“Steven! This is a dream!” Asherah screamed, ducking a flying chunk of floor. She beheld the ongoing destruction they were in the midst of with stunned bewilderment. The building they were in was being decimated at an alarming rate of attrition. But Steven’s nonchalant attitude about it disturbed her even more.
The exterior street-facing wall of the apartment complex was missing entirely and energy weapons were chipping away at what was left, showering them with rubble and dust. Another explosion made her flinch and she looked at Steven, terrified. Would this unfettered violence send him over the edge again? Would he experience another incident that could kill millions?
Steven grabbed her arm and slung her up onto the second story of the apartment as another blast showered him with concrete shrapnel. He ducked and rolled, avoiding the worst of the high-speed debris as he jumped up to join her. She grabbed his shirt and shook him. “Dream! This is a dream! Wake up now!”
Steven looked at her quizzically, then pushed her head down quickly as a large sliver of metal beam flew by, embedding in the far wall of the apartment. Asherah batted his hand away from her head, looking at him in growing exasperation. He looked down at the assailants. “They’re getting faster. I think they have more Keratians with them.” He sighed. “Yay. Just love my vampire dudes. They’re my favorite.” He glanced at Asherah. “That was sarcasm, by the way.”
Asherah looked down at them. “Chasers? You’re dreaming about Chasers? Steven, that was over a week ago!”
Steven looked at her, frowning. “We need to get to a better spot.”
“No. You need to wake,” Asherah was interrupted when Steven bodily lifted her and jumped across an alley onto the balcony of a neighboring apartment complex.
“I really don’t have much of an advantage here in the city.” Steven crouched as he balanced on the rail of the balcony and looked down the road, squinting.
“You don’t have… You just need to wake up!” Asherah screamed at him. She winced when the brick siding of the apartment complex started blowing out from the continuing onslaught.
“Not now, Asherah. Stay low,” Steven said as he ran on top of the rail and jumped over a gap to the next balcony. Asherah threw her hands up in frustration and followed him. He jumped up and grabbed the balcony rail overhead, effortlessly pulling himself up to the next level. Sighing, Asherah followed suit, then cringed when part of the railing was blown away.
“Why are you doing this?” Asherah asked as Steven stopped briefly to pull her up onto the surviving rail.
“To get away from the bad guys.” Steven looked at her as if she should have known that. “Watch out!” He pushed her to the side as a nearly invisible energy beam cut the air between them and showered the both of them with another cloud of brick dust. Steven looked at her, shaking his head. “You really need to pay better attention, Asherah.” He tapped his temple. “Lohet calls it situational awareness.”
Asherah yelped when he grabbed her around the waist and jumped off the balcony rail onto the trailer of a moving truck. “Steven!” They both teetered briefly and she gripped his arm as he slammed his fingers through the steel top of the trailer to anchor them.
Steven winked at her as he held her low. “If we can just get to the forest, we’ll be safe.”
“Just wake up!” Asherah yelled, flinching as part of the roof of the truck peeled off explosively.
Steven looked up and sighed. “They had to bring a gunship.”
“Steven, this isn’t real,” Asherah said, panicking as Steven yanked her off the truck just as it fragmented around them. “Please! This isn’t the Cooperative! They’re not hunting you anymore. It’s better. It’s going to be our home! Syagria is our home!”
“We’ll be okay, Asherah,” Steven said, landing deftly and taking a few quick steps to bring them to a graceful stop. “Just need to duck down into the subway where the gunship can’t follow.”
“Underground?” Asherah squeaked again as he pulled her rapidly down the steps. “Steven, bad things happen whenever you go underground!”
“You worry too much, Asherah,” Steven said, laughing as he looked down the subway tunnel. “Tighter quarters might give me an edge. I can move faster than most of them and they have fewer vantage points.”
“You can just wake up, too,” Asherah said sarcastically, prying Steven’s fingers from her arm.
“We’ll be okay, Asherah. I’ll take care of you.” Steven grinned at her.
“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you? Tell me this. If this is real, why don’t you just gate us away?” Asherah asked, angrily putting her hands on her hips.
Steven looked at her blankly.
“You know, gate? Just take us to Endard or Syagria.”
Steven reached up and moved the hair away from her furry forehead and turned her face from side to the side.
“What?” She angrily slapped his hand away.
“Just checking to make sure you don’t have a head wound,” Steven said. He looked past her then suddenly Asherah found herself sprawling onto the floor behind him.
She looked around as she tried to scramble to her feet, and saw a blur. A pair of blurs. She scowled and closed her eyes, trying to relax. Her heartbeat seemed to plummet as everything around her appeared to immensely slow down. She opened her eyes and flinched. A piece of rubble that had been falling off of the ceiling seemed to hang in the air in front of her face, plummeting at a snail’s pace. She blinked hard then opened her eyes again and saw them as she peered around the falling rubble. Steven and his assailant were no longer blurs. Dust and rubble seemed to hang frozen in the air around them as they engaged in impossibly high-speed combat.
“Steven!” She got to her feet, overcompensated, and found herself bouncing off the ceiling, dislodging more rubble that seemed to freeze in mid-fall.
Steven ducked the bone sword and fired out an elbow to the chin of the Keratian Chaser. It met with a sickening thud, spinning the assailant around as he pushed the attack.
The Keratian absorbed the energy and continued the spin, reengaging Steven with the bone sword and nearly impaling him as Steven parried yet again. Steven blocked another continuation of attacks in rapid succession, finding himself backpedaling. He heard an oncoming train and reached out to catch Asherah as she fell. He kicked the Keratian in the chest and pushed off into the tunnel in a single move.
Asherah screamed as he balled up around her and suddenly there was a slow-motion explosion of glass and sheet metal as the train impacted them. Steven reached out and grabbed the handrails, ripping them off one at a time as the train sped past them. The end of the first carriage met them precipitously and Steven planted his feet solidly on either side of the door, grunting as he absorbed their abrupt change in velocity.
After a brief moment, time seemed to catch up with them like a gust and Steven fell off the wall to his knees. “Oh, I don’t think I want to try that again. You okay?” He checked Asherah.
She grabbed and slapped his hands away, crying furiously. “Just wake up already!”
“I guess you’re fine.” Steven nodded as he stood up. He was about to say something when the roof of the carriage peeled off without warning. Huge, metallic, insect-like arms invaded the carriage, ripping out chairs as they reached for the two of them. They both looked up and saw what looked like an alien crab flying overhead. Steven pushed Asherah out of the way of a grasping claw as a tentacle snaked out and yanked him up into the air.
Asherah jumped up, screaming. Then she stopped mid-scream and looked around. It was dark and quiet. Blinking, she looked down at Steven who lay on their sleeping mat, looking back up at her. “Really? You’re dreaming about Chasers?”
“Hey, it was your dream,” Steven said defensively. He pulled Asherah back down. “And I mean, wow! That was intense!”
Asherah stared at him, dumbfounded. “My dream?”
Steven nodded, grinning. “You know, I get enough of that training with Lohet and his goon squad. The least you could do is dream of some tropical paradise or something and give me a break.” He gave her a fake pout, trying hard not to smile and ruin it.
“That was mine?” Asherah touched Steven’s face as if to make sure he was really there. “I was trying to wake you up.”
Steven shrugged. “I kinda went with it. It was fun.”
“You could have woken me up, you jerk!” Asherah yelled then covered her mouth as she looked around her. The rest of the occupants of the room were busy trying to pretend to be asleep and she wasn’t helping. She looked back at Steven who was grinning widely at her. “Oh, no. You don’t get off that easy. You have to sleep sometime!” Asherah whisper-yelled at him, pinching his chest.
Steven yelped, grabbing her hand. Asherah sighed and lay back down. “What am I doing having a dream like that? It’s better now. Syagria has accepted us. Accepted you. We’re going home.”
“You did just go through a bit of trauma yourself,” Steven said, soberly. “You’re still trying to process it, I think.”
“I dreamed about Chasers. Chasers! You were the one that had to fight the Chasers. Not me. I was just in some concrete cell.” Asherah sighed.
“Yeah, absorbing my pain and stress.” Steven looked at her sideways. “You endured as much from them as I did.”
Asherah wiped her eyes and rolled over. Steven looked over her shoulder. “Hey, that’s ancient history. What, almost a couple of weeks ago even. That’s like a lifetime if we were gnats.”
“All you’ve seen of us is how we hate you. My home. Our home. And all they wanted to do was kill you.” Asherah sniffed. She shrugged. “Now I’m even dreaming of them trying to hurt you.”
“Well, the guys stationed here have been pretty nice to me. Sort of. That has to count for something.”
Asherah rolled on her back and looked at him. “All I wanted was to share my home with you. My world. My universe. To show you how wonderful,” she stopped and wiped her eyes again, struggling for a moment to maintain her composure. “We’re really not like that. Not like Terra.”
“They’re scared of me,” Steven said soberly. “I’m sure it’s great for you because you’re one of them.”
“It’s not me anymore. It’s us. We’re bonded. We’re one.” Asherah wiped her eyes. “I wanted to show you how perfect home was. I just want things to be normal.”
“Normal?” Steven tried not to laugh, barely repressing a giggle. “An alien wants things to be normal?”
“Stop it. We get to have normal, too.” Asherah grinned sadly, wiping her furry cheeks. She looked at him as he wiped her cheeks too. “Syagria blessing our bond is, you’d know just how important that is to me, how big it is, if you’d just look.”
“I do. Really,” Steven said defensively. Their intimate, Elvish mental bond. Steven still felt like he was invading her privacy by looking at her thoughts and memories.
“We’ll be part of Syagria. Home.” Asherah smiled sadly. “I’m so sorry you’ve seen nothing but bad from us. But I promise you,” Asherah stopped, lost in his eyes as she tried to vocalize her deepest desires.
“I believe you.” Steven smiled. “I know it’s not all bad. I can’t wait to see Syagria. Again.”
He glanced over at the entrance of their room. Lohet was standing quietly in the doorway. The moonlight streaming in through the bedroom window glinted eerily off his white skin and glassy, white hair. Steven shook his head and pointed at Asherah. “I’ve already had my practice in there. Chasers. Golems. Combat. I’m taking a day off.”
Lohet grinned slightly then walked back to the living room where Sirel was no doubt still sitting on the ceiling, working on their mission. Steven craned his head, watching him leave. “I’m serious! I’m taking the day off!” He looked at Asherah. “Think he believes me?”
“He’d better. We’re going to Syagria soon and I don’t want you injured and exhausted,” Asherah said, snuggling up against Steven, purring.
Steven grinned and lay back down as he caressed her furry shoulder. “Great. Now I’m going to have the bad dreams. I’m getting married to an Elf.” He squirmed as she pinched him again.
~ ~ ~
“It has broken its waiver more than once,” Orin grumbled as he addressed the cluster of Elvin elders. “It trespassed on Syagria. It exhibited a dangerous incident and nearly destroyed Terra. It has had unlawful contact with the Sadari, confirming everything I have said. And yet, you persist in this foolishness?”
“He healed Senin.”
“Yes, the Faeries have their world back. And it could as easily destroy their home all over again. It is not stable!” Orin snapped at the Elf who spoke up. He recognized Enra. “You were against it at one time, Enra. You saw the threat.”
“And I was convinced otherwise,” Enra said coolly.
“This deviant is clearly a product of the Sadari. They have been in extensive contact with it. They constantly woo it and herd it to their will.” Orin stood up and paced around the tree house common room. The Elves remained sitting or reclining on the woven floor.
“He has confounded the Sadari, Orin. Have you not seen the Archives? He is not what they expected,” Enra said, shifting as he followed Orin’s pacing. “This is the same Sadari that could not make a mistake.”
“Of course they can make mistakes,” Orin grumbled. “They have planned for those mistakes and every other contingency.”
“The golem Rachel failed to fix her mistake, Orin. She could not fix Steven.”
“Only because Aliya has no idea that the deviant is bonded.” Orin grimaced in disgust. How any Elf could bond with such a creature was beyond him. “Even your own experts did not figure that the bond was crucial until it was nearly too late. It took a Terran to expose the importance of that.” Orin shook his head.
“That is a problem?”
“It illuminates just how ill-prepared we are with this deviant,” Orin said. He looked around. “We are guessing, my friends. Reaching in the dark. And we are stumbling in that same darkness.” Orin sat down again, his black robe flowing out from him like vaporous liquid. “The safety of the Cooperative is at the mercy of our ignorance.”
“Guildmaster, never in all of our Archived history has a life-mate bond between Elves not been celebrated. It simply has not happened. And it’s not going to start now,” Enra said firmly.
“It is not an Elf. It is a deviant,” Orin stated. “Most of the Cooperative sees this. Why be the one world out of thousands to not see this?”
“Two. Senin.” Enra crossed his arms.
“The Faeries are so giddy over getting their world back they’re not seeing straight. You’re so giddy at being able to get into the mind of a deviant, you’re not seeing straight. Trust those who are not so biased, Enra. For us, the safety of the Cooperative is paramount and the solution is clear.”
“You’re making it seem like the deviant, Steven, that he bought their affection?” Enra grumbled, scowling.
“How can you see it any other way? Before Senin, no Faerie saw Steven any other way than as a deviant in need of being terminated,” Orin stated, holding his hands out.
“Struggled with her issues regarding it. Even she conceded the wisdom of terminating it.” Orin looked around at them.
“And now she no longer struggles. Is her experience any less valid than yours?”
Orin scowled. “The deviant’s power is intoxicating.” He looked around at them. “Its seduction is clearly manifest here, and even among the Faeries.”
“Are you ignoring the person himself?”
“Perish the thought,” Orin said sarcastically. “To the contrary, its unassuming nature is part of that seduction. You see innocence. I see deception, either by design or by purpose.”
“He is not deceiving us. We have four Elves bonded to him and many more observing his every thought,” Enra said.
“The mold has been cast by the Sadari, Enra.” Orin sighed, shaking his head. “The deviant likely has no idea of its part in this deception.”
“Your obsession with the Sadari dates back to the War, Orin. As you accuse us of bias, so could we accuse you.” Enra stood up. “He has proven himself many times over. I wish you would see this.”
“I see the death it could bring by the hands of the Sadari. And the first step to that inevitable future is getting it accepted by us with open arms.” Orin stood up, scowling. “Do not underestimate them as we did three thousand years ago, Enra. Time might have dulled the memory of generations since, but I was there and so were many of my peers.”
“We have seen him resist the Sadari, Orin. You are assuming he is a fool. If you just knew him the way we know him.”
“And be polluted by its influence?” Orin looked at Enra, aghast.
“Is that what you think of us? That we’re stepping into this blindly?” Enra asked. “We are in a position to know his very thoughts and motivations. For us, there is no question.”
Orin shook his head and turned away from the gathering. “The Council will regain unanimity, Enra, and that will mean the deviant’s termination.”
“Or it will mean his acceptance,” Enra said resolutely.
Orin glanced back at him over his shoulder, then vanished.