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Pearl of the World

 

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

 

one

 

            Alex found the girl sitting on a hill in the middle of the grassy area of City Park. A sketchbook rested on her knees. She scratched out a few lines with a charcoal stick, then frowned. She squinted at the trees below and rubbed at one of the lines with her fingers. As Alex came closer, she saw there was a sketch of the trees drawn in light pencil on the pad. The girl put the charcoal into a green pencil bag and set the pad down, then rubbed her hands together to get the dust off.

            "Yes?" she said, turning around. Alex jumped, startled.

            "Uh..."

            "Did you want something?"

            "Are you uh... Kahlia?"

            "Yeah. What's up?" Kahlia picked up the sketchbook and flipped it closed, then moved it and the bag to her other side on top of a canvas bag and gestured for Alex to sit beside her on the grass. "Whatever it is, I didn't do it, I'm not buying it, and I'm not joining, just so we're clear on that," she said as Alex sat carefully down on the grass.

            "Oh, nothing like that. I was just wondering if you knew Fiona Skyheart, because..."

            "You want to ask her out on a date? Or she thinks you're psychic?"      

            "What? No, nothing like that, um," Alex stuttered, dumbfounded and mentally cursing at herself. Why was this so difficult?

            "You had better introduce yourself first, you know, then tell me what this is all about. No more interruptions, I promise."

            "Okay. Yes-"

            "Right."

            "My name is Alexandra Bartel, and I'm asking about Fiona because, well... One of my friends has started hanging around her all of the time and I'm kind of worried about him. Since meeting her, his personality seems to have completely flipped, and he won't tell me anything. I've seen you with her before, and I was wondering if you could help me somehow. His name's AJ."

            "Fiona's my cousin. What makes you think that I'd tell you anything, Alexandra?"

            "Nothing, I was just hoping you knew something... What was that you said about psychics earlier?" Alex's face suddenly tightened, concerned.

            "Oh, nothing. Fiona just thinks she's psychic, that's all, and she gets others wrapped up in it sometimes. Probably what's up with your friend. Don't worry, he'll snap out of it soon. Why didn't you go and talk to Fiona herself if you had a problem with her?"

            "Because she would tell AJ, and..."

            "For that matter, how do you know it's her fault? People change all of the time, you know, and sometimes it builds up inside for a while so it seems sudden when it happens." Both were quiet. Dusk had fallen, and people walked the pebbled stone paths below under newly lit electric street lamps. Alex sighed.

            "I don't know what to think. He's been like a little brother to me for years, and he always told me everything. Now he doesn't tell me anything, and he's gotten so quiet. If you knew him... It isn't like him at all. I don't know why I'm telling you this, but I don't know what to do. I'm sorry I bothered you, I had better go... Thank you anyways." Alex prepared to get up, but was stopped by a hand on her arm. She looked down to see if charcoal dust had gotten all over her shirt, thinking that she had just done the laundry yesterday.

            "All we know is but that which we see," said Kahlia.

            "Jorestan," said Alex, automatically.

            "You're into philosophy?"

            "I had to take a few classes in it for critical thinking. It wasn't too hard to get through." Alex sat back down on the grass.

            "Oh? You go to the art college too, then?"

            "Yeah. Graphic Illustration, Popular Media concentration."

            "Comic books major," said Kahlia, smiling.

            "Yeah," Alex blushed and quickly looked at Kahlia to gauge her reaction, but the evening had gotten too dark for Alex to make it out.

            "You free tonight? Want to grab something to eat?"

            "Oh! Sure, I'm free. Where do you want to go?"

            "I'll bow to your suggestion. I don't eat out very often." Kahlia gathered her pencil bag and sketchpad, put them in her canvas bag, then stood up and slung it over her shoulder. Alex stood up next to her.

            "Well," she said, scratching her head, "We could try Sampson's, but it's probably busy at this time of evening. How about the Bluesky?"

            "Isn't that a bar? I've heard it's pretty good but I've never been there."

            "Yeah, but there's booths and tables and stuff too. The bartender there is my roommate's father. The food's pretty good, and plus, it's really cheap," said Alex.

            "Sure, that sounds great then. How far is it?"

            "Not too far. I can drive if you want, or we can take the bus."

            "You have a car?" Kahlia raised her eyebrows. "Don't you live in the dorms with the rest of the students?"

            "Yeah, well, it's actually my stepfather's, but he always takes the bus so he lets me use it. He thought I should know how to drive for some reason. Don't ask me. Driving is fun, but I'll never have a job where I get a car."

            "You could always lease one, you know. The government rates are pretty good if you want to have it for a while. Anyways, let's go ahead and take that. I've only ridden in a car a handful of times."

            "Okay, I'd be glad to. We'll have to take the bus to the commuter garage," Alex said. "Is that okay?" Kahlia nodded, and they walked the now deserted paths until they came to the bus stop. A woman sat on the bench watching a small child play in the grass and smiling, and a solemn-looking man in a dark suit leaned against one corner of the shelter. Kahlia walked up to the wall and looked at a timetable.

            "You got a watch?" Kahlia asked. "The next bus is supposed to be here at five after."

            "It's about five til now, so we've got about ten minutes. So, tell me about your cousin. What's she like?"

            "She's... Well. I guess you could say," she said, looking at Alex, who raised an eyebrow, "she's a real odd cookie." This prompted a laugh from Alex, and the jobman in the suit gave the two a stern look. Alex sighed and down against the shelter, half closing her eyes. Kahlia crossed her arms and leaned back next to Alex. She closed her eyes, and the sounds of a little boy's laughter filtered into her ears. She let herself relax, feeling the tension drain out of her body. The woman was making small talk with the businessman about something or other. She heard Alex breathing deeply next to her and the wind blew her hair across her face, then she felt a weight pressing down on her. She grasped Alex's arm without thinking, and clenched tight, then whispered, "Alex..."

            Alex looked at her for a second in panic and then both of them heard a scream from the young woman. Her child was out in the middle of the street and the bus was headed straight towards him. The little boy froze in shock. Kahlia watched in horror, unable to move. Alex broke free of her grasp and yelled out to the boy, but he didn't move. The bus' brakes screeched loudly, but she had a feeling that it wouldn't be able to stop in time.

            "Don't worry about me," said Alex. "There's someone who won't let me die yet." There was an odd emphasis on the "someone," but before Kahlia had a chance to ask, Alex dashed out in the street, insanely fast even to Kahlia's distorted sense of time, in front of the bus and grabbed the boy. The bus' brakes screeched loudly as it finally came to a stop.

            Alex sat in the other lane of the street holding the boy. He was wailing now, the spell of the shock broken. The mother was first to react. She ran over and picked up the boy in her arms. Kahlia went and knelt down beside Alex. Behind her, people were getting off the bus in a rush to see what had happened.

            "Take care of me," said Alex. "I'll probably be out for a while after this." Her voice was weak but she wore a grin and Kahlia had to smile back.

            "I will," she said before Alex's eyes closed and the crowd of people surrounded them.

 

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two

 

            The room was like a cave. It was dark and the walls were carved out of the rock. They were smooth, but rough enough to allow the veins of different colored minerals to show through. A picture of the earth as seen from space was hung on the wall above a mahogany desk. The desk looked vaguely out of place, and strange shadows played across the papers on it and the padded leather chair as the torches in the wall sconces burned.

            There was someone sitting in the chair. The figure was swathed in black cloth robes and a platinum colored mask covered the face, solid but molded to the shape of a solemn face. Auburn hair fell about the shoulders, but that was the only thing human about it. Still, it managed to speak somehow.

            "Well." The voice was deep, but androgynous.

            "Well," agreed the young woman sitting in the chair opposite the figure.

            "That was very foolish. You could have gotten yourself killed."

            "Yes," agreed the woman. She was also dressed oddly, in a uniform two colors of purple that covered her whole body. There were bands of gold around her neck, at her upper arms and forearms, around her knees and ankles. Golden coins dangled from some of them. She wore a pair of golden gauntlets with large emeralds set on the backs of the hands.

            "I won't bother asking you why you did it. It makes no difference. You try my limits, Axel. Perhaps next time I will not save you."

            "You will." Her voice was certain with a core of steel.

            "Oh? And why should I?"

            "You want to keep me."

            "There are others as good as you. Don't pretend that you are unique."

            "They will burn out," she said, " but I will stay."

            "I should take your team away for this. A leader should be responsible."

            "A leader should be willing to sacrifice herself at any time for those she protects."

            "A leader should stay calm and not react in emotional outbursts."

            "A leader should take charge and lead."

            "A leader," said the figure, "should be mindful of the chaos that would be caused if she should fall."

            "I trust them with my life. They know that. This has nothing to do with my team. Leave them out of it."

            "It has everything to do with them. Just as any action I take has to do with you, all of the other leaders, and all of the other teams."

            "Take no action. I did the right thing, and you know it."

            "A leader should keep in mind the larger picture. Get out of here before I make a decision we both will regret."

            "You're the one who-"

            "Be gone with you now."

            "Yes, Deus." And with that, Axel left the room. The corridor outside the room was much brighter. No one was around, but then, no one would be. The corridors outside of the Deus Avamen's rooms were not exactly a place to hold a social club. As amusing as that might be, Axel thought to herself as she made her way back to her own quarters.

            Here in the residential area, there were significantly more people in all shapes and sizes. It looks rather much like the major space station in a bad science fiction movie, she thought to herself.

            Someone tried to bump against her, but found that their elbow went through Axel's arm as if she were a ghost. The man stumbled and Axel laughed as he muttered curses under his breath.

            "Subtle as ever, eh, Kendre?"

            Kendre turned to face her. He had long, pointed ears and hair that ran in color from golden blonde to red at the tips, with pale skin and delicate features. His outfit was cream and brown with many layers of a thick fabric. Axel didn't know how many knives were hidden in its various folds, but he wasn't called the "archangel of blades" for nothing.

            "And what, may I ask, are you doing here as a ghost, especially when you're on leave?" he asked.

            "Just visiting, of course."

            "Visiting? Hah. Well, enjoy your visit then. I'm just leaving. With this assignment, I'm going to knock you down and out of the entire world." His lips curved in a sneer.

            "You do that, Kendre. Vengeance is good for the soul."

            He made a rude gesture and stalked off. Axel sighed. He still blamed her for his "fall." It had been her good fortune to get into a good team when she arrived, just at the height of Kendre's career. They had successfully completed missions and risen through the ranks, and eventually Axel had been awarded leadership of her own team, which moved up to the second place behind Kendre's team. Kendre botched a mission and lost two of his team members, resulting in his loss of command. Axel's team had taken over the mission, completed it, moved up into first place, and remained there solidly ever since. Though the team Kendre belongs to is on the rise lately, she thought to herself. Well, competition will only do us good.

            Across the wide public hall, Axel spotted a familiar character: a young woman with dirty blonde hair wearing the uniform of the Phoenix Blue, white shirts with a blue phoenix sewn on the front and blue pants with a belt with pouches that held herbs and vials of odd potions.

            "Rithane!" she called out and waved. The girl turned and waved back shyly, and Axel smiled back and continued to her quarters. Looks like she's doing fine, Axel thought to herself. That's good.

            Someone was waiting outside her room, so Axel walked slowly. Not that anyone could hurt her, but she would rather avoid a confrontation with one of Kendre's teammates or anyone else like, or, even worse, an admirer. She relaxed when she saw it was a member of her own team.

            The lizard-man Tobairas stood almost as tall as the doorway. He wasn't exactly a lizard, but Axel didn't know how else to describe him: scaly "plates" covered his body in shades of cool green, with bony horns on his shoulders, elbows, knees, heels, and three on his head like a triceratops, and heavy nail-talons at the end of each finger and toe. He was quite a sight, really, more a dinosaur man than lizard, thought Axel. She was glad he was on her team.

            "Tobai! What brings you here?" she asked.

            "I heard you were in," he said. "And that you were in to see the Deus."

            "True and true," she said. "Word travels fast around here, doesn't it?"

            "It does when it concerns you. So do we have a new assignment?"

            "Nah. Just personal matters, nothing to do with you guys. Why are you still here, anyways?"

            "I've been watching Shot and Hale down at the Pit. They're both quite good, you know."

            "Yeah, they sure are, aren't they. I wish I could come down to watch, but I have things to take care of... back."

            "Oh yeah? Well, when can we expect our next call?"

            "Not for a while yet, I'd suppose. We did pretty well on the last one, so we deserve a bit of rest."

            "Oh. Well, okay. I'll let you go. You know where you can find me if you want me, Axel, and I'll be there."

            "All right. See you, Tobai, and thanks for coming by."

            "I'm just another concerned citizen," he said from down the hall. Axel chuckled then opened the door to her room.

            It stood as she had left it: plain, with rock walls, a table and chairs, a bookshelf, and a bed, leaving a large open space in the middle of the room. There was a large circle carved into the floor, and Axel stepped into this circle now. She bent down and traced it with her finger, then stood upright again and used the index finger of her other hand to trace a circle in the air all the way around herself. The circle around her glowed faintly when she completed it, and she raised her other arm above her head with the index finger extended, then said a single word. Slowly a cone of light formed, drawn like a curtain around her until it was opaque. It began to flatten, and soon it was only a flat plane of light inside the circle on the floor. That too shrank to the center of the circle, and the room was dark and empty.

 

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three

 

            The television was the only light in the apartment. An old black and white drama was on, and Kahlia was trying to force herself to pay attention to it. So far it wasn't working, and her glance kept sliding back to Alex, who lay sleeping on the sofa. It had been nearly two hours now, and she was still sleeping. Kahlia sighed and got up to turn on the lamps on the tables on either side of it. Alex's face looked pale in the light, and not for the first time Kahlia wondered if she should have taken the girl to the hospital. The bus driver had offered, but at last relented and allowed Kahlia to take Alex to the apartment. The young mother had insisted on paying their fare, and showered Kahlia with thanks. When Alex remained asleep at their stop, Kahlia had promised to pass on their thanks and also a card with the woman's name and phone number on it. It was now in Kahlia's pocket, and Alex was still asleep as Kahlia bent over the sofa to brush wayward hair out of Alex's face. She looks like a ghost, like she's not even here at all, Kahlia thought.

            She sat back into her chair. Alex's rescue wasn't the only unsettling thing that had happened earlier. Perhaps even more unsettling was the feeling that had gripped her before the accident. A premonition, Fiona would call it. But had it been some sort of psychic event? Ridiculous. Fiona was the psychic, not Kahlia. Kahlia's so-called "psychic talents" were limited to finishing people's sentences. Correctly. Or understanding what they were talking about immediately when the subject was changed. Even so, these things only happened with people she knew very well, like Fiona. Kahlia didn't believe they were uncommon enough to be considered special powers, but still it made her friends uncomfortable sometimes.

            But this was different, she thought, I should really call Fiona and tell her about this. There was something else she was supposed to ask Fiona about, too, wasn't there? Oh, right, Alex's friend. AJ, wasn't it? Right.

            Something was going on here, but Kahlia wasn't sure what it was. She was somehow reluctant to call Fiona, as if she felt she should talk to Alex first. Alex was a stranger! A stranger with a friend Fiona thought was psychic. And a stranger who had been with her today during the strange events earlier. Those were odd coincidences. Had it really only been two hours? It felt like two weeks.

            Realizing she hadn't eaten all day, Kahlia made her way to the kitchen. Nothing in the cabinets or the fridge looked good, though, and Alex would probably want something to eat when she finally got up anyways. Kahlia grabbed a cup from the cabinet and filled it with water and a couple of ice cubes. She looked out of the doorway into the living room at Alex. She was still asleep. Light from the television screen played across her features. Probably something interesting happening in the movie, Kahlia thought, some explosions or something. The volume was too low for her to hear.

            She went back out into the other room. Alex's color had returned. She would probably be waking up soon, Kahlia thought and settled down into her chair. A few minutes later, Alex groaned and rubbed her eyes.

            "I see you're back," said Kahlia.

            "Where am I?" Alex asked.

            "This is my apartment. I brought you back here after what happened earlier."

            Alex sat up. "Kahlia?" she asked, more awake now.

            "Yeah. You fainted or something after you saved the kid and you've been sleeping ever since. Are you all right?"

            "I have a bad reaction to stress."

            "So I gather."

            "I'm really sorry to impose on you like this."

            "Oh no, it's no trouble. Do you want something to eat or anything?"

            "We could go out and get something. I can still drive us to the Bluesky if you want."

            "Are you sure you should be driving right now?"

            "I'll have to drive back home anyways. My stepfather would have a fit if I left the car in a temp lot overnight, especially since I don't have a night pass there."

            "Oh. Okay. Where did you park it?"

            "I parked in one of the public city lots, the one at Granier and Susan. Do you know it?"

            "Yeah, my apartment here is on Granier. The bus to the school drives right by it. It's only a few blocks west of here. Are you sure you don't just want to take the bus for now?"

            "Are there any running this late? What time is it anyways?"

            "It's about a quarter after eight now."

            "Hmm. We could probably catch a bus there, but I'm not sure they have a bus back. I'd better drive us. Or we could still go somewhere else, if you want. Sampson's would probably be clear at this time of night."

            "The Bluesky is fine. If you want to go, we had better go now, though."

            "Let us go, then."

            "Yes, let's."

            The night was cool, especially for mid-summer, and the sky was covered by a thin layer of clouds. There were few people out walking, and the journey to the parking lot was uneventful.

            At the gate, Alex reached into her pocket and took out her wallet. After digging through it for a few minutes, she retrieved a thin plastic card.

            "Driver's license," she explained. Kahlia watched curiously as Alex slid the card through a reader and the gate opened. "This is what the car is keyed to. It won't start up without it." There were still five or six cars in the lot.

            "So which one's yours?"

            "The white Hally over there." Alex pointed to a small white coupe that looked slightly out of date with a boxy design.

            "Hally?"

            "Hally Fiald is a car manufacturer. Cheap, but efficient. They'll crunch like a tin can if you hit something, but you could probably drive highways for a whole day straight without needing a fuel charge."

            "I see." Kahlia thought that sounded impressive, but she knew nothing about cars. In the city, it was easiest to walk or take the bus, and when going to another city, the trains were the logical way to go.

            Alex walked up to the driver's side door and did something with her license, then gestured Kahlia around to the other side of the car when the interior lights came on. Kahlia got in and then Alex herself got in and pushed a button next to the steering wheel. With a quiet hum, the car's systems came to life, meters lit up and the radio turned on and cool air came out of the vents.

            "This is nice," said Kahlia. "I didn't know these things had this much room inside. I'm not cramped for space at all."

            "You think so? This is pretty small, honestly. Now, some of the luxury cars you can get, those are like whole rooms on wheels."

            "No way, that big?"

            "Yeah. My uncle rents cars out from the station downtown. If you don't what's on the radio, you can put whatever you want on. This rustbucket never keeps my presets anyways."

            "This is fine."

            "I can't even hear it." Alex turned up the radio. A mellow synthesizer solo played throughout the car, panning from left to right while a bass kept the beat. "Oh this is uh... what's their name."

            "This is Ace Over Soul, isn't it?"

            "That's it. My roommate likes them. She's in a band. Oh, feel free to put the windows down too. It is a nice night, after all."

            "Yes it is. It's a very nice night." Kahlia rolled the window down and felt the wind across her face. Yes, it was a very nice night indeed.

 

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four

 

            Sieve Rivara idly polished the hammered copper bartop with a rag, looking out at the room. It was a slow night, and nobody was at the bar. There were a few diners in the booths and one table of five, and that was all except for some kids around the pool tables. The after-work commuter crowd had thinned out as the trains left since a commuter pass only worked for a discount on certain runs. There was no in the Graffiti Room, so there were no partiers up for a bit of relative peace and quiet.

            There was no show downstairs, but he could still hear the muted sound of a guitar coming through the floor. That would be Labelle, he thought. On nights when there was no show downstairs, the place was rented out to various bands as practice space. Rent was cheap, but it came with the condition that if the restaurant upstairs got busy, overflow would be seated downstairs and the band was out.

            Labelle's band got a discount because one of the waitresses, Rose, was her sister. They played the Graffiti Room fairly often and usually drew a modest crowd. It used to be just Labelle on guitars and Maria playing bass, calling themselves "Angel and Halo," but a few months ago Labelle had announced during a show that they were looking for a change, namely drums and keyboards.

            Nobody had been more surprised than Sieve when his adopted daughter, Sundown, had auditioned. She'd had classes in Explo for two semesters and Sieve had bought her a cheap keyboard to practice on. Evidently she had been. She got the job, and it was working out so far. As for the drums, that was still a problem. Sundown thought that the current guy was all right, but Labelle had problems with him, and he was probably destined to be yet another Drummer of the Month.

            Tired of polishing the bartop, Sieve turned to the glasses. He thought he heard the heavy front door close. Liz, who had just taken an order from one of the booths, rushed into the kitchen and yelled "Ally! Customers!" There was a curse and the sound of scrambling about then Ally, the hostess, came out of the back room and went out to greet the customers at the front.

            Sieve picked up one of the glasses and put on his best "buy-something-expensive" smile, polishing the glass slowly and deliberately. The customers, two young women, were still talking with Ally at the front. Sieve squinted and tried to hear what was going on. One of the girls looked familiar: dark skin, long black hair that she kept brushing back as she talked, gray shirt and jeans. She turned- it was Alex, he realized, but he didn't know the other girl.

            Ally escorted the two girls to a booth, handed them menus, then took their drink orders. Sieve's attention remained on the girls' booth until Ally reached the bar.

            "Two root beers," she said, and he nodded. There were mugs in a freezer under the bar.

            "So what's up?" he asked, filling the glasses from a tap in the soda fountain. Sieve couldn't stand root beer, but it wasn't an uncommon order in the Bluesky. The brand they served was some kind of gourmet blend trucked in from Metracoast. Sieve had talked to the trucker, the owner of the business' daughter, a few times. Nice woman.

            "Small talk. The usual, you know."

            "Hmm." He set the two frosted mugs on the bartop down and picked the rag back up. Ally took the mugs without a word and walked off. Some kind of a victory yell came from the area around the pool tables, and his gaze drifted to that direction as he began to polish the bartop again, wiping down the area where he'd set the mugs as he wondered about Ally's behavior. She was usually cheerful. In fact, that was what had scored her the job of evening hostess.

            Maybe she was having a fight with Rose. If he remembered right, Rose had moved out of the apartment she shared with Labelle a few months ago to share a house with Ally and Liz. Sieve didn't think that was a good idea, and he had told Rose so, but she had insisted, saying that Labelle and Maria wanted to live together for band-related purposes. That had been before Sundown started performing with him, he supposed, but time was a funny thing and he was having trouble sorting everything out.

            He didn't notice Alex approaching the bar until she sat on a stool in front of him. His first reaction was to glance quickly at the booth- surely Alex wouldn't have abandoned the girl- but it was empty.

            "No, I didn't leave her alone and she didn't ditch me. She just went to the restroom, that's all."

            "Good evening to you too, Alex."

            "Heh. Ally told me that Sundown's playing downstairs tonight."

            "Yeah, they're down practicing. I was down there on break a little while ago. They sound great."

            "You're biased, but of course they do."

            "So did you want something?"

            "Just checking in."

            "Oh. So who's the girl?"

            "Just somebody I met earlier today. Her name's Kahlia. She took care of me after I passed out when I saved a kid from getting hit by a bus, so I'm taking her to dinner."

            "Is that all?" Alex laughed.

            "Yeah, that pretty much does it."

            "Seriously, though, are you sure you're all right, kid?"

            "I'm fine. Really. Just a bit hungry, I haven't eaten since breakfast."

            "You'd better get back to your booth then. Your date awaits."

            "Thanks, Sieve. You're a real voice of sanity."

            "You're welcome, I think, but entirely mistaken. I am completely maaad, my dear." She laughed again and walked back to the booth. Ally was there now talking to the other girl. Kahlia, Alex had said.

            Saving children from being run over by a bus. Sieve laughed quietly to himself. Only Alex could be so nonchalant about something like that. Ally walked past him into the kitchen with the girls' order, then came back and sat on one of the stools in front of Sieve.

            "Busy night," she said.

            "Not for me, though. At least you're cleaning up in tips."

            "Yeah, I guess there's that. But that doesn't excuse... Oh look, more people." Ally went to the front and seated a family in a booth, then handed out menus and took drink orders.

            "Two Metracola, a chocolate milk, and a spring water, please," she said upon returning to the bar.

            "Spring water?" Sieve raised an eyebrow.

            "From a bottle."

            "Oh." He filled the order efficiently, ice first from the fountain, then the cola, final push to top it off, pull back and let the carbonation pan out, then top it off. "Two Metracola." Another glass, a bottle of spring water- where was it kept, oh right, in with the juices in the fridge, ice into the glass then pour the water over while increasing the angle of the bottle until it was upside down to get the last drop out- there. "One spring water. Lemon?"

            "Don't think so."

            "So what's going on with you today? You're not your usual cheerful self." Chocolate milk- also in the fridge, right. One carton, small glass. "This for a kid?"

            "Yeah."

            "All right then." Pour it again, lifting up and over, and all right, perfect.

            "I don't know what's up with me lately. Just kind of under the weather, I guess."

            "Nothing to do with the other girls then." As if on cue, Liz came out of the kitchen with a tray full of food, heading for a booth on the far side of the restaurant. Ally put her tray on the bar top and Sieve carefully set the drinks on them.

            "No, they're fine. I'm fine too. Thanks for the concern, though." He nodded, but she would not meet his eyes. He watched as she carried the drinks to the booth. Liz walked brusquely by her, ignoring Ally completely.

            Something was going to blow up soon, he thought. Tomorrow was Friday, so all three girls would be working. He resolved to catch Rose on her break and find out what was going on. If he got a free moment, that was. Speaking of free time, he didn't have much before the night got busy, so he went to make sure the bottles were all in their proper places on the back shelf.

 

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five

 

            Alex rubbed her eyes and pushed her hair back out of her face. She took a large drink of root beer, and wished she had gotten water instead.

            "Funny, isn't it?" said Kahlia, who was sitting across from her in the booth. The dark blue of the booth made her skin look dusty and a bit washed out, and she ran her hands over the tabletop. Itís like she doesn't know what to do with them, Alex thought. The table was made of wood stained in a reddish brown, with geometric pattern inlays in a darker shade of the same color and a light, bleached wood. She was always amazed at the amount of work and detail that had gone into them, and every one in the restaurant was different. It must have cost a fortune.

            "Hm?" Alex realized Kahlia had said something and scrambled to remember what it had been. Hearing things without listening was a bad habit of hers. "What's funny?"

            "How you're always more tired when you wake up after sleeping for a while." Kahlia was giving her an odd look.

            "Yeah, it is, isn't it."

            "So what's up with the bartender? I saw you talking to him when I came out. Why does he have all of those tattoos?"

            Alex looked back at Sieve, who was talking to Ally as he filled a drink order. His head was shaved and his skin, all that was visible anyways, was covered with blue ink tattoos that swirled and scrolled in a pattern that was symmetric left to right. The indigo tattoos were faded, but still dark enough to contrast with his tanned skin.

            "I don't know," she said. "I've always taken them for granted I guess. I've known Sieve all my life. He was a friend of my father's, so Sundown and I grew up together. Somehow despite that we're still friends."

            "Hmm. Tell me about your family." Kahlia picked up her own mug of root beer and took a drink, peering at Alex over the glass.

            "Well, when I was about twelve my father disappeared." Kahlia looked shocked, and Alex cursed herself for being so blunt. She was having a hard time thinking straight and she could feel a headache coming on from a combination of the blue neon rimming the ceiling and the strong taste of the root beer.

            "I'm sorry," said Kahlia. Alex managed a smile that she hoped was more reassuring than she thought it was.

            "It's all right. It's in the past now. My mother remarried about four years ago, so now I have a stepfather and a stepsister. They're all right. Sarah's a year younger than I am. She's starting her second year in the drawing program at the art college this fall. You might know her. Sarah Blake?"

            "I think I've seen her around in the classrooms. Blonde hair, average height, glasses, right?"

            "That's her, yeah. Her stuff any good? She never lets me see any of it."

            "I haven't seen much of it. I think she's in the Portrait program. You know, I think we had a class together last year."

            "Oh yeah? Which one?"

            "Thursday morning Basic Portrait."

            "With what's his face? Keltzas?"

            "Yeah."

            "Oh yeah, that's right! You did that picture of the woman under the tree, right?"

            "Yeah, that's right. I didn't like it at all, honestly. I put way too much effort into that."

            "Oh, it wasn't bad at all. I got a horrible grade on my picture."

            "No way! Really? The one of the person in the cape turning around? I saw it at the class art fair on the last day."

            "Yeah, Keltzas said that it was 'too stylized' and that the proportions were 'way off' and 'plus, you can't even see part of the legs'!" Alex mimicked the teacher's exaggerated hand motions, throwing up her hands in mock distress. Kahlia dissolved in fit of laughter.

            "That's Keltzas, all right. I have him this fall for another class. I think he liked me for some reason."

            "It's all because you sat by his desk in the classroom."

            "I didn't choose that seat, he assigned it!"

            "Hah, still! Oh, here comes the appetizer." Alex moved her cup to make room in the center of the table and Kahlia did the same.

            "Here you go, girls," said Ally as she slid the appetizer plate off of the tray with a practiced motion. "Watch out, the plate's still hot." Alex mumbled thanks as Ally walked away. In the center of the plate were four different types of dipping sauces, and arranged around them were four different types of breadsticks.

            "These look really good," said Kahlia.

            "Yeah. Let's see. These here are just plain bread, then these are pepper, and these are herb. The best ones are these here, they have a harder crust like pretzels but a soft inside."

            "Okay," said Kahlia. "I'll try one of the plain ones first. What about the sauces?"

            "I don't know, I never use them." Alex picked up a pretzel bread and tore off a piece.

            "Well, okay." She took a bite of the bread. "Wow, these are really good."

            "So, it's your turn."

            "Hmm?" Kahlia asked with her mouth full of food.

            "Tell me about your family."

            "Oh." She swallowed and took a drink of root beer, then made a face. "These don't go very well with root beer, do they?"

            Alex shook her head.

            "Well, my family. You already know Fiona, I guess. Fiona is my only cousin, from my uncle on my mother's side. I also have an aunt who's my mother's sister, but she doesn't have any kids, and my father is an only child. I have a sister, Rachel, who's five years older than I am. She works for the government in some kind of information technology thing where she oversees a bunch of people on computers, I think. My mother works from home and sells jewelry she makes to shops around town and my father works for the library."

            "Interesting," said Alex. "I used to go to the library quite a lot. Is he a librarian?"

            "No, he works at the headquarters and oversees a lot of little things."

            "Oh. Here comes the pizza." Alex cleared space on the table and moved the bread plate back against the wall.

            "That was quick," Kahlia said as Ally laid the pan on the table. The square pizza had a paper-thin crust just thick enough to hold the ingredients without breaking. It was covered with bubbly white cheese from crust to crust. Bright red sauce showed through in several places. Slices were also cut in squares instead of the usual wedge.

            "You guys need anything else?" asked Ally.

            "Yeah, can you bring me a glass of ice water please?" said Alex.

            "Sure. Do you need more root beer?" she asked Kahlia.

            "No, thanks, I'm fine."

            "Okay, I'll be right back then." Ally walked off towards the bar. Alex watched her go.

            "This looks good. I've never had crust this thin before, it's usually thick and chewy."

            "Yeah, but this is the best type of pizza. Sieve told me that the chef brought the recipe with him from some place he worked in Metracoast. It's really good." Kahlia picked up a piece from one of the corners and took a bite.

            "Mmm."

            "It's pretty good tonight." Ally returned with the water and set the glass on the table. Alex thanked her and she smiled and left again. Kahlia was enjoying another piece of pizza, and Alex took one for her own plate.

            Kahlia was more relaxed now, too. Alex wondered at how the strangeness of the whole situation with the bus was lost on her. Perhaps she was used to having women faint around her and taking them to her apartment? She's probably some kind of a serial killer, Alex thought. Wouldn't that be just my luck?

            Alex felt lucky that Kahlia hadn't freaked out over her "bad reaction to stress." It appeared that her mind had been occupied by something else. Come to think of it, something bothered Alex about the incident earlier, but she couldn't pin it down at the moment. Best to focus on the present in the present, and right now the present was finishing off the pizza.

 

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six

 

            Dingy mirrors covered the whole back wall. The silver had worn off over the years, or maybe it was from smoke and grease or something else entirely. Sundown had no idea what made them like that, but it was still rather unnerving watching a dim shadow of herself in the wall as she tried to focus. The reflection of the red neon that circled the ceiling on the other walls blurred and shivered angrily in the mirror to Sundown's dizzy mind.

            The Graffiti room was aptly named. The walls were completely covered in writing in rainbow colored paint, permanent marker, pen, crayon, and probably several unidentifiable materials.

            She yawned. It had been a long night so far, and not that great of one either. Right now there was a break in the practice, so she was taking the opportunity to rest and reflect on the night. More accurately, to drowse while sitting on the floor next to her keyboard stand, leaning against the wall. Labelle and Maria were sitting at one of the high tables against the mirror wall. The drummer- Ken, Kevin, something like that- was fine-tuning something on his kit with a screwdriver.

            The stage was covered with equipment and cases. It was raised slightly above the floor. The middle of the room was open, but there were some round tables around the perimeter, high tables with two or three stools along the back wall, and booths lining each side wall. Unlike the smooth walls of the upstairs restaurant, the walls downstairs were made of large bricks or cinderblocks. The stairs were behind a wall to the left of the stage.

            Sundown checked her watch- it was getting close to the busy time of night, the second evening rush as the shows at the theater up the street let out. Many people opted to walk down to the restaurant instead of waiting and fighting to get a seat on the nine fifteen bus. Thursday night was the cheap show, so a decent crowd was guaranteed. That meant that the nine forty-five bus was pretty much out of the question.

            She could take the ten fifteen bus tonight. It was always a hassle to lug her keyboard onto the bus, but on a normal night only a few people rode the ten fifteen. Maria and Labelle had offered her rides in their station wagon back to the apartment she shared with Alex, but they lived in the opposite direction across the city, so she hated to trouble them. Ken- it was Ken, she remembered- drove a small hatchback car with only two seats. There was probably no room for her there with all of his drum gear.

            Sundown wished that she knew how to drive. She would have to get Alex to teach her. Maybe she could call Alex and get a ride, but Alex had said she was going out tonight so that wouldn't work either.

            "What's up? You look very thoughtful." Sundown looked up and into the face of Ken. Shaggy red hair in a layered cut rimmed a pale face with deep-set brown eyes.

            "Oh, not much. Just contemplating public transportation." She tried to smile, slightly uncomfortable. Labelle didn't like Ken, so Sundown was wary of being too friendly- this band was her one chance, her big chance. She didn't know any other musicians well enough that she had the courage to ask to play with them.

            "Heh. Taking your gear on the bus sure is a bitch, isn't it?"

            "Yeah." She didn't make eye contact as she stood up.

            "You know, I could give you a ride..." he drawled. She couldn't place his accent. He had said he was from Metracoast City, but Sundown had never been there or known anyone from the largest city in the country.

            "No. No thanks." Her eyes darted to Labelle and Maria. Ken's gaze also drifted to the two, who were still sitting at the table talking, and an odd smile came to his face.

            "Sundown, can I ask you something?" He placed his hand on her shoulder, leaving her little choice but to turn her attention to him. She reached up to remove his hand, but he let it drift off and fall back to his side.

            "What?"

            "You don't like me either, do you? Tell me, is it my personality or my playing?" He was standing too close. Sundown took a step back, her heart beating fast now, too fast, and her face flushing. She wanted out of there now.

            "Is there a problem here?" Labelle had come up next to them, looking very imposing at the moment with her bluish eye shadow, rouged cheeks, and dark lipstick. Maria stood behind her. Sundown shot them a very thankful glance.

            "No, ma'am." Ken turned and headed towards his drum kit, which was set up on the opposite side of the stage. Labelle hesitated, looked at Sundown, and then followed him.

            "Are you all right?" Maria asked Sundown.

            "Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine."

            "Labelle was going to tell him not to come back anyway. His playing isn't very flexible. It's like he had a month of lessons when he was six, but he thinks he's the god of drums, you know what I mean." Sundown nodded, but she wasn't really listening.

            Labelle stood in front of Ken, blocking Sundown's view of him. How could I be so weak, she thought. How could I misjudge him so much? I thought he was a nice guy. I should have known better. I should have told him off instead of freezing up. Nothing like this has ever happened to me- what am I doing here? What am I doing in a band? This isn't the place for me. What would I have done if Labelle hadn't come up? Even worse, what would he have-

            "Sundown? Are you really okay?" Maria's voice was more urgent now. Sundown discovered she was breathing heavily and tried to calm herself down.

            "I'm... I'm fine, Maria, really," she replied, laughing weakly.

            "Do you want to come over to our place for a little while? You look like you're pretty shaken up. I'm worried about you going on the bus alone. At least let us give you a ride."

            "No, I don't want Sieve and Alex to worry."

            "Let's go upstairs and sit for a little while. Your bus won't be here for another twenty minutes or so, will it?"

            "No, not for about forty five minutes, actually. I usually take the ten fifteen to avoid all of the people."

            "Oh. Well, in that case we can definitely stay with you for a little while, right, Labelle?" she asked as Labelle returned to join them.

            "What? Oh, sure. You guys want to get something to eat? We'd better get the gear moved into the car first, though, I don't trust leaving it down here alone." Sundown shifted position to get a better view of Ken, who was packing up his drums. "You don't need to worry about that bastard any more," Labelle continued. "I told him off good for you. Anybody makes you uncomfortable like that again, next time you call me over sooner, okay?" Sundown nodded, biting her lip.

            "Why don't you go upstairs and see if Sieve'll let you put your stuff in a back room or something? Labelle and I'll get the rest of ours packed up so we can take it to our car," Maria suggested.

            "Sure," Sundown replied. Grateful for a chance to get out of the room, she hurried upstairs. Sieve was serving a customer at the bar, but she caught his attention and he walked over to an empty area to talk to her.

            "What's up?"

            "We don't have a drummer any more." Sieve exaggerated a sigh, and Sundown continued, "But the rest of us were going to come up and get something to eat. Do you have anywhere safe I can put my keyboard? I don't really want to leave it downstairs when I'm not down there."

            "Alex might let you put it in her car. She's over there eating with a friend. I think they're waiting for the check."

            "Oh, really? Well. Do you think it's all right to interrupt her?"

            "Yeah, I don't think she'll mind. She said the girl was just an acquaintance, Callie or something. I've never seen her before."

            "Okay, thanks." Sundown walked over to the booth Sieve had pointed out. Alex was sitting across from a young woman with long black hair.

            "Hey, Sundown. How's practice going? Oh, right, Sundown, this is Kahlia. Kahlia, Sundown, my roommate."

            "Pleased to meet you," said Kahlia. Sundown shook Kahlia's hand and nodded.

            "Did you drive here, Alex?"

            "Yeah, why? You need a ride home?"

            "Nah, I was just wondering if I could put my keyboard in your car while I get something to eat with Labelle and Maria. They'll bring me home, but I don't want to leave my keyboard downstairs while I'm eating."

            "That's fine. I'm just in the lot around the corner and we were just leaving. All you have is the one case, right?"

            "Well, I have the stand too, but that fits in the case. It's not too hard to carry."

            "Okay. I'll be your roadie, but just this once."

            "I owe you so much."

            "You sure do. Go downstairs and get it, we'll be waiting."

            "Sure, I'll be right back." Suddenly in a good mood again, Sundown felt like whistling as she headed back downstairs.

 

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seven

 

            "What are you doing to me, Deus? My team is impatient. We have had enough of vacation. Do you know how fast we're falling in the rankings? If this is about-"

            "This is about giving other teams a chance, Axel. Are you so ready to destroy another world?" The Deus leaned forward over the desk. Axel stood quietly.

            "You are my employer. Your hands are as stained as mine, more so because you are an immortal killer of immortals."

            "Harsh words. But alas, my hands are clean as are yours. The immortals come to me seeking peace. They seek absolution, a cleaning, and an end. They do not truly die."

            "How can that be? I have seen the light of death!"

            "With the destruction of the Pearl of the World, the soul of an immortal is erased, broken. The dream is over, and life on the world on the mortal plane, life that is part of the Deus and controlled by the Pearl, is ended. But in time, the dream will begin again, as the scattered dust that was the Pearl re-gathers. Life will return." Deus' hands spread over the desk. "Or the dream does not end, but merely changes. If a mortal consumed the Pearl and became immortal..."

            "What do you tempt me with, Deus?" Axel whispered softly. "I want none of immortality! I have seen aged worlds, decadent worlds, decaying worlds. I have been to worlds where wild shadows chased and consumed each other, and I have seen enough."

            "Would you think the same if... Never mind."

            "Deus?" Deus sighed, mask still placed in an impassive expression.

            "Life that is lifted beyond its mortal realm can survive a world like a great painting can outlive its painter. This is how you are here, lifted from your own world, and how you can travel between the worlds. Tobairas of your own team has survived the destruction of his world. Axel, you have ever been the best. I will tell you something now that perhaps I should not, but I have wanted to for a long time. Axel, the world you belong to is mine."

            "What? I- I came from you?" Axel lifted a hand to her head as if to confirm her reality.

            "Some of the best players have... for instance, your father."

            "My father!" Alex bolted out of her chair. "What do you know about my father?"

            "Now do you understand what it is you do?" Deus continued, ignoring her. "You kill other life that is your equal, but still you do that for me."

            "Why are you telling me all of this?"

            "I wanted you to know. I hope you can forgive me, Axel."

            "Forgive you? What? Deus! Tell me what is going on!" Axel banged her hands on the desk in frustration, and the mask-face of Deus looked up to her. Abruptly, she found herself in the hallway. An impassable invisible barrier barred the way back to Deusí room. I have to find my team, she thought. I have to tell them what Deus told me. Maybe they can make some sense of this- well, at least Tobai would. But where would they be? Would they even be in? Probably not, after all she had come to see Deus now because they wouldn't be in.

            She decided to head for Tobairas' quarters first. They were in a branch just off of her own. And about three rooms down from Kendre's, she thought with a grimace. Now that's someone I would like to avoid at all costs right now. Though he might be a perfect target for my frustration... The thought made her smile. She arrived at Tobai's room. A blue wooden door was set into the wall.

            Oh man, what am I going to say to him? The worry came suddenly to her mind as she reached for the doorknob, and she pulled her hand back. 'Hey there, Tobai, Deus just informed me that your world was destroyed, want to come over to mine for a little bit?' Bad idea. She turned to go and think about it, but the door opened. Tobai stood in the doorway.

            "Axel? What are you doing here? Come on in." Axel did so. His room was cozier than hers, with two overstuffed chairs, a bookshelf and desk, and a fireplace in addition to the the usual bare rock walls.

            "Oh, Tobai... I just had a talk with Deus." He nodded grimly and motioned her to a chair. She sat and watched him start a fire in the fireplace, taking the chance to relax. She closed her eyes and leaned back in the chair, breathing out slowly, like a sigh. She could feel Tobai's gaze on her, waiting for her to continue, and for a minute she considered just letting go into sleep and allowing her subconscious to sort it all out, but instead she forced herself to sit up.

            "Tobai, Deus told me that... when we destroy the Pearl of a world, we do not destroy life on that world."

            "What? He lies, Axel. I was from a world-" he broke off, hurt and uncertain, and looked at her. She nodded.

            "Deus told me what happened to you. To your world, I mean."

            "Yes. I saw them die, Axel. How could he say such a thing that life does not end with the soul of its world's immortal? Before he told us that a planet's Deus is the root of that planet's life, and the Pearl of the world is the core that everything is connected to, right?"

            "'And therefore, should an immortal seek death, the only way for that death to come is through destruction of the Pearl. That is where we come in.' Yes, I've heard it all before. I still don't understand how it's possible, Tobai." She paused, head bowed, considering and trying to remember the conversation exactly. "Deus said something else too. I can't remember the exact wording, but it was something about the scattered dust of the Pearl... coming together again. Then life will return."

            "Of course!" Tobai's expression brightened. "We can't destroy the Pearl, we just crush it into powder. Everything is disconnected and torn apart, but not destroyed- remember that matter cannot be created or destroyed?"

            "Yes, that's right. So if the Pearl re-forms, then life will be able to start again. That means that we can't actually kill the Deus, we just- reset them somehow, then."

            "Yeah."

            "Which means that your world will return eventually."

            "Not the same, though. There are practically an infinite number of paths that evolution can take, Axel, and it's no instant process." A shadow had come across his face.

            "Yeah, I guess so. All of this, though, Tobai... Why do you think that a planet's life is destroyed when we crush the Pearl, then, if the Pearl is only scattered?"

            "I think it's the shock, somehow it rips everything apart. The Pearl is usually contained within a living thing, remember?"

            "That's true." Axel closed her eyes for a second and concentrated. "Oh, Tobai, I have to get back. We should discuss this more later when I return. I still have a lot more to tell you." She stood up. Tobairas did the same, and walked her to the door.

            "I was glad to see you today, Axel. You must make more unexpected visits if they will all be this interesting." He grinned roguishly, showing many teeth, and Axel felt herself blush slightly.

            "That I should, Tobai. Thank you for having me."

            "Of course." He nodded and she turned and walked down the dark corridor, looking back once to see him wave and then go inside, the blue door closing behind him. She continued on, smiling until she saw the man coming towards her in the corridor: Kendre.

            "Axel! Visiting again?" he asked in a sweet, singsong voice.

            "Go away, Kendre. I'm not in the mood." She tried to shove past him, but he blocked the way. The hall was empty except for the two of them since Tobai had gone back inside, but Axel was well able to take care of Kendre if need be.

            "That's Team Leader Kendre to you." Axel stared at him, unable to hide her surprise.

            "What?"

            "That's right, I've been reinstated. In fact, I have a solo mission right now." A solo mission? I've only heard of a few of those in all the time I've been here, thought Axel. Kendre pushed her to the wall, whispering in her ear, "And I'm not supposed to tell you this, but I just found out myself when Ireo was... deposed and I can't help but spread the news." She stopped struggling, curiosity getting the better of her. Kendre met her eyes with a cold smile and then pressed closer to her face, touching her momentarily and pulling back. Axel's skin crawled, and in a voice so soft she could barely hear it, he spoke again: "I am to kill the Deus. I know where the Pearl is. And I will be the successor." Axel pushed him off, and there was a minute that seemed to her to be suspended in time: she, on one side of the corridor, staring at Kendre on the other, who waited for a reaction.

            In that time, a thousand options crossed her mind: kill him now, confront Deus, run back to Tobai, run away, she had to get back and it was already late- time started again, but Axel was already running wildly down the corridor to her own quarters, pushing through people who got in her way as if they were nothing. They stared after her, muttering, and Kendre's laugh echoed loudly, magnified by the acoustics.

            Mere moments later, Alexandra Bartel awoke in her bed, breathing heavily. Her heart felt as if it were about to burst out of her chest. She forced herself calm, putting aside Kendre, Deus, and everything else that had happened, then got out of bed to get dressed.

 

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eight

 

            A shining orb in a cage of indigo lines: the image came to Kahlia as she woke up. In the haze between sleep and waking, the vision had an odd intensity to it. Pearlescent colors rolled over the sphere in waves: blues, greens, browns, whites. Kahlia realized that this was her world and it was beautiful, not at all like the pictures seen from space, but the indigo lines confused her.

            The dream faded, but did not leave as Kahlia woke up. That's it, she thought. I have to call Fiona today. This is just getting too weird for me to handle on my own. She got out of bed and went over to her closet, choosing a loose black shirt with a keyhole neckline and flared, three-quarter length sleeves to go with some faded-looking blue jeans.

            Not bad, she thought, but I'll probably have to run and do the laundry later. That means a trip to the laundromat down the street- I'd better find a paperback to take with me. If I go late, it won't be that busy. Nobody wants to do laundry on Friday night, after all.

            She went out into the living room area of her apartment and headed for the phone, which was mounted on the wall that divided the area from her kitchen space. I should really look into getting one of those new digital cordless models, she thought. It sure would be a lot more convenient.

            She dialed Fiona's phone number, considering what to say as the phone rang on the other end of the line. Since she's psychic, you'd think she'd be at the phone before I call! Kahlia thought. She's probably been putting me on all these years. Finally, Fiona picked up on the other end of the line.

            "Hello?" Fiona's voice always sounded flat on the phone, so Kahlia was never quite sure she had the right number.

            "Hey, Fiona?" There was an answering "yeah" from the other end of the line, muffled as if Fiona was distracted or busy doing something. "This is Kahlia."

            "Oh, Kahlia? Hey, what's up?"

            "Nothing much. Well, a lot, actually. Let's just say I have need of the family psychic's advice. How about coming over for lunch?"

            "Sure, that sounds good. Is eleven fifteen okay? I know it's kind of early, but the next Friday bus over to your place doesn't leave until one."

            "Eleven fifteen is fine for me."

            "Cool, all right. See you then. Bye."

            "Goodbye." Kahlia hung the phone back on the wall. Well, that had been easy enough. There was some bread in the freezer that she had made last week, dark pumpernickel. She could re-heat that, then put some of her ricotta spread- ricotta cheese mixed with crushed walnuts and sesame salt- on, grill it, and put a few leaves of spinach on it. Yes, that would be good. She should still have some ricotta spread in the fridge.

            She opened the refrigerator door to make sure, and there was some there, so she closed it again and turned to the oven. She set it to preheat so that she would have plenty of time for the bread to warm up gain. The digital clock on the oven said it was already ten thirty, so she wouldn't have much time. Good thing most of the ingredients she needed were already put together.

            Kahlia turned on the radio that was sitting on the counter- cooking was always more enjoyable with good music playing. The same held true for cleaning and most other activities, at least for Kahlia. The oven's preheating alarm beeped, so she got the bread out of the freezer and sat it on the counter next to the refrigerator. Humming to herself, she got a pan from the cupboard and retrieved the oven mitt from a drawer by the oven. She unwrapped the aluminum foil around the bread and checked the loaf for any sign of freezer burn. There was none, so she put it in the pan, set the oven timer for a few minutes, and placed the pan in the oven.

            There now, what to go with it was the problem, she thought. An idea dawned on her: fruit salad. If she had enough fruit left... She went back to the refrigerator yet again and opened the fruit drawer. Jackpot- a few ripe peaches, a small bag of cherries, and two pears. That should go well enough together if she diced it up, poured a little honey over it and sprinkled a bit of wheat germ on top for a little crunch like her mother had always done.

            She wondered how her mother was doing. It had been a few days since they had talked, and Kahlia felt a little guilty as she prepared the fruit. Maybe she should call her mother and invite her over for lunch sometime next week. Kahlia laughed at herself- what did it say about her that she had to lure her family into her apartment with food?

            The timer for the oven went off. Kahlia pressed the button to stop it, then searched through the drawer for the cooling rack. She found it and set it on the counter, then used the oven mitt to remove the hot pan from the oven. The whole apartment smelled like fresh bread now. Kahlia inhaled deeply- it was perfect. Now if only it would last until Fiona arrived- oh! What time was it, anyways?

            Kahlia wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. It was only five till eleven now, and Fiona should arrive any minute. She was always early. Kahlia used a bread knife to cut medium-sized slices of bread for the sandwiches.

            The ricotta spread was still in the fridge, so she got it out and used a butter knife to spread a thick layer on the bread. I don't really need to grill this after all, she thought, besides I'm running too close on time and I need that fruit salad done fast. She grabbed some spinach from the fridge, put a few leaves on each sandwich, then set both sandwiches aside on blue ceramic plates.

            By the time the fruit salad was finished, it was ten after eleven o' clock. The bus must have run late, she thought. Or, maybe Fiona is waiting until she's actually on time for once, but that's not likely.

            However, at eleven fifteen exactly, there was a knock on the door. Kahlia switched off the radio, placed the blue plates with sandwiches and fruit salad on the small dining room table, next to the two glasses of water she had already set there, then went to answer the door.

            "Coming," she yelled as a second knock came. She opened the door. Fiona stood outside, and Kahlia beckoned her in and to the table.

            "Lunch is served," she said.

            "Looks good," replied Fiona, pulling out a chair and sitting down. "So what's going on?" she asked. Fiona never had been one for pleasantries when there was something she wanted to know, Kahlia mused.

            "Let me explain," she said. Kahlia went through the incident at the bus stop the day before, her evening with Alex, and the strange vision she'd had that morning. Fiona appeared to be deep in thought as she listened.

            "It sounds like this Alex is what's called an 'independent'," she finally said.

            "An independent? What's that?" Kahlia took a bite of the sandwich. It was as good as she had expected.

            "An independent is... someone with no attachment to this world." Fiona looked very serious. Kahlia laughed nervously.

            "So she's a ghost?"

            "No, not exactly. Bound up with the world we see and experience every day is a layer of 'causes.' These causes are strong thoughts and emotions that govern our world."

            "I see. So what does this have to do with Alex? When you say she has no attachment to this world, then you mean that these causes don't affect her?"

            "Well, sort of. It's more like independents are aware of the causes in some fundamental way."

            "Hmm." Kahlia frowned, toying with her fruit salad.

            "Independents have the power to escape these causes completely, but usually play by our rules of reality, so to speak. However, even normal people can trigger changes in the causes, or see glimpses of them- inspiration, enlightenment, deja vu, whatever they call it it's the same thing." Fiona paused to take a drink of water.

            "So where do psychics come in?"

            "I was getting to that. Psychics run the spectrum in abilities from 'normal' to 'independent', but there are basically two classes- active and passive. Active psychics are closer to the independents, because they can make changes to the cause and control their abilities. Things like telekinesis, fire starting, those are active talents. Passive psychics are closer to normal people, because they know about the cause but can't really control their abilities beyond knowing what triggers them. Clairvoyance, empathy, ESP, and precognition are passive."

            Kahlia sat silently, trying to process all of the information. "So I'm a passive, then," she said.

            "Right. That's another thing about independents."

            "What?"

            "They trigger passive psychic activity in those around them. Alex probably acted like a catalyst to you, releasing your power. It would probably be best if you could stay away from her now, until you've gotten used to this at least."

            "You mean it won't stop?"

            "No, it's not likely. You don't have to worry; this is perfectly normal and healthy. You'll probably learn a lot about yourself, other people, and the way the world works, very soon. I'll be here if you need anything, but it's really something you have to make peace with yourself."

            "Okay. I guess that means you've got to leave now, doesn't it?" Kahlia stood, taking Fiona's empty plate and putting it and her own plate in the sink.

            "Yeah. I'm sorry, Kahlia, but I have to run. Forgive me. Lunch was wonderful." She clasped Kahlia's hands and looked into her eyes. "I'm here if you need me, cousin, don't forget that. But do stay away from that Alex, please, at least until I have more time to teach you meditation and focus techniques." Inwardly, Kahlia grimaced. She had a feeling that her vision this morning had something to do with Alex, but Fiona was set on not letting Kahlia near her. Kahlia hated being told something was for her own good, but this was something she didn't really understand, so it was probably for the best, she thought with a sigh. Oh, right, Alex had wanted her to ask Fiona something, hadn't she? That's right, her friend AJ.

            "Fiona... There's just one more thing. Alex's friend, AJ, the one she wanted me to ask you about. What's the deal with him?" Fiona paused in front of Kahlia's door.

            "AJ? He's an independent, actually. I haven't talked to him a whole lot, but I have some. Just about what I've told you, mainly."

            "Oh, okay. I guess I'll let you go, then. Take care, Fiona."

            "You too." With that, she was out the door. Kahlia sighed. The dishes waited for her in the kitchen, but she did not feel like doing them. She decided to get her laundry together instead, because it was productive and because she could stretch it out as long as she could.

            In her bedroom, she separated the laundry into pants and shirts, then began going through pockets. In the pocket of a pair of jeans was a business card. Kahlia took it out and looked at it- it was the contact card from the woman whose child Alex had saved the other day.

            This meant she had a legitimate excuse to see Alex again, now, didn't it. Kahlia smiled and put the card into the pocket of the jeans she was wearing.

 

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nine

 

            Sieve stood behind the bar, polishing a glass. It was close to two o' clock now, and the dregs of the lunch crowd were filtering out of the Bluesky to meet the two fifteen bus.

            Rose would likely be taking her break soon. Sieve hadn't had a chance to talk to her when she'd arrived that morning. Ally wouldn't come in until later today, when she'd work to cover the dinner shift. Rose and Liz were getting along all right, so evidently the problem wasn't between them.

            What a joke, Sieve thought. So this is what I've been reduced to, worrying about a conflict between three teenaged waitresses? He sighed. I feel like I'm in a soap opera, he thought. Give me some time and the evil twins'll start showing up. Watch me die and come back to life two months later played by a different actor, and nobody notices beyond the obligatory shock of seeing me again. If I was dead, the least I could expect was a little plastic surgery, right? Damn, there I go getting morbid again, Sundown would be yelling at me.

            She'd left late last night with Labelle and Maria. He was glad to see her going out with them on a regular basis. Not that she'd been friendless before, of course, but she usually waited for others to call her instead of taking the initiative, and so she'd usually ended up out in the cold.

            He looked up to see Rose heading to the bar. She sat down and wiped her forehead with the back of her hand.

            "What'll it be, madam?" Sieve asked in as grand of voice as he could manage with a straight face.

            "Whew... Something cold, preferably a tall glass of it. Water?"

            "Sure thing." He reached for a glass, lifted it up to show her then tilted it at an angle, using his other hand to shovel a few ice cubes into it, then he took the glass down again, careful not to spill, and under the spout for the water tap. He pushed the tab on the top back with the palm of his free hand, watched as it filled up, and brought it up to the level of the counter.

            "I don't know how you do that," she said. As he set it down, some of the water sloshed over the edge and splashed on the counter. Rose laughed, and Sieve made an exaggerated show of disappointment. "Better luck next time," Rose said.

            "Yeah, I guess so." He watched as she took a long drink. "So what's up with Liz and Ally?" Rose peered at him over the rim of the glass, and then set it down.

            "Oh, nothing much."

            "Nothing much? Liz was completely ignoring her last night, and that's not nothing much." Rose sighed.

            "Well, it's like this. You know that guy that's in Angel now, the drummer?"

            "That red-haired kid? Sundown told me they dumped him after last night."

            "Yeah. Before that, Ally said she saw him hanging around here. A lot, she said, and it was giving her a real bad feeling. Liz had had a bad day when Ally brought it up, so Liz chewed Ally out for paying attention to that instead of work. So then Ally got all defensive, Liz walked out and went to cool down and didn't get back till late. Then yesterday they had to work together. Me, I tried to stay out of it, you know. Talked to Ally a little bit after Liz went out, but she wouldn't talk back so I gave up pretty quick." Rose threw her hands up in the air in a 'what could I do?' gesture.

            "I see. If she's worried about the kid hanging around, why doesn't she tell Gavin?"

            "Well, what would our lovely restaurant manager be able to do about it?"

            "He could chase the kid off. If it's distracting Ally from her work..." Sieve trailed off. "Yeah, I see what you mean. That's not very typical Gavin, is it." Rose shook her head 'no.'

            "So I don't know what to do," she said. "It'll probably blow over soon, knowing those two. Just don't worry about it, but if you see that kid hanging around why don't you chase him off for us?"

            "Sure. I'm not really too keen on having him around. Maria came up and told me last night that he'd been trying to get rough with Sundown but Labelle stepped in and... talked to him, whatever that means." Sieve grimaced.

            "Heh. Belle's just like that, though. You don't have to worry about Sundown, trust me."

            "If you say so, Rose. Anyways..." Sieve trailed off.

            "She is my sister, I should know." Sieve peered around her, and Rose turned to follow his gaze. She let out a low whistle. "To speak of a demon..."

            "Looks like he's heading straight for us. Rose, I think your break's over. Why don't you go find Gavin in case we need him?" Sieve kept his eyes on the red-haired boy.

            "Gavin's right over there," she replied. "If there's trouble, I can call him over."

            "Rose. Go. Let me take care of this."

            "Chauvinist. Fine, I'll go, but only because I should tell Liz about this." She got up. "We'll tell Gavin in case something's up." She then went back into the kitchen to find Liz.

            The boy stood a few feet away from the bar, watching with a sneer. Sundown really thought this guy would work out? Sieve thought to himself. Well, maybe he was less blatantly arrogant then. I hope. I guess that's the kind of person you think of when you think stereotypical rock band these days, though.

            Sieve waited, determined not to make the first move as the kid sat on a stool directly in front of him. "Gimme something cheap and strong," said the kid. Sieve's eyes darted to the corner of the room. Liz and Rose stood there talking to Gavin, a middle-aged man with a wiry frame.

            "I'm sorry," Sieve said coolly, "You're underage."

            "Underage?" said the boy, barking a laugh. "I can be whatever age you want me to be." Sieve stared as the teenaged boy appeared to age before his eyes, lines becoming more prominent on the skin, a beard growing and morphing into a goatee then rough stubble, the hair paling as gray strands started to appear.

            "What the..." Sieve stood frozen, unable to even complete his sentence, and the boy-turned-man laughed.

            Sieve looked around the restaurant slowly. Diners sat in their booths, one man with a fork lifted halfway to his mouth, moving imperceptibly slow. Even Liz, Rose, and Gavin were affected, watching without a word. Can't they see? he wondered. Don't they know what's going on? No, no they don't. He turned back to the red-haired man, who still sat there with the sneer on his face.

            "Who the hell are you?" Sieve asked.

            "I'm Kendre, the Archangel of Blades, but you can call me Death," the man replied melodramatically. Sieve would have laughed if he weren't so far out of his league. A chill ran up his spine.

            "What do you want from me?"

            "I want the Pearl."

            "The what? I don't know what the hell you're talking about." As the words left his mouth, a sudden flash of memory came back to him. It overlaid the world as a strange feeling of deja vu overtook him. Sieve felt like he was in two places at once.

            In the world of memory, David's face was partly in shadow. "I'm going to be leaving for a while," he said quietly. His form was outlined against the window.

            "Where are you going?" Sieve remembered himself saying. David had been his closest friend for as long as he could remember.

            "I can't tell you that." David turned, his eyes downcast. "I'm sorry, Sieve, but you wouldn't understand even if I could explain." Pity mingled with sadness in those dark eyes, and Sieve was angry.

            "What the hell are you talking about, David?"

            "I need you to take care of something for me."

            "What?" Sieve asked, more sharply than he'd intended.

            "I want to know if you can keep something very important safe for me."

            "You've known me how long and you still feel the need to ask that?" Sieve said incredulously. David laughed.

            "Of course. I'm sorry."

            "So what is it?" Sieve asked.

            "Yourself." The dream-memory blurred. In David's hand was something, shining, and David brought it towards him, and then... Sieve drew a blank.

            He remembered David, fading away somehow. The scenery of the memory faded as well, leaving only the real world. All that was left was David's voice, echoing in the room, now echoing in Sieve's ears: "After I'm gone, you'll forget this, but that's for the best. Remember all of the good times we had together instead. Take good care of Sundown, and tell Susan and Alex I love them..."

            Sieve gasped. A knife was at his throat. Kendre's brown, fierce eyes were staring directly into his.

            "Do you," he pushed the knife harder, cutting into Sieve's skin, "remember now?"

            "No," Sieve croaked. "I don't-" The knife was being drawn slowly across his neck. It doesn't have a sharp edge on it, Sieve realized, he's not going to cut me, he's just trying to scare me. He's just trying to scare me, and it's not going to work. What the hell...?

            A feeling was rising inside him, something he couldn't control, and the thought scared him more than anything Kendre could do. It was taking over, and he couldn't stop it- he felt fine. The fear was gone, the panic evaporated, and a cool new emotion was there in its place.

            "You can't touch me," he said to Kendre, and in Kendre's eyes there appeared a look of fear. Sieve wondered how different he sounded, wondered at himself and this new change. The knife loosened at his throat uncertainly, and Kendre began to pull back.

            Before he could, there was a flash of light. Sieve felt himself push somehow, instinctively; he wasn't even sure he knew how to do it if he wanted to. Kendre stood in the middle of the floor, wary. Sieve looked at him through a thin wall of light, translucent colors sliding like an oil slick across its surface.

            "In fact, you are going to get the hell out of here," he continued. "Right now." The light flashed again, then the wall of colors around him was gone. So was Kendre.

            Rose was walking across the floor towards him, a troubled expression on her face. Sieve looked around. Time had resumed, at least to him. He didn't know if it had ever really stopped. Sieve breathed heavily, unable to slow the too-fast beating of his heart. Did that really just happen? he asked himself. What was that? His eyes felt glazed over as he watched Rose say something, and he shook himself.

            "I'm sorry?"

            "I said, where did he go?" she repeated. "The kid was just here, and you two were talking, then I blinked and he was gone."

            "I... don't know," Sieve said distractedly. "I don't know where he went. Look, Rose, I'm going to need to take the rest of the night off. I'm not feeling too good. You'll have to tell Gavin he needs to cover for me tonight." Sieve ignored Rose's protests and Gavin's yell as he walked out of the Bluesky.

 

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ten

 

            Alex leaned back on the couch. As far as she knew, the couch in the apartment she shared with Sundown was the most comfortable sofa in the world, despite its shabby appearance. AJ sat on the floor with his back resting against the sofa. He was a dark-haired youth with light tan skin and dark greenish eyes, a few years younger than Alex. At the moment a look of intense concentration was on his face and the controller for Sundown's video game system was in his hand.

            On the TV screen, colored jewels flashed and rearranged themselves into patterns as he worked to clear the screen. Alex sighed. She just didn't have the concentration for that today.

            Sundown was out grocery shopping. She'd left around one, saying she'd be out for a few hours. Alex had taken the opportunity to go and talk more with Tobai. They'd talked more about her conversation with the Deus, specifically about the offer of immortality to her. They'd also talked of Kendre.

            They had come to a few conclusions based on what Kendre and the Deus had said. First, that the only way for Kendre to succeed the Deus was for him to 'consume the Pearl' and become immortal- a Deus- himself. Second, if the Pearl was destroyed, then Kendre could not become a Deus. Third, it was uncertain what would happen if Kendre did become a Deus.It was possible that he would become the cornerstone of the world that Axel- Alex- lived on and the world would continue as it had been, but also that the world could be destroyed and remade as Kendre wished. They had no idea what would happen to Kendre or the current Deus, if one or both would be destroyed or if they would merge somehow, a proposition that was disturbing at the least.

            Another conclusion was that there was precious little that Axel could do to save her world. Since it was her native world, she had no way to sense where the Pearl was- a precaution that had been instated by the Deus so that nobody could go mad and destroy their own world, even if they were able to overwhelm an unwilling Deus. Also, Axel had agreed not to use her powers on her native world for the same reason. She would break that agreement to fight Kendre, but it did not matter since she could not find the Pearl, especially not before Kendre.

            "The Deus has suspended all missions," Tobai had told her. "Nobody can travel from here to another world, only from their home world to here. Also, nobody can get in to see the Deus, there has been a barrier in place since about the time you came to see me earlier."

            Alex had had to leave to meet AJ, who had come over at three thirty. He was more talkative than he had been, but there was a strange grimness about him as well when he thought she wasn't watching. The screen filled up with jewels as she watched, and the words "Game Over" came up in bright, scripted letters on the screen.

            "Here, let me try," she said.

            "Wait a minute, I got a high score," he said. "I have to put my name in."

            "Okay, fine." Alex heard the door open in the other room.

            "I'm home," called Sundown. She walked into the living room holding a few bags of groceries. "I bought us some food," she said. "Oh, hey, AJ."

            "Food is good," Alex said. AJ mumbled a greeting, not looking up from the screen. "Want to play with us?" Alex continued.

            "Maybe in a minute. What's the message on the phone?" Sundown asked, setting the groceries on the kitchen counter.

            "Messages?" AJ offered the controller to Alex, and she motioned for him to go ahead and play again.

            "Yeah, the answering machine said we have a new message."

            "I didn't hear it. I took a nap after you left," Alex said. It was close enough to the truth. "Go ahead and play it." Sundown pushed the button, and the machine beeped and played the message.

            "Hello, Sundown, this is Gavin from the Bluesky." Sundown's face paled, and Alex sat up, listening curiously. "Sieve walked out of work today at about two fifteen. We were wondering if you knew where he was, because we need to speak with him. He isn't answering his home phone. If you know anything, please give us a call," the message continued, leaving the number and a thank you before it cut off.

            Sundown looked like she was about to faint. Alex got up and walked her over to the sofa and forced her to sit down. As soon as Alex sat down next to her, the phone rang.

            "I'll get it," Sundown said.

            "No, you stay there. I'll get it. If it's Sieve, I'll let you talk to him," Alex said. She walked over and answered the phone. "Hello?"

            "Hello? Alex?"

            "Yes?" Alex shook her head 'no' at Sundown, who relaxed momentarily.

            "This is Kahlia. I wanted to talk to you..." Alex grimaced. This was not a good time.

            "I'm sorry, Kahlia, but we're in the middle of a minor crisis here."

            "Can I help or should I wait and call again later?"

            "Why don't you go ahead and call again later? Unless you happen to have seen-"

            "The bartender from last night," Kahlia interrupted. "Blue tattoos- that's it! A pearl in a cage of indigo lines, that's him!" A chill like a jolt of lightning went through Alex.

            "What...?" she asked numbly. The Pearl- Sieve? But how, why- how did Kahlia know about the Pearl of the World? "How do you..." Sundown was standing next to her now, and AJ, and even now she barely noticed them.

            "He's outside the city," Kahlia considered in a vague voice as if describing something happening on a television program. "He's driving a car- blue, one of those where the roof comes off..."

            "A convertible," Alex supplied.

            "Yes, that's it, and there's a black car following him. Following close... there's a red-haired man in it. The red-haired man wants something from him, something very important." Kendre! Kendre had found the Pearl- found Sieve- they didn't have much time.

            "Look, Kahlia, do you think you could lead us to them?" Sundown's eyes widened in shock.

            "Yes... Yes, I think so."

            "Okay. I'll be outside your apartment in five minutes. We have to move quick, so be ready." Without waiting for a reply, Alex put the phone down and turned to Sundown and AJ, taking a deep breath.

            "Somebody's after Sieve?" Sundown asked.

            "Yeah, long story short we have to move. Kahlia says he's outside the city and she can lead us to him."

            "Uh, excuse me if I'm missing the obvious, but how exactly does she know this?" AJ asked. Alex stopped, the momentum of her plans faltering.

            "I don't know," she said. "If she's wrong, she's wrong, but if she's right we can't afford not to help him."

            "Alex, what's going on here?" asked Sundown.

            "Look, I can't explain, we have to get going now. Come on, everybody out. To my car, come on." Alex took off, trying to get her driver's license out of her wallet so she could start the car, not waiting for a reply. She had no idea how she was going to explain this. She had no idea how Kahlia knew any of this. She had no idea why AJ wasn't reacting more.

            She got to the car and slid the license through the reader on the door to unlock it. The lights came on inside, and she flung the door open and jumped in. She motioned for Sundown and AJ to jump into the back, pushing the passenger side door open and pulling the seat up. They crawled into the back seat as Alex pushed the button to start the car.

            Thankfully, both were silent as she drove. Alex tried to put the pieces together. There was something she had noticed yesterday about Kahlia that slipped her mind now, but it was just on the edge of her thoughts.

            The answer came all at once when she stopped at a traffic light. Kahlia had known about the boy in the street before he was in the street yesterday, she was sure of it, at least before his mother had known. She was a psychic- she'd said something about that when Alex had asked AJ, she'd said Fiona might think he was psychic. Was that why he'd reacted so calmly? Did he know what was going on more than she did?

            Abruptly they were in front of Kahlia's apartment building, and she was standing outside it. Alex pulled up to the curb and beckoned her in to the passenger seat.

            "Tell me where to go," Alex said. "I take it you know what's at stake here."

            "Yes," Kahlia said breathlessly. "He's outside the city, like I said. The red-haired man hasn't caught up yet, but he will soon. There's a chance that we can get there first."

            "Right."

            "West, go west. He's on the highway now."

            "Okay. I can get to the highway from here about a block up. How's traffic?"

            "None."

            "Good." Alex drove up to the intersection then turned left onto a main street. Within a few minutes, there was a connection to the highway, one of the four major streets that led to the network of roads that connected the cities. "Is he heading towards a city?" She looked over at Kahlia, who had her eyes closed and a pained expression on her face. I'm sorry, she thought, I'm so sorry, but it's for the world so you'll have to bear it.

            "No. He doesn't know where to go. He's been driving for a long time, fast. His fuel charge is running low and he'll have to pull over soon."

            On the highway now, Alex could drive as fast as she liked. There were no other cars in her sight. Alex had to be ready for Kendre, but all of her focus was on driving right now. "How far ahead?" she asked.

            "Just a few minutes. He's stopped! He's pulling over right now, and the black car is pulling over too. They're both getting out of their cars."

            "Damn." Alex floored the acceleration pedal, and felt herself pushed back into the seat. If only her car were faster... "There! I see them!" The two cars were on the shoulder of the road, pulled to the side. Axel pulled up behind Kendre's car, flung her door open, and turned back to the others in the car. "Stay in the car!" she said. "If you get out, I can't guarantee you'll be safe!" She jumped out and onto the pavement, then slammed the door.

            Sieve and Kendre stood across from each other on the bare, dusty ground. There were few plants around; the city was in the middle of a vast area of open land. Then a sphere of light appeared around Sieve- yes, the Pearl, she thought- poised in a fighting stance. Kendre watched him warily, an array of bladed weapons appearing in the air around him. They would hang there until he needed them.

            Alex took a last look back at her car. Time would have stopped for them now, and they would be aware of nothing until the fight was over, except perhaps Kahlia who would likely be able to watch. She steeled herself, concentrating to bend the space around her to her will. It took an enormous amount of effort, much more than it usually did on a different world due to the fact that this was her native world. That could be a setback later, but she was still better than Kendre. She brushed the dust off of her purple uniform, the one she usually wore as Axel when she was doing Deus' work.

            "Kendre!" she called. His attention snapped to her instantly- he hadn't expected any interference, she could tell.

            "You!" he yelled back. "How did you get here, Axel? Nobody can cross through the worlds now, the Deus has forbidden it!"

            "Alex?" Sieve said. "Alex, is that you?" Sieve's bubble of light dimmed a little. A cold smile appeared on Kendre's face at the opportunity, and he plucked a wickedly curved blade out of the air.

            "Keep your guard up, Sieve!" Kendre jumped at the other man with the blade. Sparks of light flew off of Sieve's shield at the impact and Kendre's blade dissolved into nonexistence. Kendre was pushed away, landing on the ground a short distance from Sieve. He picked himself up and reached for another blade.

            Axel focused, drawing from the air around her. The large green emeralds set into the golden gauntlets on the back of her hands began to glow. In seconds, their intensity increased until it was hard to look at. Axel raised one arm, palm open and fingers spread, and pointed it at Kendre. A burst of wind knocked the weapons away from him. He could call them back to himself in seconds, she knew, but that bought her the time she needed to form a plan.

            "Axel!" somebody shouted from behind. She turned. AJ was running towards her.

 

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eleven

 

            "Stay in the car! If you get out, I can't guarantee you'll be safe!" Alex said as she jumped out of the car. Kahlia watched her run over to the two men standing in the field. One was the bartender from the restaurant the night before; the other was the red-haired man she'd seen in her visions.

            "That's Ken!" Sundown yelled from the back seat. "We have to go help Alex!" Kahlia turned around to face her.

            "You know that man?" she asked, surprised. "But he's..." Sundown stopped moving, as if she was frozen. "Sundown?" Kahlia asked. "Are you all right?"

            "She'll be fine," said the boy in the back seat. AJ, Alex had called him. The one she had said to ask Fiona about when they'd first met. So he was another independent- no wonder she'd been able to know so much, since Fiona said that independents' presence heightened passive psychic powers. Right now, Kahlia felt as if her brain and all of her nerves were on fire. There was still so much she wanted to know, needed to know- about Alex, the red-haired man and the blue-tattooed man, and about AJ, but she could barely focus to think straight at the moment.

            She looked outside the car again. Alex, who somehow wore purple clothing, stood to the side, watching the two men. None of them had noticed her yet. Kahlia heard moving in the back seat- she turned to see AJ scrambling to unbuckle his seatbelt.

            "I have to go help her," he said. "She's at a disadvantage since this is her native world."

            "Wait," Kahlia said. "Tell me what's going on first."

            "You're Fiona's cousin, right? Tell me what she's told you." He sat back in the car seat.

            "She told me that there are normal people, psychics, and independents, that there is something called the cause of everything which makes the world work. Normal people are rarely aware of the cause, independents can change it at will, and psychics are everywhere in between. She said that Alex is an independent, and that independents have a tendency to draw out passive psychic powers like mine and repress active psychic powers like telekinesis. That's about all."

            "I see. The truth is, what you and she call 'the cause' is actually one of a group of sentient beings that we call the Deus. The Deus' reality is related to ours like a cube is to a square, I guess you could put it. The Deus have a consciousness, like all life does- like humans do. You have conscious thoughts and feelings, ones that you recognize, a subconscious level below that where thoughts and feelings mix together, where your instincts are; people usually call subconscious feelings their 'mood' and subconscious thoughts their 'conscience.' Right below that, in the lower parts of the subconscious are your surface memories, ones you can call to mind at will or easily, and below those is your unconscious mind. In the center of the unconscious, the very deepest part, there is a core of life. This core is what some call a soul; if it is destroyed the rest of your mind cannot hold together and will disperse. We call it the Pearl of the World."

            "The Pearl... But then, what does it have to do with the tattooed man?" Kahlia frowned, looking out the window. A translucent bubble of light, the colors the same as the pearl she had seen in the blue cage in her vision, surrounded the tattooed man. The red-haired man- Ken? Kendre?- was surrounded by weapons; swords and knives of various shapes and sizes floated in the air around him.

            "Each living world that exists in the universe is the mind of a Deus, to put it roughly. This life on a world exists at roughly the subconscious level- so the Deus are aware of the thoughts and feelings of life on their worlds and can focus on specific individuals the same way we can focus on what we are feeling. In truth, it's more complicated than that, but I don't have time to go into that right now.  The Deus are immortal, and they will live forever because they are invulnerable to everything on their plane of existence. Still, some of them desire an end. I pose the question to you, how do you kill an immortal?"

            "You can't, can you?" Kahlia took the bait, curious as to the answer, but beginning to feel that it was all too relevant.

            "Through their mind. Their Pearl of the World, their 'soul' as some would have it, is destroyed, and with it their world. It is a piece of them. That is why it is part of a living being, part of Sieve. However, the Deus are bound from destroying their own Pearl. So they create independents. They raise life from their mind to their plane of existence in the same way that we would create a work of art, or maybe an artificial intelligence- no, it is not like anything we can do. The independents are, as the name suggests, independent from their Deus. They are not equal to the Deus, but they are not dependent either; they can still die and be killed like any other mortal life, but they have the ability to move from their Deus, their home world, to and through the Deus' reality to another Deus. The independents can survive if their Deus dies. The independents can kill the Deus." He paused, as if deciding whether or not to say something, then decided for it. "The Deus of my world was killed, and the Deus of this world offered me life here. "

            "So Alex is... that means you, too, and the red-haired man." Kahlia began to understand. "He's going to destroy our world..." Her gaze drifted out the window. Something on Alex's wrist- no, her hand- was glowing a bright green. She lifted her hand, pointed it at the red-haired man, and the weapons around him moved as if hit by a sudden gust of wind.

            "Yes. I must go and help her fight Kendre." Before Kahlia could stop AJ, he pushed the seat forward and leaped out of the driver's side door, slamming it closed behind him. This was so much to take in- time was going strange, she realized, the independents could warp it around themselves the same way they could reality. If only there was something she could to- but no, she could only watch. "Alex," she whispered. "Be safe..."

            "Axel!" AJ called out as he ran towards the others. Slowly and surreally, his form changed as she watched. He became taller, wider, more muscular; a scaled pattern appeared on his skin like a tattoo, then became real scales, reflecting the sunlight with cool green. Kahlia had to look away, strangely disoriented. When she looked back, he was standing next to Alex.

            "Tobai?" Alex said incredulously.

            "Oh, so that's it!" the man called Kendre said in a mocking, too-loud voice. "This is your native world, isn't it? So much the better! On your guard, Axel!" He raised his hand and flung it downward like it was the start of some bizarre race. Like a dream outside the car window, the battle began.

            Blades of all shapes and sizes converged around Alex, points down, until she was surrounded by a sphere of them. Kahlia could barely see her through them. Alex put her hands together, green glowing again, brighter. AJ, or Tobai as Alex had called him, came around behind Kendre, whose attention was focused completely on Alex. Sieve just stood there inside his bubble of light as if he didn't know what to do.

            Alex pushed her arms out to her sides so she stood in a T-like shape, flinging the weapons away. At the same time, Tobai jumped up to kick the back of Kendre's head. Kendre ducked. His scattered weapons flew through the air like missiles, deflected and reflected by Alex's wind.

            The pattern continued- Kendre attacked with his weapons while dodging Tobai's attacks, Alex deflected Kendre's weapons and Tobai attacked again. It was a stalemate- Kendre wasn't able to break through Alex's defense and couldn't focus on more than one target, Alex couldn't attack without getting hit, and Kendre constantly dodged Tobai's attacks.

            There was a reason behind it, Kahlia realized. Kendre was moving himself closer to the Pearl. If only she could tell Alex, but the fight had moved them too far away. Kendre was now between Alex and Tobai and Sieve- the Pearl. Her voice wouldn't reach them loud enough to cut through their concentration.

            "This ends now!" Kendre shouted. He turned and put his hand on the bubble of light, pushed through it. Sieve screamed. The light flared bright once; Kendre clenched his fist. The light had disappeared- no, it remained, condensed into a small point, a sphere. Kendre held it in his hand. Sieve lay collapsed on the ground in front of him. Kahlia gasped, and was overtaken by vision once again, overlaying her normal sight.

            In her vision, the world changed. A gray smoke covered the sky, cloaking the world in twilight. All of the structures of humanity, the city skyscrapers and the wooden houses with straw-thatched roofs and everything in between, crumbled, breaking apart into a gray salt that covered the whole world equally. The oceans, lakes, and bays turned to wax. A highway remained, covering the world like a spider's web, running over salt land and wax sea alike.

            This is Kendre's world, she thought. Creatures roamed about on it, golems of wood, machines of stone, and humans. The humans were all young, in their late teenaged years or early adult years. Two humans stood to the side throwing a ball of fire back and forth, on a hill a solitary figure called down lightning and rain from the smoke-sky to the amusement of those gathered around. They are all independents, she realized. Kendre wants to create a world of independents, of people like himself.

            The vision shifted and flowed until a human figure, or human-like at least, stood in front of her. The figure, dressed all in black, wore a platinum mask. A hand reached up and removed the mask, revealing a man who looked much like Alex. His black hair was cut short and close to his head, and he wore a thin beard.

            "You have no need to worry," the man said. "That will not happen. Watch now."

            "You are..." Kahlia started, her mouth dry.

            "I am the Deus Avamen, but one time I was a man. Yes, an independent, and yes, Alex's father. I am not strong enough to carry on. I should have realized it sooner, but if I continue to be the Deus of this world, it will slowly fall apart. I had no choice but to become the Deus... If I had not, the world would have fallen apart in the same way. Please understand. Tell Alex why. Please forgive me." This is all very strange, Kahlia thought.

            "I forgive you," she said, even though she wasn't entirely sure what she was forgiving him.

            "Thank you. It is always hardest... to forgive yourself..." The figure and the vision faded away. Kahlia blinked her eyes, momentarily in a daze. Realization of where she was hit like a train and she snapped back to look out the window, hands pressed to the window.

            Kendre held the Pearl, still in the same position as before the vision had started. Tobai began to walk towards him, slowly. Kendre raised the Pearl to his lips, hand visibly shaking even from Kahlia's distance.

            "No!" Alex cried. Tobai jumped and kicked Kendre to the ground, ripping the Pearl from his hand. Kendre struggled, and Tobai examined the Pearl carefully, then in one smooth movement brought it up to his mouth and swallowed it.

            Alex ran to his side, her purple clothes dissolving back into jeans and T-shirt. She ignored Kendre, who looked on in shock. The Deus' robes formed around Tobai, black and full, veiling his form. Kahlia jerked the car door open and ran towards them.

            Tears ran freely from Tobai's eyes. He laughed softly. "The Deus planned this from the beginning," he said. "No, not the Deus, just Avamen... I'm the Deus now. He knew I'd never accept it if I had the choice."

            "Oh, Tobai," Alex said, tears also streaking her cheeks. A blade rose up in the air behind her, poised to strike at her back.

            "No!" Kahlia called out, too far to act. Tobai's head snapped up, he raised a hand at it. The blade fell to the ground and disappeared. Tobai turned to Kendre with a grim expression on his face. Kahlia reached Alex and embraced her, letting Alex cry on her shoulder. "It's all right," she said. "It's all right." What am I going to tell her about her father? Kahlia thought. Now is not the time, she chastised herself. That can wait until forever if it has to.

            "You," Tobai said sharply to Kendre. "I revoke your independence. You are now tied to this world, dependent again with no powers or friends to your name. Go now and make yourself what you can, and know that it is death if you try to interfere with Axel or any of these others." Kendre picked himself up and began walking, without a word. Kahlia didn't like the expression in his eyes; a man with nothing to lose was dangerous.

            Sieve stirred, rubbing his eyes as he sat up. Tobai looked him up and down. Kahlia could see no injury on him.

            "Here," Tobai said to Sieve. In his hand was the Pearl.

            "David?" Sieve said, his voice slurred and not entirely awake. Alex gasped at her father's name.

            "No, but this is still yours for the keeping. If you will take it."

            "Yes," Sieve said. "I'll keep it safe this time. I made a promise to David and I don't intend to forget it any time soon." He paused, and then said, "I won't forget about all this again, will I?"

            "Not if you don't want to," Tobai said firmly. "Now that that's taken care of, I must leave," he said, turning to Alex. "It's not like we'll be apart. You can come see me whenever you like, you know." Alex smiled.

            "Yeah, I'll have to do that," she said. Tobai smiled too, then turned around and walked away, fading like a dream. Sieve nodded, an expression of satisfaction on his face.

            "Sundown's in my car," Alex said. "Time will be back now, so she's probably wondering what happened."

            "I'll go and talk to her," Sieve said. "Your car's the white one, I assume." Alex nodded, and he turned and walked back towards the car. Sundown was already getting out, a confused look on her face. Alex turned back to Kahlia.

            "So," she said.

            "So," Kahlia repeated.

            "I think you know something."

            "Maybe I do, and maybe I don't. 'All we know is but that which we see,'" Kahlia quoted, smiling. Alex laughed, the tears already drying on her face.

            "You're a psychic," she said. "You see a lot more than I do. So spill." Kahlia grinned, then turned serious.

            "The Deus was your father, as you probably suspect by now," Kahlia said. Alex nodded solemnly. "He told me to tell you that he had no choice, about becoming the Deus himself or about making Tobai the next one, because the other option was letting the world fall apart and he wasn't ready to do that to keep his own power." It wasn't exactly what the Deus had said, of course, but Kahlia felt she could take a little liberty with the words.

            "I know why Tobai had to be the next Deus," Alex said. "He wasn't wholly of this world." When Kahlia didn't look shocked, she continued. "His own world was destroyed, and so that made this world his home more so than anybody else on this world. He was the only one that could be trusted not to remake it in his own image..." She trailed off.

            "I have something for you," Kahlia said. She reached in her pocket for the name-card and handed it to Alex. Alex looked at it with a puzzled expression on her face, turning it over in her hand.

            "What's this?" she asked.

            "You forgot about the boy you saved from the bus yesterday already?" Kahlia asked, mock incredulity in her voice.

            "Oh. Well, I kind of had a world to save," Alex retorted. Kahlia laughed.

            "You know, you're halfway to being a superhero yourself, and you know what that means," she said conspiratorially. You can make autobiographical comics that people will actually buy!"

            They laughed together all the way back to the cars.

 

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