Finals were fast approaching and so I found it unusual that the library was as abandoned at it turned out to be. I only saw a couple of students milling around, largely on the ground floor where the more modern works were housed in newly constructed shelves. The antiques of yesteryear had met their splintered end during the terrifying murder that took place on their watch the year before. The shelves stood in stark contrast and just looked wrong and out of place.

I knew the subject that drove my boys and what they needed to get their literary fix. So I climbed the grand staircase of what had become our second home. I stopped at the normally abandoned mezzanine level and strolled through its ancient and creaking shelves and its antique, disused furniture.

The mezzanine itself was small and little more than a balcony, but the space it occupied was used efficiently and it housed the some of the oldest public pieces of literature in the nation.

I found them in the rear. They jostled one another in an attempt to read a book that was splayed out before them like an anatomy subject. Gerald's mouth moved slowly with the words, but Hanz seemed far more interested in the texture of the yellowed paper and its surely dusty stink. I hadn't been careful in my approach, but I had gone unnoticed. I stood there in the quiet and watched them, slowly turning from view.

My heart was throbbing in my chest and I felt it could betray me at any moment. It had never occurred to me why their thoughts had become so transparent and tangible. The queer ether from which I plucked them seemed to exist solely in one direction and between the three of us. So I was surprised when I felt another mind brush up against mine. It wasn't a penetration, but instead a quiet acknowledgement. It wasn't too unlike two ships passing in the night.

I heard Gerald breathe in deep. Even though I couldn't see his face I imagined a suspicion crawl across it. I didn't dare use my new and strange gift for fear of further discovery. If he had been able to detect my presence through sheer force of will, what would he be able to do if I touched my mind to his? Perhaps some of his transparency would rub off on me and that would have been a terrible thing.

I tried to steady myself and I put on the widest smile I could. I stepped into the lions den with open arms. It was the only way to get what I needed.

"There you two are," I whispered half because of the sheer atmosphere of the ancient place of learning and half out of few of a cracking voice. "hiding back here like two schoolboys in class."

An expression of joy washed over Hanz's face and he moved from his perch over their project to embrace me. Gerald watched me with a weary eye, his hug and smile fake and awkward. It was clear that he had detected something in me. I was by far no actress, but I feigned ignorance to his plastic affection.

"I thought you had class?" He asked as he marked their place with a book thong and closed the cover. The worn gold stenciling was in a language I did not recognize.

I smiled and took a seat. They both remained standing. My heart was still fluttering in my chest like a dying bird in a cage. It took all of my self control not to flee. I knew that if Altima really had control over them I stood no chance at fighting them both off. I looked for her in their eyes and caught an alien flicker of personality. She was brooding and scowling at me through their faces.

"I might have skipped class." I winced for their benefit. "I know, I know. I'm sorry.. but I can't get somethings off my mind and I need some time to think. About last night."

I told a half truth. I had skipped class, but I had opted to study my notes and visit the alluring man who slept in the woods and smelled of gun oil and musk.

"One of the books you have me reading is really detailed. I think I need to check out something related.. maybe by the same author. So I can better understand the material. It's.. very interesting. I can't stop thinking about it." I offered a smile that I feared was as clear as glass. "It's like I'm going crazy."

Gerald didn't seem convinced. But my Hanz, my beautiful and trusting Hanz smiled and stood up straighter. He seemed almost chipper, eager to help.

"You need help finding it?" He offered, ready to disappear into the jungle of the index to locate anything I needed.

"Oh. No thanks. I can find something myself. You boys have enough work to do already. I feel terrible interrupting you. I just need your library card. I lost mine somewhere."

My words felt wooden and fake. I tried not to stare at Gerald as he walked around the table toward me, but it was Hanz who shoved in hand in his pocket and produced his wallet.

"Sure." He said simply and handed the card over. "Here you go."

Was that it? How could it have been so easy? I took it in my hands and offered a smile.

"Thanks, sweetheart."

Gerald looked down on me, his eyes half open and his face unusually slack. He looked like another person. He reminded me of those terrible people stricken with the plague that he and Hanz had studied so feverishly at the university.

"Wendy, are you okay? You seem.. a little sick. Kind of weak."

He said in an articulate voice that somehow seemed off. It was Gerald, but it was also wrong. He put the back of his hand on my forehead and bit his lower lip as I had never seen him do. A wash of excitement flowed through me as I stared into his eyes. I wanted him. Thoughts of us embracing in our tiny bed flashed through my mind.

Without forethought I caused my mind to brush up against his. Or perhaps it was something else, a gravity between the two that drew them closer.

The whole thing was boiling hot, a scalding firestorm that had only barely a whisper of the Gerald I knew and had fallen in love with. I gasped a little and jumped back in my seat. A smile slowly creased his face.

I stuttered a little, looking up at him with wide eyes. The face of a predator stared down at me and I had a realization. I wasn't speaking with my Gerald any longer.

The burning hot mind before me reached out, an ugly and terrible thing. It enveloped my own mind and seized me. I could feel my muscles tighten and my face harden. I purposefully blanked my mind and suppressed my fear.

I could feel a wiggling in the back of my head and a trickle of memories seeped from me. Nothing too revealing, but hints of my activities throughout the past week. Before I knew what I was doing I stood up laughing nervously. It was a knee jerk reaction that I had no control over.

The connection was abruptly cut off. This caused a slight sneer from Gerald and his eyes grew cruel. But that too was gone in the snap of a finger. Suddenly he roared back and looked dazed. I didn't dare reach back out to confirm the scalding force was absent.

I assured them that I was okay, just a little tired and eager to return home with a good book. They seated themselves and I left them there in that terrible place as I found them, with an open tome and an increasing madness. But I had what I had come for.

The tenth day was weary and worn. It was the type of afternoon that gave birth to the old adage April Showers Bring May Flowers. I combated this by wearing the best sun dress I had in my wardrobe. It was all yellows and soft orange. But the rain didn't seem to get the hint and it stuck to my glasses in big fat drops when it was spit out of the sky in smatterings. They were joined by a damp chill in the air.

The day had an optimism about it and a promise of future beauty and growth, but nevertheless the reality was dismal and it was hard to imagine future glory. I thought it was an interesting parallel to my situation as I left campus toward the camp that had been established for the garrison of soldiers.

They were located just out of sight behind a lovely wooded ridge, full of wild blueberry bushes and birch. Some dirty and stubborn fragments of snow still clung in those wet, forested shadows and I avoided them as if I feared their disturbance might summon winter once more.

The soldiers largely kept to themselves. Occasionally you'd see them in loud, rowdy groups through the town center or standing like statues outside the library and admission offices. They were a presence, but little more than that. Usually they kept a respectful distance from the student body and as I entered the camp that much remained true.

I caught glimpses of secured machines of war, some draped in camouflage tents and some out in the open as oil slicked engineers tended to their delicate machine parts. They were scary, disturbing things and why they found it necessary to deploy them to our sleepy little corner of the empire was beyond me. I caught a couple curious looks before a feisty little woman in military fatigues confronted me. She was polite, but firm and her posture quickly became ramrod and all business. She in not so many words made it clear she wanted to know why I was strolling through their garrison.

I asked for Aeolus Aeneas and I was met with a slight scowl. She looked as though to say You should know better, dear. Army men are all alike. She led me away from the center of camp to a stocky, modular building on the outskirts. It's industrial exterior was stenciled with the words "Mechanized Armor Unit 567 / The Fighting Barbarians" in a neat and crisp font. She cracked the door open for a second and poked her head in.

"Aeneas! Visitor. Don't take all day, you lazy dog. I want you back here in thirty. You hear me? Not a second more. That's enough time for you to get your jollies these days, right princess?" She barked in a voice too loud and throaty for a woman of her unassuming size.

Laughter erupted from the unseen interior. The tiny woman's head emerged and she examined me quickly. It took her a second to grade and dismiss me before disappearing from the direction we came.

It didn't take too long for Aeolus to stick his head out. A look of surprise and happiness spread over his face as the rest of his body followed. He was dressed in clean fatigues. His armor was missing, but he was probably off duty.

"Hi. I hope I didn't get you in trouble?" I said, nervous that the little army woman was his commanding officer or something equally as ridiculous.

He hugged me quickly and started to lead me away from the camp.

"Of course not, no." He croaked.

It was clear my visit to the barracks made him uncomfortable. I tried to imagine why, it wasn't difficult to assume it was the pubescent culture that they seeped in. He'd probably earn his fair share of razzing once it was made public that Aeolus was courting a real woman.

"I'm sorry I haven't seen you since last week. It's been really busy around here and I figured you'd like the opportunity to think." He started, fidgeting a little. It was cute, if a bit annoying. "About if you wanted to go out again. That is. About that. Do you? Oh! I'm sorry. That was stupid."

I smiled and put my arm through his, leaning on his shoulder. It seemed to give him some confidence.

"Of course I do. You're not the only one who has responsibilities. I'm sorry it took me so long to see you." I offered, referring to academic and personal studies cryptically. He took it at face value.

We chatted, he complimented my dress and we made plans to get together that weekend. He suggested dinner and dancing again, but I offered that we see a nickelodean. That seemed to give him immeasurable pleasure. There was a moment a second later where he looked a little down trodden.

"I might have to cancel. We're investigating something and I might have to help out." He said quietly.

"Investigating something? What?" I asked and stopped walking. I was a little concerned. I was fully aware of why they had been deployed in the first place. Moreover, when I tore the conversation from Gerald and Hanz from the mind ether I had gained suspicions of what might have been the cause.

He pulled away and kept walking for a couple more steps before coming to a stop. He turned and offered a little smile. It was fake and sad.

"I'm sorry. I can't talk about it. But if I have to cancel I'll let you know that morning and I'll make it up to you. I promise."

"Is it about the school?"

He held up a hand as if to say just stop already. He lowered his voice and looked at me dead in the eyes. I caught a little bit of regret in there. I knew he was kicking himself for letting himself slip up and spill the beans. He wasn't just putting his relationship with me in jeopardy, but his livelihood.

"Wendy. I'm sorry. But no."

Growing a little annoyed I cocked my head and let one of my hands come to rest on my hip.

"I have a right to know. It's my school." I softened my expression and sighed a little "Plus, you know me. I can keep a secret."

His eyes softened a little and I could see him think. The process was transparent. I saw the fact dawn on him that indeed, no, he didn't know me. We had shared a breakfast, a dinner and a kiss. Nothing more. He wasn't going to risk his career for a woman whom he had just met the previous week.

"No." He said as his face hardened a fraction. "Just drop it."

It was clear that the art of manipulation was lost on me. He didn't budge. It took a couple of moments of tense staring for him to sigh and crumple a little.

"I'm really sorry. I need to get back. I'm on duty in a couple of minutes." He walked up to me and moved in for a kiss. I let him brush his lips against my cheek. Closing my eyes, I wish I had the humility to admit defeat and give him more. But I was prideful and angry he hadn't told me what was going on. That seemed oddly secondary to my commitment to my boys.

I savored the feeling of his wet lips on my cheek and I breathed in deep. His gun oil stink was becoming strangely appealing.

"See you soon?" He asked, putting his hand on my elbow softly.


"Okay, good. I'll meet you there."

He released me and walked back to his camp. I didn't turn and watch him go. Instead I returned to my own world and abandoned his. I walked through the woods toward university and by proxy the library. I needed something.

To say that I grew confident would be an understatement. I was borderline cocky and I admit a small curl of a smirk materialized on my lips as I felt the queer power of those stacks of literature diminish before me. They didn't evaporate altogether, but instead regrouped and watched me like a viper from a den. Knowing its venom was no less potent even through its weakness I opted to abandon our dorm.

As I exited the building I pulled on my parka and admired the shafts of light the warming sun cut through the heavy cloud cover. It looked like rain, but there was a strange electricity in the air and a sharp tang of ozone.

I strolled the grounds, observing soldiers run through their drills and students cramming before the start of the school week beneath the famous university willows and on antique benches. It wasn't difficult to think, it all just churned in my mind and the logic flowed. There was an unusual clarity about me that morning.

Was the ghostly influence produced by the books that now shared my home this enigmatic Altima that my boys feared and worshiped? If so, why was I unaffected from her cruel and terrible hand? Or was I? Was this just an elaborate illusion and she was indeed toying with me as my Hanz had pleaded?

The thought that I was mad was indeed a niggling doubt in the back of my mind. The truth of it scared me more than this Altima. At least I seemed to keep her influence at bay, with madness there was would have been an inherent flaw with me. Some terrible, long buried seed from a childhood trauma or chemical imbalance.

Jamming my hands into the pockets of my parka and bathing in a shaft of warming sunlight I came to the assumption that I might be going mad, but it was immaterial in the shadow of the alternative. I came to the realization that I had to do something. I couldn't just stand by like some cow in the face of the slaughterhouse, waiting patiently for my turn to be culled.

I shared my home with an incredible power that seemed to lust after influence and there was no promise that it would not raze my sensibilities at a later date. I decided that I would do my best and head it off. Even if it meant confrontation with my lovely boys who earnestly seemed to care about me through their growing madness.

In a snap decision I head off to the library. I wouldn't inform my boys of my decision, not yet. Her madness appeared to have taken root in their minds and even though her control of them seemed to be fleeting and tenuous at times I was not going to allow that abomination that went by the name of Altima to figure out my plans. Not before it was too late.

When I arrived I greeted Gerald and Hanz quietly with hugs and pecks on the cheek. I informed them that yes, it was foolish of me to reject their invitation. I made the excuse of fear of a pop quiz to study in a little out of the way alcove. When Hanz looked at me from behind the lip of his reading glasses and half-heartedly asked if I needed a study partner I politely declined. Gerald seemed satisfied with this answer, but Hanz looked uneasy. It was as if he could just barely grasp my thoughts but couldn't quite put everything together.

That of course was the start of it all. I was the master engineer of my own obsession that rivaled the intensity of theirs. We both held terrible secrets from one another and in some ways we mirrored the same objective. Our end goals stretched out before us with the final result of subversion of the loser. Of course they were likely unaware of their scheme such as the dark magic Altima had weaved through their minds. But that didn't make it any less dangerous.

I spent the rest of the week in a daze and it dissolved into nothingness. School became a chore that I unfortunately began to discard as my studies grew more intense. But progress was slow.
I placed their collected volumes of madness off limits, for fear of her influence. This unfortunately cut a swath through some of the best material available to me on the subject that seemed to unify those works, The Progenitors.

Everyone knew the story of the lost civilization from the deep past whose mysteries fueled our nation and its imperialist hunger. Their trinkets that we pulled from the earth, likely no more than garbage and disused machines to them had brought us from the era of horse and buggy to an hyper-industrialized nation state in the span of half a century. As such it seemed fairly reasonable to assume something else had been seeded in those depths beneath layers of sediment and sinking time. Something uncovered by these academics toiling deep beneath the earth hundreds of miles to the south, where their magnificent cities lay in ruins.

Little was actually known about them as a people and the best my research uncovered were little more than myths and legend. The most popular theory was that they were quite literally progenitors, ourselves before some great cataclysm and we were just scrambling in the carnage of the aftershock, trying to rebuild and regain some lost glory.

But I also became aware of alternative, fringe theories that piqued my interest fiercely. One academic in the era of enlightenment, a narrow band of time just after discovery of what appeared to be their charred and buried capital suggested that they were not human whatsoever. That The Progenitors were wholly alien to our world and came from elsewhere. Presumably from the gulfs between stars, he suggested. How one would live in such a dark place was beyond my imagination. But I supposed anything was possible, especially if these men were not men at all.

Another rival fringe group proposed that perhaps we shared a common ancestor. That they were just our older and wiser siblings who had since left for greener pastures and just so happened to leave us a couple of dirty and tattered hand-me-downs. Hand-me-downs that were even now enslaving our neighbors to the north and across the seas in through the fire of nuclear infernos.

I uncovered theories surrounding their destruction that ranged from civil war to pestilence, some even suggesting the enigmatic plague that stalked the south was a resurgence of the illness that had originally wiped them from the face of the earth and buried their wondrous cities of metal and radioactivity.

There was a lot of spin. Cults had invariably sprung up surrounding them and they thrived in the margins of society. As such most of the media I went through had to be disregarded as unreliable. Several whispered about ghosts and malicious forces beyond reason that seemed to match up eerily with the thing that lived on my table. But these were just rumor and whisper, nothing concrete. Science eluded most of these fanatics and they seemed wholly disinterested in the facts, instead peddling snake oil religion.

I formed a jewel of knowledge that changed daily and I protected it fiercely, always hiding my notebooks and remaining elusive in that cavernous gothic building which my two lovers stalked in search of their own twisted truth. Throughout the week they encouraged me to read from their volumes of madness and I humored them, pretending to lose myself in those pages while in reality I retreated to the back of my own mind, unaware of the red scrawl that belonged to the creature which paced nervously around my mind.

They seemed pleased and convinced that my grasp on reality lessened with each passing day and I resented them for their attempts of driving me mad. So I thought about Aeolus and the taste of his lips as a sort of revenge, even though I had not seen him since our first date. My mental infidelity drove stakes through my heart but it seemed worth it. Before the end of the week he became a sort of mental anchor. An anchor that I learned to crave almost as much as freeing my boys from the terror which stalked the three of us.

I lost the rest of the night in a strange haze. It was as if much of it had been torn from me. The next morning over breakfast breads and tea I struggled to recall what exactly had happened but I ultimately failed. Even the act of love making was largely missing and I only managed to cling to a few wonderful scraps like a greedy child to a piece of candy. I treasured and savored them as they reminded me that my connection to the boys was something real, however twisted and horrible it really was.

I tried stretching my mind again, to see if I could peer into the space between them once more. But the ability was beyond me. I thought that maybe I was indeed hallucinating as I munched on breakfast amid the towers of leather and ancient paper. They seemed ignorant of my telepathic failures and instead reveled in each other's fierce scribblings, largely ignoring me.

The long weekend was quickly dissolving and soon I would be hard at work once again. So when they started to talk to one another about returning to the library for some supplemental material I graciously declined their hasty invitation. I saw them off like a mother, making sure Hanz had buttoned his coat and Gerald was wearing the hat I had knitted the previous winter. I kissed them both and tried not to think of them as the sacrificial monsters which I guiltily suspected them of being.

They said they'd be back before lunch, all too eager to return to the terrible place from which their madness seemed to originate. But I simply smiled and agreed without mentioning that I suspected that was where they'd spend the remainder of the day and possibly a large part of the evening.

I sat for a long time in that tiny room, alone and thinking about the mysteries that were laying out before me. There were of course no answers, but only more and more questions.

The piles of books before me still seemed to have a gravity about them, but like an airship I seemed only aware of this and largely unaffected. The odd pull was missing, but their power was still evident. So it still took courage to snatch one at random and crack open the cover.

There was a curious scrawl on the first page in a familiar red ink.

"Dedicated to Admiral Constantine. You made such a beautiful old corpse. It's a shame the nation which you served so nobly was unable to offer the service for which you had fought so long for."

It was obviously written after the publication. I ran my hand along the lettering, staring intently at the strange book. The ink felt slightly damp and hot, like gummy water from a kettle that wasn't quite whistling. I wondered who this admiral was and why a vandal would bother dedicating a book to him after the fact. The fact that it was hot to the touch oddly did not seem to jump out at me. It was as if that was how it was supposed to be.

Slowly, I turned the page. The author introduced the subject at hand in the soulless print that a mechanized press could only accomplish. It was drawl and boring. But in the margins of his long winded science the vandal persisted.

"I really tire of these old men and their scribblings. Their frail bodies and their stink. They think they are part of something bigger than themselves. Whether it's their god, or gods, or their demented magisterium of science they're always looking for the truth. Whether it be in the creations of their "Progenitors" or the words of their puny prophets.

"What they do not realize is that they are nothing in the face of nothing. They are not even an ant before a skyscraper. They court the unknown with romance. These academics, they think they celebrate their own discoveries. But in reality it's the unknown, their ignorance of the universe that they celebrate. It's contemptible and should be a crime in their crude excuse for a civilization. Like an old hag proud to cling to the shreds of a bygone era they revel in the mud and think themselves intellectuals. Some even think themselves beyond this."

The language was harsh and critical. But the logic didn't seem far from the truth. I half expected to lapse into a daze like before when I was exposed to the strange books that my boys seemed so interested in. But I remained aware and fully lucid. The vandal seemed aware of this fact as she continued on the next several pages in fragments. Not wanting to tempt fate and valuing my own clarity I closed the book and pushed it well away.

It seems mad, but I felt it watching me. It was the same feeling from the previous night, when I dredged the mind ether between my two boys for clues as to what exactly was happening. It was predatory and strange. It advanced and I could feel its influence increase. It was challenging me.

I had the option to play dead or submit. As its wholly alien influence brushed against my mind a courage came over me and I refused both. Yes, it was a terrifying creature beyond any earth bound animal that I could imagine. But I stood toe to toe with it nonetheless.

Instinctively I balled a fist even though I felt no physical danger from the tome. But I drew strength from it as I squeezed my fingernails into the palm of my hand. I felt strong. I felt ready for it.

The presence, creature, idea, hallucination or otherwise rushed over me. I could hear the slow clockwork of its terrible heart trying to move in rhythm with my own. I could feel the red hot embrace of its mind snuggled up against my own. But it recoiled and I felt its power diminish.

I was left feeling like I had accomplished something. What exactly was beyond my guess. But it felt critical, like I had just escaped a burning building. A shudder climbed my spine and I was left wondering what had just happened.

Slinking through the student accommodations I felt like a teenager again. It was both exciting and embarrassing at the same time. There was a strange sense that the clock had been turned back to a simpler, but more crude time.

I avoided all the creaking floor boards and removed my shoes, knowing full well that if anyone heard or saw me they wouldn't be terribly interested in my appearance or extended curfew. But it felt like the right thing to do. I felt sneaky and figured I should act the part.

It was those actions that probably allowed me to get so close to the tiny dormitory that I shared with my boys without notice. I was fumbling with my key, trying to fish it out of my purse when I heard them arguing. At first they were muffled mumbles behind the heavy wooden door. But as I focused on Gerald's deep and confident voice and Hanz's staccato, rapid fire logic a queer thing happened. Like earlier in the evening I began to fish in the ether and I ripped their conversation from elsewhere.

"We can't afford to let her slip through our fingers, Hanz. She's too important. Without her she'd run amok without any self control and we'd both be where you were at when this whole thing started."

Gerald's mind was difficult to resolve, but I didn't think about it. It was a strange, alien thing. But it felt natural, like it was nothing more elaborate than putting my ear to a glass.

"You seem to think it's going to end up all right. That when this is all finished we're going to be some big, happy family. That's your problem. You always see whatever is most convenient to you personally. Well, I'm telling you now. I'm not impressed by your plucky logic or your plastic emotions.

"She is a predator. You of all people should know that. She's going to chew Wendy up and spit her out. Literally for all we know. She's not strong enough. Hell, you weren't. I sure wasn't. She's been amused with playing with her for this long. But when she's finished she's going to wind up a mindless little wind up toy. I don't want to turn her into that."

I crouched before the door which we shared and breathed heavy. There was a strange fog absent from their minds. Earlier in the day when I first reached out and stole words from Hanz's mind it was as if I was sticking my arm into a thick soup. But that polluting factor was conspicuously absent.

"It took weeks to turn you into a slave. It took hours to turn me. Who's to say she hasn't been trying this whole time on Wendy, but she's failed? Haven't you noticed she's changed, Hanz? She isn't as blood thirsty. We can actually think for ourselves now. This all started when we brought her into the mix. You told me she changed when I came in. Maybe she's strong enough. Maybe she changed Altima. Loosened her grip.

"Oh, by the way. Have you noticed a strange lack of dead librarians in the past year?"

I gasped and despite the chilly hallway I began to sweat. I wasn't attending the university when the macabre librarian homicide took place. But I was in town and everyone knew about the terrifying events that took place that night. The poor man had been dismembered while still alive and his pride and joy, an inspiring thousand year old library was butchered.

It was actually the reason Aeolus' unit had been deployed, to investigate and defend the town and university against whatever inhuman horror that been the cause. They never figured out who or what did it.

"She isn't a drug. She's a human being, damnit. She's not here to temper our insanity, Gerald. Regardless of how Altima has changed since Wendy came into our lives, we still have a responsibility to protect her."

My beautiful Hanz sounded indignant through that strange mind ether. He was almost furious.

"You started this. You wanted this. Don't you dare forget that and blame me. This whole crazy thing was started by you. Lonely little Hanz, sulking in his room because he didn't have any friends. Boo-hoo. You got them. You tore us both, Wendy and I from human society. You introduced us to whatever the hell Altima is and you changed us. For better or worse, you did it for yourself, Hanz.

"Now you have the gall to want it both ways? How did you expect us to pay for your classes? You made the choice to give your opportunity to Wendy. The only way you can get your way again is if she takes her like she took me."

The clouds were gathering in more ways than one. I could feel the throbbing anger that was boiling between my boys. Gerald's red hot anger was almost as if he had been wronged, a bitter toxic thing that I could nearly taste on the back of my pallet. Hanz indignant rage was largely projected self loathing, a vibrating type of thing not unlike a malfunctioning machine. It rattled my teeth and fingernails.

But there was something else, a third thing that stalked them both. It's influence was growing, spreading out and sinking its hooks into their emotions. It tempered their anger, but it didn't remove it. There was a strange clockwork ticking, a noise that grew so loud it nearly populated the audible world.

Instinctively I reached out again and touched it. The thing burned red hot in my mind and I flinched. But it was cooler than before, the pain perhaps eased by my previous encounter. So I ventured another grab and seized it. It struggled and burned, but I felt like I had some control over the strange thing. But just as quickly it escaped.

The thing, a being in the gulf between their minds was aware of me that much was clear. I felt a sense of dread creep over me. It tried to touch back, but it couldn't quite sink its claws into me.

I was scared. Who was Altima? And how exactly was she capable of "taking people" and "tearing them from humanity?" Up until then I had been under the impression our fights were minor and trivial, largely about who was supposed to do the dishes or a lone crass comment. Had their battle been hidden from me up until now? Or was this recent, sparked by Hanz's decision to return to school?

It was difficult not to run into the night and disappear. They talked about me being some sort of sacrifice and of the terrible horrors that befell the poor old librarian. But it was cold outside and my friends were few then, most of them were not students and a long, dark walk away in the town center.

I waited for a couple minutes, willing the strange thing that stalked my mind away. It eventually receded, but it did not disappear. Like a lion it hid in the scrub. Still dangerous and stalking, but removed from immediate danger. Gerald and Hanz did not resume their conversation and a quiet seeped into the hallway and my mind.

Still terrified I produced my key and shoved it into the lock. Turning it I entered. They looked up with bright shining faces from our small table. Books were piled high and their notebooks were full of furious scribbles.


I offered meekly, expecting something horrible to befall me. That some monster from a shadow would emerge and devour me. But it never materialized.

"Sweetheart, hello. Did you have a nice time?"

Hanz said as if his argument with Gerald had never occurred. I was left wondering whether I had imagined it. It didn't seem too far of a stretch that I might had been going mad and losing my mind. But it didn't feel like that.

He stood up and embraced me. After a moment Gerald joined us. His expression was likewise genuine and happy to see me. Every trace of the anger that existed before was wiped clean.

I mumbled an answer but I was too distracted by their roaming hands. They pounced on me like animals and rained kisses upon my neck and shoulders. I wanted to run away screaming. But my fear eased and it began to feel right. I eyed the ominous stacks of books on the table. It felt like they were watching me squirm and writhe with their eyeless spines. They had a gravity about them, a heavy dense thing.

Through fleeting concentration as I further lost myself in a tangle of quickly discarded clothes I felt its clockwork heart beating. I couldn't help but notice that every single one that I could see dealt with the Progenitors and their technological legacies. But that seemed so far away and insignificant.

It wasn't difficult to evade his questions about my unusual appearance. Thankfully Gerald remained elusive and I had always tried to be a smart dresser or else my deception would have otherwise been uncovered. So it wasn't out of the ordinary for me to beautify myself just for the sake of a quiet stroll or a lovely meal. The latter was of course true, but my meals in those days typically revolved around Gerald, Hanz or both.

I tried not to think of what the future would bring as I curled my hair into tight locks and dressed in ways that my mother would never in a million years approve of. Every fiber of my body ached as I went through the ritual of making myself the image of a woman. I knew it was immoral and emotionally negligent of me. But I couldn't stop. Something compelled me to visit the strangely disarming but otherwise ordinary man and join him in dinner and dancing.

I left with some hollow excuses of a student function and meeting with a friend, a quiet I love you and a promise of return before the evening was over. If Hanz suspected my plans were not pure he hid it well. He stretched, offered an earnest smile and looked at me with his big brown doe eyes.

It tore my heart from my chest when he said I looked beautiful and that he loved me. I knew he meant it and I hated myself for an elaborate illusion that I began imagining wherein he was not sincere.

Despite my careful attention to detail I remained early to my dinner date. I milled around, amusing myself by people watching. The bistro was thankfully not my own previous employer, but a rival across town. I was careful not to drink too much, wanting to retain control over myself in the event that serious issues made themselves known.

Throughout my entire wait I watched the crowd and listened for familiar voices. Not just those of my boys, but those of my friends from a former life, or peers that were mutual friends with Gerald or Hanz. I didn't recognize anyone.

It was hard to recognize him at first, Aeolus. He materialized from the crowd populating the cracked flagstones around the hopping outside dining area. He wore a slick suit and had since shaved his stubble and styled his hair. I must admit he cleaned up nicely and barely resembled the rough and tumble man at arms that I barely knew. We exchanged greetings, he kissed my hand like a gentleman and we were seated. I lied and said my strapless dress gave me a chill in the cool spring air, hoping for an inside seat. A nice big booth were I could hide. We received it after he tipped the maƮtre d.

I watched him with a careful eye as we made small talk and as he ordered our refreshments. Surprisingly an intellectual shone through on brief occasions, but he quickly buried the persona with faux masculinity and back peddling.

He reeled me in and I became intrigued in the man. He was altogether different out of the tin can which the empire forced him to wear, even though he tried to create the illusion he was not. I quickly came to the impression he was much smarter than he was leading on.

"So, tell me about your family." I offered after we had both loosened up on wine. He eyes faltered ever so slightly.

"I lived in Empire City, before the accident. The service had me across the world when it happened." He said, referring to the nuclear firestorm that wiped the capital from the face of the earth.

I apologized, but he continued like I hadn't.

"My mother and father were probably there when it happened. Dad was a big wig in steel. He owned a slew of mills in there. They rarely left. The engineers that I've talked with said if they were home they would have never felt a thing," he shrugged and sipped his wine.

"Just a flash and.. woosh. But that was awhile ago. My sister and best friend made it out somehow, though. My C.O. lets them tag along with our unit, so long as they pull their weight. Ilythia, that's my sis, she works in the mess hall. Wind patches up whoever scrapes their knee or falls down a flight of stairs."

"Where are they now?" I asked, trying to play on the positive rather than the holocaust that crippled much of the empire.

"They're at the base." He smiled, swirling the wine in his goblet. "They're excited for me tonight."

A crass comment materialized in my mind, something that otherwise would not have been there. But I dismissed it. Instead I blurted it out.

"I'd like to meet them."

I said it without calculation or forethought, but I didn't regret it. The man before me was interesting now, he seemed like a character in a book. He was insightful and intelligent, but desperately pretended like he wasn't half of what I suspected he really was. His past was tortured, but just enough to make him interesting.

He blushed, but our food came before he could say anything.

We ate largely in silence, only complimenting the quality of the service or food. But our eyes met far too often over the flicking candle light of the bistro. I grew uncomfortable, but strangely excited. The man seemed to embody most of the qualities present in my boys, but he didn't carry the social and mental baggage of a polygamous relationship. It didn't take much to imagine him in my bed. I felt guilty, but that only seemed to make me more interested.

Over dessert and coffee a chattiness returned to us.

"Wind, your friend from Empire City. He's what, a nurse?"

"More or less. He's apprenticed with the regiment's doctors and councilors. He's a pretty good psych too. He's already picked me apart and stored little bits of my brain on a shelf, I'm sorry to say. With little labels and everything. "Aeolus' Childhood," "Aeolus' Fear of Clowns: Explained," and so on. He's a really smart guy, you'd like him."

His eyes narrowed and smiled. I lost myself in those emerald green beauties for a split second.

"But don't talk about me. I wouldn't want him to scare you off with embarrassing stories."

I laughed and finished off my cheesecake's crust.

"Oh my, now I definitely want to meet them."

I seriously offered to split the bill, but he wouldn't hear of it. He paid it in full and tipped generously and we left the bistro with my inner waitress impressed. The walk through town to the night club he had picked out was lovely. The streets were largely empty, save for the occasional couple or group of friends.

On impulse just as the night club came into sight and its band just barely became audible I kissed him. It was soft and fleeting, but on the lips with a flick of sensuality. But there wasn't too much involvement. I smiled at him, took his hand and lead the way to the club. I didn't regret it, but it wasn't who I was. I didn't operate on impulse. I thought about every action and every word that came out of my mouth, a legacy of my childhood.

We danced to modern music. He tried his best to keep up with me, but he had never seemed to be a social creature and I accepted that. We drank in moderation, but before we were done I was warm and jolly. Outside the club in the alley it shared with an old style pub he tried to initiate a kiss, but I coolly deflected him. Through my mild intoxication I knew what would happen if it went to pass. I imagined it more vividly than I thought possible, the eager groping and the clumsy copulation. But it made me feel guilty and wrong.

He seemed confused, but I offered a peck on his cheek and a sincere squeeze of his hand.

"It's late," I shouted over the band as they were just beginning to reach the peak of a popular new piece. "I should get home and catch some sleep."

He walked me to the campus from town. The air cleared my mind, but we didn't talk much. Once we were in sight of the lights of the student dormitories I declined an escort to my building. Mostly from fear of discovery, but also to avoid another clumsy attempt at a nightcap.

So we departed. He went back to his world and I went back to mine. We didn't make any further plans, but we both knew that night was only the start of it. We were both quite confident that there would be more chances and more nights out.

It took me most of the morning to work up the courage to return home. There were few places that I could escape to where Gerald or Hanz would fail to stumble upon me. So I abandoned the campus and the town, instead opting to be by myself in the wet chill that the birch wood and creeping mosses offered.

At first I was furious with myself and I raged once I disappeared into those cool morning depths, unable to fathom the decision that I felt was unavoidable, a freight train of misery. But before long my eyes ran dry and my apprehension slowly evaporated like a muddy puddle. I was left cracked and raw, but it felt good. It made me feel alive and free of whatever subversive force that had its claws buried in my mind.

After lunch I returned to campus and joined the crowds that milled about. It was a day of games and leisure. My peers enjoyed themselves in the little warmth the sun could spare. I smiled and waved to several of my class mates, but I didn't dare join their games for fear of another bout of crazed impulse. They blissfully had better things to do than pursue me.

After I had my fill and felt that I was human once more, I returned home. I found Hanz lounging on our tiny bed, a novel cracked in one hand. It was a science fiction serial that I didn't recognize. He rarely read anything nonacademic.

A smile creased his sweet face when I discarded my shoes at the door. A warmth welled up in my chest and I joined him on the bed, resting my head over his heart and inhaling his scents. He folded his book and set it on the nightstand, preferring an embrace to the wild imaginations of the deep future.

"Missed you." I squeaked.

He ran his hands through my hair and breathed in deep.

"You smell like the forest. Is that were you've been off to this morning?"

I nodded.

"I hope you had fun. I'm sorry you missed us this morning. We didn't want to wake you up. There were things we needed to work out in town, I figured you'd be bored. Plus, after last night.."

"Last night?" I asked, still not fully aware of the events that took place. I looked up and saw his face creased with lines of worry.

"I figured you'd want to sleep in. You were up really late reading."

I confessed that I wasn't fully aware of what I had absorbed. He made a faux display of ignorance, but he was transparent as he was brilliant.

"You must have just over did it. It's pretty heavy reading. I lost a lot of time when I first found it too. It was tooth and nail for Gerald, the poor thing."

"About that," I began. I wasn't fully sure how I'd elaborate. "I don't think I over did it. I think something else happened. Something weird. It's powerful."

I could feel his muscles tense. We sat there for a long moment, our hearts pounding.

"I'm so sorry Wendy. I'm so sorry."

To say that I heard it would not be accurate. I caught a whisper of it on the air. I snatched it out of the ether that laid between his mind and mine and made it my own. I pushed and focused without forethought or intent. His breathing grew heavy and labored.

"This is Gerald all over again. God, she should have stayed away. It's too much for her. It's going to break her. Make her like him."

I ripped the soundless statements from him and devoured them unintentionally. They melted in my mind's eye like a sugar cube in the mouth of a babe. I grew curious, but I could feel something beneath it. A raw hunger, something that had previously been absent.

I adjusted myself alongside him. That was when I heard her. A quiet chuckle that lived in the ether between minds.

"My dear. You worry too much. She isn't your toy. She's mine. When I've had my fill with her curves and thoughts I'll stop tormenting you with her. Plus, you never enjoyed it. Really, you know you prefer the company of men."

I could just make out a distant clockwork ticking in that queer ether that was Hanz fogged mind. I reached out with my mind, unknowing and childlike. It burned and we both flinched. His breathing resumed and I lost the disembodied voices.

I nearly thought myself mad. That in the morning something critical had snapped inside of me in the company of serviceman Aeolus Aeneas. But on some level I knew that to be a fallacy.

"Do you have any more suggestions? Books, I mean. You picked out a good one." I ran my palm over his flat stomach and hugged him sideways, hoping that he'd flee from the subject or otherwise offer me an escape. On some level I knew that the book contained an evil they had unleashed upon me intentionally. The thought was wild and under normal circumstances would have been produced by a fevered imagination. Whether that was true or my madness was cracking my fragile psyche was uncertain.

He failed to hesitate. It hurt me in more ways that I could describe.

"Loads, sweetheart. More than you could read in any stretch of the imagination."

I hated him for that and I abandoned him on the bed. When he inquired what was wrong I lied and said it was cramps. I prepared a cup of darjeeling and sat at the table, barely able to enjoy its bitter sweet and exotic tang. The ancient tome that had sparked that madness was curiously absent. I stared at Hanz after he returned to his world of space cadets and sunless monsters in the gulfs between worlds. Something had changed in him since the previous night. Or maybe it was my perspective of him.

He wasn't my Hanz any longer. Just like how I was not myself. We were both strangers and impostors. My mind drifted to that morning and the breakfast I shared and soon I found myself at a crossroads.

I decided that it was time to get ready for my date.

I eventually slipped into unconsciousness through my studies, so complete was the pull of the literature placed before me. Those dreams were fleeting and beautiful, my disembodied mind flew over cracked and barren landscapes and lush jungle. I stood toe to toe with giants and the stars themselves, my naked skin bathed in harsh light. But those enigmatic beauties were brief and stood in stark contrast with terrifying glimpses of burning cities and beasts of burden that I would never dare attempt to describe.

I awoke in a cold daze the next morning, alone in the tiny bed that I typically shared with Gerald and Hanz. Usually I was the first up and the last to sleep, but the most recent events were far from usual and routine. They were absent and the only thing the blankets shared with me was my own selfish warmth and the lovely stink of my boys.

I laid there for a long time clutching the edge of our blankets, thinking about the previous day and trying to resolve the events that took place. I couldn't explain the fragments of my studies or how I had been so absorbed by the book that laid suspiciously closed on our table. It had an air of achievement about it. The kind of feeling that floods one's sensibilities when a difficult task at hand has been finally dispatched.

My own body betrayed me and I rose from the bed, dreading the cold that embraced me. After I completed my morning ritual I sat there with it, sipping a cup of darjeeling.

I ran my fingers over its cracked leather cover. My skin shivered and grew goose bumps as if it was a lover on a first night. I grew excited and explored its pages once more, savoring the smell of its ancient paper and the noise of crumbling pages turning slowly and deliberately. I could feel a queer significance about it. It called to me. It felt familiar and right.

It stuck me like a thunderbolt. The strange excitement that flooded my veins and loins was that of my first night with Hanz and to a lesser extend his strange and masculine friend, my Gerald. It was sexual for sure, but there was more. There was a strange intellectual satisfaction to it. It hit all the right spots in my mind and I savored it.

Inhaling the sweet scent of my tea I closed the book, satisfied and once again deflowered by its dark magic.

I showered and dressed with the bathroom door ajar, hoping someone would join me. No one did and when I emerged the only thing that greeted me that strange, abused relic.

Abandoning our tiny dorm I strolled the early morning grounds. It was the Soldier's Day so I was blissfully isolated, my peers opting to take advantage of the extra sleep it offered. Frost still clung to shrubs and grass and patches of snow still held on defiantly in the shadows of the campus willows. It made it difficult to see the young man until I had nearly trampled his breakfast.

"Watch it," he warned briskly rescuing a nearly toppling cup of steaming coffee. He was mostly hidden beneath a lone birch.

Startled, I froze and apologized profusely. I bent down to help clean the mess I had made of his meal and surveyed him.

He was young with a sharp chin, wearing a polished breastplate with a neat serifed "Aeneas" emblazoned over his heart. A soldier from the garrison assigned to the library after the dreadful events the previous year, in all likelihood.

My shoe was busy crushing his bread.

"Eck." I offered, peeling it off. "Sorry, I didn't see you there. I thought I was the only one up. It's pretty early."

"Pretty late for me. I just finished duty. It's 'kay." He smiled with his eyes and sipped his coffee.

I could see him examine me as his sort usually did. His expression was largely innocent, but I ultimately judged that was deceiving. He likely thought the same of me as his expression hardened after a moment and his eyes were reduced to slits.

It didn't last long and he promptly returned to his breakfast of fruits, bread and coffee.

"Hungry?" He offered, looking off into the fog that clung to the grounds.

The man would have normally repulsed me. I never cared for soldiers. In my bed or in my company. There were normally a brutish, brash sort with little regard to civilian society. But his armor caught the early morning sun in all the wrong ways and that seemed to draw me nearer. I folded my legs beneath me and sampled.

"Aeolus." He offered, tipping his cup toward me.


"This is probably the best place I've been stationed for a long time. You have a nice quiet town, all sorts of things at your fingertips. Friendly folk, too.

I like quiet."

"I wouldn't have thought that. I've seen you people in the woods shouting and stomping around like madmen. I'd have thought you'd enjoy it."

"Woods?" He thought, then it dawned on him. "Oh, the drills." He offered a childish shrug and a dismissive throat noise. "You're talking about the sergeant. He's a man with a nice set of pipes, I'll give you that."

Our conversation drifted to my stay at the school and my studies. He asked a lot of questions about the courses in which I was enrolled and seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say about Progenitor Art and their take on faith. I demolished more than half of his breakfast during that time. But he didn't seem to mind. I hadn't realized how hungry I was. It was relatively meager by military standards, but the wares he provided were exotic and sweet to me and I relished in their strange tastes. He didn't seem to mind either.

When his breakfast was dispatched we sat in silence for a long time.

He dropped it like a brick.

"So. I know this nice little bistro in town. Great service. Good food, food I think you'd appreciate." He offered, coughing out of the sheer awkwardness of it.

Was he asking me on a date? I sat there for a moment in shock and stared at him in disbelief. He didn't dare offer eye contact. The man, Aeolus, suddenly had an air of uncertainty about him. It was disarming coming from a soldier in the Emperor's Army.

I could feel something wiggle in the back of my head. A niggling thought or desire. Something primal and alien. Something wrong.

Without forethought I answered.


And instantly a world of guilt materialized on my shoulders and I felt it crush me. A dread settled in my stomach and I thought of Hanz's beautiful voice and Gerald's strong arms and losing them forever.

But I bit my lower lip and held my emotions away from the contradiction of a man. I immediately wanted to recant and apologize. To flee and hide in our big, warm bed.

But his face erupted in joy and smiles.

"Great. Hey, maybe we can go dancing afterward? My treat."

I nodded, refusing to speak for fear of my voice betraying me. Yes, Aeolus. Let's go dancing. Let's wreck everything in abandon. I didn't even particularly like the man. Even the smell of him, gun oil and musk was slightly offensive.

We set a time and place, said our temporary goodbyes and I left him to finishing his coffee. He began to hum a little tune before I left earshot, clearly pleased with his courage. I started to return home, but my eyes welled up with hot, bitter tears. I abandoned the route and slinked away, opting to sort my confusion out without fear of discovery.

That was the moment that I stopped being wholly Wendy. The seed of something else had been planted and it was growing in my self induced misery, I could feel it.

It was greedy and devoured my self loathing like I had done to the stranger's meal. But through it all, through the tears and the wishing it felt good.

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