Chapter 2

“I think she’s beginning to wig out,” Steven said quietly as Lorei made herself comfortable on the large boulder where they had been training. His aunt glanced at him, then looked at Moringa, confused. 

Moringa shrugged. “I know what it means but I have no clue about the wig.” The colorful Selkie smiled innocently at Steven who rolled his eyes and looked at Lorei who absentmindedly preened her fur. He should have fur too. But he just looked like anyone else from Earth. More than once he had heard the term ‘bald Elf’ from his bondmates. He shook his head, trying not to get distracted. 

“Really? You’re in my head. You know what I’m saying.”

“Steven, wig?”

“She’s obsessing over this Blessing. Like everything has to be perfect. The stress is…” Steven sighed and looked at Moringa. “You know. Right?”

“I know she wants you to see a better side of the Cooperative than what you have,” Moringa said solemnly. She enveloped his hand in her own multihued, petite hands and Steven couldn’t help but stare at the webbing between her fingers. Moringa smiled, following his gaze and sensing his distractibility. She bent slightly to catch his eyes. “Your troubles have distressed her greatly.”

“See? What she said.” Steven nodded at Moringa as he looked at his teacher.

Lorei scratched at her furry arm for a thoughtful moment. “She has been on edge. But then, she was also a captive, too. Trauma can leave a lasting imprint.”

Steven slumped. “I don’t want her stressing out just because of me.” He looked around at the terrain. It was actually similar to Earth. Terra. “I wish she was here.”

“You’re bonded to her. She’s wherever you are,” Lorei stated matter-of-factly.

“Yeah. Well, it’s not the same.” Steven fidgeted. He was bonded with his aunt too. She knew his thoughts often before he did. But it seemed perfectly natural to him, a fact that perplexed him more than the actual loss of privacy. 

“When the Cooperative understands and accepts better the benefits of your relationship, she may come train with us. Until then, this has to be kept secret. No one can know that she has inherited Gatekeeper abilities from you, except for our core team.”

“What if they find out?” Steven glanced at Moringa. As a Selkie, she was a broadcaster. Everything she experienced could be broadcast to anyone able to receive. Her purpose had been to record the training of the Cooperative’s pet deviant to convince them he wasn’t going to go on a murderous rampage and destroy their planets. Steven blinked, and looked down, feeling ashamed for that requirement. He was hardly a killer. 

“Orin would use that against us. We must change his mind about you, Steven,” Lorei said. “You are not the monster that the Cooperative was expecting.”

Steven looked up at her. Of course she was following his thoughts. She was a bond-mate to him after all. Not as central as Asherah, though. Familial. Like Asherah’s mother and father. He chewed his cheek and nodded. The Cooperative members were afraid of him, and yet they were the exotic ones. Not him. He was actually in the presence of his biological aunt and yet she was an ancient Elf who appeared not much older than young Asherah. He was just some geeky kid from a rural town in Washington.

Steven sighed and looked down. “So, what torment do you have for me today?” Lorei had been a challenging instructor in the ways of gatekeeping. Even more so since Steven had proven naturally adept.

Lorei smirked at him for a brief moment then shook her head. “Today we have an experience I want you to witness. An Awakening.”

Steven cocked his head, looking back up at her.

Lorei laughed at his expression and shook her head. “You know what I’m talking about, right?”

“I, uh, sort of?” Steven shrugged. “A new Gatekeeper?”

“Yes. A latent has committed herself. She’ll be arriving soon. I will perform the Awakening.”

“A latent. Sounds almost as bad as a deviant,” Steven said, frowning.

“Not at all. We have many latent Gatekeepers. They don’t always opt for the Awakening. It is a fundamentally life-changing event.” Lorei squinted at him. “And you are not a normal deviant.”

“A deviant deviant.” Steven scowled as he kicked at a patch of moss on the rock. He hated being different. Being feared.

“I’m sorry, Steven. We simply have no other way to classify you. You’re just not…” She hesitated. 

“Not a zombie eyed, soul sucking, Gatekeeper consuming, world burning monstrosity?” Steven smirked.

Lorei frowned at him. “You’ve seen the damage they can do. You healed Senin after all.”

Steven pulled his legs up and put his chin on his knees. “It wasn’t like it was a big thing.” He regretted saying that the instant it came from his mouth. 

“You healed a molten planet. One that another deviant had destroyed. The Faeries have their home back.” Lorei leaned forward. “It is a huge thing.” 

“So, this Awakening?” Steven looked up. He didn’t like to talk about the deeper implications of what he had done. He knew it was of paramount importance. The Faeries were now treating him like he was some sort of god. That didn’t sit well with him. “Did I go through that?”

Lorei regarded him critically for an uncomfortable moment then leaned back. “For the longest time, we thought deviants were born already Awakened.” She sighed. “Being able to study you has been educational.” 

“That’s me. An educational lab rat.” Steven smirked.

“We’ve never been able to get into the mind of a deviant before.” Lorei persisted. “You’re the first.”

“So, when was I Awakened?” Steven crossed his arms. 

Lorei looked thoughtful. “You woke yourself up. Later than normal deviants. We now think they would get their Awakening when they consumed the life of their Gatekeeper mother at birth.” She pursed her lips. “If I had to guess, it was when you found the meadow. When your nightmares crashed into reality.”

Steven raised an eyebrow thoughtfully. “That was when I dreamt up, when I met, Asherah.” He had actually seen her. Met her. But he had thought he was imagining her as he visualized his drawing. She was a young, furry Elf after all.

Lorei opened her mouth to respond, then closed it and looked around. “She’s ready.” She looked at Steven. “For us, it’s a little more drawn out than your Awakening. It can take hours for me to Awaken her. If it even takes. She must go through a metamorphosis.”

Steven nodded, unsure what to expect. Moringa looped his arm as he jumped off the boulder behind Lorei. He looked at the lovely, exotic, vividly-hued young woman walking beside him. Asherah’s best friend. And now, his best friend’s girlfriend. Funny how life worked sometimes. Moringa grinned at him sheepishly and Steven remembered that she was touching him. Selkies do not form bonds like Elves do, but they can still read thoughts and experiences through touch. He tried not to grimace as he looked at Lorei who had picked up her pace. “When is… “ 

A small group of Elves appeared before them and Lorei embraced one of them. A young Elvish woman who looked remarkably like Asherah. Steven fidgeted while they shared Elvish greetings. They typically placed a hand on the other’s cheek and shared a valuable memory. 

Steven looked at Moringa, grinning. “I guess she’s here.” Moringa elbowed him, making Steven yelp. He looked back at the group and fidgeted again. They were all staring at him. “Sorry. She did it.” He nodded at Moringa.

“This is Isiris,” Lorei said, glancing at the others then at the young Elf whom she had first greeted. No one else said anything. “She’s from the Fahele district.”

“Same as Asherah.” Steven nodded. 

“And me.” Lorei smiled, looking at Isiris. The young Elf remained transfixed, staring at Steven with her mouth open. “She’s been in training for some time now. It is time to take her training another step and Awaken her.”

Steven nodded, uncomfortable with the lingering stare. “Training?”

“All prospective Gatekeepers receive basic Chaser training. Like you.” 

“Oh. Um, if I’m a distraction, I can leave.” Steven half turned and glanced nervously at Moringa. The continuing stares were starting to bother him. 

Lorei cocked her head as she regarded Isiris. “Are you going to greet Steven?”

Isiris flinched as if coming out of a trance and she looked down, sheepish. Steven could tell she was blushing madly under her fur. “I’m sorry. I’m just…” She looked back up at Steven and seemed to lose her train of thought.

“Never saw a deviant before?” Steven tried to joke. But it didn’t sound genuine.

Isiris shook her head madly. “No. But I’ve wanted to meet you so much. You saved Senin. I’ve been through all the Archives and talked to Lorei and Tor’eng and Penipe, and then there’s Enra and Enos’rel and I met Tessa and Ryan and,” Isiris stopped suddenly and took a sharp breath, realizing that she was rambling. She lowered her gaze, embarrassed.

“You’re not scared?” Steven raised an eyebrow.

“Not at all. I mean, I’m terrified. But not,” Isiris stammered. “It’s just, you really healed Senin,” She half whispered. “You’re like, I’m, you’re, it’s just…” Isiris trailed off. She gulped and looked down, subdued. “No. I’m not scared.”

“Sweet! That’s a first.” Steven grinned, amused by the Elf that was apparently enthralled with him. “Them?” He nodded at the others.

Isiris looked back at them then at Steven.

“She would not stop talking about you,” one of the others said. The rest nodded, still gaping at him. Lorei repressed a grin. 

“Mom!” Isiris glared at her, scratching her arm nervously. She looked at Steven. “Oh, I forgot. You’re an Elf. You just don’t look like an Elf. But I can tell. You smell like an Elf and,” Isiris grimaced and closed her mouth. Shaking her head, she stepped forward and hesitantly touched Steven’s cheek in the traditional Elvish greeting. 

Steven opened his mouth but forgot what he was going to say when he saw the vast rows of terraces where crops were grown in the Fahele district on Syagria. He knew from her memories that her parents worked them and she helped. “Your parents must know my parents,” Steven said quietly. “I mean, my Terran parents. They’ve talked about… Jonah has fig trees growing there now. And coffee.” Steven licked his lips. He glanced at Lorei. “Here’s something from me.”

Steven put his hand on her cheek and remembered when he first met Asherah. It was then that he consciously acknowledged what was obvious now. The fact that he unwittingly ended up sitting in a meadow on Endard watching a young Elf dancing amongst the flowers. He didn’t mean to go there. It just happened. The old snag in his Terran meadow had a doppelganger on Endard. A massive, living tree that towered over everything in the alien meadow.

Her fascination with that scene caused Steven to tarry a bit in their sharing of memories. It moved him that what was for him a time of simple innocence should captivate this Elf’s rapt attention. He was about to say something when he found his memory shifting to his own Awakening. Something he had been utterly unaware of at the time. But she found it. And focused on it. The minute he sat in the grass and broke out his colored pencils and started seeing Endard was where his entire life changed. He saw Endard instinctively. His Awakening was instantaneous.

The ground below their feet shifted abruptly and Isiris squeaked as she jumped back. Two other Elves in their entourage likewise cried out, both holding their heads. Steven looked at them, wide eyed. “What?” 

Isiris also looked around but didn’t seem to see them. She reached out with both her hands, waving at the air in front of her. Steven took her hands and saw what she was seeing. Planets. Places. Her home. She saw it like he would. “Come back before you get lost,” Steven said quietly. Isiris blinked and looked at him, seeing him again. 

She opened her mouth to speak but words escaped her. The other two promptly disappeared and Steven glanced at Lorei. “What happened?”

“They were latents, too.” Lorei looked at him strangely, then vanished as well. 

Steven looked at the others, then at Isiris. “Um, that wasn’t supposed to happen, was it?” 

“Was that it? Is this it? I’m, I can see. I feel like I can touch.” Isiris reached out her hand and Steven watched as she pulled back a pine bough from her home on Syagria. She squeaked again and dropped it, then gaped at Steven. “They said it would take all day. That it might not happen. But, is this it?”

Steven closed his eyes, looking at her. He could see her glowing outline and nodded. “You’re just like Lorei.” He glanced at the others, suddenly embarrassed that he had somehow taken a moment away from them. “I guess you’re done?”

Lorei arrived with the other two and they slumped to the ground, dumbfounded. She squinted at Steven. “I was there, in your head. I saw what you did. But…” 

“There was supposed to be more, wasn’t there?” Steven nodded at the others. They all carried equipment he guessed was for some sort of solemn ceremony. “I’m sorry, Lorei.” He looked at Isiris. “I’m really sorry.”

“For what?” Isiris looked at him, blinking hard. He could tell she had been seeing other worlds again but was able to return her attention on her own this time. 

“Well,” Steven gulped and looked at Lorei, “I feel like I baptized you before the pastor arrived.” 

“Baptized?” She cocked her head.

“Just something that,” Steven sighed and shook his head, looking at Lorei. “Am I in trouble?” 

“Steven, she is Awake. So are they. They had not committed yet, but…” She looked around, then back at Steven. “You weren’t even trying.”

Steven shook his head. “I just showed her when I first met Asherah.”

“I saw that. We were just discussing that. Your own Awakening.” Lorei looked down. “That’s why they want you.”

Steven licked his lips. He knew what she was thinking but didn’t want to say it. Not around the others. “This is bad, isn’t it?”

“No. No!” Isiris yelled angrily, taking a step back. “This is good! You, you are amazing!” She looked around then vanished. Steven was about to say something when she appeared, standing in front of him again. She held out a flower. The sweet Ne’re temore flower that Asherah used to give him. “This is your flower. Her flower. I just went and got it. From Endard. Your meadow. How can that be bad?”

“But, you were supposed to have a ceremony or something?” Steven looked at the others. “I’m really sorry.”

Isiris sighed and looked at her family. “They were worried I wouldn’t Awaken. It doesn’t always happen.” She looked back at Steven, her cheeks wet with tears. “I was worried, too. Don’t you see it?”

Steven shrugged and looked at Lorei. “Am I in trouble?” 

Lorei pursed her lips. “Things have gotten a little more complicated. But no one is angry with you. It is what it is.”

Steven nodded and looked back at the parents. “Maybe they can have their ceremony anyway?”

“It was supposed to help her,” her mother said quietly. The others seemed to come out of a stunned trance and approached him. Steven flinched as they grabbed his arms and embraced him. He glanced at Lorei who had taken a step back to make room. 

“Okay, then.” He squirmed under their attention. 

“You’re real,” Isiris said. “And you’re like…” She stopped and looked down. 

“Like?” Steven looked at her as the rest finally gave him a little room.

“Her,” Isiris whispered. “The Younger.” 

“She is a goddess. The legends mentioned that she could Awaken with but a touch,” Lorei said as she leaned in. 

“Oh.” Steven licked his lips. “I’m hardly a legend. Certainly not a god. Just me.”

Lorei looked at the other two who were now sitting on the ground. They looked lost. “You didn’t even touch them.” 

“I think I want to go home now,” Steven said quietly. “Are they going to be okay?”

“They were supposed to witness the Awakening. To help them decide.” Lorei licked her lips. “I think we’re past that now.”

Isiris grabbed Steven’s chin and turned him around to face her. “Don’t you dare apologize. Don’t you feel how happy I am?”

Steven fidgeted. Her touch gave him access to her thoughts and emotions. She was giddy and terrified at the same time. “Okay. It’s just, I keep doing things I’m not supposed to.”

“Like healing Senin?”

“Yeah. A whole planet. I kinda wanted to thank Sirel for helping me.” Steven frowned.

Isiris grinned. “The Faeries are not complaining.”

“Who’s complaining?”

Steven turned around then flinched, pushing Isiris behind him. A Chaser stood inches from him and he recognized her voice through the armor. Miryam. She had recently tried to kill him. And nearly succeeded. 

Lorei grabbed his arm. “She’s just here to collect our new Gatekeepers.”

Steven scowled at Miryam as she circled him warily. “For what?”

“The Gatekeeper Guild will choose masters for them and they’ll be instructed much like I’ve been instructing you.” 

Steven glanced at Isiris who looked at him, perplexed. “You didn’t see the part where this woman stabbed me through the chest?”

Isiris looked down and shook her head. 

“Fear not, deviant. My weapon is stayed for the moment,” Miryam said as her armored facemask retracted. “Your Elves have seen to that.”

“Yeah. My Elves.” Steven frowned as he stepped closer to Lorei. 

Miryam looked at the family and friends, then at Isiris. “It is time.”

Isiris nodded, tentatively. She glanced at Steven and smiled sweetly at him. “Thank you, Steven Crow.”

“You’re welcome?” Steven found himself at a loss for words. Things were happening too fast for him. He was about to say something else when Miryam and the three new Gatekeepers abruptly vanished. 

“She wasn’t supposed to come until after the ceremony,” Lorei said quietly. “You were supposed to have been gone already.”

“And I was supposed to just watch and let you do what you do,” Steven said, slumping. “I hate messing things up.”

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