I left the prison feeling chilled. It was as if all of the days energy had been pulled from me and discarded somewhere terrible. I wondered to myself if Shepherd Mitchel had really infected Aeolus with the strange plague that Hanz and Gerald had studied at the university, or if it was some other nefarious agent. But in my heart I knew the answer and it was only mindless escape to deny it.

I stumbled down the cobbled streets of the town, ignoring familiar faces that needed a second look to recognize me. Some called out to me with uncertainty, but they were nothing to me. They were a former life. I found my way to the long, winding forest road that eventually led to the university and I took it.

Aeolus was a dead man walking. I didn't know very much about the symptoms or the science behind the strange plague. Whatever I knew had been gleaned from newspaper headlines, word of mouth and whatever I managed to comprehend when my boys discussed their studies.

The sickness was so far south I didn't think it a relevant subject in my life. It had been contained by the nuclear fire that washed Capital City and by tens of thousands of legionnaires. It happened almost a half decade prior. That was almost half way across the world. The news had been staggering, but life as it always did continued. I had bills to pay, parents to avoid and a life to live.

There had always been conspiracy theories that the military had unleashed the fury of the atom intentionally. That maybe even the emperor himself had succumbed to the pestilent, dreadful thing that made men into mechanized, mindlessly cannibalistic things.

Now as I stood with it loose in my own corner of the world I understood why they would have wanted to. I found myself believing that ridiculous story just a little more. I had shared myself with Aeolus before the stabbing and it repulsed me to think of what he would become when the virus finally squeezed the life out of his heart.

Up until then the only afflicted that had defiled the province had been deceased and stored at only a couple select universities. But those were incapable of doing anyone harm. Aeolus was fresh meat and the kind of havoc he could cause would be unimaginable.

I reached the campus grounds just as the great bell struck three. Joined by hundreds of students going to and coming from class I allowed myself to feel a little bit better. Whether it was because of some hardwired herd instinct or something else altogether I was unaware.

It only took me a couple of minutes to reach the library and climb the great staircase. It was largely abandoned and the mezzanine was cool and still. I followed quiet rustling of papers and flipping of pages until I came to my boys. They were hunched over a number of ancient maps and an Atlas of the Southern Seas.

I reached into their minds through the ether. They were lost in an ocean of statistics, geographical data and fragments of knowledge I couldn't comprehend. Listening for her clockwork heart and red hot temper, I found nothing. Altima was absent.

But there was something more than that. There were no wiggling hooks, but instead a distinct lack of influence. I had the distinct feeling that she had upheld her end of the bargain. They were my boys, at last. I smiled and approached them.

We embraced and they showered me with kisses and whispers of affection. It felt good to feel like I wasn't being watched, or my actions weren't being recorded for her later viewing. When I asked in a hushed tone whether or not my assumptions were correct they both smiled broadly.

Yes, they told me. How long had she been gone? But of course they were unable to answer. Her influence was often a fleeting thing. Occasionally she would leave them for random minutes, her attention drawn elsewhere. They weren't sure. But they had both come to the realization some hours prior that the strange sense of euphoria that their bodies swam in wasn't because of an especially good breakfast.

Perhaps it was an unconscious celebration, Hanz told me.

I was lost in a tangle of arms and kisses when Gerald started to hike up my dress with hungry eyes. Hanz was behind me, his lips soft and supple on my neck. I tried to moan, but I couldn't get it out. Without forethought I thought of Aeolus as Gerald's strong hands went up my bare legs.

Instead I gasped.

"No," I said. But I didn't try to change the outcome that was already barreling toward me.

I struggled a little, squirming on the library table as Gerald worked. Of course they didn't know of my mission earlier in the day, my conversation with Shepherd Mitchel. And they certainly weren't aware of the strange and terrible thing that now coursed through my former lover's veins. That it was the very subject that they studied at the university.

I wanted to tell them all of this, but the only thing I could manage was a soft sigh as I succumbed to them. All the terrible things in my life seemed so far away.

My father was one for the history books. Which is to say that four hundred years from now if you were to crack open a school text book on the Piscean crown you'd find him. Probably smiling smugly back at you as if he knew that even in the deep past, he was capable of buying and selling your family. He wasn't a terrible dad and I would have never called myself emotionally neglected. But he wasn't ever going to win a father of the year award or own a "World's Greatest Dad" t-shirt. It wasn't hard for me to imagine he felt the same way about my grandfather. It seemed to run in the family as far back as my history tutors could examine. All the way back to the Cataclysm.

Kyle, he'd told me on occasion. You shouldn't be so concerned about me. It's lonely at the top. You should get used to that. Bond with people your own age. Because you're going to need to know how the average man thinks and speaks if you're going to rule over them someday.

So it was strange that I found myself hiking through the woods on a breezy summer evening. He lead the way and seemed to know exactly where we were going, even though we left our wagon, body guards and pull birds an hour prior on some forgotten back road. The Royal Artificer, a big burly man who seemed lost in thick tangles of black body hair followed me. The ride had been a tense one, only rarely punctuated by orders my father occasionally barked at our body guards.

I had disappointed him earlier in the week. It turned out that I didn't much care for what the "average man" thought. I had clobbered one of my school mates when he had made a snide remark about one of our less popular classmates. I didn't particularly care for her habits myself, so maybe I had done it out of an over abundance of testosterone. My excuse sounded noble enough, but dad wouldn't hear any of it.

No, son. He said after the boy's father, a trade minister, had finished groveling about how his son should have known better. What kind of respect are you going to have if you just bludgeon those who disagree with you? So he hurt someone. Think of how many hammer strikes it takes to cut a tachi from a block of steel. That little girl is going to have character, strength and a wit to match when she grows up. I had rolled my eyes. But won't Ken's nose be stronger when he's an adult, because I broke it? Heavens, father. His collar bone will be made of adamantine. His testicles will be studded with diamonds and rubies! I said as my little sister Celia winced at me from across the reading room. He glared and cuffed me hard on the back of the head. Irony, it turned out, was a subject my father had never been especially well versed in.

When I felt as if I might pass out from exhaustion he rose his arm.

"This is the place. Harold, set everything up."

The Artificer nodded obediently and by the dim light cast by his lantern he began to unpack his rucksack. We were in a small clearing and perched on the precipice of a small cliff. Crickets chirped from the direction from which we came. The night had closed in around us several hours prior, so I couldn't make out more than a few details. My father stood with his hands on his hips heroically on the lip of the chasm below.

It didn't take very long for our hiking companion to set his machines up. They didn't look like much more than boxes of crudely pounded metal and weather proof paint. But I knew the arts the burly man dabbled in. The strange gears and optics that turned silently in those modern containers were of ancient origin, salvaged from the wastelands of the Fire continent.

He handed my father a spyglass at the end of a mess of bound string. He looked through the eyepiece and looked over the lip of the cliff into the chasm below. By the faint light of the stars and The Artificer's lantern I could see a small smile crease my father's face.

He stood like that for a long time. With little else to do I watched him look wordlessly into the dark as Harold twisted knobs and carefully red twitching dials. Eventually my eyes unfocused and I thought of girls. No one in particular, but I was just a boy.

"Kyle," he whispered at me through the night when my imagination was just getting ramped up. "Quit thinking of what I know you're thinking of. Come here. Quickly. Now."

I stood and the second I was close enough he thrust the spyglass into my hands.

"Look." He ordered curtly in a tense voice.

The strange art that Harold used was a strange one. He was always enthralling my father and Celia with contraptions that defied common logic. I was as most boys of that time were, disinterested and more concerned with sport. I found his ability to make glass shatter without touching it or his disappearing act with an apple as an unwitting subject novel, but otherwise useless to me. But as I put the spyglass to my eye everything changed.

Suddenly the veil of night was lifted and everything in the chasm below was painted in a ghostly green light. I must have gasped because I heard my father and Harold make smug sounds. See, we've hooked the boy.

It was amazing. We were at the lip of a cliff, not very far above a fire bamboo grove. I moved my cone of vision around and the strange and beautiful sight burned itself into my mind. It was as if I was standing there in the middle of it all. I could see the curve of leaves. No nuance eluded me.

"Now you understand why Harold is so well paid." I didn't know that, but I said nothing as my father's chest slowly pressed up against my back. His arm moved over my own and he guided my sight to the far edge of the grove.

"You see him?"

I strained my eye, but I could detect movement. It was a big, thick creature. When I saw the white spots on its head I instantly recognized it.

"Oh, yes. I can." I had whispered. It was a saber panda. His long, curved teeth and his sleek body moved through the fire bamboo soundlessly, like it wasn't even there. He was a bull, too. Bigger than the one at the Aquarian National Zoo. But this one wasn't an over weight, docile cage bound creature. No, he was wild and lean. Free to go where ever he pleased.

"Why is he there?" My father whispered to me.



Harold must have flipped a switch or turned a knob. My focus tightened. I looked ahead of the saber panda and saw more movement. A lone land otter was rooting at the ground, probably digging up a grub or tuber. I watched breathlessly as the panda slowly approached him through the fire bamboo. The poor otter had no idea he was moments away from becoming dinner.

"I see him," I reported back. "A Land Otter." As I paid closer attention I could see a gaping wound on the otter's hind quarters. There were dark splotches on the bamboo from the direction the saber panda stalked. No doubt the two had a previous encounter earlier in the evening.

"He's hurt."

The a gentle breeze hit my face and I could smell the bamboo. It had the scent of a stove, woody and dry. In the wind it swayed, long stalks clapped together.

"The otter is a wise creature," my father said. "He knows the panda will stop at nothing to have him. Even while he bleeds in the face of death he still seeks out what he needs the most. He does what is most familiar to him. He feeds."

The otter froze. Either the scent from the panda had been carried to his agile nose, or the sound of a dinner plate sized paw crunching a twig had been carried to his tapered ears. He tried to rise to his hind legs to look out over the bamboo, but he failed due to his wounds.

With the breeze growing stronger the scent of the grove over came me. But beneath the woody, hearth smell was something else. That of decay, the smell of something left to dissolve in the harsh sun. Perhaps the otter and panda caught the whiff as well, because they both seemed distracted from their original goals.

Suddenly the saber panda roared. I pulled the spyglass and focused on him.

"Focus!" I snapped. Harold obliged wordlessly. I felt my father's muscles tighten.

His furry face was contorted in an expression of agony. With teeth bared he shook his head head back and forth, snapping stalks. I didn't see why at first, but then I caught it. A stalk of fire bamboo erupted from the ground, tearing through his abdomen. He howled in pain as his blood began slick the bottom of the stalk. Then it happened again again, in rapid fire succession. Each time the poor creature screamed into the quiet night. The breeze that caressed my face brought the smell of fire. I could feel the heat the grove gave off as it butchered the saber panda.

It didn't take too long for the panda to grow silent. I watched him fall to his haunches and rest on the ground as the grove's spears raked his body. Eventually he stopped breathing, but the grove didn't seem concerned with the fact.

I pulled the spyglass away from the grizzly sight and looked for the otter. It had presumably escaped into the night just as its stalker had succumbed to the grove's trap. My heart was pounding against my chest as I pulled my eye away from the spyglass, disgusted. The light from the contraption left me blinded in the moonless night. My face felt wet.

Slowly my father's face resolved from the inky black. His expression was grim and determined.

"The otter got away, didn't he?"

I nodded, a lump having formed in my throat. Rarely did he attempt to teach me a lesson that didn't involve a slap against my backside. It caused my to pay attention.

"Power is subjective, Kyle. No matter how strong you are, there is always something stronger. No matter how wise you think you are, there is always something wiser. If you only learn one thing from this old man, let it be this." He said simply, filling my world.

He slapped my shoulder. Up until then he only did that with ministers. I felt strange being included in that group.

"Now come on. Let's go home. You have an apology to make in the morning."

I slowly returned to my seat as he made his way through his bout of coughing. Ilythia took note of this and returned to her seat as well. Whether it was out of simple mimicry or something else I didn't know. We both watched him as the coughing subsided and Wind slowly rubbed his back with a wide palm. Ilythia's eyes were wide and uncomprehending and I thought of how I would have reacted had I shared her position.

Before too long he returned to his normal self. He cracked a couple of jokes about how he wasn't used to drinking things that didn't burn as they went down. It was in poor taste, but everyone laughed regardless.

When Wind was satisfied Aeolus wouldn't relapse into another fit he allowed a card game to start. I found myself very distracted at the sounds that apparently only I had managed to detect. But I didn't dare mention it, especially in the presence of Wind. I wondered at how much I had dismissed her influence on the physical world and whether or not she had done something vicariously through the drunk that now rotted in the town's jail.

The metallic rasp that had escaped Aeolus' mouth as he hacked and gagged and the mysterious infection that coursed through his veins seemed oddly connected and I grew suspicious that he had been poisoned or otherwise infected with some strange agent.

I wondered if there was something more to the man. I had thought him a hapless bystander drawn into a conflict far beyond his wildest imagination. But from what I knew of Altima and her dark magic, nothing about her was random or done on a whim. Every action she had performed to date had an explicit function in some grand plan that I was only a squeaky cog inside.

Of course my wandering mind only served to worsen my already amateur card playing skills. Ilythia too performed exceptionally poorly. Whether it was because her own mind was occupied in an unconscious battle with Altima or she was simply distracted by some unknown thought process eluded me.

The card game quickly evolved into a contest between the boys of whose wits were the sharpest. Wind seemed to get the upper hand more often than not, but Aeolus surprisingly held his own. Things were at a head when Aeolus unwittingly yawned. This signaled the end of the game and despite his protests, Wind shut everything down. Ilythia and I gratefully accepted his verdict with silence.

I said my farewells, kissed Aeolus softly on his forehead and escaped into the cool spring air. As I left he lapsed into another coughing fit, but I didn't care to hear the sickening but subtle rasp that he had taken on. I quickly departed, trying to focus more on the sound of my shoes on the concrete floor than whatever terrible thing was growing inside of him.

I was glad to have escaped the place. Oddly enough, I didn't feel guilty.

My route home was long and meandering. I was happy to be by myself and not have to deal with the social minutia that came with her madness. I forced myself to ignore the thoughts that swam in the back of my mind relating to Aeolus, the boys and the poor girl I had just deliberately infected. Infected, perhaps like Aeolus had been by the stranger in the bar. I shied away from the obvious metaphors and the train wreck that awaited my logic.

The boys were already asleep when I arrived home from my visit. Hanz was resting in his favorite over stuffed arm chair with a good old science fiction book open on his chest. Gerald was lost in a tangle of bedsheets and blankets. I undressed and climbed into the bed, trying not to wake anyone. Gerald stirred slightly, but smiled and slipped an arm over me.

I enjoyed his warmth and soon unconsciousness took me.

The next morning I showered and applied my make up. I wore my hair up in a loose bun, Gerald often told me how sexy it looked, so I made sure to only leave a couple of carefully sculpted strands to draw attention to the bare skin. The boys had left earlier in the morning for locations unknown. I assumed the library, but I gave them the benefit of the doubt.

I dressed conservatively, but added feminine flare with a couple of unfastened buttons and a splash of perfume. When I was satisfied I abandoned the tiny dorm and my morning lecture. I was on a mission.

As I walked down the cobbled road toward the town's tiny prison I thought of how different this new Wendy was. Altima's madness had turned inward and caused an already studious reclusive into a borderline antisocial hermit and unwitting murderer. Gerald, a life long atheist heterosexual was flirting with theism and now had eyes that wandered toward the rears of his male classmates.

I was often the social outcast, the quiet bookish girl who never quite managed to fit in. Always the not so stunning best friend dragged along to parties. But I had undergone a transformation. I didn't know what I had become. I tried to grope around in my mind for a couple of words. Seductress didn't quite fit. Neither did authoritarian. But those were as good as any.

As I entered the village center, squaring my shoulders I shuddered to think of what Ilythia would become. Moreover, how would the strange beast which fed on her change?

I strolled into the prison like a constable and approached the clerk. He was a tired looking gentleman with a world weary expression smeared across his weathered face. Officer Gables or something, pleased to meet you.

I smiled and refused to play to the stereotype portrayed in the nickelodeons, the faux flirty secretary type with exaggerated legs and enormous breasts. As I spoke to the clerk, providing a fictitious name I trawled the mind ether that existed between us. What little of his thoughts that I managed to glean were gray and boring. The cuffs matched the collar.

It didn't take much to convince him that I was there to see my boyfriend, who had been arresting for a "bar brawl with a soldier." I thought it best not to remind him about the charges of assault with a deadly weapon.

"Ah yes, Mitchel's lady." He said with a sly grin. "He's been talking about you."

He stared at me hungrily for a couple of moments before leading me downstairs, into the cell block. I was left wondering what exactly was being said about me. A burly female guard below took my purse and patted me down. Then she repeated the process.

"For good measure." She had croaked with a voice that sounded like she enjoyed too many fine cigars. The clerk stared at the both of us with a sly half-smile. If I hadn't known better I would have thought they too were slaves of Altima. But no, as I groped in the ether I didn't find her maddening clockwork heart or her predatory glare. I just found two incredibly vile human minds thinking things that left me feeling filthy and violated.

Go figure.

I was shown to a metal folding chair in front of Mitchel's cell. I was told by the burly female guard that they'd be right outside. If I needed anything from her. I smiled politely.

He was sitting on one of the two cots the cell offered. The remaining one was bare. He was a gaunt looking man who tried to clasp his hands together despite the fact that one arm had been ruined by Aeolus.

"So, you're here." Mitchel said solemnly, looking at the floor.

"You know who I am, then. Please to meet you, Mitch. Can I call you that?"

"Mitchel is my last name. You're not a cop. You don't get to use my last name."

I hadn't known. I swallowed hard and sat up a little straighter.

"Your first name?"

"Shepherd. Some people call me Shepp. If it makes you more comfortable you can too, I guess." He looked up for a brief moment. His eyes were puffy and blood shot. He had either been crying or sleeping poorly. Considering his tough guy demeanor I assumed the ladder.

"Okay. Shepp it is. Please to meet you. Sorry it had to be under these circumstances." I offered a smile. He refused to take it and instead opted to itch his armpit.

"Pleasure, dear. I assume you're not here to spring me. Are you?"

"No. I'm afraid not."

There was a couple of heart beats where he drilled his icy blue eyes into mine. I stared back at him, solid as a rock. But instead I was jerking like a nervous bird.

"I need to know why she picked you."

Shepp laughed. "Picked me? Oh my, sweet heart. You really can't be that ignorant. She didn't pick me. I picked her."

"I don't understand."

"Let me guess, Wendy." He spat my name out like it was bad milk. "You're not quite what you seem, are you? You have a little creature living in the back of your head? Some thing that fancies calling herself Altima. Something that has a hard on for black leather, kinky sex and Progenitors."

"Not exactly, but you have the jist of it."

He narrowed his eyes and stood up, walking toward the cell bars. Shepp looked at me differently than anyone had prior. There was no lust or admiration. There wasn't pity or loathing. His gaze seemed to pierce right through me. It was if I was nothing to him.

He told me that he was a physician and he had met Altima on a stormy night in the southern seas. He had been on a medical research team assigned to a desolate little stretch of rock which housed a military research outpost.

I asked what they researched. He stared at me with a ghostly slack face that had seen too much to tell.

"The plague, of course. Altima's plague."

Shepp told me about how he had been responsible for rather menial tasks, such as making sure the engineers that toiled beneath the barren soil were eating properly and not blinding themselves with home made moonshine. Royal Engineers, he said, were especially adept at making anything make any kind of liquor. Apple Cider from a gunblade? Triple distilled vodka out of a tin can and a toothbrush? You got it, chief.

His story was long and disturbing, especially when he elaborated on the "test" subjects the emperor had deemed the islands newest natives. Little more than the walking dead, they had been herded and corralled on the surface like cattle. That was where they had eventually become what was literally the walking dead.

Partly mechanized by a dark magic that was woven into their flesh those afflicted with the plague had become terrible, mindless things.

"Of course their study wasn't my specialty. I was strictly assigned to the living. Ever see a Royal Engineer scared, Wendy?"

"No, I can't say that I've ever seen one at all."

He muttered something about backwaters.

"Royal Engineers, they're a curious lot. These are guys and gals are bright. Not just smart, but the best minds Isyr has to offer. You take this group of young, smart, affluent individuals and you seep them in a patriotic fervor. And you run them through boot camp four or five times.

"They're not the type to be scared of anything. They're either too jacked or too smart for their own good. But I'll tell you, they were terrified. Every single one of them. Even with a quarter mile of rock between them and the installations on the surface, those guys lost sleep. My biggest prescribed drugs were sleeping pills. Lots of them. Enough to take care of rhinos. Most of them complained about nightmares. Some went mad and needed to be shipped out."

"Why were engineers stationed on the island?"

"It was a Progenitor Heritage Site. They were digging up all sorts of things in those days. Mostly bricka-brak. But Progenitors aren't exactly known for their kind attitude to posterity. A lot of it was booby trapped. You needed some pretty smart folks down there when you're sitting on a nuclear landmine."

He paused and messaged his neck with his good hand. Shepp's eyes took on a wistful appearance.

"Shepp, you said you picked her."

Her offered me a smile. His teeth were tiny and square.

"When they needed to go to sleep or stay awake they came to me. I was a little lax in protocol. They liked that. Mental illness is a big taboo in the army. No one wants to admit they're weak, you know? I found they they were all looking for an escape from something."

"What was it?"

"A woman. They all dreamt about a woman. Sometimes she'd be a manipulative former girlfriend. Sometimes they'd be an over bearing mother. Or a friend that had died in combat. But man and woman alike, they all had nightmares about her. They all tried to escape in their own ways. Some self medicated themselves into dreamless stupor. Some tried to avoid sleep altogether."

"And you?"

He stood before me and placed his hands on the bars of his cell.

"I chose not to medicate myself. Probably the only damn one on the island. I knew what I was getting into. I picked her."


He shrugged and looked away. I knew there was more to it than that. Maybe he had wanted to revisit a woman lost in his life, if only in dream. Maybe he just was mentally ill and lacked the emotion of fear.

"Shepp, you poisoned Aeolus. Didn't you? When you stabbed him." I asked, already knowing the answer.

He didn't reply, but he instead stared through me.

"I'm going to die here. Aren't I. In this cell." Shepp said to himself as his knuckles whitened.

"Shepp. What did you poison Aeolus with?"

He locked eyes with mine for a brief moment and I thought he was going to spill the beans. But instead he smiled and made for his cot. He eased himself down and looked at the ceiling.

"My dear, you should probably leave this terrible place."

Her study of the field journal was short lived. Before she became too engrossed with the tome I ushered her back to her meager bed in the barracks across camp. I helped her move the heavy literature and carefully instructed her to hide the books beneath her clothes in the tiny thing that passed for a dresser.

I didn't explain why she needed to do this, but she nodded dumbly at me as if I were her mother. I knew that it was Altima's strange dark magic working its terrible wonders already, but I refrained from touching her mind again to make sure.

She was polluted now. I wondered to what degree Ilythia's mind would feed the beast that now lived within it. I vowed to myself never again to reach out and touch the safe warmth that she had once been. It was mostly out of fear of the mutation Altima was to undergo as she consumed the personality of the little girl. But there was a lingering bit of guilt. I was partly responsible for her mind's subversion. It seemed to only cross more moral borders to violate it after the fact.

Ilythia was in a haze as we walked the short distance between her living accommodations and the medical barracks. The sun had slipped below the horizon on my walk over and the stars were just beginning to wink on above head. She stopped several times to stare at them through the forest canopy, her mouth agape.

"They're just stars," I said when she failed to realize I was walking too far ahead of her. Taking several long strides I returned to her and put my arm around her shoulders. It only took some gentle pressure to shepherd her the last dozen yards. "You've seen them plenty of times."

She craned her neck backwards as we walked, but ultimately complied. As the bright lights within the medical barracks hit her eyes a little bit of herself returned. I parted the curtain that gave Aeolus a tiny bit of privacy in his hospital bed and gently pushed her in.

We found him was laying down, looking miserable and pale. He smiled and tried to prop himself up when we entered, but ultimately needed Wind's help. I approached him and planted a kiss in the middle of his forehead. It was clammy.

"Hey," I whispered. "How you doing, soldier boy?"

He offered a little chuckle as Wind adjusted a couple of pillows behind his back. "Never better."

I shot a look to Wind, who caught it expertly.

"He's responding poorly to the wide spectrum antibiotics we've been applying. I don't have the equipment here to make a proper diagnosis. If I knew what it was maybe I could target it more efficiently and root it out." He grabbed a wet wash cloth from the bedside and dabbed Aeolus' face and neck. "I took a blood sample to your university. The medical lab is going to do a culture and get back to me in a day or two."

I looked back at Ilythia who was staring into space. Her face was blank and void of any human emotion.

"Wind says I'll be fine. Stop worrying them. You always do that.. you pessimistic.."

"Hey," I started. "Don't start." I put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed it softly as I lowered myself into a seat next to him and Ilythia. I bumped her on purpose and it seemed to snap her back to reality.

"Yeah," she chimed in. "You're not going to get better if you're fighting everyone."

He waved his arm dismissively, but apologized.

Wind didn't seem concerned with either argument. He had his physician's hat on and with it came a cool sense of self control. He was professionally detached, even though his patient was his best friend. Pouring Aeolus some ice water from a pitcher on the night stand he offered me a fatherly look.

"What about the guy at the bar?"

"He's still in a townie jail cell sweating it out. General Drummand is pushing for them to hand him over to our custody so we can hold a military trial. She wants to charge him with assault on a military officer with a deadly weapon. The mayor, the little prick, is crying that I wasn't on duty. So it should be a civil case in their court."

"Makes sense to me." I offered quietly.

He shrugged before taking the glass of ice water from Wind.

"He could rot here in that little cell for all I care. Prison or gallows? To me it doesn't matter. I just don't want that bastard somewhere were he can't repeat his mistake."

"You never told me why he stabbed you." I asked, already knowing the real answer.

"Strange thing. The only thing he said to me was 'My gift to you, Captain Aeneas.' Then.."

His hand roamed to a freshly bandaged abdomen.

"After that I broke his arm like a twig."

A grin spread across his handsome face and I was left taken back.

Why would Altima speak through the Aeolus' assailant? What purpose would it serve other than uncovering her own motives? She was an arrogant, spiteful creature with more malice than I'd have thought possible for any being. But she wasn't stupid. I wondered why she'd bother to speak to him at all.

"Deserved it." He said in a matter of fact tone with a shrug and then sipped his ice water. He immediately went into a coughing fit.

Ilythia and I stood up as Wind took the glass from his hand. He pulled Aeolus foreward and began patting him on the back.

"Calm down," he said. "Don't drink so fast."

As he hacked and heaved Ilythia's face went slack again. Through his coughing fit I heard something. It was faint and hard to detect at first, but as I focused it became clearer and clearer. Beneath the coughing there was a distinct metallic rasp.

I groomed myself especially well and curled my hair into tight ringlets that stuck plastered to my head as was the fashion at the time. The person who stared at me in the mirror as I lanced the curling iron through my hair seemed to be another person with alien eyes and a faintly malicious curve to their lips. It wasn't something nearly as strange as Altima's queer and malevolent influence. No, it was something altogether different. The foundation that I was had been fundamentally changed through my recent experiences. The Wendy of a year ago had died sometime in the past several months.

Would I even recognize myself had I through some black magic traveled through time? I doubted it. Even the way that I seemed to carry myself was different. My posture was better and my reflection regarded me with cool confidence, even though my heart was fluttering like a bird in a cage.

It disturbed me, but I was grateful for my silent and terrible metamorphosis. It was in all likelihood the thing that would save us all from a fate that I shuddered to think of.

I emptied my school bag and filled it select tomes from the library of her madness. I made certain the first issue that was secured was the one that started it all. The relatively thin and worn field journal written by a man who long ago succumbed to the silence of the grave, perhaps by her guiding hand. It was strange to think that such an inconspicuous thing had driven Hanz and Gerald to the brink of Hell. But there it was, it's weight in the mind ether which I trawled heavy and solid.

The mess hall, recreation area and enlisted barracks were often occupied by noisy soldiers. So we met in the nearly abandoned medical barracks. It was Ilythia that I found first, fidgeting next to an empty cot that her brother had been occupying the past week.

"Wendy! Hi." She greeted with a warm smile and a wave. "I love your hair!"

I smiled absently and took a seat next to her, asking where the boys had run off to.

"Oh. Aeolus and Wind are in the examination room. You just missed them. He's just in for a check up and a dressing change. Nothing serious. They'll be out in a little while."

Of course. Had Altima arranged such a strange coincidence? If she was capable of temporarily possessing a drunkard into stabbing a man that didn't seem too far a stretch of the imagination.

"I'm kind of glad they're weren't here." I started before swallowing a lump in my throat. I was growing increasingly nervous, but I hid it beneath a cool facade. "I wanted to talk to you."

The book bag was discarded between the two of us. I fiddled with the latch and slowly produced the field journal that started it all. To her it was would have been some ugly book, but to me it had become a monstrous and vile thing. Her eyes seemed to glaze over as they made contact with the stenciled title.

I slipped it into her waiting hands.

"I know you're never in one place for very long because of Aeolus. But I figured that while you're here you might as well get some use out of our library. I just checked this out. For you."

She ran her thin fingers over its cover and breathed in deeply. She looked from the book to me innocently and a weight settled on my shoulders. It was a crushing ton of bricks that I feared would never leave me.

"Wendy," she started as she cracked the cover. "Thank you so much. That's.. sweet."

The scent of leather and ancient paper wafted up to our nostrils and we breathed in the intoxicating intellectual scent. She turned the first page and immediately her eyes shot to the strange red scrawl that was the catalyst for her madness.

"I've seen it before, though." She looked up with a confused expression on her face. "At my boyfriend's place."

I smiled knowingly and placed my hand on her bare knee.

"I know."

She gasped and closed the book in surprise.

"I'm not going to tell Aeolus or Wind, don't worry. I've seen you with them. It's my college too, you know.

"It'll be our little secret." I squeezed her knee as I stretched into her mind, groping more or less blindly. The innards which I touched were soft and supple but the biggest sensation that I gathered was a warmth that I hadn't experienced in more than two decades. It was how one would imagine the womb.

Was that what attracted Altima's gaze? The girl was like an open book and she gazed at me dumbly as I gingerly touched everything from her earliest memories to her more recent emerging lust for Gerald's body and Hanz's soft lips.

I retreated and she sucked in a breath loudly.

"Promise?" She said, suddenly in reality.


"...am I doing anything wrong?"

"If your brother had two girlfriends, would his men think him immoral? Or would they call him a hero? No. Ilythia, what you're doing is perfectly natural. You don't need to explain yourself, especially to Aeolus or I. It's a stupid, old fashioned double standard that people stick to, even in these times. You have your fun. you have a right to it."

She smiled. I couldn't help but crave another trip into that beautiful mind of hers. I wanted to experience what she did those nights she laid with my Hanz and Gerald. Not out of morbid curiosity, but out of my own vanity. I wanted to see Aeolus' face when he was a mere boy. Above it all I wanted to sit amongst the museum of memories and just rest.

"But you should read the book. When you're done you can go through these." I returned to the reason why I had hauled the sack of literature into the camp. I began fishing them out of the bag and stacking them on the floor beside her.

She cracked open the field journal again with her thumb, flipping absently through the pages. I had to strain to hear it in the mind ether, but it was there. A faint clockwork heart ticking away.

It didn't live within me or some temporarily possessed stranger. The faint and ominous noise came from Ilythia's wide open mind. I smiled sadly as her eyelids fluttered and unbeknownst to her a tiny smirk formed in the corners of her mouth.

I visited Aeolus when time permitted and a week bled away. My routine was kept in check by the regular ticking of class, exams and responsibilities unrelated to my increasingly strange personal life. I grew more and more attached to Ilythia and Wind and they likewise welcomed me into their family. We would play cards by Aeolus' bedside when he was done grumbling about feeling like a cripple. His condition slowly improved, although he developed a slight infection that had to be treated with antibiotics.

It was at the end of the week that I found myself soaking in the bath tub that I shared with my boys when Gerald slipped into the room. It had been a stressful day of exams and lectures, so when he started unbuttoning his shirt I waved him away.

"Not now, I'm not in the mood."

It was then that I noticed a glassy look over his eyes. He ignored me and stripped down.


He turned and quietly slipped into the waters opposite to me. It took a moment for his eyes to rotate and meet mine. They had a peculiar look about them. It was when his lips curled into a soft smirk that I realized that Gerald wasn't home. He swirled the water absently with his index finger.

"You." I growled, feeling a cold sweat begin to bead on my brow.

"Don't be so dramatic, dear." She said with a voice that was distinctly not Gerald. It was a strange thing, seeing those words spill out of his mouth. The voice was authoritarian, cold and distinctly female. "It's not exactly like this should be a surprise for you."

"You stabbed Aeolus. What am I supposed to be, cheery?" I barked. I wrapped my arms around the edge of the tub and made it clear I wasn't budging. I was in charge. This seemed to bring her immeasurable pleasure as that smirk laughed softly.

"Listen. I did you a favor. With him out of the picture for a couple of days his little investigation will suffer. That's longer you get to spend with Hanz and Gerald before he takes them away in bondage. Plus, I didn't exactly kill him. If you haven't noticed, I know the human body quite well."

"I don't think you did anything for me."

"No. You're right. I needed to buy myself time. I needed to... prepare myself."


"You're going to visit them tonight."


"You're not going to play cards."

I narrowed my eyes into slits as she moved Gerald's feet around playfully in the water. She leaned closer to me. I could see that Gerald's body was sweating heavily. The water was warm, but nowhere near hot.

"You're going to read them a story."

It sucked the life from me as the creature behind those now cruel eyes regarded me. Was she really asking me to do what I suspected was the plan all along? Did she really want me to deliberately spread her influence to Aeolus and his family?

"No." I said quietly.

"No? We had this discussion before."

I marshaled all of my courage and shifted my gaze to her. It was easier to have my suspicions by in the future and vague. But now they were very much in the present and concrete.

"I'm not going to give Aeolus." I said.

She just laughed.

"Oh my, sweet heart. You're really not that stupid are you? Aeolus? Now why would I want that emotionally damaged barbarian? He was damaged goods long before I came to these parts. No, thank you. You may find his type appealing, what with his masculine stink and his big, hunky muscles but I find his sort repulsive.

"No. My dear, I want Ilythia. The little bird that tweets on his shoulder. Similar genes, different gender. Different mind. "

Ilythia wasn't unintelligent. But she was young and from a different culture. She was naive and young. It fit Altima's M.O. to want such a person. Hanz wasn't exactly the most forceful individual on the face of the earth. It disturbed me to think of the terrible things she'd do to that girl.

I clutched the side of the tub and tried to draw strength from it's unmoving bulk. Altima sloshed with Gerald's body and continued to play footsie beneath the soapy water.

"They're mine." I said and felt instantly silly.

"You're going to play this card? No, you're not. Don't get into a dick wagging competition with me, sweetheart." She said as droplets of Gerald's sweat began to fall into the soapy surface of the tub. "Because I have the biggest pecker of them all."

She eased back and clutched the sides of the tub. Our hands touched just barely.

"You claimed Gerald and Hanz. Fair enough. They were mine, but they're not useful to me in the long term. My control over them is fleeting and I've taken enough from them to grow stronger. Yes. You may have my seconds if you'd like.

"But five? No. Your little harem cannot grow to accommodate everyone I set my eyes on. Or else before long you'd have a very big harem indeed. I don't think you have the kind of moxie one would need to control so many. You may be like me, but you are not me."

She narrowed her eyes. I saw the muscles in Gerald's face twitch and strain. I stretched my mind into the narrow space between us and clawed at the mind ether. The predator that was her real self was reserved. I kept my distance for fear of drawing her attention in the realm which I was must vulnerable. But it felt more powerful, yet more restrained. She was a loaded gun with the safety on.

I had long suspected she would one day ask for my participation. I had argued with myself over what I would do when the time came. But I had already made my decision and I didn't want to continue to prance around, indecisive and feigning ignorance. I had decided that I would give them to her for the sake of my Gerald and my Hanz. To be able to spend one quiet evening alone with them. To lay with them one time without her there in the shadows watching us and guiding their hands on my body.

I stood up. She stared at my body hungrily and I fed on that.

"I'll bring you to them. But you've found a new home. You're going to leave us alone."

"Absolutely." She said while staring at my breasts.

"And when they leave, you're going with them." I stepped out of the tub and picked up my towel and started to dry myself off.

"Oh, I don't know about that." She said. "I think I'll always be with you. If just a little."

I turned to face her again, but she had vacated Gerald's body and retreated to where ever she went when outside of their minds. A worried expression creased his face as his eyes darted around.

"Wendy. You're not really going to do that. Are you?"

Offering him a sad smile I could only wrap the towel around myself and prepare for that evening.

It only took me a moment to make it back to the common area. I was just in time to watch Aeolus in the center of a panicked crowd snap a man's arm in a direction that gave it extra elbows. I didn't recognize him, but he locked eyes with me in that terrible moment just before his face contorted into an expression of agony. I didn't know the man, but in that moment I caught a whiff of familiarity. I may not have known the face, but I knew those expressive eyes and what was behind them. It was her. She was smiling at me.

Aeolus pulled the man's arm down and smashed it on the bar several times before another sickening, wet snap ended the struggle. A blood soaked knife fell to the floor with a clamor. He tried to strike Aeolus in the head with his undamaged arm, but he doubled over as Aeolus landed a blow to his gut, knocking the wind out of him. I rushed from the entryway, the first among many who received the unspoken "all clear" to get involved. I had to push my way through the crowd.

"What happened!" I shouted as I reached Aeolus. Several men who looked like they could have been on Hedgeball scholarships were restraining the man with man ruined arm. Someone shouted the police were on their way.

"Don't know," he said with a strained smile. His eyes drifted from mine to the man who was struggling and cursing on the floor. But mob justice had taken over and the crowd was galvanized. He wasn't going anywhere. "He just came from nowhere."

Aeolus stumbled backwards a little and half collapsed on a bar stool. It was then that I noticed he was clutching a patch of blood soaked suit on his abdomen. I'd like to say panic rushed through me, but a strange calm took root as I drew closer and put my hand over his. I could feel his pounding pulse.

"What did he do? Are you going to be okay?" I asked. I knew that it was a serious wound, but his face was growing pale and I wanted to keep him engaged.

"Me? No. My favorite suit is ruined." He laughed pathetically and winced as pain rippled through his face. "Sorry. I don't know. I don't think so."

I stayed with him and kept him talking until the police and doctor arrived. The man with a ruined arm was bound, gagged and dragged off before the pub was cleared and its occupants interviewed. After awhile several serious looking legionnaires arrived and began throwing their weight around. Aeolus almost seemed embarrassed.

The rest of the night passed in a blur. It turned out that the wound was fairly serious, but the peritoneal cavity had not been punctured. I was told that he was lucky, if the knife had been only a fraction of an inch longer, or had Aeolus not been in that precise position he might have had more serious complications.

I met his friend Wind when we both eased a grimacing but fairly well drugged Aeolus into a cot in the medical barracks back at the encampment. He was a slender man with expressive green eyes, oil black hair and a compassionate round face. He had listened calmly to the legionnaire who had been assigned to escort us on the carriage ride over and to my retelling of the story.

"It's by grace that you hadn't had more to drink," he said while he wet a washcloth and dabbed Aeolus' pale, sweaty brow. "Or else the horrible man would have had his way with you."

I thought of my earlier attempts at loosening his lips through alcohol and wrenched the bottom hem of my dress in my fists. If I had been successful I might have actually been partly responsible for his death.

Had Altima really been responsible for the stabbing? I thought of the poor man who would in all likelihood never receive a fair trial and would ultimately find himself occupying a dank cell for the next twenty years. I wondered if her influence had grown beyond Hanz and Gerald, or if the control she wielded over the stabber had been a fleeting thing.

"Yeah. Well." Aeolus mumbled, waving Wind's dotting aside. "That didn't happen. I'm going to be fine. I'll be back to work before you know it."

Wind offered a little smile and put his hand reassuringly on Aeolus' shoulder.

"I'm sure you are."

"You're damn straight. And when I piss out all these drugs I'm going to throttle that son of a.."

"Hey, Aeolus."


"I love you. Now shut up."

He bent down and kissed him on the forehead and squeezed his shoulder. That seemed to relax him. I got up and stood next to Wind, whom I had several inches on. Aeolus reached up and took my hand. He tried to squeeze it firmly, but the blood loss and drugs had sapped his strength.

"I'm lucky you were there. I'm sorry our date was ruined, I'll make it up to you. I promise." He said while his eyelids fluttered.

I offered a half smile and held his hand firmly. He slipped into a restful sleep before I could think of anything to say.

"Come on," Wind said while he drew a sheet up to Aeolus' chest. "Let's get some coffee. I'm sure it's been a long night for you."

We left the medical barracks after Wind sidled up to an army nursed and discreetly asked her to keep an eye on him and to make sure he didn't try to leave. The mess hall was closed, but he banged around for a couple of minutes and met me at a table with two cups of steaming coffee and some thick slices of banana bread.

"Best Isyr has to offer. Made from the finest dehydrated bananas, powered milk and faux butter money can by." He smiled and added several tablespoons of sugar into his coffee. "It's really not that bad. Really. Scout's honor."

The bread was so-so, but I enjoyed the smell of the instant coffee and soaked up its warmth. The mug felt good in my hands. It was warm, solid and comforting.

"I appreciate you looking after him. You did a good job." He said and genuinely seemed to mean it.

"He wouldn't have gotten involved had he not been with me in the first place." I said awkwardly. He just shrugged.

"If he was here he could have tripped and fallen on a broken bottle. If he was on a march he could have fallen into a ravine. Things happen. No use beating yourself up over something that wasn't your fault."

He was a sweet man. The kind of person everyone wishes they had for a friend. He had an air of intellectual authority, but without the arrogant baggage that all too often accompanies it. I began to feel at ease with him and relaxed. The anxiety of the night dissolved a little and lost its sharp edge.

"Where's Ilythia?" I asked after a little silence.

"Asleep. She would have just wound Aeolus up and fretted over the situation. No, I'll accept her wrath in the morning. After they've both had a good night's rest."

"You all seem very close." I said quietly, remembering my own family. We weren't close at all. Especially since I left the nest.

"It happens. As far as we know, we're the only survivors of the disaster at Capital City. They lost their whole family that night. You clutch at what you have when you've lost so much. It's a miracle they came out the situation as well as they did."

I noticed the conspicuous way he said that they lost their family without mentioning his own. I saw the emotional baggage, but I figured it was better to let sleeping dogs lie. I thought about how close Wind and Aeolus seemed to be. They were as close as brothers. The three of them even looked like one another. They all shared the same eyes and hair. As I stared at him while I sipped the warmth of the instant coffee I could swear they even had the same nose.

We talked for a long time that night. I avoided his own family life, but we discussed Aeolus and his sister and Wind's time in the military. The flow of the conversation even turned back and I found myself confessing my own history to him. We sowed the seeds of a friendship.

Well after midnight my own drowsiness got in the way of the conversation. Wind smiled and offered to walk me to the campus. I politely declined. I dealt with an ethereal and ancient monster that possessed men on a daily basis and the walk was a short one. What did I have to fear?

He seemed to read this on my face. We hugged and he invited me to visit Aeolus when class permitted. He said that he needed all the help he could get to keep him put.

With that I left for home and the madness which it contained.

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