If one more person asked Meryl how she was doing, she was going to bloody well punch them in the face. Her brother was dead, how did they think she was doing? He was the last remaining link she had to their life in Arlethae, the only blood she had left. How could someone just take him away from her?
I’m not going to cry, she told herself. They were, after all, going to come face to face with the creatures that her people revered as celestial beings. Besides, she’d cried enough. In her culture, it was understood that one would mourn a family member for a year; two if it was your twin. And she would. She would honor her brother’s memory. He deserved that much. But after she caught the chrztipaka beltahthtor, the defiled creature who had made the call to end her brother’s life.
Jayson squeezed her hand. Every time she looked at him, she almost forgot her vow not to cry. He was worn out and utterly beaten, and there wasn’t a single thing she could do for him. This hero business had already asked too much of him. Why would the Father ask more?
Instantly, she felt ashamed of her profane thoughts. The Father had a plan. He had to. She remembered when Jayson first came to Arlethae. He had faith, but it was conflicted and confused. He could not understand why God would strand him in a world so far away from home and make him a cripple. Even after he was manufactured a leg to stand on, and even after they fell in love, those were feelings he merely suppressed. He told himself God had a reason and a plan. But it wasn’t until they were standing face to face with Kronos that he’d truly been stripped of everything that gave him doubt. Then, he stood with them to bind the god of time with the power of faith alone. “It’s all I’ve got left,” he’d said, and it was true.
In that moment, the God of gods had won his soul forever. Why, in the name of all the heavens would he need to break it anymore?
She knew she’d probably be better off to will away the anger, but it kept her from bursting into tears and crumbling to the ground. So she let it nest away in her soul for the moment and gripped her husband’s hand so he could take them to Olympus.
When the First Created had broken ties with the Second Created, they found another world to inhabit. There they existed in relative fulfillment. Oh, there was still war among them, and factional disagreement, but they usually kept it confined to their own plane of existence. There were occasional border disputes between Olympus and the neighboring country of Asgard, who were currently in the middle of—rather ineffectual—diplomatic talks with the country of the Aztec gods. It was all very political and complicated, and Meryl didn’t much care so long as somebody could tell her if her brother’s killer was among them.
Mount Olympus was a sprawling city-state with stunning architecture set on a magnificent mountain range. From the peak on which they appeared, Meryl could see out over nearly the entire city. The First Created existed in a natural form that was pure, timeless energy; but it amused them to live out their lives in the manner of mortals. To glory in the fact that they were not bound by it, Meryl often thought. But whatever the reason, the going to and fro made the place feel alive and added only to its splendor. It was beautiful. There was no denying that; and for a second upon their arrival, Meryl was so taken in by its ineffable tranquility, she nearly forgot her inner turmoil. But only for a second.
Regardless, she now had a job to do. She approached one of the guards. She didn’t have complete familiarity with the local tongue, but fortunately her Gifted abilities allowed her to comprehend and mimic a being’s use of language. “Excuse me, my good sir, but I am looking for a woman named Miriam. She is not a First Created, but immortal nonetheless. She serves as a bodyguard for a man name Rai, known to some as Fate, the consort of Aphrodite, or Destiny as she is known to some.”
The guard looked startled. “How did you find your way to this place? You are Second, not First Created, and your companion…” He trailed off confused. “I don’t know what he is.”
“My husband is of Earth. He possesses abilities which allow him to travel between realms. He once knew the woman that I spoke of.”
The man gave a long suffering sigh. “Oh, very well. I know the woman of whom you speak. I will escort you there.” He led the way, muttering something about mortals who didn’t know their place popping in unexpectedly, and there goes the neighborhood. Meryl ignored him. She had no reason to be afraid of him. She wasn’t a fighter, but if push came to shove, she could mimic his abilities and defend herself. Also, the First Created may have existed beyond the boundaries of time and space in their natural forms, but they were bound to their current plane of existence. Jayson was not. He’d get them out fast.
The opulence of the city was astounding. The guard led them to a manse that had a portico the size of her and Jayson’s house, surrounded by twenty-foot marble pillars engraved with gold. The manse itself was three storeys high; small, by Olympus standards.
Meryl thanked the guard for his time. The way he hesitated, she had the feeling he was asking for a small monetary compensation, but seeing as she didn’t have the realm’s currency, she ignored it. Besides, he’d been rude. There was no sense in encouraging that kind of behavior. After a moment, he turned on his heel with a huff and walked away.
Jay looked amused. “Why do I get the feeling we just annoyed the hotel bellhop?”
“Oh, he’s just annoyed we didn’t act the mortal among gods.”
“Ah, so we offended his delicate celestial feelings.”
“Yes. That’s exactly what happened.”
She hesitated on the threshold of the manse, uncertain where to go or what to do. She intended on letting Jayson lead the way, but he was being the gentleman and showing deference by letting her lead. How many years had they been together, and he hadn’t yet got how much she hated when he did that? She was a follower by nature; it was not by accident that her Gifts were mimicry of both powers and appearance, as well as invisibility. Sometimes she felt jealous of strong, confident women like Sam or Charity.
The thought of her best friend in a coma was another punch to her stomach. She was counting on Charity to help her through the loss of her brother. Without her, what was she going to do?
“Well, are you going to stand out there gawking like a couple of adolescent boys, or are you going to come in?” A gravelly, ethereal voice interrupted Meryl’s reverie. She jumped. “What are you waiting for, an engraved invitation?”
“Well, vampires usually have to wait to be invited into a place of residence, so we figured we’d return you the favor,” Jayson quipped.
“Hilarious. Is that any way to greet a soul-sucking immortal?” Miriam’s voice sounded like it was echoed through a large room, and then distorted into a low, raspy pitch. She wasn’t much more than a spirit herself, held to the mortal plane by the souls she consumed.
“Miriam! Buddy! Pal!” Jay returned, only slightly sarcastic. “It’s good to see you again.” That he meant sincerely.
“I’d say the same about you. Except, you know, I don’t actually care.”
Jay chuckled. “I missed you too.”
“Right. So, as lovely as this not-really-family reunion is, what brings you to the realm of the gods? Not exactly your usual stomping grounds.”
“There’s been a disturbingly active Fae incursion on Earth. If it’s one thing we’ve learned is that Fae like being told what to do. We pretty much castrated Kronos, so there goes their previous beloved leader. Now we’re just trying to find if any other First Created’s gone and taken up the torch.”
Miriam nodded. “I see. So, hey, where’s your other better half? You two were joined at the hip almost more than the actual twin.” She glanced at Meryl.
I’m not going to cry. I’m not going to cry. Meryl felt like she shouldn’t leave the burden of the question to Jay, but if she opened her mouth, that self-promise was going to dissipate so fast.
“John is… He’s gone.”
Meryl felt guilty for making Jayson say it. She felt her eyes burning, and she knew tears were starting to show.
“Aw…geez… You’re not going to cry, are you?” Miriam didn’t sound mocking so much as she did sound very uncomfortable. She’s been human once, though Meryl hadn’t had the chance to meet her before she died and was raised to and undead existence by an alien necromancer. That said, to here Charity describe her, she hadn’t possessed much of a soul before her unfortunate demise either.
“It’s been rough on all of us,” Jay continued. “I know the whole ‘team’ concept was never something you were big on, but—”
“Hey. I get it.”
“Charity’s been affected too. She’s alive, more or less, but in a coma. Doc’s not entirely sure when she’s going to wake up.” He didn’t add the ‘if ever.’
“Wow. They really hit you hard didn’t they?”
Jay shrugged. “So if you know anything about any of the First Created who might be behind this, that would be helpful. You know. For old time’s sake.”
Miriam regarded them silently for a moment, her face a blank. Meryl found herself wishing the other woman would take a breath, something to make her more…human, anything to indicate she would be willing to help them.
“I have not heard anything. Most of the gods washed their hands of Kronos and his doings within Myrathelle, pretending he didn’t exist. Only Aphrodite really made much of an effort to stop him, and you saw where that got her. But you know I’ll keep my ears out. If I find anything out, I’ll let you know. And hey, look. About John…I’m sorry.”
Jay gave a half smile. “Thanks. So are we.” He took a deep breath. “Anyway. Wasn’t sure you had your old communication device, and besides we’ve upgraded our system. Because, you know, Drake doesn’t get the ‘if it ain’t broke, why fix it’ principle. So, here.” He fished in his pocket for a phone. “That should reach across the dimensions. So, if you need anything, call, all right?”
Miriam took it. “Sure. Whatever.”
“I mean it. Look…despite what happened, you’re still part of my team. Call any time if you need anything.” He gave a smile, and his warm hand gripped Meryl’s. “See ya around, Miriam. Don’t forget us, eh?”
And then Olympus faded from sight, its ostentatious surroundings replaced by the warm familiar feeling of a home she’d given up on ever seeing again.
They teleported into the realm just outside the city of Arlethae, a place that was generally deserted; a wise choice considering the Old Order would see any display of power as confirmation of one who was Gifted and immediately dispatch a team to capture or kill them. Putting that distance between them and the city also gave Meryl the widest view possible of her childhood home. It brought forth a rush of overwhelming emotions. She couldn’t fight them anymore.
“It’s okay to cry,” Jayson said in a gentle voice. He wrapped his warm, strong arms around her. His fingers scratched her back in a soothing motion. She burst into tears.
“It’s just…I never thought…”
“Never thought you’d be back again?”
“And without… How can… I shouldn’t be…” She wasn’t even making any sense anymore, even to herself.
Of course he did. Jayson always knew her heart. Her tears got the better of her, and she couldn’t even manage her incoherent babble. She lost herself for a moment, overcome with so many feelings, some of them identifiable, others ineffable. A small part of her, the survivor, found a singles solid thought to dwell on. Of all things, it regarded the practicality of their outfits. Before embarking on their transdimensional journey, they’d dressed in clothing designed by Delta’s tailor at Meryl’s guidance so they would fit in here. That single practical thought devoid of the conflicting emotions finally acted as a foundation for Meryl to rebuild herself into the moment. They were here. In a city that she knew and understood. And they had a job to do.
“Well, you’re the one who knows where she’s going, so you’d better lead the way.” Jayson somehow knew exactly when to try to speak to her again, when she was ready to be pulled back to reality.
“Yes. We will have to start by speaking to one of the Gifted. You remember our secret symbol, right?” Jayson nodded. It was much the same as the human’s abstract heart shape. Joleon had gotten it tattooed on the inside of his wrist. He covered it with bracers as Stryker, and even people who knew him outside Delta as just John wouldn’t understand him to be Gifted. To them it was just a heart.
Anyone who did know him as Stryker found the presence of his tattoos to be a bit baffling. After all, his skin couldn’t be broken by an ordinary needle. But Jayson had come up with a plan to get past that.
“Hey, buddy, we need to get tattoos,” Jay told Joleon one day. “It’s like a best friend ritual on Earth.”
Joleon raised an eyebrow with some amusement at Jayson. “The practice of marking one’s body isn’t strange to me, but I’m a little confused about how you plan to make that happen. I’m supposed to be hiding my powers even here, right? So how do we explain to them their needles breaking on my skin?”
“Well, heh…” Jayson gave a nervous laugh. “Actually, I’m the only one who’s going to be putting up with a thousand tiny needles viciously puncturing my tender dermis. But for you, my friend, I will put up with the pain even though you won’t be sharing it.” Joleon still looked confused. “Meryl can imitate my teleportation powers and just warp time and space so the ink appears in your skin. No needle involved. She’s a fantastic artist, after all. Clearly, she absorbed all your creative talent in the womb.” He grinned and punched John in the shoulder.
Meryl shook off the memory. Right now, it would only serve to cloud her judgment, and here, that was the last thing she needed. The two of them were silent on their short walk into the city. As the approached the outlying border of the city, they saw flying overhead one of the Old Order’s suited patrols, which served as a reminder of exactly how dangerous it was here.
Once inside the gates, the familiar smell of many people and animals bustled around her, and made it all feel like a dream. She could hear the hawkers cry their wares, and a group of women gossiping about the latest holographic show. The debate seemed to be gauging the attractiveness of the actors versus their actual talent and off-stage private lives. Meryl couldn’t help but smile. After spending so much time on Earth, she’d come to appreciate how very similar the two different cultures were.
Meryl led the way to a jewelry stall she hoped was still run by one of the Gifted. Sure enough, etched into the wood was the symbol, though she didn’t recognize the young girl at the booth. She approached the booth and traced the carved wood with her finger. She spoke in Arlethaen, “The Changer sends his love to us all, and to each of us.”
The girl smiled. “And from each of us we spread his love to us all, which glorifies the Changer.” It was the standard phrase, the concept behind the symbol. “Greetings, Sister.”
“And to you.” Meryl took another look at her. “Carelos? I did not recognize you. It has been years, and you’ve grown into a beautiful girl! Your mata and fater must be proud.”
Carelos smiled. “I thank you for your kind words. I don’t think I remember…” She stared at Meryl for a moment. “Meralese? By the Father, we all thought you were dead!”
“If not for my husband of a year, we would have been. But our departure from Arlethae was rather…abrupt indeed after the Old Order attacked and burned down our inn.”
“It is so comforting to know you are alive.” Carelos turned her head to the cloth covered doorway behind her. “Mata! Come quick! There is someone you must see!”
A woman quickly walked through the doorway with a swoosh of skirts and door cover. She was of an attractive middle age, vibrant with youthful features. “What is it, child—oh!” A smile broke out on her face as she saw Meryl. “My dear girl, it does my heart good to see you alive!” The woman reined in her excitement. It would not do to have Old Order authorities questioning their reunion too closely. “We must talk in more private quarters. Do come in, the both of you.” She encircled Meryl’s wrist with her thumb and forefinger and guided her around to the opposite side of the booth and in through the doorway. Jayson obediently followed.
“Tell me, my dear, where have you been these past few years? Did any others of your family escape the fire?”
“We were in another world, Felika. It’s utterly fantastic, but true. There are realities, planes of existence beyond ours. This is my husband Jayson.” It felt odd, referring to him in such a mature and grown-up manner. Here, she was a little girl, and far too young to consider such things. She half expected Mata to come and pick her up to take her home to help with dinner preparations.
“He is from a world they call Earth. In their world, people do not share the same connection to the Changer as we do, but some are born with something like Gifts, regardless of their faith. Jayson has the ability to move instantly through space. He can also move through dimensions. It is he that rescued me and my brother from the fire.”
Felika put a hand on Jayson’s. “Then we owe you a debt of gratitude. I remember you from the year before the fire; I admit, I wondered at your unusual coloring.” Arlethaens tended to be blond with fair skin and golden eyes. Jayson’s wildly curly, dark red-blond hair; green eyes; and freckles had confused them. Most Arlethaens didn’t travel out of their country, however. It was a convenient truth to say he was from far away, and let them believe he was simply from another continent.
“The debt is paid in full, good lady,” Jayson replied politely. “Joleon was like a brother to me, and Merelese is the woman of my heart. I would walk a thousand fires to hold her close to me.”
Even after knowing each other for a few years, Jay still made Meryl’s heart flutter when he waxed poetic. He had a talent for songwriting; that was how he’d wooed her in the first place.
The older woman was sharp. Jayson spoke the language well, so the past tense with regard to Joleon did not go unnoticed. She smiled at Jayson’s words, but that faded to a look of concern. “What do you mean, ‘was’?”
Tears threatened to flood Meryl’s eyes again. “On Earth they are far more accepting of different beliefs, tongues, and people. We can freely use our Gifts to benefit the people; and yet it still is not as safe as we believed. He is dead, shot by a projectile built on Earth in a design inspired by the technology of the Old Order. As of yet, we know not why or who.”
Felika eyes softened with sympathy and understanding. “That is a pain I know all too well.” She pulled up the hem of her sleeve so Meryl could see the band of intertwined pink and green threads around her forearm. “The Old Order captured my husband. I have little hope I will see him again.” She replaced her sleeve. “Carelos has not given up that hope, and so I hide my mourning from her. I do not see your colors of morning, though.”
“I have work I need to do. I will find the one who killed my brother, or put forth a valiant effort. Then will I begin my two years of mourning.”
Felika nodded. “I see. And so you have returned to see if your enemy lies within the Old Order.”
“Yes. To commit this murder, it is possible that one would have to travel or at least communicate across the dimensional boundaries. Is this something that people of the Old Order has developed?”
“Not to my knowledge. If the evidence was not so clear, I would not believe these other realms exist. This is something you were wise to keep secret. I am glad you trusted me with it.”
“For your kindness you deserve the truth. I would go further and invite you to come back to Earth with us, but given recent circumstances, I cannot see it to be any safer than here, even under the watchful eye of the Old Order.”
“Your concern is touching, my young friend, but I would wish to stay here. If there is ever confirmation of the death of my beloved, I want to be here to receive it.”
Meryl nodded. “I understand.”
“I will make your request for information known, however. I have contacts whose Gifts allow them to hear through the walls of the Old Order. Will you stay for a few days? We have a bed you are welcome to use. And given your recent tragedy, it will do you good to remember your childhood days.”
Meryl took a quick glance at Jayson, who nodded. She looked back at Felika. “We are not needed back on Earth for a few days. It would be gratifying to accept your offer. You are right, the chance to relive past memories will be most welcome. I wish only that the circumstances of my return were different.”
Felika squeezed Meryl’s hand with her own left hand, and Jaysons with her right. “We question not the path that the Father has built for us; only the way to walk it. There is a reason for our pain. Simply trust.”
Meryl nodded and forced a smile. Trusting was the last thing she wanted to do.