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  • 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.

    Arrived.

    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?”

    “Yes.”

    “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.”

    “Yes.”

    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.

    “Perhaps.”

    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.”

    “What?”

    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?”

    “Coincidence?”

    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

  • Morning Walk in September

  • Chapter 9

    The monsters remained hidden and the maze was silent, as were we, making our way quickly through the maze, through the tunnel, and walking into the darkness of full night. We Traveled as a unit but without touching. Kieren’s presence wrapped around me as we Arrived, and I leaned into him for a moment, warmth against my arm as I blinked at the sudden light, trying to regain normalcy.

    We stood there, morning dawning among the dunes and then walked through waist-high grass smelling of the sea towards the glass-encased home set against a storm-ridden sky that threatened in the distance.

    Starved, I maintained our silence when we arrived and went to the kitchen to prepare something, anything, dropping the scrolls on the counter. There were very few snack-like things, but I found some nuts in one of the drawers and opened the package with my teeth, eating what the packaged labeled as a special mix of nuts. Kieren went to the fridge and took out two bottles of fizzed water, handing one over to me. I took it without comment then guzzled the contents, washing down the husks caught in my teeth. 

    Wind gusted against the glass, pushing at the quiet. I felt Kieren watching me. I refused to look in his direction. I had no idea what would be there, or if he would present with his usually carefully controlled features, dark eyes without expression, lips set in a line that could indicate any several emotions. I could feel him in the way that Guardian partners could, but I also turned away from that knowledge. Really, I wanted bed and some space to think about Tirius’s words.

    I grabbed the scrolls, walked a wide circle around Kieren and headed to the long white couch, flipping on the fireplace and the heat as I went. Rain had started against the windows, the sky growing darker with the approaching storm. 

    Following, Kieren threw the book down next to me and took the opposite corner of the couch. He methodically unstrapped the knives from his body and tossed them in a clatter of sound on top of the low glass table positioned in front of us.

     I ignored him and the commotion to untie the scrolls and smooth them out in front of me. The language was not English, but a distant dialect of T’nGali, which I did know, albeit not very well.

    “Another mystery?” Kieren said and his tone matched the dark storm outside.

    I refrained from replying, a snap on my tongue, instead trying to make sense of the information as well as the irritation that sparkled along my nerves. There was no reason for me to be upset with Kieren, but something akin to anger pushed at me, and I wondered if I was angry at my partner or angry at my former mentor.

    Or maybe I was just angry at the entire situation and the inability to find a straight answer.

    “Why give us random books and random scrolls to figure it out? Why speak to us in riddles?” Kieren continued, sitting forward, unconsciously echoing my thoughts. One of his knives lay flat on the glass. He pushed the non-sharp side, causing it to twirl about and about. “We are chasing shadows, Wren.”

    Looking up from the language puzzle before me, I studied Kieren. His face was drawn, a pale tone to his skin and emotion did play about his features in the way his jaw clenched, and his lips were a thin compressed line. We were within a hand-reach from each other, but I felt our distance. Not for the first time I wondered if the distance was because of what we were going through, or if it had started before the whole mess.

    I had a feeling, kind of like a sickness in my stomach, that the distance had started some time before.

    Trying to keep the feeling contained, I focused on the source of Kieren’s annoyance.

    “Tirius speaks in circles because that’s how he thinks,” I explained. “He doesn’t see things in chronological order because he doesn’t exist in a chronological world.” Glancing back at the scrolls, I shook my head slowly. “And neither do we any longer.”

     Kieren’s reaction was oppressive, though he said and did nothing outwardly. But I felt it, like a great weight descending from the ceiling. “If your life wasn’t in danger, would you still pursue this path?” he asked after a moment.

    I smiled. “You mean this whole asking questions and searching for answers thing that I’m doing; that we’re doing?”

    Kieren didn’t reply, nor did he look up from the knife he continued to manipulate.

    I answered. “Yes, I want to know what’s going on, don’t you? I want to know why we were sent to get Tirius; why he disappeared in Sarajevo; what is being manipulated and what is the intent; and where do I fit in?”

    “Apparently you’re not supposed to fit into any of it,” Kieren said, and the words were spiked with intent. He finally looked up from the knife, trying read me.

    Around us, the storm hit, rain and wind a rush of sound against the windows. There, the two of us on a couch, I thought about this twin and what Tirius said, the implications between Kieren and I.

    “What do you think?” I asked him, holding his gaze.

    I expected him to look away, to break eye contact, but instead he leaned closer, just slightly, but enough that he was in my space and knew it. “Does it matter?”  he replied, voice pitched lower, so low as to almost be lost in the sound of the storm.

    “Yes,” I said without hesitation.

    As it had lately, the silence stretched between us, becoming tighter and tighter. I refused to look away, holding his dark green eyes with mine, trying to see beyond to who he was, what he meant by the question, and more, for an explanation of what it was that was taking place between us.

    “If you are not supposed to be here, that changes everything,” he said.

    It did, I knew that, though to hear him say it increased that sick feeling in my stomach and I was the one, then, to lean back, away. “All for a reason,” I managed as I broke eye contact. Turning back to the scrolls, I swallowed on the tightness in my throat, and when Kieren stood and walked from the room, I kept my focus forward.

    Moments later I heard the shower turn on and I slumped down into the couch, cradling my head in a palm.

    There was so much. Too much.

    Wiping angrily at the tears that threatened, I picked up the scrolls and began to read, translating the language in a snail’s pace of understanding. The storm moved on and the sun hit the windows in sharp diagonals. I got hot, peeling off my weapons and lying them next to Kieren’s and then the jacket and overshirt, leaving only my tank and trousers on. I needed a shower too, but as I read, I found myself falling into the story of a lost civilization in the Triaxon timeline. I’d never heard the history of Triaxon, and the scrolls were more than just the historical record, they were the official Collector report for Archives submission. The language was Triaxon, which was why I hadn’t fully recognized it.

    Kieren startled me out of the history, putting a plate of noodles and red sauce before me, the smell of tomatoes and garlic distracting me even as I finished with the sentence. 

    “You cooked?” I asked, stupid, blinking at the passage of time. A glance showed me that the kitchen was littered with the remnants of food preparation and at some point, afternoon started to golden the skies through the floor-length windows.

    “I did. You’re welcome,” he replied and sat next to me to devour his heaping plate. His hair was still wet from the shower, long sleek blackness down his back, creating a damp spot around his shoulders, his white t-shirt clinging to the muscles there. 

     I turned from him and took up my plate, suddenly starving. The nuts were a long time ago. 

    “So. What’s in there?” Kieren started, nodding his chin towards the scrolls that I moved far away from the red sauce. 

    I swallowed a bit of perfectly cooked pasta. “It’s the official documentation of the entirety of the Triaxon timeline, including specific details about their extinction.”

    Kieren looked at me blankly. 

    “Triaxon culture was a completely failed experiment, something about the level of curiosity it appears. They had three different extinction events, all occurring before the human timeline. They were a highly advanced society, much more advanced than either of our past cultures have yet accessed, but they expanded too far and too fast and on multiple occasions ended up nearly killing themselves off.”

    Speaking around a mouth of pasta, Kieren eyed the scrolls. “And this is supposed to help us how?”

    I sighed, wiping my mouth with the napkin that Kieren had also provided. “That’s the thing; it’s an official account of the timeline, but I’m not sure how it’s relevant. I thought maybe I would find something showing similar manipulation events, but so far that hasn’t happened. Of course, I’m not done, so it’s still possible.”

    Kieren put his plate down, now clean of all food, and picked up one of the scrolls, scanning it. “Language?”

    “Triaxon, I think, though I’m not entirely sure. I’m somewhat familiar at least because of the T’ngali root structure”

    “Of course, you are,” he said. I wasn’t sure if it was pride or censure that colored his tone.

    Putting my own plate down, I took up the second scroll. “There is a rather interesting aspect to the history so far, about what this collector calls soul groups, or at least, groups of the same people traveling from one life to another. It appears that these groups were relevant to significant changes in their reality. I’ve heard something similar with other timelines as well.”

    “The partner theory,” Kieren said, surprising me.

    “The what?

    Putting the scroll down, Kieren got up, taking both of our plates and walking back to the kitchen. He spoke over his shoulder as he walked away. “The partner theory. It’s what informs the whole idea of Guardian partners. There are halves of wholes, or something along those lines, though I don’t know how much of that is true. There are individuals that naturally work together because of some kind of inherent partnership, or inherent connection. Usually, that’s how Guardian partners are paired.”

    I hadn’t heard any of that before, which was strange having the background I did, but then, I’d not been recruited to be a Guardian in the same way Kieren had, which made me think of our own partnership and pairing.

    “How do you know all that?”

    He shrugged, returning with two glasses of red wine. He handed me one and then settled back into the opposite corner of the couch. Hair down, wine in hand, Kieren looked more relaxed than I’d seen him in many cycles. In fact, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen him as relaxed. For some reason, it unnerved me, and I took a rather large sip of wine to cover up my sudden uncertainty.

    Trying to move along, I jerked my chin downwards. “The partner theory would work here. There were definite dynamic partnerships that helped the entire Triaxon timeline move forward evolutional-wise, making significant advances for their society. There were individuals as well, of course, there always are, but the number of partners in their timeline is significant.” I frowned, thinking back on my own studies in history. I had specialized in several different timelines, but for whatever reason, I had never noticed this partner aspect.

    Kieren nodded. “Partner theory.”

    I shook my head, irritated. “Why haven’t I heard of that?”

    Something like a grin flashed across Kieren’s face. “You don’t like it when I know something you don’t.”

    I waved a hand at him but picked up my wine to take another rather large swallow. The dry bitterness bit at the inside of my cheek, but not unpleasantly. “No,” I said. “It seems like it would be a rather important aspect of Collecting if indeed this partner theory is something that actually exists.”

    “Maybe it’s just an upper realm thing, not actually within the timeline?”

    “No. It’s littered throughout this document. Maybe I just never noticed, and if I never noticed such a significant aspect of the experiments; that makes me wonder what else I’ve not noticed.” I paused, rubbing at the point between my eyes. Outside, the remaining afternoon light colored distant clouds in a fiery pink. I couldn’t remember if it was pink at night that brought doom, or the pink in the morning.

    “What’s wrong?” Kieren asked. His scrutiny was like a physical push, but I couldn’t easily forget the conversation before his shower, even if he had chosen to ignore it.

    Gathering the scrolls and putting them between us, I stood up with my wine. “I need a shower.”

    Leaving him, I walked to the large bedroom I’d slept in the night before. Across the bedspread, clothing lay scattered about from where I’d tried to find something before taking off to the Archives. The gigantic closet attached to the room had provided a lot of options, including trousers and tops in mostly my size. That I found clothing that fit in some random closet was the least surprising thing that had happened lately, and I grabbed now a pair of soft leggings and an oversized sweater of the softest cream material, thankful that I had something to put on. They smelled of clean laundry with a hint of cedar, as if they’d been laundered and left on the cedar-lined shelves for long enough to gather the scent. 

    The bathroom had a large tub and a glass shower. I opted for the tub, turning the tap on hot and starting to undress. I had taken my knives off, but my staff was still strapped to my back and I undid the holster with deft movements. I studied it for a moment. It was not the first weapon I’d been given. There had been swords, knives, and other weapons that I’d worked my way through before coming onto the staff. When not retracted, the middle part was silver and about the length of my forearm. When retracted, the shimmering energy blades were lengthened on either side of the handle, creating a weapon as tall as I was standing barefoot. 

    I wondered if I deserved it. I wondered if I was supposed to have it. 

    Lying my staff on the counter, I finished stripping down and emerged myself into the hot water. With only the light from the bedroom, the dimness fit my mood and I closed my eyes as the water got higher and higher. I only turned the faucet off when the water lapped at my chin. Still, with my eyes closed, I let my mind wander over the last while, the meeting with Tirius, the maze, the brief something in the kitchen, almost dying, all the events circling and leaping about in my brain. Kieren was right, the answer was so far away in the distance it seemed as if there were no answers. I knew that was the reason Kieren was getting so frustrated; the ambiguity of it all, but I also wasn’t sure how to help him with that, or if I even should.

    I was at a loss, mostly because for the first time since becoming partners I wasn’t sure where I stood with Kieren. He’d always been distant to an extent, reserved, not one to talk or share his thoughts and feelings. He spoke more often with expression and action than with words, and I’d thought I’d become rather good at interpreting those expressions and actions. Our co-fighting was one of the best of all the pairs we’d been put against, winning every time in the many different events and competitions that made up Guardian social life; and we’d emerged from so many missions that seemed on the surface impossible that we’d started to garner a reputation for those as well. The ghost team is what some called us because we moved in quietly and left without a trace. There was no way that we’d be able to do that if we weren’t supposed to be partners, right? 

    But, apparently, I wasn’t even supposed to be part of this realm, still anguishing in some human timeline somewhere.

    And maybe none of it mattered. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to be in the realm, partnered to Kieren; perhaps it was what it was, and we needed to do what we needed to do despite whatever mistakes were made or had been made along the way.

    I sat up. “Mistakes made,” I said out loud to the empty bathroom, my mind switching from the personal to the bigger picture. Tirius said we were within striking distance of an extinction event, but what if the extinction event was more than a mistake? Perhaps, like Sarajevo, this was a manipulation that we were to observe, and perhaps even stop.

    I ignored the water sloshing a bit over the side when I stood, grabbing one of the white towels from the rack behind me. Wrapping it around my middle, wet hair dripping down my back, I went out to where Kieren was still sitting on the couch reading the book Tirius had given us, long legs stretched out in front of him, bare feet propped on the glass table. The light from the fire warmed his features, softening them.

    “We need to observe the extinction event,” I said, breaking the silence.

    Not at all startled, Kieren looked up to where I stood at the hallway entrance and regarded me. Something shifted, grew darker and I realized I was dripping on the wood floor. To cover the sudden ball of nerves in my stomach, I waved a hand, the other one clenching at the towel in front of me. “I’ll clean the water up later. Did you hear what I said?”

    Kieren blinked. “About the extinction event?” he clarified, his voice off.

    I nodded. “Yes. We need to observe it. There might be nothing at all, or there might be something.”

    He tilted his head. “Wouldn’t Tirius have told us if there was something about the event to look for?”

    “Not necessarily,” I said. “The Tirius we just saw might have not known about Sarajevo. The Tirius you spoke to in the hospital wing might have been being cautious.”

    Kieren nodded slowly, thinking, his stare no longer on me but on something in the distance. 

    “It’s something,” I said. “We need to do something.”

    “We do,” he agreed.

    I waited for more of a reaction, but when nothing came, returned to the bedroom to get dressed. The clothing was just as soft on as it looked, and I wrapped my hair up into a bun at the top of my head before heading out with a towel to wipe up the puddle I’d caused. Kieren was no longer on the couch, nor in the kitchen, and I knew with those instincts that I had with him, that he had left the house all together. I sighed, throwing the towel into the laundry room with its giant washer and dryer, then went back to the couch to try reading over the scrolls. Tiredness dragged at me, and as I once more positioned myself in the couch, I knew I only had a little more in me before I had to sleep. I didn’t want to go to bed with Kieren gone, however, and I stubbornly started to read where I had left off.

    I woke in the big bed, settled under a couple of layers of blankets. Wind and rain once more pounded at the glass walls, darkness heavy outside. It was late, though I was unsure what time, and it was comfortable, and I felt safer than I had in a long while. The combination lulled me back to sleep and when I woke up again the sun was bright outside, though the light still suggested early morning. Stretching, my bones cracking as I did, I lay for a moment staring out the window at the sparkling sea beyond the waving dune grass. The home was in a lovely, quiet spot, and something very basic in me wanted to stay right where I was, in bed, staring at the view. There was enough food in the kitchen to last us for a while, and heat, and warmth, and beds and tubs, and I wanted to pause to regain some sense of self, or sense of normalcy. These things were not the gifts of those walking a Guardian path, but suddenly and completely, I just wanted to be human again. My human life hadn’t been that great, in fact, achingly lonely and bleak, but I’d slept in on Saturdays, took naps on Sundays, and, in general, had moments of rest.

    There were not a lot of moments to rest in the life that I’d chosen.

    Sighing, I kicked the covers off and wandered out to the living room and kitchen. Kieren was up, hair pulled back into a neat cue at the base of his skull, black trousers paired with a button-down white shirt. The shirt looked a lot like the ones that Tirius always wore, though Kieren’s shoulders filled the material out much more than Tirius’s ever did. He drank what smelled like coffee from a white, heavy-looking mug.

    I found the coffee in a stainless-steel pot on the stove and poured it into a matching white mug I found in the cupboard. Now that I had coffee, Kieren pushed a notepad with scribbles across the counter at me. I took it up, reading over what looked like an address.

    “The event location. It’s an industrial complex on the outskirts of the town located about five miles from here,” Kieren said. “The town isn’t large, but big enough that we will be able to blend, though the industrial complex is heavily guarded. We could infiltrate it by night, but without knowing the security measures…”

    I nodded in understanding. “What do they do there?”

    “It’s a lab.”

    “In an industrial complex?”

    “Well concealed.”

    “Which just means they’re hiding something.” I glanced out the window at the morning. “The town is a decent size?”

    “To blend, yes.”

    “And there are meeting places; lounges, bars, those type things?” 

    Kieren set his coffee down slowly, studying my face. “What are you thinking?”

    I smiled at the irony of his question but answered simply. “I was trained as a Collector even if I did walk away from it. I can get the information we need.”

    “You’re not going alone.”

    Ignoring him, I took another sip of coffee, thinking about how I would approach the situation. All I needed was a few individuals willing to tell me their stories, the rest of it was easy enough to accomplish. 

    I put my coffee down and refocused on my partner who was watching me closely. “It won’t work if you are sitting at my elbow glowering at people.” 

    “I don’t glower.”

    Raising an eyebrow, I gave him one of my looks, to which he shrugged. 

    “I don’t glower much.”

    “Whatever. They must be comfortable. They have to feel like what they’re saying is the most important thing that has ever been said.”

    “How do you make people believe that?”

    “Trick yourself into believing it first.”

    Kieren frowned.

    I left for my bedroom before he could formulate an answer, knowing I was right and knowing that he would come to the same conclusion. Changing into yet another outfit, I eyed myself in the mirror hoping that Tirius was smart enough to fill the closet with time-line appropriate clothing.

    Not for the first time, I wondered who the clothing had been for.

    Reemerging from the bedroom, Kieren waited for me. He wore a black heavy woolen jacket over the white shirt, eyes distant, face smooth and without expression.

    “I’ll drive you,” he said.

    Not seeing why he shouldn’t, I followed him out to the low, hovering car in the driveway. He opened the door for me, and I slipped into the silent interior, the leather-like seating giving off a distinct smell that reminded me of Tirius. Kieren joined me, pushing the seat back to accommodate his long legs, and started the car with a button. With an expert touch, he backed up and then eased the car out onto the road, the car nearly silent and not at all like the combustible engines of the 20th and 21st century. Though partially flying, Kieren kept the car low, and I was glad that we were driving country roads. We’d been trained in different modes of transportation throughout the timelines, but I’d never actually been so far down the human timeline, and I was glad Kieren could take care of it while I looked out the window at the passing scenery. I thought about mentioning the car to Kieren, as an example of human’s ability to adapt. They’d faced extinction before and managed to figure out how to, if not fix their damaged Earth at least try to help rather than harm, and had, for the most part, succeeded. But talking about extinction events and human timelines felt more like a conversation I would have with another Collector, not my stoic partner.

    “Did you find anything more in the book?” I asked instead.

    Kieren shook his head, his profile sharp. “It’s a chronicle of what happens here with the event, but there isn’t a lot of detail to it.”

    I frowned. “Maybe a preliminary study.”

    Not answering, Kieren turned onto another highway and civilization slowly started to make its presence known; the occasional house appearing, growing closer and closer together until we came across a bend in the road and the town spread out before us. From our perch at the top of the hill, I could see most of the town laid out, the industrial type complex in the farthest distance, and Kieren was right, the town wasn’t very big. But it was big enough for what I wanted to do.

    “Is there a coffee shop, tea shop, something along those lines?” I asked, glancing at the time on the dashboard that showed it was creeping up to the 10 am hour. 

    Kieren nodded, turning down a road that headed towards the sea, beach-like homes lining the tidy street. I wondered at their newness, as if they’d been built within the last decade, and then remembered the “when” of where we were in the timeline. From what I could remember, many of the coastal towns in the wealthier countries had changed and moved, adapting to the rising water situation.

    “Did you scout this out last night?” I asked.

    He remained silent, and I took the silence as an affirmative. As we drove, I saw on the one corner, there was a tea shop, with parking out front, several other cars taking up spaces.

    “Give me an hour,” I said as I got out, closing the door on whatever reply Kieren might have given.

    The wind cut through the sweater I wore, the sun out but still cold. I shivered, wrapping my arms around myself as I hurried to the front entrance. The glass doors were hand-painted with the words “Marley’s Tea Shop,” and when I pulled open the door, a wave of cinnamon- and nutmeg-scented warm air greeted me.

    The combination of warm air, scent, and the sound of a busy tea shop was instantly calming, and I felt myself physically relax as I walked further into the environment. As I suspected, there were individuals scattered about, some of them interacting with personal data devices that looked like very thin mats, and a few talking among themselves. Things always changed in hundreds of years of human timeline, but the need for a cozy spot to gather remained the same. 

    I ordered the daily special, a too-sweet tea that left a coating on my tongue and some kind of muffin with fruit. Settling down, I watched and listened as I picked at my muffin. The people surrounding me were not the best of choices, but then a short muscular man with graying spiked hair, and a curvy blond woman in a tracksuit came in, talking over each other. The man was especially vocal, using his hands in broad strokes as he ordered the teas, barely leaving off in his conversation with the woman as he did.

    I listened as he talked, picking up by the time they sat down that he was complaining about the especially long hours his spouse was putting in at the lab, the woman interjecting occasionally with her own story, also complaining.

    I had my couple.

    The trick with being a Collector is to become a non-entity; become what the Source wants you to be. A Collector emulates those desired characteristics to create ease, a space of honesty and openness. 

    I became what they wanted me to be; a stranger, yes, but a friendly one, eager to make friends.

    I approached where they sat, an apologetic smile on my face. “So sorry to interrupt, but I couldn’t help but overhear about your spouse. My partner and I just moved here, and he begins work there soon.”

    It was just enough for the man and he indicated I should sit, immediately launching into a full description of why working at the lab was a challenge, especially for the spouses of those working at the lab. As I listened, they shared their stories, trading laughter back and forth as they talked about the late hours, the unusual lights that came from the place, and how neither of their spouses could talk about their work there. The man’s spouse was an engineer. The woman’s spouse was a physicist.

    “So smart, right? But boy do they not have an ounce of common sense,” the male, Jake, stated as the woman, Missy, nodded in agreement. 

    “What do you mean?” I asked.

    And they told me. About how their spouses couldn’t manage to do housework; or help the children with homework. I nodded in agreement, amused to find that humans varied so little from time period to time period. The same complaints of family, jobs, and life, no matter if the complainer existed in the late 19th century or the 23rd.

    Eventually, Jake grew silent and leaned forward, lowering his voice. I mirrored his movements, knowing that he wanted to share with me a particular piece of information he thought very important. 

    He looked around the shop in a move that was almost hilarious in its obviousness, but I kept my head tilted forward and my face straight. “You see, they’re working on a new energy source. We’re not supposed to know, Missy and I, but we do. Everyone in town does.”

    “A new energy source?” I asked.

    “Jack,” Missy said, warning.

    Jack waved his hand. “If she’s going to live here, she’ll know soon enough. The experiment messes with things like bird migration, and underground water. I don’t know all the details, or the ins and outs, but I don’t think it’s the safest of things. No one says anything, of course, because the only reason why any of us live here is because you or your partner work at the lab, and they pay really well. But there’s always black air-hawks that come in and out, and not just those from the Commonwealth, from all over.”

    Missy, who didn’t want to be left out, also sat closer to me. “The thing is, my husband thinks that it has the potential to bring us completely out of the era of solar and wind, fueling space exploration, but it also has the potential of being a really big weapon.”

    I sat back. “Seriously?”

    Missy and Jack nodded. Both were uncertain if they should be telling me these things, evident by the tense shoulders and the way they kept glancing at one another, so I changed the subject, starting them on the topic of their children, both of their nonverbals easing back into relaxation. That lasted for long enough that another tea was required. It wasn’t until the end of the second cup, that I brought up the plant again, idly wondering if visitors were allowed.

    “Oh no,” Missy said. “There are guards that change every twelve hours and even when we go for the holiday party, we have to go through all the security checkpoints. I mean, really, who needs four levels of security checkpoints. Honestly.”

    Jack nodded. “You don’t visit. We’re invited once a year for the holiday event, but other than that, it is oh so off-limits. They have these killer security bots called detectors. I’ve never even heard of them anywhere else, but this place has them.”

    I wanted to ask about the detectors but stopped myself, feeling instinctively that Jack was fishing for something. Instead of asking, I finished my second cup, formulating plans to extract myself from the situation when Misty grabbed at my arm out of nowhere. It was only with extreme control that I didn’t react, though she must have seen something in my face because she dropped my arm with a blush.

    “Sorry,” she mumbled, pointing at my wrist. “I just saw your tattoo.”

    I looked down at the three dots and the single swirl of black that indicated my rank.

    Jack turned his head to see better, leaning into my bubble, a whiff of his cologne filling the air around me. “I recognize that,” he said.

    Surprised, I studied his face and then glancing at Misty saw that she too recognized the tattoo.

    “Someone you know has a similar one?” I asked, thankful my voice didn’t hold the edge of urgency I felt coiled in my belly.

    Jack frowned. “Yes, but I couldn’t tell you who. Someone at the lab maybe?” He directed the question to Misty.

    She shook her head. “I couldn’t say, but it is so unique, very neat looking but different.”

    I resisted the urge to cover the ink, smiling. “One of those young adult things. It was a design in a tattoo shop. I thought it was interesting. Not thinking,” I smiled trying to deflect.

    Luckily, an hour had passed and as if on cue, Kieren walked in the door distracting everyone. Jack immediately perked up, sitting forward to look at my partner who was glancing around the shop.

    “Oh my,” Jack said, eyeing Kieren who walked towards us having spotted me. In a flash, I saw what Jack saw, and something hitched in my chest. Kieren walked with an easy roll, broad shoulders beneath his black jacket, raven hair pulled back to show off high cheekbones and dark eyes over a generous mouth.

    I stood up when Kieren got to our table.

    He leaned down and brushed a kiss across my lips. It was brief, a hello, a how are you, entirely appropriate to help with Missy and Jack, but it was a first and in that brief contact, something else hitched in my chest, and I felt my cheeks flush.

     Hiding my sudden confusion, the sudden buzz in my hands, I looked away from him to the two watching us. “Kieren,” I said, smiling over my nerves. “This is Jake and Missy. They’ve been giving me the insights.”

    Kieren smiled at the pair, a rare sight even if it was fake, and the two of them reacted with the same version of a flirty smile.

    “Learn anything?” he asked.

    “I have,” I said.

    “Great. But we have…”

    I nodded. “I know.” I gave Jack and Missy my best friend smile. “Thank you, hopefully, we will run into each other again.”

    “We’re having a dinner on Friday. You both should come,” Jack said, emphasizing the “both.” 

    I nodded, glancing over at Kieren who also nodded though couldn’t all the way hide a flash of reserve. Jack appeared not to notice, and contact information was exchanged, Kieren providing a phone number with the promise of trying to make the dinner in two days’ time. Missy waved, and we walked out of the shop, our backs to the two of them though I could almost feel the whispers as we walked away.

    Once more in the car, I relayed the information to my partner in a rush, slowing down the flow of words when I realized I was rambling.

    “Guards. Detectors.” Kieren repeated turning down another street that led away from the sea this time. “Not anything we haven’t handled before.”

    “Right. But, a lot more technologically advanced then what we’ve dealt with in a long time.”

    “There was the Riot,” Kieren reminded me, which was a civilization more advanced but hadn’t involved infiltrating a secure complex.

    “And it isn’t just about infiltrating,” I continued. “We need to observe. That is the primary goal. We’ve got to figure out if this is a manipulation situation, and what we should do if it is.”

    Kieren glanced over at me. “Yeah, well, we only have a handful of time.”

    I turned in my seat to look at him. “When does the event happen?”

    “Tomorrow.”

    I sat back straight, staring out the window. “We could always go back further in the timeline, to try to observe for longer.”

    “We could. But, as you’re always saying, everything for a reason. Tirius wanted us here during this time.”

    I knew he was right, but one day was hardly any time at all. “I have one more idea for collecting, and then we’ll have to see if we can get in tonight. Maybe we can study the logs, security footage.”

    We stopped off for lunch at a small diner, eating in near silence as we thought our own thoughts. My thoughts were most definitely not on Kieren, refocusing repeatedly on the conversation with Missy and Jack. I wrote as much as I could down. Usually, I would have recorded the conversation, written it as part of my internal log, but interface use was still off-limits, so I did it with pen and paper. It probably looked a bit strange, but even at the end of the 21st century, no one seemed to notice the archaic use of writing utensils.

    After lunch, I explained to Kieren the rest of my plan and dutifully, at the end of the afternoon as workers started to leave the industrial complex, he dropped me off at the local pub. The pub was trickier than the tea shop in that I was a single female, and this always went sideways in human timelines, but it was also something I could use, and I did, getting several men from the industrial complex’s docks into a conversation over pints. Alcohol was another never-ending human pastime. This time I’d told Kieren not to come in, that I would go to him after I was done collecting. I halfway expected him to ignore my request, but he stayed away as the workers told me more about the security system, explaining the different shifts, and regaling me with stories about the strange occurrences that had occurred the last few weeks. When one of the burlier ones with a deep red beard started to get handsy, I excused myself from their company and wandered out into the now dark night.

    Kieren waited in the car a block away. I felt his frustration as soon as I got in, his face carefully blank. 

    “That took long enough,” he said, turning the car on.

    I ignored the comment and told him what I’d found out. “We have enough to explore tonight, but I’ll need to go back and get my weapons.”

    Kieren agreed with a nod, the soft green glow of the dash highlighting his face. I wondered what he’d done while I was in the pub, it had been several hours, but refrained from asking. Instead, I brought out the notebook once more and started in on a sketch from the limited amount of data that I’d learned. There were four different areas of access, all guarded by detectors that sounded very much like highly sophisticated motion sensors. The only way to get beyond the perimeter was to go through the two guard stations, which were manned by four guards on an alternating schedule all day and all night. 

    And that was the exterior security measures. 

    There were interior measures as well, though no one I’d talked to had been much help in that regard. But there was ductwork for sure, with a possible entrance at the docks that were located on the seaside of the complex. We really needed a map of the ductwork as going in blind was not the best scenario, but then nothing about our situation was the best scenario.

    With night full on and a sliver of a moon, the house looked deserted when we pulled in, but I noticed that Kieren tensed as he slowed the car down to a stop.

    “Someone’s here,” he said.

    I focused on the scene before me, noticing nothing but a dark house, the night sky, and the sound of the ever-present wind and sea. But underneath those things, there was a presence, a shift in the energy about the place. 

    “You have nothing on you?” Kieren asked, opening the car door.

    “No,” I answered, knowing that he meant weapons. It was never a good idea to bring weapons when collecting. A weapon on a person gives off its own tang, influencing the way a person interacts with the world. I’d wanted to seem harmless; having knives strapped to my body was hardly going to help with that image. 

    “Behind me,” he said in response and I let him take lead without protest, getting out of the car and falling behind his tall form. My hand itched for my staff that was currently stashed underneath a pile of clothing in the bedroom closet, and I briefly reconsidered my policy on having a weapon at all times. It was one thing to be a Collector without a weapon; being a Guardian without a weapon was an entirely different animal. 

    Kieren headed for the left side of the house where the bedrooms were located and I followed, staying several steps behind him as I promised, walking in his shadow. Gaining the back of the house, the wind took on a different level of intensity, barely contained by the rolling dunes of seagrass. There was a salty, electrified taste to the air too, as if another storm approached far off at sea. Kieren stalled in front of me as we came to the corner of the back of the house, dropping down to a crouch. He crept low to the ground towards the wall of windows that were putting off a faint orange glow. I expected Guardians, or perhaps even people from the town, but instead, as we came upon the large floor to ceiling windows it was Tirius sitting there staring at the fire.

    “Of course,” I heard Kieren breathe.

    Still alert, I took the lead, walking around him and opening the sliding glass door that we’d left unlocked earlier in the day. 

    Tirius looked up from the scrolls he held in his hands, sparing us a glance before looking back down at the heavy parchment. At first, I thought he held the scrolls that he’d handed over to me, but the ones he had were darker brown and even from where I was across the room, I could tell that the writing was bolder, scrawling large across the page.

    “What did you find out?” Tirius asked as Kieren closed the door behind us, partially shutting out the sound of sea and wind.

    Feeling Kieren’s tension next to me, I answered before my partner could say anything. “The lab is heavily guarded, almost impenetrable, and we’re not sure if we will be able to get the information we are looking for before the event tomorrow.”

    Tirius did look up then, his dual-colored eyes moving between Kieren and me. “The information?”

    I sighed, going to the kitchen and getting some water and some more nuts. The pint of beer sloshed in my stomach uncomfortably. 

    “Which Tirius are we speaking to this time?” Kieren asked.

    “The one that is going to send you back to warn Wren to leave the Citadel. She’s about to have an unfortunate accident,” Tirius said, voice dry.

    I looked up from my nuts. “What?”

    Tirius sighed himself, putting the scrolls down and rubbing at his forehead, the lines there more pronounced then I’d ever seen them. That combined with the tired at his eyes and the slight gray in his normally dark curly hair, I wondered what time this Tirius was from, and then on the heels of that thought, wondered if it really mattered. 

    “You’ve come back to find us,” I said before he could answer my initial question. “You’re again messing with timelines. Tirius, what’s going on? You keep leading us on these merry chases of information. Not one version of you I’ve talked to has given me a straight answer. What’s going on? And if you don’t know, what’s your theory? What are you having me, us, do?”

    Tirius dropped his hand from his forehead and looked on me with something akin to fondness. It was a look he used to give me on occasion when I answered a question with a coherent answer.

    “You died,” Kieren said to Tirius before the older man could answer. He had followed me to the kitchen and he now leaned up against the counter; a coiled threat as he assessed the Archivist. 

    Tirius refocused on my partner, his facial expression cooling to chilly. “They did try to kill me, yes. Is that what the Warden told you? That I died from my injuries while in the hospital?”

    I looked over at Kieren and saw his jaw jump and knew that was exactly what had happened.

    “So. You didn’t die from your wounds in France?” Kieren pursued.

    “Wounds from Germany, and no, I didn’t. I have a stubborn way of continuing to live.”

    “And when we were in Sarajevo?” I asked.

    Tirius inclined his head. “I do apologize.”

    “You left me.”

    He smiled his slight smile that said more than it should. “I knew you could handle it.”

    I glared, which caused his smile to grow slightly, a lopsided thing that I rarely saw and as a result disarmed me. “Nothing happened, did it?” he asked.

    I shook my head. “Not until I returned.”

    “And now she is on the run as well,” Kieren said gesturing vaguely in my direction. “Because of you, because of your tactics.” He paused, leaning forward towards the other man. “Why don’t you just go talk to the Masters, ask them yourself, find out your own information?”

    I tensed at the suggestion but Tirius smiled and the smile was gentle as if he knew something Kieren was oblivious about, which only served to make Kieren’s scowl deepen.

    Tirius continued as if Kieren’s words were not still echoing through the room. “And now you know the identities of two Masters that are involved in the situation, which is information I very much need.” Tirius glanced at me, then back to Kieren who glared in an unusually blatant sign of aggression. Tirius endured the look, not reacting with aggression of his own but rather a gentling as he regarded my partner. “And you, young Guardian, have a role to play right now. You need to go back to the Master Realm and find her. You are to tell her to leave and give her this, or her life is no longer her own, or yours.” He held up a pinky drive and I recognized it for the one that my partner had slipped me on that evening after returning from Sarajevo.

    Kieren looked over at me, and I nodded, explaining to him what had happened. Suddenly, the difference in Kieren’s demeanor that night made a lot more sense.

    Kieren walked over to Tirius and took the drive, pocketing it. 

    Tirius rattled off the exact Travel coordinates. “Watch for your previous self,” Tirius warned.

    Kieren said nothing at all, looking over to where I stood. He communicated something with his eyes, a goodbye of sorts, though I wasn’t sure. “I’ll be back directly,” he said, then shimmered and disappeared.

    I stared at where he’d stood for a moment longer, the pressure of his existence lessening now that he was no longer in the timeline, though not disappearing entirely. I looked over at Tirius. “You’re playing us like game pieces; he doesn’t appreciate it.”

    “And you?” Tirius asked.

    “I’m used to it,” I replied. Putting the nuts back in the cupboard, I got another glass of water and walked over to where Tirius had surrounded himself with books and scrolls. I took a seat at the couch, the leather-like surface making a sound as I sat, toeing my shoes off and digging my toes into the fluffy white carpet. 

    “What’s all this?” I asked, indicating the many rolls and books now littering the low table.

    “Evidence that Masters are manipulating the human timeline to ensure failure, along with several other timelines, and evidence showing that a civil war is about to break out between two different factions of Masters.”

    I snorted. “That’s all?”

    Tirius’s facial expression hardly changed as he looked down at his evidence. “Mostly having to do with the manipulations. It has gone too far, and the game is no longer a game but one with lives at stake, a great many lives.”

    Startled, my stomach clenched. “What? You know this for sure?”

    “Within a certain parameter of doubt, yes.”

    I jerked my chin towards the documentation. “And this proves it?”

    “No, but it is information.” His voice trailed off, his gaze on the things in front of him, the light from the fireplace flickering across the surfaces. Outside rain had started, pelting the giant glass windows, creating a strange hybrid of dark and light. Tirius shook his head. “Sometimes that’s all we have and all that is needed.”

    I sat on the couch edge, looking at the mess in front of us because I wasn’t sure where else to look. My brain was not processing at the level that it should’ve, feeling sluggish as I tried to work out what Tirius meant by that level of manipulation. “But why?”

    “That’s the question.”

    “You don’t know?”

    “I have my theories, but my theories are just that; the reality is that this timeline is in danger of going extinct again because of manipulation and in direct violation of the rules.”

    I stared up at him. “What rules?” 

    “The rules laid down by the Council.”

    I frowned. I’d heard of the Council of course, but as a myth more than anything. “And who is part of the Council and why haven’t you talked about it before?”

    Tirius shook his head once, dark curls moving against his too-pale skin, another piece of information that he wasn’t going to share, which spiked at the low level of anger and irritation that I constantly carried. “Tirius. Give me information. I am operating in the dark. What is the Council?”

    He rubbed at his eyes and then looked over at me. “The Council is the Originals. It is the Creators.”

    I shook my head. “That’s a myth.”

    “Where did you come from?” Tirius asked, surprising me.

    “The human timeline,” I answered.

    “Created by?”

    “A Master,” I suggested.

    “Who are?”

    I paused, leaping. “From timelines themselves.”

    He nodded and I saw it. “But who created the original timelines?” I asked and looked around the room, the modern design with the white couches, the marble fireplace, the large windows as if seeing it for the first time. “So not a myth.”

    Tirius shook his head. “Not a myth.”

    “And you’ve spoken with this, Council?”

    He shook his head. “No. But I, along with the Warden and the Masters have ways to communicate with them.”

    Waving at the documentation before me, I looked up at Tirius. “And they know of all this.”

    “I imagine so.”

    “But yet they do nothing?”

    He let me stew with the question, not answering, and I realized after a moment what he suggested in his silence. “Because we are but a piece of a larger reality. An experiment in our own right?” I asked.

    Shrugging, Tirius suddenly looked much older than he ever had before and though I had more questions, always with the questions, I narrowed the focus back to the situation with the human timeline. I knew the human experiment had failed once before, and I knew that this version had undergone several periods of possible extinction, either because of manipulations or because of the flaws in the design, but Tirius was suggesting failure was the purpose of the manipulations, which of course, begged the question of why.

    “Tell me what has happened,” Tirius prompted, pulling me from my thoughts.

    I took a deep breath and let it out slowly, swiping a palm over the coolness of the couch cushion. 

    “Perhaps I will see something that you don’t,” Tirius said unnecessarily, leaning his long body into the back of the couch.

    I told him, starting from the point that we received orders to bring him back from France; being abducted in Rushiel; what he showed me in Sarajevo; what I’d discovered at the cottage; my time in Darkside and seeing Master Cynthe and the other two Masters; and returning with Kieren to be met with an assassination attempt. The story of Master Cynthe and the other Masters garnered no reaction, but when I told him about the assassination attempt, something like understanding flickered across his face, quickly replaced with his neutral expression. I continued without asking for an explanation, finishing the tale by relating the information we’d learned today. 

    At the exact moment I was telling him about the dinner on Friday, Kieren walked in from the front door, startling me enough that I went for the staff on the table. He stood in the entryway, his hair undone, soaking and windswept. He wore different clothing than what he had on when he’d Traveled, the material worse for wear. I stared at him for a moment before I realized he was shivering, dripping on the floor, hooded eyes taking in the scene but in a kind of fevered way.

    I went and got towels and a blanket from my bedroom, bringing them back and holding them as the still shaking Kieren stripped out of his clothes, leaving them in a puddle on the floor. His skin pebbled, the scar that ran along his flat stomach purple with cold, the usual warm brown color of his skin tinged towards pasty. He took the blankets without a sound and wrapped himself into the folds.

    Concerned, I refrained from asking him questions, allowing him space to sit down in one of the deep chairs that were angled towards the couch and the fire, his form disappearing into the blankets. I went to the kitchen and put the kettle on. I watched Tirius watch Kieren and was surprised and thankful when he also didn’t ask how my partner came to be soaking wet, with different clothing, and visibly in worse wear than he was when he left moments before.

    “I think something stronger,” Tirius said, breaking the silence, causing me to jump. He glanced over at me. “The cupboard above the stove.”

    The cupboard was well above my reach, but I lightly jumped to the counter next to it, leaning sideways to open the cupboard. I found different liquor bottles lined up in neat rows. 

    “The Ritis,” Tirius said.

    Reading the labels, the Ritis was a jeweled cut bottle with an etched label in a language I couldn’t read, though the lettering was such that I could make out the label’s title. I took it down from the cupboard, finished up the tea and brought it out on a wooden tray that Kieren had discovered earlier that day.

    Tirius opened the bottle of liquor and poured a half measure out in the glass I’d provided. Kieren took the glass without question.

    “A full drink. No sipping,” Tirius said, and Kieren did as he was told, throwing back his head, the liquor disappearing down his throat.

    Kieren managed not to sputter, green eyes watering towards hazel. He handed the glass back to Tirius who refilled it and took a shot for himself. When Tirius offered me the same, I shook my hood, opting for the tea. A pinkish tinge had appeared along Kieren’s high cheekbones, and as I watched, his entire person seemed to relax back into the chair, snuggling into the blanket that I’d provided for him, dark hair wet against the light gray material, leaving a wet mark.

    We watched as he fought sleep, eyes closing and opening, until he succumbed, head slumping onto the chair back, breath evening out into the steady roll of sleep.

    I glanced at Tirius who was watching my partner. “That put him to sleep,” I said, annoyed.

    Tirius nodded, looking down at the bottle in his hand. “It has that effect on certain beings.”

    “Not on humans?” 

    Tirius shook his head and then poured himself another shot. “Not on humans, well unless a great deal more than a shot is consumed,” he said, the liquor disappearing with a flick of his wrist. He put the bottle down and glanced over at me apologetically. “I know you wanted answers.”

    I shrugged, looking at Kieren who rested peacefully. I studied his relaxed face; the long black eyelashes, the straight, sharp nose, the full lips and strong jaw shadowed with stubble. Worry hitched in my chest, combining with the security I felt whenever in his presence.

    “Have you fallen in love with him then?” Tirius asked.

    The question took a moment to penetrate my brain, and I looked away from Kieren towards Tirius, blinking several times as I tried to process the words. “I’m not in love with him,” I said after a moment. “He’s my partner. It’s a different kind of bond.”

    Tirius look pinned me. I couldn’t read his expression, but something along his mouth suggested knowing with a hint of amusement.

    I shook my head, irritation spiking. “Seriously, Tirius. Guardian partners are close out of necessity. We trained together for cycles before even going out on an assignment, and since then, we’ve been constant companions, relying on one another. When your life is so wholly intertwined with another, it creates a bond that probably looks like love in the human sense of things but isn’t.”

    Tirius spread his hands out before him. Like the rest of him, his fingers were long, tapered at the end; elegant hands that were mesmerizing under the right circumstances. I’d watch him use those hands to distract Collectors and Tellers in order to get more information, to expand on stories, to move into territories that the speaker wanted to avoid.

    I looked away from his hands, staring resolutely at the fire that leaped and bowed in much the same way a wood fire would dance, though it was all a trick to make the solar-powered fire look real. The effect was well done.

    “My Guardian knowledge is limited,” Tirius admitted after a while. “The nature of the Archivist is to know all. The nature of the Warden is to guard all. We’ve come to an impasse more than once.”

    I frowned. “You didn’t know about the conditioning? The bonding?”

    “Oh no, I do; in fact, I have a few ideas about how that partnership works.”

    “Partner theory,” I said, recalling what Kieren had spoken about.

    Tirius raised an eyebrow. “Partner theory?”

    “I don’t know if that’s an official name; but, apparently, the Guardian partnerships are built on the idea that we are inherently connected to certain individuals.” I nodded towards the scrolls I’d been looking at before Tirius had arrived and scattered his own work everywhere. “It’s in the scroll history that you sent with me, and you’ve mentioned it before, though not in those terms.”

    Tirius waved a hand. “I know what you’re talking of; it’s a theory I’ve been pursuing myself, but I didn’t know that the Guardians had such ideas.” He frowned, clearly not liking the idea that there was something he didn’t know.

    “It’s what informs the entire basis of the Guardian partnership,” Kieren said, making both Tirius and I startle in our different ways.

    Kieren opened his eyes. Though his body remained relaxed in the chair, his eyes were sharp as they took in the scene. 

    “And you know this?” Tirius asked.

    Inhaling and exhaling slowly, Kieren sat up. His loose hair had started to dry, creating a black frame around his face. “In order to make a decision on who partners with who, a Warden needs to understand the connection that pre-exists.”

    Tirius nodded slowly, studying Kieren as if a specimen under a microscope, and like clockwork, Kieren reacted negatively to the scrutiny, sitting up further and then pulling his hair back from his face, tying it into a knot at the base of his skull. It was a familiar gesture of controlled aggression and I saw it for what it was, and I changed the subject even as I vaguely wondered why Tirius aggravated Kieren rather than soothing him in the way I knew he could. 

    “What happened?” I asked.

    Kieren switched his gaze from Tirius’s curiosity to mine. “I’ve found a way to get into the complex.”

    My mind switched gears. “What?”

    Kieren wrapped the blanket more completely around his body, shivering slightly. Even in the limited light, I could see his skin still held a tinge of unhealthy color. “I delivered the message, but then came back earlier in the timeline. I’ve been here for a week.”

    “For a week?” I repeated.

    “Staying at an abandoned building in town, yes. I only had an approximation of when we came back from the Master realm, so I’ve been watching to see when we would arrive, and then it was just a matter of following us and figuring out the day that Tirius Arrived. When I saw you in the tea shop today, I knew that tonight was when I would leave, so I did one last reconnaissance to see if I could gather any more information on getting into the lab.”

    Amused, I smiled at him. “And something happened?”

    Kieren’s look was pained as he glanced down at his blanket encased body. “Almost got caught, but I’ve figured out a way in and I’ve picked up information along the way, including that it is a team of two individuals that are heading the project, a Dr. Steven Blox and a Dr. Patrick McMullen. They’re the scientists that are pushing the experiment along. I did some research, and they’ve also had quite a few other breakthroughs in the last thirty years of their working together. I haven’t been able to observe anything because up until tonight I’ve only been able to get through the first two layers of security, but now I know the way, we can go in and be able to observe the entire event.”

    “And get blown up in the meantime,” Tirius said.

    “We’ll Travel before that,” Kieren and I said at the same time.

    Tirius looked at us, amused again.

    “We’ve done it more than once; Travelling moments before a catastrophic event,” I explained.

    “That’s something Guardians do a lot of?” Tirius asked.

    I shrugged. Kieren answered. “It happens more than you think.”

    Tirius got up from the couch, picking up the bottle of liquor and the tray of tea things that had since gotten cold. “I think you forget who I am,” he said, taking those things to the kitchen.

    I again changed the subject. “So, we can go in, observe, see if we see any manipulations.”

    Kieren nodded. “As many times as we need to.”

    Tirius came back, reaching for a thick book that he’d placed on the glass table before us. “Time is always of the essence,” he said with snark, cracking the book open and beginning to read before Kieren and I could reply.

    We ignored him.

    “Are you sure you’re alright?” I asked. “You looked terrible coming in.”

    Kieren nodded. “I’ve been better, but a whole lot worse as well. This isn’t going to be easy, but maybe we’ll get some answers, pinpoint a specific individual and we can end this madness.” 

    We planned until Kieren could no longer stay awake and my own tiredness weighed down on me. Tirius read through it all, ignoring us, and I tried not to let his presence distract me, though I couldn’t help but wonder at his sudden appearance and what it foretold. But those thoughts were circular, not at all concrete, and the planning of how to infiltrate the lab was much more familiar and logical, so I happily lost myself in preparation. Towards dawn, Kieren stumbled off to his room and I closed my eyes for a moment, feeling the grit of tiredness, stretching my arms above my head.

    Tirius still read, though his mess of books and scrolls were now neatly stacked on the table. He’d remained silent through the entirety of Kieren and my conversation, and not wanting to get into a conversation with him, I got up to leave without saying anything.

    He stopped me halfway out of the room. “This event changes human history,” he said.

    Sleep clawed at my eyelids, but I paused to look at my old mentor. 

    “I know. It’s a near-extinction event.” I waved a hand. “Don’t worry. If there is someone manipulating the event to create it, we’ll figure it out. I understand.”

    Tirius put down his book. “No, I don’t think you do. This event changes the entire trajectory of the human timeline.”

    I raised an eyebrow, irritated in my tiredness and in the way Tirius continuously spoke around subjects. “I know.”

    Exhaling in a rush, Tirius ran a hand through his dark curls, suddenly looking tired and old. “Listen, Wren. This event does not end humanity, it enables further evolving. It is a catalyst, like Sarajevo, but not a catalyst of death.”

    I frowned. “Billions die.”

    “Yes, but the billions who don’t die emerge triumphantly. This event kick starts a long period of evolution and growth. The billions who survive take leaps and bounds towards the betterment of all humanity. I have observed from a distance this event again and again, both before and after. It is the transition between evolutional stages.”

    I watched the sky pinken with dawn as I thought through the implications. “You think someone is going to try to stop it rather than cause it? If you knew that, why have you brought us here? If you’ve observed this, why do you need us to do it?”

    “Because you and your partner will be able to observe it up close.”

    I nodded. That made sense. With our training, we could get closer to the event than Tirius or any other Collector would be able to. “You want us to gather information for you.”

    He inclined his head. “Yes.”

    “And if there is a manipulation?”

    “Observe.”

    “Even if it changes the entire trajectory of the human timeline?”

    “We’ve seen a manipulation happen before; it might be part of the story, part of the Truth of things.”

    I shook my head. “That makes no sense, Tirius. Are we trying to stop these manipulations or not?”

    “Yes, sometimes; no, other times.”

    “Some of them?”

    “It does look like on occasion the manipulations are for something other than the advancement of timelines. In that instance, perhaps it is our duty to stop them.”

    “Okay. That makes sense to me. Protect the timelines, allowing them to advance. But then which ones are manipulated for good and which ones are manipulated for some other reason?”

    Tirius’s shoulders drooped. “I don’t know,” he said forcefully, looking at the piles of books and scrolls. “I don’t know enough. That’s what so frustrating. There’s a picture here. I know there’s a picture, and I can’t see it, not the entirety of it at least. Me. The Archivist, can’t see.” He was staring at his piles of scrolls and books, brow scrunched and mouth in a grim line, but then directed his gaze towards me. “Do you understand how unusual that is, to not be able to see the pattern, the truth of things underlying all that exists? There is a pattern, but it is elusive, far away, flitting and dancing just out of my reach. I know it has something to do with this partner theory that Kieren spoke of, and which you have been reading about. The partners are key. But, there isn’t always a pair that exists in these moments of cataclysmic events. Sometimes, but not always, and so there is no consistency. I just can’t see it.”

    The sky had begun to mold into day, pink turning blue. “Maybe we just need sleep?”

    As if the comment jolted him, Tirius’s expression softened into an unusual look akin to fondness. “Of course. Go. Sleep. You and your partner have a night ahead of you when you wake. Though I would caution any interference. All for a reason despite what it may seem.”

    I stalled, studying Tirius, noticing that, at some point, a dark stubble had started in along his jaw and cheeks. “Doesn’t that contradict what you’ve been saying? That if left alone, then yes, the timelines move according to purpose, but with these manipulations that is no longer valid?” I paused, studying Tirius. “And if that is the case why didn’t we just stop the murder in Sarajevo?”

    A flicker of amusement then, around his mouth. “Haven’t you been listening? It is not a simple thing, Wren. These timelines are tapestries, all woven together. Of course, we could eliminate that event, thereby changing all human time. That’s the point, that event, that moment, changed everything.”

    I shook my head. “But then, are you saying that even the manipulations are part of the big picture?”

    Tirius was slow to answer. “I think there is a bigger picture, and I am starting to wonder if some of these manipulations are part of this picture, though how that would be I’m not clear about. You see, we move so much in and out of the timelines that we forget that at one point they didn’t exist, you didn’t exist. As of now, from what I can gather this timeline is still moving forward, is still being created. The experiment has not failed despite the manipulations. So, what does that mean and where does this conflict between Masters fit in and what, if anything, should be done about it? There are so many variables and those are the only ones I know about.”

    I had no answer, and he expected none, waving his hand at me. “It’s time to sleep now. There will be answers, we just don’t yet know all the players.”

    “Are you sure?”

    “About sleep? Yes.”

    Shaking my head. “No. About the manipulations? That something is actually happening?”

    A ghost smile played along his lips. “If you weren’t so tired, you wouldn’t ask me that question. It’s like me asking you if you’re sure that you and your partner were about to be assassinated?”

    I thought back on that moment in the woods and nodded, though doubt niggled at my brain. Were we about to be assassinated by Master Ral? I couldn’t be entirely sure.

    “Sleep, Wren. We’ll talk more later.”

    I did as he said, going to my room and falling into the too-big bed and letting myself slip under into darkness.

    Originally published 2020, copywrite 2020

  • Random Thought…

    Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

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

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

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

    No solutions here. Just a random thought…

  • Chapter 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “What?” Kieren whispered from behind me.

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

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

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

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

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

    “We have to go,” I said needlessly.

    Kieren shook his head once. “Where?”

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

    I smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    I agreed, following him down into the dim light. 

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

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

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

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

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

    “Catapult?” I suggested.

    “Might as well try.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Your guess is as good as mine.”

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

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

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

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

    “Okay, then?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

    Kieren and I stared down at it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Kieren followed me further into the maze without comment. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “…and we were attacked,” I finished.

    He nodded.

    “Works for me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “I know where we are,” Kieren said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    I nodded. “The fish.”

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

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

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

    “We need to go,” Kieren said. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “A private elevator,” Kieren said.

    “To his private chambers.”

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

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

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

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

    “Convenient.”

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

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

    “I could.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “True.”

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

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

    “We need your help,” I started.

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

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

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

    I allowed a smile. “Guardian, remember?”

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

    “Information, about an address.”

    “And the address is?”

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

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

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

    “You gave it to me,” Kieren said.

    “Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

    “But you know the place,” I led.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “You mean about my doppelganger?”

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

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

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

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

    “Not simply look,” Tirius said.

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

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

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

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

    “Tirius,” I said.

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

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

    “The inability to be involved?” Tirius pushed.

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

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

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

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

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

    “And you’ve found success in that?”

    I remained silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    I nodded and turned to the door.

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

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

    Originally published 2020, copywrite 2020

  • Chapter 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    I watched Kieren walk away and wondered.

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

    There would be time for questions. Later. 

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

    “Take the big room,” Kieren said.

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

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

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

    “A likeness for sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Exactly.”

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

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

    “Return the favor?” I asked.

    He shrugged. 

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

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

    “Rules?”

    “Yes.”

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

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

    “That didn’t stop the Archivist.”

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

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

    “He’s not a person.”

    “He’s not a god either.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    I inhaled slowly.

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

    I swallowed on a dry throat. “Why?”

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

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

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

    Somewhere behind me the kettle started to whistle.

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

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

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

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

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

    “So, back to the realm.”

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

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

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

    “And if he doesn’t have answers?”

    “Then we figure out something else.”

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

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

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

    I drank my tea and pretended not to care.

    Originally published 2020, copywrite 2020

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