Author’s Notes and Assorted BS for Part Two: Thanks to everyone who told me how much they enjoyed part one of Origins and told me if I didn’t get out part two soon they’d hire a hitman to take me out. You’d be surprised how much something like that spurs me on. Actually, part one was very well-received, and that in itself is usually enough for me to at least consider putting together part two. I will offer a warning, however… Part Two is quite a bit longer and even less ASFR-like than Part One, if such a thing is possible. Right now, I feel like I’m huffing and puffing along, trying to keep pace with the characters, and if something ASFR-ish happens, I’m more than happy to scribe it down. Otherwise, I’m just happy to be churning out 3 pages a night, and I’ll gladly let the length and chapter endings sort themselves out later. So consider yourself duly warned. The only other warning I offer here is one you should be accustomed to by now if you read anything: Take nothing for granted.
Special Thanks go again to everyone who appears in this story, for either giving me the okay to play around with your own character a bit and welcoming him or her into my imagination or for at least pretending I did. Again, I’ve tried to keep those characters’ motives, reactions, dialogue and such at least fairly close to what I’ve seen in their role-playing sessions in #asfr or in stories about them. And once again, if I’ve goofed somewhere or made your character do or say something that he or she would never say or do, you have complete permission to take Paris and bastardize him in your own stories. I’ll probably welcome it, in fact, with Paris being the right bastard he is, anyway.
Also, special thanks go out to my select group of pre-readers and editors, for telling me what I’ve done right, wrong, or very wrong in this part and in part one. You people know who you are. Getting the seal of approval from you is always what makes stories like this worthwhile.
And one more little bit: Thanks to Ruckus for extra editing help, and not forcing me to work on another deadline while I was working on this story. And thanks as well go to ShortDog, for getting me a copy of Word97 with a "Save to HTML" function so I didn’t have to cut and paste, then go through and highlight every bit of italics, underlining, font changes and list function and change them manually. If not for you, I would still be sitting in front of Netscape Composer in a puddle of my own drool and wondering why I have to write epic thirty page chapters with massive internal dialogue. Thanks a bunch, you two!
And for all of you who read this and wonder what it’s really like in #asfr on Sandnet, get yourself an IRC program and join the fun! Sit around, chat, get hit by a stray blast from a sonic pulse rifle… it’s all worth it. Actually, it is great fun, and I highly recommend it. You can meet some pretty decent folk there and watch these sorts of stories develop firsthand.
But I’ve prattled enough. Go ahead… this is what you were looking for when you loaded this, anyway.
I. Prologue: The Fabric TornSomewhere else...
The barrier had been breached.
Randall McAffee was already in a black mood, and the news his secretary
passed on to him didn’t help matters much.
* * *
ATHENS, Greece – (Associated Press) Three thousand years of erosion
finally brought down what invasions by Romans and Turks could not.
One of the support columns for the Temple of Athena Nike, one of the longest-standing
architectural marvels of the ancient world, collapsed today, injuring two
archaeologists and an anthropologist who were working on the site.
Luckily, no one was killed, and all three were released after examination.
* * *
CHICAGO – (Scripps Howard Wire Service) Call it the luck of the draw,
twenty-four times. After eight weeks with no winning ticket matching the
six numbers drawn, the Illinois Lottery’s number combination for Friday
matched an astonishing twenty-four separate tickets. Twenty-four
lucky lottery players will split the thirty-five million dollar jackpot.
State officials claimed that most of the winning tickets were sold inside
the state of Illinois, but eight tickets were sold in towns close to the
border, including two each in Indiana, Missouri and Wisconsin. Stranger,
more than half the lottery tickets we’re Quick Picks, chosen at random
by lottery computers.
* * *
WAYERTON, New Brunswick – (Associated Press) Experts say the possibility
of sextuplets alone is staggering, but that didn’t stop Hettie.
* * *
MILAN, Italy – (United Press International) Three passenger flights
narrowly avoided colliding into one another when all three planes incredibly
ran out of fuel and were forced to abort their usual flight paths to make
forced landings near Linate International Airport.
II. Reprise: Five DaysNova-Phoenix brushed his cheek lovingly with one hand, so soft a caress he couldn’t rightly say he felt it. Her long hair fell forward, dangled tantalizingly before his face. Her body was poised above him, lithe and sensuous, clad only in barely-concealing linen. Paris looked up at her, trembling in the sight of such perfection. Around them, the lazy grasses in the Elerian Fields waved in the morning breeze, as if bowing to them.
"I’ve known this day would come," she whispered to him. "Ever since I met you, I could feel the Bond calling to me."
Paris started to ask what she meant by that, but before words came out, she pulled his face to hers and kissed him passionately.
She broke away for a moment, smiled, and looked at him through half-lidded eyes as one hand reached down to tear open his tunic. He gaped at her, longing.
"Paris, let us have this night together. Let me be your every desire." Her hand found the clasp of her linen garment, drew it aside and suddenly she was astride him, naked and beautiful. He wanted to see her bared, the perfect form stripped of all its covering, but she gave him no chance. She leaned close to him, kissing him, running her hands on his bared chest. He wanted to do the same for her. He wanted to feel the warmth of her skin beneath his hands, but he couldn’t move or speak. He was paralyzed, in a state of total bliss.
Her lips sought out his ear, nibbled on the lobe. She whispered to him.
"I want to fuck you like an animal."
He blinked, felt his face redden. He only knew a scant few people who even used that expletive— including his father— and certainly hadn’t imagined that Nova would be among them. "You want to what? "
"I want to feel you from the inside."
He started to sit up and respond, but she bore him back to the ground, delicate hands tugging at his breeches even as she kissed his neck. Paris couldn’t think straight. There was a pounding in his head, reverberating in his skull. She was touching him in ways he couldn’t imagine, let alone visualize, and it seemed like her hands were everywhere and he couldn’t figure exactly what she was going to do next because he had never, really, well… Did she just say something about bringing him closer to his god?
"Ahuh!" Paris gasped and sat bolt upright, finding himself covered from the shoulders down by a length of white linen. He quickly blinked fatigue from his eyes, assessing his new surroundings. He was in the room now, lying on the couch. He heard a loud, strange sort of noise throughout the room, like a mixture of a reed pipe and a piece of metal being filed; a man’s voice talked rhythmically along with it. The man’s voice sounded insanely familiar. Memories slowly began to make their way through a sleepy haze. A dream, he realized, dropping his face to his hands.
"You’re awake," a voice said, from behind him, close to his ear.
He yelped, jumping off the couch and whirling around at the same time. Nova sat on the couch— thankfully, she was fully clothed— and looked at him with her head cocked cutely to one side, her orange-red bangs artfully falling over one eye. She blinked at him, curious, and pursed her lips.
"What is it?" She asked. She had to speak up to be heard over the clamor.
Paris wasn’t at all sure whether to sag with relief or become even more tense when he saw who it was. He settled for rubbing at the bridge of his nose.
"Nova," he murmured finally. A dream, idiot, he reminded himself, although he felt the color rising to his cheeks at the very thought of the vision. He raised his voice. "Sorry. You… you startled me, that’s all. I’m fine."
She listened, nodded. "If you say so, Paris. I’m sorry if the music woke you up, but I was cleaning up around here, and music seems to help the work more tolerable. Call it human influence."
He squinted, could not make any music out through the rhythmic pounding and scratchy voice of the man. "Music?"
"Nine Inch Nails," she said, laughing. He saw now that her head was bobbing fractionally to the beat of the noise.
"I... see." He listened to it, experimentally, trying to find a beat or a tune to the music that would move him the way some of the Sestrey’llania music did. All that accomplished was to give him a headache. He had heard a little bit of this noise-music before; it seemed Pantherr enjoyed it, too. Paris couldn’t rightly say he liked it any more than anything else he’d heard since coming to the Earth-Realm.
"Pretty Hate Machine wasbetter, of course," Nova offered conversationally as she picked up a small black box from the table and touched a stud on it. The noise’s volume lessened dramatically, to Paris’ grateful surprise. "But your father loved this song."
"I’m very impressed," Paris grated. He rubbed at the sleep-gum in his eyes and scowled inwardly. Bet he never looked like hell warmed over right after waking up, too. Face it, the son of a kelmarin can’t do any wrong in your eyes.
"Anyway, I was just about to wake you. You’ve been out for quite a while. People will no doubt be stopping in here in an hour or so, so I thought I’d give you the opportunity to clean up a bit and have something to eat."
Paris nodded. Nova had been very good at waking him over the past few days before each evening’s usual get-together in the ASFR room. He wasn’t truthfully sure what made him so tired night after night, but since coming to the Earth-Realm, he had slept a lot later than he ever had in Faerie.
He blinked a couple times to clear his eyes, and tried to gauge the sun before he realized he was still inside. How long had it been since he’d seen the sun? He cursed inwardly; there were no windows on any wall that he saw— artificial sunlight lit the room from the ceiling. How can Humanae live without seeing the sun?
"What— " he croaked. He cleared his throat, tried again. "What time is it?"
"Four in the afternoon, this time. I just awakened twenty-five minutes ago myself. I don’t bite, by the way."
"You don’t… oh. Sorry." Paris sat back down on the couch, next to her. He rubbed at his disheveled hair. "Four in the afternoon? Eresilimon. I don’t think I’ve ever slept that late in my life. In Faerie I was often up with the sun."
"You had a late night again," she smiled, touching his hand and patting it. The back of her hair —usually free-flowing— was bound in a ponytail, which did not at all diminish her beauty. Paris again found himself getting lost in her violet eyes, and tore his gaze away from her face with effort. Five days had passed and still nothing had changed. She could still enrapture him with a look. There is something cosmically unjust about the fact she can look like that this soon after waking up.
"I’d better, uhm… bathe," Paris said after a lengthy pause, getting up from the couch. "Magick works for some cleansing, but I’m starting to feel grimy. You have a place for bathing around here?"
"Of course," Nova smiled. She pointed to an undistinguished door on the closest wall. "Shower and tub are in there. Towels are in the closet inside. Would you like company?"
"No! " Paris burst out, flushing, then forced himself to lower his voice. He exhaled. "I mean, no… thank you, but I’ll manage."
"All right." Nova said, apparently nonplussed. Paris slowly realized there had been no coyness to her tone of voice; the question came to her as smoothly and innocently as if she’d asked him if he wanted assistance drawing water from a well.
She continued as she stood and brushed the hair from her eyes. "Call me if you need anything."
"Okay," he murmured as he entered the bathroom.
Paris found the towels with no problem, and it only took him a few minutes
to figure out how to turn on the shower. He stripped down to nothing
and stood under the cascade of warm water, letting it wash the travel dust
from his body. If only it could have been that easy to wipe clean
his mind, he mused.
She stared at the door of the bathroom a long time after he closed it.
She finally brushed a lock of hair out of her eye and picked up the jewel
case for Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral. How appropriate,
she mused. That pretty well described how she felt right now.
She had been through enough emotional turmoil in the last five days to
give a normal human whiplash.
Paris stepped out of the bathroom, having cleaned and changed into a
set of clothes he’d brought along. He saw Nova finishing up some
repair work, and swallowed once, hard. Then he made his way over
to the couch, set down his knapsack and pulled forth the Tempora
Arcanum. He cast one last look at Nova, felt the swell of longing in
his chest, and forced himself to study.
III. Realizing the ImpossibleNo place he’d ever called home had felt so hollow as when Argo opened the door to his old one-bedroom apartment on the west side of Indianapolis. The key still worked; he had forgotten about the time differential between Faerie and the Earth-realm. Good thing he had paid for his apartment so far in advance… it would have done him no good to come back to find himself evicted.
In the Earth-Realm, it had been a little more than six months since he’d last set foot in his apartment. In that time, in Faerie, he had spent over a hundred years— longer than most humans lived— just studying, training and having adventures humans were probably never meant to have. Hell, in that time, he had found a wife, had a child. He felt his chest constrict at the thought. Would he ever see them again? Would they understand why he left? For every hour he spent in the Earth-Realm, days and weeks were passing in Faerie, probably erasing memories of him from their minds.
He cursed and made his way toward his bedroom, stopping in the compact bathroom to lave his face. He looked in the mirror and watched his lips curl into a thin smile. One thing he would have to admit, spending time in Faerie certainly added a timeless quality to one’s looks; he had been there over a century and looked no older than when he left the Earth-Realm. Neither had it impaired his memory, as far as he could tell. He found his comb in the medicine cabinet, right where left it a hundred seventeen years— or six months, depending on your point of view— ago. He brushed through his hair once, and scratched at his goatee, expecting to see the first onset of grey hairs somewhere. Nothing. Just flowing, healthy dark hair. It was just as well most people in the Earth-Realm didn’t know about the Feylands… the elves would just as quickly become overrun by rich Hollywood types who didn’t want to shell out money on plastic surgery to protect their youth.
Memories flooded back to him as he looked inside the cramped bedroom. His Notre Dame posters still hung on the walls, untouched. One drawer of his dresser still remained open, a pair of white socks peeking out over the edge of the front. Two large bookshelves, lined with everything from dictionaries and thesauri to manuals on primitive Earth-Realm magick, stood against one wall, collecting dust. His computer still flashed with the same screen-saver he’d set there more than six months ago. He remembered spending interminable hours in this room, reading, writing, surfing the net. It had been this room where he’d first found the directions leading him to the ASFR room, where in turn he had then spent much of his time before disembarking for Faerie.
Christ, don’t start thinking of that. Just what he needed: to clutter his head with thoughts and old memories when he needed to be clearing it to prepare magick in the Earth-Realm. As if it wasn’t hard enough to call up magick in a world accustomed to science and technology, he mused.
He dug under his bed, finally finding the small box he had placed there before travelling into Faerie. It was a simple, unassuming cardboard box, which had once been used for some of his clothes when he first moved to the west side. Now it held a large stack of handwritten and printed notes, along with a couple slender books he had found while delving in metaphysical bookstores— books by authors he felt had a better handle on Faerie and on possibility magick than anyone on the Earth-Realm probably gave them credit for.
He sat cross-legged on the floor and opened one of those books, searching. Grummet’s Lives of the Fey told him nothing, nor did Medici’s The Call of the Faerie or Branham’s Exploring Possibilities. He threw out a few choice curses. He was hoping these books would have helped him. Argo himself had no notes which would help him here in the Earth-Realm; everything he had written on the subject had remained in Faerie with—
Don’t think on that now. Clear your mind, dammit. He scanned through the next book, Through the Worldtree, by Cedric Tamylin:
"Fithnaheyin: (lit., ‘That which cannot be’) The Fithnaheyin is an abstract subject in Faerie, an abstraction of impossibility. From what we are led to believe, the Fithnaheyin is the embodiment of all things which cannot be, and is therefore what we draw from when we attempt to use magick which alters reality as we know it. For example, if a magick is cast in which we cause water to flow uphill, we draw from the Fithnaheyin, as it is impossible in our world for water to flow upwards…"
"No, no," Argo murmured. "You have it all wrong." The Fithnaheyin is not an abstract concept, and we certainly don’t draw from him. And that’s the whole problem, damn it all.
"What the—" Argo looked up, expecting to see the lamps in his room dim somewhat, or the light through blinds on his windows darken momentarily, but nothing of the sort happened. He looked around his room, shrugged, and then looked back at his book. And then he looked back up at his wall, a double take.
Argo looked at one of his Notre Dame posters, the one he had put up less than a year ago in Earth-Realm time. It was a montage of images, with Notre Dame Stadium most dominant, and overlaid on the bottom was the famous stylized ‘N’ and ‘D’, the Fighting Irish leprechaun and the years of each national football championship. Argo knew that poster almost like he knew his own name, even after so many years, and he could tell something was amiss. He looked closely at the years of the national championships: 1924, 1929, 1930, 1943, 1946, 1947, 1949, 1966, 1973, 1977, 1988 and… 1994?
"What the hell?" He whispered. Argo remembered the ’94 team. He had a lot of their games on videotape; it was very nearly an undefeated season. After beating Florida State to take over the number one ranking in the nation, they had lost their last game by two points after a last-second field goal by Boston College. If not for that field goal, they probably would have won the National Championship.
But they hadn’t won it. He remembered that much. And he knew that poster had never before listed 1994 as a year they had won a National Championship. So why was it showing it now? Such a thing was im—
His eyes widened.
He closed his eyes, cleared his mind, and let his aura reach out, searching. Almost at once he felt it: magick, in the air, far more than he had felt before in the Earth-Realm. That too was impossible, unless what he feared was true. He steeled his mental defenses, sought out the origin of the magick. An astral form of himself coalesced into being, and followed the trail of magick through the ethers…
Right to the one place he most expected and most feared it could have come from. His astral form stopped before the barrier. He saw the crack in the barrier, the magick flowing from it like sap from the Worldtree. Not just magick, either… possibility magick. He saw that almost immediately. Possibilities were enacting themselves all around the trail, subverting reality. All at once he understood: it wasn’t the lights he had seen flicker. It was reality itself.
The possibility magick seemed to notice his presence, leapt from the trail to his astral form before he could react, latched onto his subconscious. Alternate realities began to explode before his vision, things that could never be suddenly coming to pass in an eyeblink…
"Lieutenant Forgeuzev!" The commander shouted.
Argo blinked, studied his console. "Four raiders, sir, point oh-oh-two. Standard gamma formation. Getting a read now, should have a lock shortly."
Commander Chezrith smiled, wolflike. "Let’s make those green-skinned sons of bitches think twice before attacking the Commonwealth again. Lieutenant, as soon as you have a lock, fire at will."
The console beeped insistently as the firing switch flickered red. Argo stabbed at the button. The great guns of the UCS Ajax responded instantly, particle beams lancing out and immediately inflicting two direct hits on the Kei’thall raiders. One raider ship disintegrated instantly, the other lurched slowly and began to drift. The other two sailed cleanly around the beams, returned fire.
The Ajax shuddered under the blow.
"Screens six and eight taking heavy damage, sir," reported Vengeance from the ops chair. "Another like that and—"
Her console exploded, throwing her to the ground, deadweight. Argo looked at her. Vengeance’s pale skin was scalded— burned almost a bright red— by the blast, and shrapnel from metallic sheeting from the console had embedded itself in her, almost covering her whole body in a silvery-blackened sheath. It was likely the sharp piece that had impacted with her forehead that had killed her, though; her eyes stared sightlessly at the ceiling.
"No…" Argo whispered. He felt a blood-red haze seep into his vision.
"Lieutenant Forgeuzev! Argo! Keep firing, damn you!"
"Firing." Argo’s voice was edged as he obeyed. He pressed the firing switch repeatedly, long after the last raider had been blown into particles by the Ajax’s deadly beams. He swore and cursed, and finally, the bridge crew had to sedate him and seal him in his quarters. And still the bloodlust continued.
The Kei’thall would pay dearly for the death of his friend, he swore. To hell with his own life; he would lead a suicide mission into Kei’thall territory if such a thing was possible...
No… this isn’t right…. He struggled at the assault, felt the possibilities grab at him, more insistent.
"Father!" Paris yelled at him, awash in the glow of youth. "Look at this! I can see forever up here!"
Argo looked up, smiled. The boy was in the fifth branch of the tree, higher than he had ever climbed in his life, looking out over creation with a sense of wonder that so often becomes jaded with age. They grew up too fast these days, he reflected. If he’d had his druthers, Argo probably would have kept him eight years old forever.
"Be careful, up there, Paris. You know how your mother worries." Worries was an understatement. If they had to replace the servos in Paris’ legs again from a fall like he had last time, she’d probably blow a circuit yelling them both.
Argo opened the hatch on his arm, tapped out a key sequence on his actuators, enabling his visual circuitry for record capability. Other fathers still videotaped their children, why not him? He looked back up.
Paris was hanging from that fifth branch, struggling. What had knocked him over? No time to figure.
Argo launched himself toward the foot of the tree, moving with the footspeed that only an android could muster. Servomotors clicked and hummed as they burst into motion in his legs, data streams fed themselves into his primary CPU, gauging distance from his visual feeds and tensile strength from the tactile sensors in his arms and hands. Paris was fairly light for an android; even from this height, Argo could probably catch him without doing serious damage to his artificial ligaments and the pain-inhibitors in his arms. Not that that would have mattered, anyway.
The boy fell, giving a shortened shriek as he let go of the branch, but Argo was there in a heartbeat, catching him and cradling his fall. The servomotors in his arms whined insistently but held firm. He made a mental note to run a diagnostic later, but that could wait.
Paris was breathing in a manner that bordered hyperventilation. His cheeks puffed with each breath, his eyes shimmered as if he was holding back tears by the slimmest of margins. Argo held the boy close, smiled. Data streams flashed in his optic sensors. The boy was fine.
"Hey now, little man, you’ll have to quit scaring me like that," Argo said comfortingly. "You’re all right now. Be careful of those high branches next time, huh?"
The boy drew away slightly, and his eyes seemed to look inward, scanning. He blinked and Argo could almost hear the visual receptor iris beneath Paris’ synthetic skin. After a moment, the boy nodded his affirmation. "I will, father."
Argo smiled wider and rubbed the boys head lovingly, pushing a hank of red hair from his eyes.
"I swear to you," a familiar voice said behind him, "someday he’s gonna blow out his primary matrix in a fall like that."
"See? I told you she’d kill us," Argo said to the boy, smiling. It was a joke they often shared among one another. "Better run before she gets you."
Paris howled in mock fright, barely keeping from laughing as he ran off, the pain and anxiety forgotten— pushed off into a subroutine to remember later. Servos whirred and hummed almost imperceptibly as his legs flailed in long, exaggerated strides.
"And you all but tell him it’s all right," she said, curling an arm around him. "It’ll be a wonder if we don’t have to replace his chassis before he’s nine."
"Shh," Argo whispered, holding Nova close. He kissed her, felt his oral receptors register: cherries. He never tired of that. "Don’t say such things, dearest. I’ll always watch out for him. After all, he is our child."
He felt, calm, at ease now, as he usually did whenever he found himself with his wife, his family. He had never thought such peace and happiness was possible.
"Stop it!" Argo yelled, clutching at his head. The possibility magick was burrowing there, calling forth his most ardent desires, his worst fears, and enacting them. He felt himself drawn into reality upon reality, felt his resolve weakening before them...
He felt blood trickle into his mouth as he skidded along the ground, and grimaced at the sickly salty-metallic taste. His leather jacket cushioned him, for the most part, but pain burst in his head as he felt the ground explode around him.
Move, man, move! He pulled himself to his feet, lurched out of the way as Creysari’s eldritch bolts cascaded around him, scorching the grass. Argo’s own magical shield was long shattered, and he somehow doubted the elflord would give him time to construct another rune-sigil.
The young elflord advanced upon him, sneering. His eyes glowed with magical power as he pointed at Argo. "Human trash, I will end your pitiful life for what you did to my sister."
"What I did to your sister?" Argo exclaimed, half aghast, half biding time. "I loved her, Creysari, and she loved me! I offered her—"
The next arcane blast from Creysari’s hand blew through Argo’s midsection. Leather, skin and muscle shredded under the magical assault, ribs and vertebrae splintered and cracked. Again Argo spilled to the ground; he watched numbly as his lifeblood wet the packed dirt, and thought through the haze: my legs. I’m done. Can’t feel my legs.
A shadow crept over him. Creysari. The elflord’s face was drawn with hate.
"You offered her nothing, you worthless son of a kelmarin. No good standing, no cultural ties, nothing that an elven woman should want. And yet, may the gods have pity on her, she still cared for you... What did you offer her? Banishment, exile from her realm, her place in the great forest of the afterlife... you offered her naught but pain and misery. How did you repay her love, human filth? By letting her die!"
Argo winced— partially due to the pain, but even moreso from the ring of truth in Creysari’s words. An inky blackness began to descend over his vision. The blood puddled beneath him; he tasted it, smelled it, felt it. His life was ebbing.
A tear tracked down his cheek, mixed with the blood from his nose and settled on his lips. He realized he couldn’t fight the darkness any longer. He felt himself drawn into it, and then all feeling was gone.
"I’m sorry, Auerenelle," he whispered, his last words, and then—
—I’m not dead, he thought numbly as he lifted himself from the ground. Stray laser blasts were riddling the ground still, one left an imprint in the ground not two feet from him. The beams illuminated the moonless night, cast a macabre glow that was amplified by the light of fires from nearby buildings. Some had burned themselves out, and merely smoldered, a grim reminder that life would never be the same for the EarthGov citizens who watched as their world fell.
Argo stayed low to the ground, crawling along the ruined, desolate landscape, sometimes over the bodies of unfortunate comrades. The laser fire was lessening. Shock troops would be here in moments, transported down by the motherships above. He saw his blaster rifle, scooped it up and found cover behind the remains of a brick wall.
He felt something flaccid and fleshlike against his arm and looked down to the ground. He nearly vomited. There, right next to him was a leg, barely connected to its dead owner by a length of stringy tendon. He gulped down air as he realized the owner. It was Lieutenant—
—Sil! Watch the flank!"
The succubus nodded, grinning like a fool, and called forth an enchantment from the depths of the abyss. Undead hands burst forth from the ground of the ASFR room, grabbing hold of the legs of six of the oncoming cyborgs, refusing to let them go. Slowly, they began to draw the ’borgs down through the floor.
So this was the Master’s game, was it? Unleash some soulless constructs to try to steal the minds and free will of the flesh-creatures in the room? Already Pantherr, Android-69 and Nova-Phoenix had fallen victim to the cyborg’s probes; they stood, mute and glassy-eyed, awaiting instruction. He saw, out of the corner of his eye: Vengeance morphed her arm into a pulse cannon, and blew away two ’borgs before she fell under their assault. The cyborg pressed the nodes of two probes into her forehead and her thrashing stopped, her eyes immediately grew blank.
So that was the Master’s game. He smirked, removed his sunglasses. His ebony eyes glowed white hot as he focused on the oncoming attackers. They had optic sensors; they could see. They were his.
"Come on, you good-for-nothing piles of scrap—
—you deserve this, you worthless excuse for a magus," Paris screamed, unleashing a bolt of the pure white light at his father. Argo gazed at his son just before the magickal energy struck him full in the face, incinerating his head and killing him instantly. He saw his son cradling a broken form; a person, he believed. His mother, possibly. But Argo never saw who and he never truly cared all that much—
—Argo sighed happily and flipped the TV on with the remote. The game was on, finally. He lifted the bottle of beer and popped off the top—
—and the Earth heaved a last plaintive last groan before exploding—
—beat them once at Gettysburg, surely we could—
—with this ring, I thee wed," he—
—Don’t do it, it isn—
Argo screamed, a scream torn from the very depths of his soul, and his astral form returned to him with a blow like a sledgehammer. He gasped, heaved a few deep breaths before he could even force himself to blink.
His first line of thought was: The barrier. Possibilities leaking in, reality becoming warped.
His second line of thought was: Ohhhhhhhhhh, this is bad. Not just forgot-to-add-oil-to-the-car-bad, but end-of-absolutely-fucking- everything-bad. And I might be responsible for it? I am in some serious trouble here.
He stumbled back to his feet, brushing the hair out of his eyes and massaging his temples. He could still feel the possibility magick, brushing at the back of his mind, begging him to release it… begging him to make those possibilities real. You can have anything... anything! Just wish for it, exert your will...
No, dammit. He couldn’t afford to think like that, especially not now. It had taken almost every vestige of will he had to break free from the flickering realities. Even now, he could see some of those realities in his mind, and he could sense a part of him that was hard-pressed not to surrender to some of the more pleasant ones. But he couldn’t; they weren’t his realities. Well, not his him’s realities, at any rate. Christ, even the idea of reality-hopping gives me a headache.
The crux of the matter was, without a doubt, he was in way over his head. He needed some serious help.
Unfortunately, he could only think of one place to go in order to get that kind of help. And he would almost rather die than go there. Or more correctly, he amended, go back there.
* * *
The man had once been named Lawrence Michael Evans. He was an up and
coming hotshot lawyer in the So Cal area, recently adding his name to the
prestigious firm of Watley, Marshall and Evans after a series of seven
straight wins in the districts and two in the Alameda County courts.
He was a boss to a twenty-something secretary and staff of six legal aides.
He was twenty-eight years old, unmarried but an eminently eligible bachelor.
Many women, in fact, were taken by his rakish good looks: wavy brown hair
framed a square-jawed face and drew attention to his piercing grey eyes,
and racquetball and weight training every other day had honed his sturdy
physique. He was a man who had aspirations, goals and plans for his
life, and the prime one was to end up on top of the world.
IV. ReflectionsParis watched her out of the corner of his eye, and kept a pro forma smile plastered on his face as he mingled in the ASFR room. He had a gnawing feeling everyone he talked to was seeing right through the mask of happy complacency he was putting on. He was sure that everybody looked at him and saw a young man who was trying far too hard to mask what was obviously on his mind. If they saw the surreptitious glances he sent Nova’s direction, they probably wouldn’t even wonder twice about what was on his mind.
And that scared him more than he cared to admit.
He blinked. "I’m sorry, what was that?"
Pete smiled and opened a hatch on his abdomen, extracting a bottle of beer, which he held in mock salute to Paris. His formal designation was Android69, but in Paris’ current state of mind he wasn’t sure if he wanted to think about the word ‘android’ for a while. "I said, ‘you look preoccupied, my friend.’ Is something wrong?"
Paris shrugged, lifted his wineglass to his lips and drained some of the red liquid. His fourth tonight. The wine wasn’t helping; it never did. Damned stuff was too watered down compared to what he drank in Faerie, he decided.
"Maybe. Just a lot of stuff on my mind."
"We never would have guessed," chuckled a voice from the ceiling.
Paris looked up. Crouched on a rafter was Pantherr, who dropped down to the floor beside the two and stretched himself to his full height, a full head taller than Paris. Pantherr had once described himself as a winged anthropomorphic nanitical feline. Out of all that, Paris still only understood the words "winged" and "feline". The feline part was rather self-explanatory: Pantherr looked almost like a bipedal version of his namesake, with the exception of pair of large, cherubic wings that extended from the small of his back. From what Paris had been told, his entire body was composed of robots and chipsets smaller than the eye could see, like Vengeance. Nanites, something like that.
Pantherr folded back his dove-like wings, grinning ferally. Actually his grins almost all looked feral; it was just his animal-like nature. "You have the look of someone deep in thought and not at all happy about it."
"You can talk to us," Pete added, smiling. "Especially if it will help."
"I—" Paris swallowed as Nova walked across his field of vision to hug Vengeance, who had just entered the room. Her eyes caught his as she led the chrome woman over toward another couch, and he felt his face burn. "I can’t. Really. I appreciate the sentiment, but…"
Pantherr’s eyes flitted between Nova and Paris, and his toothy smile became, if possible, wider. "Ahh, I see. The young half-fey has a taste for cherries, eh? Or have you already tasted the fair fruit, Paris?"
"No! I mean, no, that’s not it at all…"
Pete looked up at that. His eyes widened. "Get out, Paris! You mean, you and Nova have actually…?"
"No, Pantherr’s just saying that," Paris said, his face in his hands to cover his blush.
Pantherr chuckled again. "Say what you want, Paris. This body can smell pheromones, detect slight emotional changes… and right now, your androgens and adrenal glands are lighting up like a Christmas tree just thinking about her."
"My what and what are doing what?" Paris blinked in confusion, and drank another swallow of wine.
Pete followed suit with his beer, said nonchalantly: "He means you’re having sexual thoughts about her."
Paris nearly choked on his wine. "I—" He sputtered, could only croak out that word. The rest was lost in a fit of coughing.
"I didn’t say that," Pantherr remarked as Android69 clapped Paris on the back to relieve the spasms. For once, Pantherr had the decency to look scandalized. "I said his androgens and adrenal glands were noticeable. For the unenlightened, that merely means that the thought of her provokes an emotional response. It’s obvious he cares about her, based on that."
"That and the fact you’ve been here for the past five days watching him splitting time between fall over himself getting her to notice him and shying away from actual contact with her. And the fact that you just saw him turn beet-red when she looked at him." Pete smiled as Paris began to breathe normally again.
"Details," Pantherr said smoothly. "But I wouldn’t have drawn that sort of a conclusion on him until I smelled the scent of his pheromones. That made it pretty unmistakable."
"You don’t have to talk about me in third person," Paris snapped. "Are you saying that it’s obvious… to everyone that I’m in… that I’m preoccupied with Nova?"
Android69 looked at Pantherr. Pantherr returned the glance.
"Pretty much." Android69 said.
"Anyone with eyes, at least." Pantherr added.
"Does he often spend that much time hiding his face like that?"
"I don’t care how many drinks you’ve had," Pantherr snapped, then licked
one paw irritably. "If you start sing-songing ‘Paris has a girlfriend’
again, I’ll unplug your Maytag-refrigerator ass."
V. A Power Stronger than Magick"In my world it is sometimes referred to as the Golem Theory; it’s one of the building blocks of possibility magick." Argo Veseyez Forgeuzev said in a didactic tone. He sat cross-legged on the wooden floor of Auerenelle’s home, where he had been living for the past four weeks. He wore a pale green tunic and tanned buckskin breeches today as he taught the elfwoman; he felt more comfortable in this casual homespun attire than his robes or the doublets he’d worn while in Avalon.
Auerenelle nodded. She sat across from him on the floor, watching him intently. Over the three weeks, Argo had tested her, assessing her ability to comprehend and prepare herself for casting possibility magick. Thus far, Argo could not help but be impressed with her poise in the art of magick. She had been open-minded yet steel-willed, the two most basic requirements for accessing possibilities. She also had a remarkable ability to clear her mind of everything except the magick, a skill taught to her by her first magickal tutor.
Of course, her magickal adeptness was hardly the only reason he was impressed with her. Argo had been around the fey in Avalon before, had seen the ethereal beauty of some of the most elegant elven women— beauty that was unattainable by mere mortals or Humanae. Auerenelle was not quite in that class, but her exotic looks were complemented by a youthful, innocent charm that Argo found refreshing and attractive. In some respects, it almost embarrassed him that he found himself attracted to her, especially on the nights he woke from dreams in which she had dropped all pretense of being chaste or demure. As much as those thoughts aroused him, they also somehow struck him as terribly crass and impure.
He shook the thoughts out of his head, forced himself to think of magick and nothing but.
"The Golem Theory in simple terms means that every decision you make splits reality into different tangents... different paths. Say, for instance, you’re lying in bed in the morning, deciding whether to sleep in or get up and start your day." He held his hands together in front of her.
"You decide to wake up and get out of bed. As soon as you make that decision, reality is split into two separate courses, like a road that forks." He separated his hands demonstratively. "There is the reality where you woke up... we’ll call it reality A, and the one where you slept in, or reality B."
"Okay," she said. "Golem Theory. That’s not too hard to comprehend."
"Yeah, it’s cake so far." Argo smirked. "Okay, now try to follow me here: In both realities, there is an Auerenelle... a ‘you’. Since what we know as ‘you’ decided to wake up instead of stay asleep, then the awake one, or the you in reality A, is the ‘real’ you. The other you— the one in reality B— is called a golem."
Her voice didn’t sound quite as certain. "All right... I can understand that, I guess."
"Now the idea is that for every decision you’ve ever made, ever since conception, you have created these splinter realities that are slightly different than what we know as real... each populated by these various golems. The entire basis of the Golem Theory is the assumption that you can change reality by accessing these different golems; in effect transporting the ‘real’ you into the reality that golem exists in."
Auerenelle’s eyes glazed. "Come again?"
"Okay, maybe if we think of it another way." Argo rubbed his goatee between his forefinger and thumb. "Imagine this: your place in reality is like… like a tree, that’s it."
"I’m not understanding," she said as he got up from the floor and motioned her to follow him outside. She did, to find him standing in front of a great elm.
"You see, as you start life, you are like the trunk: straight, going only upwards. But at the moment you make your first conscious decision…" He gestured to where the first limb split from the trunk. "An alternate reality is created in which you made a different decision.
"Now, that branch is still made of wood, right? So that is still you, but not the ‘real’ you, like the trunk is… it’s a golem— an offshoot of you, just like the branch is an offshoot of the main trunk. So we go up to your next decision, and again, another reality is created, and so on and so forth, as you go through life. Are you following me so far?"
"I think so. So each time I make a decision, I create another alternate reality. But I don’t remember those realities because I’m not me in those realities, I’m a golem?"
"Exactly. Each of those golems goes through their lives as you do, making decisions that create new realities and spawn new golems. So by this time in your life," he said, waving an arm to encompass the whole tree, "these various realities are like this. The very tip of each branch is another you, at this exact moment in time, in another reality."
Auerenelle nodded, looking at the tree with interest. Argo was surprised, but pleased; it had taken him several days just to comprehend the enormity of the Golem Theory, let alone put it to use.
She turned those exotic, blue-green eyes to him, her lips pursed. "So how do I… access… these golems?"
"Carefully," he grinned. "Actually, for anyone who already uses magick, it’s not all that difficult. You merely have to clear your mind of all thoughts— my mentor called it ‘finding the center of calm’. Once you’ve done that, you focus on one singular golem... you envision the decision you’d like to change, and bend your will toward fusing yourself with that golem, changing that decision. If we go along with the tree analogy, you’re attempting to turn the branch into the trunk."
"That sounds pretty abstract," she said doubtfully. "Isn’t there more to it than that? I mean, plenty of people have made decisions they would have given anything to change... why don’t they just spontaneously change from force of will alone?"
"Believe it or not, because most people don’t realize that everyone has that power. So many people have been brought up to believe that reality is always constant and stable, not able to be shaped like a lump of potter’s clay. Truthfully, if I hadn’t happened upon you, you probably wouldn’t realize it, either. That’s not a knock against you, just a statement of fact... knowledge in itself is half of the actual power." Argo sat in the grass, patted the ground beside him. As she hesitantly knelt on the ground, he continued. "Part of the beauty of possibility magick is its simplicity. Sure, there are theories and laws and conjecture on possibility magick, like the stuff I’m teaching you, but on the whole it’s remarkably easy... you decide on the result you’d like to have and access a possibility that will achieve that result."
"Like when you turned Failina to stone?" Auerenelle’s lips curled upward; there was levity in her tone. The passage of weeks had turned what had seemed a desperate plight into a laughable memory to her. From what she had told Argo, the whole experience had been rather humbling to Failina— who now did whatever Auerenelle asked without question, for fear that her sister would bring Argo with her when she visited.
"Well, that’s a different magick altogether." Argo shrugged, felt himself redden.
"Your eyes," she nodded, looking at him intently. "You haven’t said much about them. Were you born like that?"
"No, they became this way after an accident in the Humanae realm. I can still see fine, things just look a bit darker."
"And you can turn people to stone by meeting their gaze. Like a basilisk, or a gorgon." She shook her head and said, with a hint of sadness, "I feel for you, living with such a curse."
"A curse?" Argo nearly laughed aloud. "I’ll be the first to admit, sometimes these eyes make reading by candlelight a pain, but I’ve never thought of them as a curse. I mean, a few years ago, I would have given anything to have—"
He stopped abruptly, self-conscious of where the conversation was steering him. He stood, walked a step away from her. The branches of the elm stretched out above him, made him think: How many of my golems don’t have these onyx eyes? How many of them would be repulsed by the thought of having them? "Forget it," he finished lamely. "It’s not important."
He felt a slender hand on his shoulder, turned. Auerenelle herself seemed a little shocked at the forwardness of the touch, but she released his shoulder slowly. "You would have given anything to have what? You can tell me, whatever it is."
"Can I?" He grinned without humor. "If you only knew. Auerenelle, there are things about me that would shock and surprise you, if not outright disgust you. There are things I could tell you that would doubtlessly make you wonder what kind of an outlandish freak I am."
"Besides the fact you’re human?" She mused, with a half-smile.
"I’m not kidding." He looked away toward the ground suddenly, embarrassed; spied a small stone on the ground, picked it up and threw it. "I wish it was easier for me to tell you..."
"So instead you’ll just let me die of suspense? Fah, I see how you are," she said playfully. But at the look of pain on his face, her tone softened, became more serious. "I understand if you don’t want to tell me, Argo. But truthfully, in this time studying together, I’ve gotten used to your little human nuances and habits... and none of them have bothered me at all. In fact, I’ve actually grown fond of some of them."
Argo cast a doubtful look at her. The elfwoman smiled at him, seemed to fight herself and then reached out to grasp his hand in both of hers. Satin had never felt as smooth to him as her skin did; down was coarse by comparison. "I can’t imagine anything that you could say would appall me or make me think of you as a freak."
He dropped his gaze, slowly found her eyes again, exhaled heavily. "I’m aroused by the thought of women turning to stone."
Auerenelle blinked, the smile faded into a faint moue. Her voice lowered in tone. "I’ll admit this much, I certainly wasn’t expecting that."
"You see what I mean?" Argo let his hand fall from hers, offered her a wry grin. "I can almost see the words ‘what kind of freak are you?’ ready to roll off your lips."
"I was not going to say that," she declared petulantly, shaking away the stunned look. "But I’d like to hear more. For instance, what exactly do you mean? Define ‘aroused’."
"Christ," Argo swore, flushing. "Do I have to spell it out, Auerenelle? Aroused. Excited. Turned on."
"By a woman turning to stone," she said dubiously.
"Aroused in a sexual manner?"
"Yes!" Argo said, wishing desperately that he could just sink into the ground. "Can we just get back to the Golem Theory?"
"It bothers you to talk about this?" She asked.
"Yes. No." Argo kicked at another small rock, and sent it flying. "I don’t know. I sometimes wonder if it’s normal, that’s all."
Auerenelle covered her mouth quickly, smiling beneath her hand.
"What is it?" He asked.
"It’s ironic. Think about it, Argo. You have the eyes of a gorgon. You’re a human, spending time in Faerie and being trained in the use of magick by a Sestrey’llania. You already make use of a form of magick that you say can make the impossible possible. And you worry about being normal? Each of those things are hardly ordinary, but they’re each uniquely part of you." She sat back down in the grass, wrapped her arms around her gowned knees and rested her head there, watching him through the veil of honey-blond hair. She was quiet for a long moment, then added, "I think I’d prefer different and interesting to normal any day."
Argo thought about what she said, nodded. Then he considered the tone of voice she had used in her last remark. He looked at her from the corner of his eyes. "Was that a backhanded way of asking me out?"
She lifted her head and regarded him with a confused expression. "What do you mean? We’re already outside."
"Nothing," Argo grinned. "Forget it."
She shrugged her shoulders and watched him intently. "I guess if you’re thrilled by the thought of women becoming statues, those eyes would be an asset after all. Do you know why it excites you so?"
A faraway look came to his face; he paused thoughtfully before responding. "You know, I’ve given that question a lot of thought before, and I still don’t know that I could narrow it down to any one answer. You would think I would have some idea... I mean, I’ve known about this little quirk since I was about ten or eleven... But I’ve never been able to pin it down to one thing.
"I mean, part of it probably boils down to a sort of domination fantasy, because transforming someone to a statue is like the ultimate form of bondage. But a lot of it also has to do with the idea of just worshipping the feminine form, and the idea of capturing perfection in a single frozen moment and placing it on a pedestal. And there’s something darkly fascinating about an innocent woman held captive in a pose of surprise or even dread fear."
Auerenelle raised an eyebrow. "An innocent woman, in a pose of dread fear?"
"That bothers you." He could tell from her tone of voice.
"I’d be lying if I said it didn’t. I could almost understand where you were coming from until you said that. It makes it sound almost evil."
"Evil?" He laughed weakly. "I’ve never thought of it as that. But I guess if I were to look at it from your point of view, I could see where you might get that idea. But you have to think it through, too. Fear would be a pretty natural expression."
"What do you mean?"
"All right, assume for a moment that you’re my ‘victim’." He mimed quotes around the last word.
"How charming," she remarked, and stuck her tongue out at him.
"All you know is suddenly you’re finding it harder and harder to move. Your legs feel like lead weights and your whole body is starting to feel stiff and immobile. You feel a tingly sensation start in your feet, which begins to move up to your lower legs. Looking down, you see the color fading from your legs, and the skin is becoming white and marble-like, and worse still, the effect is moving upwards, and you realize you have only a few scant seconds before you will be completely turned to stone."
"Now, you have no idea whether this is temporary or permanent, but you’re inclined to believe something like your body turning to stone is permanent. For that matter, you’re not sure if something like this can be reversed. You might be cursed to be a stone statue forever, unmoving, never to see or speak or even move again. This goes through your mind in one moment. Now, given that, can you imagine what your expression might be like? Shock, disbelief, fear, something in that range, probably... they’re all pretty well interconnected, anyway." He shrugged. "That’s why I say it’s natural to have a fearstruck expression."
"I guess I can see that. You obviously think about this more than just a little bit."
Argo made his way over toward her and sat down next to her in the grass, black eyes taking hers in. There was no hint of rebuke in the aquamarine orbs; she had merely stated fact, nothing more. Slowly he nodded. "Probably more than I ought to, really. But in some respects, I can’t help it. This fantasy is as much a part of me as possibility magick is. I can’t deny my quirks just because they’re... well, quirky."
"True," Auerenelle agreed, resting her chin on her arms and looking out over the field of green.
"You’ve gotten awful quiet. Should I be worried?"
"Hmm? Oh, no, you’re fine... I’m just thinking about what you said."
"Oh. Well, thanks, by the way."
She stared at him, bewildered. "Thanks?"
"For listening. For being non-judgmental. I can’t count the number of people in the Humanae realm I’ve told this to who either laughed or asked if I was on crack."
"Sorry. Humanae reference. They’d ask if I was not right in the head," he amended.
She waved him off and smiled. "It’s nothing. I enjoy listening to you. You’re a very interesting man... even for a Humanae. And besides, I already know you’re not right in the head."
He laughed, as did she. Auerenelle’s hand dropped, quite possibly by accident, onto his, where it lay in the grass. And almost as if by instinct, Argo grasped it. The two looked at one another as their laughter faded and a light breeze blew across the field.
There are events in everyone’s life which they know they will never forget. That much is evident. But there are stories, memories and images within those few moments which actually create and define them, as well. And although those images may not seem on the surface as important as the moments or the events themselves, they become indelibly etched in the minds of the people involved.
Argo knew he would remember her eyes, a more crystalline bluish-green than anything he had ever seen; like they were the sea on a calm, sunny day, and he was drowning in them. He would remember the fresh, natural smell of her, jasmine and lilac and dew on the morning grass. He would remember raising a hand and feeling the softness of her cheek, like rose petals on a bed of feathers. He would remember the delicate points of her ears, peeking through the wavy strands of golden hair.
Auerenelle knew she would remember his breath, the slight smell of clove, which he had taken to chewing on occasion. She would remember his hair, dark and lustrous and tousled as the gentle wind blew strands of it before his eyes. She would remember his long, slender fingers, curling around hers, the smoothness of his uncalloused hands. She would remember his mustache and goatee, tickling against her skin as he drew close.
And then their lips touched, and there was no thoughts of what would be remembered and what wouldn’t; there was only the moment and the two of them, and anything beyond that seemed rather secondary and unimportant.
Argo couldn’t begin to think of anything but her in the first place. He was acutely aware of her body, right next to his, but he was only vaguely aware of his hands roving over it, as if of their own volition. He felt the world tilt, and grass prickled at his neck, but he didn’t know if he had pulled her to the ground or if she had pulled him; all he knew was they were suddenly lying side by side. Her lips were warm and sweet and eager, and her tongue touched his tentatively, as though asking to be granted passage. He held her close, let one hand glide along her side, past the curve of her small breasts, down to her hip, feeling the warmth of her body through the material of her summer chemise. Her fingers slowly followed back and forth along his jawline as he covered her mouth with his.
He couldn’t say when the kiss broke, exactly; the whole thing happened in sort of a transcendental haze. He knew only that he could have remained there forever, just lying next to her, gazing into the depths of her aquamarine eyes. He felt her hand on his, and saw a shy— perhaps even melancholy— smile make its way to her lips.
"Where do we go from here?" She finally asked.
Argo touched her cheek, was startled at the way she seemed to have to fight the urge to pull away from his touch. "What do you mean? I think we’re progressing fairly well."
She sighed, ever so slightly, and sat up, smoothing the folds in her linen summer dress. Her face was composed, but she did not look at him. "It’s not that I’m worried about the way we’re progressing, it’s the fact that we are in the first place."
A vaguely unsettling feeling drew over him. His brows furrowed. "What do you mean?"
Auerenelle looked at him, her eyes liquid with emotion for a moment before she covered them with one hand, feigning tiredness. "This… these feelings I have. They seem to go against everything I’ve been taught, everything I was raised to believe. You’re my magickal tutor. On top of that, you’re a Humanae. It defies all of that for me to have any feelings for you at all. And yet I know I do. So why is it I look at you—"
Her voice dropped; her next words were so quiet that Argo had to strain to hear them: "—and I can’t help but surrender to them?"
He sat there for a long moment, thoughtful. "And this is a bad thing?"
That actually elicited a genuine smile from her. She stood up and smoothed her dress again, then extended a hand to him. "Come. Will you walk with me?"
Argo quirked an eyebrow, and took her hand as he stood. He dusted the seat of his breeches. "Of course. Where are we walking?"
She inclined her head in the general direction of the cottage. "The pond."
VI. The Bond ForgedThe pond was a small freshwater pool that was located about a half-mile behind her cottage. It was surrounded on three sides by trees and thick brush, offering a secluded bathing spot within fairly close proximity to Auerenelle’s home. A path led from the cottage to the one unobstructed side, worn from her daily treks to bathe, swim or just think. They’d followed that path, side by side where they could, he behind her where they couldn’t.
Argo had been there on several occasions to bathe and thought it a wonderfully pristine place, and apparently, Auerenelle thought the same— she had told him that she spent time there often, just taking in the atmosphere and clearing her mind. In his mind’s eye, Argo could see her sitting there in the early morning in the same pose she was in now— sitting along the grassy shore and staring out over the crystalline water— and just taking in the atmosphere. The image was an appealing one, but Argo was not entirely sure whether it was the beauty of the landscape or the beauty of the elfmaiden that caused his heart to race more.
"What do you know of the Sestrey’llania?" She finally asked, looking at him from the corner of her eyes.
He shrugged slightly and toyed with a stick he found on the ground. "Not much, sad to say. A lot of what you haven’t told me firsthand… well, it’s mostly just rumor and hearsay. Your people are sometimes called ‘the enlightened ones’. Your lineage places you all as distant relatives to Auberon himself. You are more adept in the so-called ‘cultured’ magicks than most other feyfolk. Your people make up most of the ruling council of Avalon proper, and they have minor nobles and rulers scattered over the lands from the Adashai Sea to the River of Mourning."
She smiled. "I was speaking more of our customs and legends than anything socio-political, but go on."
"I haven’t seen many of your customs," he admitted. "You’ve told me a little about the feast of Hathneweir, and the celebration of Springstide… But I couldn’t begin to recount your legends."
"The legends and myths of the feyfolk are numerous enough to fill the great library at Avalon. Each fey culture has its own legends on the creation of the world and the separation from humankind; each culture has its own heroes, some cultures even have beliefs on how the world ends," she replied, and interlaced her fingers before looking at him evenly. "But each fey culture’s legends and stories are inherently different from one another.
"The Âquer’kal recite the tale of the slaughter of their kinsmen at Rel-Al’Tul and lionize Ehs’shtat, who reputedly ate his first three female children to urge his wife to bear him a son. The sylvan Moril’anthi sing the stories of the Great Tree Spirit and the Wolfling Trickster, and of the great hero Silminicien, who could make the flowers weep with his song. The warrioress Clythea is in many Sidhe legends, not for her brawn, but her wits; it is said she bested the four-headed Shuerax by confusing each head with a different riddle.
"But there is a common thread in almost every fey culture’s legends: a fascination with the Humanae. Vyllinia, an Moril’anthi girl-child who is ridiculed by her brothers, leaves the land of Faerie and meets a human man who befriends her. Eventually, after many adventures, the two fall in love and raise a family. The Úmanyarili fondly remember their great prince, Vircheran, who shunned all noble women of his lineage after seeing a human princess in the lands beyond the barrier. Even the prideful Âquer’kal say that the great warlord Kefaernôl was the offspring of a fey queen and her human slave. The love stories of human and elf— whether they end tragically or blissfully— have counterparts in every elven civilization."
She took a slow, thoughtful breath and turned to look directly at him. "Except one. The Sestrey’llania have no such myths or legends. Not that it’s never happened— I’m sure it has and, for that matter, it still does— but it’s something that most Sestrey’llania consider too unconventional for their delicate sensibilities."
"Delicate sensibilities. There’s a term I used to think I’d never hear associated with elves," Argo smirked. "Before I first came here, I always believed elves to be one big free-love culture."
Auerenelle bristled. "I’m not sure exactly what you mean by ‘free-love,' but I can assure you that all elves do not have the same view on everything, anymore than all humans do. Statements like that are ignorant and bigoted."
"Easy, easy," Argo held up a placating hand, surprised at the disturbed tone of her voice. "I said, ‘before I first came here’. I like to think I’ve learned a bit since then."
As quickly as the tone came, it left her completely. "I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to snap… What you said just reminded me of…"
She colored and trailed off, her face dropping to hide behind a cascade of honey-colored curls. After a few tentative starts, he reached out and grasped her hand, let her gaze draw upward to his face.
"Of?" He asked.
She paused before speaking, either getting her thoughts straight, or steeling herself to tell him. Her aquamarine eyes seemed to search his for long moments before she turned her body so that she sat face to face with him.
"Though Auberon’s reach itself may not be long, his influence upon his bloodline and people is. The Sestrey’llania are one of the most prideful of fey races, and rightly so, if you listen to some of us talk. After all, we are the blood-brothers and sisters of the Lord of the Fey himself. In the histories, we sometimes even refer to ourselves as the ‘True Ones.’ No doubt many of those you saw in Avalon think of themselves as the gods’ most perfect creations." The sarcasm was thick in her voice.
Argo nodded, remembering some elves he’d seen in Avalon who refused to talk to him solely because he was human.
"That’s the very reason I live here. My father and brother are the same way. My father very nearly sent me to Avalon when he found out I was friends with an Úmanyarili girl. I was always considered somewhat of a black sheep in my family because I tended to look past such things. Living with my father and my brother with the views I hold proved impossible. They don’t even acknowledge me anymore, and we are probably all better off because of it." She glanced away, and Argo could tell from the emotion in her voice she didn’t believe that.
"I’ve never had problems like that with my own family, but I can understand what it feels like to be alone." Argo said quietly, hoping to be comforting.
"I thought you might," she glanced at him, smiling sadly. Her slender thumb glided over his knuckles. "We are very similar, you and I. I feel a sense of… of kinship… with you. That is why I must tell you that I lied to you."
"Yes. Well. Stretched the truth, rather. When you asked me if would put me out having a Humanae staying in my house, I said it would not bother me at all."
"And it does?" Argo asked quietly.
Hesitantly, she nodded. "Yes. It does bother me."
Then she averted her face again, letting her hair fall and mask her eyes. "It bothers me that I can’t fall asleep without seeing your face in my dreams. It disturbs me that I can find myself longing for the touch of a human when I have never even felt the touch of another fey. It frustrates me that I asked you to stay to teach me your magick, and when I look at you, magickal knowledge somehow seems small and insignificant. I turn to water inside when you look at me. It’s as though you are in my every breath, my every heartbeat, and though I want to be scared by it, though I want to recoil from it, I cannot force myself to."
Argo, who had been about to comment when she’d first said yes, suddenly found himself sitting there with his mouth half-open. In a small voice, he said, "Are you saying what I think you’re saying?"
"I… I think I am," she admitted.
He lifted aside her hair. Her eyes clung to his as soon as the veil of gold was spread. He searched them, and found the feelings he had for her returned there. He lost himself in the aquamarine depths, and gradually, he felt a warm glow emanating from somewhere inside him. That same warmth was reflected in the smile which came almost immediately to Auerenelle’s lips. Her voice was soft— almost shy— as she spoke again.
"I love you, Argo Veseyez Forgeuzev."
The words were spoken quietly, so much so that Argo wondered for a moment if he had really heard them. But a feeling swelled in his heart, a feeling of conviction that he could feel touch his soul. A feeling that told him that she had indeed said those words, that she meant them implicitly.
Comprehension and wonder dawned as he realized that he did, as well.
"And I love you, Auerenelle."
He meant it, beyond the shadow of a doubt. And he could see from the light in her eyes that she knew he did. She reached up to him and touched his cheek to draw him close, and he needed no urging.
Then they kissed and touched, soon they pulled each other to the ground. There they made a bed of the grass and leaves, and she tugged at his tunic as he found the clasps of her dress. And this time, when the kiss broke, there was no talk of fathers or races or magick; instead, the sounds which caused the birds to take flight from the branches of the surrounding trees were more primal than any words but no less impassioned.
And as they made love, Argo could feel excitement coursing through him; excitement and a deep underlying sense of love and awe. He could sense those in himself, and improbably, he could feel it in her, as well. When her passion brimmed and she released, he felt the exultation and the joy empathically, as if her feelings and awareness had somehow become his. He closed his eyes, envisioned their minds and emotions and beings becoming intertwined— like a rope made of two separate strands, made stronger by their unity. He dimly realized that she was somehow magickally touching him inside, in his heart and his soul, just as she was allowing him to touch hers. That was the first clue to Argo that he was really in love: he was laying bare a place more intimate than the most taboo of physical areas to her, and his first impulse was to smile.
Sunlight fell through the screen of branches and
warmed them as they rested upon the warm grass afterward. Their clothes
were nearby, discarded haphazardly in the fire of ardor.
In the Earth-Realm, clocks ticked and bells chimed the passing of hours.
Sunlight begat shadow and the moon rose and fell, in keeping time with
the days. The days became weeks.
It was cloudy but had not yet rained that morning, and from the smell
of the air, Argo didn’t believe it was going to. He wouldn’t have
believed that after a few short years in Faerie, he would have learned
to predict the weather merely by the smell of the air and a casual glance
at the sky. But then again, a few years ago he probably wouldn’t
have believed himself if he knew half of what would happen to him when
he returned to Faerie.
He was right. He always liked that part of
the story. Some things, he mused, just never changed; hardly a difficult
admission from one with the blood of the fey coursing through his veins.
VII. The ReturnThe room was exactly as he remembered it, which only increased the sense of nostalgia he’d felt pinching at his gut ever since landing in the department store a few days before. Display cases and pedestals stood in various areas, waiting to be filled. He could see control panels on the wall next to framed portraits and loose circuitry boards. Even with industrial air purifiers filtering the air, he could smell the remnants of herbs and potions, and the heavier odors of burnt plastic and solder. A doorway in one wall led to the lab; he remembered that much , having spent a lot of time there conducting experiments in alchemy. He could almost mentally mark off the paces from where he stood to the mini-bar, where the serv-droid probably still kept a tab for him. Farther in front of him, he could see the arrangement of chairs, sofas and tables that marked where most of the people in the ASFR room tended to sit around and have conversations or liaisons. He’d had a few of both there himself. It almost made his heart clench with longing to find this place and see that it was so similar to the way he had left it.
Almost. There was a sense of home in this room, but at the same time Argo had to admit that it was a home that was as alien to him now as the abandoned apartment in Indianapolis. Although that didn’t stop the memories from flooding back to him, it lessened the pain they caused as well as the desire to create new ones.
He didn’t want to be here, in all honesty. It wasn’t that he disliked this room or any of the people he remembered in here. That was far from the truth, as a point of fact— some of them were his closest friends before he gone to Faerie. He knew that part of his reluctance to return to the room stemmed from the fact that he had left it so abruptly. There would be questions about where he went, why he never returned, what had happened to him. For the most part, he could deal with those. But he wondered how he would react when he saw her for the first time. He couldn’t deny that she still occupied his thoughts, flame-red hair flashing through his mind the same way it had once flashed through his fingers. Years had passed in Faerie, and still he found himself thinking about her more often than he would ever care to admit— which not only confused him but worried him. He longed to see her almost as much as he wished she wouldn’t be here.
But Argo also longed to see his family again. He had found sleep virtually impossible over the past few nights without the touch of his wife, the feel of her slender arm curling around his back as she drifted into sleep. The smile in her eyes seemed incredibly distant from him now.
No time for that now, he chided himself. Get sentimental when the job is done. He swallowed, forced the images, the memories and the fears away, and he walked further into the room. Toward the collection of seats. Toward the individuals he saw sitting there, talking and carousing with one another.
It didn’t take long at all for them to take notice of him. Argo heard a couple gasps of astonishment, and a fresh smile came to his face as he came closer, saw a couple faces he recognized. Silvera and Vengeance sat next to one another on a couch, looking up at him as he approached. Argo could also see another android sitting on the couch across from them, a male he didn’t recognize. Nova was nowhere in sight, but Argo wasn’t sure whether to feel relieved or chagrined at that.
"Hello," he finally ventured.
"Argo," Vengeance said quietly, lips curling up ever so slightly.
"Yes," Silvera echoed, her voice pitched low as well. "It’s, uhm, good to see you again."
His heart sank. There was a definite coolness to both greetings. The warmth he remembered in their usual hellos was nowhere to be found. They wondered where he had gone, he knew; they wondered why he had left them without any explanation. That had to be it.
"I’m sorry it took me so long to come back," he started.
Sil shook her head, looking at him oddly. Like she didn’t want him to talk? Surely his absence hadn’t affected her that much, had it? Something about the way this whole scenario was playing out struck him as wrong. He looked at Silvera and Vengeance’s faces carefully, trying to figure out what they were thinking. Their eyes didn’t have the look of scorn he would have expected from such an icy reception. So both of them were restraining themselves for some reason.
But why? Alarms sounded in his head. "What is it?"
"Father." The voice sounded from behind him. The single word was rimed with frost, disdainful as an epithet.
Father? Argo whirled. The man he saw as he turned was half a head shorter and a tad more wiry than Argo. Ice-blue eyes greeted his with the chill of their color, beneath dark brows that were swept upward in hatred. The man’s dark hair fell past his shoulders in waves. Argo started as he noticed the clothing the man was wearing: a simple tunic and set of breeches, both of Sestrey’llania design. He looked close, saw the telltale points of his ears poking through the mass of black.
The man’s thin-lipped smile was cruel, his voice dripped bitterness. "Welcome back, father. Come see what I have learned while you were gone."
Father. The word again, coupled with the image before him, broke through the haze in his head. He stepped back a half step, stunned. His mouth moved once, twice, before any sound came out.
"Son?" Argo whispered. "Paris?"
He would have said more, but there was no time. A bolt of jagged white eldritch energy hit him hard in the chest before he could call up a reflective spell, and threw him a full thirty feet into the back wall.
Return to the Story Archive