“Yeah, I caused the earthquake. But I didn’t do it on purpose!” Steven insisted, trying his best to convince the Elvin Gatekeeper that he wasn’t dangerous. The instant he said that he realized just how bad it sounded. He grimaced and looked down at his hands. “I didn’t know. You’ve got to believe me.”
The interview wasn’t going very well. Accidentally causing earthquakes was frowned upon. He was still having trouble wrapping his head around the actual cause of the global tremor and how it was related to him. He was just a kid. A bit of an odd kid, but still just a teenager. And he was accused of causing an earthquake? However, he had traveled to an alien world, and was now discussing this with an alien, so that sort of put the earthquake thing into a familiar context of outlandishly and ridiculously implausible. Aliens.
Steven blinked and looked at the Elf who sat there frowning sternly at him. Her attitude was uncharacteristic according to his limited experience with Elves. Normally they were bubbly with a heavy dose of sultriness and grace. But she appeared to be ready to pounce on him at any given moment. It reminded him of how terrified he was when another Elf, Penipe, was chasing him not long ago. The Elf squinted at him. “This bothers you, the earthquake?”
“Well, duh!” Steven blurted out. He stopped and glanced at his life-mate as he tried to subdue himself. All of this was for her, after all. Asherah smiled at him tentatively. Steven swallowed and looked at the inquisitor who had been grilling him mercilessly for the larger part of the day. “I mean, yeah. It bothers me.” He shook his head, unable to restrain himself. “Just what kind of stupid question is that?”
Steven scratched his arm nervously as he felt himself shrinking under her withering glare. He was tired. But she was still an alien who apparently didn’t understand him. He looked back at Asherah, an Elf who was, for all intents and purposes, his wife. Or, as they called it, life-mate. There was no divorce for them. She, too, was an alien. But when he looked at her, he didn’t see an alien, in spite of her soft fur, large eyes, and canines. He had to mentally assent to see her alien attributes. Steven shook his head. He was surrounded by aliens. He felt out of place in his own home.
“Penipe said you wanted to visit the Cooperative. In that light, there are no stupid questions, deviant.” Her tone was chilly and firm. Steven looked down.
“Asherah wants to visit. I really don’t care,” he said, subdued.
“She can visit any time she wants.”
“Not without Steven!” Asherah interrupted defensively.
The Elf barely acknowledged her. Just the briefest flicker of a glance before she returned her attention to Steven. After all, Asherah was the foolish young Elf that had bonded with the deviant. They weren’t pleased with her either. But she was Penipe’s daughter, so they decided to focus on Steven first. “Your life-mate will not interfere with this investigation or she will be removed.”
Steven nodded. He squeezed Asherah’s arm and she relaxed a little. Steven looked at her, remembering the days of the meadow. Asherah grinned at that memory. Their shared thoughts seemed to flow back and forth as he focused on a time where everything made sense for both of them as he tried to ease his life-mate’s consternation. Oddly, easing her tensions helped ease his own. Their bond’s feedback. He was still getting used to that.
The newcomer seemed to be following his thoughts too, even though he had no bond with her. Steven wondered if she could really read him. It felt to him as if her unwavering gaze pierced deep into him, and Steven couldn’t help but shiver involuntarily. The Elf noticed his unease and almost smiled. Almost.
Steven coughed and looked at her. “You don’t have to be rude. Why all this trouble? I answered all of your questions. The search for my parents, the secret agent people. Nightmares. Asherah. What more do you want?” Steven knew the answer. But he didn’t understand it in his case. It should be an easy decision for them. He was just a kid.
“Deviants are not allowed to survive, much less visit the Cooperative.”
“Yeah, I kinda gathered that. But are we really that bad?” Steven winced. “Okay, bad question. Am I? You’ve been with me all day. Do you still think I’m going to…whatever it is that deviants do?” Steven remembered the memory Penipe had shared with him. He glanced up at Asherah’s mother who sat on the roof of the house quietly nibbling on a mushroom. It was a horrible memory, full of devastation. An entire world reduced to roiling magma. The world of the Faeries. But he couldn’t imagine even remotely doing anything like that, much less conceptualize actually being able to.
“You are an anomaly.” The Elf leaned forward on the other side of the picnic table and squinted at him. “You are aware of us.”
“Really? How could I not be aware? Furry, walking, big-eyed kitties, huge skulking wolfmen and Mr. Vampire dude over there?” Steven waved his arm around at the aliens that were steadfastly trying to avoid their discussion.
The Elf shook her head. “It’s not that. There would be none of this discussion taking place. A deviant does not acknowledge life. Only insatiable hunger.”
Steven’s stomach growled and he looked down, embarrassed. The Elf cocked her head.
“Well, I am kinda hungry. We’ve been doing this all day!” Steven said defensively. He looked back up at the Elf. “Not even a snack?”
Steven sighed. It was like she wanted him to be uncomfortable. He shook his head and looked at her, trying to make sense of just what angle she was coming from. He had snuck some figs from the bowl in the kitchen before the meeting and was sorely tempted to take them out of his pocket and eat them just to spite her.
But she didn’t appear to be the type to be trifled with, even casually. She had arrived with their first shipment of supplies that morning, this ancient Elvish Gatekeeper. From what Steven understood, the Elf was his biological parents’ boss and was several centuries old, though she appeared little older than he was. She seemed to emanate authority that made Steven uncomfortable. He felt like he was in the principal’s office. It struck him just then that she was his parents’ boss. Perhaps it was time for him to start grilling her. “You knew Mom and Dad.”
“You did not consume your mother.”
That was not the response Steven was expecting. He gaped for a moment then closed his mouth. “I hope that isn’t something you aliens do?” He looked at Asherah questioningly, appalled.
“Lelana still lives,” Penipe said quietly. Steven heard her in his head as much as with his ears. But she wasn’t speaking to him.
The Elf glanced at Penipe, then returned her guarded attention to Steven. “Interesting. She will be the first.”
“The first what?” Steven said, finding it hard to stay seated. She knew things about his parents that he desperately wanted to learn.
“The first to survive giving birth to a deviant.”
Steven slumped, not sure how to respond to that.
“Deviants are born with an awareness of the entire universe but no way to frame that awareness. Your inclination is to grasp the closest anchor point, which would naturally be your mother. Given your nature, that is always fatal.”
“I would never, ever hurt my mother,” Steven interrupted loudly as he looked intensely at the Elf. “Or my father.”
The Elf didn’t look convinced as she crossed her arms.
Steven rolled his eyes. “They’re missing because of this stupid mission you gave them! Not me! You sent these aliens here to spy on the Sadari. To get trapped. And you’re here judging me about my weirdness?” Steven stammered then stopped. “I don’t want this, I really don’t care. I’m home. I just want to please Asherah. That’s all this is about. And I want to find my parents. My parents,” Steven said, irritated at what was starting to look like a wasted day.
“You exist because of this stupid mission we gave them. And without this stupid mission, the Sadari would not be contested in their plans which would likely render this planet a dead wasteland.”
Steven faltered. “I…” He had no suitable retort. He was supposed to be a tool to achieve an end, then be discarded. The Elf had confirmed as much. “The only enemy I see right now is sitting in front of me,” Steven said quietly as he looked at the wood grain of the table.
“Perhaps you are right. You were supposed to be terminated the moment you opened the gate.”
“Yeah, well, don’t look so disappointed,” Steven grumbled. Asherah clasped his hand, and he sighed and looked up at Penipe, who remained sitting cross legged up on the roof of Steven’s adoptive parent’s modest ranch house. She returned his gaze without expression. He felt no hints from her either. He was going to have to get through this on his own.
Everyone was so serious all of a sudden. Even Sirel, the ever effervescent and mischievous Faerie, sat upside down under the eve of their home, quiet and sullen. She looked like a perfectly normal barely adolescent girl, though she was many thousands of years old. Yet even with her age, she retained the joy and typical playfulness of a child. While her gravity defying capabilities were still disconcerting to Steven when he looked at her, she was always so cheerful and positive. Except for now.
And Lohet, the Keratian, also remained aloof from their discussion. He pretended to focus on a discussion he was having with Asherah’s father about supplies and logistics. But Steven could tell he was paying close attention to the interview.
“They have been instructed to not interfere.” The Elf had noticed his wandering attention.
“I can tell,” Steven said, sour. They might have been the aliens of his nightmares at one time, but suddenly he wished they would interfere.
Asherah sat apprehensively next to him, still leaning against him. He could feel his life-mate’s nervousness through their bond and it was disquieting. He knew she was trying to set him at ease, but at the same time she was fearful as well. “Asherah? Who is this woman?” he thought to her. Asherah looked from the newcomer to Steven and attempted a weak smile and held his hand.
“She is the one who interrogated me when I first told my father about you. Lorei Sarali Teningsin Solory Fahele Syagria,” Asherah thought to him.
Steven nodded, glancing at Lorei who appeared to be following their conversation. “Can she hear us?”
“No. But she knows we’re communicating.” Asherah looked down.
“She can stuff a red pepper in her ear and dance on the table for all I care. Who is she?” Steven flashed anger and Asherah gripped his hand tighter, calming him.
“She’s the Huntress. A Chaser. They hunt deviants,” Asherah thought to him. “But it wasn’t bad. She’s not a bad person. I just hope she likes you.”
“But, I’m a deviant,” Steven said to her out loud, alarmed.
“For the rest of this interview I will have to mute your bond,” Lorei said coldly as she looked at Steven and Asherah. Steven grimaced, feeling guilty about his outburst. He didn’t want to imagine what muting meant. His first impression was that they wouldn’t be able to hear each other’s thoughts and feelings. “Is this acceptable?” the Huntress asked, watching him intently as she gauged Steven’s response.
“No,” Steven said impulsively. Lorei raised an eyebrow as she sat straighter. He gulped. Asherah squeezed his hand again and they met each other’s gaze. It was important to Asherah that Steven gain Council acceptance, and he knew it. The Council governed the Cooperative, and getting their approval was the only way they could visit without him being a target for termination. He was almost terminated the last time he was there. “I mean,” Steven started, then shook his head vigorously, “no! No. What? You want to…she’s part of me. How can you even suggest that?”
Lorei leaned forward, the faintest glimmer of empathy showing on her face. “It will be just like Asherah is asleep.” She leaned back, looking perplexed as she watched Steven process this. He was already surprising her by his reactions.
“Well, unless I entered her dreams,” Steven said sarcastically. They dreamscaped often. It was like they were awake, but their bodies remained asleep. However, most of the time when she was asleep he enjoyed just feeling her presence while resting, much like a lover would look down lovingly on his mate while she slept. It was a calm break from the frequent nightmares he would have, and it was soothing as he basked in the peace of her slumber. Asherah looked at him and he could have sworn she blushed a little under her fine and short fur. Steven blushed back. Yeah, he liked watching the love of his life sleep. Who doesn’t?
“This is important, Steven,” Asherah said softly. Steven scowled and looked around. Lohet averted his gaze when he tried to look at him. He also got no response whatsoever from Penipe, and Sirel just sat there, upside down and staring at him.
Looking at Lorei, Steven sighed and shrugged. “Whatever.”
The Elf got up, walked around the picnic table, and sat on the bench beside Steven with her back to the table. As with Asherah and Penipe, every move she made was measured and not a little titillating. Gracefulness seemed to bow at the feet of Elves when they moved. Steven looked at her and was at once lost in her eyes as she sat down and looked intently at him. Elves’ large eyes seemed to see more than light, and for Steven it was truly a window to their souls. He saw something else in her eyes, however. Veiled fear? Was she afraid of him?
She held up her hand to his face and hesitated for a moment. Steven cringed a little, and Asherah’s grip on his hand tightened. Then Lorei appeared to steel herself and touched his cheek with her hand ever so gently, and he instantly felt her in his head.
Steven mentally recoiled at the stranger’s presence, seeking Asherah as he took a sharp breath. But Lorei was right. It was as if Asherah was asleep. Asherah’s grip on his hand tightened even more as she gasped a little. She could still see his thoughts, but she knew he no longer saw her. The lack of that feedback was as uncomfortable for her as not being able to experience her thoughts was for him. Suddenly Steven felt alone and scared.
The Chaser looked into his eyes with wonder as she probed deeper into his memories, gasping as she trembled a little. It was the first real emotional reaction Steven got from her.
“Impossible,” she whispered, her eyes wide. He could feel her fear as her mind tickled his thoughts. Terror even. But also a spark of something else. No one had ever been in the mind of a deviant before. Except Asherah and Penipe, of course. But now Lorei was in there and she was apparently not seeing what she expected to see.
Steven fidgeted, suddenly wanting to run away. He hated the spotlight, and even more so now that someone was poking around inside his head. Asherah squeezed his hand again and he looked at her. The silence was unnerving, but he took comfort in her presence nonetheless.
“So much compassion,” Lorei whispered almost imperceptibly, bringing Steven back from his meandering thoughts. She looked back and forth at Asherah and Steven. “Penipe reported this to Lohet. But we couldn’t comprehend it.”
“Yeah. I heard that was supposed to be unusual.” Steven felt a little sheepish. He loved life. All life. How was that unusual? But he had never really known another deviant.
“It is impossible, Steven,” his interviewer stated quietly, still trembling. “You shouldn’t be.” She looked up at Penipe, who still sat nibbling on her mushroom up on the roof. His bond-mother returned the gaze without emotion. Lorei was suddenly at a loss. She had to see it personally. “The earthquake.” She looked back at Steven. “Lives were lost.”
Steven fidgeted. It wasn’t from the actual weak global earthquake he accidentally generated, but from the unzipping effect that the earthquake caused, resulting in many much stronger earthquakes around the globe as faults slipped. Nonetheless, he was the trigger for that. “It was just a nightmare,” Steven said quietly.
“It was more than a nightmare. The orbit of this planet’s binary companion was even shifted,” Lorei said as she pulled away and looked at her fingers.
Steven looked at her blankly, then understood. “The moon?”
“You care about the deaths.” Lorei ignored Steven’s question.
Steven grimaced. “I try not to think about it.”
“You think about it all the time,” Lorei corrected. She had been looking into his memories after all.
“I didn’t say I didn’t think about it!” Steven said defensively. He sighed, looking at the ground beside the table. “I dream about it, and the, the others.” The memory of the deaths he witnessed while being chased intruded into his consciousness and dreams frequently.
“We shall go see for ourselves then.” The Gatekeeper closed her eyes briefly then grabbed Steven’s arm, and suddenly the two of them were standing in the middle of a refugee camp somewhere in the East. Lorei made a face as the putrid, humid air invaded their senses, then turned her stern attention to Steven. “You are responsible for this.”
Crow : The Betrayal (Crow Series, Book 2) is still in beta reading, however Book 1: Crow - The Awakening is available at...