A pre-edited snippet from Chapter 3 of Book 3: Crow – Vindication. Steven is still struggling to find a place for himself in the Cooperative. Unfortunately, most of the Cooperative still sees him as a dire threat to their very existence and will go to great lengths to terminate that threat.
Steven Faces Resistance
“How long is this going to take?” Steven shifted from foot to foot impatiently. Aradia looked up at Steven briefly, then returned to her task, barely hiding her annoyance.
“You do not have to wait, Steven,” she said after an uncomfortable moment.
Steven looked at Sally then back at Lohet’s daughter, oblivious of her irritation. “I don’t? I really, really want to see the shuttle.”
“We have a Faerie bringing one soon.” Lorei glanced at them as she manipulated virtual data that hung in the air around her. “They had to bring in a few Council members but one is available for us.”
Steven looked at her then at Sally excitedly. “Faerie powered, even. I mean, that’s going to be so cool.”
“Faerie powered?” Sally cocked her head.
“Not all of our shuttles are. But this one will be.” Lorei nodded as she shut her displays down and returned her attention to the baskets. “Lynda? Melissa? You know tomorrow you may wake up with a completely different set of clothing waiting for you.”
Lynda grinned. “I look forward to it. I think your clothes are beautiful.”
“We would try to match you with clothing common to Legracia rather than the climbing garb we wear.” Lorei looked down at her ornate but robust outfit. “But the humans there are very artistic too.”
“Humans? I thought Earth had the only humans,” Lynda asked, glancing at Steven. “Or…” She bit her lip as she remembered Maran, who was a Cooperative human.
“No. Terra has Terrans. Our humans are distinct in many ways.” Lorei smiled kindly as she moved on to Jonah. Jonah shrugged out of his shirt and dropped it in his basket, then held up the shirt that had been given to him and looked at it critically.
“Yeah… I forgot,” Lynda said sheepishly.
“Great. Humans and Terrans. I can leave now?” Steven said impatiently.
“Steven, this is your party,” Sally said.
Aradia nodded. “It could be a little while with this… audit. Your friends appear to have a lot of items they do not wish to lose.”
“What is she saying?” Lynda whispered to Steven.
Steven glanced at her and realized that English, Elvish and Common were being spoken interchangeably there. He also recognized Craolin too as the local Selkies chatted with Ryan and Tessa. He noticed that Brandon was speaking it too as Moringa hung on his arm. Even Renee was deep in discussion with a small group of Elves about Elvish medicine. It didn’t even occur to him since it all seemed so natural. Lynda and Melissa had not been tended to by a Teacher yet and only knew English. Rubbing his temples, Steven shrugged. “She’s saying that we shouldn’t wait.”
Lynda smiled. “We’re ready whenever you are.” She put her arm around Melissa’s waist.
Steven sighed and looked at Sally. He didn’t want to leave her and Jonah behind. “You didn’t have to dress up, Mom.” He frowned. “I thought you knew.”
“I just didn’t think. I mean… it’s your wedding. I wanted to look nice,” Sally said, crossing her arms.
“You will look very nice, Sally,” Lorei said as another Elf walked in carrying a large basket of clothing. “Here you go Lynda and Melissa. You can go ahead and change now if you want to. Sally, here’s yours. Jonah, you look great.” Jonah looked down and picked at his Legracian garb. It wasn’t ostentatious, but was fancier than he was used to.
Sally sighed. “Okay. Where do I change?”
Aradia looked at her curiously.
“A changing room?” Sally asked.
“You change right here,” Aradia said. “I have a basket ready for your clothing.” She pointed at a woven basket.
Sally opened her mouth then closed it. “Of course. No modesty in the Cooperative.” She looked at Steven. “Don’t look.”
“Mom… you should know that too. Haven’t you stayed overnight?”
“Yeah but… it wasn’t like this. We always stayed by the farm with Ar’len. I think someone told them to leave our clothes alone,” Sally said, glancing at Lorei. “This is the last outfit I have from my mother.” She picked at it. “I don’t want to lose it.”
“You could go back to the homestead and change if you want. It’s only… in another galaxy,” Steven said, pointing at the gate in the meadow. He glanced at it and remembered Melissa’s observation. It did look like a giant soap bubble. Sally would only see a marker on the field, however.
“Yeah.” Sally looked out the door, thinking. She shook her head and held up the clothing she had been given. “I’m already here.”
“It’s just over there. Fifteen minutes there and back max. Or… maybe an hour with you.” Steven smirked.
Sally punched him in the shoulder. “I can still smack you, young man.”
Asherah giggled. “I’ll smack him for you.”
“Just go already. There’s a line here and it’ll take a bit,” Sally said, pushing Steven.
Steven shook his head and looked at Asherah as they walked to the door. “Terrans. What can we do?”
“I can still hear you!” Sally called after him.
Steven laughed. He was about to give Sally a witty retort when he noticed a growing crowd out in the meadow. “Where’d they come from?” Steven asked as he peeked out the door.
“Big, spiny monster is unhappy with you,” Melissa said quietly as she looked over Lynda’s shoulder. Steven looked at her curiously, then looked back out at the aliens that had gathered at the edge of the meadow around the tree.
Penipe walked past him then looked back over her shoulder at him. “They’re just curious. Some may be less welcoming. The debate about you is heated. Just smile and be calm.”
Steven gulped. There were dozens of aliens there. And some truly looked alien. “Maybe I should just gate to the temple?”
Lorei walked up beside him and put her hand on his shoulder. “It may send the wrong message to them. Like you’re trying to hide. We may as well give them a chance to see you.”
“Well, I am trying to hide,” Steven muttered. He fidgeted and squeezed Asherah’s hand. She also looked nervous too. Lorei hung back as Steven stepped tentatively out of the living structure.
Maran elbowed him as he walked by. “What’s the worst they could do? They’d starve if they tried to suck your brains out.”
“Funny. I’m laughing. No… really,” Steven said sarcastically. The reference was obvious to him. He had basically said the same thing to Jacob as he interrogated the Order agent about Laurence. How Maran knew that little fact was beyond him. He shook his head and walked out, looking at the crowd nervously. None of them looked particularly pleased to see him and a few looked outright angry.
“There are Chasers here,” Steven whispered to Asherah. He looked at her and realized he could have as easily just thought that to her. She nodded as she looked at several armored figures in the crowd, all taking up strategic positions around them.
“That’s just as a precaution,” Penipe said.
“In case the deviant pops his cork.” Maran smirked, looking sideways at Steven.
“You’d love to stick me with that little knife of yours, wouldn’t you?” Steven asked him, scowling angrily.
Maran shrugged. “I don’t like it at all. But if the job requires it…” He trailed off as a large creature stepped into their path. “Wow. I don’t see them very often.” He squinted. “Roth’kel?”
“What is that?” Steven asked, looking at Penipe who looked back at him nervously.
“His life-mate was recently killed. Just don’t provoke him,” Penipe thought to him. Steven gaped at her and he saw a brief report of the fatality in Penipe’s memory. He swallowed as the creature took a step and gated past Maran to appear just in front of him. It leaned close to him, bending over a little to look at him in the eye. Steven grimaced a little. The creature looked like a cross between a large humanoid porcupine and a horned lizard.
“Kill me, deviant.”
“Um… why?” Steven took a step back. The creature stepped forward as Steven retreated, keeping his close distance to him. Steven fought the urge to gate away. Lorei and Penipe were not panicking so he decided to stick it out. “Just what…” He wanted to ask what sort of alien he was, but decided against it. The creature didn’t appear like he was in the light banter mood.
“He’s an Or’uk,” Asherah thought to him as she hovered behind him fearfully. “They’re very grumpy. Almost as grumpy as Trolls.”
“Really? I knew about Trolls, but Orcs?” Steven looked at her, quizzical.
“Or’uk,” Asherah corrected. Steven sighed. The Or’uk’s aggressive demeanor made Steven uneasy and Orc seemed to fit what he was seeing.
“Stand your ground,” Lorei thought to him. “And remain calm.”
The creature sniffed him and sneered, exposing numerous pointy teeth. Not quite like the shark teeth of Faeries, but still as unsettling, especially that close to his face. “You even smell like a deviant.”
Steven licked his lip and looked at Lorei then back at the Or’uk. “Yeah? Well… you smell like… popcorn?” Steven raised an eyebrow. That was an unexpected scent to be coming from an alien creature.
“Pop’carin? The flower? That’s supposed to be an insult?” The Or’uk cocked his head, perplexed.
“No. I actually like popcorn. The… popped corn,” Steven said hesitantly, not sure if it was a good time to describe a Terran treat to an angry Or’uk.
The Or’uk shook his head, causing his quills to clatter. He squinted at Steven angrily. “The Chasers should terminate you now.”
“They tried once,” Steven said, uncomfortable with where the discussion was going. The Or’uk remained very close to him while circling him. Steven could see his claws clicking while the creature contemplated him with disgust.
“They were incompetent.” The Or’uk glanced over his shoulder angrily. The Chasers were much closer now.
“Listen… I don’t want any trouble,” Steven said.
“You killed my life-mate,” the Or’uk snarled as he leaned closer to Steven.
“I haven’t killed anyone!” Steven said quickly, holding his hands up.
“You’re a deviant. That is what you do. She is gone because of you.” The Or’uk stepped even closer, making Steven take a step back to avoid being bumped into.
“Yeah… no. I’m sure I would remember…” Steven started.
The Or’uk abruptly grabbed him by the neck and lifted him up so his feet dangled. Steven grimaced and looked at Lorei. She shook her head. Sighing, Steven looked at the Or’uk. “I’m not your enemy, sir.”
“She was with child. The chase was to be her last until she gave birth.”
“Your life-mate was a Chaser?” Steven glanced at the Chasers that were gathering around them.
“You will kill me now.” The Or’uk pulled him close to him. “I am a gatekeeper and I am touching you.”
“Yeah… I can tell.” Steven coughed as he squirmed, holding onto the Or’uk’s hand as it squeezed his neck. “But I’m not going to kill you.”
The Or’uk looked at him, perplexed again. “I’m a gatekeeper. Deviants feed on gatekeepers.”
“Not hungry at the moment. Sorry.” Steven glanced again at Penipe who had circled back towards them. He sorely wanted to be away from there. Her impression to him was that the Or’uk would follow him to Syagria if he gated away. Sighing, Steven looked at him. “I don’t kill. I’m not a killer. I’m not that kind of… deviant.”
“Liar! The Chasers need to terminate you!” the Or’uk screamed at him. Steven made a face. The Or’uk may smell like popcorn, but he didn’t have pleasant breath.
“You would die to provoke them?” Steven tried to glance around then looked at the Or’uk.
“You are a threat to the Cooperative. You must be terminated,” the Or’uk growled menacingly. He glanced at someone who ran past them then returned his angry attention back to Steven.
“Maran! Do something!” Renee yelled loudly as she ran up to him. Aradia stepped out of the tree-dwelling then stood with her arms crossed. Lorei looked at her and stood next to her with her hands on her hips.
“Guys… a little help?” Steven pulled at the Or’uk’s fingers.
“They’re not going to help you. You are a deviant.” The Or’uk looked around angrily, daring anyone to intervene. Then he looked back at Steven. “You are better off dead.”
“I get that you’re ticked about your life-mate, but I’m not the bad guy,” Steven said, getting irritated. The Or’uk’s hand started smoking where he gripped him.
The Or’uk smiled cruelly as he looked at his smoking hand. “You’re angry. Good. Kill me.”
“Really? Are you nuts?” Steven pulled on his fingers but the Or’uk just squeezed harder. “Guys, I’m done here. This isn’t going to end well.” Steven put his foot on the Or’uk’s chest and pushed hard. He was abruptly free from the grasp of the Or’uk and twisted as he fell so that he landed on his feet in a low crouch.
The Or’uk, on the other hand, was sent flying, plowing through the crowd of aliens and smashing into the trunk one of the nearby trees. Steven hung his head. “This so can’t be happening.”
He gated to the Or’uk and pulled him from the tree. “I didn’t mean to send you across the meadow, but man, you’ve got some anger issues.”
“The Chasers are afraid of you.” The Or’uk coughed as he looked around. “They are refusing to do their job.”
“Well… their job is to go after real monsters. I’m just… me,” Steven said.
“You are an abomination. More dangerous than any of the others!” The Or’uk stood up and shook the bark and branches out of his spines.
“Are we really going to have this discussion again? You know… I don’t have time for this. I have a wedding, blessing, thing to get ready for.” Steven threw his hands up and turned to walk away. Suddenly his chest constricted and he fell to his knees. He watched Asherah flop to the ground and writhe in agony. Looking down, he saw the glow of a gate in his chest.
The Or’uk leaned over and grabbed the back of his neck. “You’ll kill me or I’ll remove your heart.”
Steven coughed and focused. The pain was overwhelming and he felt like his heart was being tugged on. In a panic, he grabbed the gate and shut it. The Or’uk was flung back explosively and a shockwave spread out from Steven, knocking everyone in that part of the meadow down. Steven took in a deep breath and looked around at the Or’uk who lay smoldering in a bramble. He looked back at Asherah who was sitting up. “Sure. Let’s go have a wedding party. What can go wrong?” Steven muttered. He took another deep breath and held his aching chest. “He tried to gate my heart out?”
Standing up, Steven stumbled over to the Or’uk. “No murders in how many centuries and you try to yank my heart out?”
The Or’uk stared at him in terror. Steven bent over and put his hand on the Or’uk’s chest and pushed down, pinning the large creature to the ground. Smoke wafted from his hand as he knelt down and leaned close to the alien. “For the last time. I did not kill your life-mate. And I am not your enemy!”
A dozen Chasers suddenly appeared around him, their weapons ready. Steven looked at them, exasperated. “You’re kidding, right? He tried to yank my heart out!”
The Chasers did not respond but maintained their aim as if waiting for an order. Steven shook his head and looked at the Or’uk. “You want someone to be responsible, right? Is that it? You want someone to suffer like you? Well, I’m not that someone.” Steven flexed his fingers and found the Or’uk’s pain then pulled it out. The Or’uk’s eyes went wide as Steven stood up and shivered as he absorbed the pain. After a brief moment, he looked at the creature, frowning. “We’re done here.”
He looked around at Asherah who was on her feet now and started walking back to her. Before he could take more than a few steps, he heard a scream of fury and looked back to see the Or’uk, who was now on his feet. The creature gated one of the Chaser’s weapons into his hands and took aim at him. Time seemed to slow as Steven braced himself. He thought of a dozen places he could gate to in that instant but was abruptly overwhelmed by the choices and indecision. Suddenly there was a massive thump and the Or’uk was sent flying through the air into the tree-tops.
A Troll seemed to come out of nowhere and now it stood there looking at the Or’uk as if daring him to return. Even the Chasers had backpedaled away, several gating out of the path of the massive creature. Steven stumbled and fell on his rump and the Troll looked down at him. “Steven Crow is safe now.”
“Thanks?” Steven said. He shuddered a little as he looked at a creature that could likely make a large crocodile pee in fear. He flinched as a huge hand reached down to encompassed his arm and pull him to his feet. He had only seen Trolls in Asherah’s homework and even then they were large and terrifying. Now one stood in front of him, towering over him. The Troll glanced back at the tree-top. The Or’uk had gated away. Nodding in satisfaction, the Troll looked at Steven briefly, then disappeared back into the jungle.
“That was a Troll.” Steven looked at the nearest Chaser then back at Asherah. She was walking towards him, hanging on the arm of Penipe. He could sense she was weak from the attack but the excitement of the new encounter was bubbling over. “Did you see that? That was a Troll. A real Troll. And… it didn’t stomp on me.”
“Are you okay?” Penipe grabbed his face and squinted.
“Yeah. I mean, I’m sore. That guy was really ticked off.” He looked at the tree-top again. “Is he going to be a problem?”
“He’s not going to risk a Troll again,” Penipe said.
“He wanted me to kill him.” Steven sobered, looking down. “As if I ever would.”
“He wanted to give the Chasers a reason to shoot you,” Penipe said, nodding at the Chasers that stood nervously looking at them. She glared at Maran as he walked up. “You could have done something.”
“Why? Steven handled it just fine.” Maran grinned. “I didn’t exactly see you jumping in.”
“Yeah… I was kinda hanging there all alone.” Steven rubbed his neck.
“You could have left any time you wanted. But I wanted you to try to resolve this in a way that the Cooperative would respect,” Lorei said as she appeared next to them. “You’re going to be in the spotlight the entire time you are here. And this may not be the last conflict. How you react will go a long way in helping me convince the Cooperative to make your waiver permanent.”
“But he wanted to die. I mean… that’s crazy.” Steven looked around. “He could have popped my head off and all he wanted was for me to kill him.”
“Or’uks form nearly as strong a connection to their life-mates as we do,” Penipe explained, shaking her head. “He wanted his death to mean something.”
“Yeah… to get me killed by those guys.” Steven frowned. “I thought there wasn’t any conflict here. That everyone was love and roses and unicorns.”
“Unicorns?” Penipe cocked her head.
“Magical horse with a horn?” Steven gestured, then let his hands fall as Penipe looked at him blankly. He looked at Asherah. “I didn’t mess things up for us, did I?”
Asherah shook her head as she put her arm around his waist then looked at Lorei.
“You closed his gate,” Lorei sad, sober.
“He was trying to remove my heart like I removed that clay for Mom,” Steven exclaimed. “What was I supposed to do? Ask him nicely to stop trying to kill me?”
“It’s just that… no one is able to do that. A gatekeeper cannot force another’s gate.” Lorei looked around and sighed. “I think your overall reaction was a step in the right direction. But our critics may try to exploit that little fact.”
“And me chilling a molten planet… giving you guys back Senin, doesn’t eclipse that, how?” Steven asked sarcastically. “I thought that solved everything for me.” He shook his head. “The monster wanted me to kill him.”
“Or’uks are no more a monster than you are,” Penipe said sharply. Steven grimaced, looking down.
“Sorry. He sure looked scary enough,” Steven said quietly.
“You’ll see far scarier here, Steven. But we are not monsters and neither are you,” Penipe said softer, grabbing his hand.
“I took his pain but he still wigged out,” Steven said, exasperated. “It’s like I couldn’t please him.”
“The Or’uk depend on the pain of their loss to mourn.” Penipe said. “You removed his ability to mourn the loss of his life-mate.”
“I… I didn’t… I just can’t do anything right.” Steven slumped. “He tried to gate my heart out,” he mumbled, scratching at his chest.
Lorei shook her head and he looked at her. Lorei took a breath. “A gatekeeper touching a deviant dies very quickly. But… there is no more intimate touch from a gatekeeper than the gate. He wasn’t trying to yank your heart out. He was trying to provoke you into… being a deviant.”
“Steven, if all it took was to gate their hearts out, we wouldn’t need Chaser teams,” Penipe said quietly. “He was trying to die.”
“That is so… wrong. On so many levels,” Steven said. He glanced as Lynda and Melissa caught up with them. Steven couldn’t help but grin sadly as he looked at Melissa. “Yes. Spiny monster was unhappy with me.”
Melissa fidgeted and looked away. Lynda shuddered. “He scared me. You weren’t afraid?”
“I guess I was. Sort of. But… they weren’t.” Steven nodded towards Penipe and Lorei.
Lynda nodded and looked fearfully into the jungle. “The big guy?”
“Planet Builders are having a meeting here about Telestra,” Aradia said as she walked up to them. “That was a Troll. They specialize in transforming dead worlds into living worlds.” She looked at Steven. “They are particularly happy with you since you saved Senin.”
“Ah…” Lynda looked at her. “You speak English?”
Aradia smiled at her. “One has to when it comes to Steven. There is no telling when one of you will end up in our laps.”
Lynda shifted and looked around nervously. “I see someone else when I look at you.”
Aradia looked at her curiously.
“When I close my eyes. I see… dark streaks in your hair. And someone else. Different from you… but similar.” Lynda looked at Aradia through closed eyes briefly and nodded as she held her own hair out. “Here… and here.”
Aradia looked at her for a moment without responding. “I was informed about you… and your friend with time-expanded viewing.” Aradia shifted her cool gaze to Melissa, then looked back at Lynda. “The one you are seeing is my mother.”
Lynda swallowed as she stepped a little closer to Steven. “Well… she’s pretty.”
“She was.” Aradia smiled sadly then looked at Steven. “Enos’rel is on the way to examine you.”
“For what?” Steven looked around then back at Aradia.
“He is concerned there may have been internal damage when you shut down the gate,” Aradia said, glancing at Lorei. Lorei nodded.
“I feel fine. Except I hurt and am tired…” Steven started. Aradia frowned and Steven decided not to object. Sighing, he scratched his head. “I just wanted to see the shuttle come in. It’s Faerie powered.”
Steven glanced around as Sally peeked out of the tree dwelling. She looked at him as she adjusted her Legracian outfit. “What did I miss?”
Book 3: Crow – Vindication is still under revision and editing, however Book 1: Crow – The Awakening is available at…