The stench from open sewage was almost overwhelming. Steven repressed a gag as he tried to ignore it. The abrupt change of scenery was jarring, and it didn’t help that it impressed itself as potently on his sense of smell as it did visually. The refugee camp was a chaotic collection of tents and cardboard structures, erected hastily with little thought to the logistics of dealing with waste.
“I thought you couldn’t gate on Earth because of the Sadari,” Steven said, coughing a little. A faceless and immensely powerful enemy called the Sadari had corrupted the subspace fractures around Earth, depriving Gatekeepers access. But according to his alien companions, not even they could block a deviant.
“I cannot gate on Terra. But you can,” Lorei said to him coolly. She had borrowed his power with but a touch. “This offends you?”
Steven cocked his head, squinting at her. “Why would it offend me?”
Lorei just looked at him, expecting something, but not receiving what she expected.
Steven shook his head, bemused, and looked around. There were hundreds of tents around them, all tightly packed in a small clearing beside a large dump. It was sticky and sweltering even though the day was just starting, and there were already a number of people heading towards the various food trucks that were starting to filter in. Recent rains had rendered the terrain a muddy, stinking swamp.
Steven covered his mouth as he beheld the putrid scene around them, horrified that people actually had to live there. His first reaction was to attempt to return to the homestead but Lorei grabbed his arm, anchoring him there. He felt her terror through her touch. She knew that she couldn’t stop him. No one could. Not even the illustrious and powerful Sadari. But he still reluctantly cooperated, remaining with her. That such an exotic and ancient creature was terrified of him shocked him, almost distracting him from the scene around them.
“Please. I don’t like it here,” Steven said, trembling as the ramifications of what he saw sank in. The scene around them was his doing. His fault.
“Why?” Lorei asked as she struggled to maintain her composure. “You did this.”
Steven didn’t really know the answer to her question. But he knew the camp was a direct result of what he had caused. The people there had homes at one time. There was a time when they had lives and families and bright futures. Now they had squalor and suffering, hunger and cold, disease and death, and it was breaking Steven’s heart. He wiped his eyes. “I didn’t mean to! I really didn’t!” Steven didn’t know how to process what he was seeing, what he was responsible for. He looked at her pleadingly, all but begging to be allowed to leave.
Lorei furrowed her furry eyebrows as she observed him. She put her hand on his face again, trembling a little as she entered into his tormented thoughts. She bit her lip as she dug deeper, trying to see if his guilt was genuine. Steven gritted his teeth, trying not to withdraw from her. Until her own memories betrayed something that shocked him.
“You were ordered to kill me!” Steven stepped back from Lorei’s touch, alarmed.
She raised an eyebrow as she pulled her hand back. He had read her as easily as she was reading him. She doubted she was strong enough to totally block the deviant but was still surprised at how effortlessly he had cracked through her resistance. His power was intoxicating and terrifying at the same time.
“Very perceptive.” Lorei leveled a cool gaze at Steven. “I am being ordered to kill you even now. What is your reaction to that?”
“Reaction? Really?” Steven was almost speechless at that question. Almost. “You have orders to kill me and you want to know how I feel?”
Lorei crossed her arms, saying nothing. She had forfeit her life by committing herself to the mission to evaluate Steven and had not expected to survive the encounter with the deviant in the first place. Even so, she was yet again surprised at his reaction to her and to the threat she represented against him.
Steven looked at her, dumbfounded, then around at the refugee camp, trying to think. “Well, I’m not very happy about it.” He shook his head at that, then nodded resolutely. “Not happy at all.”
Something occurred to him. “You’re not going to do it, are you?” Steven asked as he squinted at her.
Lorei grinned devilishly, “Not yet.”
A child ran between them and stopped, staring at Lorei, then ran off. Lorei looked at the child then back at Steven who stood transfixed by the kid. Mystified, she pulled her hood over her head to avoid undue attention. Elves were not exactly a common sight on Terra. “Come with me.” She slipped her arm under his and they walked together through the camp.
As they walked, they passed a tent where Steven saw a young boy cooking a meager portion of rice for himself and his younger sibling in a discarded tin can. There were no adults with them. Steven only saw a single sleeping mat of cardboard that was barely big enough for the two of them, and the realization of why struck home. They were orphans of the tragedy. His knees got a little weak as he saw the fruit of his mistake trying to subsist without their parents.
He knelt down before them and sat on his heels, crying as he looked at them. One spoke to him in an Asian language he only barely remembered from his linguistics classes. They were worried that they wouldn’t have enough rice for him. He found it hard to breathe as he looked at them, then remembered the dried figs he had stuffed into his pocket. “This is all I have,” he said to them in their language as he held the figs out for them. They looked at him for a moment, then eagerly took the figs. They were obviously starving. The figs did not last long.
Steven looked up to Lorei. “How can I make this right? I don’t have enough for them. I killed their parents.” He was wracked by waves of guilt as Lorei tried to pull him to his feet. He hardly noticed her as he numbly reacted and got up. The kids watched him walk away with her and waved when he looked back. If they only knew, would they wave at him then?
Lorei took them back to the homestead and Steven collapsed into Asherah’s arms sobbing as she cried with him. She had seen everything but had not been able to comfort Steven because of the muting. She glared at Lorei who also sat down hard on the bench, dumbfounded. Lorei glanced at Steven and touched his leg. Immediately, he could feel Asherah again. Asherah mentally reached out, trying to pull his sorrow from him, but he stopped her. “That’s mine,” he whispered, gazing into her eyes through his tears. He felt he deserved no less.
“It’s ours,” Asherah said as she caressed his face, sharing in his suffering anyway.
“I can’t stand to cause more suffering, especially not yours, Asherah.” Steven closed his eyes, unable to get the kids out of his mind. Another wave of guilt washed over him as he realized that the two orphans were just two of a great many at that camp. And how many similar camps were there? Tsunamis had caused havoc along most of the coasts. How could he let her suffer with him when it was all his fault?
“I choose to, Steven,” Asherah thought to him as she put her forehead against his. There was a song in his head. She was singing to him as she sat there comforting him, sharing in his agony.
“You’ve bonded with a monster,” Steven whispered.
“A monster would not care,” Asherah retorted firmly. She scowled at Lorei who still had her hand on Steven’s leg. Lorei had been listening all along to their interaction and was also crying.
“Satisfied?” Asherah asked angrily. Her tone was accusing. “He’s not sleeping most nights because of this. Now it’ll be worse and even harder for me. You didn’t have to do that.”
“We had to know,” Lorei said, standing up. She looked up at Penipe who still sat cross legged on the roof with her hands clasped in her lap. After a moment, Penipe stood up and jumped off the roof, landing lightly on the ground. She gracefully walked over to her daughter and Steven, sat next to him, opposite her daughter, and embraced the both of them.
“You could have just looked into my memories, Lorei,” Penipe said quietly. Lorei opened her mouth to speak, then closed it. She sat back down and put her hand on Penipe’s cheek. Penipe held her gaze defiantly as the interrogator delved into her memories and experiences concerning the deviant. She saw how the deviant had stopped fleeing from Penipe when rubble fell on her, threatening her life. He saved her twice in spite of the threat she had represented to him. She also saw Steven intercepting a toxic dart intended for Asherah, trading his life for Asherah’s without hesitation.
Penipe maintained her glare at Lorei, her irises flashing yellow with indignation. “Tormenting him was not necessary. He is different.”
Lorei pulled her hand back, looking at Steven. “I needed to see him under duress. He still has all the power of a deviant.”
“But not the heart of a deviant,” Penipe responded coldly as she pulled him and her daughter closer. “The bond is genuine. You saw it. She almost died with him. It is a true bond.” Penipe caressed Steven’s hair. “And you know deviants can’t form bonds.”
Penipe looked around at Lohet. He was no longer trying to ignore the interview now and stood as if waiting for a command. She returned her attention to Lorei. “You’ve felt the depth of his pain over what has transpired with him. The guilt over the people who have been harmed by those hunting him. What deviant feels for the dead and injured?”
Lorei said nothing. The calls to execute Steven were no longer raging through her consciousness as the rest of the Council were silenced by what they had witnessed through her.
“What is he?” Lorei asked finally, looking at Steven in wonder.
“Something new, Lorei.” Penipe put her cheek against Steven’s head as he remained lost in his grief while his consciousness revisited the disaster areas, the refugee camps, witnessing the continuing suffering. He was totally oblivious of the conversation going on about him.
Lorei stood up and knelt down before Steven. She reached out and touched him again. The overwhelming grief abruptly washed away and Steven breathed in sharply, his eyes wide as he was pulled back from his mental travels. Lorei saw him with a new appreciation. “I am truly sorry, Steven. We had to see. All of our lives are at stake and we had to know.”
Steven returned her look sullenly. He took a shuddering breath as he tried to regain his composure. “You could have just asked.” Steven shivered with overwhelming guilt. “You people think I’m going to go on some rampage and destroy your worlds. That’s ridiculous, Lorei. All of this is just ridiculous.”
Sirel stood up and pushed off from beneath the eve of the house, inverting so her feet touched down softly on the ground. She skipped over to the table and hopped onto it, sitting on the edge so her feet hung behind Penipe as she played with the Elf’s hair. Little electrical discharges danced around Penipe’s follicles making Sirel giggle. She looked coyly over at Lorei. “Asherah asked you a question.” She leaned toward her. “Are you satisfied?” She grinned, flashing her shark-like teeth. Lorei glanced at her then looked back at the others.
“No. No, I’m not,” Lorei said after some contemplation. Penipe looked up at her friend then over at Lorei as she sat back down next to her. Asherah appeared alarmed as she pulled Steven to her protectively. Lorei smiled sadly. “No, I will not kill him.” She looked at Steven then back at Penipe. “How did you know? There was a time you were trying to terminate it. Him.”
“I know him,” Penipe said. “The deviant is my bond-son after all.” She glanced at Steven, smiling wryly.
Lorei looked at her for a long moment then turned to Steven. “The evaluation is far from over.”
Steven gulped and looked at Asherah, wondering if he made the right decision. Today was bad. How much more would she need?
“So you’ll teach him?” Penipe asked. Steven cocked his head at Penipe, confused.
Lorei looked down. “The Council is highly divided on this. But he has Syagria on his side, thanks to today.” She looked into Steven’s eyes and shuddered involuntarily. “This is amazing, Penipe. He’s really real.”
“What does that mean? What’s going on?” Steven asked, looking around, getting perplexed as he wiped his eyes.
Sirel giggled and mussed his hair. “It means the deviant has a master.”
“Ah.” Steven looked around at her. “That explains everything.” The sarcasm wasn’t lost on Sirel who smiled and bopped him on the back of the head, sending little sparks flying out. Steven winced and tried to glare at her, but the Faerie was impossible to stay angry at. He thought about what Sirel had said. He had a master?
Steven looked questioningly at Asherah who shrugged her shoulders. She was as confused as he was, and for once that actually comforted him. She was usually the one holding his hand on things that seemed trivial to her. As smart as he was, the learning curve had been exceedingly high.
Penipe leaned into Steven. “If you are to be accepted into the Cooperative, you need to go through the same sort of training and indoctrination that any Gatekeeper goes through. During that training, they’ll see that you are not the monster they thought you were.” She looked at him expectantly and Steven fidgeted. He glanced at Lorei then back at Penipe.
“But, I just want to be able to visit. I’m not asking to move there or anything. I like it here.” He looked around the homestead. “This is my home. And for the first time in years, I see Sally and Jonah as my real parents.” He watched through the window as Sally worked in the kitchen. Until recently, she was just Sally to him. She’d been Sally to him since early on when he learned he was adopted. They were his godparents, sworn to care for him in the absence of his biological parents. But they were also his adoptive parents and they had given up everything to care for him. Sally glanced out and saw Steven staring at her. She waved. Steven smiled sadly. “I’m not going to leave them.”
“I’m not asking you to move, Steven,” Asherah said softly.
“Steven, you have no idea how paramount this is,” Lorei said, almost breathless. He felt her fear melting away as she put her hand on his. “Penipe asked for me to be the one to examine you for a reason. I didn’t know why until now.” She glanced briefly at Penipe then peered deep into his eyes. “I came here to die, Steven. My life-mate has already gone through the preparations for bond-breaking. No one expected me to survive. You are a deviant. I expected to be the proof of your deviancy that would end all discussion concerning you. But your bond-mother knew something that we couldn’t begin to comprehend, something I now understand. You are so incredibly special.”
“She’s a teacher, Steven, and a Guildmaster,” Penipe told him. “A family friend as well.”
Lorei nodded at Steven. He no longer saw the stern and intimidating Elf that had come to judge him. He now saw someone filled with renewed hope and invigoration and a fair amount of childlike wonder.
“Will you have me as your master, Steven?” Lorei asked as she held his hand, trembling a little with excitement. Her thoughts had gone from defeated surrender to a new tomorrow, and Steven could tell she was mulling over ideas and possibilities even as she awaited his response. She was already working on his curriculum, as if the question was a mere formality. Steven blinked, feeling like he was being rushed into something he had no knowledge about.
“Master? What does that even mean?” Steven didn’t like the word ‘master’. He fidgeted and looked at Asherah. Being enslaved was not something he had in mind when he thought about visiting Syagria. Just how high of a price was he to pay?
“It means until the evaluation is complete, you belong to me and my sole responsibility is your training. Steven, as your master, every breath I take is to be for your benefit.”
From what he saw through her memories, it was considered a great honor to be selected by her. She had a name in the Cooperative. The Huntress. Steven didn’t know what that meant, but it made her some sort of celebrity in a society that normally didn’t have celebrities. For her, a negative answer from him would be inconceivable.
Steven looked at Asherah, who smiled at him. He felt the same reticence from her that he was feeling, but he also felt a willingness to push forward. This was new to her as well, but she trusted her mother. He licked his lips and looked down, struggling to gather his thoughts. “All of this isn’t what I expected. None of it. Aliens, Gatekeepers, people chasing me, and now aliens wanting to teach me about alien stuff?”
Asherah didn’t respond. Neither did Penipe. Steven wiped his mouth. He knew what they expected, what they hoped for. But he was just now getting his life back.
He sat back, a little irritated that no one else was responding. He rubbed his aching temples then glanced at Asherah. “I am just now working out what it means to be bonded.” Asherah smiled weakly at him. Steven sighed. “You know everything has changed for me and I am so lost. And I’m supposed to make a life decision like this in all of that?” He looked at Lorei. “You’ve been in my head. You know just how confusing things are for me. And you still want to be my master?”
He wanted to get up and flee into the forest. To go to his tree house and hide. He wanted to resume his search for his parents. “Can’t you just give me a passport or something?”
Lorei waited, looking at him. Steven saw fearful hope in her eyes. She didn’t try to reason with him or convince him. This was a decision for Steven to make on his own.
Steven sighed. He knew if it was required of him, he would do it. Over-thinking things just got in the way. He scratched his head and looked at his life-mate. As he looked at her, he realized that he would do anything for her. For the both of them. There never was a choice after all. Asherah looked at Lorei and nodded on Steven’s behalf.
Lorei visibly relaxed and looked at Steven, wondering what she was getting herself into.
“Bond with him,” Penipe said.
“That’s not required,” Lorei said. She looked at Steven, then at Penipe. “Penipe, that would change everything. Bonding with a deviant?”
“So be it.” Penipe remained resolute. “There’s no other way. We discussed this.”
Steven looked at the two of them. “Um, I’m still here.”
Lorei looked down at her hand for a long moment. Taking in a breath, she reached out and tenderly touched his cheek again. Steven resisted recoiling and closed his eyes as he felt her in his head. It was much more welcoming this time, but still incredibly intimate. He actually felt her smile as the last tendrils of her own fear faded away. Steven winced as her thoughts and experiences abruptly washed into him and he breathed in sharply. Lorei pulled her hand away, but she remained in his head. Steven heard her, saw her in an entirely different light. He saw Syagria and felt her immense relief at being alive to see it again. He saw her life-mate celebrating her survival with family friends. Part of him hurt at the idea that anyone thought he would have killed her. Lorei caressed his cheek again and he felt her bless him with peace.
“Oh, great. Another person in my head.” Steven blinked hard and rubbed his temples. Asherah was there, of course. She was the center for him, the deepest bond possible. Penipe was there but was more peripheral rather than Steven’s center, a familial bond as Asherah’s mother and now his bond-mother. And now this woman he had just met and now pledged himself to as her student. Another familial bond similar to Penipe’s. He wondered if there was enough room in there. Lorei smiled and Steven remembered that she was still watching him and following his thoughts. For that matter, so were Penipe and Asherah. He looked around at them. He was convinced he would never feel lonely again.
But as Steven’s soul was laid bare to these Elves, it all seemed peculiarly normal to him, as if a puzzle piece just slipped into place. Steven had led such a private and secretive childhood for so long and now everything he was, his very essence, was utterly exposed to scrutiny to at least three aliens, and he couldn’t fathom why it felt okay to him. He looked around, perplexed that he was more anxious over the fact that it felt natural than the actual profound loss of privacy itself. He felt Asherah giggle in his head as she squeezed his hand. He looked at her. “I’ve bonded with Lorei like you and Penipe. She is part of me now, and you all know what I know, what I’m seeing and thinking, and it’s perfectly okay to me. Why?”
“The fact that I was able to do that cements things for you, Steven.” Lorei looked at him kindly and he wasn’t sure if she spoke that or thought it. “Bonding requires submitting. Deviants cannot submit.”
“Cool?” Steven was still trying to process the new presence in his head. But he felt his mind already adjusting and accommodating. Asherah caressed his hand, feeling with him how things were starting to settle in. “This is really weird, Asherah,” he thought to her, feeling a bit of vertigo.
Lorei stood up, smiling. “It’s weird for me, too.” Steven looked at her and realized that it wasn’t the bond she was referring to, but the bond with a deviant. She squinted at him and grabbed his chin, turning his head to the side. “I still don’t understand why you don’t have fur.”
Steven coughed and blinked, looking sideways at Asherah as Lorie scrutinized him. “Sorry?”
“You have an Elvish skeletal structure. Inside you’re an Elf. But, your eyes don’t quite fill their sockets. And you don’t have fur.”
Steven rubbed his eyes. “My eyes are fine! They look fine.”
“For a human.” Lorie pursed her lips. “Elvish genetics always dominate in a mix with humans. You should be full Elf. Meruk is just human. But it looks like Meruk had…” She hesitated then shook her head and sighed. “You are a puzzle, young one.”
Steven shrugged and rubbed his chin as Lorie released it. “I feel normal. I mean, right?” He looked at Asherah again. “Right?”
Lorei glanced over at Lohet and Tor’eng. They had completed bringing in supplies and were standing by, waiting. “Lohet, you head up his tactical training.”
“What?” Steven looked at Lohet. Steven still couldn’t get the image of a walking marble statue out of his head as Lohet stepped ever so silently until he was standing over him. His black robe seemed to flow around him, apparently ignoring the pull of gravity. He put his hand on Steven’s shoulder, and it felt like a piece of industrial equipment just grabbed him. His touch was strong, cold, and as hard as stone. Steven was amazed that the alien could move so fluidly in spite of that. His vampire friend that wan’t a vampire.
“Lorei and I are a team back at the Cooperative. We’ve been doing this together for over seven hundred years. I’ve been training Gatekeepers for much longer. And we have Chased together.” He sat down on the bench and Penipe got up to give them room to discuss things. Steven looked at Penipe and noticed she was just barely containing her joy.
“You killed deviants? Like, for a living?” Steven asked, incredulous.
Lohet didn’t answer as he regarded Steven with the typical Keratian coolness.
“Asherah?” Steven thought to her.
“I’m as surprised as you, Steven,” Asherah said, looking at her mother, then at Lohet.
“Asherah, since you are bonded with him, you are part of the training too.” Lohet turned his steely gaze on her, and she was now the one to fidget as she looked at Lohet like a deer caught in headlights. Steven put his arm around her, trying to grasp what just happened. He should have known. The aliens there were essentially a military team and he was, for all intents and purposes, a new recruit. They needed his access to the Sadari networks. But he had other skills that they needed, too. Skills that only a deviant would have. He only barely understood them. “On the job training,” Steven muttered.
Lohet nodded. “This is unorthodox, Steven. But necessary for us, and for you.”
Steven had had no idea what to expect when the interviewer arrived. He had thought she was going to ask him some questions and rubber stamp some sort of passport. Instead, he was tormented, then inducted into some kind of training program. Asherah played with the hair at the nape of his neck. Her fingers felt soothing, however, and he sighed as he sensed his growing comfort causing her to relax, too. They had gotten in sync far faster than most bond-mates do, which was ironic since Steven didn’t even know what the bond was when it happened. Her thoughts about the situation mirrored his from her own perspective. They were both nervous about what they had just gotten themselves into. Steven pulled her close, wondering just how deep the rabbit hole went.