Chapter 1

“He speaks a Terran language called English!” Asherah said conspiratorially as she looked around, making sure no one else was listening. The meadow was empty, however. Aside from any imaginary friends she may have dreamt up.

She scratched at her fur as she looked back at Steven mischievously. “I’m really not supposed to know it but I was there when the Teacher came to give Daddy some Terran languages.” She shrugged innocently. “So I took them too.” She furrowed her eyebrows as she remembered that day. “He had to learn a bunch of languages.”

“The Teacher gave them to you?” Steven cocked his head.

Asherah leaned back against the tree in the center of the meadow and played with the low hanging branches. “I got them through our bond when he got the languages.” She grinned, rocking back and forth against the trunk. “He doesn’t think I pay attention, but I really do. Our bond is pretty tight, I think. Maybe because Mom isn’t here.”

She looked at Steven, briefly flashing a deep sadness. But that passed as she grinned and continued rocking back and forth as if to a song only she could hear. “It was funny listening to him practice. I practice them here and I think I’m better than Daddy is.” She giggled. “After all, I have all my friends here, so I can practice all the time.”  She held her hands out to encompass the meadow. Insects that reminded Steven of butterflies ascended into the air off the flowers and flew around them before fluttering away.

Steven looked around then nodded. “Imaginary friends?”

Asherah waved a flower at him, then munched it playfully while giggling. “They’re real enough. I practice English a lot now, I guess. That’s what he speaks.”

Steven smiled, attentive to any detail Asherah may divulge. She looked up at the ringed sister planet in the daytime sky of Endard and sighed, smiling. “He’s kinda cute.”

“The imaginary Terran boy?”

“He’s…I guess.” Asherah pouted as she played with leaves on a flowering plant in front of her. A new flower bud opened up as she touched it. “He seems real, though. It’s fun practicing English with him. And I…I can tell him anything. Like we belong together.”

“Do you think that maybe…this could all be a dream?”

Asherah laughed, making Steven wince. He loved that laugh. “Silly. I’d know a dreamscape when I’m in one.” She leaned forward. “Maybe you’re asleep?”

Steven grinned and shrugged. “Maybe I am.”

As Steven looked at her, he remembered her fondly. His girl in the meadow. He was the boy she was chatting about. He sighed, thinking of those days. He sorely wished he could return to them as thoroughly as she had. Only, now she was deeply asleep and he was drawn into her dreams. He found it fascinating that she chose their early days in the meadow to hide out in.

During his own travails, when he dreamed he would often find himself at the meadow too. It seemed safe there. Immune to the torments that awaited them elsewhere. The meadow was where they had first met, each believing the other to be imaginary, and each quickly forgetting that perception as the fantasy became real to them.

She didn’t recognize him, however. Not fully, even though they were life-mates and she was bearing his child. She was currently stuck in a dream of her childhood, reliving the time they had just met over and over again. Each time he joined her dream was like the first time they met. She still felt comfortable enough to talk to him as if she’d known him for years, something that was surely a result of their intimate bond.

Steven was still struggling to grasp the deeper implications of their bond, something other Elves seemed to take for granted. He was raised on Terra as a human, a Terran, unaware of his true heritage. All that changed when he chanced upon her, this Elvish girl in a meadow, through the wispy remnants of an eleven-year-old gate that stretched across many galaxies to Endard.

He had opened the gate back up. He didn’t know it. Neither did she. As he looked at her, he still couldn’t put his finger on why the gate had attached itself to him. But he was glad it did. They were immediately drawn to each other, as if they just fit.

Steven smiled as he watched his life-mate reenact their past. He had already seen her perspective of their encounter through a few of her memories. It was still interesting to see it live, however.

“Moringa makes fun of me for having imaginary friends. She can be mean sometimes.” Asherah pouted. “But she always brings me fish and fruit when she visits.”

“I thought she was your best friend,” Steven said, surprised. He was still a little shy when it came to rooting around her memories and must have missed that one.

Asherah shrugged. “Well…I don’t have many other friends here. Daddy’s working a lot. Moringa visits me and it is fun to play with her.” She played with the grass for a moment then looked at Steven. “Okay, she’s my best friend. I mean, we do everything together. But sometimes she can be mean. She leaves when I play with my imaginary friends.” She sighed. “I never make fun of her.”

Steven raised an eyebrow as he looked at her. Asherah fidgeted. “Fine. She has this big red star on her forehead. I call her Starface sometimes.”

“Sometimes?” Steven said, grinning. When he met the exotic Selkie, they had long outgrown that kind of thing, but it was still neat to see their friendship from their perspective years before he met Moringa. Would they have to deal with that with their daughter when she is born?

Steven gulped, remembering Vanessa. He was getting distracted. He had to stay on mission. The dreamscape seemed to pull him in every time he fell asleep, as if he was supposed to see something, learn something from Asherah.

Asherah looked at him, frowning, then she rolled her eyes. “Maybe more than sometimes. But I’m just kidding.” She sighed, pouting. “I wouldn’t want to drive my only friend here away. Even if she is a Selkie.”

“Even if? What’s wrong with Selkies.” Steven blinked, not accustomed to that side of Asherah.

“Well, nothing really. It’s just that…they’re not good climbers. They can, but not like Elves. And I’m not as good at swimming as her. Sometimes it’s just hard to figure out what we want to do,” Asherah said as she peeled the bark of the tree with her fingers. She looked wistfully at the nearby mountain pass that led to the coast. Steven followed her gaze and watched Teles’trike dragons flying into their nesting holes in the cliff walls.

“She’s supposed to visit me today. I hope she brings more fish.”

Steven nodded. He always figured they were an odd couple. Asherah was an Elf who lived much of her life up in the canopy of trees. Moringa was a Selkie, a colorful people who spent much of their lives in the water. “It’s a long walk.”

“We like to dance around in the flowers though.” She picked another flower and waved it at Steven then promptly ate it. Ne’re temore flowers were actually sweet and were one of Asherah’s favorite snacks. At least until he had introduced her to figs and honey.

“Does anyone else visit you?” Steven asked timidly. He meant Aliya, the Sadari that had captured her and was keeping her deeply sedated. But he didn’t want to come out and say it for fear of scaring Asherah out of the dream or worse, attracting Aliya’s attention. He looked around nervously, expecting the seductive Sadari to appear at any moment. But she didn’t.

“A lady does sometimes,” Asherah said.

Steven perked up, attentive to every word. Any clue she dropped could help them find a way to rescue her. No one in the Cooperative knew where Axis was. Even the Archives had been purged of information about the Sadari home system. The only person to actually visit was missing and now Asherah was there all alone. Steven chewed his cheek. She wasn’t exactly alone. His parents also remained in Aliya’s custody too. He shook his head and returned his attention to the younger version of his life-mate.

Asherah shuddered. “She’s…a little creepy.”

Steven raised an eyebrow. That didn’t sound like Aliya at all. If anything, Aliya was extraordinarily seductive. A temptress who was actually very easy to like if you weren’t careful. He looked around again, worried she might show up in the dreamscape and ruin things. “Who is she?”

“Shae Wong,” Asherah said.

Steven looked at her sharply and tried not to gape. He knew a Shae Wong. She was a Malakim from Terra. Not much is known about the Malakim, except that everyone told him not to anger them. It had been said that even Aliya was a Malakim.

Asherah cocked her head, looking at him. “You know her?”

Steven licked his lips. “I might. What did she say?”

“She talked about a boy I would meet. How we would become best friends and more. She said he wouldn’t be what he seemed to be, but would be better than everyone thinks,” Asherah said. She leaned forward. “Do you think she was talking about him?”

Steven was too dumbfounded to respond. Asherah giggled. “I think she was just telling me stories to amuse me.” She looked at him quizzically. “What’s your name?”

“Steven.”

Asherah screamed, making Steven flinch and look around. She giggled madly as she covered her mouth. “That’s his name too!”

Steven relaxed as he looked at her. “Well…it’s a popular name. Dad’s from Legracia.”

“Hmm. It’s definitely not Elvish. And I don’t even know any Stevens from Legracia either.” Asherah looked thoughtful for a moment.

“Has anyone else visited you here?” Steven asked. “Pretty woman, kind of glowing, long white hair, pointed ears?”

Asherah looked at him for a moment, then started laughing. “You’re funny. You remind me of him. Except, you’re an Elf.”

Steven frowned. Perhaps Aliya had not invaded her dreams yet. “Yeah. I guess I am.”

He looked at his furry arms. They still didn’t seem to be quite…his. He had lived his entire life thinking he was human, Terran. To find out that he was an Elf was a major adjustment for him and he was still trying to grasp it. How was an Elf supposed to be, to feel? Or how was a human supposed to feel? Did he feel and think like a human? At least being bonded with Asherah had helped him come to terms at least a little.

“He cheats.” Asherah giggled. She pulled out a piece of paper from her hip-pouch and unrolled it. Steven looked at the drawing she had made of him. It was almost like a picture, so finely was it drawn and colored. She looked at him. “When he climbs.”

“If I didn’t cheat, I’d never beat you,” Steven said under his breath, remembering that day. He shook his head, amazed at the little details she was remembering.

“That’s what he said!” Asherah exclaimed. “He’s funny. I like him.”

“I’m glad you do.” Steven smiled sadly.

It was apparent that she did. Ever since their first meeting, he had spent nearly every day with her for five years, until their first kiss and then their bonding. He remembered that day vividly, even though his adoptive parents had tried to make him forget. But they feared for his life. If he was discovered with Asherah, the aliens that were waiting for him to mature may have accelerated their plans and terminated him.

“Do you know Mom?”

Steven blinked and looked at her, surprised.  She was playing with a leaf, looking at him. Steven wasn’t sure how to answer that. At the time she was dreaming about, he didn’t know her. But now he knew her very well. He licked his lips as he tried to think of a suitable answer. He didn’t want to destroy her dream and make her vulnerable to Aliya.

“Yes?”

“I was too young to remember much about her when she left.” She frowned, chewing her cheek. “I know her through Daddy’s memories. But I can’t feel her. She’s not here.” She pointed to her chest and her head. For a moment, Asherah looked dejected and Steven wanted to reach out and hug her. But the moment passed quickly. “She’s on an important mission, you know.” Asherah beamed with pride. “She’s going to save the Cooperative. That’s what Daddy thinks.”

“Your mother is very brave, Asherah,” Steven said softly.

“Daddy misses her badly,” Asherah said, nodding. “I think it would be nice if she came home.”

“I know she is doing her best.” Steven sighed. They had depended on him being something he wasn’t in order to escape Terra and return to Endard. Only, it didn’t quite work out that way and their mission suddenly stretched for years as they waited for him to mature enough to exploit. Even that didn’t work out as planned, however. Not that he minded. Either plan would have resulted in his death, and eventually, they did return to Endard with perks they had not planned on. Namely…him.

“His parents are missing too,” Asherah whispered. “But he’s going to find them. I know he is. He’s so smart.”

“I’m sure he will.” Steven grinned. By Cooperative standards, he wasn’t very far above average. But on Terra, he would have been considered a genius. Not that he felt like one. During his childhood, he had singularly invested his intellect in his search for his parents. And he had found them. But Aliya still had them. And now she had Asherah too.

He wished he could have entered his parents’ dreams as he had been doing with Asherah. They were able to help him when he was in Aliya’s custody. But it was Asherah’s dreams that drew him in, thanks perhaps to the depth of their bond. He sighed, thinking about how few options he had. It seemed hopeless.

“You look sad,” Asherah said. She got up and walked over to where Steven was sitting and sat down next to him, looking up at him with her beautiful, large eyes. Steven smiled at her. She was impossibly cute. He wiped his eyes and knew immediately why his daughter…their daughter, would be a Daddy’s girl.

They both had met her already as an adult in the Maelstrom. Time was weird in that singularity, however. In actual time, their daughter was just weeks away from being born. Steven’s heart raced as the critical nature of his search washed over him again. He had to find her. To rescue her. And there she was, sitting next to him, completely oblivious of the dire straits she was in.

“I’m looking for someone very dear to me too,” Steven said softly. “I miss her very much.”

“The pretty, glowing girl with the pointy ears?” Asherah asked, pointing to her own tufted ears. Steven looked at her, surprised, then remembered that he had already described Aliya to her.

“That girl seems nice, but she is most definitely not. She has…abducted people who are close to me and she won’t let them go.” Steven said carefully. He was still nervous about attracting Aliya’s attention and glanced around fearfully.

Asherah looked at him for a long moment and sighed. “Everyone has people missing from their lives it seems.” She leaned against him and handed him a flower. “I know you’ll find them. You have to.”

Steven looked at her. “I really want to. More than anything. But it may be more than I can do.”

“No. It’s not.” Asherah looked up at him with her large doe eyes. “Don’t give up. Ever.”

Steven was stunned as he looked at her. She seemed in that moment so much like the woman he was bonded to, even in the body of that little girl. Was she aware of her predicament? Was she aware of who he truly was? Was she aware of what they were to each other? He so wanted to see his life-mate again, to tell her that she wasn’t forgotten, that a great many people were trying to find her.

She was critically important to all of them. If their daughter Vanessa were to perish, all of the Cooperative would cease to exist in an instant. Steven pursed his lips. Time really was weird in the Maelstrom and he hated that the lives of so many rested on the three of them. Asherah giggled and tickled his nose with the leaf she was playing with and Steven tried not to sneeze.

“You’re funny. I like you.” Asherah said, smiling. She yawned and lay down next to him with her head in his lap. “I know you’ll find her.” Asherah said softly as she faded. He played with her hair, hoping he would be able to live up to her confidence.

~ ~ ~

Suddenly Steven sat up straight, crying out. Aileen and Penipe fell back, exclaiming when they hit the floor as he looked around, wide eyed. He was abruptly back in the common room on Syagria. Steven closed his eyes, trying to bring an upwelling of emotions under control. Asherah had fallen asleep in their dreamscape, effectively booting him out.

He shivered and the whole treehouse seemed to shiver as well. A low rumble emanated from the ground far below and other trees started shivering too. The horror of the situation reasserted itself on him and he screamed again, clawing at the woven floor.

Asherah’s mother scrambled back over to him and grabbed his face. “You’re back. You’re here. The dreamscape is over.”

“It’s all my fault!” Steven cried as the whole tree continued to shudder.

Penipe shook her head furiously as she embraced him. “It was Aliya. She abducted Asherah. Not you.”

Steven closed his eyes tight as the shuddering increased. He was having a hard time catching his breath.

“Steven!” Penipe shook him. “Please. We go through this every time you return.”

Steven grit his teeth as he remembered the dreamscape. “She was right there. I touched her. But I can’t help her. Every time is the same. She looks at me like I’ll fix everything.”

“Come back to us, Steven.” Penipe said softly.

Steven opened his eyes and looked at Penipe. “I was supposed to keep her safe.” He tried to look away but Penipe held him fast. “How can you even look at me? I lost your daughter.”

“You are our only chance at getting her back, Steven.” Penipe said quietly, running her fingers through his hair. “Please.”

Steven took a shuddering breath and noticed Lohet reaching for him. “No!”

Lohet flew back as if hit by something, and slammed into the wall of the treehouse, held there by unseen hands as Steven glared at him.

“I will not be handled!” Steven broke free from Penipe’s grasp and got to his knees. “That’s what you want, right? To handle your pet deviant?”

“Steven.” Penipe grabbed his arm. “He’s your friend. Come back to yourself.”

Steven scowled at Penipe. “Myself? When has myself done anyone any good?” He looked back at Lohet who slid off the wall.

Lorei appeared out of thin air and knelt down next to Steven. Steven looked away, avoiding his aunt’s gaze. Her presence only increased his sense of shame. They were Elves, like Asherah. And he lost her. “Why don’t you hate me?” Steven asked glumly. He rubbed his nose.

“You’re blocking us. Steven, we’re bonded to you. Let us help.” Lorei said. Penipe nodded.

Steven looked at them, incredulous. “I have broken…everything. You, all of you, you are so much more important than me. I’m just some stupid kid. Not even a proper Elf.” He sat down hard, slumping as he looked at the fur on his arm with disdain. “How can you bear to be bonded to me? How can you even care? I’ve lost her. I lost Asherah. Now we all are…are…” Steven shook his head as he wiped his eyes.

“We’re still here, Steven. That means she is okay.” Lohet said quietly.

Steven looked sullenly at his vampirish friend. The Keratian that had taken him under his wing and risked his own reputation to teach and mentor him. Steven took in another breath as guilt wracked him. “We could cease to exist in an instant, Lohet. All Aliya has to do is kill her. Kill our child.”

“Steven…” Lohet started.

Steven laughed sadly. “You guys were so afraid of me. Afraid I was going to go around breaking your planets.” He looked at Lorei. “You convinced them I wouldn’t, and look now. Because of me, your entire existence, thousands of civilizations just…poof. In an instant. And there’s nothing I can do.” He wiped his eyes, looking down at the woven floor. “You should have let them kill me.”

“You don’t mean that.”

“Shae said Asherah would have been preserved. With me gone…” Steven wiped his eyes, too frustrated to fight the tears anymore. “I broke…everything. I wish I could go back in time and just…not be. She would be safe. All of you would be safe.”

“Please let us back in.” Penipe said quietly. “Elves aren’t supposed to be alone.”

Steven glowered at her. “She is.”

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