Chapter 5

“Can I help you?” Sally asked as a young woman fumbled for something in her pocket.

“Hate these gloves. Here.” She held up a badge. “I’m Michelle Morales of the FBI. Is this the residence of,” she looked down at her notes. It wasn’t necessary, but she found that it made things seem more official. “Steven Crow?”

“What is this about?” Sally crossed her arms as she kept the front door nearly closed.

“I’m just here to follow up with the incident at the Williams’ residence.” Michelle smiled amicably.

“You’re not Order, are you.” Sally squinted.

“I’m what?” Michelle cocked her head.

“Didn’t think so.” Sally frowned as she eyeballed the agent warily. “He’s not in the house.”

“Do you know where I can find him?” Michelle put her notes back in her pocket and removed her gloves. “I drove a long way to talk to him.”

Sally opened her mouth, then shut it as she looked past Michelle, frowning. She had wanted to tell the agent she could just take another long drive. Michelle turned around to see a young man walking towards her, barefoot in the snow. A young woman clung to his arm as they walked, peering at her from under a hooded coat.

“What’s up?”

“Steven?” Michelle asked, glancing at Asherah. Her dark sunglasses were distracting. As was her concealing coat. Was she hiding something? “I have a few follow-up questions about the incident at the William’s residence.”

“I’ve already left a statement with Rhonda over at the Seattle PD,” Steven said, sourly. “There isn’t a whole lot more I can tell you.”

“I’m sorry to inconvenience you. But we’re trying to tie up some loose ends about the attack.” Michelle fidgeted as Steven walked by, almost bumping into her.

“I’m well familiar with loose ends.” Steven glared at her as he brushed past her. Asherah smiled at her timidly and followed Steven into the house. The door remained open. Michelle looked around for a brief moment, then followed them inside.

“Do we have somewhere private?”

“Sarah’s room. She’s off…not here anyway.” Steven pointed. His artist friend was having a great time displaying her creations on Syagria and Legracia.

Michelle walked past a large, rustic dining table and kitchen and peered at the hall beyond. “This way?”

“That door. No, that’s the pantry basement. The one on the right.” Steven followed behind her. “You know, Brandon would have more information. I was just visiting. I don’t really know anything.”

“We’ll be interviewing him later,” Michelle said, opening the door to Sarah’s room. It was mostly full of paintings, and she had to walk around them to get to a small desk that Sarah’s husband used when they were there. “You know, we could do this in my car.”

“We’re already here. So, shoot.” Steven closed the door then sat on the desk as Michelle swiveled around on the squeaky chair.

“When you were there, did you hear the assailants talking or yelling to each other?” Michelle put her hands in her lap then squinted. “You’re bleeding.”

Steven looked down at his chest. “Yeah, a little. Tangled with a wild animal.” He smirked at her perplexed expression. “Price you pay for living out in the sticks.”

Michelle glanced at the closed door then peered at Steven. “Do you know a Lo’rel?”

Steven raised an eyebrow. That was an unexpected question. “I didn’t get any names. Just a lot of shooting.”

“Tall, white guy, long white hair, black robe?” Michelle crossed her arms.

“Are you Order? Eyes Open?” Steven shifted on the desk.

Michelle shook her head. “Well?”

“Never heard of him,” Steven said. The name did sound familiar but he couldn’t quite place it. His bond-mates were strangely silent in his head. 

“I, he said you would help him.” Michelle watched Steven carefully. “He said he was a Keratian.”

Steven stared at her for a long moment. It would seem the investigation was little more than a pretense. “What does he need?”

“That doesn’t surprise you. You know of them?”

Steven sighed and crossed his arms.

Michelle frowned and looked around the room. “Something called Rodan. He’s starving.”

“How come he doesn’t just find me himself?” Steven frowned. He stopped short of mentioning the supply of Rodan blood they kept for the contingent of Keratians stationed around the homestead.

“He said he was dead. That none of your friends were supposed to know he was alive.” Michelle looked intently at Steven.

Steven turned his head to the side briefly, then looked at her, his eyes wide. Helping Asherah with her homework paid off yet again. “The Betrayer? He’s alive?”

“I don’t, I just know him as Lo’rel.” Michelle shook her head. “There are more of them?”

Steven grabbed Michelle’s hand and squeezed it. “Okay, don’t freak out.”

Michelle looked around then fell backward, barely catching herself. She let out an involuntary scream as she crouched. Steven looked around the dark chamber, spying a sarcophagus. “I told you not to freak out.”

“How?” Michelle patted herself as she looked around.

“I saw the location in your memory.” Steven put his hand on the lid of the sarcophagus. “It’s empty. Lohet never uses one of these. What sort of Keratian is he?”

“Saw? You saw, like telepathy? I didn’t…”

“You remembered the directions here. You actually have a very good memory for a Terran.” Steven glanced at her. “I’d swear you were Order. Or Eyes Open.”

“You read my mind?” Michelle pulled her hair out of her face. “Just what are you?”

“A deviant.”

They both turned around quickly at the new voice. Steven stepped off the platform. “Lo’rel?”

“Are you here to consume me?”

Steven gaped then glanced at Michelle. “Huh?”

Lo’rel emerged from the shadows, then explosively surged forward, grabbing Steven and slamming him into the concrete wall behind the sarcophagus. Steven looked at a wraith spine sword that was thrust against his throat. Michelle screamed and pulled out her pistol. “Put him down!”

“Are you here… to consume me?” Lo’rel’s grip tightened.

Steven scowled, then twisted in Lo’rel’s grip and grappled his arm. In an instant, Lo’rel found himself slamming into the concrete wall on the opposite side of the room. Steven looked at his hands then at Lo’rel as the Keratian crumpled to the floor. A woman ran into the room, screaming as she ran to Lo’rel.

“Sorry. I didn’t… He was a lot weaker than I thought he’d be,” Steven stammered. He glanced at Michelle. “Put that away.”

Michelle looked at him, wide-eyed. She glanced at her pistol and shook her head.

Steven sighed. “Suit yourself.” He walked over to Lo’rel and knelt down beside him. “Is he injured?”

“I’m intact.” Lo’rel tried to sit up. “You move like a Keratian. Like a Chaser.”

Steven sighed. “Yeah. Lohet has been training me to fight golems. Plus, you know, I’m a deviant.” He rolled his eyes. Being called a deviant Gatekeeper was demeaning.

Lo’rel squinted at him. “You aren’t going to consume me, are you?”

Steven made a face. “You’re kidding, right?” He poked the Keratian’s stone-hard arm. “Too much bone.”

Lo’rel looked at him for a moment, then grinned at the woman who was still trying to stay between him and Steven. “I like him, Darlene. He’s funny.”

“I’m funny.” Steven nodded to Darlene. She did not appear amused. For a brief moment, he wondered just what their relationship was.

Lo’rel looked at Steven, perplexed. “You smell like an Elf.”

“Sorry?” Steven fidgeted. He grabbed Lo’rel’s arm and helped him up. “You’re really weak.”

“I have not fed in nearly twenty years,” Lo’rel sighed. He glanced at Michelle. “Shell, put that away.”

Michelle flinched then looked at her weapon. She lowered it hesitantly, then holstered it. “I’m going to need some answers.”

“And I need a meal. Steven, I’m supposed to be dead. No one knows I’m alive. Please.”

Steven frowned. “You cooperated with the Sadari.”

“That is the side of the story you have learned. There is another side.” Lo’rel sat down heavily on the sarcophagus.

“Another side. You mean that’s not true?”

“Not entirely.” Lo’rel rubbed his forehead. “Steven.”

Steven blinked. “Oh, yeah. Twenty years. Crap, how did you last that long?”

“I slept a lot in the stasis chamber.”

Steven looked at the sarcophagus. “I thought that felt weird. Time seems funky inside it.”

After a moment of thought, Steven mentally found Sally’s source of Rodan blood from the stockpile on Endard. He gated a large flask of it and placed it in front of Lo’rel. “Mom, Sally, she usually mixes it with stuff to make it taste better. Lohet loves it.”

Lo’rel stared at the flask for a moment, then at Steven. “I wasn’t sure if I would have had to convince you. You are feeding the Betrayer.”

Steven frowned. “Dude, you’re starving. Eat, drink. Whatever.” He waved at the flask.

The Keratian nodded and uncapped the flask. He took in a deep breath through his nostrils and smiled. “It’s fresh.” Glancing at Darlene, he lifted the flask and took a sip, then a longer drink. After a brief moment, he lowered the flask and capped it.

“I would have thought you’d have chugged that down.” Steven crossed his arms.

“It has been a long time. My body will need to adjust to the presence of food.” Lo’rel wiped his lips then glanced at Michelle. “Thank you, Shell. You do not need any more treatments.”

“What?” Michelle blinked as if coming out of a daze.

“I lied. You’re already healed.” Lo’rel smiled apologetically.

“What’s wrong with her?” Steven looked at Michelle curiously.

“She was dying. Now she is not. I treated her before sending her to find you.” Lo’rel eyed the flask. “It was good motivation to ensure her cooperation.”

Michelle scowled and was about to say something, but pursed her lips. She was no longer dying after all.

The Keratian leaned forward. “She thought I was a vampire. I had a bit of fun with that.”

“Really?” Steven looked at Michelle.

“I was desperate,” Michelle said quietly, looking down. “You’d have done the same.”

“Hardly.” Steven made a face. 

Lo’rel took a deep breath and looked at Steven intently. “I must remain dead. Please keep my existence in absolute confidence.”

Steven bit his lower lip thoughtfully. Four others knew about him already, thanks to his bond to Asherah, her mother and father, Penipe and Tor’eng, and his aunt, Lorei. There were no secrets among Elves. He decided not to tell Lo’rel. “Why?”

“It just has to be that way. It is imperative that you comply, Steven.”

“Well, who would I tell anyway?” Steven grinned nervously.

“Lohet. He is the one who killed me.”

~ ~ ~

Jacob ran into the lab and went straight to the accelerator monitoring equipment. “Laurence! The white alien has invaded the base! Help me set this to overload!” He stopped short then turned around slowly and looked at Orin. “Or, not?” He glanced at the controller waiting for Laurence’s input, then looked back at Laurence. “Did I miss something?”

Laurence sighed, shaking his head. “Our visitor has just made us a very tempting offer.”

Jacob glanced at Orin then looked around the room. “I take it you attempted to terminate it?”

“And then some,” Laurence said.

“Ah, so, futility?” Jacob asked.

Laurence nodded.

“If we set off our reactor…”

“He’d die,” Laurence said.

“But…”

Laurence looked at Jacob and nodded. “Yeah. But.”

Jacob sighed and eyed Orin warily. “Does it understand us?”

“It does,” Orin said smoothly, smiling widely enough to expose his canines.

Jacob swallowed and looked around again then looked at Laurence. “Plasma cannons.”

“Sent those to Shawn,” Laurence said.

“Hmm, well.” Jacob looked down for a moment, then looked at the controls for the accelerator. “It would seem your friend has us at a momentary disadvantage.”

“To the contrary,” Orin smiled. “You have the opportunity to regain the advantage.”

“You do realize that collaborating with aliens goes against everything we stand for, right?” Jacob looked at Laurence.

“You didn’t complain when our courier delivered the nullification caps to Laurence,” Orin said.

“That, she was a courier?” Laurence asked, incredulous. She had effectively handed his butt to him without breaking a sweat. And she claimed to be human.

“She was most impressed with you, Laurence.” Orin grinned. “But perhaps her admiration was misplaced?”

Laurence scowled and crossed his arms. “You mentioned an offer, and I have to assassinate someone?”

“Yes.” Orin picked at his robe. The cloth seemed animated on its own and Laurence found it unsettling to look at it. Orin grinned at him, sensing his unease. “Perhaps if we simplify your task, you will be able to complete it?”

Several armored soldiers burst in, keeping Orin covered with their weapons. Jacob rubbed his brow. “Where is this discussion going?”

Orin glanced at him, then returned his attention to Laurence. “You will join me back at the gate. Once there, you will be under my command. What I tell you to do, you will do without question. When your job is completed, the deviant, Steven, will be expelled from the Cooperative and you can dissect it to your heart’s content.”

“Yeah, that obedience thing is a bit of a problem.” Laurence started.

“You will be in a territory you are unaccustomed to, around people you do not know nor understand, and using technology Terra has never before seen,” Orin interrupted. “The success of this mission and ultimately your survival depends on your unquestioning obedience.”

Jacob shook his head. “This is getting out of hand. We want you gone. All of you. There is no room for aliens on Terra.”

Orin walked smoothly to Jacob and circled him, while casually looking at the soldiers. “Do you seriously think there is anything here that we need? Or even want?” Orin leaned toward Jacob, his face inches away. “Your resources are meager, your world is hopelessly polluted and constantly at war.” He hesitated for effect then stood up straight, looking down at Jacob with disdain. “And your numbers are an epidemic infestation of this pathetic, little rock.”

Jacob took a step back, but Orin followed. “And even with all of your numbers, there is nothing you have that could remotely be a threat to us or a hindrance if we did decide to come here and…” Orin stopped, looking at him wryly. “Even your own little troop of toy soldiers have nothing that could stop us.” He looked at the soldiers, smirking. “Futility.”

“Nevertheless, you are not welcome.”

“And we don’t want to be here.” Orin scowled as he regarded Jacob with contempt. “We find this world repugnant, Terran.” He glared at Laurence. “Your man failed a simple task. Had he succeeded, we would not be having this discussion.” He looked back at Jacob. “It is just a boy. Still so vulnerable. And yet, I am less than impressed with your capabilities.” Orin shook his head.

“Then why are you here? Go get him yourself,” Laurence said, smirking.

Orin leveled an unwavering look at Laurence for an uncomfortable moment. Laurence kept the smirk on his face, challenging Orin to back down. Orin smiled slowly and nodded. “Perhaps you are right.” He looked at Jacob. “Maybe I’m approaching this wrong. Perhaps it would be more prudent for us to station a few thousand gunships here instead. Bring in our army to ensure you Terrans do not interfere while we finish this conflict once and for all.” Orin looked at his fingernails. “Your organization would have to be dismantled, of course.” He looked at Jacob sideways. “Purely a preventative measure. I hope you understand.” 

Jacob clenched his jaw and looked down. “Laurence will be returned to us intact?”

Orin grinned. “Mostly.” 

“I didn’t know you cared,” Laurence said sarcastically.

Jacob scowled. “I presume his purpose is plausible deniability. I also presume that status makes him an expendable asset.”

“You presume correctly.” Orin shifted his condescending gaze to Laurence. “So long as he obeys, he will succeed in his mission and be returned to you. Your ‘Steven’ will be rejected by the Cooperative and be exiled back to Terra where you can do with it what you will.”

“You need to deliver Steven to us.” Jacob shook his head. “He is spectacularly adept at avoiding us.”

“It would appear so,” Orin smirked. He glared at Laurence. “We can inhibit some of the deviant’s abilities. Make it easier to capture. It will return in shame and without hope.”

Jacob scowled as he traded looks with Laurence. “Technically he doesn’t work under me anymore.”

“Katy would let me go,” Laurence said, shrugging. “Any chance to get the Crow kid is better than what we’ve had so far.” He looked at Orin. “And perhaps our alien ‘friends’ have a few toys to make this a more fruitful endeavor? Better than those caps your girl gave me last time?”

Orin smiled viciously. “You could put it that way. Our toys will change your life.” He held out a small, brass cylinder. “Just bring this as close to Steven’s home as possible. I’ll do the rest to bring you over.”

Laurence looked at the device thoughtfully and glanced at Jacob. “Some of these toys could be helpful to us on this side too. Perhaps a good faith gift?”

Orin picked at his robe and sighed. “You have what you need already. Don’t push your luck.”

“Luck? I have a feeling we’re going to have a lot of fun,” Laurence quipped.

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