Chapter 0: Kendre
Chapter 1: Alex
Chapter 2: Sieve
Chapter 3: Kendre
Chapter 4: Alex
Chapter 5: Sieve
Chapter 6: Kendre
Chapter 7: Alex
Chapter 8: Sieve
Chapter 9: Kendre
Chapter 10: Alex
Kendre wandered the waste-land outside the city for hours. He
had failed. The thought kept him in constant motion: running, walking,
crawling. Night fell around him gently, the burial shroud of his old
life, strangely blue instead of the deep violet of his home. His legs
burned, his mouth was dry, and his stomach was empty: all of these
things became painfully apparent. He was trapped on a foreign world,
unable to travel through the Deus' reality-beyond-reality to his own.
No, worse than trapped, dependent. He was tied to this world like he
should be to no world but his home, bound to its rules and laws, bound
in a true physical form instead of the mind-shaped avatar of the
In a daze, he watched the stars come out. Different patterns, different sparks struck from the forge god's hammer lit the sky. A moon waxed palely in the sky, white, not the two ruddy orbs of his own planet, Rua and Rubeda, the two goddesses.
Rua, he pleaded, in his own head or aloud he could not tell, Rua, take me now, carry me to the land of shadows. Rua, let me rest in peace, in Ryvasan otherworld, not in foreign soil. Even if the only place for me is the deepest of your dark-side hells, Rua, take me, Rua... his cries faded into sobs as his body collapsed. He had pushed himself too far. Bruised and beaten, he entered into a waking dream.
He saw Evesa's face. It danced in front of him, pale as the new-world's moon. Her features were rough-edged for a daughter of the noble houses; she bore scars from her travels in the wilderness, exploring the world deliberately without modern convenience, usually alone. He worried about her every time she went out, for all he knew she'd come back safe and sound. But what if... what if something happened to her while he was trapped out here?
If she were an independent, he thought, we could have escaped our parents, nobility, obligations, all of that, we could have come here and made a new world. If I had become the Deus, I could have made her independent.
The vision came closer, shimmering with unreality like a desert mirage, a hologram of desire. Her hands were calloused, but by the Lady Rubeda, her touch was heaven. She tied up her pale hair tied up so it wouldn't get in her way. She'd rather cut it short, but the laws of nobility forbid it as too "low class." He watched as she scrubbed her face of the proper pale make-up to reveal her tanned skin, brown as any worker out in the wheat fields. Her voice came back to him.
"Kehan," she said, "I've always wished I was born lower. I'd rather work the fields or the factories like a common woman than work the crowds as a noble."
"You'd never make it," he teased her. "The repetition would kill you."
"But I'd be able to marry whomever I wanted," she said seriously, "I love you, Kehan..."
He reached for the vision, the last time he'd seen her, but it vanished like smoke. Rubeda, what would happen to her now that he was gone? He had to get back. Being beyond his family's reach was worth nothing if she wasn't with him. In the darkness, he screamed her name, delusion whispering in his ear that if he was loud enough, his voice would reach her. His voice grew hoarse, and he whispered it to himself, rocking back and forth on the sand, arms hugging his knees.
He pulled at his hair- it hurt, that wasn't right, this wasn't his body- and cursed Axel, Tobairas, the Deus Avamen, his parents, Evesa's parents, himself and his own stupidity, all of it to Rua's darkest and coldest hell. Nothing changed, and eventually his anger ran out, leaving him merely cold and empty.
Kendre reached inside his shirt and retrieved the knife he kept there. He clenched it tight, knuckles paling. Steel glinted in the moonlight. He stared at it, mesmerized, and ran his hand over the cold metal. Thoughts of sacrifice and compensation filled his head, but self-preservation was stronger. Finally too exhausted to think, he let it drop to the ground, then laid himself down beside it and slept.
When Kendre woke, soon after dawn, his head was clearer. He forced
those thoughts from his mind, rubbing his eyes to remove the remnants
of the night's tears. To get home, he thought, I can't afford to think
of being there. He took a deep breath. The air was different outside
the city, sweet as Rubeda's breath with no taste of the sea at all. It
had a distinct smell, too, one he had- impossible.
He picked up the knife from the ground and looked at it. The blade was nicked on the edge in several places, slightly bent out of shape. He frowned, running his hand over it. It appeared to be the knife he'd trained with many years before, when he had first become independent and served the Deus. He breathed deeply again, squinting at the colors in the distant horizon, then reaching for the sword strapped to his hip. He slid the blade out of its sheath, but before it was halfway out, he recognized it as his first sword. The sword he had named Evesa, he thought, smiling. So she had been with him all along. Thank you, Rubeda, he thought, thou art merciful, my lady goddess.
This was the planet Ceresuequen had trained him, then, there was no doubt about it. His sword-teacher had disappeared years ago, though. Still... if he had just quit the Deus' game somehow, then he had to be on this planet, probably close to the city since he knew the wastelands of this area well.
If Ceresuequen was here, then he could help Kendre to get back home. Ceresuequen knew a lot, more than anyone else Kendre had ever known. If this was his home world, then it meant by the rules laid out for independents he was bound to keep his normal form while on this world, didn't it? Wait, he thought. Axel.
This was Axel's home world, too, and Axel had been able to use her powers to change herself while fighting him. Tobairas had as well; it seemed they had known each other on this world since they both came to fight him. The consequence of that should be for both of them to lose their powers as independents. Only Tobairas wasn't independent any more, he was the Deus. Therefore both of them would be quite safe.
Still, this was the Deus' world. The previous Deus had sent Kendre here to get the Pearl of the World and become a Deus himself, to become the Deus Avamen's successor. What if that wasn't really the Deus motive, though? What if he was supposed to find Ceresuequen, to convince him to come back to the game?
That made no sense, though. Ceresuequen had been unpopular, reclusive, and eccentric. More than that, he had been brilliant. There had been something between him and the Deus Artea, though. Kendre was sure of that. Was it a coincidence that he had disappeared right before the Deus Avamen had taken over, during Artea’s fall? Kendre had always suspected that Artea had played a role in Ceresuequen's disappearance.
He replaced his sword in its sheath and tucked the knife back into the hidden pocket inside his thick shirt. Something was bothering him about Ceresuequen's disappearance, now that he thought about it again. He sat down on the dusty ground, thinking.
Ceresuequen trained him on this planet, which meant bringing him here regularly. Therefore, Ceresuequen's knowledge of this planet wasn't from an outside mandate, from the Deus or otherwise, since that knowledge would disappear once the mission was complete. Even if it had been, Ceresuequen would have been taken off of it long before he'd finally disappeared. Nobody waited that long for results. Kendre was sure that Ceresuequen had been from this world.
However, Cereuequen had definitely not appeared to be a native of this world. They were human, much like Kendre's own people in fact, though there seemed to be much more variety in things like skin and hair color where his own people were almost universally pale and fair-haired. He supposed that Ceresuequen's leather-skin could have been some form of clothing, but it covered his whole body seamlessly, save for his head, on which he wore a hood with a metal mesh mask that covered his face. Kendre had never seen what was behind that mask. Still, regardless, if Axel had been able to change her form on her native planet, certainly Ceresuequen would have been able to.
Kendre frowned. He had never seen Ceresuequen's face. Still, there was a high probability that he was from this area. He could even be from the city Kendre had already visited. After all, to transport oneself to a place, even through the Deus' meta-reality, required a clear image of where one was going, either from a mandate or from a personal memory. Since Kendre had ruled out the mandate, he bet that Ceresuequen had a personal image of this place, which pointed to him living close and visiting the area often.
That was good. All Kendre had to do now then was to find a way back to the city, then he could start looking. He got to his feet and looked around. There was no indication of a city anywhere. He had to get back to the road, he decided. Kendre closed his eyes and listened. Nothing, no sound. He had no idea where the road was, or how far he was from the city. From any city, for that matter. The city he had been at was not at all like his home, with the metropolis in the center and sprawling city around it. It had been tightly arranged and planned to use the most of the space, confined to a small area. It would be hard to find, and there seemed to be little traffic on the roads.
He could wait until nightfall, he decided. Then he would be able to see the city's light on the horizon. However, the moon last night had been nearly full; that would interfere quite a lot. He had been able to see many, many stars too, even with the moon's light and any pollution from the city, so either the city was far away, it didn't put out much light, or there were a lot more stars visible from this planet than from his home.
Evesa would know what to do. She was the wilderness expert, not him. Her teachings had all applied to their world, though, not this one. Who knew how different they could be? The sun could rise in completely the wrong direction and he would never know. He looked up at the sky. It was very blue. A few white clouds drifted lazily, no help at all. Kendre sat back down, then winced. His muscles were still sore.
He was hungry too, and thirsty. If his new body was like the one he'd had on his own world, then he would have at most days without water, weeks without food. The plants around looked inedible; short and scraggly, many were stunted and twisted looking with wicked spines. Instinct told him that he shouldn't eat them, and as he was now dependent on this world, he would have to trust to instinct.
Kendre took his sword back out of its sheath and looked at the blade. It was still in good condition, with good balance. He had created it with his form here when Ceresuequen trained him, and when his form had locked into dependency with this world, it seemed to have chosen the things he most associated with it along with a body that fit its rules. It was a shame that his clothing wasn't the practice armor Ceresuequen had made him conjure up; it was the simple black garb he'd worn in the city, now with hidden pockets and a sword belt. There was something else attached to the belt, a small pack of some sort that he'd somehow failed to notice. Well, considering hysteria, discovery, and my natural obliviousness, he thought, I guess it's not too odd. Still, I don't remember seeing this before.
He opened the pack. Inside was a small flask. He removed the lid took a mild sniff of the contents. Not water... oil for his sword to keep it in good condition. He laughed at his own impracticality. Of course I would choose sword-oil over water, he thought, Ceresuequen drilled me so thoroughly. He replaced the lid on the flask and pulled out the remaining contents of the package: a rag and a book.
He stuffed the oiling rag and the flask back in the bag and looked at the book. It contained, by the title, "exercises for the study of bladed weapons." He flipped through the pages. There were ample illustrations. The paper was faded parchment, old but still in good shape, lettered in neat ink handwriting and the book itself was bound in leather. When he flipped past the final page, a folded piece of paper fell out, plain white paper unlike the book's pages. He unfolded it.
"Keep training, Kendre," the note said. "This is an excellent book of exercises. It helped me a lot when I was younger, and I believe it will do you some good now that you can't rely on your mind to save you. Use it well." The note was signed simply, in an elegant hand, "Ceresuequen." Kendre gaped, almost dropped the note, and read it again. Then he picked up the book again, hefted it in his hand, and let it fall open to a random page. The exercise was new to him.
That means this was definitely not created by my mind- Ceresuequen gave this to me somehow. But how? He read the note again; it offered no clue, only that Ceresuequen knew that Kendre had become dependent. There were only two possibilities that he could see: Ceresuequen had come in the night or Ceresuequen had been one of the people there when he lost his powers and became a dependent again.
Kendre looked around: no signs anyone had been there during the night. Even he should have noticed that, but... He was sure he hadn't slept longer than just the one night, either. He would have been significantly hungrier and thirstier, unless this new body was extremely different from his old one.
Who had known that Kendre lost his powers? Axel, Tobairas, that man that had the Pearl, and the others in their car- one had frozen during the action, non-psychic, and the other had not acted, meaning that he or she was psychic but not independent, a mere observer. Axel and Tobairas clearly were not Ceresuequen, since he had seen them both independent and not; Tobairas had been around before the disappearance, and Axel hadn't, though. Still, Axel's mannerisms were completely different from Kendre's sword-teacher. The tattooed man who'd had the Pearl couldn't have been either, since he couldn't be independent if he had the Pearl. The non-independent- definitely not. The psychic... He considered the psychic. No, he thought finally, I don't think Ceresuequen would have been able to just watch. He was always one to take sides.
Who else, then? The Deus had told him when he accepted the mission that no other independent would be granted mandate to access the world. Wait, he thought, the Deus. No, of course not, because... Wait, he thought. Why couldn't Ceresuequen have become the Deus Avamen? he mused, turning the book over in his hand.
He disappeared right before the Deus appeared. Almost at the same time, exactly, in fact, and he had never seen Ceresuequen after the Deus Avamen appeared. Plus, Kendre knew that it was possible for an independent to become a Deus, since he had been close to doing it himself, before Tobairas had taken the Pearl to become the next Deus. The Deus would have known that Kendre lost his powers, of course, since Kendre didn't become his successor and Tobairas did. Wouldn't the destruction of the Pearl have killed the Deus, though? The Pearl hadn't been destroyed, though, Tobairas had... consumed it? Merged with it? What happened to the old Deus when the new Deus took over?
Perhaps the old Deus became an independent again. Perhaps... the old Deus became a dependent, even, or a psychic. Maybe Ceresuequen was dead after all, and had just come to leave the package in the night, then. Still, what if there was some sort of transition time between the rules of the two Deus, and Avamen- Ceresuequen- had used his powers to affect Kendre's form? It was far-fetched, Kendre thought, but it made as much sense as anything. He looked at the note, and then opened the book and leafed through the pages. There were notes in the margins, but they seemed to be all related to the text of the book. At a loss, he read the note again, then turned the paper over.
"We will meet again," was scrawled on the back of the note. The handwriting was significantly more rushed, but the same elegant letters formed the words. Kendre's spirits began to rise. Ceresuequen was still alive. Ceresuequen wanted to see him again. Ceresuequen... had been the Deus Avamen.
The problem of food and water remained, Kendre's stomach reminded him, growling noisily. Right now, he needed to think. He folded the note carefully and replaced it in the back of the book, then put the book back in the small pack and took out the flask of oil. He poured a small amount on the rag, then drew his sword and began to oil it. The process was remarkably relaxing.
Night fell. Kendre had thoroughly cleaned and oiled both his sword and
knife, given into his aching body and taken a nap, and tried out
several of the simpler exercises in the book. He wiped sweat off of his
forehead. It was getting dark, and the moonlight was weak in this
place. He needed to make a decision on what to do. As the sky grew
deeper blue after the sun had completely disappeared, he scanned the
horizon for lighter parts, any sign of a city.
In one direction, east, if he took the sun's setting as west, it looked slightly lighter. Probably a trick of his eyes, he thought, but he had little else to go on. There was no sound of traffic or anything, merely a few insect chirps. He watched the ground as he walked, wary of snakes and uneven patches of ground.
After he had been walking for a while, the moon had risen high. His feet ached, and he had been forced to stop and rest several times. His throat was as dry and dusty as the waste land around him. He heard something in the distance- thunder? No, the sky was clear of clouds, just the eerie moon and foreign stars. The noise grew louder, and he recognized it: a combustion engine. Here in the desert? he wondered. Still, to overlook Rubeda's gifts is to displease her, he reasoned, covering ground as fast as he could toward the sound. It grew louder, and finally he saw its light. Motorcycle, his brain supplied. He shouted as loud as he could, voice still hoarse.
It was heading toward him, he realized, and stopped moving. He waved his arms madly. Rubeda, I hope I can still understand their language, he thought, panicked. As an independent, he was able to speak any language on a foreign planet, but as a dependent again...
The motorcycle slowed and stopped. The helmeted figure raised a hand in greeting. Kendre realized his heart was beating madly, panicked, as he waved back. The frame was all wrong for Ceresuequen, he realized, expectations he hadn't even consciously held disappointed. It was a woman. She removed the helmet- sparkling blue- and attached it to a handlebar, one hand trying to smooth out her mass of dark, wavy hair. She acted deliberately, as if he wasn't even there, and he wasn't sure if he should say anything.
There was room for two on the seat, he saw, and there was a second helmet. Immediately he became suspicious. Had she been expecting to find someone? She turned around, looking him up and down, and he smiled uneasily.
"Hey," she said.
"Hey," he said. It came out weak and broken. He cleared his throat, then tried again. "Hey."
"What are you doing out here in the desert?" she asked. Kendre understood her, and breathed a sigh of relief. Even Tobairas wasn't that merciless.
"Some uh... friends dropped me out here yesterday. I'm not from around here, " he replied.
"Friends?" The woman snorted. "Don't seem much like your friends. You're not from around here, you said. Where you from?"
"Uhh..." He scrambled for an answer, came up blank.
"Not from this planet, you mean." Kendre stared at her.
"What?" he said.
"You're not from this planet."
"Yes," he said dumbly, then wished he hadn't. Who is this woman? he wondered.
"My name's Maurya," she said, as if she had read his thoughts. "I'm a psychic." Maybe she had. "And you are...?" The question was harder than it should have been. He sure wasn't Kehan de Vysse in this place, his old home world name, but he wasn't sure that Kendre was right either; Kendre was an independent. He still felt like that, but... She was staring at him. He picked the name he'd assumed for this planet before.
"Ken," he said. "I'm Ken." She nodded sagely.
"You need a place to stay, Ken?" she asked. Kendre nodded. "You can come home with me, then. Don't worry, I won't try anything." She started walking back to the motorcycle, gesturing for him to follow. He did, not seeing any other choice. He wondered what a psychic could want from him, then ended the thought; if she was a telepath, anything he thought could be used against him. Maurya climbed on the motorcycle, then handed him a helmet. Kendre put it on, adjusting the strap below his chin so it fit better.
"I live in the Walled City," she said. "That okay with you?"
"Yes, that's fine." Maurya nodded, dark hair bobbing. She put on her helmet, then started the motorcycle. "I saw you in a vision," she said over the din. "I figured I'd better come and get you before anyone else got here." He nodded, wishing that the motorcycle was quieter and wondering who else could possibly be looking for him. "You set?" she asked.
"Yes," he yelled back, hoping it was loud enough.
"Good. Hold on to me," she said. Kendre leaned forward, very uncomfortable with the arrangement, but if it got him out of the waste it was worth it. "Let's go!" Maurya yelled. Then she accelerated, blowing up a giant cloud of dust as they streaked out of the desert.
"Cheer up," Kahlia said. "You saved the world, Alex. That's a good
"Not when I have to explain it to my roommate." Alex Bartel sighed. "She let it go last night and left before I woke up this morning, but whenever she gets home she's going to want all the details."
"Then just tell her. Sundown seems bright enough to understand."
"Come on. You're bright, and if I had come to you last week before all this happened and told you that a crazed, god-killing psychic tried to take over the world but I was able to stop him, but only because I'm one too, you would have believed me?"
"Of course," Kahlia said. Alex glared at her. "Well," Kahlia admitted, "no, I probably wouldn't have. But that's not the important part. You don't have to give her the whole mythology or anything, you have to explain why the former drummer-of-the-day in her band kidnapped her father and then both he and AJ disappeared."
"True. 'Ken's just a really bad guy?'"
"Because he's an alien! That's why he was in the desert, that's why he disappeared... he took AJ to perform experiments, you know..."
"Alex." Kahlia crossed her arms and leaned back in the chair.
"What happened to the car Kendre was driving anyways?"
"I don't know," Alex said. "He might have come back for it. Last I saw he was wandering off into the desert. Not my problem."
"That's that settled, then," Kahlia said. "Ken left in the car, Ken wasn't his real name so you can't track him, and AJ was actually Ken's accomplice."
"That wouldn't work. I've known AJ too long."
"He betrayed you for money," Kahlia suggested. "You and Sieve."
"Why go after Sieve, though? He's not exactly the kind of guy you want to mess with. Most petty criminals tend to avoid the big, muscular types covered in tattoos, you know."
"He was trying to lure Sundown out so he could kidnap her! Revenge against the band that kicked him out, stealing the beautiful young girl... et cetera et cetera. Don't you ever watch television?"
"Not what you're watching, evidently. Besides, AJ would have little or no contact with the band. This is beginning to sound more far-fetched than the real story." Alex leaned back in the wooden chair, stretched, and let arms hands drop back onto the kitchen table's surface.
"Hm," Kahlia said.
"Maybe I would have been better off letting Kendre take over after all," Alex said.
"Maybe," Kahlia said, glancing down at her watch.
"What's that supposed to mean? You're the one who told me how horrible the world he would have made was, all gray, full of sand."
"Yes," Kahlia said. "That's not what he meant... I'm glad that AJ- no, that... Tobai?" Alex nodded. "That Tobai took over instead of Kendre. But wasn't there a better way of dealing with Kendre?"
"How do you mean?"
"I mean not trapping him on this planet powerless with no way to get home. That's not right."
"Right? Kahlia, you don't even know Kendre. He deserves every minute of this."
"I don't know what kind of bad blood is between you two," Kahlia said, "but there's no reason you couldn't have at least sent him back to his own planet. Let him live his own life."
"The situation demanded that Kendre lose his powers then. If he'd kept them, he likely would have attacked Tobai to try and get the Pearl back or gone after Sieve, who at that time had no defenses against any form of psychic attack. He's human now, Kahlia. Tobai let Kendre shape his own form, too. He even got to pick his own clothing and supplies."
"I'm sure he was well-prepared," Kahlia said dryly. "Most people know exactly what they need to survive in the desert at an instant's notice. Especially strangers from other planets."
"Look," Alex said. "I don't know what you want me to do. Kendre will be fine. He's probably already recovering whatever psychic powers he had before he became an independent."
"What?" Kahlia's face held a blank expression. Alex sighed.
"All independents are psychics first. Psychic ability is basically an inborn thing, you either have it or you don't, though there are I'm sure plenty of contrary examples that show that it can come from how you grow up or whatever. What do you know about psychics?"
"I talked with Fiona for a little while the day after the stuff with the bus happened," Kahlia said. "She said that there's basically two groups of psychics, active and passive, and then there are independents. How she explained it was that there was this thing called the cause, which was basically a set of 'strong thoughts and emotions' underlying reality." She paused and looked at Alex.
"The mind of the Deus," Alex said. "I see. Go on."
"Passive psychics are people who know things about the cause through some mental way, visions or just sudden ideas, things like that. Active psychics are people who can affect the cause and bend it to their will."
"Basically correct," Alex said. "But it's a little bit more complicated than that. As we in the Deus' Game divide it up, there are seven levels of power. 'Normal' is at the bottom, followed by dependent psychics, then independents, then the Deus is at the top. It's like a pyramid shape." Alex waved her hands in the air in a vague approximation of a triangle. "The further up you go, the less people are at that level."
"Makes sense," Kahlia said. "Can people... move up the pyramid? Tobai went from an independent to a Deus, right?"
"Right. Well, that's a special case... I think that there are only about four people that know that right now, and they are you, Tobai himself, Kendre, and me. Nobody is born a Deus. In the same way, nobody is born an independent. The Deus has to approach you and make you an independent. How strong of an independent you are depends on your innate psychic power."
"So you were a psychic?" Kahlia asked, an eyebrow raised.
"No," Alex replied. "I wasn't a psychic when I became an independent, I just had... latent power, I guess you'd say. To become psychic requires a catalyst or cause, an encounter with someone stronger than you are using their powers. The only exception to this is the Deus. When the Deus uses his or her powers, it doesn't count as psychic activity because... well, in your cousin's terms, it's just another action of the cause, and therefore natural. So the Deus making someone independent or Tobai becoming the Deus, for example, would not have awakened anyone, but the fight between us and Kendre could have if there was anyone in range. An independent can usually awaken almost anyone, which is one of the reasons that we're not supposed to use our powers on our home worlds. My action in saving that kid from the bus activated your powers, so to speak. For weaker psychics, sometimes even the presence of someone psychic can activate their powers, especially if that person's independent."
"I see," Kahlia said. "So if that's so, then why didn't your father being an independent and him constantly going to see the Deus awaken your powers?" Alex hesitated.
"I had more latent power than the power he was using," she finally said. "People can increase their psychic power, too, as long as it's before they're awakened. The base amount of power you have is genetically inherited, but it can change. If you're constantly in the presence of an independent, for example, or someone with minor psychic powers that uses them frequently, because it's not strong enough to awaken you they won't act as a catalyst, but you'll... adapt to it, so to speak, that part of your brain or whatever will have a sympathetic reaction and get stronger. Therefore that'll have the side effect of making you harder to awaken. Your powers will also get stronger if you use them frequently.
"For independents," Alex continued, "the amount of power they have is based on their latent psychic powers. Even psychics can become independents if they haven't awakened all the way to the limit of their powers yet. You could probably still become an independent. When the Deus makes someone independent, that person's psychic power at that moment isn't amplified, so to speak, so much as the way it works changes. However, there are also changes made at the genetic level- instead of a set limit being genetically coded, that part of their genetic code changes constantly as they get stronger. This is because a new limit is set every time they physically go to the Deus' plane and return, because they set their physical form every time they return. It increases rapidly because every time they go out, they encounter more and more powerful psychics, and this mental power is physically coded when they return. Because of this genetically coded power, independents are not supposed to have children."
"Your father did." Alex nodded and Kahlia continued, "So, you were the daughter of an independent who regularly went to see the Deus for who knows how many years... How strong were you before you became an independent, Alex?"
"I..." Alex started, then trailed off. "Six years ago, when I entered the game, I was stronger than all but about twenty or thirty of the game's players. There are thousands and thousands who play the game, Kahlia, people who have increased their strength steadily over decades, in some cases even centuries. Kendre, who had been there for about ten years, was the strongest. When he failed a mission, after I had been there almost three years, I was thrown in charge of a team and sent out to retrieve him. When I left, I was the third strongest player. When I returned, I was an uncontestable first." Kahlia looked at Alex from across the table, silent. Alex shifted in her seat, uncomfortable.
"Stronger than the Deus?" Kahlia asked.
"No, of course not," Alex said. "The Deus was always... thousands of times stronger than I was. The Deus has as his or her command the total psychic power of all of the beings on this world."
"How can you kill them then? That's what you do, right? The Deus sends you out to kill other Deus who want to die. What happens to the people that live on those worlds?"
"We destroy the Pearl. The Pearl is the link of the Deus to that Deus' world, whose systems are kept in order by the Deus. Weather, earthquakes, everything like that is kept in check by the Deus. When the Pearl is destroyed, chaos takes over, both in the natural systems and the psychic system of the living things on the planet. The awareness or consciousness we have of ourselves is only a low-level form of psychic awareness of the 'Cause' as it acts in our bodies, of natural law. If the 'Cause' disappears, nobody can know about it, therefore minds, everything... just disappear. They cease to exist."
"Wait, how is that possible? You said that Tobai was from a world that was destroyed, right?"
"When you become independent, you're not connected to your world any more, you're half-immortal I guess you could say. You can exist independently of your world and your Deus and you can adapt to the Cause of any world you're on. To put it simply, you become your own Cause. Therefore you can go to the plane of the Deus, where the game exists, and therefore psychics with the talent for things like telepathy or empathy, knowing about their fellow people, won't be able to get a reading off of you." Alex smiled.
"Is that a defense mechanism so that people won't learn about the game? What do you independents have against psychics, anyways?"
"It's easier to manage a small group of people than a large one, when the job they're doing requires you to intimately know their strengths and weaknesses, that's all," Alex said.
"I see. You're not going to tell me, are you?"
"You're a psychic and you know about the game. By rights, you should already be initiated as a player, an independent. However, you came in at an inconvenient time. Don't expect who you are to stop Tobai from trying to rope you into it, Kahlia. You aren't by any means weak and you've been exposed to a lot of psychic activity lately."
"A strong psychic is an enemy to the Deus," Kahlia said.
"No," Alex replied. "A strong psychic that knows about the Pearl and what it can do is an enemy to the Deus. What would happen, I wonder, if the person who tried to consume the Pearl wasn't an independent?"
"What are you saying, Alex?" Kahlia asked.
"I'm saying you missed your bus. Do you want me to drive you home?"
"Alex..." Kahlia trailed off. "Fine," she said harshly.
Indigo skin, dark as the night sky with hair even blacker, unnaturally
wrinkle-free, the face was human in shape but utterly inhuman in
character. Two eyes, black as a void with a small pinpoint of light
like a single star in an empty black sky, watched under the crown, a
thin circlet of golden metal with a crest of white lily petals fanned
out around a large pearl. Her gaze grew more intense, the pinpoints of
distant light in her eyes becoming twin suns, blazing with the anger of
the sun's fire.
She opened her mouth as if to speak, but instead there was only noise, a terrible scream of fury. She reached out towards him and he felt that fire in every vein, every nerve. Before the darkness claimed him, he thought only one thing. "This is the anger of a goddess..."
The vision danced out of Sieve's reach, leaving him sitting in a dark
room. Am I there again? he wondered. Is this where I went when the
darkness took me? Slowly he recognized the furniture of his apartment
and breathed a sigh of relief.
Memories, he thought. They're all coming back now. I thought that David giving me the Pearl was the only thing I'd forgotten, but now it seems that an older seal has been breached.
Things Sieve had not even known he'd forgotten had come forth over the past day, filling spaces in his life and past he hadn't even realized were empty. He'd called in to the Bluesky and talked a worried Gavin, the restaurant's manager, into letting him off for a day. He was lucky that he still had a job.
Instead of resting, however, he had gone to the gym. Despite his every effort to tire himself to oblivion or at least sweat out his uncertainty, he'd done nothing but make himself sore and leave himself no options as to distraction, nothing to do but think. He thought and he remembered. Unsettling things, only snatches of visions and ungrounded memories, and they all seemed to center around two people: the blue-skinned goddess and David Bartel.
David, who had become Deus, ruler of the world, and entrusted Sieve to the Pearl of the World, the world's key, its very heart. Why? Sieve wondered. I should know this, damn it. The night was autumn-cool, bordering on cold, and that chill seemed to seep into the apartment somehow. Sieve shivered. He would get no more sleep tonight. The clock read 5:30 AM. I'll take a nap later before work if I don't get back to sleep now, he thought to himself. He settled back into bed.
There was a knock at the door. Who the hell would that be? he wondered. The knock came again. Curiosity overcame the will to sleep, and he got out of bed.
"I'm coming!" he yelled when the knock came again. He reached out to turn on the lamp on his bedside table, but when he yanked on the pull-chain to turn it on the bulb burnt out in a flash. He cursed, fumbling around in the dark, suddenly blinded. Unconsciously, he raised a hand over his head and then there was light. He reached for the clothes he had worn earlier in the day and dragged them on. The knock came again at the door.
"I'm coming, damn it!" he shouted. The light followed him out to the living room of his apartment, but he did not notice it as he raced to answer the door, nearly tripping himself over the table. He threw the open unceremoniously, accompanying the gesture with a "What the hell do you want at this time of the morning?"
In the hall stood a man with black hair and a beard of coarse stubble. In the light, his skin was reddish and brown, dark, and his eyes were brown. He raised an eyebrow at Sieve, who had stopped short, mouth gaping.
"David?" he asked.
"In the flesh," the man in the hall replied, smiling. There was a slight pressure in Sieve's mind like the beginnings of a headache, the mental form of the itch that could not be scratched, or like a high-pitched whine that's impossible to ignore once noticed. Then the flood gates of memory broke.
Fire everywhere, and smoke, the place was an inferno. He called out,
yelled a woman's name into the ashes as embers fell from above. There
was no reply. He screamed, louder this time, but still no reply. To
leave her behind was an act of the worst betrayal. Cursing, he focused
his will, and all around him the fire stopped, caught in time. Now
there was no danger.
He crossed the lobby and climbed the stairs, walking calmly down the hall in the silence. He reached the door he wanted and opened the door. In the middle of the room, surrounded by fire, stood a woman. She was tall and fair-haired. Ash and soot covered her face, and the smoke curved around her, leaving an island of fresh air. She stood with her back partially to him, one arm stretched out, hand held above the frozen fire.
"Come with me," he said. She did not argue, did not even speak, but followed him down the stairs and out of the building into the cool night. Time began again, the fire crackling and consuming the building as they watched, standing side by side and silent.
"Sieve," David said in the present, snapping Sieve's mind out of the
dream. He looked blankly at David for a moment. "You're starting to
remember, aren't you?" David said.
Sieve nodded, suddenly uncomfortable. "Why don't you come in?" he said with a steadiness he did not feel. David followed him into the apartment.
"Nice light," David said. "I'm surprised you remembered how to do that so quickly. Power will tell, though, I suppose."
"What?" Sieve asked, confused. David pointed to a spot over Sieve's head. Sieve looked up and saw that a globe of white light hovered above him. His eyes widened. Once again something inside him snapped, but what was released this time was not memory, but something darker. He struggled to hold it back, to hold it in. I don't want to become- he thought, then was swept away like a stick in a rushing river.
"It's good to be in control again," he heard himself say. "It's been far too long since I've been myself."
"That it has been," David replied. "It's been painful to watch you hidden away like that."
"Only sleeping." Sieve focused on the words he was saying with a strange fascination. Who am I? he wondered. "The world itself was created in darkness, was it not?" David smiled again.
"Yes, that it was. You don't know how much I missed you," David said.
"What? Godhood wasn't exciting enough for you?"
"I wasn't made for the strain of it, and we both know it. I don't have that type of power necessary. I was a weak Deus, but after what came before I think a weaker Deus was more suitable for all parties concerned."
"If you weren't strong at the time, why did you take Artea down?" Artea? Sieve recognized that name. It was the name of the blue-skinned woman who had... what had she done to him? "You carry yourself with strength now, with power. The aura of your power's as thick as smoke. Power's in you to the very marrow of your bones. What the hell happened to you after I was kicked out of the circle? I don't remember anything from before he used the pearl." 'He', Sieve mused. I am 'he'...?
"When you were put down, the swordsman Jean died. He was replaced by... I guess you would say the darker side of my personality." That smile again, Sieve noticed. More like a baring of teeth than an expression of happiness. "I took the name Ceresuequen and became a renegade."
"Yes. Romantic, isn't it? One man against a goddess, just a single swordsman out to avenge his best friend."
"Veritably classic," Sieve heard his voice say dryly. Idly, Sieve wondered what would become of himself. David continued speaking, but the words blurred into a vague drone. Sieve's mouth responded automatically. Memories, that was where the whole thing had started. Memories and strange powers. He wanted to look again at the globe of light above his head- something that he had created without even thinking- but his muscles would not obey no matter how much he strained. Again he resigned himself to watching, waiting.
Various mental disorders flashed their names into his brain: schizophrenia, dissociative identity, insanity, insanity, insanity... Stop, he told himself. Stop. The chance of being insane is about the same as this all being a dream. If this was a dream, I would just hang out and watch, so I might as well do so now...
"Ceresuequen," David said, and Sieve heard himself repeat the unfamiliar word.
"It sounds very elegant."
"Of course it does," David replied. "I was twenty two. Things like that mean a lot when you're that age. You know, Susan and I got married after... everything happened." Susan... A ghost-image of smoke and its faint smell came to Sieve, a woman's face veiled by it, in the middle of frozen flames. She reached out to touch them...
"If she had caused this to happen to you, I would have..." David laughed.
"I couldn't let your sacrifice be in vain, could I, Sieve? Besides." David hesitated and turned slightly away, his face in shadow despite the light still coming from above.
"She was pregnant, Sieve."
"Alex. She is yours, then." Sieve reeled in his mind as his body stood up, nearly knocking the chair he'd been sitting in over backwards. "David! An independent's child...! Artea let it happen?" Alex, Sieve thought to himself.
"Artea was arrogant. She didn't really believe that psychics had any power, besides she would have just enlisted Alex into service before she came of age if I hadn't." Sieve's head nodded, and David continued. "If there had been a strong enough psychic on this world, one that would have been able to know all of Artea's secrets... The only Deus capable of creating independents."
"Yes. A Deus who creates intelligent life must worry about that intelligent life learning too much about the Deus of that world. If a psychic learns enough, learns about the pearl... then the Deus' life is in question. Therefore, one of the Deus took up the cause to give psychics power and a limited amount of knowledge in return for loyalty. They needed a distraction, and so there was the Game, which also served to remove the Deus' enemies by destroying their pearls."
"Conveniently covered up in the facade of the poor immortals who want to die," David replied. "Yes. A good illusion for mortals. However, only one Deus has ever run the risk of bringing mortals up to the Deus' plane..."
"Artea. The knowledge did kill her in the end. Still, it's not as if she made us equals, by any means."
"Oh, no, of course not, I wasn't saying she did. We just used it to pass through, teleportation. None of us ever tried to go anywhere else, and our psychic senses were... refocused?" David nodded, and Sieve listened, fascinated, as his own voice continued. "Yes, refocused, so we wouldn't be able to 'know' anything that way either." There was a moment of silence, quiet contemplation. "Do you still retain your knowledge from your time as Deus?"
"Yes. I remember everything... but only skills. Not that those do me much good, I don't have the frame of reference of the Deus or that set of powers. It's completely different from normal powers, like being independent is a step from being psychic. Refocusing, as you call it. Unfortunately, Artea kept her own personal memories, including where she went when I took over. I bound her to this world, but she was able to choose her own form. Likely she's a powerful psychic, but she'll need something extraordinarily powerful to initiate those abilities. I would bet anything she'll come after us. Probably Alex first..."
"The death of a psychic releases a huge amount of psychic energy," David continued as if there had been no interruption. "The death of an independent would release a huge amount of the specific type of psychic energy to awaken psychic powers."
"I would hope that your daughter's more than a match for a potential psychic that hasn’t even been awakened yet."
"Yes, I would too," David continued. "But if she can get Alex to engage in a fight... I'd bet anything that she detected the fight for inheritance of the pearl. It might have provided a small opening, just a bit of an edge into her powers. If only my own powers were so awakened... I'm a dependent again. Practically helpless. That's why I came here, I was hoping you could help me to release my powers..."
"How? I've been sealed too, you know. The seal's just come off yesterday..."
"Ah, yes, but just us two being in contact should help. We should be able to reawaken each other. The fight between independents you were at yesterday has done more than you realize towards this end. The seal has been off since Kendre came to take the pearl and it first defended you, when Kendre attacked."
"I see. So I'm just now feeling it, is that it?"
"You just have to look up to see." The globe of light still hung in the air. Sieve wondered, taking everything in. There was so much, with so many gaps... "You have all of your old skill," David continued, "your power's just been sealed away."
"Yes," Sieve heard the stranger using his voice reply. "Let me try..."
Reality shifted. The apartment disappeared abruptly as if someone had
changed the television channel. Sieve found himself in a dark place,
standing on solid ground as cool and smooth as glass. The darkness
stretched in every direction, out to black infinity as far as he could
see. The area was filled with eerie pink fog, pearlescent and drifting,
its density rising.
Sieve reached out, heart pounding fast, trying to touch it, to feel a real sensation. He found himself in control of his own body once again. In the distance, someone spoke his name, questioning him, asking if he was all right. Madness, madness, he thought, I am mad...
The voice made him jump, and abruptly he was surrounded by a pink sphere, translucent. Colors swirled over its surface like an oil slick. Sieve turned, trying to find the source of the voice. He heard footsteps now, coming from where? There! He turned and came face to face with... himself.
"What are you doing, you fool?" the apparition said. Like a reflection, it wasn't quite right.
"I don't know!" Sieve shouted. "Are you the one who was controlling me?" he asked, surprised by his own boldness, then at his surprise. He had faced down tougher enemies than this, back when-
"Stop it! Those are my memories. This is my body. You don't exist." The reflection raised its hands. "You-" The hands glowed, bolts of light appearing in them. "Don't-" The reflection threw the bolts at Sieve. "Exist!"
Sieve braced himself. The bolts hit the sphere of pinkish light surrounding him, distorting and warping it with the impact. The places that were hit rebounded, glowed faintly and absorbed the light. Sieve felt stronger somehow, while his twin seemed to be growing weaker. Gradually the barrage of light-bolts slowed. The reflection seemed about to collapse. It wavered like a mirage and raised its hands again. They glowed weakly, but it seemed that there was not enough energy for another charge.
Calmly, Sieve focused his will. Around him the pink smoke swirled, gathering force, and the bubble around him grew less transparent, hazy with light. The image, his twin, who had controlled him, now faltered, weak. Sieve continued to build up energy, straining. The smoke, caught in a strange gravity around him, twisted faster and faster. The apparition's face distorted. It raised hands over head, still trying to build power. The one who had possessed him, taken control without warning. More power now, more. The twin gasped, its arms fallen listlessly to its sides, mouth open and pleading.
More power, more tension. Fueled by anger, Sieve continued. How dare that take control of him? How dare it lock him out of his own brain, his own body? He swam in a sea of energy now, it flowed around him and to him like a river. He raised a hand over his head, felt it all concentrate there, did not move his gaze from the other's eyes. He let the energy bolt go.
It hit. An expression of agony crossed the face of the other, momentarily, and then it was ripped apart like paper. Sieve was filled with elation- he had won, destroyed the other, the controller, the evil... The dark world faded away, replaced with the world of the apartment.
Sieve blinked, deliberately, and his body responded, filling him with an unreasonable joy. The other was truly gone. Then reality jerked abruptly again. His arms hurt, and he was shaking. No, he was being shaken. As the world phased in, Sieve noticed that David was holding him by the arms, shouting his name. He felt a touch, not entirely physical, a touch on his mind... and recoiled. David let go of him and collapsed back into the padded chair, breathing and sweating heavily, his gaze fixed firmly on Sieve.
"What have you done?" David said, a note of hysteria in his voice. He let his gaze drop to the floor, and Sieve noticed that there were tears in David's eyes, streaming down his cheeks. Self-doubt filled him and David spoke again, so quietly that Sieve was not sure he was meant to hear.
"What have you done?"
3Kendre shifted position again. The motorcycle was very uncomfortable. He had no idea how long they'd been riding. The sun was lowering, drawing nearer to the horizon. He leaned forward and to the side, trying and see around Maurya.
4Alex replaced the phone on the wall, laughing at herself. She had sat tense all day since Kahlia had gone, waiting for Sundown to return, and it turned out that Sundown had band practice. Life goes on, doesn't it, she thought to herself. Even the strangest things cannot overcome sheer normal... Still, now would be a good time to go talk to Tobai and get some answers.
Afternoon sunlight streamed in Sieve's window. David was laying on his
couch, watching the television. It still didn't seem real. After the
events of the early morning, David had refused to talk to him, so he
had tried to go back to sleep. When that failed, he got up and made
breakfast for the both of them: plain, cold cereal and milk. When David
still refused to talk to him, Sieve had gone out onto the patio,
retrieving the day's newspaper when it came and looking out over the
skyline of the city.
For a day in mid-autumn, it had been surprisingly warm. Sieve found himself unable to enjoy the weather, even with a glass of fresh orange juice to top it off. He had quickly discovered that his mind wandered whenever he tried to read the editorials, and that even the crosswords and other puzzles were beyond his level of concentration. Still, he'd stubbornly refused to think about what had happened that morning, but thoughts kept creeping in from every direction. He went back inside and took a guilty pleasure in sliding the screen door shut loudly when he saw that David was asleep. The man did not stir. Sieve sighed and went back into the kitchen, putting his empty glass in the sink.
He hesitated, starting to leave the kitchen, then went back and washed it out. Menial tasks like this had a way of taking his concentration; it was probably one reason he was so good at his job, he reflected. Someone said something, barely audible above the rush of the tap water, but loud enough to make him jump. He tensed as he turned toward the sound, half-afraid that the other part of him that had taken him over had returned somehow and there would be nobody there. David stood at the edge of the kitchen, on the border between carpet and tile, leaning against the wall.
Sieve turned off the faucet, turning away from the man, and dried the glass with a concentration bordering on the compulsive. He still wasn't ready to face David, much less the implications of everything that had gone on in his head. Before David had showed up, before the morning, he had halfway convinced himself that it was all a dream. David cleared his throat and Sieve looked back at him, feeling somewhat ashamed for his actions. I never used to be a coward, he thought, but then, outer-city toughs are a different thing entirely from strange things going on in my mind.
"We need to talk," David said. Sieve found himself backing away skittishly in spite of himself. He put the dish towel back on the counter and placed the glass in the cabinet, taking a deep breath behind the cabinet door seperating him from David. This is it, he thought, there's no going back after this. I have to face it now, or run from it forever. He shut the cabinet and turned to David, meeting his expectant gaze.
"Right," Sieve said. "We have to talk." He looked down at his watch; it was 12:30 already, lunchtime. "Do you want to talk here, or is there somewhere you'd like to go out for lunch...?"
"Here is fine," David said. His voice was flat, Sieve thought, deliberately free of emotion. He wondered if the same could be seen in David's eyes, but the man had turned away from him, walking back out into the living room. Sieve followed, reflecting on what he remembered of David. This was very unlike him; he'd always been reserved, yes, and moody, certainly, but he'd been excitable as well, always dreaming up something or other. As quick to laugh as he'd been to shout, but now he seemed unlikely to do either. He was numb, empty, and Sieve felt that he had more than a little to do with it, though he wasn't exactly sure how.
"David, are you all right?" Sieve asked as David sat down heavily on the couch. David shook his head, a gesture that could have been a negation or a complete dismissal of the issue. Sieve sighed a little as he sat down in his own chair, a very comfortable one he'd picked up second-hand shortly after he'd gotten the apartment. Shortly after David had disappeared, he'd gotten it through a connection with the friend to escape the constant media pressure that David's wife Susan had raised around all of them. She likely still thought he'd done it, and it seemed he'd had more of a role than he'd realized.
""About earlier," David said. Sieve's attention snapped back to the present. "What you did was..."
"What did I do, David?" he asked. The other man hesitated, looking away.
"After... How much do you know?"
"How much do I know about what? About..." Sieve gestured around in the air, vaguely. "About what's been going on lately?"
"That, and everything that happened beforehand. Let's start with the big one. Artea. What do you remember about her?"
An image of the blue-skinned goddess flashed to the front of Sieve's mind again, but it still cut off abruptly before he could remember what she'd done to him. He shook his head sadly.
"Nothing, I'm afraid," he said. "I know she did something to me, but I don't know what. All of these things just started coming back to me before you showed up, before this morning. I'm not sure where they came from. I have different memories too, and I'm not really sure where these fits in, where all of this fits in. Someone's been screwing around in my head, and I don't know who or when." Words echoed in his head, what his mirror image had told him earlier: 'You don't exist.' He looked up at David, who was looking out the glass doors that led to the patio, chewing his lip. "David, what's happening to me? Today, when you came, there was another... I'm not sure how to explain it." David did not respond, leaving an awkward silence. Sieve waited.
"I'm not sure how to tell you this," David said. His voice was weak, and he still didn't meet Sieve's gaze. Sieve looked closely, and thought he saw tears forming at the corner of David's eyes. David turned to look at him, taking a deep breath. His face still as blank as before, and Sieve wondered if he had imagined the tears. "You're not real," David said.
That was the last thing Sieve had expected to hear, and he felt like he'd been stabbed in the chest. He doubled over, breathing heavily, looking at the floor. David said his name a few times, then stopped. Sieve felt sick. This isn't real, he thought. I have to be real, otherwise what am I? How can I not be real? After a minute, he pulled himself up into a normal sitting position again and tried to steady his breath. The nausea didn't diminish. David was watching him with pity in his eyes. Pity; Sieve knew how David being pitied, why was he doing such a thing to Sieve now? Could he trust his memories of David, if nothing else was real?
"How can I not be real?" he demanded. "How do you know this?"
"I know," David said. "Artea told me what she'd done to you, and I know. She created a false persona, false memories, and sealed away your powers. She sealed away the truth, and it was starting to come through now that you'd gotten into contact with other independents again, since you'd met my daughter and Kendre. They helped bring it back out of you and break the seal where she'd locked it away."
"But then if I'm starting to remember, how can it be fake? Are the things I'm starting to remember, Artea, you, me, and Susan, are those all fake too?" Sieve asked. Confusion had replaced sickness, and curiousity had begun to take over. He had to know.
"No," David said. "Those are your real memories. But the false persona was starting to degrade, and your true self was starting to show through, then this morning happened. I'm sorry, I brought it on. It was all my fault."
"What happened this morning? There was another me inside my head, one that took over, was that the false persona? He took me over, and I couldn't move or speak. I couldn't control my own body, but I was still talking to you and remembering things. I didn't even know about what I was telling you..." He stopped short as David's hints caught up to him, feeling the lump in his throat rise again. He looked at David, who was watching him. "It's me, isn't it," he said quietly. "I'm the fake one, aren't I?" David nodded.
"Yes," he said. "You are Artea's seal."
"But how? Why? Then what did I do earlier to the real me?"
"You destroyed him, I think," David said. "Before when I was with you, the few times I saw you when I returned, I felt him there too. It tore me up inside, knowing he was in there, knowing you were experiencing everything, living his life, but there was nothing I could do about it, not even as the Deus. So when I abdicated from the position, I came here to get you back. It almost worked, it brought him out. He was here, then..."
"But how did I do that? If he controlled all of that power, I shouldn't have been able to break through that. I shouldn't have... I'm sorry, David, I never knew. Believe me, I never knew, I was scared. I wanted him out and gone, it was the farthest thing from my mind to wonder about who he was. I thought I was going crazy."
"You used the Pearl," David said. "I had given it to you, not to him, even though that was not my intention. The Pearl adapts itself to the psyche of whoever holds it, and you were in control at the time I gave it to you. Even Sieve couldn't stand against that. I killed him by coming here... Your use of the Pearl and encounters with Alex and the others had begun to wear down the barrier between you two, over time you would have begun to merge together as your memories and powers returned. It was just too early, too much, too soon."
"I see," Sieve said, even though he wasn't sure he did at all. "I'm sorry, David," he said again, and this time he wondered if he was. A stranger, a completely different personality and memory, merging with him? He shuddered at the thought. "I'm sorry," he said again in a harder voice, "but I'm here to stay now. This is my life."
"I was afraid you would say that," David said. "I don't want to work opposite you, but if there is a chance in the future I can get him back I will do that. It's nothing personal. If you had been anyone else, I think we would have gotten along well, but I need him because he's really the only one I can trust that's strong enough to make a difference against Artea."
"You can trust me," Sieve said without thinking. David stared at him, and Sieve considered his reaction. Was that you? he asked himself. Other me, are you still there? There was no answer, and he felt ridiculous. David was watching him, a bemused expression on his face. Sieve cleared his throat. "I mean, uh... You could teach me, that is. I'd be willing to learn and help you. It seems I have a score to settle with Artea as well." David nodded thoughtfully.
"Thank you for your offer," David said. "I understand it is not lightly made, but I am afraid I must look elsewhere for help. Training takes much longer than I believe we have, and Artea is not an enemy to fight half-ready. For now, if you would let me stay here, that is all I can ask of you. I will not hold it against you should you refuse me shelter, after what I've done and told you."
"Of course you can stay," Sieve said. "After all, we were friends once."
"Yes," David said. "Once upon a time..."
Sieve looked at his watch; it was getting late, and soon he would have to leave for work. He'd wanted to go back to the gym for a while before that, to work out these new problems, but it looked like he might not get the chance now. The late bus over to the gym left in about five minutes, and the stop was five blocks up, so if he made it he'd be in no condition to do anything anyways. Oh, well, he told himself, stretching to relieve the soreness leftover from yesterday. It would be worse tomorrow.
"David," he said on impulse. "Did you know that Susan blamed me for all of it?"
"All of what?" David asked.
"Your disappearance. One of the waitresses saw you and I go outside together and me come inside alone after you gave me the Pearl and disappeared. I had no recollection of it afterwards, not until all of this started happening again." David had frozen in place.
"What was her name?" he asked.
"The waitress' name. I'd put up a dampener so nobody would see me, and I'd made extra sure that nobody was able to remember. I put some interference around us, multiple layers. Nobody should have been able to break through all of that. What was her name, Sieve?" David's use of his name startled Sieve; it seemed that the other man had been avoiding it all night.
"Oh, uh, let me think... She quit right after the whole mess blew up, and it's been years now. I can remember her face, though, she was rather pretty. Long dark hair, dark eyes, and she rode a motorcycle... I think it was Maria, something like that. No, wait. Maurya, that's it. I'm sure of it." He looked at David. "Does that tell you anything?"
"No," David replied, a grim expression covering his features, "but it gives me a place to start looking. Thanks. Can you ask around at work tonight and find out if anybody knows what happened to her?"
"I'll check it out," Sieve said. He felt useful again, which, he decided, was a much better feeling than being told you don't really exist by someone you thought was your best friend. It was a much better feeling, in fact. "I'll ask around the staff tonight, but I think most of them are new since then. Gavin might know, however."
"Ask him for me, would you?" David said. He stood up, walking towards the door. "I've got a few people of my own to go and check around with."
"Okay," Sieve replied. "I'll probably be gone before you get back. There's plenty of food here if you want something to eat later. I assume that you don't need a key to get back in."
"No, I can manage," David said, smiling. He turned around, walked out the door, and closed it behind himself. Sieve shook his head slowly.
"That'll teach me to mess around with psychics," he said himself as he walked over and turned the television back on. He sat down on the couch and flipped through the channels with the remote, not taking time to see what was on any of them. He wondered what friends David had gone to meet. Perhaps he's just bluffing, Sieve thought, and wanted some time alone. Or maybe... No, he wouldn't have gone to see Susan. I can't believe he would have done that, he has to know that she's remarried.
Sieve sat the remote on the arm of the couch. I should call Susan, he thought. I can tell her I didn't do it now, that David's come back. He glanced at the phone, considering, then sighed and picked up the television remote again. There was still a little time before work, and he flipped mindlessly through the channels once more until red-bordered alerts on a news channel caught his attention.
His heart skipped a beat as he read the words scrolling across the screen: "Missing reporter David Bartel found."
Kendre sat on the concrete floor at the top of the stairs, looking out over the city. Occasionally the wind blew rain into his face, and he did his best to wipe it off with the short sleeves of his shirt, but he did not move away from the edge of the apartment building's corridor. What was the Deus thinking, sending me to a place like this? he wondered. I suppose it is safer than blindly wandering around, but I know I could be doing something more useful. He sighed, and drummed his fingers on the rough floor until he hit something smooth. He looked down and saw it was some kind of stain, and grimacing, he pulled his hand away, letting it rest on the hilt of the sword at his waist.
To have such a thing in a place like this, he thought. Rua, this place is strange, all steel and glass and gray stone. It's so close to one of the Outer Cities at home, but the people are all different. They laugh at my blade or look at me as if I am insane to wear it, and it shames me to cover myself with the lie that it is a costume. Ah, Rua, would that your red eyes could see what I have become...
The sound of footsteps on the stairs shook his dreams from him, and he stood quickly, wondering if this was the inhabitant of the room. A woman with long black hair climbed the stairs. Kendre watched warily; he thought he had seen her somewhere once before, but the past days had spread his past out into a continuous blur and he could not pick her image out of the melange. She looked up, and it was then that he placed her, as her eyes grew wide in her gray-lit face. She was the psychic that had been with Axel, during the fight. He itched to draw at least his knife, but then he was hit with a stab of worry that this was the safety the Deus had planned. Not this, he thought, not among them, Deus, you couldn't be so cruel.
"Kendre?" she asked, leaning on the stair rail for support. "What are you doing here?" Kendre debated with what to tell her, and tried to gauge her strength against his own. I could probably take her, he thought.
"What are you doing here?" he asked. The woman frowned, standing steadily now, and Kendre felt her gathering power to herself, seemingly without realizing it. That was bad, he thought, wrong thing to say. She made him nervous, and he was not sure why. Still, he kept his right hand down by his knife, ready to draw it at a moment's notice. The woman's eyes moved over to the door he had been watching and instantly snapped back when she saw his eyes upon her. Kendre noted the movement, relaxing slightly and wondering who or what was in that room.
"If you're coming after Alex..." she said, trailing off and looking once more towards the door. Alex? he wondered. Axel? "If you're coming after Alex, I'm going to have to stop you," she said firmly, meeting his eyes. Axel, in a place like this...?
"If I am, what could you do to stop me?" he asked. She hesitated.
"I have contact with the Deus," she replied. "The Deus would-"
"The Deus!" he snapped, stronger than he had intended, and he felt a slight remorse when she cringed. "Don't you have the use of your own powers?" He drew his knife and held it out in front of himself, feeding his powers into it as he had not done in many, many years. The blade responded as it always had; he felt the resonance and the slight hum as the energy worked its way up the long dormant channels, increasing in magnitude until the blade began shaking. The woman watched, eyes wide, as the energy found the outlet and ran in streaming bright lines down the metal, dispersing into a thin, smoky halo. I don't remember this taking so much effort, Kendre thought, clenching his teeth as a few beads of rain- or sweat- slid down his face. The woman reached out to touch it, mesmerized, and Kendre instinctively sharpened the aura, smokiness turning razor sharp. She pulled back, looking at him, and Kendre met her brown eyes and grimaced.
"How?" she asked softly, and as he opened his mouth to speak, the door now at his back flew open. Kendre turned sharply, his concentration broken, and his vision went white as his power snaked back through the channels in the blade and his arm, back towards his core. The blade fell from his hand, and he fought his way through the white mists and the rush of power to find Axel standing in the doorway, both arms held out in front of herself with the wind-jewels on her gauntlets glowing brightly. He blinked and searched for the psychic; she was backed against the wall, staring at Axel. She doesn't know what she's gotten herself into, Kendre thought, and she's just beginning to find out. I remember that feeling. He pressed his lips together, bending down to pick up the blade and keeping his eyes on Axel the whole time.
When he held it once more, he wiped it off on his shirt, leaving pale streaks on the black. Axel still held her ready position, watching him coldly. His senses were returning from the power surge, and he heard the psychic woman behind him shift. Axel's head shot up, and he wondered if she had even noticed the woman was there. Evidently not, he mused, as the cold hate for him in Axel's turned into hotter anger at the other woman's presence.
"Kendre," Axel said sharply, "Go into the apartment and wait for me. I will come in just a minute." Kendre shrugged, turned back to the psychic woman, and flashed her a grin. Surprised, the woman blushed slightly, and then Axel's cold eyes were between them. What a shame, Kendre thought, I would have liked to know her better. Still, maybe being stuck here for the rest of my life won't be so bad. He blinked, realizing what he was considering, and shook his head as he walked through the open door into Axel's place of residence. Evesa would kill me at the thought.
Once inside, he looked around, seeing a place not too different from Maurya's apartment. The walls were a dingy white, with a few prints of art hung on the walls without frames, and a cooking area was on the far left wall with a small table surrounded by chairs. The door to a room with a bed was flung open; another door was closed on the opposite wall. In the room he was in were a few worn fabric-covered chairs and a table across from the television, which sat on a small shelf with books and plastic cases. He surveyed the chairs, trying to judge which would be the most comfortable, but was attracted back to the doorway by raised voices. He walked back and stood with his back to the wall next to the door so he would be unseen by both Axel and the psychic.
"What are you doing here, Kahlia?" Axel asked. "Did you come with him?" The psychic's reply was muffled, and Kendre leaned closer to the door, but he couldn't hear anything at all. Frustrated, he peeked around the door frame. Axel's face was pale, the color bleached out of it, and she looked like she was about to fall over. What could make that change? Kendre wondered. What could reduce the mighty Axel from full battle mode to this weakness so fast?
"Kendre," the psychic said. Kendre jumped, and walked back out to the concrete hall.
"What?" he asked as innocently as he could. "What's going on?" He looked back and forth at Axel and the psychic, Kahlia. Axel now looked on the verge of collapse, shaking slightly, her eyes seeing nothing. Kahlia merely shook her head.
"Help me get Alex inside," she said, taking the other woman's hand. Kendre went in first, pushing the door out of the way and closing it behind the two women. He went to the kitchen and filled a plastic cup that was sitting on the table with cool water from the sink while the psychic led Axel to a soft chair and sat her down. He gave the water to the psychic, who thanked him and handed it to Axel. Axel took a drink and set it down absently on the table, reaching for a small plastic object. She turned the television on and pressed buttons until a channel came up with a picture of a man that looked much like Axel herself. "Missing Reporter David Bartel Found," the text said, and Axel broke down sobbing. Kendre backed away, averting his eyes feeling very awkward, but the psychic beckoned him closer, until he was next to her, bending over the sobbing Axel. Kahlia motioned for him to lean down to her, and he complied.
"Her father," she whispered in his ear. Kendre's eyes widened, and he turned and stared at the screen, remembering Tobairas' words earlier. Axel's father was the previous Deus. Axel's father was Ceresuequen. Ceresuequen was alive. Ceresuequen was alive, and he was here on this world. Ceresuequen was... Axel's father.
What did that mean, though? What did it mean that Ceresuequen was alive, and knew he was alive, and yet had not contacted him? Or, even worse, that he had not contacted his own daughter? Kendre frowned. If Ceresuequen, who was Axel's father, had become the Deus, that necessarily meant that he lived in the Game, not on this world. Assuming that the "years" marked in the Game were roughly analogous to the years on this world, that meant that Axel had been fatherless for years. Unless he had told her? If he had... Wait, there was something else. Axel was the daughter of a player of the Game, an independent. That was forbidden. It should have been up to the Deus to correct this imbalance, this unfair advantage, of such a powerful psychic...
Unless the Deus was the father of the one in question. Artea, who had been Deus before Avamen, would not have tolerated such a thing. This meant that Avamen himself would have had to assume the mantle, overcoming Artea around the time that the girl's psychic powers would have awakened, early adolescence... He looked at Axel, who was on the sofa being comforted by Kahlia. She's younger than me, but not by much, he thought. Comparing that to the time that Avamen had been Deus... It was probably about the right time frame.
But why have such a child in the first place? Knowing what he knew about Ceresuequen, under whose calm surface had lingered only ice, Kendre could not believe it had been love. When Kendre had pressed the man about his past, Ceresuequen had given few and vague answers. The only clues were his low esteem of Artea, and his strained relations with the Deus. She had barely tolerated him, and thus had frowned on Kendre, his student, but the rumors had been that Ceresuequen was too strong for Artea to get rid of him, either by necessity at having a strong game player around or by virtue of Ceresuequen's strength being superior to hers. It seemed like the latter had proven true.
Why had Ceresuequen trained Kendre in the first place? Despite his heart of ice, he had shown moments of kindness and warmth to Kendre, in everything but training, where he had been a merciless taskmaster. Had the ice been real, or had he been mistaken? Kendre closed his eyes and strained to remember the man's aura as he had felt it, but his talents had always been closer to himself and the outside world rather than other beings. He reached the memory, and examined it objectively, as he had been trained as a child, long ago and on a world far from this one.
Kendre felt the memory of the aura as a texture against his skin, a brush against his forearms: a cool, smooth feeling, but not wet like ice, he thought. It was earthy, more like cool stone, or like thick glass. Glass, that was it, but not thin like that used in windowpanes, but rather a mass of sand cauterized by an intense feeling, a billion grains brought together with a white hot light.
He focused his inner sight and stood in a void inside his own mind, and the memory was before him, an almost-perfect globe of dull, thick glass, with green and black swirling over its surface like a marble, and gold flecks over some of its surface. He walked up to it, and touched it tenatively with one hand, running his fingers lightly over the surface. Cool like ice, with the feeling of natural stone from the fragments it was made up of, but it was clean and left nothing of itself on his fingers, as melting ice would. This was Ceresuequen, as he had been.
What is he like now? Kendre wondered. Has being the Deus changed him? I wonder what my own aura is like, if it is anything like this...
"Kendre," said a voice, cool and outside him. He dismissed the memory and let his senses fall back gently into his own body, then opened his eyes. He turned to the two women and found the psychic, Kahlia, looking at him. He looked around and did not see Axel in the room or anywhere else in the small apartment.
"Where is Axel?" he asked.
"She has gone to see Tobairas, to see if he knows anything of this." The woman gestured at the television set, which still displayed pictures of Axel's father. Kendre blinked.
"Tobairas?" he asked. "Why not go and see this man for herself?"
"She doesn't think that he is really her father," Kahlia replied. "She doesn't think that he would do something like this."
"I don't understand," Kendre said. "If he is her father, then he disappeared abruptly from her life many years ago, correct?" Kahlia nodded uncertainly. "How could she predict anything he'd do? Or perhaps this is something he has been forced into?"
"Any way it is, Tobairas should know whatever is going on in this world. She predicted that she'd be back soon, and then we might go and see him for ourselves."
"We?" Kendre asked. "Does that include me?" Kahlia hesitated.
"I don't know."
"Is there anywhere around where we might find a stable pool of water or another reflective surface?" Kendre asked. Kahlia gave him a quizzical look.
"May I ask for what purpose?" she asked.
"So that we may see what Axel is up to, of course. I doubt that she is going to see Tobairas, because I know that he has as little knowledge of this man as I do myself." The psychic still had a blank look on her face. "Scrying," Kendre said.
"Into that place?" Kahlia asked.
"That place is this place," Kendre said. "In a sense, this world is the Game itself. I don't know the precise mechanism by they are tied together, but I do know that the Deus of this planet is the Deus of the game, and that itself should provide enough of a psychic link between them. If it does not work or my skills are not sufficient, we lose nothing."
"Won't Alex... know?" the psychic asked. "Won't she know we are watching her?
"Not if we are sufficiently skilled," Kendre said. "Come, let us try, at least." Still visibly hesitant, the psychic led Kendre to the sink in Alex's kitchen.
"I can fill this with water," Kahlia said. Curiousity had overtaken caution; it was likely that Alex would be distracted, and if they could find out something and help her... "Will this be sufficient?" she asked Kendre. The red-haired man nodded, and she proceeded to put a plug in the drain and fill up the basin with water.
Kendre looked into the shallow sink, now full with not-quite-clear water. It will have to do, he thought to himself. Now, should I try with Axel first, or Tobairas? He decided on Axel, and sought his memory of her aura. This one came much quicker, and required almost no focus at all. It felt like a hot breeze, charged with electricity, yet textured rough like coarse cloth or wool from the sheep of the mountains where he and Evesa had often gone hiking as it moved over his skin. Kahlia, standing beside him, gasped. He turned to look at her.
"Lights," she said, "on your skin, I saw... It looked like Alex's aura, the lights I see around her sometimes... Blue and violet..." She is fairly strong, Kendre thought, to see even the memory of an aura, and not even her own memory. I wonder how long it will be before the Deus seeks her out, he thought, and was surprised when the thought filled him with regret. The Game would tear her apart... He took a deep breath, concentrating, and held his hands over the water, gathering the texture into them as if it were fabric, then lowering his hands until his fingertips just touched the water. He let the texture flow off, and onto the surface of the water, slowly, until it had all dripped off and lay upon the water like a thin layer of smoky oil. He removed his hands and stepped back and to the left, so that both he and Kahlia could see what lay in the basin.
"I just don't think it's him," Alex said. Rithane sat across the small
wooden table from her, arms crossed across the embroidered blue phoenix
on her chest. "I can't say why, but... I don't think it is."
"Well, I don't know what to tell you. I never knew the man, except by seeing him as a reporter on TV when I was a kid. This seems like something a 'figure in the media' would do, doesn't it?" Rithane said, leaning back in her chair and brushing the wood-panel wall of her private quarters with the tips of her fingers.
"No, no, no, he wasn't like that..." Alex sighed, wishing she could tell her stepsister about all that had happened, about everything... Well, why can't I? she thought to herself. I know she's trustworthy, and loyal to both the old and new Deus. I need someone to talk to about this, and who could be closer than family? Even Tobai had said she should tell Rithane, so why was she still so cautious? There's nobody else I can talk to inside or outside the game about this that wasn't there as it happened, though, I need someone...
"Axel?" Rithane said. Alex blinked, back to reality. If I don't tell her... But if I do...
"To hell with it, I wish he'd just stayed dead and gone!" she said out loud, to herself more than Rithane.
"You can't mean that!" the younger woman said.
"I'm sorry, Rithane," Alex said, "I just have a lot on my mind right now. I don't know how this is going to affect us, here or there, if he really is back..."
"Maybe you should just go home and talk to your mother about it. The thing that strikes me as odd is that he didn't contact Mom about it, or at least you, I mean, she was his wife and you are his daughter... Why go to the press first?"
"I don't know," Alex said. "Maybe... Maybe he didn't want to be found."
"Go home, Axel," Rithane said. "I have a few things to take care of here, I'll be home shortly. Mom thinks I'm out with friends right now, so there's no way for her to know when I'll be back. I'll try to give you two, or you three as the case may be, some time to... catch up on things."
"Thanks, Rithane," Alex said. She stood up and stretched, and made her choice. "Actually, there's something I need to talk to you about, something important..."
"We can talk later," said the other woman. She walked to the door and opened it, motioning for Alex to come over. Alex frowned, but complied. As she was about to walk out, the other woman bent down and whispered into Alex's ear.
"Someone is watching us, I fear, and I don't want them to know any more than is necessary." Alex turned to look at Rithane.
"For how long?" she whispered. The woman shook her head, and whispered back.
"I don't know." A chill ran down Alex's spine. If some stranger had heard the way she and Rithane were talking... if that person were to connect things and figure out that Alex and Rithane were related in the real world and not just friends in the game... She looked at Rithane with alarm in her eyes. "Not long, I don't think," the woman whispered, "but I can't break it. Go, now. We will speak later." Alex nodded, swallowed, and walked out. Rithane closed the door behind her.
Close. That had been too close. She wasn't usually so careless, and Rithane... If it wasn't for Rithane, she wouldn't have known. Sensing traces and the more subtle psychic powers had never been her forte. But who was it? Market? Kendre's allies, Tobairas' mysterious Maurya, the Arysse, or someone else yet? Could it be her father? She tried to calm her emotions and focus, but she still couldn't sense the watcher. What if Rithane had lied? What if-
What if you're just being paranoid? she thought to herself. Calm down. A cool match doesn't light fires. But I came so close to telling Rithane everything... What if I had? Who else would know? She sighed. It's good that I didn't. But now I can't go and talk to Tobai, either. Or maybe I can... If anyone can get rid of this shadow, he can, and he should know about it without me telling him.
She sighed and set off in the direction of the Deus' quarters. That meant crossing the common area. Better hope Doth's not about today, she thought, or any of Kendre's other... friends. The marketplace was again crowded, and Doth was absent. Nobody else was around that she knew either, friendly or otherwise. At least some good things do happen, Alex thought, pushing through the crowd in the direction of the Deus' quarters. Not too long ago, these people would have just moved out of the way, she thought, especially for me. But with the lack of consistent missions from the Deus, the official scoring ranks are losing their relevance, and people are turning to the pits for accurate rankings these days, I guess. Still, I don't like it. I don't want to be marginalized, and I refuse to support the pits.
"Axel!" called someone from behind. Alex ignored it; it was not a voice she recognized, and from strangers these days came only insults and challenges. The stranger called out again, and Alex sent a thread of power to the wind jewels in her gauntlets. If it's another one of Kendre's flunkies, this time I'm not holding back, she thought. What I really need to do is show off some of my power. It's not something I'd normally do, but if it helps both me and Tobai regain some of our legitimacy from the markets... Let the watcher see this too.
"Axel," the voice said a third time, and this time Alex stopped, waiting for the stranger to continue. She kept her power slow, but steady, just barely enough to raise a bit of light in the jewels. If this got bad, however, she wasn't holding back. Nobody could be seriously hurt in the Deus' world itself. The reason was to make it safe for new players to learn how to use their powers safely without "playing for keeps" in the real world, and it was also why the pits flourished as players tested their limits.
"I have a proposition to make, Axel, if you would follow me to a place that we may talk without... observation." The voice was deep, a woman's voice that was rough and proud. Alex turned and looked the stranger over. The woman had smooth, light brown skin, and she was dressed in clothing that appeared to be something of a cross between a robe and a coat over a long tunic various and plain pants, all in various shades of forest green and brown. Her hair was shaved close to her head. Alex looked up and met the stranger's gaze. Her cool brown eyes held amusement, and Alex thought she saw golden sparks in their depths.
"Who are you?" Alex asked. The crowd had moved slightly away to give them space, but nobody paid them any attention.
"My name is Lemere," the stranger replied smoothly. "My friend and I would like to speak with you, if you would be kind enough to follow me to her quarters where we may have privacy."
"No," Alex said. All players had the advantage of environmental manipulation within their own quarters; it would be folly to go there with a stranger. Lemere appeared unaffected, but did not reply. Alex turned to walk back through the crowd. Something didn't feel right here, or maybe her senses had finally caught the presence of the watcher as she expended her power into the wind-stones. Either way, she wasn't sticking around.
"Wait," said the woman who called herself Lemere. Alex turned impatiently; maybe she would get her display of power, if the stranger persisted. Still, she was not sure she wanted to get into anything with this woman- she had no visible weapons, and her clothes fit tightly enough that there appeared no place to hide anything on her person, which meant she was either a conjurer, a close-quarters martial fighter, or someone who possessed powers of an elemental nature. This last would be the most problematic, as elemental powers were the most versatile and tricky to deal with.
"The one who wants to meet with you is known to you, I believe. Her name is Ayu," Lemere said. Ayu... Ayu, a short, pale woman with dark hair, powers over water, and a tendency to wear red. Ayu had been an admirer of Alex for a long time, after Alex had helped train her in the integration of wind with her powers at the previous Deus' request. However, Alex had not heard from Ayu in a while, and it was common knowledge that she was one of the promising new players that the Deus had called on the then-top player to train.
"If Ayu wishes to meet with me, tell her she is free to come to my quarters. She knows the hours in which I am usually available there." To her credit, Lemere bowed and walked away. The action made Alex wonder if the woman had been telling the truth, however, it was best to be cautious. She shook her head and made it to the Deus' quarters without further incident.
The heavy door was closed, and did not budge. She knocked, but there was no response, so she leaned against the wall and settled down to wait. Lemere... What was Ayu doing hanging out with such a person, if she had been telling the truth? Ayu had been kind and gentle, when she wasn't fighting; her only flaw had been the occasional angry outburst, and a tendency to get frustrated, which had not helped when Alex had been training her. Much more pleasant to work with had been her other student, dark-haired, unshakable Kida, who had a bit of everything elemental in his powers and had eventually gone on to become a Phoenix Blue. Rithane had mentioned him every so often, but she hadn't heard much about him lately either.
The door to the Deus' room opened. Alex straightened up, readying herself to go inside when whoever was within came out. However, nobody came. She approached the door curiously.
"Come in, Axel," said Tobai's voice from within. Alex shrugged and complied, walking through the doorway. The door shut smoothly behind her. First Rithane, now the Deus, she thought to herself. I might be able to fend off the entire market with my newfound amazing closing-doors-behind-myself powers...
"Please sit down," the Deus said, and Alex complied, choosing the leftmost of the three chairs that were currently in the room. She turned to look at the other occupants- Deuce, Rithane's partner in the Phoenix Blue, and... Kida, her former student, in the chair next to him, grimacing and rubbing a bandaged hand with his other hand. Wait, Alex thought, bandaged? There were bloodstains evident on the bandage, dried now, but...
"Kida?" she asked. He looked at her, smiling despite the discomfort she could see in his eyes. "What's wrong?" Kida opened his mouth to explain, but was cut short by the Deus.
"Axel, it seems you come to us under a shadow this day," the Deus said. Alex turned her focus to him, not understanding. Oh, right, the watch, she thought. Damn, I'd completely forgotten the watch...
"Yes, Deus," she said. "It's like a dark cloud hanging over me that just won't go away, I was hoping you would be so kind as to help me out."
"Very well," the Deus said. A second passed, and he said "It is done." Alex breathed a sigh of relief, glad to be rid of her burden.
"Thank you," she said. "Rithane spotted it a short while ago, but neither of us were able to get it off. Any indication of who it was?" she asked. The Deus shook his head.
"It originated from outside of the Game," he said. "I'm not surprised that neither you nor Rithane were able to remove it."
"Outside of the game?" Alex asked.
"Yes," the Deus said. "It seems to be a day for strange things. As I believe you have noticed, Kida here has been injured in the game."
"Injured?" Alex said, "in the game? How?" She frowned. That wasn't possible. Surely he had been outside of the game itself when this had happened. An exceedingly rare thing for a Phoenix, sure, since their Deus-granted powers over others did not work outside of the game itself, but some Phoenixes still maintained their old powers of fighting in addition to their granted abilities.
"I was attacked," Kida said quietly. "I was breaking up a normal dispute in one of the market corridors, but it was a distraction. Fighters surrounded me, but I froze them all. That was my first mistake, I was trapped in a corner between them and safety. Then a woman came, walking up to me. I tried to freeze her as well, but it didn't work on her, the words seemed to slide right off. I ordered her to stop, but she kept coming. I found myself paralyzed as if I had been frozen myself. I tried to blink out of there, but that wouldn't work either, she had nullified that somehow, so I called out to Deuce and he said he was coming for me. The woman... she conjured up a knife, and cut my hand. It hurt, it actually hurt and bled. She just stood there, watching it bleed... Her eyes were like fiery light, burning golden-white, not real eyes at all, just light coming out of the sockets... She dropped the knife, and it disappeared after she let it go, just disappeared right in mid-air, and then she summoned the fire..." Kida shuddered visibly. Alex reached out to comfort him, but Deuce was in between them and she couldn't reach him.
"What next?" the Deus asked in a flat, expressionless voice.
"Fire covered her hand, like she had stuck it in the middle of a fireball and picked it up, and she brought it near to my skin, and she was about to burn me when Deuce showed up. But I could feel the heat. It was real fire, not an illusion. When Deuce came over, the flame disappeared, and she stood there. The fighters all disappeared at once, so either they were illusions or she can teleport about eight people without a cone or other portal. She walked up to Deuce, said something, then disappeared herself, again no cone or anything. After that I could move again." He stopped, as if catching his breath, and finished, "and then we came here."
The Deus nodded. What the hell does all of this mean? Alex thought. Someone can physically injure people here in the game? That's not possible, but here is the evidence right in front of my face... I know Kida, he wouldn't make something like this up, and Deuce was there too, so I'm sure it's true. But... what does that mean?
"Deuce?" the Deus said. "What can you add to that?" The dark-skinned man nodded, and cleared his throat. He brushed his shoulder-length black hair back behind his ears, blinked his golden eyes, and began to speak in a deep, resonant voice.
"As Kida says, he contacted me about twenty minutes ago. I could not discern his location by voice, so he told me where he was. I knew by his mind-voice that something was wrong. I attempted to teleport there, but there was a block around the area. I got as close as I could and ran the rest of the way. When I got there, a woman in white robes was holding Kida around the wrist with one hand. She had a flame suspended around the other hand and was lowering it towards Kida's hand. I cried out to distract her, and the flame disappeared. She walked towards me. I held the commands for freezing in my mind and tried to exert them on her, all of the bindings I know, but she was immune somehow. I readied myself to fight, but I found myself frozen in paralysis as Kida had been. She bent low and whispered in my ear. All she said was 'My name is Esmer, remember it,' and then she disappeared. No cone or portal at all. I tried to get a follow-tag on her like I can if a Phoenix teleports within the game, which is visually the same, but she had left no kind of trace at all. I found myself able to move again, and I went over to Kida, who had been injured. I attempted some manipulation of his injury, but it was beyond me, so we came here. That is all."
"What about the fighters that Kida saw? Was there anyone else in the corridor with you, Deuce?" the Deus asked.
"No," Deuce said. "I did not see anyone, so either the woman was cloaking them visually and by aura or they were pure illusion. It is my belief that they were illusion."
"Why?" the Deus asked.
"If this was indeed a show of force, then I am sure that she would have wished to intimidate us with the thought that she had allies with powers similar to hers. Also, the only auras I saw in the hall were those of Kida and myself. I checked immediately when I arrived at the scene to make sure that there were no concealed fighters waiting in ambush. Suppression of aura is much more difficult than maintaining even an auditory and visual illusion, and a teleportation of that amount of people would have left a sizeable energy signature no matter how well or in what manner it was done."
"A convincing argument," the Deus said. Alex had to agree, even though she knew next to nothing about the details of implementing illusions. She wasn't sure why she was here, though, perhaps since Kida was involved... "Can you describe her aura to me?" the Deus continued.
"Golden, heatless fire all over her body," Deuce said. "Mostly it was golden and white, but sometimes there were tongues of silver, red, and orange. As I said, there was no heat to it, it was like wax, without any feeling at all, temperature or texture, just a sort of resistance to psychic activity. Immune to probes, traces, watches, tags, freezes, everything I tried to put on her."
"I see," the Deus said. "Golden fire... I know of nobody with an aura like that, but it may just be the difference in the way we perceive auras. Regardless, this is troublesome. I am sorry for your discomfort, Kida, let me heal your wound." The young man extended his hand over the Deus' desk. Tobai took it into his hands, gently unwrapped the bandages, and then laid his jade-green hands over the wound. After a short time, he removed his hands. The knife-cut was gone, but there was a scar where it had been. "I'm sorry, Kida, I can't get past the scar," the Deus said. "It's possible it will go away on its own when you leave and re-enter the game."
"Thank you, Deus," Kida said.
"We had better get going, if you will excuse us, Deus," Deuce said. "There is a shortage of Phoenixes on patrol while we are here, and we must watch to make sure nothing happens again. If there are more like... Esmer."
"Right," the Deus said, "of course. If another situation happens, contact me directly. Spread this news around the entire Phoenix Blue, but not beyond, for the obvious reasons."
"Yes," Deuce said. "If anything happens, we will contact you." He stood and looked to Kida, and then to Alex, bowed, and walked out of the room.
"Kida," Alex said when he was gone. "I didn't expect you to get into this kind of trouble. Ayu maybe, but..." she trailed off, and was met with a smile from Kida. "If you want to spar sometime, sharpen back up, you know where to find me," she said, smiling back.
"That I do," Kida said. "Thank you, Axel." He turned to the Deus and bowed like Deuce had done. "Thank you as well, Deus."
"You are welcome, Phoenix," the Deus said. "Thank you for your service." Kida bowed again, and walked out of the room to join Deuce, who was waiting outside. The Deus reached out a hand and the door closed, then he leaned back in his chair and let out a heavy sigh.
"So," Alex said. "You wanted me to see that?"
"You were here, and I figured I would have to tell you anyways. Why are you here? That watch that was on you?" Alex nodded and summarized her encounter with Lamere.
"Lamere..." Tobai said. He paused for a minute, silent. "There is nobody I know by that name, or by the name Esmer, for that matter. That makes three mysteries so far: Lamere, Maurya, and Esmer... Of course, it is possible that Lamere is just a nickname for a legitimate player. Why are you in the game at this time anyways, Axel? This is not your usual time of coming lately."
"Oh," Alex said. "I had nearly forgotten, believe it or not. On the television, there are reports that my father has been found."
"What?" Tobai said. "Let me see." He closed his eyes for a moment, and then opened them. "I do not feel his aura anywhere on the planet, but then I have not been able to. He and Maurya are the two mysteries, who knows how many more there are. I hate to think of it, but it seems like we must. Anyways, I don't know if this is your father or not, I'm sorry."
"Well," Alex said. "It's not like it was a wasted trip. Interesting things are happening lately, Tobai. If only they were for us instead of against us."
"That is the truth. Again, I will ask you, have you told Rithane of what has passed?"
"No, I was going to earlier, but she noticed the watch before I began telling her."
"That is well," the Deus said. "It is also lucky. Do not speak of things like that here, only outside of the game. I cannot guarantee their safety here. Axel," he said.
"What?" she asked.
"If I find a lead on Esmer, I am going to want you to track her down. Is this okay with you, knowing her capabilities?"
"Yes," Alex said, without hesitation. "She hurt one of my students, and I take that as a personal insult. However, I have been here far longer than I intended to be, so I must get back home and deal with the problems I have there for now. If it is him..."
"If it is him, what are you going to do?" the Deus asked.
"I don't know," Alex said. "Tell him off, most likely." The Deus laughed.
"Do that," he said. "Say a few curses for me too, would you?"
"Of course, my friend," Alex said, "but now I must be going." She stood up and stretched, stiff from being in the chair for so long. "Kahlia and... Kendre await me at home. If I don't hurry, Sundown will be there too, and then I'll have another giant-sized mess to clean up. I don't suppose you'd be willing to erase her previous memory of Kendre to make things easier on me, would you?"
"Nope," the Deus said, "you're on your own there. Good luck, Axel."
"To you too, Deus," Alex said. She made an exaggerated bow, then walked out and back to her quarters. No incidents awaited her in the marketplace. When she got back to her quarters, however, she found that a note had been slid under the door, and picked it up.
"Axel- I would like to meet with you at your convenience, in your quarters or mine. -Ayu," the note read. This is Ayu's handwriting, Alex thought. I will leave a note at her quarters the next time that I am here in the game, but I can't spare the time for it now. Still, maybe Lemere was legitimate after all, then. That would be a good thing, but I sincerely doubt it's true. Where one bad thing happens, more follow, all the time...
She folded the note up and set it on her wooden table, then went into the center of the room and coned back out into her real-life bedroom. She looked at the clock; only an hour and a half had passed, though she was sure it had been much longer. It had felt like an eternity. She walked out into her living room; Kahlia and Kendre weren't in it, neither was Sundown. She heard voices however, and found both of her guests in the kitchen, staring over the sink. Quietly, she cleared her throat; both turned.
"What are you two doing?" she asked.
"Attempting to scry you," Kendre said. Alex sucked in a deep breath and tried to control her anger. Attempting to scry her? Then, was this the outworld watch she had been so fearful of, Kendre?
"It's okay, Alex," Kahlia said. "It didn't work. All we got was interference, like smoke or something, on the water. Kendre was just trying to explain some useful psychic stuff to me... We tried to find your father, but we couldn't find him, Kendre says it's because his aura's different than it used to be." Auras again! Alex thought, I wonder if this was the watch that was on me... But no, they said it didn't work, which means it didn't make a connection- maybe the other watch was interfering with it, or maybe that's what the others were sensing... And I'm not sure I like the idea of Kahlia learning from Kendre. She let out her breath.
"Fine," she said. "You and you, come on. We're going to try to find my father."
Sieve had sat merely staring at the television for a whole hour,
watching the coverage of the miraculous return of David Bartel. One
thing had become more and more clear over time: the David on television
wasn't the David who had been staying with him. The David on television
spoke differently and acted differently. Most of it was subtle; if he'd
just been going on old memories, he might not have paid it any
attention at all. The question was, which of them was the fake? This
newcomer, or the one who had been staying with him?
I don't know, he realized. I don't know which one is real. Hell, maybe they're both real... I can't trust my memories, because evidently they're all fake and planted... Unless the David that has been with me is the fake, in which case it's all been lies and I'm in trouble. Hell, if the one that's been with me is real, I'm in trouble. Maybe all of the stuff that's been going on lately is some crazy drug nightmare or something. It would make more sense, except I think I would notice the drop in my finances from buying something that would get me this kind of effect...
"Oh, stop it," said a voice from nowhere. "If there's one thing I can't stand it's self-pity. Pull yourself together and deal with it." Sieve closed his eyes, screwing them tightly shut like he did when he got one of his rare headaches. However, this time, instead of pain disappearing, he felt like he was falling. He tried to look around, but there appeared to be only darkness, then he realized he didn't have any feeling in his arms and legs- or any other part of his body.
"Well, this is different," he thought, or said. He wasn't quite sure any more, as he didn't seem to have ears or any other senses. "Yes, those were some drugs..." He finally found some solid ground and stopped falling, then he could feel his body again. Things were different, though, as he had thought. They didn't seem quite solid, or quite real, and everything was still dark. "I wonder if I could make a light," he thought. "I did earlier..."
Then there was light, but he was not sure if he had created it or not. Then, a mirror image of himself appeared right in front of him, upside down, apparently hanging from some invisible ceiling.
"You?" Sieve asked.
"Yes," said the image.
"I thought I killed you or something," Sieve said.
"No," said the image, dropping from the ceiling and landing neatly on its feet, where it brushed itself off and stood up straight to look Sieve in the eye. "You just proved that you were stronger in brute force than I am. That just means that I'll have to turn my energies to subverting you psychically in less obvious ways to regain control."
"Would you really do that?" Sieve asked. "No, wait, don't answer that, I don't want to know. Where are we?"
"Do you really want me to answer that?" the image asked.
"I'm not sure, but I think so," Sieve replied.
"That's good, all is as it should be then. You're playing right into my hands. To answer your question, we're in the depths of our mind right now."
"Our mind?" Sieve asked. "I wasn't aware of sharing it. See, I thought this was all a matter of some sort of invasion, if it is real, or some really bad drugs if it's not."
"Actually, friend, it's not drugs, it's quite real, and you yourself are the invader. I'm sorry to inform you that you are a construct placed here by a very powerful woman for the purpose of displacing and neutralizing me, most likely to get at David himself, ostensibly under the claim that I had committed a severe crime by using the powers of an independent to save someone's life." Behind the image, another image appeared, blown up like a projection on a movie screen: the blue-skinned woman with eyes of shining light. Artea.
"Whose life?" Sieve asked.
"Susan's life, of course," the image replied. The projection behind it- behind him- changed, to show a woman surrounded by flames, the one Sieve had seen earlier. There was a shadow over her face, and he couldn't make out her features, but as he watched, the blurriness of half-forgotten memory lifted off of her face like smoke blowing away in a sudden breeze. It was Susan, he realized, David's wife. It was her. He remembered...
The woman that both David and he had loved. He had been coming to visit her, in the middle of the night, when David was still in the game and wouldn't have a chance to interrupt them. A sneaky move, he remembered, but by then he had already been beginning to doubt himself and her. Was it really worth losing David's friendship? Wouldn't it be better to see his best friend happy? He had told himself that it was really up to Susan after all, though. It was her choice to choose either of them or neither of them, and she was no prize to be fought over or given up graciously, but a real person who was quite capable of making her own decisions.
When he'd gotten there, the building was on fire, shooting tongues of flame up into the dark night. The people watching, the other residents of the building, told him that she was still inside, she was the only one still inside, and nobody could get to her. He hadn't questioned it at the time, but now it seemed strange. Still, he had broken through the door and gone inside, in a panic, unthinkingly calling on his powers to protect his skin from burns. However, the protection hadn't been enough, and he had done the unthinkable. He had used his power to hold a temporary connection with the Game as he moved through the house, which suspended reality, freezing the flames in place around him, holding the building together and stopping it from collapse. He had reached her room, and found her there, in the midst of the flames stopped around her, curved in a sphere like exotic plants. He had called on what little elemental power he posessed to summon a bubble of clean air around them, purging the smoke, and he had guided them to the front door of the building. Neither of them had spoken a word.
She had walked through the door, and he hesitated before walking out, and decided to dismiss the power he had summoned before leaving the building. In that moment, the enormity of what he had done hit him. He had surely used enough power to awaken any number of psychics in the crowd of watchers below, and he had shown Susan what he could do. David... the Deus. Oh, no, the Deus... realization dawned on him, chilling his spine, and he reached with his mind to cut the link to the Game, but it was too late. As Susan turned back around, her mouth finally opening to say something, he was wrenched through the gate into the game, and she disappeared from him into darkness.
The Deus Artea sat calmly behind her desk, the sparks in her eyes burning dangerously. He was sweating and nauseous, with an awful feeling in the pit of his stomach. He wanted to run, to scream, but his body obediently walked forward and sat in the chair in front of her. She moved him like a puppet, a mere plaything, like nothing at all- and her eyes... Despite her control, his body shivered uncontrollably. He tried to break away from her gaze, but the sparks in the depths of her eyes grew, until the sockets were consumed with searing white light. He reached for his power, all of it, trying to get away, to run away from her, or to attack, or defend himself, to buffer himself from her wrath, but there was nothing there. His power was gone, and he was defenseless against her.
She stood up, and a low moan escaped from his mouth, the first sound that had been made in the cold room. The light from Artea's eyes as she approached highlighted the metal veins in the walls, so that they looked like a cage holding them together, and then she spoke.
"You have abused your power," said her voice, but there was another overlaid with it, pulling Sieve away from the awful scene. "You have abused your power, using it to alter your world, and altering the natural course of events." As she spoke, the world around them faded into darkness; the walls drifted away, as if the room was expanding, and the echo behind her voice grew stronger. It was a man's voice, familiar... "Your powers will be stripped from you, and all memory of the truth and the game will be sealed away without hope of recovery." Only Artea was left in his vision, alone in a void of darkness, smoothly melting into it, until only her arm, her hand, was solid. She reached for him, becoming oddly two-dimensional as she did; only her index finger was real, as it touched his forehead, he heard the two voices say, "So shall it be," and fell into darkness, with the promise of agonizing pain all around him like needles touching his skin, waiting to break the surface. "So it is done," said only the second voice, quietly.
Sieve recognized it as the voice of his mirror image as the afterimage of Artea faded away behind the man, who was silhouetted dark against its light. He was in the darkness with himself again. But it had been real, so real... He was still shaking and breathing heavily. Tears flowed freely down his face, and as the artificial light of the Artea projection faded and light as it had been returned, he saw the same was true of his double.
"Years," the double said. "Years, alone in the darkness, while you lived my life. Years, with nothing but the promise of pain hanging over me with a hammer, never coming, only waiting just out of reach. I was able to escape sometimes, into your dreams. I tried to tell you, tried to break out and break you, but my power, our power, was sealed away tight. Years after years in the darkness, the darkness and the dreams, which were worse because they were only illusion, or straining to hear your thoughts, to explore your mind. That was the only life I had, the darkness inside of you."
"I woke up in a hospital," Sieve said, as if the other hadn't spoken. "I had been missing for a week, and I didn't remember anything at all about my life. David tried to tell me some things, he tried to tell me about Artea, about the Game, when nobody else was around, but I didn't believe them when he did, and the memories didn't stick. They slipped away, I don't know how many times he re-told me, but I remember now. These markings were all over my body, like tattoos, nobody knew where they had came from, but they didn't come off. I had been found at home, in my bed, one night, and nobody knew how I had gotten there, not even me. Over time, I began to remember things, only about real life, nothing about the game, nothing about Susan, but things came back. David spent a lot of time with me, but there was always some kind of coolness I felt there that had never been there in the memories I had. Everything was wrong, but the wrongness faded over time, and it was almost like normal again."
"I hated you," said the image. "I hated you so much, and so deeply, but I could do nothing about it, trapped in the darkness."
"I never knew," said Sieve softly. "I never knew. I'm sorry... I'm so sorry." A realization was coming to him, as his memory stretched farther and farther back like a spring uncoiling. "I can't make this right, and I won't give up my life to try it."
"Your life!" said the other. "Your life?" The image approached him.
"No," Sieve said. "Our life. You see, I'm not something that Artea created. I'm not just some seal or construct, I was you."
"What?" the image asked. "What do you mean, you were me?" Sieve looked the image, his past, in the eyes, taking a deep breath.
"I am the part of yourself that you kept in the darkness. I was your darkness, and she brought me out into the light. I was alone in the darkness, all of the stuff you threw away!" Sieve took another breath and looked away, reminding himself to breathe. "But I wasn't aware of myself, I was just part of you. We're the same person." He looked back at the other. "What she did to us was wrong, and I can't forgive her for it, even if she did give me life. But still, how did you break the seal? How did you contact me again?"
"The pearl," the other said. A point of pinkish light appeared between them, growing larger until the image stepped forward and took it into his hands. "The very core of a world. The power of a world, and a light in the darkness. Power responds to power, and my- our- sealed power grew in strength in response to this foreign strength, straining against a seal meant for weaker forces. However, it was not until you called upon its power in defense of yourself, your life, and the pearl itself, in desparation, that the seal was broken. The wall came down between me and my power, between you and that same power, and between me and you, all at once, and we were brought together again."
"Earlier today," Sieve said.
"Yes," agreed the other. "Wherein you demonstrated that even a meager amount of control over the Pearl can beat a recovering psychic of no little talent."
"You took over my body," Sieve said. "I had no choice."
"That might be true," the image said.
"Fine, whatever," Sieve said. "That's done now. If you're not going to give me any more visions of the past, I need to ask you something."
"What do you have to ask me, o master?" the image said.
"Stop that," Sieve replied. "I need to know if the David that's been staying with us is the real David or not."
"Of course he's real," the image said. "What do you mean by that?"
"Are you sure he is David?" Sieve asked. "Positive?"
"Yes," the image said. "Why?"
"There's an imposter. Someone is claiming to be David Bartel. I don't know how or to what end, but someone has come forth as him. The reporters on television are hailing it as a miracle that he's still alive after such a long absence from this world."
"I don't like the sound of this," the image said. "We need to find one of them now. We need to find the real David, do you have any idea where he is?"
"No," Sieve said. "Listen, it's probably time for me to go to work. I can't do anything more right now but hope that David finds me there. If I miss any more time at work, I'm done for at my job. I just wanted to make sure that the David with us was the real one."
"Right," said the image. "It was, I'm sure of it. If there's a fake David that's shown up, can't you use that to get out of work? It's widely known that he was our best friend, isn't it, if I read your memories correctly?"
"Yes, that's true," Sieve replied. "I hate to bother everyone, but..."
"Look," said the image. "It's not good when someone impersonates a former Deus. That's not good with a capital not. We need to find out what's going on, here. Do you know anything about where he was found or anything like that? Where he showed up at?" Sieve tried to think back to the coverage he had watched.
"Lamneth," he said, "Some apartment complex east of Lamneth Square."
"Lamneth," the image repeated. "That brings back some memories. Julie Blackmore's apartment was close by there, wasn't it? Do you remember Julie, our first love?"
"Of course I do, she dumped me and married Biran Stillman!" Sieve snapped. "Weren't you the one that said that we needed to be serious now?"
"Serious is relative, my dear Sieve," the image said, chuckling.
"Don't call me that," Sieve said.
"What should I call you, then?" the image asked. "Robert? Is that better? Anthony? Robert Anthony? It's been years since anyone's called you that, hasn't it?"
"Stop it," Sieve said. "That's not my name any more."
"It's the name of the past, you mean?" the image asked. "Perhaps you mean it's my name? If you're all of the parts of me that I disliked, as you claim, what does that make me to you, Sieve? What does that make me to you?" Sieve sighed.
"Robert," he said, the old name awkward in his mouth. "Let's stop this. We won't get anywhere by fighting, and we need to work together."
"Working together," the image, Robert, said. "Isn't that a modest proposal from the one in power? Yes, then, let us work together, combine our forces." He let go of the image of the pearl that he had been holding in his hands, and it floated up above both of their heads before fading into the darkness. "Remember, Sieve, you have power over me only with the aid of the Pearl. I can control you as easily as you me. It was I who brought you down here, and I could keep you down here with me until our body died if you threaten anything dear to me. I know your secrets, and I know your thoughts, because I am you. We will work together, yes, because if you try to lock me away again, I will drag you down with me."
"Fine," Sieve said. "I may not know you, but I have been you, so I know how you work. I know your threat is real, but I want you to know that I hold dominion here now. This may not have always been the case, but now this is my life, this is my power, and this is my mind. If you try anything, you will not be locked away again, you will be destroyed. This Artea could not do because she had limited power in the mind of another, but my power here is absolute." The image, Robert, laughed.
"You bluff well, friend Sieva, well enough that I would think I had taught you myself. Remember that while you may have my memories of using power, I am the one with the experience," Robert said. "Also recall that our strength grows together with the Pearl, and with each other's strength. However, the Pearl itself will gain power, and magnitude, as it is kept in the care of a psychic. This, I am not sure that even David has intended, but I will say that none I know of alive has the cunning to outwit that man."
"The Pearl will grow in power... This means that the world's... energy becomes stronger?" Sieve asked. He was still not sure exactly what the Pearl itself was, beyond a source of power and vague descriptions like 'soul of a world.'
"This means that all life that is of the Pearl, all life that is on the planet, gradually gains more and more psychic power," Robert said. "In time, even life that is not self-knowing now will gain consciousness, and people will gain greater understanding of themselves. After that, they will gain the ability to 'know' others psychically, to know things about the whole world, and then to affect things with the mere power of their mind as everything on the world gains consciousness if it is alive, and the web of interconnectedness between living and nonliving grows. Everyone will know everything about everything, and they will be able to change it at their will."
"Like the game," Sieve whispered. "Like a second Game, in the real world..."
"I do believe you are right!" Robert said, laughing once again. "A second game, if this is not stopped. Of course it takes years, but every step life comes to the power of the Deus is a threat to their power. They will act. Think, if a whole planet becomes its own game, its own self-knowing, self-changing reality, of the power that will create in the universe. Neighboring planets will raise life, and if any of these players enter the Game as it is today, being parts of such immense power, the great difference would affect even the independents whose power is supposed to be fixed as the power flowed from greater to lesser and the feedback grew. A whole universe, all one power, all together, enough power to spill through the hidden dimensions to other universes... All from the giving of one world's Pearl to one simple psychic! Elegant and beautiful, is it not? It is what I expect from David, after all." A chill went down Sieve's spine.
"Robert," Sieve said. "A challenge to the Deus' power, we are a threat to them?"
"Yes, of course, those who have power only have such at the lack in others," Robert replied. "Power is only power if there are those without it."
"Robert, we have to find David. We have to find him now."
"Why such urgency?" Robert said. "The world is already changing, it cannot be hurried too fast, or everything will be lost. Power cannot be given before knowledge."
"The entirety of the Deus of this universe, and who knows what realities beyond, is out to get us if what you say is true. We have to find out if David did plan this, and if he still has any of his power, we need him to protect us. We need Alex, we need all of the independents, we need everything we can get!"
"Don't worry," Robert said, "Trust David. If this is his plan, he's been working towards it for years and in secret away from anyone. Truth is, we're likely the only ones that have figured out the truth at this point."
"I won't bet on that," Sieve replied. "Not when the safety of those around us is at stake. Our power combined with the Pearl might be enough to protect ourselves, at least to hide ourselves for a little while, but sometimes the best offense is a compromising position."
"You're getting paranoid again."
"Damn it, would you be serious?" Sieve cried.
"Come now, it's only the universe," Robert said. "Calm down. Getting mad at yourself won't solve anything. Now, the first thing you have to do is call into work and excuse yourself there. Use David if you want, whatever you think will work. After that, you can either track down your daughter and bring her with you to keep her safe or you can track down David and we can try to get to the bottom of this. Either David should work fine. Or, if it's protection you're after, I believe that David's daughter is the next best thing to David himself, as she is theoretically the most powerful independent alive because she is his daughter, and we can hope that she has the advantage of being somewhat under the radar in this whole thing."
"Independent, what does that actually mean?" Sieve asked.
"Well, it's like this. I'll just explain everything now so we won't have to go through it later, it'll be quicker in the long run and maybe I can calm you down a bit. Life gets consciousness from the Pearl of the world that it's on. The Pearl is the power of that world's Deus. World isn't exactly accurate here, because some civilizations are able to travel between planets, so maybe something like 'life-group' is better. Every instance of life in the group is part of the whole of the power, and the Deus' power is the sum of this power. Make sense?" Sieve nodded. This was beginning to sound a little familiar, as if he had heard it before somewhere.
"Now, each life in the group has a threshold of power, and this is different for each one," Robert continued. "As I said before, power increases in response to power. Life increases life. There are different levels of psychic power, ranging from 'normal' people to those who have psychic knowledge of other people or who things like visions of far-away places or the consequences of actions, to those who can actually manipulate either other people psychically or the world itself. Each person has a natural maximum amount of power, and exposure to power cannot raise them past this limit.
"The exception to this rule is the independents. The independents are essentially released from their 'life-group' by their Deus, and so they are not tied to their Deus' Pearl for their power, they are their own source of power, like the Pearl itself is. Their power increases as it encounters stronger powers, and it increases other powers in turn. As their own source of power, the independents can also exist in the reality of the Deus themselves, this is where the Game is, the section of the Deus-level reality that corresponds to our Deus. Independents can also travel through the Game to reach other places on our level of reality. However, the independents themselves are tied by their origin to the Deus' Pearl, so the Deus gains power from their power, just less than they would from an equally talented psychic. It is also possible for independents to break off the power that they supply to their Deus, but the Deus has the power to... take away independence.
"There are three natural barriers for life. The first is that between life and non-life, the second is between normal life and psychic powers, and the third is between the normal maxiumum on psychic powers and independent status."
"So David's plan can't work, then, can it?" Sieve asked. "If there's a maximum on the amount of power anyone can have, it can't work. Plus, we're not independents, so we have a fixed limit too, right?"
"Now that's where I'm not sure," Robert said. "The amount of power we have is divided into two since you have used the Pearl, and both halves are getting stronger. The Pearl is also getting stronger, being between us. I'm not sure I can explain this one, though."
"Maybe we were already past the independent barrier?" Sieve asked.
"I don't know," Robert said. "The easy explanation would be that David did something, or your explanation, or some quirk of the Pearl, but the truth is I don't know."
"Robert..." Sieve said. "Robert, if David was the Deus, why didn't he fix this? Why didn't he make this right? Was it just because of this... this plan of his? Why didn't he make this right with us?" Robert hesitated, suddenly still.
"I don't know," Robert said. "I just don't know."
"I'm not so sure he's on our side," Sieve said.
"Don't say that!" Robert replied. "He's all we have!"
"Since when?" Sieve asked. "I've done fine without him, while he was gone. He doesn't owe us anything. He left us like this, me without my memories, you locked away in darkness. If he beat Artea to become the Deus, he sure could have overcome her seal. He's using us, Robert."
"I won't hear that," Robert said. "He owes me too much. Without me he never would have been in the game at all. I was the one Artea picked, I was the one with the power! He only got into the game at all because he caught me going in! Without me he would have none of what he has!"
"Did you ever think maybe he didn't want it?" Sieve asked quietly. "Did you ever think that maybe he just wanted a normal life? I know that feeling. I know that want. But when you realize you can't have a normal life, that there's always going to be a hole in your past that you can't get rid of, when you disappear for a week and show up with strange markings on your skin that you can't get off and people will always look at you and wonder, do you know what happens? You make the best of it, you get used to it, and it smooths over into your daily life, but sometimes you wonder what would have happened, how much better things would be if you didn't have to worry about all of it, if you were just normal like you used to be."
"You didn't see him in the game," Robert said. "You didn't know him like I knew him, you still don't remember. He wanted the power, the attention he got for being the best. He thrived on it. One clever scheme after another, closer and closer to danger, but he never let his friends fall. He never let me down, back then."
"He let you down now," Sieve said. "He let you down, and he kept you in the darkness, for all of these years. He didn't help me when he had the power and he didn't help you either. He doesn't care about us, and I won't trust him one bit. I'm leaving now, and I'm going to go and find Alex. He could have told her all of these years that he was her father, and he didn't, that I know! If our case was outside of his power, out of his area of expertise, yes, I can understand, how could he do that to his own daughter? She will understand what I'm saying, and if need be we can stand against him together." Robert laughed.
"You can't stand against him," Robert said. "Nobody can. He's the best, he's the one. You can't win if you go up against him."
"I don't know what he is to you, if he was your only hope for all those years you were locked away, and I don't know what you know about him, but I see a lot of cruelty and a lot of pain that could have been fixed with simple truths, and I see mistakes that were made instead. I'm also not sold on this plan of amazing psychic powers for everyone, but if all of the gods and goddesses and powers of this universe are like David Bartel, playing us lesser ones for their grand schemes, I'm willing to take them all on so the rest of us can live as we want to."
"That's just as bad as you say I am," Robert said. "By not giving the people the power they need to fight against the Deus on their own terms, you deny them their right to live as they want to if they want to live as you do! Besides, if you destroy the gods, if you destroy their Pearls, the people go with them!"
"Make the people independent, then," Sieve said. "Take away their lifeline to the Deus. If any Deus can take away independence, any Deus can grant it."
"It doesn't work that way," Robert said. "Only the Deus that 'owns' someone's life can give it to them."
"Then if David's wonderful plan goes through, what then? We have one planet of liberated full psychics and a whole universe that can't get past its maximum? When there is power, there is oppression, there is a new ruling class of psychics over the rest of the mundane universe! No people are wholly good, to rule over others with a difference in powers like that!"
"The solution you propose, then, is to let the Deus rule over us, with their powers and their humors?" Robert asked. "Is that it, keep us at their mercy, when they can do to us what Artea did to you and I?"
"And the solution you propose is that we leave it up to a man who didn't help us when he had the power?" Sieve asked.
"Yes," Robert said. "I have faith in him. I believe in him, and I've seen him do the impossible before. I know that he's been places I haven't, I know he's seen things I'll never have to see, and made choices that I'll never have to make. I know him, and I trust him, and I don't believe that what you say is true, that he could save us but didn't. We're the only ones that have power here, he does not, just like Artea."
"So you want me to put my faith and my life in him, and trust him, just like that?" Sieve asked. "When I hardly know him, when I hardly knew who I was when I knew him? When I don't even really know you?"
"If you can't trust him, then trust me and trust my trust in him," Robert said. "If this one world does become full of independents, then the power gained for the one who is our Deus now will be immense. The other Deus will have to do the same, if they want to maintain their level of power, but we'll have a head start on them. Once everyone's independent, if we can just cut off the power to the Deus who manipulated us and tried to destroy us, then we will win. The Deus who would control us will have no power, and we can live as we want to, that's your goal, right?"
"Yes," Sieve said. "Okay, fine, before I change my mind, I'm going to trust you. I want to believe in this, I just don't know if I can."
"That's all I wanted," Robert said.
"I'm leaving," Sieve said.
"I know," Robert said. "I will see you again, before too long."
"Goodbye," Sieve said. He closed his eyes, and the darkness of the void left him as he settled back into his body. It was strange at first, and heavy, to be real again instead of just inside his mind, but he felt more at peace than he had been, even if he still was restless.
He sighed softly as he tried to work feeling back into his arms and legs that had fallen asleep, then worked his way up to his eyes, but did not open them. I'm too late for work, he thought. There goes my job... So much for my smoothed-over normal life. He waited for a moment more, straightening himself up in his soft chair, then finally opened his eyes.
David Bartel sat in the chair across from him, watching the television and sipping some coffee from a mug. Sieve looked at the television- still coverage of the found David, who was being interviewed live- and then back at the man in the room with them.
Robert, he thought urgently, Robert, is this the real one?
Yes, came the reply.
"I'm glad to see you're back," David said, sipping his coffee again. "We have work to do." He turned to look at Sieve. "I helped myself to your instant coffee and took the liberty of calling Gavin to get you out of work for the next few days, is that all right?"
Kendre hunched in the back of the small, white vehicle, trying to find
something to hang onto amongst the clutter, failing, and feeling every
bump in the road. He gritted his teeth. Axel, when we're through with
this and I have my powers back, I swear...
The psychic and Axel were up in the front of the car, talking in low voices. Neither of them trusted him, and he didn't trust them either, especially not Axel. The psychic, however, he thought she might protect him from Axel just on principle if he kept his head together and didn't do anything stupid.
Kendre's hand went back to the hilt of his sword. Tobairas had given it back to him, that was some measure of trust at least. Tobairas had no problem with him, and he supposed he had no real problem with Tobairas at all either. He wouldn't trust the new Deus to save his life over Axel's, but that was to be expected. If it was a choice between letting Kendre die and saving his life, Tobairas had already proven that he would save Kendre, and so Kendre would do the same for him. Axel, however... No, Kendre would delight in saving Axel, because she would have killed him. Let her puzzle over that. He imagined her expression should he pull her up from a cliff she had been hanging off of, and chuckled softly to himself.
Is she really his daughter? Kendre wondered. Ceresuequen's daughter? It didn't seem quite right. Yes, she had power befitting the child of an independent, and some skill in using it, he had to admit that. But where Ceresuequen was subtle, Axel was forward; where he was subtle, she was brash; and where his rage burned like ice freezing, she exploded with anger when pushed and fought back like a haluk, one of the wild bears that roamed the mountains where Evesa always went hiking.
The thought stirred a memory. He had been with Evesa one summer, just past the end of spring, in the mountains. They had sat on the edge of a cliff, overlooking the forest below, surrounded by mountain wildflowers. Evesa was showing him her nature sketchbooks; the images showed a haluk drinking from a stream and dipping a paw in to fish.
"It's beautiful," he had told her, and in truth it was, sketched in ink with a minimum of extra lines. "It's very lifelike. Did you really get this close, love? I would hate for you to be eaten by a stray haluk, it would be unladylike!" She had laughed.
"Oh, would it now? I would hate to see you come that close to one, it would hear you coming for an hour before you got there, man of the forest!" He had grinned and moved closer to her, putting one arm around her shoulders.
"Maybe it's that you smell just like a haluk, spending all of your time with trees and fish and not people that you can get so close," he said, kissing her gently on the cheek.
"Maybe they wouldn't know you were coming, after all, you act like a haluk!" she said, pushing him away and laughing before drawing him close for another kiss, this time on the lips.
"Well, if I am a haluk, then I am sure that you must be a delicate mountain flower like these," he said, gesturing to the blue flowers that surrounded them. "What is their name again, these little blue ones with the tall stems?" Evesa sighed exaggeratedly, pretending to be annoyed with his questions as she always was. The memory began to fade, as he thought he heard someone call his name from a distance away. He clutched desperately to it, not wanting it to fade away.
"These blue ones, fair haluk? They are called Es-"
"Kendre!" a sharp voice said, cutting across the mountain scene and wrenching him away. Axel's voice. Damn it, he thought, Axel...
"What?" he asked.
"Can you tell how far away he is or not?" Axel asked. Her tone seemed to indicate that she had asked the question before.
"What?" Kendre asked again.
"Damn it, my father," she said. "Kahlia said you told her you could do aura location without a scrying pool, now can you tell how far away my father is or not?"
"Fine," Kendre said. "Hold on." He closed his eyes, and his mind tried to drift back into memory. Reluctantly, he refused it. Ceresuequen, he thought, summoning up the memory of aura, the glass that was almost like stone in his mind.
He cast his senses out like a net, as far as he could, first in front of him then circling around, trying to find something that felt the same. The sensations he got were fuzzy, not sharp like they had been once. It felt like searching for a small, sharp stone in a sheep's coat of wool. Finally, he found something, almost the same, with the changes that time might bring.
The glass had turned to stone, the green-gray slate he had mistaken the glass for in the first place, stratified with different colors and splattered with golden sparkles. He reached out towards it with his mind, pulling his senses together and focusing them as narrowly as he could towards the matching aura, and tried to capture it in the beam, like directing sunshine with a glass plate.
Kendre? asked a voice silently, within his mind, as his focus snagged on the man who was Ceresuequen. He tried to hold the contact and prolong it, but it snapped beneath his control, too brittle yet to focus for so long at a moving target. He tried to figure out where the aura had been located in physical space, casting out his sense-net again. It was moving farther away, not quite in the opposite direction, but on a slant... He stayed a little longer, trying to get a better feel for it, then opened his eyes back up, breathing a little harder than he had been.
The psychic in the passengers' seat was watching him, dark eyes framed by her long, dark hair in her dusty brown face, watching him expectantly. She was so much the opposite of Evesa, quiet and dark, with power in reserve. On impulse he reached out again with his mind, towards her aura, and touched it gingerly, closing his eyes slowly and savoring the brief touch. She was like a quartz crystal from the bottom of a stream, clear and pure with few imperfections, smoothed by the running waters, the water-bottom mud of sleeping power just beginning to be washed away to reveal what lay beneath. He filed the aura away with the others in his memory, next to Ceresuequen's stone, Axel's heat, and Evesa's vibrant evergreen in golden sun-fire, then opened his eyes once more.
"I found him," he announced. "He's back away from where we're going, behind us and a little to my left. That would be our right when we turned around." The psychic frowned and turned back to look at Axel.
"That's not right," Axel said. "He's supposed to be around Lamneth, where the TV crews were broadcasting from, and that's straight ahead." Lamneth? That was the place he had been when Tobairas contacted him, close to Maurya's apartment. He tried to remember the route he had taken from there, looking out the windows to see if he recognized any signs or landmarks, but nothing looked familiar.
"I don't know where that is," Kendre said. "But if it's straight ahead where we're going it's in the wrong direction. That was him, I'm sure of it. I touched his mind and he knew it was me."
"Damn it, Kendre, are you sure?" Axel said, stopping at a traffic light and turning around to face him. "Are you sure?"
"Yes," he said.
"Well, both you and the police can't be right," she said, starting the car again and accelerating through the intersection. "And they say he's up here. How do you account for that?"
"They're wrong," Kendre replied. "Either the person I know isn't your father after all, or this one here is a fake. We have it from Tobairas that they are one and the same. He was somewhat famous on this planet, was he not? I would assume there are rewards for his finding, and this is simply some scheme for persons of no consequence to gain these rewards, easily proven a fraud."
"I can't believe that someone would impersonate him now of all times, it's too much of a coincidence," Axel said. "We're going to go and check it out, now. If someone is impersonating my father, I want to know who it is and why they are doing it now."
I don't like this, Kendre thought to himself. I want to find Ceresuequen and I want to find him now. If anyone can and will give me my powers back, it's him, and I don't want to be dependent on Axel and Tobairas if something happens, especially when I haven't gotten time to work back into my powers or to condition this body to my swordwork to make up for the lack of powers.
He stopped himself. Did he really believe that there was something wrong with someone impersonating Axel's father? If it was some psychic, what did they have to gain from this? The first question in any game of power when presented with a mysterious action was to figure out who would gain from it. If some psychic was behind this...
He closed his eyes and summoned what memories he could recall of Maurya. Weak as a talent in subtle maneuvers, but he had seen nothing of her actual brute force, other than he had felt it to be weak. She knew about him, and she had known he was in the desert, and felt his power, she had said. She was after a strong target to increase her own powers, to be the Deus.
A strong target to increase her powers. That meant she either had a high upper limit or she was an independent. If she was an independent, she was not one he knew, or one the Deus knew. But how else would she be trapped on this world, an unknown psychic with knowledge of the Deus' power and how to get that power?
Well, he couldn't answer that by now, but he could try to figure out what she stood to gain by having someone impersonate Ceresuequen, who was the former Deus and Axel's father. Perhaps she wanted to lure him out to have her power increased by the considerable presence of his own, or to have him help her in her schemes? If she sought his help, she was a fool, because he had been the Deus and chosen his successor. But the power was a possibility...
How could she hope to detain him, though, long enough for her to profit? With her meager power, she had no hope of overpowering Ceresuequen, unless she was some kind of phenomenal talent at hiding her power from Kendre's senses and had deliberately let Kendre get away from her earlier. Perhaps she had powerful allies.
If there was any powerful psychic or independent around, I should be able to feel it, thought Kendre. First, I'll search for Maurya. Did I get enough of her aura to find her, though, is the question?
He concentrated on Maurya in his memory, trying to form impressions of her into a coherent whole picture of her aura, including the power that she had used against him. He focused all of the scenes in his memory with her together, from the motorcycle rescue, to the scene at her apartment...
He felt an impression of dark liquid, with a fragrant scent like the ground coffee he had drank while trying to find the Pearl only a few days previous, watching the blue-tattooed man in that restaurant with the band. Maurya's aura was like this drink, dark, smooth, and fragrant, but deeper like night itself, and a color like the blue of midnight and the coffee's deep brown blended together.
Satisfied with the sample's representation, he summoned it up before himself for examination, much like he had done with Ceresuequen's aura earlier, except this time he had to shape it into a sphere himself. He studied it, trying to find a clue to the mystery. Something glinted on the liquid's surface, and he looked closer. A symmetric pattern of stars covered the sphere, weakly glowing as if once they'd blazed like suns. He frowned, reaching out to brush it with his fingertips. It was hot, as if the fire stolen from the star-pattern heated it from within. He'd known an aura like that before, suns' fire with a core of indigo, but where?
He searched into his past, in his catalogue of auras, skimming their surface until he found one that seemed like a match. Yes, it was close, if one considered that the light had been confined and dimmed: pure, liquid white light, with a core of brown-indigo beneath that could be felt but not seen. Whose was this aura? It was not one he remembered often, and it did not belong to anyone he had seen recently.
Kendre let himself go through free-association with his memories, his hand hovering above the second sphere, the sphere of light, because it burned to the touch with even remembered power. A face appeared in his memory: dark, dark blue with skin of that night-blue, deceptively delicate features masking an iron will. Eyes like voids with a spark of light, and one did not want to see that spark flare in one's direction.
Kendre's breath caught in his throat. The Deus Artea? Maurya was the Deus Artea? He summoned up the old Deus' face in his mind next to an image of Maurya. They were strikingly close; the features that had seemed exotic and intriguing with Maurya's creamy brown skin looked dark and sinister if he imagined her skin blue like the former Deus. They were close, with little difference, like Kendre's true form to the form he wore now as a dependent on this world.
But how? Who had overcome Artea? A light dawned in the depths of his mind. Ceresuequen, of course. He had become the next Deus, of course he would have had to depose Artea. There was still one problem, however.
Artea had been strong and forceful, dangerous and charismatic. Yet Maurya seemed exactly the opposite: needy and desperate, weak and repulsive as she all but begged him to give her power and aid with her clumsy attempts to win him over with power. The Artea he knew would have forced him to obey with sheer force of will, or if that failed she would have persuaded him with what he most wanted, a way to get back home.
That was an unimportant question at this time, and something he had no control over besides. The first thing he had to do was stop Axel from going to meet her. Axel could be used as a hostage against Ceresuequen, and as a power source in her own right, and while Kendre himself had been easily able to repel Maurya's attempt at subversion he was not sure Axel could do the same, weak as he knew she was in the more subtle psychic arts. Brute force and cleverness were traits Axel excelled at; while he could often pluck her next moves out of her mind easily, he had a hard time countering her wind-blades with his metal ones.
He reached out with his mind, keeping Maurya's aura at the front of his mind and trying to gauge her distance. He found her almost immediately; they were close to her and slowly heading closer, as he had feared. And she was strong, an order of magnitude stronger than she had been when he'd encountered her. The stars of her aura had begun to burn again, like the sparks of light that had animated her eyes when she was Deus. There were two more talents close-by, nobody he recognized, but both independent and of enough strength to be a problem if things came to a fight.
Kendre let himself filter back down into his physical body from his mind-space, and tensed as he felt the vehicle slow to a stop. Had they arrived? Was he too late? His eyes snapped open, and he looked around. They were surrounded by buildings and other cars. He recognized a particularly garish sign from his bus-ride earlier. They were close, but just stopped at a traffic light for now. He let out his breath and relax.
"Did you have a good nap, Kendre?" Axel asked from the front seat, meeting his eyes in the mirror mounted on her windshield. "Not to worry, we're almost there, you should be getting some more excitement soon."
"No," he said. His voice cracked, and he cleared his throat and tried again. "We can't go there, Axel. Turn around now."
"Kendre, we already established this. If this man is a fake, I want to find out why he's here and what he's up to and get him out of the way now. This is my family I'm worried about."
"Rua's darkside hell," Kendre cursed under his breath. Of course. If Axel was Ceresuequen's daughter, that necessarily meant that he'd had a family. A wife, at least, or a woman that had been his lover. They would make perfect hostages to his good behavior and Axel's. "Axel, we have to get out of here. I'm sorry about your family, there's nothing we can do now, but we need to go and find Ceresuequen now, the real one."
"Why this sudden urgency?" Axel asked. Kendre shot a look at Kahlia, the psychic in the front seat, who was watching him with curiosity once more. He couldn't reveal all of this detail about the Game in front of a psychic, but she already knew more than a normal person, and was in far too deep to get out of it now. She was part of this too.
"Has Tobairas told you about Maurya, the woman who saved me from the desert? The psychic he can't track and has no knowledge of?" Kendre asked. Axel responded with a curt nod.
"What does she have to do with any of this?" Axel asked impatiently.
"Maurya is..." Kendre hesitated. "Maurya was, and might be again, the Deus Artea. The Deus who ran the game before Avamen. For some reason, she doesn't have her full power, and I think she's trying to lure either you or Ceresuequen here to increase her powers. She is already much, much stronger than she was when I left her earlier today, and we are heading towards her. There are also two more psychics there, independents of moderate strength. I don't recognize either one." The psychic, Kahlia, watched him still, unnervingly. It was obvious she didn't comprehend at least some of what was said, or understand the implications. Kendre closed his eyes and reached out towards her mind with his own.
I can give you knowledge of this, he said, mind-to-mind. Let me show you what I mean. You must help me convince her. This is dangerous for all of us together.
She struggled to reply, and Kendre opened his eyes, letting real sight overlay psychic sight. Nod your head if you wish me to communicate this information to you, he sent to her. She nodded, and he closed his eyes to eliminate the dizzying double vision. He opened his mind further, reaching out, and found an opening in her mental shields, then sent his information through, deliberately not being subtle so that she would consciously notice it. He opened his eyes and shook his head clear. It was beginning to ache slightly from all of his recent psychic ability, a weakness that had plagued him from childhood until the time he'd been granted his independent powers.
He watched the psychic. Her face was blank, eyes closed, as she sorted through the information he had given her. What am I doing? he thought. Breaking the Deus' own rules to save the life of my declared enemy, giving information to a psychic? He had no more time to react, as Kahlia opened her eyes, glanced at him briefly, then turned to Axel.
"He's right, Axel," said the psychic. "This psychic up here is dangerous, you wouldn't know since you weren't in the game when she ruled, but she is someone to watch out for. We have to get out of here now." As she spoke, Axel almost steered the vehicle straight into another one, resulting in a screech and a rude gesture from the other driver. At the next intersection, she turned and stopped the vehicle on the side of the road, then turned to the psychic.
"What did you call me?" she asked the other woman. The psychic shook her head, apparently not understanding, as Kendre looked on, keeping silent himself. Axel was furious.
"I- I don't know," Kahlia said.
"You called me Axel," Axel said. "Didn't you? And how would you know all of that about the game?"
"I-" the psychic said, but her eyes darted to Kendre. Kendre prepared himself, spreading his lips in a smile.
"Kendre," Axel asked. "Did you communicate information to her?"
"I did," he replied.
"Psychically?" Axel continued.
"Yes," Kendre said.
"Knowing that she's a psychic, and not independent?"
"Yes," Kendre repeated.
"Consciously breaking the rules of the Deus you swore to?" Axel concluded. Her face was flushed with anger, but her voice remained steady.
"Yes," Kendre said. "Your Deus renounced me, and as such I am not bound by his rules any longer. Your actions trapped me on this world, and I act to lend weight to my arguments against your charging ahead into the arms of danger by what means I have before me, yet you hold it against me."
"You act for your own agenda," Axel said. "Don't pretend it's for myself or Kahlia that you're concerned."
"You may be right," Kendre said. "I act to save myself from destruction, but as I am currently with you, I have no choice but to save the both of you as well. Not that I would refuse to save your friend, she at least will believe what I say. Plus, she's much cuter than you." He winked at the psychic, who flushed, but he couldn't tell whether it was with anger or embarrassment. With Axel, however, it was clear.
"Get out of my car," Axel said, turning around fully in her seat to face him. Her expression indicated that she was ready to throw him out.
"You're killing yourself if you go on," he said. If I could make her see like I made the psychic see, I could win her over, he thought.
"Get out," Axel repeated. Kendre felt towards her mind with his, fighting the urge to shake his head to clear the growing sense of double vision from trying to operate on physical and psychic reality at once. Axel had naturally strong shields around her mind from her power, but his suspicions that psychics on this planet weren't formally trained was proved correct as he noted the flaws in her barrier. He also noted Axel's sudden iron grip on his arm, and tried to make his move before it was too late, pushing the information at a flaw in her mental shields.
Her grip went slack, and her face acquired the blank look that many people get when information not of their making enters their mind. Kendre calmly pried her hand off of his arm and moved back into the back corner of the vehicle, out of her reach.
"What did you do to her?" Kahlia asked quietly.
"I told her what I told you," Kendre said. "Just not quite as gently. She'll snap out of it soon. That's why I'm back here." As soon as he said that, Axel shook herself violently.
"Damn you," she said.
"I'm right, and you know it," he replied.
"Damn you," Axel said again, turning away from him and restarting the vehicle. All in the car were silent as she backed it up and turned around, then went back to the intersection and started driving in the opposite way. Kendre closed his eyes and went back to his cool, calm mindspace, wondering why he felt guilt at what he'd done. There was no other way, he told himself firmly.
He reached out, trying to locate Ceresuequen by aura again. This time it was easier, since he had a general direction, but he refrained from reaching out and touching the other man's mind, just tried to keep a light link for a sense of distance. The gap between them was shrinking, and that was reassuring to Kendre. Soon he would be back with his old mentor and friend. Who he hadn't actually been away from after all, since Ceresuequen had been the Deus...
Ceresuequen had been there after all to witness his great defeat, the loss of two of his team members on the planet Iranothe, and his humiliation as the newcomer Axel showed him up and completed the mission, rubbing in the pain and loss of status. Ceresuequen had been the very one that had taken away his command, behind that golden, heartless Deus mask.
Only Doth had really stood by him then, Doth who had been there and survived and understood, and a few others who still believed in him. Nobody would take him on their team for a long time, so he had used his softer skills of negotiation and persuasion to build up his own faction, after all, he had been somebody once. Those who supported him, he had to admit that many of them were there not because of him, but because they didn't want to pledge their allegience to the markets, to Axel, or waste away in the pits, and his organization, though it was little more than a social group, gave them a place to expend their energy as the Deus gave up more and more power to the markets, all but repealing overtly Artea's ban on contact between civilizations at different technology levels.
Knowing now that the Deus had been Ceresuequen all along, Kendre still couldn't understand why the man gave his power freely to the corrupt markets. He knew that Ceresuequen had openly despised Artea, and he had said in their infrequent philosophical discussions that he thought that more advanced civilizations and cultures had a duty to help less advanced peoples, but to leave this "help" to the markets, who made large profits and built shadow empires on less advanced worlds? It wasn't right.
A gentle, clumsy touch on his mind surprised Kendre. He reached out towards it, and found that it was Kahlia. She did not have knowledge of how to represent herself in a mind-form, however, so he just got a vague sense of her aura as she tried to communicate to him.
Come back, she said. Want to talk to you.
What? he replied.
Come back, she said again, with more force behind it this time.
Okay, Kendre sent this time. He let his mind focus back on his body again, settling back in. All of his body was asleep, on pins and needles. He heard Kahlia say something to Axel as his senses returned.
"What?" he said out loud. His voice was slurred, so he cleared his throat and repeated himself. Can't keep going back and forth, he thought, it's not good for me to keep doing this.
"How far?" Axel said. Sighing, Kendre reached for the link he'd kept with Ceresuequen. He could feel the man's aura much more clearly now. There was someone else there too, another power. Kendre focused on the second power. It was the Pearl, he was sure of it, that meant that the blue-tattoed man who carried the Pearl was there with Ceresuequen.
"Close," Kendre said. "The man who bears the Pearl is there with him."
"Sieve's apartment," Axel muttered.
"Do you need more specific information?" Kendre asked.
"No," Axel said. "I know where he is now."
The rest of the ride was made in silence. Kendre watched the buildings go by out the window, constantly checking on his trace of Ceresuequen and peeking at Axel out of the corner of his eyes. Her jaw was clamped tight, except when she shouted at other drivers on the road. The psychic also looked out the window. Kendre was tempted to reach out to her again, but restrained himself in the interest of recharging his power. He doubted the bearer of the Pearl would be happy to see him again, and he did not want to doubt his power if something happened.
In short order they reached a building, a tall, concrete structure with spare lines. Axel ordered them out of the vehicle, glaring at Kendre, and secured it with the swipe of a card in a device on the door, then led them into the building and then into an elevator.
Kendre held his breath, not looking at either Kahlia or Axel, though he could feel the former's gaze flitting between the other two. He checked his trace just to make sure that this was really where Ceresuequen was. It was. When the elevator stopped, he let the link go. Not that he thought that his old mentor had not known about the trace, it was just a matter of politeness.
The doors opened, and closed behind them after they walked out of the lifting chamber. The man who was Ceresuequen, the Deus Avamen, and Axel's father stood waiting in the hall beside an opened door, leaning on the wall and watching them. His form was identical to the imposter that had been on the television: lean and muscular, with dark olive skin, a neatly trimmed beard, and shoulder-length black hair that tied back in a ponytail.
Axel led the three as they walked towards him slowly. Kahlia stayed back behind Kendre, who walked warily, unsure of what Axel would do, and unsure of what he himself would do. Ceresuequen raised an eyebrow as Axel walked forth, stopping an arms-length away from him and looking up at his eyes.
She slapped him hard across his face, but he did not move.
"You bastard," she said.
Kendre and Kahlia looked at each other uncomfortably, and started to back away towards the elevator.
"No," Ceresuequen said, though he did not turn to look at them. "Go in the room. My daughter and I have things that we must discuss."
Kendre motioned for Kahlia to go in first, and she preceded him, glancing back at the father and daughter in the hallway. Kendre did the same as he crossed the threshold, and quickly looked away as he saw the tears in Axel's eyes.
Alex watched Kendre and Kahlia go into Sieve's apartment, biting her
lip and looking away from her father. She tried hard to keep the tears
from welling up in her eyes and falling down her face. She mostly
succeeded, and it seemed like her father ignored the rest. They just
stood looking at each other for a minute, as if neither of them had
seen the other before.
Her father looked just like he had when he had disappeared. No wrinkles creased his face, from either age or laughter, and there wasn't a strand of gray in his hair. When she looked at him, she saw the Deus' golden mask over his face, and the Deus' auburn hair falling around his shoulders from under the black robe. He held himself in the same way in the game and in real life, something Alex herself felt that she had never been able to completely master.
"Come on," he said quietly, motioning for her to go into Sieve's apartment. His voice was different from the Deus, breaking the overlay of the other's features on her father's. Where his voice when he had been Deus had been flat and neutral, now it was as she remembered, rough and deep. He bowed and opened the door wider as she walked in, smiling before grandly closing it after they were both in the door. Kahlia and Kendre were sitting at opposite ends of Sieve's old, beaten-up couch, and Sieve was standing behind them, watching the television.
"Sieve," David said. "Is there a place where we can talk?" The tattooed man looked over at David and Alex, considering them for a minute with an odd expression on his face before snapping out of it.
"Oh? Yeah, you guys can go in the bedroom," he said finally, gesturing at his bedroom. The door was ajar, but it was dark inside. David and Alex picked their way around Sieve's furniture into the small second room, where David closed the door softly behind them.
"Sieve didn't seem worried about Kendre being here," Alex observed, sitting down on the edge of Sieve's bed and not looking at her father.
"Sieve is more than a match for Kendre," David replied, sitting down on the chair at the small desk in the room and facing Alex.
"What do you mean by that?" Alex asked, turning to look at him.
"I know I have a lot to explain," David replied. "Too much, maybe, but I'll try to do my best. Sieve is as good of place to start as any. Sieve..." He cleared his throat. "Let me get my thoughts together for a second."
Alex looked away, glancing around Sieve's room. It was sparse, with the standard apartment white walls and tan carpet, the bed and a small table with a lamp and digital alarm clock beside it, and the small wooden desk and chair that her father sat at.
"When I was sixteen," David began, "I moved out of my parents' house. I didn't get along with them at all then. I found a cheap apartment downtown, cheap enough that I could afford four months just with the money I'd saved up from working odd jobs, mowing grass, moving stuff for people, that sort of thing.
"Anyways, Sieve was my neighbor. His real name's Robert, if you didn't know that, but people call him Sieve. I don't know why. Anyways, he invited me over to dinner that first night I was in my apartment, for which I'm eternally grateful. I didn't have anybody else to turn to.
"We talked a lot. That man had a thousand different hobbies, I swear he was in to anything and everything you could think of. Card tricks, guitar, old movies..." David paused. "Psychic powers. He was sure that stuff like that existed. Myself, I was more skeptic, but it made good discussion. A what-if sort of thing.
"Anyways, he invited me back over for dinner the next night, and of course I came back. I didn't have anything else to do, so I picked up a pizza from a place up the street and went over. After dinner, he brought out a pack of cards, ones with weird shapes on them. He said they were 'telepathy cards'. He told me to shuffle them and draw them one at a time, and he would tell me what symbol was on the one I was looking at.
"We sat facing each other across a small table, and I drew the cards one at a time. He missed about a third of the time to start off right, but he got better as time went on until he was getting them all right by the end. Now, this was strange, but it could have been something perfectly mundane. Card counting, some other trick like markings I couldn't see or wear around the edges of certain cards, something like that. So he had me turn around so he couldn't see a thing, shuffle the cards, and do it again. That time he got all of them right, and the next time after that too.
"This shocked me quite a bit, needless to say. I asked him what the trick was, and he shrugged and said he just knew, but it didn't work if he thought about it. He told me to try it, so I did. Guess how many I got right," David said. Alex shook her head.
"You got all of them too?" she asked. David laughed.
"No, hardly," he said. "I got barely one in five right, if that many. It became obvious to me that psychic powers were not where my talents lie. I tried one more time and did only a little better than I had before. Sieve was kind of embarrassed for some reason, which I thought was odd. He said something like he thought he'd been right about me that I didn't quite hear, but he said it was nothing. Funny the little things that stick in your mind like that. I left for the night, and I was worried a little bit that he wouldn't want anything to do with me since I wasn't psychic, but no, he was fine with it. We occasionally played with the cards, but it wasn't as serious as it had been that first time.
"Anyways, I went to journalism classes in the night time, and worked in the daytime, but we still got together fairly often, talked about life and whatnot. I learned he was an orphan, and that he'd been bounced from foster home to foster home until he'd ended up with a couple of women, Maureen and Rebecca Rivara, when he was about ten. I've met them a couple of times, actually, they're really nice people. That's something for another time, though.
"About six, seven months after I met Sieve, he began to get secretive. If I came over without calling first, he would shout at me. We got into some terrific arguments. Then, one night, we were supposed to have dinner together. I went and bought a pizza, but when I came back to my apartment, he wasn't there waiting. This was out of character for him, so I went over to his place... The door was unlocked, so I went in. I called his name, but there was no answer. I went over to the bedroom, and tried to open the door..." David trailed off, hesitating.
"I tried to open the door, but it was stuck. I banged on it and called his name again, but there was no reply, then I tried opening it again. This time it gave. I opened the door, scared to death I'd find him dead or unconscious, but instead... Instead, I saw him in the center of the room, surrounded by a cone of light. He seemed to fade in to existence like a ghost, and there were blue markings like tattoos all over his skin. The light faded, the blue markings faded, and for a second I thought I'd gone crazy. Everything was normal. We just stood there, staring at each other, in his apartment.
"He tried to explain, or to make an excuse, something. I told him I didn't know, I didn't care, and I didn't want to know. I said I had a pizza, and I would bring it over if he wanted. He said that was fine, so I did, and we ate in silence. After we were done, he tried to explain again, and I told him again what I'd said before. I went back to my room, and laid on my bed for half the night awake, completely unable to sleep. I kept seeing him there, fading into reality in that light, and it wouldn't leave my mind.
"Then I heard a woman's voice start talking to me. I couldn't make out what she was saying at first, so listened harder. I figured that I had fallen asleep, so anything could happen now, based on what had happened earlier, but that was okay. Lucid dreams were one of the things that Sieve and I had talked about months ago, dreams where you know you're awake so you have absolute control of the world around you, supposedly. Neither one of us had ever had one though.
"I looked around, and I was in a white room, just plain white like my apartment. Then the woman who had been talking to me appeared in the room. I don't know how I knew it was her, since she had stopped talking, but I did. I guess I should have been scared, but I wasn't. This was my dream, after all.
"The woman had deep, dark blue skin and dark hair tied back behind her head. Her eyes were pure darkness, not really eyes at all, just black in the sockets with little white lights in them that followed me as I moved. She wore a white dress, and she had a golden crown with a pink pearl in it and white flower petals along the top."
"The Deus Artea," Alex said.
"Exactly her," David replied. "She told me she could make me forget what I had seen if I wanted to. I told her I didn't want to. That's one of those things that's absolutely off limits for me, losing any piece of what I am. I'm a psychological packrat. Artea told me that she could give me power, then. I told her I didn't want it, I just wanted to be left alone, but she knew I was lying. The truth is, I was scared to death, but magical powers were one of those things I had always wanted, in the privacy of my own mind. I read too many stories, I wanted to be a hero, fighting with a sword against evil." Alex chuckled.
"Laugh if you want," David said, "but it's true. Who doesn't want to be special, really? Who doesn't want to be some sort of chosen one? Artea told me that Sieve was already part of what she called 'the Game,' and that's what decided me. It was a chance to fix relations with the only friend I had, a chance to get special powers and really be something. So I got involved with the Game.
"Things went pretty smoothly for a while. In the game, I called myself Jean. No particular reason, I just liked the name. I had a sword, and I was pretty decent with it just making swordplay up as I went along. Sieve called himself Sieve, amazingly enough, and he looked just like normal except for the blue marks all over his skin.
"Our friendship was back to what it had been, too. I took up fencing in real life to help my swordsmanship in the game, and Sieve took up some form of hand to hand fighting that I can never remember the name of. I worked in the mornings, went into the game with Sieve in the afternoon, and took journalism classes in the early evening. He got a job doing prep work at a restaurant called Sampson's in the early evening, and he got off about the time my classes were done, so I just met him there. That's where the problem started."
"Problem?" Alex asked. "What kind of problem?"
"The one that can divide two friends like nothing else," David replied. "Love. At Sampson's, there was a waitress named Susan Grey, a law student working nights to pay her way through school."
"Mom?" Alex asked. "You and Sieve were both in love with Mom?"
"Yes," David said. "I guess you can tell who she chose," he said, smiling. "It didn't happen exactly like that, though."
"You're not going to tell me now that Sieve is actually my father or anything like that, are you?" Alex said.
"No, no, nothing like that," David replied, laughing. "Nothing like that. But both of us liked her very much. She was beautiful and intelligent, she posessed a good deal of common sense, and she had nothing at all to do with psychics or the Game.
"To make things more devastating, she seemed to like both of us or neither of us alternately. We tried all kinds of things to win her over, presents, dates, home-made cooking... Well, Sieve tried home-made cooking, you know how good I am at that. Our friendship deteriorated again, arguments and slammed doors, both in the Game and in real life. If we were smart, at that point we would have let your mother be, but we were both stubborn as hell.
"Then... Then, one night, I was in the game after I got home from dinner with Sieve, working on a particularly difficult situation. I didn't know it then, but Sieve had gone to see Susan. I'm not sure of what happened that night beyond the basic details. He went to see her, and her building was on fire. He... used his powers as an independent to save her life. Artea..." David stopped, unable to continue, staring out the window behind Alex.
"Artea...?" Alex asked.
"Susan told me afterwards, when I found out what happened later that night, that he'd pushed her out of the building, and when she turned back to look at him he was gone. No body was found in the rubble of the building, which collapsed right after she got out. I figured out that he'd used his powers when she told me what had happened. She said the flames froze around her, and time seemed to act strangely, which perfectly describes what happens when an independent uses his or her powers in the real world."
"What happened to Sieve?" Alex asked.
"Artea had teleported him into the Game, against his will. She sealed away his powers, and, in her words, she sealed away his personality with it. It was his punishment for breaking the rules of the game, she told me. Luckily, your mother had a very high threshold for withstanding psychic powers, so she wasn't affected in the least. If she had, I think Sieve would be dead."
"That's not right!" Alex said. "He saved her life!"
"Yes," David said. "I do not think that the saving of a life can be faulted, even if an independent were to cause a psychic to awaken. In my opinion, someone that would refrain from saving a life when it was well within their power to do so is the one that should be punished." Alex blushed, recalling her own rulebreaking use of power to save a boy from being hit by a bus- how long ago was that? It felt like ages.
"I'm proud of you for saving that boy, Alex," David said, as if reading her thoughts. "You did the right thing."
"If you feel that way, then why don't you loosen the absolute ban on use of power outside the game?" Alex asked.
"If I did that, what would people be able to justify as use of power to save a life?" David replied. "Killing others who look at them funny? Using it in duels as 'self defense'? Cheating in other life-threatening situations for who knows what reason? It's a slippery slope there, Alex. That's something to talk about later, or else I'll get distracted and lose my place in what I'm telling you now."
"All right," Alex said. "When did Sieve come back? He's here now."
"So, Sieve disappeared, gone from the world in the Game and in real life. Your mother and I comforted each other over the week that followed Sieve's disappearance, and I stayed out of the Game entirely after Artea told me what she'd done to Sieve. Almost exactly a week after Artea did what she did to him, he reappeared in his bed in his apartment next door."
"What happened in that week?" Alex asked.
"I don't know," David said, "and neither did Sieve. He woke up with the blue marks he'd warn the game on his body like part of his skin. He didn't know where he was, or who he was, so he did what anyone would have done in that situation. He screamed. He screamed his lungs out.
"I went over there to see what was going on, and so did the rest of the building. We found him sitting in the middle of his bed, crying and moaning. He couldn't tell us anything about what happened or where he'd been. We called for an ambulance, and I went to the hospital with him. He didn't recognize me, or Maureen or Rebecca, or Susan. Physically, he was okay, but mentally he was a complete mess.
"The doctors tried all kinds of things to get his memory back, drugs, hypnosis, other things I don't even understand. He began to remember things from childhood, old memories, nothing from the past few years." David let out his breath slowly. "Nothing since he'd been in the game."
"Artea..." Alex said. "Why didn't you fight her somehow?"
"I asked myself that many times," David replied. "The answer was the same every time. She had a god's power, there was no way I could win against her.
"I tried to help Sieve. I tried to help him remember about the Game, and I told him what Artea had told me. He humored me, but I could tell he didn't really believe me. He was like a completely different person, the opposite of who he had been. His mothers and Susan thought it was simply the result of some unspeakable trauma. Only I knew the truth, and I couldn't tell them."