house and moving to be with her in her house with her children.”

    Colm frowned, not quite getting my tone. “He left you?”

    I stood up. “Doesn’t matter. That was my life before transferring.”

    “But that life informs who you are now,” Colm said, studying me with eyes that I felt were too much like Kieren’s but not enough at the same time.

    I stared at him. “What are you getting at, Colm?”

    Colm took a step into the room and then walked slowly towards the wall of bookshelves overflowing with books. “Tirius said you were a Collector when you first came over.”

    I watched him put a finger to one of the books, a rather large space opera tome, the spine broken from the number of times I’d read it.

    “And?” I asked, uncertain still, wary.

    He turned to look at me and I felt the intensity of his curiosity. “I look around this house, at this room, at the living space downstairs, and there is evidence of scholarship everywhere. In a way, it is a lot like Cana’s home. She has a beautiful estate and one of the rooms that she most uses is covered in books, shelves and shelves of books.”

    “A library?” I suggested.

    He smiled halfway. “Yes, that is what humans call it, a library, and here too you have a library. A scholar. A person of words and stories.” He paused, again turning to the bookshelves. “But no weapons but the one that you now hold in your hand.” Taking out another paperback he leafed through the pages.

    I remained silent watching him, not quite sure what to say in the face of his observation. When he said nothing else, I shifted on the bed, feeling my defenses coming up around me even as I tried to pretend that Colm’s words didn’t matter. “As I said,” I started, to fill the silence. “That was before, before the transfer.”

    Colm replaced the book. “But yet, this is your home now, didn’t you say so?”

    I stood up, taking my staff and replacing it in the holster at my back. “I don’t see the point in this line of questioning.”

    Colm nodded slowly. “I know you don’t, which I think is probably the problem.”

    “What problem?” I asked, edged, feeling irritation sparkle along my nerves.

    “The problem of deciding what you’re going to do next.”

    I frowned because once again his words caught me by surprise.

    Before I could ask him to clarify, he straightened, filling the room. “I was thinking, why didn’t the Warden stop you from Travelling?”

    Again, with the switch in conversation, my mind galloped forward to catch up. Honestly, I hadn’t thought about it, and I shrugged. “From what I understand he can cut off my interface, but the ability to Travel is something gifted to us when we move into the Master Realm.”

    Colm studied me. “I think you’re being tracked.”

    I thought about the wound in my shoulder and Kieren taking it out. “I don’t have a physical tracker on me, or they would’ve arrived a lot sooner than that, probably while we were on Sideia.”

    “Kieren was with us. Perhaps they didn’t need to track you. But Cana arrives and suddenly there are Guardians. And then, when we were on Kepler. It likely has to do with the way you Travel, the energy transfer. It probably has a signature that they can locate. And, I think you are being allowed to escape.”

    He had a point. All evidence pointed to me being tracked, which would mean that I was being allowed to escape as well. But for what purpose other than to lead whoever was tracking me to Cana?

    “What happened, after I Traveled with you and Diana?” I asked, thinking about Kepler, watching the Sideian as he answered.

    Colm shifted from one foot to another. “Cana said they were able to neutralize the threat. It was only 10 pairs in total.”

    “How many people, your people, died?”

    I saw him hesitate and I pressed. “Colm. How many of Cana’s people died?”

    “Over 50,” he replied.

     I nodded, pressing down the feeling of guilt that rose up at the number, staring past Colm at the blank wall, going through my options. I really only had the one.

     “I will get you wherever you need to go,” I said, thinking through the scenario. “Once there, I will Travel again, taking the tracker, if I have one, with me. You contact Cana when I am no longer around.” Colm opened his mouth to say something but I interrupted him by putting a hand up. “I don’t want to know. The less I know and all that, but Colm you realize this plan to somehow kill the Masters, assumes many things.”

    “You know nothing of the plan,” Colm said, voice edged.

    “You’re right, but I do know that you plan to go after all the Masters. Think though, what about the ones not involved in these manipulations, in these power games using individuals as pawns?”

    “They’re all involved,” he immediately said with a voice that showed more zeal than intelligence.

    “All nine of them? You’re so sure?’ I tilted my head, studying the man.

    He answered right away. “There is enough evidence to show that the Master Realm is controlled by those who care nothing but for their desire to hold on to power, who willfully take lives because they believe they are superior.”

    “And yet, isn’t that what you and Cana are doing by planning to take over the Master Realm?”

    A storm crawled over Colm’s face but to his credit he didn’t launch himself at me. “We do not play those games.”

    “The ones where you use people to do your bidding in order to gain power over something else? What are those individuals that serve under you then?” I was continuing to push the issue, but I wanted him to see, needed him to see. I felt as if this was the last time I would talk with him before Cana started her war. I had wanted to speak to her about it but hadn’t gotten an opportunity. I needed Colm to take my doubts to her, to present them as his own, though judging by the stubborn clench of his jaw, I had little hope that would end up happening.

    Still. I continued, shaking my head. “We all play games for power, Colm, it is the one common trait across all timelines. We want to be in control of others. It is also some kind of inherent trait to believe that we are right and to stand stubbornly in our righteousness. I was not a Collector for long, but as you pointed out, I’ve always been a scholar, and it is greed and power that controls all things, overarching no matter what timeline or what people. You might feel justified in your actions, in your war, in your attempt to bring peace to your people that exist outside the realm, but in doing so, are you not just doing the same thing the Masters do? Aren’t you just attempting to take over so that Cana might rule?”

    Colm looked away as I spoke, staring at something beyond my shoulder. “She would be a far better ruler,” he answered.

    I shrugged. “Perhaps, but still a ruler.”

    “You have to have rulers. People want to be told what to do.”

    I looked over at my bookcase, at the books, at the small knickknacks and the stones I’d picked up along my life both before and after my transfer. “Yes, they do,” I said, quietly, to myself more than to the Sideian. “Yes, they do.”

  • Chapter 14

    We made our way down a fir-lined path to a gamer’s cottage, a two-story building on the river. The door was unlocked, Kieren pushing it open for us and we entered, pausing. If the cobwebs, grime, and general disarray was any indication, the cottage had clearly not been lived in for some time. Dumping the bags, a giant cloud of dust erupted from the floor, causing Diana to cough, which in turn caused her to get lightheaded and sit down on the duffel bag of clothes, glancing around the place with a look of detached tiredness.

    “You alright?” Colm asked Diana, searching her face.

    She nodded, waving a hand. “I am just going to sit a bit. Don’t mind me.”

    Colm nodded, glanced at Kieren and I and then started toward the nearest door, which he opened with some force. It was a closet, empty. He stuck his head inside just in case, looking up and down before emerging and closing the door. I watched him stalk away, knowing that he was going to search the entire house before labeling it safe.

    Kieren also watched, not as amused as I was, looking away from the larger Sideian with an ill-concealed look of irritation. “We’ll need additional supplies,” he said to me.

    I nodded. “But not quite yet. Let’s see what we can do with what we have. I don’t know how long this will take.”

    He studied my face. “Do you know anything about what they’re going to do?”

    I shrugged. “I know that Diana has some way of contacting Tirius. Now if she can utilize it on command is anyone’s guess.”

    “And that guy’s role in all this?” Kieren asked, jerking a chin towards Colm who now took the stairs two at a time, disappearing overhead.

    “Is to protect her from us, the evil Guardians,” I said with a grin, trying for light-heartedness. Per usual, the light-hearted reply barely made a dent in Kieren’s solemn facial expression.

    Kieren didn’t reply and to extract myself from the conversation, I looked around the large main room. There were a few pieces of furniture, two heavy couches covered in dark green upholstery, a settee in blue velvet, and a massive cupboard along one wall. Colm had dutifully opened the cupboard, finding nothing inside, but something about the cupboard seemed off and I studied it, tracking its dimensions.

    I nodded towards it. “What’s with the cupboard,” I said to Kieren, keeping my voice low.

    Kieren looked over to where I’d indicated. “It’s the door to the tunnel,” he said, a matter-of-fact.

    “The tunnel?”

    “To the main house. This was used as a lover’s retreat back when my parents were still young, and still my parents.”

    “There is direct access to the house that has other individuals in it?” I clarified.

    Kieren caught my meaning. “It’s not been used forever.” As if to prove his point, he took my hand and led me over to the cupboard. The contact of his palm against mine created that weird jerking feeling in my chest and I pulled my hand away. Kieren let my hand go without a word, opening the cupboard doors. Leaning in, he reached up towards the top interior. I heard a click. Hinges creaked and groaned as the secret door pried itself open. Without light, there was no way to see further than just beyond the threshold of the secret door, but a waft of damp earth and coolness circled me.

    “Is that how you’re going to betray us?” Colm asked, appearing at the bottom of the stairs and staring at the doorway. “Leave us here and slip into the dark to disappear?”

    Diana snorted. “That’s rather dramatic,” she said faintly.

    Colm spared Diana a glance but then noticing that she looked even worse than before, hurried to where she sat, kneeling in front of her. I watched him take her hands, checking for her pulse with his thumb.

    “I’m okay,” Diana said, gently pulling her hands away. “I just need a lie down for a moment. I’m very tired.”

    “Travel will do that sometimes,” I offered. “Is there anything worth salvaging up there?” I asked Colm who still kneeled in front of Diana.

    “A few beds that aren’t covered in mold. We should have brought blankets with us,” he said.

    “I can get them from the main house,” Kieren offered.

    I knew as soon as he said it that Colm wasn’t going to be okay with the suggestion and sure enough, the large man glared at Kieren. “I’ll come with you if you go anywhere outside of this place.”

    Kieren shrugged, nonchalant, easy. “Whatever you want to do.”

    Not hiding my annoyance with the two men, I went to Diana and helped her to her feet, taking up the duffel bag she’d been sitting on. “Let’s get you layered up and find you somewhere to sleep. We can’t risk a fire, but we can bundle you up.”

    “It does have heating,” Kieren said. “We probably shouldn’t use the lights, but the heating should be okay to use.”

    “Should?” Colm asked.

    I stepped in, sensing my partner’s patience level, forcing him to meet my gaze. “That’s great. If you can take care of it, I’m going to get Diana situated.”

    Kieren, narrowed eyes, knowing what I did, only nodded.

    I smiled in return, a real one, in thanks, and then turned to help Diana up the stairs.

    The second floor consisted of several rooms and several bathrooms. I saw what Colm meant by the beds and eventually found a double-wide with a mattress that didn’t look like it was growing a new species. Taking the clothes from the bag, I threw some more sweaters and socks at Diana who stood at the door. She caught them. I laid the rest of the clothes out on the bed to cover the mattress. Distantly, there was a rushing sound and then air started circling the room from a vent in the ceiling. It caused dust to whirl about in a tornado effect and I stepped out of the room, coughing, pushing Diana back behind me to wait for the dust to settle. That we were getting warmth from the vents was only slight compensation for the dust covering everything, but one look at Diana showed me she had no objections and wanted me to get on with it. I redid the clothing on the bed so she could lay down. She wore two more sweaters and had taken off her boots to add socks. Still, her face was pinched, and she curled into a ball despite the heat.

    “Are you very cold?” I asked, scanning her face.

    She opened her eyes to look at me. “I’m just not feeling quite right. I’m not cold, but I’m not warm either. Just this weird in-between feeling. Existing.”

    The effect on her body was likely a combination of the many things that she had gone through in the last little while. She was in an entirely different timeline from her own, Traveling for the first time, and altogether in a situation that was challenging her not only physically but mentally as well. It was a wonder that she was still thinking coherently and still awake.

    “Try to close your eyes at least, see if you can fall asleep. I’m going to go back down and make sure those two don’t kill each other. We need them both.”

    Diana nodded and then closed her eyes, seeming to sink further into the pile of clothes atop the bed. I left the door open, not entirely sure that the air was healthy, and then made my way back downstairs.

    The Sideians were no longer in the main room and a quick look into the other rooms showed they were not anywhere within the house, which I should’ve surmised as the entire vibe had evened out and the tension I’d felt for the last little while had dissipated. One of them had closed the cupboard and I left it closed. I’d rather it closed though the illusion of safety was just an illusion.

    I tried not to think of that, heading towards the large kitchen area at the back of the house. There was a giant stove with eight burners, and three ovens in the wall. Though the house was supposed to only be used for hunting and clandestine love affairs, there were a considerable number of luxuries that spoke of Kieren’s family status. In fact, as I wandered, looking into cupboards, drawers, and opening random doors, a picture started to form suggesting that Kieren had come from a very wealthy, very influential, and very powerful family. It was only those with a great deal of power and wealth that lived so effortlessly with it. There were none of those flamboyant touches to suggest a new wealth or wealth being desperately held on to. From what I could tell, Kieren’s family did not show off their money in obvious ways, just in the expensive construction and the material used.  

    And this was the hunting lodge, I mused, running a hand across a marble-like slab of countertop. I couldn’t even imagine what the main house looked like. We were such different people, my partner and I, and this added another layer of that difference. No matter what the Warden, Tirius, or Masters said, we couldn’t help but be products of our environments, including the ones that we lived in before moving to the Master Realm.

    Laying a palm on the counter, the cool beneath my skin, I stared out the large kitchen window at massive fir trees and felt the familiar tightness in my chest.

    I needed to have a conversation with Kieren. I needed to figure out where I stood with our partnership. But before we could have that conversation, I knew I needed to fill Kieren in on what was going on with Colm and Diana. He held Colm in such contempt, which wasn’t a problem in and of itself, but I needed his understanding, or at least, I needed him to know the details of the situation.

    A clatter at the front of the house pulled me from my reverie, and I dropped my fingers from where they had settled against my lips. Though I left my staff in its holster at the base of my spine, on silent feet made my way back towards the front of the house, tense for confrontation.

    It was Kieren and Colm. Kieren held an arm full of blankets, and behind him, Colm held a box. Neither men spoke to one another, and both gave me a look of annoyance as they walked towards me.

    “Diana is in the third room on the right,” I said to Kieren.

    He nodded and with his blankets, took the stairs two at a time.

    Colm walked by me into the kitchen.

    I followed him, pausing in the doorway to watch.

    “Your partner doesn’t speak very much,” he said, putting the large box down on the counter.

    “Not to people sending him constant death vibes,” I replied, meandering up beside him and looking into the box. It was full of food. There were wrapped loaves of bread, things in cans, and various unrecognizable vegetables. Colm started to unload the box, bringing one thing out after another until the counter was full. Large white bundles were the last items he pulled out.

    “Where did you get all this?” I asked, absently picking up different cans and reading the labels.

    “The main house. Like your partner said, the only individuals in residence were the staff, so it was easy to get in and out of there without anyone noticing.”

    “Until they wonder where all their food went,” I said, glancing up at the Sideian who was observing the kitchen with an expression bordering on disgust.

    “There was plenty of it. This wasn’t even a quarter of the supplies that were in that place. The kitchen itself was about three times the size of this one. Cleaner though. This place is nasty.”

    I agreed but being in unsavory locations was part and parcel with avoiding others.

    Usually quiet, Kieren clattered into the kitchen, putting a large pot down onto the counter next to the food. He looked around, the same kind of expression as Colm’s on his face. “Have at it, cook boy,” Kieren threw at Colm.

    Colm ignored him, for which I was grateful, and I walked over to Kieren, taking his arm, which tensed under my palm. “Come on, I haven’t exercised in a very long time. Come spar with me.”

    I knew he would’ve rather sat in the kitchen and glared at Colm the entire time the other man cooked, but he relented under the pressure of my hand, following me at of the kitchen.

    “Don’t get caught,” Colm called as we left.

    Neither of us commented, and I was thankful that Kieren limited his opinion to the scowl on his face.

    “He’s right though,” I said as we made for the front door. “We need a place that we can’t be observed.” I glanced over at Kieren’s hard jaw. “By anyone.”

    Kieren caught my meaning and nodded once, leading me out the front door and taking an immediate right off the porch and around to the side of the house. Once upon a time, the side yard must have consisted of hundreds of different plants, the old garden peeking out here and there, though everything was overgrown and because it was winter, showed very little life. Kieren walked along a barely visible brick pathway that led away from the house and under an arched doorway and into a small lawn bordered by an evergreen shrub taller than both of us. Theoretically, we could be observed from the second-story windows of the house but observing was not listening and I wanted to relate the situation to Kieren the best I could. I wanted to try to make him understand why I planned to go along with Colm and his idea of contacting Tirius. And more, I wanted to convince him that finding Tirius was indeed the highest priority, though I wasn’t too sure of that last bit myself.

    “Weapons?” Kieren asked.

    Thinking about it, I shook my head. I yearned for the physicality but not the danger. I took out my knives and placed them on the overgrown lawn, followed by my staff that I laid on top. Kieren did the same, also stripping out of his long sleeved-black shirt to a tank he wore underneath, exposing his shoulders and arms to the sun that had started to warm the area, at least a little bit.

    We squared off.

    How many times had we done this; this sparring back and forth, this movement, dance-like as we circled? It was hard to remember, the number was so high, the movements so familiar. I came down low, sweeping my foot, catching his ankle which caused him to become unbalanced. He caught himself with his particular cat-like grace, vaulting back and using his longer reach for an uppercut towards my chin. I leaned back, my stomach and back muscles protesting the movement, and rolled my torso around to bring my arm across for a side-jab to his exposed kidney. He caught my fist, his large hand enveloping mine. I twisted up and out of the tight grip, catching him with my other fist, kicking with my left towards his knee, which he avoided at the last moment. My punch caught him at his shoulder, a flash of pain and surprise crossing his face, but he stepped towards me in the way I’d done with Colm, not away from the pain but with it, in it. I knew the move though, so unlike Colm, I countered up close, bringing my arm up between us and outwards. He caught it, grasping my wrist this time. Twisting me, I resisted his strength, but he was always stronger, and he moved me towards his chest. I flexed my thighs, pushing back against him rather than away, throwing him off balance once more. It was enough that his grip loosened, and I moved, twisting again, breaking free and taking several steps back, breathing heavy.

    Kieren flashed me a smile, also breathing heavily. His hair had started to come loose from the caul at the base of his skull, a single length of dark hair falling against the side of his cheek and sticking there with the sweat that beaded his skin, bright and sparkling against the brown.

    “You’ve not lost too much ground,” he said, eyeing my stance for weakness.

    “I’ve gotten some real-life practice in lately,” I replied, though refrained from adding that one of those was a sparring bout with the man in the kitchen. Kieren would not take that very well. I wanted to start up a conversation about Tirius, about the situation, but Kieren pressed me, coming in with a low attack towards my legs. I could only respond with physical movement, unable to do anything but parry and jab, kick and scramble.

    I moved, and lost myself in the movement.

    We continued like that until the sun started to set on us. At some point during that time, Diana had come out of the house, wandering into the area and then pausing to watch us spar. We both recognized her arrival as we traded blows but ignored her and continued. She eventually sat down to watch us, and it wasn’t until Colm joined her that Kieren and I, by silent agreement, parted, bowing at our waists in each other’s direction, familiar in a way that we hadn’t been for quite some time.

    Dripping in sweat, clothing clinging to my body, a cool evening wind flowed through the area and I shivered, goosebumps appearing along my skin. I wrapped my arms around my middle to try to hold in some of the heat. In step, Kieren and I made our way towards where Diana and Colm stood. Diana got up as we approached. She looked much better, rested, though there were still significant shadows under her eyes.

    “That was impressive,” she said, handing Kieren’s long-sleeve shirt over to him. Kieren flashed her a grin and I smiled as well. She studied both of us in turn, a look that echoed back to Tirius in some strange way. “How long did it take to get that good?” she asked.

    “A long time,” Kieren and I said in unison.

    Diana laughed and shook her head. Colm watched us with ill-concealed annoyance, which all three of us systematically ignored. I picked up my weapons, then handed Kieren his.

    “Is there hot water?” I asked as we made our way back to the front of the house. Letting ourselves into the warm interior, the smell of homecooked food wafted from the kitchen.

    “Should be,” Kieren said at the same moment that Colm said that dinner was ready.

    Feeling better than I had in some time, I smiled at the two Sideians, amused more than annoyed as they shared glares. “I’m doing a shower first; food next,” I said and then left the three of them to it, taking the stairs two at a time and heading for the bathroom I had spied earlier.

    Like everything in the house, the bathroom was disgusting; dirt grimed the ivory bathtub, something was growing in the sink, and I only glanced at the toilet, not daring to open it. But, the shower worked, the pipes putting up a fight but eventually giving up clear water. Freezing at first, the water slowly turned warmer until it scalded my hand and I had to turn it down. Stripping out of my clothes and my weapons, I left them on the floor, sad that I had nothing clean to put on, but more than happy that I was under hot running water, even if there was no soap.

    A knock at the door interrupted my enjoyment and I peeked my head around the dirty glass doors. “Yep?” I asked, expecting Kieren and somewhat surprised when the door opened and Diana’s head peaked around the edge.

    “I have clothes if you want them,” she said, showing me a pile of clothes that she held in one hand, not coming any further into the bathroom.

    I knew the smile I gave her bordered on manic, but she didn’t seem to mind, giving me a smile of her own and leaving the clothes on the counter. With the door closed once more, I retreated to the water and stood there for as long as my short attention span could handle. Sooner than I’d liked, I started to worry about the Sideians downstairs and reluctantly turned off the shower. I stood for a moment in the steam, breathing deeply into my belly. There were no towels, so I made do with my dirty clothing, drying off the best I could before putting on a pair of the gray trousers. Grimacing, I replaced my breast binding not having another, and then pulled over my head a soft pale pink sweater. Running hands through my now long hair, I briefly thought about taking a knife to the length, shortening it, but instead twisted it into a low knot. Kieren had shown me how to do the knot during a rather difficult mission that involved a great deal of very long blond hair and falling into a river.

    Wiping a hand across the steamed mirror, I looked at my reflection. The clothing was a little too big, Diana being taller than me with a larger chest and butt, but the fabric was soft and clean. I wiped at the black shadows under my eyes but they refused to go away and I scowled at my reflection, wondering if I was ever going to be rested, clean, and in my own clothes ever again.

    I took up my weapons and dirty clothes and left the bathroom, the smell of dinner calling me from downstairs, hunger replacing the darker thoughts.

    Finding everyone in the kitchen, I went to the stove and ladled out a generous portion in the one remaining bowl and joined them at the table near a set of bay windows. There was an easy silence among the three individuals that I found strangely reassuring. It was as if everyone had put aside their pettiness, tiredness and general unease to enjoy the meal that was before them. I took the chair between Diana and Kieren and started in on the stew. It melted in my mouth, my body groaning on some instinctive level as I gave a thumbs up to Colm who was watching me closely to see what my reaction was to the meal. I polished off the first bowl and it wasn’t until I was mostly done with the second bowl did I sit back, resting my hands on my stomach and looking around the table at my companions. Everyone looked better, rejuvenated, which meant that we needed to talk about our next steps.

    Colm, seeming to read my mind, pushed his own bowl away and then from his sleeve pulled out what appeared to be a small handheld communicator. I felt more than saw Kieren tense next to me, but he remained silent and waited, a patience that surprised me. Colm keyed something into the handheld device and then pushed it over to Diana who glanced at it but let it stay where it was on the table.

    “What is it?” I asked for the other woman.

    “Instructions on how to communicate with Tirius, or at least attempt to communicate with Tirius,” Colm said. “We don’t have exact information on how it can be accomplished, only rumor and what we’ve observed, or what Tirius has observed, but it should be enough to at least point Diana in the right direction.”

    I reached over for the device and took it up. Colm tensed but didn’t say anything. The information was in Diaxian, which was strange especially as Diana likely couldn’t read the Diax language, but I easily read over the contents, frowning as I did so. “This is really vague,” I said, handing over the device to Kieren who waited for it.

    Colm shrugged. “We only have what Tirius imparted and what we could gather. There isn’t a lot. Cana believes that the lack of information actually helps to solidify the idea that partners do exist and is not just a myth or idea thrown around for a good story.”

    I nodded. Cana had said as much to me as well.

    Diana glanced at the handheld and then looked over to where Colm was watching her expectantly. “I am not going to ask what it says because I want to do it myself first, to see if I can. If I can’t then I will take whatever advice is on that thing.”

    Colm studied her, his eyes were intense, and I shifted in response, an instinct to protect the other woman. But she remained stoic under his study.

    I broke into the silence. “It makes complete sense to do that,” I told Diana. I remembered that feeling in the cell and knew whatever I’d done had been purely instinctual. Instructions, especially the vague instructions on the device would likely muddy those instincts.

    Kieren placed the device carefully on the table, frowning but only enough to cause the small line to appear between his eyes. “There is no documentation for any of this type of communication method,” he said, slowly, as if feeling his way through the words.

    Colm snorted. “Doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Not everything is recorded for some Master to know about somewhere.”

    Colm’s tone would have normally triggered an aggressive response but Kieren just stared at him, far away and thinking of something that had nothing to do with Colm’s dismissive words.

    “What is it?” I asked in place of the silence as all eyes were on my partner.

    Kieren glanced down at the device and shook his head. “This is the same as partnering, the same kind of inherent connection, but there is something off about the description there, something that suggests a biological connection.”

    I shrugged. “It’s possible that there are biological connections. Beings are connected through DNA memory, our cells carrying a historical marker of past lives even. Collectors have recorded numerous examples of such relationships, especially within the human timeline. And then there is the aspect of communication on a sub-atomic level, which is also biological.”

    “But between individuals in different timelines?” Kieren asked.

    The comment brought me up short as I thought about it, trying to remember if there were Collections that explored similar relationships in other timelines. I then realized where this thread of thought was going and looked sharply at Kieren. “Are there instances of Guardian partners from different timelines?”

    Kieren met my gaze, dark green eyes that neared to black holding me in place. “No.”

    Something shifted in my solar plexus region. I wanted to ask him how we had become partners; force him to tell me what he knew, if he knew anything at all. I wanted to know if the Warden had ever let Kieren in on the “why” behind our partnership. But once again that conversation was not one that we could have at that moment, so I stayed silent, even as Colm broke in.

    “What does that have to do with anything?” Colm said. “Tirius is from the human timeline. So is Diana.”

    I blinked and looked away from Kieren to focus on the other Sideian. “Yes. It has no relevance,” I said, not surprised to find Diana closely watching me, but she remained silent with her observations and questions. “Where do you want to do this, then?” I asked her, changing the trajectory of my thought.

    “Living room,” she said immediately. She pushed back from the table. “And no time like the present.”

    “Should you get more rest?” Colm asked, concerned, which I found amusing in some distant part of myself that still found things amusing.

    “I’ll be fine,” Diana replied and stood up.

    We all followed her to the living room, leaving our dirty dishes for later.

    At some point Colm or Diana had cleaned up some of the main living space, the dust not quite so thick and the cushions of the various furniture either dusted clean or flipped to present a cleaner and less aged side. Diana took a large leather chair near the wide front window, curling her legs under her. Thick draperies of what might have been dark green at one point hid us from view, cozied us within the confines of the lodge. I sat on the long dark blue couch in one corner, curling my feet up and under me. Colm stood at one side of the fireplace and Kieren the other, though when Diana stared at them for several moments, they got the idea and left their standing positions to sit down; Colm in another chair and Kieren at the end of the couch I sat on.

    Diana closed her eyes.

    We tried not to stare at her.

    I guess I knew that it was very unlikely anything would happen immediately, or even happen at all, but as the time clicked by and darkness turned into deep night, owls outside hooting and the sound of crickets, I wondered how Diana could sit so very still for so long. At some point I dozed, sinking further into the couch cushions and leaning my head back. Flash dreams of a gray sea, rocky cliffs, and a cottage invaded my sleep. I woke off and on to check on Diana who still sat perfectly straight in the chair, her eyes moving underneath her eyelids though her body remained still.

    I dozed again but startled awake when Diana shifted, stretching her legs out and letting her booted feet fall to the wood floor, a loud thump causing Colm to start where he too had fallen asleep waiting.

    Diana looked pale and drawn once more, though her eyes were feverish bright and the smile she gave us bordered on too big. “I know where he is, but this isn’t going to be easy,” she said, looking at each of us in turn, eyes lingering on Kieren. “Not easy at all.”

  • Chapter 13

    As predicted, Colm very much hated my idea.

    As a sea storm battered the cottage, I explained to him that I needed help with Travelling. “We can’t stay here,” I explained. “We have a little while but eventually the Masters will find us, and they will send Guardians.”

    Glowering at the bowl of soup that he held in his hand, steam curling up and around his face, he countered. “We can fight them.”

    “Sure. And we can lose,” I said in response.

    He arched an eyebrow at me, and I felt like pulling at the eyebrow and throwing it back at him. “You’re that easily beat?” he asked.

    I sighed and put my own bowl down. “Look, you don’t know. We will die. Or be captured. Or something. But we won’t win.”

    “I have fought Guardians before,” he said, defensive in his seat and in his voice.

    I was not entirely surprised. “What happened?”

    “We lost,” he admitted, voice hard, looking at me and in his face, there was a mixture of hatred and something else that I couldn’t identify but which held darkness and fractures of pain. “There were eight of us. There were two of them.”

    I rubbed at the point between my eyes that constantly seemed to have a headache, a sharp, lancing pain that refused to go away. “We train for years,” I said, trying for gentle. “Kieren and I are relatively new pairs, and we have yet to lose a fight against anyone but another pair. Fighting is what we are trained to do. Constantly.”

    Colm ran a tongue across his teeth and set his bowl to the side. Next to him, Diana still slept, the steady rise and fall of her chest the only indication that she was still alive. “You’re not like the others,” he said.

    I got up, taking the bowls to the kitchen. He continued, his voice following me. “I’m not demeaning your ability. I’m saying you’re not like a Guardian. That’s a good thing.”

    Rinsing the bowls in cold water, the hot still not working, I left them in the sink and leaned up against the cupboard to observe the much bigger man sitting in the chair. His largeness made the cottage seem very small. “And, if you’ve only fought against a Guardian pair once, how do you know that?” I asked, wondering if he would say anything about Darkside.

    “I’ve only fought against a pair once, but we’ve been observing Guardians for years. We study everything we can about you and your kind.”

    I laughed, a bark of a laugh that caught the room’s ambiance and turned it into something not quite as cozy. “My kind,” I said, heading back to the small living room area and the fire that flickered cheerfully in defiance of my mood and the storm outside the cottage. “I have no kind.”

    Diana stirred on the couch, saving me from having to take the conversation further. From the depths of the many covers, a groan emerged, and slowly Diana sat up, looking around the room with an unfocused gaze. With fists, she rubbed at her eyes and then looked around again, catching sight of me and then Colm, her body visibly relaxing.

    “We’ve moved locations,” she said, her voice gravely.

    Colm got up and went to the kitchen sink where he filled a tea mug with water. I sat down at the edge of the couch to study her. “How are you feeling?”

    She nodded, wincing as she did so. “A fierce headache, and a bit achy, like I’ve had the flu or something, but otherwise all intact.”

    Colm returned with the water and two white pills, all of which he handed over. Diana took the water, looked at the pills for a moment, then with a shrug took them without question. She leaned back into the couch, resting her head along the backside. “How long have I been out?”

    I glanced over at Colm who was watching me rather than Diana. I refocused on the woman. “Less than a day.”

    She frowned, turning her head to look at me but not bringing it up from the couch’s back. “And yet, we are in an entirely different location?”

    “Yes. We travel quickly.”

    “I say. So, where are we?”

    I took a deep breath, watching Tirius’s pair closely. “We are in Scotland, probably at the end of the 20th century.”

    To her credit, Diana only blinked at the information, sitting up a little bit on the couch as she stared at me. “End of the 20th century?”

    I waved a hand. “Somewhere in there. Time changes in relation to the properties around it, but yes, somewhere in that vicinity.”

    “Right.” She glanced over at Colm. “And you are in on this?”

    Colm inclined his head in my direction, loose hair falling to either side of his face. “She got us here. I was just a passenger.”

    Diana nodded. “Yes. Well, I suppose that isn’t the strangest thing that has happened to me lately. That alien thing was definitely weirder than suddenly being in Scotland at the end of the 20th century.”

    “A Diax,” I provided her.

    “A what?”

    “A Diax. They are a species of being separate from humans.”

    Again, she glanced at Colm who looked on calmly.

    “Great, well whatever the name, he was an interesting species.”

    “It,” I corrected. “The Diax have no gender.” Her look consisted of a myriad of different emotions and I waved my hand as if to wave off her confusion, credulousness, and general lack of knowledge. “But that is not our most pressing concern right now.”

    She sat up a little straighter at those words. Her color was coming back, a pink high in her cheeks and I could tell whatever it was that Colm gave to her was starting to have its effect. “Tirius,” she said as if she was speaking to herself.

    “No,” I corrected her. “I mean yes, but first we need to change locations. It isn’t safe here.”

    Diana snorted. “Of course it isn’t, because that fits into this crazy narrative.” She paused, looking down at her hands. “Perhaps I am actually dead.”

    I again wanted to rub at that spot between my eyes but kept my hands firmly in my lap. “You’re not dead,” I repeated, trying for gentle but not entirely succeeding. “Not yet anyway,” I added.

    Diana looked up, frowning.

    “That helps,” Colm said drily from where he now sat in front of the fireplace. The room had warmed, but there was still a decided chill to the air and Colm appeared not to enjoy the temperature.

    I ignored him, focusing on the woman in front of me. “We’ll be safe. I’ve got to go for a bit, just a small amount of time, barely a few moments, but I need to go and get my partner to help us leave this place.”

    Diana, clearly confused, looked between Colm and I. “Why can’t we just leave?”

    I grimaced, giving in and rubbing between my eyes. “Not quite that easy.”

    As if this last statement took the remaining bit of her energy and focus, Diana lay back against the couch again, closing her eyes. I watched her for a moment, wondering at the situation, wondering at her and wondering if Cana had been correct about the woman’s relationship with Tirius.

    It seemed so unlikely.

    I got up, turning to Colm. “I know you don’t want this, but we’ve got to leave, and I can’t take the two of you again. I’ll lose myself or I’ll lose you. Not something that you want to happen.”

    Colm caught and held my gaze. “He’s not a good person.”

    I frowned. “None of us are. Not really.” I glanced over at Diana and then back at Colm. “How many have you killed in your lifetime?”

    Colm inclined his head to concede the point, but unbowed, his eyes sought out mine and I was hard-pressed to look away. “There is a lot more to your partner, a lot more than what you think there is.”

    I sighed, a rush of aggressive air. “Fine. Tell me. Instead of skirting about the subject. Tell me. What did you and Cana discover in your hours of observations?”

    He hesitated and I felt the knot in my stomach form and grow tighter and tighter as I waited for his words, for his explanation of what he was talking about, but in the end, Colm remained silent and I exhaled, long and loud, irritated. “Look. We need help. I only know of one solution. Whatever it is that you think that you know about Kieren will have to be put aside because we have no other option. We can’t stay here because we’ll be found out eventually. We can’t live in this timeline because we have no money or way of making our way through this world. I can’t Travel with the two of you. So. This is it.” I pointed at Diana who had opened her eyes at my speech. “If you want her to find Tirius, then I’m guessing we need somewhere secure where we’re not going to be interrupted.”

    Diana sat up a little bit. “How are we going to do that anyway?” she asked, pulling our attention to her.

    “Simple. You reach him in the same way you have in the past,” Colm replied.

    Diana’s face went pale, but she nodded slowly, clearly thinking about the implication of his words.

    “Great,” I said, interrupting. “Still need a safe place.” I took my black jacket from the hook I’d placed it on earlier. “I’ll be back in moments.”

    I left them, not bothering to walk out the door, instead closing my eyes and Traveling to the coordinates that Kieren had rattled off forever ago. Like with the cottage, I tried for a different day than Kieren and my original Arrival. I was partially successful. Instead of the sun and midafternoon of my first Arrival, it was the middle of the night and rain poured sideways with a wind that pushed me around even as I tried to recover from the Travel. The location was the same, however, and I slowly made my way towards the house in the dunes.

    Getting close to the house, I dropped down onto my belly and peered through the night at the lighted inside. Not knowing exactly the time of my arrival, I was relieved to see that I’d been rather accurate in my calculations, and I could make out Tirius, Kieren, and I in the living room in front of the fire. It was the night before we’d gone on our mission. I just had to survive the night and hope that I wouldn’t freeze to death.

    With nothing to be done but get out of the night into somewhere somewhat dry, I went quietly around the house to the side where a separate garage was located. We’d been through the garage upon arrival and the only thing in there were two more vehicles like the one in the drive. The door was locked, but the window was easily broken and big enough that I could shimmy my way inside, being careful of the jagged glass. The garage was warmer than outside but still cold and I tried the vehicle doors, relieved when I found the doors to the bigger car unlocked.

    I crawled in to wait until morning.

    The night passed slowly. Both wet and cold, I tried to sleep, closing my eyes against the blackness of the garage and the darkness of my thoughts, but the best I could manage was to focus on my breath, the slow inhale and exhale that relaxed my body but did little to help the whirling mind beyond my focus. When morning came, the light filtering in through the broken window, I uncurled from my spot in the backseat, cold in my bones, muscles protesting. Unable to see the front of the house from the window, I let myself out the door facing away from the house, and then low to the ground, found a spot behind a set of bushes near the side of the garage.

    More waiting. My stomach growled and my mouth was parched, but I’d been in worse scenarios and though the wind bit at me, my clothes had dried through the night and I curled in on myself to keep most of my heat contained, the cold at bay, focusing on the scene before me. At least the sun shone down, the small amount of warmth permeating, helping to keep most of the shivering to a minimum. Still, I counted the time, relieving the ache in my legs by stretching them out and in, watching the door closely so that when I caught sight of Kieren and I leaving I was able to tuck myself further down into the bushes.

    There was a moment that I thought Kieren sensed me, but it might have been my imagination, Kieren and my past self walking away towards the dunes without so much of a glance to where I hid.

    Next, I watched Colm’s arrival with interest. It came with a shimmer down the driveway, his large body appearing in the afternoon sunshine and then disappearing again as he hid from view, though thankfully on the other side from where I was hiding.

    If Colm had Traveled to the location, likely we would have felt something in the shift of air and energy; but as he used this device that Cana mentioned, there wasn’t the usual push along my person. Even if we hadn’t already left, neither my past self nor Kieren would have picked up on the other Sideian’s presence.

    I watched the earlier version of me Arrive after the events at the lab, Kieren at my side, both of us oblivious to the Sideian waiting for me, shivering from what we had just gone through and witnessed. A part of my psyche wanted to help that past version of myself, even as I knew that wasn’t how it worked, but it was uncomfortable to watch Colm appear behind me, wrapping his large body around mine and disappearing.

    Kieren stood there, knives appearing in his hand, but I was already gone, whisked away. It was my only chance, knowing that he was likely to Travel, and I popped around the corner of the bush, ducking when the knife came my way.

    “It’s me!” I yelled, crouching low. “Kieren, it’s Wren.”

    The wind whipped, the ocean crashed somewhere distant, and I slowly raised my head up to see Kieren a body length away. Jaw clenched; stony green eyes met mine. I put my hands up, waving. “Hi, yeah, and no I am not here as an attack, that was not a Guardian that took me, and yes I’m okay, but I need your help.”

      Kieren still held one of his knives, positioned at his side for a quick throw. I carefully and slowly turned, showing my back to him to retrieve the knife now stuck in the siding of the garage. It took quite the effort, the knife embedded to its hilt, but I managed. Turning, I presented it to Kieren, blade towards me.

    He stared, trying to see something, but then took a step forward to take the knife. “What happened this time?” he asked, putting the knives back in their holsters, though not relaxing, body still coiled with tension.

    I laughed uneasily, more of a gasp than a laugh. “I have this funny thing that people really like to whisk me away without explanation; this time by a group of people that are looking for Tirius, rather than Tirius himself. Go figure.”

    “Looking to kill Tirius?”

    I shook my head, keeping my distance from Kieren, watching him warily as he still looked like he might attack at any provocation. “No, not exactly. Apparently, Tirius has disappeared from time.”

    “This time?”

    “All time.”

    Kieren frowned, a crease appearing between his eyebrows, his body relaxing slightly as he thought about that. “But then…”

    I interrupted him. “I know, then we wouldn’t have a memory of him, which means that he has disappeared but still exists.”

    Kieren glanced away from me, taking in the scene around us. The sun had started to descend into the Western portion of the sky, casting shadows. I shivered in the wind and motioned towards the house. “I need to grab a heavier jacket and some more clothing.”

    Watching me, his stillness felt familiar, and in that familiarity, a bit threatening. “Why?”

    “Well because where we are going is cold and there is a woman who can apparently find Tirius, but she is dressed only in a hospital gown and needs clothing, and if we can find something, we should probably get Colm a jacket as well.”

    “Colm?” Kieren asked.

    Deciding on action, I took a deep breath. “I’m cold, Kieren. I will explain inside.” Walking around him, feeling his presence heavy at my back, I let myself in the house without betraying the unease I felt at the situation. Something with Kieren was off, and I knew it was distrust but didn’t know how to combat my partner’s natural inclination to suspect everything.

    I went to the closet in the room I’d used and smiled to myself when I heard Kieren follow me. Technically I had enough time to tell him the entire story, being able to arrive back at the cottage in a relational time to when I left. But a sense of urgency propelled me into action without explaining.

    It would be easier to have Colm tell him anyway, though that was an interaction I wasn’t looking forward to.

    “Are you going to tell me what happened?” Kieren asked from where he stood at the bedroom doorway. He leaned against the door jam and watched as I pulled clothing from the closet and piled it on the bed to sort through.

    Holding up a long-sleeved gray shirt I tried to figure out if it would fit Diana. “Honestly, I’m not sure where to start,” I said as I added the shirt to the take pile.

    “How long have you been gone, in your time?”

    I paused in folding a sweater, frowning as I thought about it. “Six days? Or six cycles.”

    “And you are here on your own free will?”

    Snorting, I continued to fold the clothes. “As much of my own free will as is possible lately.”

    “Wren,” Kieren said, voice warning. The tone wasn’t forceful or even that apparent, but I knew it for what it was, and I turned to look at my partner. I’d missed him, that was obvious in the warmth I felt at seeing him, the feeling that I now recognized as being ever present when I was with Kieren. What wasn’t as clear cut was the reason behind the sudden nervous energy coursing through my system.

    I met his gaze. “I am here of my own free will,” I emphasized. “But what I’ve seen is a lot. I’ve been shown evidence that you and I have been compliant in manipulations; that we’ve done things that has caused considerable harm to timelines. I’ve been shown a world that is outside of any timeline, in which individuals from many different experiments have come to co-exist, but outside the reach of Masters. I have met a woman who is not a woman and I’ve been attacked by a squad of Guardians. There is a lot. And although I will tell you all, right now I want to get these clothes, bring them back to Diana and Colm, and then have you help me Travel them to somewhere we cannot be found by Guardians or Masters. Once there, I can explain, and perhaps we can figure out a solution to this giant, complicated, knot of a problem that we’ve found ourselves tangled in.”

    With the words hanging between us, I watched Kieren for a moment longer, but his facial expression was his normal blank intensity as if he could figure out the entirety of everything through sheer will. I read the tension in his shoulders and in the careful way he nonchalantly leaned against the door jam, but per normal, he stood in his silence.

    I returned to my task, precisely stacking the last of the clothing before turning to fully face him. “I need your help, Kieren, that’s what partners do.”

    “But are you, you?”

    Frowning, I studied his face. “Who else would I be?”

    A shift, his long body leaning further into the wood of the doorway. “An imposter, a trick. Your twin.”

    I put my hands up. “Is that even possible?”

    He raised an eyebrow.

    I shook my head. “I am me. Not this twin that haunts me, or a clone, or anything else. I am not a trick come to harm you or trap you. Just me. A little bit older than you now, with a little more time to me, but me. I’m not sure how to prove it other than connecting via the interface, and we obviously can’t do that.”

    Enduring the long look, I waited to see what Kieren would say, wondering what off the wall question he would come up with that I would have to answer as proof of my words. I hoped that I would be able to answer it and I eyed him, watching his face that never changed expression as he listened to my speech.

    Instead of a question though, he surprised me, walking towards me with quick, long strides. Without comment or explanation, he wrapped an arm around my waist and pulled me against his body, enveloping me, arms strong and secure, chest hard.

    Then he kissed me.

    His lips were warm, soft and hard all at once. For a breath, stunned, I remained still under the contact, mind racing as an onslaught of desire coiled up from my belly. I resisted the kiss for just a moment, pushing it away, but there was the feeling, pressure, heat, this knowledge that I’d been denying. And it wasn’t only my reaction, I could feel Kieren’s response through the connection, a wave of desire from that point that tied us together.

    My hands came up to his face, my fingers sliding into his black hair, and I kissed him back.

    The room disappeared on his groan, a low sound in his throat as the kiss deepened, his hand at my waist, another in my hair. Everything fell away, time narrowing down to the lack of space between us, his tongue sweeping against mine, his hands at the base of my spine, warm suddenly against my skin as he pulled me even closer to his body, a body responding to our intimacy.

    Then he was gone. Suddenly and completely. His hands dropping away. He stepped back to create a space that felt frozen in comparison to our heat. I’d closed my eyes at some point, and I blinked them open several times to try to return to the present. Kieren’s face was flushed, his hair mussed where my fingers had been moments before, breathing heavier than was normal, but his expression was one that gave nothing of his inner thoughts away.

    My face, however, was burning, a rising heat as I stared, stunned.

    “I’ve missed you,” he said, and his voice was different, far off, the voice he used in political situations when he wanted to make an exact statement and no mistakes.

    I shook my head, running a hand through my hair. “What are you even talking about? What was that? What?” I stumbled over the words, the shock of the situation falling like waves and severely limiting my ability to concentrate.

    Something shifted in his body, tension falling from his shoulders and he gave me a quick grin that completely changed his expression. The smile was crooked and it warmed his eyes, though I felt a tension behind it, some emotion I couldn’t name. “I had to be sure,” he explained.

    “By kissing me? How is that going to prove anything?” I asked, and my voice ratcheted up a level though I tried to control it.

    “It did,” he answered and then turned towards the door. “I have a bag you can put those in.”

    I watched him disappear into the hallway and I stood there suddenly alone; very cold and very alone. Distantly, I felt him still, the reaction he had presented before leaving the room at odds with the buzz of desire and sadness I felt through our connection, but as I tried to sort out what had just happened, I started to doubt the legitimacy of what I felt coming through the bond. I started to doubt the reality of it, the kiss shaking up more than just my emotions.

    Gathering my thoughts, I angrily shoved what just happened into the recesses of my mind and slammed the door shut on it. I felt tricked, hurt, and underneath, still heated with how my body responded. Tears threatened, tears that were not at all appropriate and were weakness. I hurriedly wiped at them, hearing Kieren return, focusing not on the man but on the clothes that I systematically and with precision placed in the bag he provided.

    After gathering food and additional weapons, we returned in a spiral of Arrival. The storm that had raged when I left still raged full-on with sideways rain that bit through my clothing. As always, we Arrived at the top of the cliffs, the windswept grass about us a sea of green and browns. The wind pushed us, grabbing at our hair, and it succeeded in grasping some of Kieren’s black strands from the caul at the base of his skull, the strands a whirl about his head as he blinked at me through the rainfall.

    “This way,” I said and led him to the cliff edge and down. Carefully, I made my way down the path, Kieren close behind, focusing on my footstep, ignoring the lingering emotions.

    “This is the cottage,” he shouted as he followed me, the duffel bag of clothes slung over his shoulder.

    “Yes,” I shouted back, the wind taking my words and swirling them away towards nothing.

    Gaining the rocky beach, we made our way slowly against the weather, and though it had, theoretically, only been moments since I left, I was relieved to see smoke rising from the chimney of the cottage, just visible in the dimming light. I made sure to knock on the green door and call out before opening it. Nevertheless, I found Colm positioned in front of the couch, protecting Diana who clutched blankets before her. Colm held his curved blades in both hands, crossed before him, guarding.

    “Just us,” I said, taking a step into the cottage closely followed by Kieren.

    Colm kept his blades ready as he studied Kieren, who studied him back.

    I got out from between them, letting them do their stare down as I dropped the duffel of food into the kitchen. I took the bag from Kieren who had barely walked fully into the cottage, dripping on the stone immediately in front of the doorway.

    “Kieren, Colm; Colm, Kieren,” I said as I took the bag to Diana who was watching the display with a flicker of amusement. I smiled at her in understanding then handed over the bag. “Clothing. Some of it should fit,” I said.

    Diana extracted herself from the blankets and took the bag. “Thanks,” she said, and slowly got to her feet, unsteady but growing in stability as she walked from the somewhat warm living area towards the hallway and the freezing part of the cottage.

    I looked at the two men who were still watching one another, both still in their contemplation. “Don’t kill each other,” I said, following Diana down the hallway.

    She was in the bedroom pawing through the bag. “I wasn’t sure of your size,” I said, startling her into a jump, but she just nodded and pulled out a pair of dove gray trousers and a rainbow-colored soft sweater. “And there was only one size of shoes,” I continued.

    “They are all my size,” Diana said looking at the clothing and then taking out the black boots to check their size as well. I wondered at that but refrained from questioning her, figuring she wouldn’t have an answer anyway.

    I sat on the corner of the bed as she got dressed. To her credit, she only blushed as she pulled the white shift over her head, white flesh prickling with goosebumps in the cold, black underthings stark against her paleness. Relief washed over me to see that the black lines had all but disappeared.

    “How are you feeling?” I asked, studying her movements as she pulled on the clothing.

    “Are you testing me?” she replied, buttoning the perfectly fitting trousers.

    I tilted my head. “Why do you ask?”

    “Because it’s something Tirius would do, watching me get dressed to see how I would react, to judge my state of mind, to see my physical response to things.” She pulled on the sweater and then leaned down for the socks and boots.

    Her explanation caused me to smile, recognizing her words as truth. “I guess I am a little bit. More, I wanted to see how you’re feeling, and our bodies often tell more of the truth than our words do.”

    Finished with the boots, Diana sat on the bed, flushed, breathing just a little harder but otherwise looking a lot better than she had during the entire short time I had known her. She studied me in turn. She had sea-gray eyes that took in my person as if she was seeing beyond me to something that lay within. I saw then, the glimpse of what I’d looked for before, something that would explain the connection between Tirius and this woman sitting in front of me.

    I got up. “Let’s go make sure they’re still alive.”

    “I passed?” she asked, grabbing the bag and then giving it over to me when I put my hand out.

    “You did,” I said.

    The Sideians were silent when we came back to the front room. Colm sat on the couch staring into the flames leaping in the fireplace. He’d positioned himself on the couch, feigning relaxation, though his shoulders and jaw gave him away.

    Kieren sat the small kitchen table, watching Colm, not even pretending to hide his distrust.

    I dropped the duffel bag to the floor, the sound a loud shot in the room that had both men tensing in reaction. I looked between them, noticing again the similarities in their persons. They had the same light brown skin, smooth over high cheekbones and strong jaws with almond-shaped eyes. Colm was bigger, about the same height but broader in shoulders, arms, and chest. He wore his hair down, a dark brown that fizzled with lighter brown, falling in waves around his face. In contrast, Kieren’s hair was once again severely contained at the back of his head, his long body lean and tight under his black clothing. Colm resembled a lion; Kieren, a panther.

    I was annoyed with the both of them but knew I only understood a small fraction of what was going on in their heads or between them. There was the element of Guardian and non-Guardian, but I also wondered if there was some lingering Sideian politics that I didn’t know about.

    “We need a location,” I said to break the silence. All eyes turned to me and I stood in my stillness as the attention pushed against me. “Somewhere we can Travel but somewhere that is protected, or at least somewhat protected, from Guardians and Masters.” I looked at each of the three beings. “We need space and we need time.”

    Kieren shifted at the table. “Darkside,” he said.

    I groaned before I could contain it and he flashed me a look that spoke of sympathy.

    “No,” Colm said.

    “What is Darkside?” Diana asked.

    I looked over to where she sat next to Colm. “It is a city in their home world.”

    “Sideia is no longer my home,” Colm replied.

    I decided to ignore the comment, though I filed it for later. “It has the advantage of being lawless,” I explained to Diana. “We can Travel there, which is a pro but also means we would be under the Master’s umbrella.”

    “I have resources,” Kieren said, who watched me with an intensity I didn’t understand.

    “No,” Colm repeated.

    Kieren glanced over at Colm. “Do you have a better idea?”

    Colm spread his hands out. “Why not stay here?”

    “I thought I explained that?” I said, letting my exasperation bleed through. “This location is known. It’s only a matter of time before they comb enough of the timeline to find us. No, we need somewhere that is different, somewhere Tirius did not frequently visit.”

    “He traveled everywhere,” Kieren said.

    “He did,” I agreed. “But avoided Darkside and Sideia in general.”

    “Why?” Diana asked, emerging again with a question.

    I shrugged. “I’ve no idea. He wasn’t or isn’t one to share those things.”

    She nodded, looking down, but not before I caught a flash of interest and perhaps something a bit darker crossing her face. Jealousy, maybe? I wasn’t sure how to navigate that minefield though and hopefully wouldn’t have to. I tried for diplomacy. “How about we just try it? We go, and then if we have to leave, we do.”

    Colm jerked his head at Kieren. “He could be leading us into a trap.”

    I frowned. “Why would my partner lead us into a trap? He’s on the run too.”

    “Because he’s the Warden’s heir,” Colm said, hard words falling as stones into the room. Kieren made a sound and Colm’s gaze flickered to where Kieren sat. “You tell her, or me?” he asked my partner.

    I looked over to Kieren who was not concealing the dislike bordering on hatred he felt for the other Sideian. “Kieren?” I asked, though I already knew and hardly needed a confirmation.

    He glanced over at me. “Was,” he said. “I was. Until this happened.”

    Colm snorted and I felt it like a blade across my nerves. The larger Sideian sat forward, elbows on his knees as he looked at me. “I don’t even know why I’m here having this conversation. Wren, your partner is the heir to the Warden position. That doesn’t suddenly go away because he went and found you. You don’t think this is all just a way to gather information for the Warden? You really think that we go with him and Guardians are not going to show up and kill us, take Diana, do whatever they need to do?”

    His words circled and circled and landed. “You have proof of this?”

    Colm rubbed his face, running a hand over his hair. “I have enough.”

    “But not enough to prove?”

    He got up from the couch and walked towards me as if to emphasize his words with touch. He stopped when Kieren got up from the table, shifting as if to put his body between mine and Colm’s.

    I addressed the large man in front of me. “Look, if that’s true, and I’m not saying that it is, but if it is, then there won’t be any Guardians.”

    “Why?” Colm asked, pinning me.

    “Because he wouldn’t be done gathering information,” I replied, keeping my gaze on Colm’s and nowhere else.

    The Sideian frowned, studying my face and then with a half shrug, walked back to the couch, sitting next to Diana, working through my words, clearly trying to understand my logic.

    I refused to look at Kieren, not wanting to see the lack of expression on his face. He would give nothing away to Colm, even if the accusation was false, because that would put him in an inferior position. I knew that, but I also knew what I was feeling. Colm’s words hadn’t helped the queasiness in my stomach or the questioning voice in my head that kept getting louder and louder. My partner and I needed to get several things sorted, and I was also honest enough with myself to know that I needed to get some things straight in my own head and heart. Now, however, was not the time.

    I took up the duffel bag with the food, adding it to the duffel bag of clothes, and then focused on Diana who was clearly unsure of what was going on, her look confused as she glanced between the three of us. I tried for a smile, knowing it came off as more of a grimace, but she smiled back, clearing some of the confusion from her features. “Are you ready?” I asked.

    She shrugged. “I’m not sure what I should be ready for, but sure.”

    “We’re going to Travel. It’s disorienting. It might cause you to become sick. That’s completely normal.”

    “Again, don’t know so I can’t say for sure if I’m okay with it, but I also don’t appear to have much of a choice.”

    I nodded. “Yes. Welcome to the group.” Glancing over at Kieren, he read my look and got to his feet, silently walking over to me and taking one of the bags from my shoulder.

    “I want to explain,” he said, lowly, under his breath, back towards the other two, looking down at me from his height.

    I looked up at his familiar features. “I know you do,” I said, and left it at that turning away from him and towards Colm and Diana. I put a hand out. Diana got up from the couch immediately, Colm following more slowly. Placing Diana’s hand in Kieren’s, I took Colm’s and then grasped my partner’s hand. His hand was warm and giant, enveloping my smaller one easily.

    “The location?” I asked Kieren.

    Glancing down at our hands he seemed to see something, observe something, but whatever it is he saw he kept it to himself, meeting my gaze with his own.

    He gave me the coordinates. I closed my eyes, feeling his presence, starting the process of co-Travel in the way we’d learned in training prior to the introduction of our interfaces. Without the interface, the energy field felt more chaotic, slippery, therefore not nearly as powerful, but it was enough and a lot better than the situation would have been if I had tried it alone.

    We Traveled.


    It was a much easier process and though nausea beat at me, I focused on my breath, the feeling dissipating in moments. Diana was throwing up onto the road, her hand against a brick wall, Colm near her, blades in hand though his own color was ashen and pale.

    “We should move,” Kieren said quietly, checking his weapons, his appearance precise and contained.

    I nodded, hitching the bag on my shoulder and going over to where Diana breathed with shaky inhales. “The feeling will go away,” I said. I kept my voice low, emulating Kieren’s tone. We were in an alley, that was clear, very early morning with a purple hue enveloping the world, but I had not recognized the coordinates and in a flash wondered if I had been wrong to trust my partner.

    Shoving the thought away, I put my hand on Diana’s arm. “Come on, it’s better to walk it off.”

    To her credit, she took my advice, straightening up from the wall with a slow inhale and exhale. Her face still looked like death, gray with watering eyes and bluish lips, but she pulled a hand through her hair and nodded once. A bit shakily, she walked towards Kieren who was waiting at the alleyway’s entrance.

    Being early, the area outside the alley was empty. The wide street with wide sidewalks, large warehouses on either side, sparked a memory and I glanced over my shoulder. Docks rose up towards the sky, various ships tethered to the 20 or so levels reaching up towards the atmosphere. I sort of knew where we were, though mostly because of Kieren’s description of the shipyards that were close to one of his old family’s homes. The ruling families on Sideia had complexes located in each of the major parts of the world. Darkside, for all its lawlessness, was one of those positions of power and as such Kieren’s family had a large plot of land, or so I could recall. The rest of what to expect was entirely conjuncture.

    I caught up with Kieren who had taken the sidewalk with long strides. “Is there going to be anyone there?”

    He glanced over at me, not at all surprised that I’d surmised our destination. “There might be in the main house, but not in the game house next to the river. And even if there are individuals in the main house, it will be limited to staff. It’s winter. The family is south.”

    I nodded, hoping that his memory of the way his family moved from season to season was still accurate. “Is this before or after?” I asked.

    Stepping off the sidewalk and leading us across the road, Kieren pointed to where a giant wall had emerged. The wall was easily six stories in the air, with sheer sides of gray and a fizzing security system of blue electricity above it to discourage anyone from going over the top. Kieren led us towards a double door in the side of the wall, a guard stationed immediately outside of the door. The guard wore red and black.

    “Before,” he said, nodding towards the guard and I understood.

    I stepped back, touching Diana’s arm so she would slow enough to allow Colm to catch up. With the two of them at my side, I explained that Kieren had brought us into the timeline before his transference. He did this in order to use his position as a member of a powerful family to get us through the security protocols.

    “Will it work?” Colm asked, voice low as we watched Kieren approach the guard.

    “It will work if the guard doesn’t know Kieren personally,” I admitted.

    The three of us slowed further, giving Kieren space enough to operate but not enough space to seem suspicious. The Sideian guard was a young male, several cycles younger than Kieren, who, by the look on his face took his position very seriously; that was until Kieren must have introduced himself because the lad’s whole body seemed to deflate backward in what was clearly fear.

    The guard nodded several times before he opened the door, unlocking it with a code. He hastily stepped back to let Kieren and the three of us pass through, refusing to look up as we walked by, fear still evident in his posture.

    Colm gave me a curious look as if to ask who exactly Kieren’s family was before he became a Guardian, but that was not my story to tell, and further, I had little understanding of Kieren’s family and their role in Sideia. If the guard’s reaction was any indication, the influence his family had was one based on fear and I didn’t need to add ammunition to Colm’s already existing dislike.

    The reputation, whatever it was, got us through and we joined the more populated Darkside on the other side of the great wall guarding the shipyard. The city slowly started to move and waken as we continued to walk down a broad sidewalk along storefronts. Traffic picked up the further we got from the shipyard, cafés appearing with people sitting in the morning sunshine despite the cold, sipping steaming cups of liquid.

    Checking Diana, I saw her face still had not regained the color she’d had in the cottage and I knew her reserve of energy was greatly depleted, though she said nothing and kept walking at the quick pace Kieren had established.

    “Nearly there?” I asked Kieren, falling in exact step with him. When he looked over, I switched my gaze to Diana.

    Kieren followed my eyes and then nodded in understanding. “Just a little bit further.”

    I dropped back again to relate the news, not missing the flash of relief in Diana’s face.

    Kieren hadn’t exaggerated. He took us down a sideroad, the storefronts giving way to brick, three-story buildings with trees in front. The trees were embedded in the sidewalk, reaching upwards with stark branches. In the summer, the leaves would create shade on the streets and against the buildings, providing relief from the intense summer heat. A few houses down, Kieren took another corner, suddenly bringing us up to a wall made of gray stone. The wall towered over my head.

    “Are we supposed to jump it?” Colm asked behind us, looking up at the expanse of gray.

    Kieren ignored him, walking along the wall until he came to a wooden arched door with a heavy iron lock on the handle. We watched as he ran his hands down the side of the stonewall until he found what he wanted. He wedged his fingers into the caulking bordering a stone the size of my palm. He pulled, fingers straining into claws. The stone came with a rush, causing him to stumble back slightly. Placing the stone down on the ground, Kieren reached into the now exposed hole, retrieving a key from the blackness.

    The key protested within the lock, a squeal echoing in the morning, causing all of us to glance around nervously. No one appeared and Kieren pulled the door open on silent hinges. He replaced the key and the stone and then the four of us slipped into Kieren’s familial residence, closing the door behind us.

  • Chapter 12

    We arrived several cycles later, or days as they were called on the ship. I was left alone after my conversation with Cana. I ate in the mess with Colm, most everyone ignoring me and though I was told I could roam the ship, the first time I took the chance, individuals stared, and the whispers followed me like a ghost. After that, I stayed in my room instead, alternating between sitting, napping, and worrying about Kieren, wondering what it was he’d ended up doing after I disappeared again. 

    On the last day of the trip, with docking less than four hours away, Colm came and collected me. Cana had provided me with a Guardian uniform tailored to my size, black on black with black boots. I didn’t venture to ask where she’d gotten the uniform, instead taking it without comment and thankful despite the bloody history it likely had. With it on, though, I stuck out in my gloom as I moved through the people aboard all getting ready to depart, and all wearing soft Earth tone colors similar to the clothing that I’d originally been given. With my hair tightly tied back, the staff in a holster at the base of my spine, I cut a formidable figure. I caught more than one glance of nervous fear as I walked through the hallways to where Cana waited for us on the bridge. 

    “Your reputation is growing,” Colm said, clearly amused.

    I studied his broad shoulders under the beige tunic he wore. “What do you mean?”

    He glanced over his shoulder at me. “No one beats me.”

    Not able to comment as we’d arrived at our destination, I let it slide, though a certain warmth settled in my chest. I took Colm’s words as a compliment, though the feeling was quickly replaced by concern that I was starting to like these people who had taken me against my will. There was a term for growing to like one’s captives and even though I couldn’t remember what it was, I knew it wasn’t a complimentary word.

    Shoving the thoughts aside, I looked around the bridge, surprised at its smallness. Cana was there, standing tall and straight in front of a large curved window that showed the glimmer of a sun and pricks of starlight. Studying the ceiling-to-floor window for a moment, I thought it likely that it was less a window and more a very high-quality image, the view transmitted by cameras mounted on the front of the vessel. Cana was talking to a short-statured human in a dark blue uniform, one of the first uniforms I’d seen, light brown hair short against his scalp. He nodded once at whatever Cana said, then exited the bridge at a door on the opposite side of the room from where we stood, his footstep silent on the heavy carpet.

     Cana saw Colm and I and waved us forward as she took a seat in the overly cushioned chair in the middle of the room, clearly a captain’s chair. The ease in which she took the position gave off the distinct impression that she was familiar and comfortable with the captain’s chair. Another individual, also in a blue uniform, with long curling like tendrils for hair and a very thin frame emerged and stopped at her elbow, presenting her with a tablet of information to go over. Cana did it quietly, glancing through the pages, then handing it back. “I trust you on this,” she said to the individual, of whose kind I was not sure, and it (he, her, they?) walked quickly away on silent feet, the dark tresses seeming to float behind their triangular head.

    “I wanted you to see this,” Cana said, addressing me while simultaneously typing something into the arm of her chair. With her other hand, she pointed to an empty spot in front of a console. “Don’t touch anything, but you may sit there for arrival.”

    I did as I was told, vaguely aware that Colm excused himself from the bridge with a bow. I felt a loosening at his absence, unaware before he left that I’d carried a tense awareness of his threat. With him gone, I extracted my staff from my back and settled down into the gray bucket seat, weapon on my lap. The chair and console before me lay parallel with another console operated by a Sideian female, her dark hair so long it nearly touched the ground in its braid, her uniform a darker shade of blue with several pins in the collar. Knotted tattoos were dark and striking at either side of her eyes, but she ignored my looks, focusing on her controls, of which there were many.

    Looking away from the pilot, I stared forward at the black night with the distant stars and the faded glow off in the top right side of the screen. I wondered where we were, or even if I would know the location. As I watched, the glow increased, and though celestial bodies were too far away to really judge if we were changing course, the sudden appearance of a planet on the right side of the window was enough to indicate some kind of maneuvering.

    “That’s Marious,” Cana said behind me. “We will soon reach Kepler.”

    The name jolted me. “Kepler? From the human timeline?” I asked, glancing over my shoulder at Cana who calmly sat in her captain’s chair.

     “It is. One of them at least,” she replied, not looking my way but continuing to watch the scene unfold before her on the screens.

    Something clicked and I studied the woman, feeling a rock in my stomach. “You never Traveled. When you got me, you didn’t Travel away from Earth and the human timeline.”

    Cana looked over me and gave me one of her strange smiles. “No.”

    “But it felt like it,” I said, thinking back on the experience.

    “There are similarities, we believe, between what you call Travel and what we use to move from one space to another. At its base level, it is a transference of energy, which we believe is what you do when you Travel.”

    That was sort of true. Travel was harnessing energy and using it with a precise location in space-time. “It’s a device?”

    “Yes. It allows us to move about undetected. It’s essential to our safety.”

    I read between the lines; I would not be seeing the device or using it; not that I needed it, not really. I could have Traveled at any point during the journey, but I was curious to know what was on the other side of this space travel; curious to know how these people that existed in this impossible scenario, and how they’d come to have a relationship with Tirius. I was also worried about the Archivist’s disappearance. Leaving hadn’t made sense, because if I left, I couldn’t have returned, not without knowing the precise time, date, and location of the ship or the location of Cana’s destination. 

    The ship moved around the looming planet, emerging from its shadow and revealing another quickly approaching planet that looked an awful lot like Earth. We were coming towards the day side of the planet, clouds swirling in whitewashes against the backdrop of greens and blues and the occasional brown. “This planet is fully habitable?” I asked, awe creeping into my voice though I tried to remain neutral at the scene before me.

    “It is. It always has been.”

    A snarling mess of reason was trying to undo itself in my brain. We were still within the human timeline, but not in the human timeline because somehow, we were outside of it. But this planet clearly existed; as did the ship and the people on the ship with their range of different individual timeline origins. 

    There weren’t only humans on the ship, which meant that somehow other timelines had bled into the human one. Unless by being outside the timeline, this planet we now approached had somehow become a waypoint for different experiments. Even Cana had mentioned that individuals found their way to her, but with what I knew about timelines and the separation of them, I was unable to reason out how individuals were moving from their respective places to this one, outside of anything that a Master had constructed.

    I rubbed at my eyes, tense around my shoulders as we started our descent, stopping my circular thinking with force. As we broke into the upper layer of the atmosphere, blue skies wrapped about the ship and I could see the glint of sea below us. It was mere breaths before a landmass appeared in the viewing screen and we descended and slowed. It was hard to tell which direction we faced, but as we moved in, the sun set in front of us, the sudden bright light causing the screen to darken in response. With the backdrop of a setting sun, a striking city of emerald green buildings appeared, piercing the blue sky.

    “That’s home,” Cana said, pride in her voice. “Akdia.”

    “It’s big,” I said as we flew over. Numbering well into the hundreds, the buildings were all smooth curving lines spiraling about, rising to a point in the sky. Between the buildings there appeared to be grass and trees and nothing else. “Where is everybody?” I asked, the area between buildings empty of all moving life. It was beautiful, but strange, unlike anything I’d ever seen before.

    My question remained unanswered, Cana talking quietly into a device at her arm. It was silver and wrapped around her wrist like a cuff. The Sideian pilot made a comment in a language my translator did not catch, and Cana answered in kind as we descended towards a strip of shining black. The landing was impossibly smooth, not even a bump and if the Sideian hadn’t looked quite so formidable, I would have congratulated her on her flying skills. As it were, I remained silent, watching to see what would happen next.

    The screen went black; the low hum of the ship ceased; and Cana stood to her full height, the long gray dress falling in folds around her. I reluctantly got up, holstering my staff at the base of my spine, keeping my shoulders loose. I would fight my way out of anything, but I very much wished my partner was at my side facing the unknown together. It was not the first time I’d wished it on the several day’s journey. They had never explained why they had left Kieren on Earth, though I figured that they only needed me and would have rather not have another Guardian on board to be wary of; that, at least, was the best explanation I’d come up with, my questions about Kieren met with a change of subject or silence so many times that I had stopped asking.

    Colm met us in the hallway, dressed now in the same blue uniform as the others. Gone was the usual earth-toned tunic and trousers, replaced with the crisp assemble complete with pins on the collar and stripes at the sleeves. The uniform looked strange on the Sideian as if he was stuffed into it, though the actual fit was perfect. From what I understood, Sideians held very little regard for such protocols, relying more on reputation than the arbitrary ranking on a uniform. But then again, I had also witnessed a Sideian male bow at Cana during the journey, so “normal” was relative. 

    There were politics here as there were everywhere, little indications that contradicted Cana’s vocalized distaste of the Master’s power games. There were power plays and power movers that existed within her reality, her being one of them. This bit of irony was further emphasized when we descended from the ship to the black shining surface of the runway. I waited, watching, as the massive doors opened, and a ramp descended. The air was chilly, smelling of cold, the sun not quite warm as it set, and the breeze whipped along, causing me to involuntarily shudder, goosebumps under the black jacket they’d provided me. Despite the cold and the evening hour, lining up on either side of a narrow walkway were a series of individuals from all different timelines, standing straight and at, what I could only call, attention. There were Diaxes, Rishis, Sideians, and humans, along with others that I only vaguely recognized.

    As we walked by, Cana leading and Colm following, the line on either side bowed.

    Power indeed.

    We entered one of the green spiraling buildings, the doors opening before us as we approached. Walking across the threshold and into the building, I stopped in surprise and wonder at the massive entryway colored in blues and greens. Colm gently pushed me from behind to keep me moving and I did, but my eyes traveled up and up, the walls appearing to be made of emerald and lapis, though that was clearly impossible. Lights were flowing down from a source at the top and sides of the three-story high entryway and we walked across the same shining black stone as we’d landed on. There was a coldness to the building, not only because of the chill from outside but because of the starkness of its interior. As we walked across the floor and started to ascend a spiral staircase wide enough for ten, the surroundings did little to put me at ease. I still followed Cana, her gray dress dragging behind her as she took the stairs, and Colm was a surprising comfort at my back, but the eyes that tracked me were not friendly, and the entourage that tailed out behind us remained silent in their step as they followed. 

    The staircase led to a balcony lined with windows revealing another similar green building near us. We walked along the window and I glanced down at the trees and grass, and just as I’d noticed on our arrival, I saw no indication that individuals walked there or even animals. The grass was as spotless as the side of the buildings, the trees manicured or appearing so. A gloom had started to permeate the surroundings as the sun fully set on the day, and so not all the details were vivid. I wondered as I walked if I was missing something, something that would explain what I was seeing. To my eye, it appeared creepy.

    Cana stopped in front of a pair of steel doors, which opened immediately. She waited for me inside the lift and as I stepped into the smaller space, I wondered how our entire entourage was going to follow us, but only Colm stepped in, the doors closing on the rest of the masses.

    “I apologize for the welcoming party,” Cana said when the doors had closed, and the lift started to move. “It’s customary.”

    I glanced over at her, again noticing that strange drooping aspect to her skin. “You are in power here,” I stated, not making it a question.

    She hesitated, or at least that’s how I interpreted the slight pause before she answered. “I am one of many who have influence over the decisions made, yes.”

    I couldn’t help the look of incredulousness that slipped over my face and she saw it for what it was, but both of us let the moment pass without making further comments.

    The lift doors opened, and Cana led me into a hall of green glass, the cathedral-like ceiling capturing shadows. Along either side of us, lights were inlaid into the walls, casting a green glow across the expanse. I followed without question, more at ease now that it was the three of us again. The ease lasted as long as it took us to get to another arched doorway and step beyond into a smaller room. A woman lay in the single bed that took up most of the space. Immediately I noticed she was human, her blondish hair spread out like a fan about her pale face; skin, which would have probably looked pale anyway, now cast in gray; her lips with a bluish tinge. Around her, various machines beeped, and it was so very much like a human hospital that at first, I was thrown off balance. 

    I came up to stand next to Cana who had stopped at the end of the bed. “Who is she?” I asked, knowing that she had to be someone of significance if they’d done all this work to bring me to her bedside.

    Cana put a hand on the railing of the bed, her long fingers curling about the metal. “She is the woman from Tirius’s timeline; the nurse.”

    I looked at the woman, and then back to Cana who remained fixated on her. “You mean, this woman is the woman from France, World War I?”

    “No. But yes. She is a version of that woman, though this one lived in the early 21st century in the human timeline.” 

    Feeling the rock-like pit in my stomach, a feeling that I was getting an awful lot of since joining Cana and Colm, I studied the woman. “How did she come to be here?” I asked.

    “We found her.”

    “And you kidnapped her,” I finished. “Out of her life. Out of her time. Because of Tirius. Does she even know who he is?”

    Cana looked at me finally. “I hear the judgement in your voice, and perhaps you are right to judge. But two things must be understood. First, finding Tirius is of the utmost concern, and yes, he has been in contact with her during this life. We must know where he is so that we can bring him back. Things are at work, things that he had a hand in starting, and his presence is required. It is very, very important that we locate him.”

    I rolled my hand. “Okay, let’s say she can even help you; you took her out of her life.”

    “It was at an end anyway,” Cana said, and her words were so blunt they seemed to fall into the room like a stone in a pond.

    “As in she was going to die?”

    “We believe that there was a manipulation involved. She was very sick,” Cana replied. She moved around to the side of the bed, pulling back the white sheet to show a very pale arm with a myriad of freckles. Along the woman’s arm were very unnatural lines of black that looked like veins under the skin. Unhealthy veins. Dead veins.

    “When we found her, her entire circulatory system was infected. We barely got to her in time,” Cana explained.

    Time, I thought, staring at the woman. With the ability to move about timelines, I wondered if I was here to prevent whatever manipulation had occurred to cause those black lines. Obviously, they had helped her, but the veins still looked unnatural.

    A shuffle at the door caught my attention and I turned to see a large Diax enter, its eyes taking in the situation before hustling over to the patient. “Mistress Cana, I am delighted at your return, however, this patient is not ready to be pulled back to consciousness.”

    Cana smiled her strange smile. “I understand Healer, but we must do what we must do. Will it do considerable harm to her?”

    The Diax rarely showed much emotion but I swore I could see irritation flash across its features. “No. But it might do irreversible harm.”

    Cana gestured with two hands, the movement liquid and clearly meaning something because the Diax seemed to heave a giant sigh before turning to one of the machines and pressing a series of buttons. I couldn’t tell if any of the machines were monitoring things like heart rate or blood pressure like they would if they were in a normal human hospital, but something was clearly happening, the machines all humming different tunes. 

    After a moment, the woman’s eyes fluttered and opened, uncertain, not at all in focus. The four of us, Cana and the Diax at one side of the bed, me at the end, and Colm at the door all watched the woman wake up from wherever she’d been moments before.

    Gray eyes clearing, she took us in, opening her mouth to speak, but only a rattle emerged. Cana took the water from the Diax’s offered tentacle and handed it to the woman who struggled to sit up but eventually managed.

    Taking a sip, and then another, a little bit of color returned to her face. “Am I dead?” she asked, her voice still rough but clearly audible.

     Cana took the water. “No, dear, you are not dead. Though it was a close thing.”

    The woman looked at Cana, eyes widening when she caught sight of the Diax and then normalizing when she saw me and Colm at the door. “Okay. Have I been abducted by aliens?”

    This amused Cana and a kind of laugh escaped. “In a way.” Cana sat down on the side of the bed, her light weight indenting the blanket. The woman moved away from her, creating space. “You are not dead, Diana. We’ve been able to help with your sickness.”

    Diana looked down at her arms, her already pale face going gray at the lines of black. “I don’t appear to be healed.”

    The Diax made a sound near the head of the bed, startling Diana who looked over and visibly flinched. Her response was rude, uncultured, and I was irritated by it, though intellectually I understood that Diana was a human who’d never seen any other beings before. I wanted her to be more though, this partner of Tirius’s. I wanted her to be like the Archivist, distant and wise. She appeared to be a human woman and that was all, nothing above or beyond her humanity.

    “The healing is slow but is occurring,” the Diax said, not noticing the flinch or choosing not to notice it.

    Cana gestured towards where I was standing at the edge of the bed. “This is Wren. She is going to ask you a few questions. There is no need to be alarmed. You are under no threat, from any of us. As I said we just need your help.”

    The pronouncement startled me, though I tried to cover my reaction when Diana looked at me, confusion still contorting her face.

    She nodded at me. 

    Cana stood. “Thank you,” she said, and then with a look at the Diax and a hand to Colm’s arm, the three of them left the room, shutting the door quietly behind them.

    Something stilled in me. It had been a long time since I moved into the space of Collector, but as I took a breath, the calm focus slipped on easily and without thought. I moved around the bed and instead of sitting next to the woman, I took a chair from the wall and moved it to be closer, but not too close. Diana watched me all the while, tracking me with her gray eyes.

    “This is all a bit strange,” she said after a moment of silence, her voice cracking on the words.

    I nodded. “It is a lot to take in. And, not many humans get to see this kind of thing in their lives. You’re quite lucky, actually.”

    Diana glanced down at her arms, examining them as if they were not part of her body but something alien, which in fact they were in a sense.

    “Luck might be a strong word,” I amended at the evidence that her association with Tirius, no matter how far apart or disjointed, had caused her harm.

    “None of the doctors knew what was going on; they couldn’t identify the pathogen in my blood,” she explained. “I remember last being in the hospital bed, staring out the window at the sun and knowing with certainty that I was dying.” A sad smile moved about her face. “And no, I am not dead, but my children still don’t know where I am, so is it any better?”

    I listened to her closely, as taught as a Collector, hearing her concerns and her worries for what they were and not how they emerged.

    “You can be returned to that moment, I can help you with that, so no one will realize your absence, and you will be healed, a miracle as it were.”

    This again caused a wry smile and she looked around the sparse room before settling her gaze on me. “I suppose I’ll have to take your word on this. Help then?”

    “Yes. I need you to help me locate Tirius.”

    Puzzlement furrowed her brow. “Who?”

    I studied her but she clearly had no idea who I meant. “Tirius, you may know him by a different name. He is tall, thin, dark curling hair with one green and one blue eye.”

    Diana’s face had very little color to begin with, but at the description, all color bled away, leaving her ghost white. Startled, I glanced at the machines still beeping, but the readings appeared the same. Silence fell like a heavy wet cloak as I watch Diana blink several times, inhaling and exhaling deeply.

    After a moment, she unclenched her fists from where she’d gathered the blanket towards her. “Tirius is his name?” she asked, voice quiet, tone controlled.

    “It is.”

    “And he’s missing?”

    I nodded. “I’ve been tasked to look for him.”

    “Oh,” she said. “You are looking for him.”

    I nodded.

    “As in he is a real thing?”

    Surprised, a question leaped to my tongue, but instead of answering, I watched her process the information. Her face went through the expressions of surprise to shock, elation, and then a sudden sadness that pulled at me even from where I sat some distance away.

    I let her find her words and eventually she did, glancing up at me and then down again.

    “You’re quite sure I’m not dead?” she asked.

    I nodded.

    “And that Tirius, somewhat melancholy, highly intellectual, tall, green and blue eyes; this person actually exists?”

    I nodded again, watching her closely.

    She slowly inhaled, then let her breath out in a rush, again looking at her black veins but clearly not seeing them, replying to me, but also not replying. “You see, I’ve always thought this man you call Tirius was a figment of my imagination. I have an overabundance of imagination. It makes me a good teacher but has also gotten me into a lot of trouble over the years. I dream and see things and it used to be that I thought they were real until I realized they weren’t and learned how to keep those things to myself.”

    I shifted. “And Tirius, he was one of those things?” I prompted.

    She paused, softness causing age to shed from her body, and I glimpsed the girl she was but had not been for some time. “He has always been there. I don’t really remember the first time I saw him, or felt him, or knew he was there. I suppose it was at some point when I was a teenager. You know, he’s very handsome, very charismatic, and I thought that it was a schoolgirl crush. All my other girlfriends had crushes on this actor or that bandmate, and my crush just happened to be someone that I made up. He had, or has the loveliest eyes, you said they were different colors, but they aren’t really, more like different shades of the same color.”

    She shook her head, glancing at me, softness hardening. “Anyway. This image, he came and went through the years. I started to sit with him, I suppose you could call it, though I never went anywhere and it was all entirely within my head. At some point, while at university, I would have these conversations with him. We were always next to the sea, a beach, somewhere I don’t know, cliffs topped with flat land reaching out towards the horizon. Two protruding rocks, sheltering us from anyone and everything and we would sit and talk, side by side, staring out at the sea, white birds over head. I would tell him about my time, days, what was going on, and he would talk about his life, the things going on with him. I just knew him, like I read his mind, which of course is the reality of it as he was entirely made up by my mind. But it felt real, even sitting by myself on my bed, it would feel very real. Even the physical contact, the sensuality of his hands…”

    Diana paused there, a red blush coloring her cheeks.

    I waited.

    She continued. “Then I met my husband or the man who would become my husband, Iain, and I felt guilty having these conversations, this relationship, with my imaginary friend. And so, I dismissed him from my mind. Sometimes I would feel like he was knocking at the closed door, trying to get my attention, remind me he was there, but I got very good at denying my imagination. Very good.”

    She stopped talking but the story had yet to end. I saw her mind walk through the next part, picking her way through. She closed her eyes, shoulders hunching forward for a moment, head hanging, blond hair falling on either side of her face, wrapping her arms about herself.

    Opening her eyes, she straightened, pinned me with her gaze.

    “I denied him for fifteen years. I married Iain, I had my boys, raised them, always denying the impulse to answer, always denying that there was anything to answer. But then Iain had an affair, with his secretary, if you can believe that cliché, and I answered his knock.” She paused, searching my face. “I believed, I still believe, that he was and is a part of my imagination. Perhaps he is the masculine side of me. Perhaps he represents a split personality. I don’t know. But he is not real.”

    “What happened?” I asked, leaning forward. “When you answered the knock.”

    Pain, searing across her face in the tightness of her jaw, the lines of her face. “Heartache. You see, this man, whatever he is, feels like a piece of me. I feel him always, as if a tether connects us. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t even believe in soulmates or any of that, but just by being near him, in my head, I feel this terrible deep longing and separation, because he’s not real, because there is no way for me to be with him in reality, to have his arms wrap around me, or to kiss his lips or to really have those conversations while sitting on a beach surrounded by dunes. It’s this longing for the unattainable, more, it is a longing for something that does not even exist.” Her face pulled back into a grimace, a pained smile. “He’s in my head, so how do I reconcile that with what I feel?”

    Again, I let the silence hang between us, letting her find her own path, and she does, bringing her arms up and around herself once again. “But he isn’t in my head, or perhaps this is all in my head, and I am mad, or perhaps I am dead, some kind of purgatory, and you’re lying to me.”

    I snorted, not able to help it. “You’re very much alive, and not at all mad, and Tirius is very much a real person, as is your connection to him. I, we, hope that you can help us find him using that connection.” I wasn’t sure how that was going to work, but I wasn’t going to bring that up right then.

    Diana scanned my face as if still looking for the catch, but whatever she saw there must have reassured her for she sat back in the bed, body relaxing, like something great and massive had fallen from her shoulders.

    “He’s real,” she repeated and as if this admission released the tension keeping her conscious, I watched as the woman’s eyes got heavier and heavier, eventually closing into sleep. Sighing, I rubbed at my face, thinking of Diana’s words. Her description of her relationship with Tirius was not at all what I expected. I’d never heard of that level of communication between two entities, and a piece of me did wonder if she had made it up. But I remembered that moment in Rushiel, when Kieren and I had communicated in that unknown way, different locations entirely. It had been as if he was in the same room as me, sitting next to me.

    I was beginning to suspect that I had no idea what was possible between these partnered individuals.

    Leaving Diana to her sleep, I went to find Cana and Colm, not getting very far down the hallway before the individual from the ship with the tentacle hair stopped me.

    “This way,” the person said, voice gravelly and low.

    I followed without comment, though my hand stole to the small of my back to ensure that my staff was accessible. The individual gave no vibe, no threat, but as we walked through the strange environment, I was in the same situation as Diana; not at all sure of the circumstances or what would happen when we turned the corner. The individual led me to a large archway and then stopped at the threshold, indicating I should enter. I did, giving a slight smile as I passed that was not returned.

    Cana stood at a gigantic fireplace, staring into the flames leaping upwards from massive logs. Colm was in one of the many sofa type chairs in front of the fireplace, long legs stretched before him. Neither of them noticed me at first, the only sound in the room the crackling fire. The walls in the room were made of the same green stone as the rest of the building, cold in the gathering night, but the dark gray carpets were thick, adding warmth to the ambience along with silencing my step. When further in the room, I saw a very low table opposite from where I’d entered, located underneath tall windows and weighed down with food and what looked like pots for tea.

    I sat down in the opposite corner of the same couch Colm sat in. He gave me a look, a raised eyebrow, and I realized he’d heard me enter and I felt the familiar irritation at his knowing look. He was once again dressed in a light brown tunic and deeper brown trousers, his hair long and wavy around his shoulders, falling down his chest.

    Cana turned from the fire, startling a bit when she saw me, though quickly covering up her reaction with a wave of her hand. “There is food. Drink. Help yourself.”

    I did because I was starving, my stomach growling in sudden recognition of hunger and thirst.

    Food and a cup of tea in hand, I resettled into the couch and then between bites told Cana and Colm of what I’d learned. Colm’s look of incredulousness was about the same as my own, but Cana listened without much of a reaction, except for an “interesting” as I finished up. Sipping at the hot tea, thankful for the warmth as the room seemed to get colder and colder despite the fire, I watched Cana who once more contemplated the leaping flames.

    “I have experienced something similar,” I said, deciding to share a bit of what happened with Kieren and I while on our last mission together.

    Cana listened with a hint of a smile around her lips. “So, there is truth there. We have some evidence that was the case, but nothing concrete; however, we had enough we felt it was worth bringing Diana in to see if she could locate him. That you have also experienced this is further evidence that such a thing can be done.”

    I shrugged. “I don’t know. Perhaps. I thought it was a level of communication that we tapped into through our interfaces, but maybe.” I looked down at my tea, dark brown and swirling a bit with my unsteady hand. “There is no way to know, not officially. I mean, it doesn’t really make any sense to be able to have that kind of connection with someone.”

    Cana lifted her arms up to either side of her body, smiling. “But why not? You do know of how quantum communication works, right? Is it so much of a leap to believe that we are able to communicate in the same way that the very building blocks of everything can?”

    I only knew some of what she spoke of, but enough to know that there was a slight point there, though how much of a point I wasn’t sure.

    She continued, dropping her arms. “There is something, and it seems that this ability to connect is even more so between these pairs that you spoke of, like Tirius and Diana.” Cana tilted her head. “I am to understand that Guardian partners are partners because of this pre-existing connection.”

    I put the tea down. “Yes, but remember, I was not supposed to be pulled over. I am not even supposed to be in this reality, let alone partnered with another Guardian.” I paused, thinking of the meeting that had occurred so very long ago. Taking a deep breath, I continued. “And there is a possibility that Kieren requested a reassignment with this understanding.”

    Cana frowned. “That is done?”

    “No.” I let the word drop but then brought the conversation back around. “My point is, that there are no for-sure scenarios with this partner, pair thing, but there is also no harm in trying with Diana. If she is truly able to connect with Tirius on some other kind of level, then we would be amiss to not at least attempt to do so.” I paused, looking at Colm, then Cana. “If in fact his presence is needed to the extent that you suggest it is.”

    I caught the tension between the two because I was looking for it. Taking up my tea again, I waited as they communicated through their shared gaze.

    Cana turned from the fire and joined us on the couch, settling back into the cushions, the movement emphasizing the strangeness of her body. I was looking to Cana for an answer, but Colm was the one that spoke up, sitting forward so he could take in me and Cana in the same glance.

    “We have a disagreement about this,” Colm said. “As you’ve likely noticed, Cana believes that Tirius’s presence is necessary. I know that we can move along with our plan without him if we have to.”

    “Not ideal,” I said, picking up on that, to which Colm nodded.

    “Not ideal,” he agreed. “But, much of our current situation is not ideal. It must be done, however. If we are to save ourselves, and to free ourselves and others from this tyranny, we must move forward.”

     I studied Colm, the determined nature of his Sideian features reminding me of Kieren. “How, exactly, are you planning to do this near-impossible task? You will have to locate the Masters because they aren’t all together in one place, they are scattered about the timelines, then you will need to get close to them. Every Master has a Guardian pair that protects them and has protected them for longer than I’ve been involved.” I looked between the two, letting the silence stretch out as I watched their faces. They glanced at each other, once again communicating without words.

    When the silence stretched further, I got up with my empty dishes and took them back to the table. There was nowhere to put the dirty items, so I left them at the end of the table, tucked behind a large cannister of something. I paused there, looking out the window into the darkness, a moon rising in the East. The room I stood in had very little light, the fire giving off the only illumination, and perhaps that is why I saw them.

    The dark shadows numbered in the dozen, gliding in the grassy space between buildings. The movements were terribly familiar, the formation something that I knew intimately.

    I turned from the scene, looking at Colm and Cana on the couch, remembering Diana in the other room, and time paused in the way it does. Individuals that feel that time is always moving, have never known that pause in reality when time is static, when decisions that will way the entirety of a reality come to a point, and then, the sudden movement forward, as if time catches up, a hiccup of reality that is met by the terrifying present.

    “You are under attack,” I said, already moving towards the door that would lead to the hallway that would take me back to the woman lying asleep in the bed.

    I felt more than saw Colm come to his feet.

    Gaining the threshold, pausing, I looked back at Colm standing, knife in hand, Cana rising gracefully from the couch. “Guardians, a dozen at least, and that’s only the ones I can see. You should alert anyone that means anything.” I caught Colm’s eyes. “I’ll get Diana.”

    “The ship,” Cana said from where she stood. Her form was pulsating, and I wondered if she was changing. She looked at Colm. “Get them to the ship.”

    Colm shook his head. “That’s not my duty.”

    Cana pinned him with a look that spoke volumes of their relationship. “Your duty is to do as I say. Get the Guardian and Diana to the ship.”

    There was an explosion, though there wasn’t a sound, just a rumbling through our feet and a creaking as if the stone around us shifted under extreme pressure.

    “We have to go,” I said, and turned and left, not sure if Colm was following and not sure if I wanted him to follow.

    The hallways were clear as I sprinted down them. Gaining the room, I immediately saw Diana still slept, and I was thankful to see that the Diax was nowhere around. Going to her side, I shook her, feeling another explosion in my bones and again the weird creaking sound vibrating around us.

    She remained inert.

    I looked around, feeling the tension outside my forced calm. I only had moments before the Guardians moved through the building, finding me, and finding her. Depending on how good their intel, they could be delayed by not knowing where Cana was, or they could be heading directly to the correct location.

    “I have her,” Colm said from behind me.

    His voice startled me out of my control, just a bit, but enough that I stumbled as I moved aside, letting him detach the various wires then pick her up with the sheet wrapped around her. A look at his stony face told me the story of what had happened with Cana and I followed without a word.

    We headed down an unfamiliar hallway, our feet loud against the black polished stone. The walls amplified the sound and I wished for the heavy gray carpet from the other room.

    There were shouts in front of us, and then gunfire, or what sounded like gunfire.

    Colm slowed, listening. I elongated my staff, keeping it close to my body.

    He turned down another hallway, taking a sudden stairwell quickly, though slower than he might have otherwise, Diana held close to his body. She still slept and I wonder if the Diax had given her something.

    “There,” a voice said in Rushelian. I looked over the side of the stairwell at two pairs waiting for us at the bottom.

    Pivoting, Colm started back up. I turned with him, now leading, but our way forward was met by another pair; both shorter than me, in their black uniforms, holding guns. The guns were highly unusual and worrying on a level that I was going to have to examine later.

    Colm had come to a standstill behind me and I turned to face his large body. Even standing two steps above him I still only came to his nose and I doubted my abilities, but I shoved the doubts away, focusing on the two of them before me and not the rushing Guardians behind and in front of us.

    “We can’t win this,” I said. “Not against three pairs.”

    Colm’s hazel eyes flashed and his arms tightened about Diana enough to cause a moan from her still unconscious form.

    I locked gazes with him. “I don’t know if this will work, and I’m sorry.”

    Before he could reply, I took the last step towards him and then wrapped my arms around Colm and Diana. My arms were too short to circle them entirely, but I was in full contact and theoretically that was all I needed.

    They knew what I was attempting to do, those Guardians, and I heard the shot just as we slipped away from time.

    I Traveled.

    It tore me in half.

    Then in half again.

    I think I screamed in pain, my entire being wrapped up with Colm and Diana, and then no longer wrapped but scattered, then returned but in a way that felt entirely wrong. It was too much, but not enough. Pieces of me fell away and I wondered distantly and hazily what those pieces might have been, rocking into reality with a force that knocked the air from my lungs.

    The frigid winter wind cut through my clothing and battered at my kneeling body as I tried to regain enough normalcy to look around, to check on the other two, to make sure that they had Arrived with me or if they’d been left out there, particles in a space-time continuum with no way of regaining solid being. 

    Blinking against the gray light, dim but bright with my newly Arrived eyes, I spied them lying in a pile next to my kneeling form. Colm was wrapped around Diana as if he was trying to protect her. His rigid form caused my heart to spike in fear until I saw his back rise and fall with a breath. I dragged myself over to him, touching his back, the solid muscles underneath it, and then pushed him away to check on Diana under his body. He remained curled about her for a moment, then relented, falling to his backside to stare blinking into the heavy gray sky. Diana was still wrapped in a sheet, her face pale but no paler than it had been, and she too was breathing slowly and steadily. She’d not woken, and I knew for sure that the Diax must have given her something to keep her unconscious.

    “What was that?” Colm asked from behind me, his voice low and gravelly.

    I turned to look at him. My world had started to right itself and the nausea was receding. “Have you never Traveled before?” I asked, knowing that we needed to get out of the cold wind and somewhere before the threat of rain became reality.

    Colm groaned in response.

    “Come on,” I said. “I’ve somewhere to go.”

    I got to my feet, offering to help Colm but he ignored the hand, gathering himself to stand and then in turn scooping Diana up into his arms.

    “It’s freezing. Hope you know where you’re going or this is going to be a short walk,” Colm said. His face was still pale, and I was reminded of Kieren’s pale face the night he returned to the dune house. The ache was a piercing in my chest. I missed my partner in a way that I was unable to fully describe.

    “I know where I am,” I answered, pushing the pain away as best I could, and then leading this other Sideian to the cliffside and the winding path that led down to the black-pebbled beach. I suppose somewhere in my psyche, I was again wishing that Tirius would be at the cabin, but there was no one there, not even my past self, though that was sheer luck.

    The cabin was empty, cold, and damp, but open and for the moment, safe.

    Colm lay Diana down on the couch and straightened to look around.

    “There are blankets in the bedroom,” I said, pointing to the dim hallway as I went to the pile of wood next to the fireplace and started on the fire. The pile had grown, and I wondered who had visited to resupply.

    Colm disappeared, reappearing in moments with the entirety of the bedding and then wrapping up Diana. He did it with care, easing her that way and this way until she was cocooned within the blankets and likely a great deal warmer than either of us. The fire was a simple thing. The starting items were still close by from my last visit and soon a crackling yellow and orange flame combatted the chill.

    Colm sat ungracefully down onto the oval rag rug in front of the fire, moving as close to the flame as he could. His shoulders were hunched, his head lowered, and he looked beaten in the glow of the fire.

    Turning away from the warmth, I walked the short distance to the kitchen. This time I knew how to make tea and the tea from the cupboard was soon added to the pot that I made sure to warm before adding the boiling water. I worked in silence, glancing at Colm and Diana every few moments to ensure they were there, but neither moved, both still in their relative worlds. Properly brewed, I brought the two mugs of tea over to where Colm was and slid down next to him. He took the mug without question, sipping at the hot liquid and grimacing. I took a sip of my own tea, a flash of the prior attempt in the cabin, but it tasted right, and I put off his grimace to something else.

    “Are you hurt at all?” I said.

    Colm looked away from the fire for the first time since he’d sat down, and then pulled up his shirt with a hand, the bloody fabric coming away from the wound in his side.

    I swore, glaring. “You could have let me know immediately.” Shaking my head, I went to the bathroom and pulled the first aid kit I’d seen there before. There wasn’t much in the kit, but there was antiseptic, bandages, and what appeared to be plastic stitches. I took it to Colm who had stripped his shirt away. His skin was still a warm brown color, but I could see the tension in his shoulders at the pain. I sat down, pulling things from the kit.

    “This will hurt,” I said, not offering an apology as I applied the antiseptic. Colm’s only reaction was a hiss of breath. I continued to clean it, but the man had come off lucky and I said as much. “They were using laser weapons. If this had been a bullet the damage would have been much more significant.”

    “Probably didn’t want to use bullets in the crystal buildings,” he muttered as I continued to clean the wound, adding the stitches in a neat row. The wound was only about a half an inch deep, a slice across his torso, and would scar but now cleaned and closed, would not get infected. I added the bandages, tearing the tape with my teeth and applying it to the edges of the white cotton.

    I sat back, looking at my handiwork. I had managed to avoid getting blood on my hands but went to the kitchen sink and washed them anyway. Colm put his shirt back on, leaning against the couch and closing his eyes. I looked at the two, Diana who was still oblivious to everything, and Colm who was not of this life and wondered what I was going to do now. Traveling with the two of them had felt wrong, and, if I could avoid it, something I did not want to do again. But, this cottage next to the sea was a known point and it was only a matter of time before we were found.

    I needed help, and I knew where to find it, but I had a suspicion Colm was not going to like the plan.

    At all.

  • Chapter 11

    I wasn’t sure what to expect from the description “space travel,” but actual space travel was what it was, a shuttle waiting for us after a long meandering walk through what appeared to be a stone castle. The shuttle was small, with only enough room for the three of us, and I figured it was just to get us off planet and not the actual vehicle we would be traveling in. Cana piloted, waiting until I was buckled into the full-body strapping system before taking off. As I suspected, when we came out of the atmosphere and around the side of the blue and green planet the real vessel appeared, though it was hard to see it, my eyes seeming to slide off of the image every time I tried to focus. The effect lessoned as we got closer and I saw the ship wasn’t giant, by no means, but it was significant, and when we docked, the small shuttle we were on was dwarfed by the side of the ship.

    The cargo bay we docked in was cavernous, other shuttles tucked away among the industrial piping, grated floors, and dimmer lighting. We were greeted by several other individuals ranging from two fully formed Diaxes, a male human, a female Sideian, and a Rath. The Rath was very tall, towering over us in a willowy way that reminded me of the Master in the woods and I wondered if they were of the same timeline. All of them stared at me and I remained very still under their scrutiny, hands itching for weapons.

    Cana turned towards me. “Colm will take you to your quarters. I request that you please stay there until we are fully launched.”

    “And then?” I asked, knowing that I had no other option but to go along.

    “Then we’ll discuss your partner,” she said. “And what’s to come.”

    I studied her face, the unknown nature of it, the way her skin didn’t quite fit, and wondered who, or what she was, and what that meant for my safety and future.

    She turned without another word, the welcoming committee trailing behind her as she left the bay.

    “This way,” Colm said, bringing my awareness back to his largeness hovering behind my shoulder. It was threatening, and he knew it. I refused to concede, remaining stubbornly in one spot despite his overly large presence.

    He passed me and started off in the opposite direction of where Cana had walked.

    I decided not to ask about the quarters or the situation, knowing he expected me to; instead, I followed him out of the area and into a hallway without a comment of any kind. The hallway was tunnel-like, carpeted, with lights running along the top and along the bottom, giving off plenty of light, but in a calm sort of way, as if the gentleness of the light would take away from the idea that we were now in the vacuum of space. I preferred planet missions. Kieren and I were occasionally assigned space missions, but rarely, and usually not anything that required extensive space travel.

    Turning a corner, Colm led me down another hallway, this one lined with blue oval doorways. Colm stopped in front of one of those doorways, putting a hand to the screen just to the side of the door and keying in a code that I was not quick enough to see. The door opened silently, lights brightening as he walked over the threshold into the room. I hesitated, only for a moment, but there was nowhere to go on the ship, and making the large Sideian angry hardly seemed like a good idea.

    I crossed over into the room, looking around. It was a small space, but only somewhat smaller than my rooms at the Citadel, with a bed, chair, and desk, and through another doorway, a bathroom. Colm also examined the room, making sure that nothing was available for me to tamper with, and satisfied, left without saying anything.

    The door closed behind him and even before I walked to it, I knew he’d locked me in.

    Alone, I let the frustration and irritation well up. Here I was again, separated from Kieren, in an unknown situation at someone else’s bidding. I sat at the end of the bed and glared at my surroundings. There wasn’t much to see, but I did notice that there was a tablet-like device on the desk. I hoped for some kind of access, something to clue me in on timeline and location, but Colm had clearly not missed its presence, which meant that even though I turned it on with the small silver power button along the edge, the black screen remained stubbornly black. Studying the side, I saw where the power cord attached, but the desk drawers gave up nothing, and neither did under the desk and under the bed.

    I returned the tablet to its spot on the desk and went to the bathroom. It was tiny. A toilet looking contraption and a small shower that would only fit one person. There was a mirror and I briefly thought about breaking it to use the shards of glass as weapons, but upon closer inspection saw that the mirror was not made of glass but constructed of highly polished metal-like material.

    Returning to the room, I sat on the bed once more and tried not to let the antsy irritation take control of my mind and body. I hadn’t sat in silence for some time, so with nothing else to do, I did just that, sitting cross-legged and closing my eyes, letting myself fall into the rhythm of my breath, downwards towards my sit bones, towards that dark cavernous place of quiet at the root of myself.

    It took a while, but eventually my mind calmed, the flow of breath becoming my entire focus and I sat until the door sounded, admitting a visitor.

    The visitor was a human male. He was younger than me, probably in his mid to late 20s with wheat-blond hair cut close to his head, brown eyes bordering on amber, and a tan that looked like it had seen better days. Wiry with youth, he tried to emulate ease as he stood at the doorway, but the tension about his shoulders gave him away.

    “Mistress Cana would like to see you,” he said, his voice low and surprisingly pleasant with a slight accent that indicated a human timeline versus the Master Realm.

    I got up, stretching arms above my head as I studied the boy. The scrutiny unnerved him, though he tried to hide it behind a friendly smile. He stepped back into the hallway to allow me space to exit. Smoothing my clothes down with both palms, I felt the difference in my breath, in the calmness at my center. The stillness had worked as it usually did, and I felt calmer somewhere around my solar plexus.

    I followed the male down the hallway to a lift that immediately opened at our arrival. The lift was empty, and we entered side by side. 

    “How many people are on board?” I asked as the lift moved, indicated by the numbers above the door rather than the actual feeling of movement.

    He shook his head. “All questions are to be directed to Mistress Cana or Sir Colm,” he said in such a way that I could tell that the line had been practiced.

    I shrugged, letting him have his line.

    The door to the lift opened. We were in another hallway though this one was wider. The male led me down the hallway to a large dining area filled with long tables and chairs, all of them empty. The sound of cooking could be heard beyond the serving counter.

    “What time is it?” I asked.

    The human shook his head and I audibly sighed in response. 

    He brought me across the dining room to a door set back from the rest of the space. The door opened upon our arrival. The male remained outside the door, indicating with an extended hand that I should enter. I gave him a flash of a smile, amused by the way his eyes slid away, and then walked into the room. Cana sat at one end of a rather large table, food and a tea set set out in front of her. The food was mostly cleared from her plate, only a few greens left, bright against the white. 

    “Please, take a seat, are you hungry?” she said as I moved further into the room.

     I was, but I shook my head, taking a seat that was outside of her reach zone.

    “No bodyguard this time?” I asked, looking around the room for Colm.

    Cana did that strange smile that wasn’t a smile thing as she gazed at me from where she sat. “He doesn’t go everywhere with me,” she replied.

    I nodded and let it be. “Are you going to tell me where we’re going now?” I asked instead.

    “In time, yes, but right now I wish to speak to you about your Guardian partner.”

    I sat back, trying to cover my tense reaction to the sentence. 

    She also leaned back in her chair, emulating my movements, and I knew that I’d not fooled her. “What can you tell me about Kieren’s past?” she asked.

    “Before evolving?”

    A slight shrug of acquiescence. 

    “He’s Sideian. From a rather powerful family, I understand, though we have never talked a lot about our time before moving over to the Master Realm.”

    “The Master Realm, that is such an interesting name, isn’t it?”

    I frowned. 

    She replied. “It is the idea that the Realm exists at a higher plane than others.”

    “Doesn’t it?” I asked slowly.

    “I suppose in a way if comparing the experimental timelines. But not all timelines are experimental Master constructs.”

    Shaking my head, I tried to make sense of her words.

    Seeing my confusion, she explained. “I am of a space that does not exist according to the Master Realm, but which clearly exists because I am of it.”

    “You are, different,” I said.

    Another one of the non-smiles. “Yes. This body,” she started, waving a hand down the length of her, “is not my own. But just because I am of a people that are not named, does that take away from my existence?”

    I shook my head. “No, of course not.”

    “And just because these experiments are experiments, does this take away from the humanity of a human, or the personhood of a Diax?” she stopped, took a breath that was not altogether connected to her body. “But this is a tangent. Your partner. How long have you been partners?”

    The quick subject changed caught me and I paused for a moment, thinking through the two different subjects before answering. “We’ve been partners for six cycles.”

    “And the nature of a Guardian partner is to be close?”


    “And a Guardian relationship is entirely platonic?”

    I hesitated, thinking of Tirius’s words, but then nodded. “More or less. There are cases in which the partners are involved beyond their duties as Guardian, but the guidelines set out is that of a working partnership.”

    “Who fight together.”

    “We are trained to do so, yes.” I stopped, thinking it over and then shrugged. “The way the partnership works is to train together, doing everything together, so that while in a fight there is a level of communication that exists without words, and also a trust as we know on an instinctive level the actions of the other.”

    Cana stared at me for a moment, not blinking, which was strange of itself, but then she stood in that detached way, surprising me.

    “Follow me, if you would.”

    I did as she asked, pushing away from the table and following her as she led me through the ship. At some point, we must have departed the station because there was a hum under the floor that I had not noticed before. 

    “We are traveling?” I asked as we stepped into another lift.

    “Yes. We shall arrive in two days, ship time.”

    I wanted to ask where we were going again but figured that I would not receive a straight answer, so I remained silent, standing straight next to her taller, thinner form.

    The lift opened and we walked out into a massive space sectioned off into individual areas. Though the location and the scene before me were strange, the sound of grunting, yelling, and curses were very familiar. Cana led me to one of the sectioned areas. About the size of the large dining room we’d just left, the walls were padded with blue foam, two lengths taller than my height, the wooden floor polished to a shine. In the middle of the area, Colm stood at easy attention. At some point, he’d changed his clothing and he wore a pair of loose brown trousers and a lighter brown tunic that was snug around his broad shoulders. His long hair was pulled back into the familiar caul at the base of his skull and in his hand, he held my staff or one that looked very much like it.

    I turned to Cana for an explanation.

    Colm answered for her. “Here,” he said, throwing the staff in my direction. I automatically caught it, the familiarity of the device like a piece of my body. 

    Without another word, he took two long shark curved blades from behind his back and attacked. I had little time to think, activating the staff with a jerk of my wrist, extending it to the fullest length, blades shining. Colm came at me straight on, perhaps believing that his longer reach and sheer mass would be enough to make contact. A clumsy attack, my body registered as my mind flowed behind it, crouching low, then rolling along the floor to come behind him. He was already turning, one blade slashing at my head, the other at my middle. I parried with my staff, the contact jarring all the way up my arm. I locked my jaw against the impact, using my legs like an anchor and a strength, twisting from the two blades on either side of my staff, and lashing out with my foot at Colm’s knee. With his hands full, he was unable to grab at my foot, trying to step back but my foot landed at his knee, causing him to grunt in pain and lose footing even as the kick impact ricocheted up my own leg. It felt like I’d kicked a wall, but using his off-balance as an advantage, I angled my staff up and sideways, catching his left wrist with enough force that his hand involuntarily opened and dropped the blade.

    I kicked the blade away while crouching low to avoid his left jab at my head. I was fast enough to avoid the jab, not fast enough to avoid the right-handed blade that he angled low towards my body in a swifter than sight hook. I caught the blade barely with my staff but not before it sliced through the side of my shirt, the cut so severe that the lower part of my tank fell away, exposing the skin of my stomach and side. I switched the staff to my left side, angling upwards, hitting him sideways low to the groin. Colm deflected it with his free left hand, grabbing at my staff. I let him, briefly, then slid backward, my staff coming with me, the blade just barely nicking his palm before he let go.

    His right blade came down at me from above my head, exposing his entire right side. I went for the jab, my staff a whirl of movement. Instead of contacting flesh, Colm grabbed the staff once again but before I could pull the blade backward in the move from before, he used his superior strength to pull me towards him. I adjusted, bringing my knee up to his genitals with considerable force. Pain flashed across his face, but his physical reaction was minimal, pulling me around and against his body, the blade coming up to my neck.

    “Concede,” he said, voice low against my ear, chest heaving against my back.

    Instinct prevailing, I stomped down hard on his foot. The blade at my throat sliced the skin, pain igniting in fire, but it distracted Colm just enough that the pressure of the knife eased up on my throat, allowing me to elbow him in his stomach. His hold loosened. Moving within the chamber of his arms, I grabbed at his wrist, pinching the nerve there causing him to grunt in pain, twirling it so I was behind him, his arm at an angle, staff in my hand.

    I could have ended the fight, ended his life, thrusting my staff into the soft tissue of his lower back. Instead, I pushed him away with a foot, staggering a few steps from where he stood. Blood dripped steadily from the slice across my throat, dribbling into what remained of my shirt. 

    Colm turned, quickly, knife still in his right hand. Sweat glistened along his face, down his throat and he breathed deeply, hazel eyes flashing with the heat of the fight.

    Tensing for the next attack, I watched the large Sideian.

    “That’s enough,” Cana said from where she still stood at the entrance of the fighting area. While we fought, others had arrived, all now looking at me with a combination of curiosity, surprise, and a little bit of fear.

    As my adrenaline slowly came down, darkness threatened at the edges of my sight. I blinked severely, taking calm, long inhales and exhales. 

     “You let yourself be wounded,” Colm said. In his voice was emotion, though I wasn’t sure if it was censure, admiration, or judgment. His eyes were still piercing in their intensity.

    “Sometimes that’s how to win,” I replied, echoing my Guardian training.

    Cana walked further into the area, studying me. “That’s how you are trained? This is the Guardian’s training?”

    I ran my tongue over my teeth. The taste was metallic as if I had bitten my tongue to the point of bleeding. “We do what we must to win.”

    Cana tilted her head. “That explains a lot.”

    As my breath regained normalcy, the shakes started. To hide them, I tightened my hold on my staff, knuckles going white at the pressure. “That was to prove something, wasn’t it?”

    “Not to prove, no, but to see.” Cana paused then, looking to Colm, who shrugged. He’d taken off his shirt to wipe the sweat from his face and I was not surprised to see large black bands tattooed in strips along his chest and shoulders. They were Sideian tattoos, designating rank and favor, and though I was entirely unfamiliar with the meaning, I knew enough to recognize that at home, Colm was a very important individual.

    “We have never been able to speak with a Guardian, let alone witness their fighting style,” Cana continued.

    I grimaced. “You mean, I’ve been the only one stupid enough to get kidnapped.”

    Cana smiled in return, that strange, not quite right expression. “We had help.”

    I rolled my eyes, inhaling. “Tirius,” I said on the exhale.

    “Just so.”

    I retracted my staff, bringing the remnants of my shirt up to wipe at the sweat still rolling down the side of my face.

    “I’ll take that back,” Colm said from where he stood.

    Hands tightening further, I stared at him. He remained immune to my glare, but Cana waved a hand. “Let her have it.”

    “She’ll kill you with it,” Colm said bluntly.

    “Then she will,” Cana replied. “Come, let’s clean that wound up and find you clothes. We have much to discuss.”

    Truthfully, I wanted to sleep, or better yet, to eat first and then sleep. The shakes from the fight were dissipating, but my body was low on energy, especially as my system was working on healing the slice across my throat. But instead of giving into the weakness, I followed Cana with what I hoped was a steady step.

    Colm remained behind for which I was grateful, especially when we reached the medical bay and the medical personnel, another human, a female with ebony skin and startling blue eyes started to poke and prod in fascination at the wound that was slowly healing.

    “Are they antibodies then?” she asked with the same accent as the boy who came to my quarters earlier. Sitting on the top of an examination couch, I let her scan me with a handheld, watching Cana at the corner of the room. The medical bay appeared as advanced as any I’d ever seen, and the woman before me clearly knew what she was doing as she typed in data and then continued to monitor the process of healing.

    She looked up at me, eyes bright. “May I examine you physically?”

    Raised eyebrows, I blinked several times. “Excuse me?”

    The doctor put her hands underneath a machine, the blue light sweeping across the skin, disinfecting it. She held her hands up, long fingers with blunt pink nails, nodding towards my throat. “Just your lymph nodes, I want to see if there is any reaction there.”

    I nodded towards the handheld she was using before. “Won’t that say?”

    Her smile was bright. “Well, yes, but sometimes the old-fashioned way is the best.”

    Staff still in my hand, I shrugged, lifting my chin. Her touch was gentle as she prodded at either side of my neck. “Your shirt please,” she said.

    I looked down at the remains of my tank. Sighing, I pulled it over my head though I kept my staff in one hand the entire time. Sitting in trousers and a breast binding, she gently pulled one arm up so she could feel around my armpit and then the other. Paranoia washed over me, which was a strange feeling, one that I hadn’t had in a while, but I knew I smelled. The physical exertion, the sweat, the blood, all combining to create a putrid aroma that I was having a hard time not wrinkling my nose at; though the doctor didn’t seem to register the smell as she lowered my right arm and patted my hand.

    “Thank you,” she said, then took up the handheld and started entering information.

    “We knew that Guardians had an enhanced immune system, but not to this extent,” the doctor said, not looking up from her handheld. “Really, this healing process is amazing.” She looked up, gazing at me. “Can you also go without food and water?”

    I frowned, my stomach growling at her in response.

    Another flash of a brilliant smile. “Is that a no?”

    “I think we can go longer than others,” I replied truthfully. “But we do need to eat and drink.”

    She nodded.

    Cana stepped in. “Are you done, Amia?”

    The doctor shrugged. “Not really. But I can do the rest of the examination later.”

    “Great,” I muttered, then pulled my tattered shirt back over my head. Though it barely covered my stomach and side, at least it was something. I was not modest, in the way humans tended to be and the way I used to be, but was still aware of my exposed skin, and the chill that seemed to permeate the air.

    Cana took me back to my room. “There is clothing for you. Change and then I would like for you to go get a meal. You likely need it. Can you find your way back to the mess hall?”

    I nodded, though I wasn’t entirely sure. Cana took my nonverbal as consent and left without another word.

    Left alone once more, I opted for a shower, allowing my body to release as the hot water steamed up in waving clouds of moisture. Truthfully, the fight had been exhilarating and as my mind lingered on it, analyzing it, I saw some of Kieren’s fighting style in the larger Sideian. Not the same, really, but small pieces that showed a shared heritage. It made me wonder how much of our previous lives we brought over to the Master Realm. Did we maintain who we were, deeply, in the ingrained pieces of our flesh?

    Stepping out of the shower, I wiped a hand over the mirror and stared at my face. It was the face I had known as long as I could remember, with the pointed chin, small nose with freckles, bluish-gray eyes that slanted upwards. My hair was the same dull mouse brown it had always been, long now, around my shoulder blades. I stepped back to better view my naked body, the slight shoulders with the wider hips, strong and lean arms, thick thighs.

    I was me, but still, I felt a disassociation, as if, like Cana, I fit uncomfortably in the body I had.

    Entering the bedroom, I found clothing left for me, which included human underthings, a loose tunic and a pair of loose trousers that were too long, both in a dirty brown color. I rolled the trouser legs up, thinking a bit longingly of my wardrobe at the Citadel. I would have chosen black. That was most definitely the mood I was in. 

    They’d also provided a pair of slip-on sandals. I eyed those for a moment, wishing for my boots and my Guardian attire. The clothing I wore felt comfortable but still felt wrong, as if another piece of me had been stripped away and replaced with something foreign.

    I resisted the urge to sit back down on the bed and left my quarters, staff in hand, wandering in the general direction of the mess hall and finding it without anyone’s help. It was not empty this time, individuals eating and getting food as I paused at the threshold. I half expected everyone to go silent and stare at me, but though there were the few whispers, there were also a few friendly, smiling faces. Colm appeared at my elbow as I hesitated at the doorway and I barely contained my startlement, going still rather than flinching away.

    “Let’s get you food,” he said, taking off towards the service line with a long stride. I watched his retreating backside for a moment, then followed reluctantly. I expected the food to be strange, alien, but it consisted of familiar looking vegetables and thick slices of bread with a red sauce poured over them. Smells tickled at my nose of spices I couldn’t quite place, but my stomach wasn’t picky and, once seated, I dug into the pile of food without a second thought.

    It was warm. It was filling. It was bland. 

    I ate all of it.

    Colm ate silently in front of me. Though he appeared to eat in a slow but steady way, his plate of food was gone considerably faster than mine and he got up without a word to refill it. Another Sideian took his place, this one female with dark brown eyes under a heavy fringe of dark brown hair, curling tattoos at her temples and along the side of her face. She regarded me silently, her expression neutral.

    I stopped eating to stare back, irritated. 

    “Yes?” I pressed after a moment.

    “You’re the Guardian?” she asked. Her tone held a tone of anger, cold and bright.

    I didn’t answer, watching the woman, noting the tension in her shoulders, the grip of her jaw. Smoothly, I dropped my hand to the staff in my lap.

    Colm returned, pausing to stare down at the woman. “Dani, not the time.”

    Dani looked up at Colm and I watched fascinated as her expression went from irritation to anger, to lust, back to irritation in a matter of moments.

    “Beet is dead,” she replied.

    “Not because of her,” Colm said.

    “A Guardian killed her.”

    Colm maintained eye contact with the woman. “But not because of her,” he repeated.

    Dani got up, slowly and gracefully, glancing at me with a look of hatred that was very easy to interpret. Then, giving Colm another complex look, walked away.

    Colm watched her and I watched Colm, noticing that his eyes lingered on the woman.

    “Beet?” I asked when he sat down.

    “Her partner. She was killed in a raid,” he answered, already moving into the second heaping pile of food in front of him.

    “Guardians killed her?”

    “It was a mission. She didn’t return.”

    I watched the man in front of me, scanning his relaxed body language. “What kind of mission?” I asked after a moment, thinking of Darkside.

    Colm paused his eating, fork halfway to his mouth. He lowered it, pinning me with a look. “The kind that can get you killed.”

    “By Guardians.”


    I leaned back, regarding him. The room had slowly started to empty, and we were of only five left eating. I was done, but even as I watched, Colm resumed, finishing off his plate.

    “What was the mission?” I repeated, changing the wording.

    Colm licked his teeth, smacking his lips. “You’ll see. Come on.”

    He got up, grabbing his plate then mine and depositing them in the area for dishes. Again, I hesitated because he had not answered, and I wondered if he was there that night on Darkside. Also, I had no desire to do anything he said. But. Answers required following him, so after another moment of sheer stubbornness, I did, getting up from my spot and walking towards where he waited at the exit.

    In reality, I didn’t mind following him, though I would’ve never admitted it. All things considering, I was in a good mood, which caused a little bit of guilt. I was full, clean, and mostly comfortable except for the lingering tiredness. Sure, I was in the middle of space, without knowledge of when or where I was, but the threat level was relatively low and though I didn’t much like Colm, I was starting to inch my way towards respect.

    The fight had done that; though I could barely concede the fact, even to myself.

    And then there was the very real possibility that I could start getting answers, or at least information that would help me to figure out the puzzle that was now my life.

    Our destination was Cana’s office, or what I thought was probably Cana’s office as she sat behind a desk inlaid with technology. On my left was an entire wall of shelves with various scrolls and books and other contraptions I was unable to identify. On my right were several paintings made of abstract colors that took on different shapes the longer I stared at them.

    She rose at our entrance. “Please, come in, sit,” Cana said, indicating with a long arm the chairs that sat on the other side of her desk. I took a seat. Colm did not, excusing himself and then closing the door behind him. I instantly felt the tension ease from my shoulders. Cana saw it and I felt like her off smile held a level of understanding.

    “Are you feeling better?” she asked, sitting back in her chair.

    I nodded. “Thanks. Though I would’ve appreciated some heads up before being thrown into a fight.”

    Cana held out a hand, fingers limp, skin hanging as if not entirely attached to the bones underneath. “I do apologize. We needed to see how you would respond to the situation.”

    “And study my fighting methods,” I said.


    Thinking about the woman in the mess hall, I looked around me. “You’ve run into Guardians before.”

    She nodded. 

    “And it hasn’t ended well,” I finished for her.

    “It has not.”

    Refocusing on the woman in front of me, I studied her face. “Watching me fight will not give you an insight into the way other Guardians fight; especially if it is a Guardian pair. There are basics to all of our fighting styles of course, but most of the time the fighting methods are very different from partnered Guardian to partnered Guardian.”

    “I understand. But any insight is helpful,” she said.

    I paused, studying her. “How many?”

    She knew what I meant. “Too many,” she replied, and I let the conversation stall out, silence filling up space between us. What was there to say, really. I wanted answers but I also wanted to keep potentially valuable information to myself.

    I looked beyond Cana to the heavy-set window behind her. There was nothing but blackness there as if we were sitting still amid the darkest night, but I knew we moved even though I couldn’t feel the movement. It was the hum of the ship, far off and distant, but down deep and ever-present. “Where are we going?” I asked the question again, hoping that she would answer now that we were traveling.

    “To a location of space and time that is untouched by Masters and their games,” she answered.

    At my puzzled look, she continued. “What I am going to tell you, is hard sometimes for species within the canopy of the Master Realm to understand. There are many of you. The human timeline. The Sideian timeline. Diax. Rushi. Brialian. That’s just a few and doesn’t encompass all the timelines that have come before and were not deemed a success, therefore fading into nothing. All these species, you as a human, Colm as a Sideian, believe that there is a master Creator. Even those of you within the species who believe in no creator, rather in a final death scenario, believe under the same kind of sky, the same kind of inherent, belief system. Many ways of expressing it, of course, but there it is. Then, when the few move on to the Master Realm, as you call it, and see that everything is a game, or as you say, an experiment, then it reinforces the idea that this Master Realm is somehow higher than these other timelines. The Masters control, therefore, they are the head of the hierarchy. And you believe this, along with everyone else within those timelines. Sure, in this way of looking at things, there is a Creator that’s above everyone, but it is an absent creator. The Masters, they exist, you’ve spoken to them, perhaps you’ve even shaken their hands. They are real. But they are not the center, or the head of the family, or the top of the hierarchal chain of evolution. They, just like humans or Sideians, or Diaxes, are but a piece of something quite a bit larger. They fight against this reality because they refuse to give in to the implications of such a reality. They fight against us, who live in this bigger picture because they refuse to give up their power, their position, even though the position is entirely imaginary.”

    She tilted her head, skin hanging off her cheekbones. “This is the space that I am taking you. It is untouched by Travel because it exists outside of this Master construct.”

    I looked down at my hands, trying to make sense of what she told me. It was akin to being told there was no such thing as gravity; it defied logic. Stepping back, taking a bird’s view, I could see the possibility of her words. Her explanation made sense, but at the same time a basic, instinctual piece of me refused to believe her. 

    She waited for me to process and I finally looked up. “But this place, it exists within the same space and time? How is this possible?”

    “In a way, yes. It is not separate in the physical sense, not really, it is just outside of the Master deemed reality. When you have a reality, it is defined by the parameters that you place on it, or that others have placed on it, but just because those parameters exist, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything beyond those parameters.”

    I studied her words, looking for fallacy. “But if you are outside of this reality, then why are you inviting notice by kidnapping me, or interacting with anyone or anything within the realm? It seems to me that you, and those who exist outside of these parameters, would be much safer not calling notice upon yourselves.”

    The mood shifted to something darker and I felt her gaze like a heavyweight even as she answered. “Because we were not left alone. There are those of us who were born and have lived outside of the Master’s canopy of existence, and then there are those who are part of that existence and have found their way to us, some intentionally, looking for answers or explanations, and some by accident. We could have existed in this way, forever outside the Master’s notice. But, the Masters, they like power, and they like control. It’s why these timeline experiments exist to begin with. Naturally, then, when they figured out that something was going on beyond their reach, they reached a little farther.”

    “To take control.”

    “To take control. And so, we used to stand by and provide sanctuary to those who found their way to our borders, and we thought we are not part of this, that is them. But then, it became part of us, somehow. The Masters discovered our existence, and when Tirius came to us, explaining what was going on from the viewpoint of the Masters, and with his understanding of the way the experiments worked, we agreed that we would help Tirius if he would help to protect us from the Masters.”

    I leaned forward. “So, you know for a fact that the timelines are being manipulated.”

    She hesitated. “Yes. Tirius has the information and there is clearly something taking place within the timelines that suggests a bigger manipulation, something perhaps even between Masters. These actions have resulted in the deaths of living beings. The combination of these events and the Masters’ attempt to find and annihilate us has increased significantly. We have plans to stop them and we’ve started to take steps to make this a reality.”

    “But Tirius has disappeared and he is instrumental in this?”

    She inclined her head. “He disappeared; and we need you, who he was grooming to be the next Archivist, to help us find him.”

    I stared at her. The information was not entirely surprising to me. A very small part of me had wondered if that was what he had been doing by bringing me in as his apprentice. But then I’d left, and then I’d found out that I was not the one that was supposed to move over to begin with; rather, I was supposed to be wandering Earth trying to figure out how I fit in with the masses; the odd bird out, the strange one, the one with no answers. 

    I rubbed my forehead; really nothing had changed.

    Always wondering.

    “How am I supposed to help?” I asked after a moment. “If he has disappeared from the timeline, I’m not entirely sure what I can do. I have no magical way of locating people. There are billions of time points. He could be anywhere.”

    Cana stood up, a fluid rising of her body that appeared wave-like under her flowing clothing. I watched her walk over to the shelves and pull out a heavy text. It was thicker than my arms stacked together and when she handed it to me, the weight pulled at my biceps.

    “Page 86 if you will,” she said.

    I dutifully flipped to page 86, scanning the pages as I did but most of it was written in an unfamiliar language. I wasn’t very hopeful for page 86, but instead of writing, the page held a graph with names and lines. I studied it, puzzled. “Is this a family tree?”

    “Of sorts,” Cana replied. “Part of what Tirius’s research has uncovered is the partnership of individuals across timelines.”

    I nodded, still looking over the page. “Yes, the partner theory. That has come up a lot lately.”

    “What do you know of it?” she asked.

    Looking up from the book, I shrugged. “That there are individuals that work exceptionally well together.”

    Though her face barely changed, I felt as if my answer amused her. “That is all?”

    “That’s all I know about,” I said, a bit defensively, feeling as if I was missing something and not liking the feeling.

    “It is more than that,” she explained, the amusement fading. “It is a partnership that spans lifetimes and timelines.”

    I traced one of the lines on the page with a finger, thinking about Kieren. “Timelines?”

    “Yes. Timelines. And from what Tirius has uncovered, when a partnership is formed, great things, or terrible things, occur.”

    “Kieren told me that the Warden picks partners based on the partner theory, that a pair has inherent traits that connect them.”

    “Bigger,” Cana said, then leaned forward to point at the book. “That is Tirius’s line. The many branches of the lives that he has lived and the family he has had, or as much as he can uncover. Do you see the names with the single dot?”

    I did. The name changed throughout the tree, along with how far it was from the line that was Tirius himself, but always ran parallel. There was a single time that the name was in the same sphere as Tirius’s name; a human timeline with the data 1915.

    I pointed at it. “This person? Mary Lancashire.”

    “That is who he believes is his partner. What you’re pointing at is the timeline moment he was killed in the trenches of France.”

    “World War I,” I said, sighing. “Of course it is.” Shaking my head, I frowned as other items of consideration connected. “But you just said that when partnered, great things occur.”

    “Or terrible things.”

    I paused, looking up at Cana, alarmed. “Who was Tirius in 1915?”

    “He was no one, a random soldier who was wounded and who was sent to a field hospital where he met Mary Lancashire, a nurse there. He recovered and was sent back to the front, but before he could get there, he died being trampled by a horse.”


    She smiled that off smile. “Exactly.”

    “I mean, that’s nothing. Aren’t you contradicting yourself saying that these partnerships lead to something? He died. What did Mary Lancashire do?”

    “She went back to England, married, had three children who went on to have lives and their children had children, and their children. There is no indication of anything significant occurring in her timeline at all.”

    I sat back in the chair and stared at Cana. “You’re not making any sense.”

    “Yes, I’m aware. But see, every other partnership Tirius was able to uncover had a significant impact on the course of the timeline; a significant impact. Every single one. Except Tirius’s, who, instead of marrying Mary Lancashire, which he was going to do, ends up being trampled by a horse and wakes in the Master Realm.”

    Closing the book, I put a palm against the leather cover. “Maybe that wasn’t his partner.”

    “That was my reaction as well. But why the parallel lines?”


    Cana smiled that strange smile. “Perhaps. Tirius, however, feels otherwise. He was trying to prove it.”

    “By going back to that era again and again and again,” I said.

    “In part, but visiting other times as well, and not only within the human timeline. Across multiple timelines.”

    “And his conclusion?”

    “That something, or someone, is manipulating his interaction with this other individual.” She got up, taking the book and replacing it on the shelf. “And this partnership is not the only thing being manipulated. There is so much evidence to show that these timelines aren’t free of influence, or not pure in their existence, but constructs, constructs made up of lives, real lives, not imaginary lives.” She sat back down. “That is why we are doing what we are doing.”

    Feeling a pit in my stomach, a tightness in my chest, I asked the question that had hovered since I was kidnapped into the situation and started to talk with Cana. “What is that exactly?”

    Cana sat forward, pinning me with her look. “The death of every single Master.”

  • Chapter 10

    Tirius was gone when I woke, which I’d expected. The smell of food pulled me out of slumber, and I rolled out of bed, running my tongue along my teeth and grimacing at both the taste in my mouth and the mid-day sunshine blasting through the large bedroom windows. I should have showered before bed, to get rid of the pub smell and the grime of too much tea, beer, and more tea. Though the smell of food caused my belly to rumble, I opted for a shower and clean up first. I changed into the black trousers and tank top that I’d arrived in days earlier, freshly clean from the laundry. Shivering, I grabbed a gray sweater from the closet and wrapped myself in the softness, pulling my damp hair out from beneath the fabric and letting it fall down my back.

    Kieren was putting the food on plates when I came out. Also looking clean and refreshed, his dark hair was once again pulled back into a low cue at the base of his skull, his own form-fitting black clothing his familiar uniform, and his skin the more normal brown color. Catching sight of me, he nodded towards the couch. “He’s gone,” he said, bringing the two plates of food around the counter and putting them on the glass dining room table. The table’s surface glinted with the afternoon sun, the dunes outside seeming to amplify the light.

    “There’s a note,” Kieren said, pointing to a white piece of paper attached to the fridge as he sat down at the table.

    I grabbed the note and joined Kieren, reading over the brief message as I shoveled scrambled eggs into my mouth. It simply read: “good luck on your mission; remember, things work both ways.”

    “Do you know what it means?” Kieren asked, sipping at his coffee.

    I shook my head, and put the note down, continuing to eat as I thought about Tirius’s visit. “Why did he show up?” I asked between bites.

    Kieren gave me the look, finishing his food. “Your guess will be better than mine.”

    I nodded, but I didn’t have an answer either.

    As we got our weapons together, strapping them on in familiar silence, I thought about the visit. He’d told Kieren to go back, of course, which was essential, but that could have been done at any time. Unless, of course, he only knew for sure that we would be in this location at this time. I thought about our conversation when we’d returned to the Archives to speak with him then. Had we told him where we were? I was pretty sure Kieren had, which meant that perhaps he’d come to this location because this location was the only place he knew for sure both Kieren and I would be. 

    He was still pulling strings though, and as we went over the plan to infiltrate the lab, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there were other reasons for Tirius to have shown up at this location on this timeline. Was it to warn us about the event, and how it was essential to the human timeline? 

    Would we somehow have a role to play in this event?

    Circular thinking, I knew, taking my staff and settling it into the holster at my back; it always came down to circular thinking. 

    As we prepared, the afternoon sun fell lower in the sky, the sea sparkling just beyond the dunes. There was not much for us to do until full night, but I was antsy and from the way Kieren paced the living room, he was as well.

    “How far along the beach do we have to go?” I asked, staring out the windows.

    “Three miles to the harbor.”

    “Then in the water?”

    Kieren nodded. “In the water, underneath there is a blind spot that is just outside the camera’s view.”

    I looked at the sea in the distance and shivered involuntarily. “It’s frigid isn’t it?”

    “No worse than what we’ve had to do before,” Kieren replied, giving me a ghost of a smile as he came up beside me. He looked better with food and sleep, his eyes no longer fatigued and lined with shadows and in his presence, I felt his familiar warmth.

    “Be it as it may,” I said to his smile, looking once more at the seaside view in front of us.

    I felt his gaze on the side of my face. “You’ve changed,” he replied.

    I snorted. “Of course. We all change. What are you talking about?”

    Kieren’s greenish gaze scanned my face, taking in my features as he spoke. “I saw you, in the doorway, right after that event when they put you in your chambers, took away your Guardian access, and you were not who you are now.”

    Grimacing, I nodded. “Yeah, I’ve learned a bit between then and now.”

    Kieren tilted his head as he continued to study me. I could feel him, that presence that always seemed to tug at the back of my brain as if we were connected by more than just a partnership. I doubted the feeling, but it never quite left. Thinned, yes, when we were apart, but never fully disappearing. The memory of what happened in the cell floated into my awareness and I wanted something, felt it in my belly, the tightening of my chest, but what that was remained elusive, lost in the mission before us, in our past, in who we were and what we had yet to become.

    I refocused on the outside, ignoring what might or might not be taking place inside.

    Kieren leaned against the glass, long body taking up the side of my vision, forcing an awareness that was only partially explained by our partnership. On missions, we’d been physically close before, but this felt different from sleeping a foot away from each other in an unknown jungle. 

    “Wren,” he said, intense, voice quiet.

    I glanced over. The planes of his face gave nothing away, but I saw the clench of his jaw, the way his mouth moved around my name when he said it again.

    I wanted something, but the other memory was there, the request for another partner, the likelihood that if we ever got out of this situation, he would become Warden. And then; the information he held back from me. The missions he went on alone. 

    And the information I now held from him. The story from Darkside. Tirius’s role and my loyalty there.

    A wedge created out of a myriad of different situations.

    I backed away. A step and then another. Creating distance, familiar ground, and understanding. Turning to catch my breath, to walk away, I grabbed my jacket from the counter and pulled it over my weapons. “Let’s go. We can pass the time when we get there.”

    Kieren paused at the window and I felt a flash of his reluctance, of his disappointment that I quickly ignored and shoved aside mentally, checking over the living room before going to the front door. After a moment, he followed, joining me in front of the house. I didn’t look over at his face but felt his withdrawal nevertheless, a distancing as we made our way towards the beach.

    Talking as we walked, Kieren went over the details again, a familiar habit that he did before most missions. I halfway heard him, paying attention to the layers of dunes around me, the blue sky overhead, and the sand underfoot. We walked slowly, partially because we were wasting time until we could really get going, and partially because the sand pulled at our boots as we walked. 

    Coming to the last dune, we simultaneously sat down amongst the grass. Kieren pointed to the chain-link fencing I could just make out in the distance. “Cameras, motion sensors,” he said.

    I nodded, following the fence line into the sea. The sun still felt warm, but it crept towards the horizon and the sea had taken on a grayish tinge. Swimming in cold water was something we’d done on occasion, and something that we trained in, but I hardly looked forward to it and I doubted Kieren did either, though he looked like his normal stoic self.

    Moments ticked by as we watched the sun set on the sea. The waiting was also familiar, but the tension was new, something created out of our situation, or something created out of what happened at the house; though, nothing had happened. I closed my eyes against the setting sun, feeling the wind through my hair, the sand under the palm of my hand, and then inward, to the breath, the inhale and the exhale, and further inward to the stillness there, the awareness of my center and the awareness of my partner. 

    Like before, in the room that was a cell, I felt Kieren’s being as if he floated in that stillness next to me, as much part of this centered piece of myself as the stars overhead or the raft I imagined floating on. A seemingly essential aspect, but not too, the doubt worming in, creating a wave-like effect, jarring enough that I pulled out of that space and opened my eyes. I halfway expected Kieren to be watching me, but he still stared forward at the setting sun, the light-catching at the shadows on his face, the dark smoothness of his hair.

    Apparently feeling my gaze, he looked over and our eyes met for a moment, a flash of awareness, a sudden flutter of nerves in my stomach, in the palms of my hands, and an intense awareness of the man that was my partner and had been for six cycles.

    “Ready?” he asked, voice breaking into the tension, but I heard the gravel of it as if something was in his throat. I could pursue it, I thought then, I could say something, I could push this, come clean with my knowledge, push him about the Warden.

    I could have pursued it.

    I didn’t. Nodding once instead, I turned to my boots to unlace them. Setting the boots aside, I pulled off my socks and then the pants I wore leaving only my underwear, binding, tank top, and the staff snuggled into the holster across my back. The wind picked up with the setting sun and I shivered once then twice as the colder air flowed across my bare skin. 

    Kieren had followed suit and now stood only in a pair of shorts, his knives in calf holsters.

    “Ready?” he repeated, flashing me a grin that spoke of an excitement to get started on a nearly impossible task.

    It was a familiar grin, one that I knew intimately, and it settled something inside. “Race you,” I yelled, taking off for the water.

    Kieren easily caught up with me, trying to pass but I put in a bit of speed, digging my toes into the sand and we stayed together, racing towards the frigid water. I was the first one in, diving into the cold in a swift move. The cold took my breath away for a moment even as I started with strong strokes out to the sea. Next to me, Kieren’s movement through the water was a graceful dance and I worked to imitate his movements as I always did in these scenarios. He’d grown up near the sea before moving over, obvious in the ease in which he moved through the water.

    We surfaced, now some distance out. The cold pressed, enveloped, my system compensating but only just. Kieren started off parallel to the shore and I followed. As Guardians, we trained constantly, both physically and mentally. That combined with the enhanced abilities gifted to us upon transferring made it so many times the physical toll of a mission was significantly less than it might be otherwise. Swimming through that frigid seawater, that ease disappeared. The water temperature pushed my augmentations to their limits and my arms started to burn as we kept going, getting closer yes, but still so far away. I reverted to the trick of counting my strokes, keeping Kieren just ahead of me so I could fall into his rhythm. Nevertheless, my back muscles started to protest, then my legs. When Kieren finally slowed to tread water, I felt the distance and the cold in my bones.

    “Underneath here,” he said, the wind causing waves to slap at him. Daylight had turned gray with the setting sun, the perfect moment of infiltration as the early evening light waves skewed images caught by security cameras.

    Kieren dove.

    I followed.

    The pressure, the cold, pressed in on my head, the gray light giving way to darkness under the surface, but I ignored the low-level panic of not being able to see and not knowing where I was going, following my partner just ahead of me. We could swim underwater for some time, but just like everything else about this mission, Kieren pushed the comfort zone and my lungs were starting to protest when I finally followed Kieren to the surface. We came up underneath a concrete dock with just barely enough room for our heads. Taking in long slow breaths of oxygen, I looked over to my partner who was shadowed in the near darkness. A significant amount of reconnaissance had gone into this approach and I low-level appreciated Kieren having done it because I would have hated it.

    He nodded downwards and then dove again.

    I contained the sigh and followed.

    The dive was shorter this time, but the water was darker, and I followed Kieren by feeling more than by sight, emerging from the water once more into almost blackness. We could operate in the dark, but Kieren brought forth his penlight and flicked it on. I blinked several times in the sudden illumination, my eyes slowly adapting. We were in a tunnel of concrete, a grate just in front of us.

    “Sewage again?” I asked.

    Kieren snorted. “Nope, just water. Come on.”

    I swam with him to the grate. Kieren had already loosened it and he pushed it free, settling it just inside. Pulling himself in he waited for me to do the same before moving forward. The tunnel was small, barely big enough for Kieren’s larger body, but he managed, crawling further into the tunnel slowly and then dropping to his belly as the tunnel grew narrower. Before following, I placed the grate back in its place and then made my way along the concrete, scraping my bare knees as I did. The tunnel was slightly warmer than the water, which was a blessing, but which hardly made up for the cold that had seeped into my bones. The cold was not at dangerous levels yet, but I had to shove aside thoughts of cozy blankets and warm fires.

    We came to another grate that Kieren shoved open with a loud screech that made both of us wince. We paused, both listening for any noise to suggest company, but all was silent except the lap of water behind us. “Almost there,” Kieren said, likely sensing my unease. The close quarters bothered me slightly, feeling the walls near my skin, right above me as I slowly made my way forward. I was never one to like small spaces, though moving helped and I kept my focus on the way ahead.

    “Here,” Kieren whispered back at me and then he suddenly disappeared. I eased to where he had disappeared, a dark hole highlighted by Kieren’s light. I moved forward, holding on to the edge of the exit and flipping down to land next to him.

    “Where are we?” I asked quietly, not able to see much other than that we were in a hallway.

    “From what I can tell, the backend of the server rooms. This way.”

    The hallway was not really a hallway, but a narrow passageway filled with a low hum. I saw various access points that did lead to walls that looked like servers with blinking red and green lights.

    Kieren stopped in front of me and then pointed up at the vent above his head. Another grate.

    “Thank God for venting,” I said, causing an appreciative grin from my partner. He hoisted me up by my foot and I undid the grate, twisting the screws with my fingers then handing it down. Grasping the ledge with both hands, I pulled myself up and in. Kieren followed without help, leaping and catching the side and then pulling himself up next to me.

    “Which way?” I asked, once more in cramped quarters.

    He started to the left. I followed.

    The maze continued for a while more until Kieren paused and then motioned me to join him. The passageway had gotten bigger and I scooted up next to him, fitting my body next to his, skin against skin. The flash of awareness was instantaneous, and I consciously worked to not betray the sudden onset of desire I felt low in my belly, heat flooding my face at the inappropriate reaction. Looking downward at a lab spread out before us, I struggled against this new awareness, this sudden epiphany. Kieren lay perfectly still next to me, his breathing normal, and I was thankful for the darkness, trying to control my own breathing.

    “That’s their lab,” Kieren whispered, his voice inches from my ear.

    Not trusting my voice, I nodded and then because all I could focus on was the feel of Kieren’s skin against my own, the tickle of his breath against my ear, the heat that steadily grew in my lower belly, I dropped down into stillness and gathered myself. Outwardly I stared down at the lab, waiting with Kieren for what was to come next, internally I wrangled myself together, getting my body and mind under control. The technique was one we used when being tortured, ironically enough.

    The lights in the lab came on and I pulled myself away from the internal stillness, distantly pleased to find that I had created a certain amount of control and barrier against the intense awareness I’d experienced moments before.

    A man entered the lab. He was older, gray hair falling over his forehead, face wrinkled with time and stress, but upright, back straight, shoulders strong underneath a white lab coat. Another man followed, this one also gray-haired but portlier, not as physically fit though seeming to have more energy, his steps light and buoyant whereas the first man’s step was steady and cumbersome.

    They headed to the center of the lab where a glass room encased a machine. 

    “Is that?” I asked Kieren in barely a whisper.

    “Mhm,” he answered.

    “This is the thing,” the shorter man said. “We aren’t going to be able to fix the situation unless we take steps against the Conrads.” They’d stopped in front of the glass room. The taller man was working buttons on a display there and after a moment, the doors to the room opened.

    The shorter man continued. “It had to be taken care of. You know it, I know it. If we are to make progress, we are going to have to take drastic measures.”

    The taller man nodded at his companion and then reached up and tapped a button above the doorway. The sleeve of his lab coat slipped from his arm, something I wouldn’t have noticed but for Kieren’s body suddenly tightening next to me. 

    “His wrist,” Kieren breathed, and I saw what he saw, five dots and a swirling of black around them indicating a level five Collector, only two steps underneath Tirius’s own position as Archivist.

    “What,” I said, but then felt Kieren lean into me, hushing me with the contact as the two men walked into the walled room with the machine, cutting off their conversation. The event was supposed to happen tonight, and I saw evidence before me that it was manipulation, but manipulation by a ranked member of the Master Realm? A plant, something else, what was the meaning of it?

    I watched their facial expressions as they continued to converse, the taller one typing into the machine.

    A new player arrived on stage. Of medium height, with dull brown hair in a bun and wearing a lab coat of her own, I recognized the Guardian from our training. Kieren did as well.

    We looked at each other and decided together. Kieren went first, landing lightly on his feet. The move took the Guardian by surprise and he had her on the ground within moments. I followed, landing without a sound just to the side of them and then helping as Kieren secured the Guardian, a knife at her throat to keep her quiet. We pulled away from the glass room, neither men inside noticing the events. I went around Kieren and the woman, peaking out into the hallway and, seeing it empty, nodded towards Kieren who dragged the woman behind him. We looked a sight, in our underwear, still damp from our swim, but the woman knew who we were, glancing at our own tattoos on our wrists.

    “Fools,” she hissed at us despite the knife at her throat and then closed her eyes.

    I felt the energy field as she gathered it to herself and made to shout at Kieren, but he’d felt it too and pushed the woman away from him just as her field coalesced and she disappeared in a Travel.

    Kieren glanced at me and then catching sight of something above my head paled. I looked above my head, saw the time and then turned and sprinted towards him. The time was approximate, of course it was, no one knowing for sure, but the woman’s words were enough of a clue. Kieren grabbed my arm and pulled me against him. Distantly something rumbled, something heated, and then we Traveled ourselves, Arriving together in front of the house, afternoon sunshine bathing us in warmth.

    I stepped away from Kieren immediately, still not trusting this new awareness, noticing but refusing to notice that he seemed reluctant to let me create space between us.

    “When?” I asked instead.

    Kieren pushed a hand through his hair, mussing the tightness of his caul, scanning the area before focusing on me. “Right after we left. I thought it the best scenario.”

    I nodded, shivering then. “We’ll have to go back,” I said. “See what we interrupted. See if the Guardian was there to instigate or not.”

    “And the Collector,” Kieren said, looking at me with a gaze I refused to meet.

    “Yes,” I replied and then started for the entrance of the house. Kieren remained where he stood, scanning the area and I stopped to wait for my partner, but it was in Kieren’s brief moment of looking around, the slight delay, that created the opportunity, and just as it had happened with Tirius, the hooded figure emerged from nowhere, grabbed my arms, wrapped around me in a full-body embrace, and pulled me out of the timeline.

    The Arrival was abrupt, sideways, but I was already pulling my staff from the small of my back even as my eyes tried to adjust. I swallowed down on the bile filling my throat.

    “I am really sick of that,” I said through clenched teeth, extending my staff with a flick of my wrist and blinking rapidly to clear my eyes. The prick in my neck landed without my knowledge, though the spot was sore later, instead, the world started to tilt, and before I knew what was happening, I fell, my body distantly hitting the ground as blackness stole over me.

    Emerging into consciousness was like climbing out of a well, the light far off and distant, the sounds echoing and blending into a cacophony of nonsense. As the light grew brighter and the sounds clearer, the pain seeped into my bones, nerves, and then finally into my head, thumping in time with my pulse.

    Forcing my eyes open, I squinted at the bright light. The light slowly dimmed to a low glow that barely lit the circular room. I was roped to a chair in the middle of the room, still only wearing my underwear. Two-story stone walls created a sheer expanse of gray all around me, an equally dull gray stone floor beneath the wooden chair I sat on. There were no windows, and the ceiling was high enough and the lights dim enough that I was unable to make out the top portion of the room. The room smelled musty, dank earth and wet and was altogether unfamiliar. Trying at the ropes at my wrist, pushing and pulling, my skin scraped against the rough surface, but the rope remained tight and restrictive. 

    The ropes that linked my ankles to the chair legs were similarly tight.

    The door opened. 

    I stopped moving, though resisted the urge to appear still unconscious.

    A woman crossed the threshold. She appeared human but there was something not entirely human about her, as if she wore the skin of a human over her own form. Her hair was short, cut around her chin and gray, her skin a perfectly smooth marble color that did little to add to the believability of her form.

    A man followed her. A Sideian. He looked as if he could have been related to Kieren so similar in appearance he was to my partner, though his dark hair was wavy and loose around his face instead of pulled back in the way Kieren preferred. And then there was the way he held himself. There was a way about the Sideian, men and women both; a projection, something in the way they carried themselves that suggested years of conflict and warfare. Kieren’s still awareness portrayed his origin realm. This man had the same still intensity.

    The woman stopped in front of me. She was only a little bit taller than me even sitting, but it felt as if she towered over me from a great height.

    “Who talks first here?” I asked, trying for nonchalant, though the unblinking nature of her gaze wore on my calm. 

    “You are Guardian Wren Oridian, partner of Kieren Taninian, formerly of the human realm,” the woman said, speaking in the human tongue but lilting along the lines as if the language, like her body, was not her original.

    “And your point?” I asked, looking beyond the unwavering gaze to the man standing at the door. 

    “We need to know the location of the Archivist,” the woman replied.

    I frowned. “Tirius?”

    She stared at me.

    “Of course,” I muttered. “It always comes back to that damn man.” I tugged at my hands, wishing that I could rub at the headache that was still pounding behind my eyes. “Look. I don’t know where he is; he comes and goes, popping in and out of timelines and storylines like some kind of maniacal jack-in-the-box.”

    The woman tilted her head bird-like. “Jack-in-the-box?”

    I huffed. “Never mind. I don’t know where Tirius is; I never know where Tirius is. He makes himself known when he wants something, and then he leaves. If you’re able to Travel, which you obviously are, I can tell you where and when to find him in the Master realm. Will that do?”

    The Sideian stepped forward and I noticed how silently his step was even as he demanded my attention with his size, green hazel eyes hard. “No. Not in the Master Realm. The human timeline.”

    “Did you check World War I?” I asked, only somewhat flippantly.

    The Sideian took another step forward. He was easily two heads taller than the woman, and twice as wide, heavily muscled shoulders outlined under a dark gray long-sleeved shirt.

    The woman put a hand up to either stop me from talking or the Sideian from doing violence. Both of us turned our attention to her.

    “You misunderstand us. We know where Tirius is theoretically within all the timelines; however, we need to know where he is in the timeline in which we found you.”

    I shook my head. “Really, sorry. At this point, I would love to give him up to you, but I don’t know. Really. I saw him a bit ago, he was there, where you kidnapped me, but he left without saying where he was going or what he was doing next. He isn’t one to tell others those things. His agenda is always entirely his own.”

    A ghost of a smile played across the women’s features and I wondered if she knew exactly what I was talking about due to personal experience.

    “Why was he with you?” the Sideian asked.

    “He was there with information about something my partner and I were looking into, and also to tell us, well, to manipulate the timeline really.”

    “Explain,” he pursued.

    I told them about Kieren’s return to the Master Realm in order to warn me of the danger in staying at the Citadel, and how we were in that time and place to possibly stop, or help, a human event from occurring.

    I didn’t tell them about the Collector and the Guardian at the lab and what that might mean, mostly because I had no idea what it might mean myself.

    “More manipulation,” the Sideian said, his voice low and the statement more to himself than to either the woman or me.

    I glanced back and forth between the two. “Are you going to tell me who you all are, why it is I’m here, obviously against my will, being held in ropes?”

    The woman glanced down at me, and then over to the Sideian. “Untie her.”

    He shook his head once, long wavy hair emulating the movement. “No. She’s a trained Guardian.”

    The woman’s head tilted. “You think she can overcome you?”

    “No,” he replied immediately. “But I’d rather not have to kill her.”

    The woman looked at him with the same bland, no emotion expression until he relented, a knife appearing in his right hand. I flinched when he descended, his presence wrapped up in the smell of saltwater and something woodsy, there and gone within a breath, my arms and legs free from their rope bindings. 

    I rubbed at my wrists, red from the rope, creating a stark background against the black tattoo. I watched the Sideian warily. 

    “Please, this is so very important,” the woman said.

    “Why?” I asked, realizing that probably should have been my first question.

    The woman paused, and again, I was struck by the uncanny nature of her person, the unusual way her body seemed to be not quite in-sync with her movements. She pointed to a pile of clothing I’d missed before. “I will show you. First, get dressed.”

    I did as she said, walking somewhat unsteadily towards the clothing. I pulled on black pants and a tank, both of which looked suspiciously like Guardian attire.

    “Follow me,” she said once I stood dressed.

    “Cana,” the Sideian warned.

    “It will be fine,” she said, turning and walking from the room.

    I eyed the Sideian but when he remained where he was, I slowly followed the woman.

    He fell in step behind me, and I tried not to let it show that this bothered me right down to my toes. I had no weapons, something I had immediately discerned upon regaining consciousness, which put me at a decidedly inferior position in a fight with the man behind me. Trying to distract myself from the uneven nature of my situation, I studied the hallway that we now walked. Like the room, the floors and walls were stone. Electric torches lined the hall and when we started up the spiral stone stairwell, those torches became more frequent. The bare stone walls gave way to tapestries between the torches until we stepped from the stairwell into a long hall of intermittent windows that were several stories tall. It was night, darkness black and impenetrable outside the window, but the hall itself was lit with more torches, the stone floor changing to thick carpets in dark, densely woven fabric. Wherever I was, it was somewhere of wealth.

    “This way,” Cana said, opening an arched door.

    I followed, though I stopped when I crossed the threshold and was met with a wall of screens and technology. There were several other beings in the room, all of them looking my way, but I barely noticed them, instead trying to puzzle out the many scenes that were playing on the screen.

    “Move,” the Sideian said behind me, and though he did not physically touch me, his presence was big enough that it jerked me out of my surprise. Walking to the back of the room, I followed Cana down a steel stairwell this time and into an area that appeared to be a meeting room and a kitchen rolled into one. A long table filled out one part of the room, couches and chairs another, and a full kitchen in the remaining portion.

    Cana opened a door near the kitchen space. “Ti, tea please,” she said to someone in the other room, then she turned to me, indicating with a wave of her hand that I should sit at the long table.

    “What is this place?” I asked, ignoring the invitation.

    “Somewhere you shouldn’t be,” the Sideian said.

    I ignored him, as did Cana who continued to stand near the door until a slight Diax emerged from the room. It was little more than a child, perhaps older, its body not yet filled out. When it saw me, it paused, vibrating.

    “It’s fine, Ti,” Cana said, laying a hand on the Diax’s sloping backside free yet of scales. “Tea, please.”

    Ti did as it was told, going to the kitchen. Because my attention was clearly making it nervous, I looked away, taking a seat though not without caution, watching to see where the Sideian would deposit himself. I was not at all surprised when he stood at the only entrance to the room, arms crossed in front of him, leaning against a door jam, staring at me.

    I looked back to Cana who was typing into a handheld device that had emerged from somewhere. As she typed, the wall behind the conference table lowered, revealing a large black screen with the white words “input needed” in T’ngali. Cana typed something else into the slim pad she held and the T’ngali disappeared to be replaced with an array of sectioned off scenes. The content was the same or very similar to what I’d spied in the room we’d walked through.

    “What am I looking at?” I asked, scanning the squares. They were like security footage of places; some of them in extremely rural settings, others depicting cities with beings walking alongside various modes of transportation. Two of the squared scenes depicted deep space.

    “These are a handful of timelines that we are currently observing,” Cana said, pushing something on her tablet so that another wave of squares appeared. 

    “Why?” I asked, trying to make a connection from one square to another and not seeing any similarities between any of those places. 

    “These are specific locations in which a manipulation, as you call it, has occurred.”

    I sat forward. “Has occurred?”

    “These screens, yes.” Cana typed something else into her handheld and the scenery changed once more, revealing much more population heavy scenes ranging from those with space faring technology to two screens showing horses and wagons. “These are recordings prior to the manipulation event.” Cana pointed to one that looked very familiar. “Watch this one please.”

    I did as she asked, putting my hands on the table and leaning even further towards the scene that showed a heavily populated city area. The high-rise buildings reached towards a storm heavy sky, Rushielian beings going about their business, hover vehicles zipping about on multiple levels of roadways between buildings. “I know this place,” I said, sitting back when the Diax deposited a cup of tea in front of me.

    “You should,” the Sideian replied at the door. “You played a part in destroying it.”

    I looked over at the Sideian, his body tense, his gaze two shades away from murder.

    “What are you talking about?”

    Cana zoomed the camera and there I was, dressed in the black hooded robes we’d donned for our last mission; Kieren unmistakably at my side though to the casual observer we appeared as our disguises suggested.

    I looked back and forth between Cana and the Sideian. “What is this?”

    “You remember this mission?” Cana asked, and in her voice, I almost heard gentleness. Almost.

    I nodded. “Yes. It was the last mission I did before all this,” I replied, waving a hand to encompass all of what had happened since then.

    “Can you tell us what the mission was?”

    If I was still a Guardian, still working for the Master Realm, still bound by my vows, I would have denied the request, but those vows no longer held, so instead I nodded, focusing on the video showing Kieren and I walking down a Rushielian hallway. “It was a directive from the Warden himself. We were given information to deliver to a specific member of the Grand Council. It had to be delicately done because of the tension, so we infiltrated the Council Compound, delivered the message, and left. There were no casualties.” There was a little more to the story than that, obviously, but I wasn’t going to pass on the rest of the details unless pressed.

    “Then,” the Sideian prompted, finally peeling himself from the wall, stalking towards me until he came to a stop on the other side of the table.

    I watched him, mind going over the different weapons I could make out of the chair beside me or the hot tea in front of me. “What do you mean?” I asked.

    Cana typed something else and the scene changed, a different camera feed showing buildings decimated, the streets empty, an ash rain falling from the sky. “This was the result,” she said.

    I shook my head, something heavy and dark in my chest and I swallowed at the denial in my throat.

    “You never thought to question the directives, the missions, never thought to ask why you were being told to do what you were being told to do?” the Sideian asked, scorn dripping from his words.

    I turned to him, anger taking the space of horror. “We take orders. We do as we’re told. You should know all about that, Sideian,” I replied, sneering the last word.

    Though he stood in one place, his entire being stilled and I tensed in response.

    “Colm,” Cana said. “She speaks true. You cannot fault her for it.”

    I kept my gaze steady on him, daring him to make a move. My staff was gone, along with my knives, but I had skill and experience, and cycles of sparring with another Sideian, albeit a slighter one.

    He turned away, taking a seat, artificially relaxing into it.

    Cana changed the scene. “There are many of these moments,” she said, switching to other places and times. 

    “Because of me?” I asked.

    “No, this is the only one that we’ve found that you’ve had an influence on. But, other Guardians, yes.”

    I shook my head, looking down at the tea in front of me. I had not had a single sip, but my stomach heaved and rolled with the information and I left it there, letting it cool. “As a Collector, we are given specific directions to never interfere. We are taught that these timelines, these experiments, are holy. They are constructs of something greater than us, or anyone. They are sacred. Tirius showed me Sarajevo, and I thought it was an isolated event, something that was out of the ordinary, but you’re saying that this is occurring all the time, in different timelines, and that the Guardians are complicit in this?” I looked up. “That directive to not become involved, to do nothing to the timeline, that’s all made up?”

    Cana sat down next to me, studying my face. “You were taught to respect the timeline as a Collector. What were you taught as a Guardian?”

    I looked at my hands. “Our purpose is to guard the wellbeing of the Master Realm. I always believed that meant we were guarding the sanctity of what I was taught as a Collector.” I pushed back my chair and stood up. I ignored Colm’s tension as I walked towards the many different squares of reality. “There are so many rules, even as a Guardian we are taught not to interfere and to follow our directive exactly, all so we do not influence a being or a timeline, or make any changes without permission. We are to go in, do our job, and get out.”

    “And you did that well,” Cana said, again with the gentleness in her voice. “But what your job was, your missions, those were not innocent, not without significant impact.”

    I stared; my eye caught by the dark scene of space. “This is a giant game then? A giant farce? Who is making these decisions to manipulate timelines and beings? What is actually going on?”

    “A war,” Cana said quietly.

    I turned back to look at her, skin tight. “A war? Between who?”

    “Between those who always go to war; those with power-seeking to garner more power.”

    “And Tirius is one of those with power?” I asked, wondering if that theory helped explain his actions but quickly realized that it explained absolutely nothing.

    Cana smiled, seeming to read my thoughts. “Tirius is trying to stop the war; as are we.”

    “He knows about all this?” I asked, waving my hand at the screens, at the two of them, at the Diax who still stood quietly in the corner of the room. I was thinking of the conversation we’d had before Tirius had left the night before, and he hadn’t seemed so sure at that moment.

    “He founded all this,” Cana explained, waving a hand around her. “We are trying to stop the manipulations, the interference, the war that is using innocent beings, entire timelines, as their pawns.” Cana put a hand towards me. “He was recruiting you when he took you to Sarajevo.”

    I stared at the woman.

    “Cana,” Colm warned, but she ignored him, keeping her gaze on me.

    “He believed, believes, that you are instrumental in ending this conflict.”

    Shaking my head, I took a seat once more, picking up the tea and holding it. “That doesn’t make sense. Why not just tell me?”

    “Perhaps he had not yet found the moment, or perhaps you have not yet interacted with the Tirius we know,” she replied.

    Colm snorted. “It’s because he wasn’t sure if you were the right one,” he corrected.

    I put the tea down. “My twin.” I looked over at Cana. “Right? That’s what he’s talking about? I wasn’t supposed to move on. It was supposed to be this other woman, with her degrees and changing the world.”

    Cana met my gaze with her own steady one. “I don’t know.”

    “But it doesn’t matter,” Colm interrupted. “Because Tirius is gone. Disappeared. Nowhere to be found. And without him, your involvement doesn’t mean anything.” He turned to Cana. “I’ve said this before, and I am saying it again, we do not need Tirius to move onto the next stages of our plan. We know what to do, we don’t need his presence to carry the plans out.” He pointed at me with a finger that I had the sudden urge to break, continued. “Whatever he believed about her involvement has always been just a theory. We don’t need to find him. And we don’t need her here.”

    Cana focused on the large Sideian. “I will not be a blind executioner. That is not our role here, Colm. You know this. We need Tirius and the information he has.”

    Colm hesitated. Clearly, this was a conversation they’d had before, one in which they disagreed. I tried capitalizing on the moment. “He can be found if you go far enough back into the Master timeline. I did exactly that.”

    The two exchanged looks. Cana spread her hands out. “You see, our sources are unable to find him in any timeline.”

    The sources aspect caught my attention, but the second half of the statement struck me hard in the chest. I stared. “What?”

    “He’s disappeared from all time,” Cana explained.

    Shaking my head, I felt something shift under my feet. “No, that’s not possible.”

    Cana shrugged thin shoulders. “Whether it is, or it isn’t, it appears as if it is the case.”

    “But I have a memory of him, so do you. If he was completely erased from reality, none of us would remember him. It would be a blank space of nothing.”

    “Yes, we’re aware, which means he does exist somewhere, somehow, which is also why you are here.”

    “And how am I supposed to find him?” I asked.

    Cana seemed to smile. 

    Colm broke in. “It’s late and we need to leave. You can discuss this on the way.” He spoke as he typed at a handheld device that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere.

    Feeling the ground of uncertainty, I frowned. “You’re leaving?”

    “We are,” Cana said, then clicking the tablet the wall went black again. “We have something to show you, but it requires some travel.” She tilted her head. “How are you with space travel?”

    I frowned. “Actual space travel?”

    She nodded. “Where we go, you cannot Travel.”

    That was impossible and that doubt must have come across through my expression because she did that smile thing in response. “You’ll see.”

    “And my partner?” I asked, not moving from where I sat.

    Cana hesitated in her step, looking over at Colm who waited at the door.

    “Your partner…” She began.

    The Sideian cut her off. “Not now.” He looked at me. “We need to leave. Now. Do I carry you, or do you come of your own free will?”

    “That’s not how free will works,” I fired back but got up from where I sat, following them from the room, wondering what it was that Cana was about to say before Colm stopped her.

    Originally published 2020, copywrite 2020