“Asherah, I broke it. I broke the Earth.” Steven fumbled with something as Asherah approached him from behind. He looked over his shoulder at her, his expression full of fear. “Help me, please! I can’t keep it together.”
Something fell to the floor as Asherah reached him. It wasn’t big, but the whole room seemed to shake when it landed.
“Steven, it’s a dream. This is a dream.” She put her hand on Steven’s shoulder and knelt down beside him. “You’re having a nightmare.”
“Pick that up.” Steven pointed. Asherah looked down and saw what looked like a chunk of a sphere. She picked it up, turned it over, and saw what appeared to be a continent on the rounded portion, complete with moving clouds. Steven grabbed it from her and put it back into the sphere he was holding in his lap. “I broke it. I’m trying to fix it. But,” he looked at her, panicked, “I can’t keep it together. It won’t stay fixed!”
“It’s not real. This isn’t real, Steven.” Asherah sat down next to him.
“Not real? That’s the Earth! Asherah, I broke a planet!” Steven yelled. He fumbled a little and yelped as another couple of chunks fell out of the shattered sphere. Asherah picked one up and handed it to him and he frantically placed it back and pointed at the other. “Please, Asherah. I didn’t mean to. I have to fix it. People lost their homes.”
Asherah wiped her eyes as she picked up the other piece. “It’s my fault, Steven. I wasn’t there to comfort you. Your nightmare went out of control. But I’m here now.”
“Then help me hold this. It keeps falling apart.” Steven fidgeted, trying to keep the shifting pieces from falling to the floor. “They’re suffering because of me.” He looked up and squinted, looking past Asherah. “Go away!”
Asherah looked around and saw Steven’s nightmare wolfman and vampire. “Steven, Migalo and Lohet are your friends. They shouldn’t even be in your nightmare.”
“They hate me.” Steven looked down at the planet. “I know it. I can feel it. They won’t stop looking at me with their…like I’m some sort of insect.” Steven looked up sharply. “They won’t leave me alone. I’m trying to fix things and they keep coming back to pester me.” He nodded in their direction. “They blame me.” Steven sighed and looked at the Earth. Asherah put her hand on the globe as it shifted. He looked away. “Why don’t you?”
“What?” Asherah looked at Steven.
“Why don’t you blame me?” Steven licked his lips, looking at the soft fur on her hands. “I’m a monster, Asherah. I’m not even human.”
“Neither am I,” Asherah said softly. “That’s never bothered you before.”
“You’re an Elf. Full of life and joy.” Steven took in a deep breath as he looked at the world that sat in his lap. “I’m a monster. People were, people were…” He closed his eyes, trying to control his emotions.
“This is a dream, Steven. You must wake up,” Asherah said. “Please.”
“This is real!” Steven yelled, half standing up. The globe abruptly fell to pieces and Steven cried out as he scrambled around in a frenzy, trying to gather the pieces together. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry!” Steven looked around and grabbed up more pieces, but they kept multiplying. “Please, help me!” Steven looked at Asherah as she reached out for him. But she was fading.
“Asherah!” Steven cried out, sitting up. He looked around and down at Asherah who lay looking up at him from their sleeping mat. He felt a presence and looked toward the door of their room. Lohet was standing in the doorway looking at him impassively. After a moment he turned and left. Steven blinked and looked down at Asherah as she gripped his arm. He relaxed a little and lay back down next to her. “Another nightmare. Didn’t mean to wake you.”
“I was there,” Asherah said as she caressed his face.
“You really should stay out of my dreams.” Steven looked at her. “They’re a mess.”
“Who else will help you?” Asherah kissed his hand.
“It felt so real.” Steven wiped his eyes. “No matter how weird it is.” He looked at Asherah. He was telling an alien Elf how weird his dreams were. The irony wasn’t lost on him.
Asherah grinned, seeing his thoughts. “You never thought I was weird in the meadow.”
Steven sighed. “Five years. You were so perfectly normal to me.” He rolled on his back. “But, you still are. That’s the weird part.”
“Get some sleep, Steven. They’re coming to examine you in the morning and you need to be rested.” Asherah patted his hand and snuggled next to him.
“Sure. Examine me. That’s going to help me sleep well.” Steven looked at her sideways. But sleep deprivation was taking over and he found himself drifting off in spite of his anxiety. Asherah wiped her eyes as she watched him doze fitfully. It did seem that everyone thought he was a monster. But she didn’t.
~ ~ ~
The Gatekeeper’s Chamber was one of the few cavities within the collection of giant trees forming the Temple that remained largely untampered with and completely naturally formed. Every other part of the Temple trees were precisely trained into a unified, vast Gatekeeper’s hub that provided access to the thousands of worlds and their respective Temples in the Cooperative.
Maran took in a deep breath, enjoying the coniferous aroma in the room. He looked up at the diversity of creatures that sat on, hung from, or crouched under the various seemingly random growths and branches that protruded from the walls. All of them were Gatekeepers and all were focused on maintaining the thousands of gates that were open in the Temple.
“You have returned to Legracia.”
Maran looked around and grinned at a brilliantly white man sitting on one of the several branches that crossed the chamber. “Guildmaster Orin? You sound surprised. I am human after all.” He jumped up onto the gnarled branch and crouched next to Orin. “You haven’t been to Toros in a long time. I thought Keratians made pilgrimages frequently.”
Orin scowled as he leveled a cool glare at Maran. “You return empty handed.”
“I am thinking that Toros reminds you of your family.” Maran nodded, ignoring Orin’s comment. “Which is odd, because they perished on Rholling.”
“Attempting to divert blame does not alleviate the severity of your negligence, Maran,” Orin said quietly. “Your failure to dispatch the deviant has created chaos in the Cooperative.”
“Yeah. I’m still getting grief over that. How long did the Rholling issue stick to you? How long did it take for people to stop pestering you over your endorsement of the Elder?” Maran sat down on the branch and glanced around at the other Gatekeepers. He could tell that they were paying close attention to their discussion and grinned. “A couple of pretty severe mistakes and yet you remain a stalwart pillar of the Cooperative.”
“The Elder’s condition…” Orin hesitated for a moment, then shook his head. “I will not get sucked into any more of your diversionary tactics, Maran. You know as well as I do that the Elder fooled all of us.”
“Before my time. I’m only a few hundred years old.” Maran smirked and swung his legs back and forth over the edge of the massive branch. “But I am old enough to know that your anger is misdirected.”
“You gated out on the landing rather than at an optimal…”
“It was surrounded by people, Orin,” Maran interrupted. “Chasers, too, in case you have forgotten.”
“Their failure as Chasers does not lessen yours as a Chaser Guildmaster,” Orin grumbled. “Its termination would have put an end to this, and we would have had our team back. Now…”
Maran nodded, thoughtfully. “If we terminate the deviant now, the team will be stranded on the Forbidden Planet.”
Orin pursed his lips as he regarded Maran critically.
“I am not dismissive of how complicated things have become, Orin. However, rather than focusing on the setbacks, I have been seeking a solution.”
Maran sighed, looking around the room then back at Orin. “Aradia and Tor’eng have proven disruptive. Their petition to have the deviant reclassified has gained enough momentum as to break unanimity in the Council. Sending a Chaser team in to finish the job now could be even more divisive.” He sighed again. “Which is too bad, because this deviant has no Venda defending it.”
“I am well aware of this.” Orin held his arms out. A black mist formed around him that coalesced into strips of fabric that in turn melded together to form a loose robe draping over his shoulders. He stood up on the massive branch and Maran followed suit.
“What you may not remember is Lelana’s condition.”
“She was healed,” Orin said as he jumped off the branch.
“She could still have passed that on to the deviant. It could still make it less stable. Enough to, say, bring the Council back into agreement?” Maran grinned, keeping up with Orin.
Orin looked at Maran for a long moment, then nodded slowly. “It doesn’t matter if she was healed or not. The perception…”
Maran laughed. “I’m such a bad influence on you, Guildmaster Orin.”
Orin looked at the human sideways. “What do you propose?”
“Give the deviant reason to lose its cool.” Maran held out his arms as if that was obvious. “And it has to be public.”
“It is bonded to an Elf,” Orin said thoughtfully.
“Two Elves.” Maran held up two fingers. “One is a Chaser who would happily share that connection with the Cooperative.”
Orin smiled, flashing his canines. “You have reminded me why I made you my second, Maran.”
Maran shrugged. “I have my moments.” He closed his eyes for a moment then rubbed his temples. “Did you get that broadcast?”
Orin nodded, looking to the side as if listening to something unseen. “She has done it. Foolish woman.”
“Perish that you criticize the Huntress.” Maran looked askance at Orin. “She could finish this for us once and for all.”
“Send a Selkie to the Huntress’s life-mate. Broadcast her experience to the Council.” He stopped and looked thoughtful. “Connect her to the Council directly. She must not cease to be reminded of her duty and what waits for her back home,” Orin said, scowling.
“You really doubt her?” Maran cocked his head, stopping at the entrance of the chamber.
“She’s an Elf.” Orin leveled a cool glare at Maran. “Huntress or not, that does not bode well for her mission.”
“You truly have no faith in people, do you?” Maran called after Orin as the Keratian Gatekeeper walked off.
“I have faith in you, Maran. Stay close to them. If she fails, we need you to be involved.” Orin stopped and looked back at Maran. “You are less obvious than I am.”
Maran grinned. “If you keep complimenting me, I might get a big head, Orin.”
Orin raised an eyebrow, then abruptly vanished. Sighing, Maran walked back to the branch and jumped back on it, picking a spot next to a colorful Selkie woman.
The Selkie looked at him impassively as Maran closed his eyes and prepared to lend a hand maintaining the gates. After a moment, he absentmindedly activated a computer interface around him as he began coordinating the Council’s involvement with the Huntress. He glanced at the Selkie and smiled briefly then got back to work. “Ooh, I got the Mori’te gate. Was that the one you had?” He looked back at her. The Selkie slowly nodded. Maran smiled as he closed his eyes. “Excellent. I like Mori’te.”
The Selkie’s eyes went black for a brief moment, and a wave of chrome washed over her colorful skin as she stood up and jumped off the branch. Before she landed, she vanished. Maran opened his eyes and looked around, then returned to his meditations.