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.

It didn't take too long for our server to appear from the kitchen with our meals. He was dutifully bland and uninteresting, a stranger whose time with the establishment did not overlap with my own. I was thankful of that and it made my meal of braised chicken and potatoes taste a little sweeter. Aeolus made a vain attempt at appearing cultured by ordering a bottle of a wine whose name he pronounced incorrectly. The quality was so-so, but I relished in its warmth for the sake of easing my own anxiety.

"Tell me," he started while cutting his steak. "How long have you been at the university?"

I narrowed my eyes slightly, but obliged.

"About a year."

"You've told me you're studying Art History, with a focus on Progenitor Mosiac."

"I wouldn't exactly say it's a focus. The subject interests me and it makes up some important classes, but I wouldn't exactly say it's critical."

He took a sip of his own wine. "It seems everyone is so enamored with them here. You can't walk down the street and not hear them mentioned or see their influence on this little town's culture."

"I hadn't noticed. I thought it was like that everywhere. You should know, you're the southerner."

He shrugged passively. The date felt like it was becoming an interrogation.

"Why are you interested in the culture here?" I asked while refilling both his glass and my own. I deliberately gave him more.

"It's relevant to my interests, Wendy. I'm just trying to get an accurate picture of you. We have a connection. I just want to understand it a little bit better is all."

I saw him glance quickly at his wine glass and then mine. His eyes seemed to harden while his his mouth curled into a warm smile. The man interested me more every minute I was with him. He was an oxymoron that just oozed depth and begged for exploration. I thought that maybe it was the danger associated with him, the fact that when everything was simplified he was the enemy. Even though he was charming and handsome in his strange, barbaric little way he was still capable of a lot, that impression was clear.

The remainder of the night was tainted by the comment sparked by Lyra. Oh, I know. Know what, exactly? And how much? The strange look that crept across his face as he spoke only seemed to deepen the dangerous mystery about it. It grew increasingly difficult for me to focus on the evening after that point. Conversation bled from our date and even though we went through the motions of romance with dancing and drinks afterward, there was little substance.

If he noticed my departure from reality he hid it exceptionally well. Either that or I failed to see through the mask that he put forward because of my own distracted train of thought. My mind was a stuck in a loop. Was he really aware my connection to the poor librarian's murder? If so, why all the cliché double agent subterfuge? Why not just interrogate me and get the whole thing over with?

As I watched him over the lip of my wineglass I realized that I may be asking too much. I was beginning to realize that he was more clever than he led on. But he was a wounded, emotionally flawed creature that seemed to operate on two parts discipline and one part longing for the unreachable. The strange kind of devotion he had to his sister and his awkward fumbling in our relationship was evidence enough that his personal life was wrought with dark corners that he probably wasn't even fully aware of.

I wasn't sure if he was capable of manipulating me in the same fashion I was spinning him. I definitely felt his strange masculine influence over me, however. Maybe that would have been enough had the situation been a normal one.

It was at that time that I could feel Altima's strange influence in the crowded room. We had abandoned the bistro after our dinner, instead opting for a nice public pub several blocks away. Somewhere were I could use the noise as an excuse for not being able to hear much of what he was saying.

At first I thought it was the wine I had been enjoying in moderation throughout the evening, but the sensation grew more insistent. It wasn't an unpleasant feeling, like when I could see her through Gerald's eyes as he lay on top of me. Instead there was a strange gravity about it, something impersonal and removed. Ignoring the conversation he was carrying on almost wholly by himself I let my eyes gloss over those clustering around the bar. No one met my eyes. No one looked familiar.

I wondered if she had taken one of the boys hostage again and was watching me from some unseen corner of the pub. It made me feel uneasy, so I put a hand on his arm to break his train of thought and excused myself to the restroom. I used the walk across the pub to scry through the mind ether. I knew my ability was capable of reaching other people besides Gerald and Hanz, but I felt clumsy and awkward. The pub was exceptionally crowded, so the fog surrounding the hot iron that was Altima was thick and soupy. But she was there, hiding and predatory.

I lingered in the restroom for only a moment when I heard the screaming.

We met beneath an ancient, over grown willow that was just beginning to grow leave buds as we had previously agreed on. He awkwardly wore a grey civilian suit that was probably a decade out of style, but I complimented him on it anyway for the sake of putting his mind at ease.

He returned the favor with a smiling, hungry eyes that told me that yes, he was indeed still a man beneath that cool and controlled military exterior that he worked so hard at maintaining.

"How's Ilythia doing?" I asked when we finally had the campus behind us and the cool early spring air our only companion on the walk toward town. "You don't seem so bent out of shape about her."

"Yeah," he shrugged. "She's been acting more like herself. But I think it's more for my benefit than anything."

"Maybe that in itself is something of value.."

I offered quietly as I put my arm through his and got close.

"I guess. I'd rather she just be, you know. Normal normal. Instead of just normal for the sake of stopping me from complaining. I want to meet this boy of hers and make sure he's up to snuff."

"Normal for your sake still says a lot about her priorities. Just let her work things out by herself and she'll come around. It may not be today or tomorrow, but you'll have the old her back before long." I lied and felt a touch of guilt about it.

I was of course not sure of Altima's plans, but I knew she wanted something from the girl. Her track record was of course less than stellar when it came to humanitarian matters. So I knew whatever she wanted would be terrible and the poor girl would certainly not be her old self in the end of things.

He started talking again, but I was quickly lost in my thoughts. I was so willingly playing for Altima's team. I wondered how bad of a person it made me. I knew the stakes involved and I was still playing on the man's emotions for my own physical, emotional and functional needs and not necessarily in that order. His sister could have just as easily been my own. Was the fact that she was largely a stranger somehow make it easier for me to betray her to Altima's craziness?

I drifted back to the conversation once it meandered to the subject of his work. When the topic came up he seemed surprised that our largely one sided discussion wound up there.

"Work has been hard. But we're making some real good progress." He offered enigmatically. I imagined him pouring through records, smashing civil rights like a bull with cheap china.

"Oh?" I prodded, moving closer to him. I could feel his warmth through the cheap suit and I tried not to think about how good it felt for fear of betraying myself. "Are you coming close to wrapping things up then..?"

I trailed off on purpose, attempting to guise it was an open ended question as to whether or not he'd be departing soon. He seemed to take it that way.

"Yeah. But we're going to stick around for awhile. Things are getting pretty restless outside of the valley, you know. What with the wars and all that nastiness. People seem to think that even though the emperor is dead the rules have changed." He looked off into the woods, as if he had seen something. "We can't have anything happening to our schools. We are a nation of people. I'd prefer those people to be as educated as possible. It's why we're so successful as a nation. Not our brawn, but our brains."

It seemed a bit idealistic and preachy, but I let him have his bone. He struck me as someone who would quite easily fit alongside Gerald and Hanz in class. By the flip of a coin things could have turned out differently. At that moment I could see a longing in his eyes. He desperately wanted to be a clever, educated man. But then it was gone, replaced by discipline born on drill sergeants and fifty mile hikes in the mountains.

It didn't take much more time to reach town. We made it just in time to catch the last seats in the house just as the nickelodeon was starting. The story was so-so, but the quality of the art was splendid. It reminded me of my schooling and I realized just how much I had learned in the previous year.

I watched him throughout the show. He face was passive and unresponsive, even when the plot grew silly and comedic. When he caught me looking his tone changed and he became all smiles and laughter. This continued for the remainder of the show and afterward as we walked toward our dinner destination. He raved about the quality of the acting and the voice actors.

This in itself worried me, but I didn't want to spoil the show or the otherwise lovely walk with a confrontation.

It was over a basket of bread at my old bistro well afterward that I chose to ask about his sudden change in demeanor. He shrugged and looked away as emotion drained from his face.

"No," I persisted. "There it is again. You're not acting quite right." It felt weird calling him out on it. It wasn't something I'd normally do, but I felt compelled to figure the man out.

"I laughed when something was funny."

"No. Not quite. You laughed when you saw me watching you." I said, breaking a bread stick in two and tearing it into tiny pieces on my plate. "What's going on with you?"

He sighed and ran his hand through his hair. "I laughed when I felt like laughing. I didn't when I didn't. Why's that so hard for you to understand? Why do you need to pick a part every little thing I do? What are you looking for?"

I'm looking to figure you out, I thought to myself. So I can steer clear of you when things go sour.

His sudden defensiveness only served to further interest me. I knew something was wrong and he was hiding something. It irritated me to no end and I immediately felt like a hypocrite as I was hardly the model for truthfulness. We shared a couple of seconds of eye contact and awkward silence before we were interrupted.

"Wendy? Oh sweetheart. It's been so long!"

I half turned in my seat and spotted Lyrienne. She was a tall and slender friend from a former life. We used to trade shifts when I worked at the bistro. When I saw her approaching in her all too short uniform I immediately regretted not steering clear. She was the kind of individual that Altima would shred for breakfast. Remarkably weak and vain, but with a good heart and a little bit of smarts.

"Hi Lyra." I offered a half smile and a wave. When she was close enough she bent down and hugged me. I returned it, feeling obtuse and short.

"It's been months since I've seen your cute little pug mug around here. It hasn't been the same since you went off to school with those boys of yours." She was chipper and all bright smiles.

I smiled and nodded. "This is my date. Aeolus. He's a captain,"

"Oh, like, of a ship?"

"..in the army. He's assigned to the university."

"Well aren't you the little seductress all of a sudden! I remember you were such a shy little thing, always avoiding the boys and hiding in the back whenever you caught someone's eye. This makes at least, what? Three in the past six months?" She beamed and seemed genuinely happy for me. But that didn't really help matters.

I looked to Aeolus who was watching her calmly with a bemused look across his face. I couldn't tell if he was admiring her physical beauty or the verbal diarrhea that she was spewing. He offered a hand across the table and she took it gracefully.

"Honored." He stated before breaking the friendly embrace and looking to me as if to say something quirky.

"Yes. That's about right." I said, not inclined to provide either of them with any further details on my life. I let the conversation lapse into silence. The awkwardness of it got to her.

"Well, it was nice seeing you again! Really. You need to come back more often, we can catch up and do girly things. You know. Nails, talk about boys." She winked at Aeolus and disappeared into the bistro. No doubt in a quest to annoy and embarrass someone less deserving.

"You looked flustered." Aeolus said with a smirk on his face.

"She's embarrassing."

"I know."

"She'd always flirt with my customers."

"She seems the type."

"...and it's none of your business who I dated before you."

There was a beat and his bemused expression seemed to grow a little artificial. It was if it was there for no other reason than to be a facade or a smokescreen as to his true emotions.

"Oh, I know." He offered and let it go at that. I was left with a sudden and sinking suspicion that he perhaps knew more about me than I had originally thought.

It felt good to air my grievances and receive them. We were accomplishing something and making progress. Even if that progress was wholly emotional, we were connected again. After all the deceit and groping in the muck for half truths we finally seemed to be on the same team. The weather improved the next day, the sun seemed to cast out the dank chill of winter that had been lingering in the shadows.

I even attended class and tried somewhat to pay attention to the long winded lectures that consumed half of my day. It was a reminder that I was still mostly a normal person, that the circumstances at hand had not fully corrupted me. So I took notes, asked questions and tried to learn something unconnected to the madness that Altima had wrought. So it was a surprise to me that I found myself unconsciously preparing for my date with Aeolus that evening.

They watched me applying my mascara in the bathroom mirror half-heartedly from the living room while they studied something they swore was unrelated to her madness. Of course I had my doubts, but they had no real reason to deceive me. Yet I could feel her influence in their minds. She was a gentle yet insistent thing that evening, not too unlike a mother. If it was because of her knowledge of the previous days conversation or some meek reaction to my authority I couldn't tell. But I wouldn't depend on it.

I knew it was wrong and I was certain they were aware of my plans. But they made no attempt to stop me or ask what exactly I thought I was doing. Maybe if they did I wouldn't have been able to provide a reasonable answer and that would have been enough to stop my obvious dishonesty.

Ironically it wasn't my dear Hanz or my strong willed Gerald, but Altima who came to me. She hung in my peripheral vision in the mirror. Startled, I turned only to find her absent from my reality. I returned to the mirror and found her hanging there, just in the fringe of sight. I tried focusing on her, but whenever I did this her image slipped away and dissolved into the background. It was like she was a ghost, transparent and elusive.

Her face was impossible to resolve, it was a constantly shifting mess of colors. She was wearing an electric pink evening gown.

You're still carrying on with this Aeolus business. She stated through the mind ether. I could hear her clockwork heart beating through it.

Yes. I replied simply through the same medium, applying a little blush.

That's a pretty courageous step you're taking. I could feel her attention focus wholly on me and I heard the boys in the next room breathe an unconscious sigh of relief in unison. And you're doing this right in front of them nonetheless? But of course you're the boss in this relationship, aren't you? My, my. Wendy you've certainly made something of yourself. I think that's why I like you so much. You have gumption. You're a little soldier. It's too bad. You would have made such an excellent right hand woman. It's hard to find good help these days.

I didn't say anything, but I felt a smirk cross my face. The electric pink dress moved around behind me in a sign of agitation.

Why is it that I don't trust you with that man, my dear? I know you want to be sincere. You might even believe what you're doing is strictly business. Getting this little girl for me in some hope that I might just leave your boys alone seems like a pretty noble thing in its own corrupted way. But I don't think you're operating like that.

No, I suspect you're doing this for yourself. You get a kick out of having him in your pants, don't you? You like the power you're wielding over these puny bags of talking meat. It's even getting you off right now, isn't it? They know what you're doing. That's why they haven't asked. And it tears them up inside to know what you're going to come home stinking of cologne, just like they come home stinking of that cheap little girl's perfume.

But you want them to see you. You want them to hurt because they hurt you.

I curled my hair into tight little ringlets as was the fashion at the time. It was hard to focus on my grooming with her chattering in my ear and I found myself becoming increasingly annoyed with her distractions.

What's your point? I barked angrily, having had nearly enough of her poisoned words. That I'm only a reflection of you? That we're both cut from the same cloth because we like power and men? Or is it that this part of me is just a little bit of you wiggling into me?

I narrowed my eyes and bared my teeth in the mirror. I tried to be subtle, but my reflection probably scared me more than it did her. I continued, shrugging off the fear of what I was slowly becoming.

Because honey, I'm sorry. But if you believe that you don't know humanity very well. We're all about power and us simple womenfolk tend to like men. We're just a lot more subtle when we go about it is all. Do you think you have some deep insight into me? No. You don't. You and I both know that. Where you fail at directly manipulating me like you did Hanz, you try to excel at manipulating me through words and ideas.

But I'm not your puppet. I'm not under your control. I'm doing this for our mutual benefit. Not because I'm a coward or because I'm in awe of your power. But because I want what you've stolen from me.

There was a beat of silence. The image of her in my peripheral vision grew closer and I could feel her talons rake over my mind. They were dangerously close, like lion's fangs dragging over an exposed neck. It took a lot of courage to keep a straight face. Courage I didn't think existed within me.

You are such a simple thing, Wendy. You try like so many others to be something other than yourself. Throughout your entire mayfly lives you try to reach some greater coil of existence because you can't quite make something permanent. Your mark on your world is fleeting, like a fever.

But you're an ant before a skyscraper. This isn't a boast of my influence or greatness. No, I'm something altogether different. Indescribable in your limited scope. But it's a statement of your insignificance.

So go ahead. Clutch to your idea that you're somehow in control if it gives you the nerves to do what I'm going to ask you to do. Because "honey" you're going to need every ounce of strength in order to overcome those curious little personality quirks you call your "humanity."

She turned and left the room, but even after she disappeared from the corners of my eyes I could feel her angry presence brooding in the room. Her fangs were bared and my mind felt incredibly vulnerable. I was left wondering if she really was capable of harming me in any substantial way.

With a cold sweat slicking my palms I gathered up my strength, put on a smile and flicked a speck of lint from my dress. I knew that night would be productive, whatever horrors might occur.

They stared at me dumbstruck when I entered the room and took command of the tiny table which had served as an impromptu study alcove for the past several months. The tomes that had spawned much of the madness in our lives watched us with eyeless faces as we confessed our sins to one another.

Despite all of the emotional capital we had invested in keeping our dirty little secrets it didn't take too much to allow the truth to flow like a mountain spring. It felt invigorating to reveal that I was aware of their dark manipulations and plotting. I held back bitter tears when I confessed that I was aware of their seduction of a young girl, an army brat who they confirmed was in fact named Ilythia. They both apologized profusely and didn't bother citing the evil urges which drove them to those terrible deeds. Hanz appeared particularly disturbed, but before long fell silent in the wake of the subject.

Gerald confessed to Hanz's unconscious sin and how he likely was responsible for the librarian's demise. About how Altima sprung fourth from select books like a viper and poisoned anyone who dare share their dark secrets.

I told them of my queer ability to trawl the minds of others. Of my conversations with Altima that took place on common ground. I also told them of my growing frustration and anger, about how I had unwittingly became enamored with the young girl's older brother. They looked at me with sullen eyes when I told them about our dates. So painful was the vice on my heart I lost the nerve to tell them the full truth and admit that I had given him more intimate embraces. So I left them with whatever assumptions they could gather from my half story. They didn't seem to connect the dots and refused to question me as to the details.

Gerald seemed particularly interested in the fact that Aeolus was the one who I had chosen. He told me of how they learned he was heading up an important part of the investigation. The campus was a gossip laden place, so it stood to reason that they would have been following the man's activities through word of mouth and rumor. We wondered if Altima had gently steered me in the direction of Aeolus in some sort of attempt to buy time or corrupt the investigation that may interfere with whatever plans she may have.

It took awhile, but I maneuvered the conversation toward the subject of myself and my original involvement. It was then that Hanz cleared his throat.

"I was lonely," he started. He absently rubbed the back of his neck and refused to meet eyes with either of us.

"The night that we first met. It was just starting and I was so lost and confused. I didn't have anyone to talk to. No one really cared about what was happening to me. When I saw you, she did too. Through me. I don't know what she wanted with you at first, but she used me to do those things to you that night."

He looked down and wore an expression of shame.

"But after that I guess I liked you too. Not in a disgusting kind of way. Not at all.. but I saw that you were used by her too. Just like I was. I guess it felt like we had both been raped. I kind of drew comfort from that because it made me feel like I wasn't alone any longer. But she told me that I'd never see you again because she didn't want me getting any ideas.

"After that the same thing happened to Gerald and she changed. The best we've been able to piece together is she changes whenever she tries to take someone. With me she was so powerful and so terrifying, so much so that I wondered if I was going insane and imagining it all. But after she took Gerald she grew a little more distant. She was still cruel and controlled us like puppets, but it felt like she cared a little more.

"When we took you home that night from the bistro she tried the same thing with you. Up until then she changed you in little ways but never anything concrete. But that night in the library.."

He paused and wiped one of his eyes. He referred to the night the three of us made love in one of the study alcoves. Our bodies hot and sticky against the ancient leathers and crumbling papers. It was the passionate memory that served as the foundation for our relationship.

"She came away hurt. I watched her penetrate you. I felt your pulse through her. But she recoiled and screamed. It was the first time I've ever heard her in pain. It was like you were poison to her. It took weeks after that for her to do anything besides whisper in our ears. We had regained a little control over our lives.

"When her strength returned she tried to get us to get rid of you. But we were so in love with you Wendy. Both of us."

Gerald nodded.

"After that we knew she couldn't make us." He said quietly. His face jumped from Hanz to me, as if looking for approval. "Maybe we got a little cocky. I started thinking that maybe if we forced you on her like she forced herself on you she'd come away damaged. I'm sorry I tried to use you as a weapon. It was my idea. Hanz kept telling me that she'd just get bigger and stronger and turn you into something like us. Or that you'd get hurt.

"But I was so angry, Wendy. I just wanted to be alone in my own head for a change."

I was touched by his honesty and I took hold of their hands.

"It hasn't worked. She's still there when she wants to be. Sometimes she just sits in Gerald and watches me. Or vice versa. Sometimes she's in both of us, like with Ilythia." Hanz said while his face flushed. He squeezed my hand when he said her name.

"And she reads up." Gerald offered. "When she comes back.. from where ever she's gone she'll look back on what happened to us. She's going to know about our talk." He hinted that if I was planning anything to not tell them. He was hoping desperately that I was.

"That's fine." I offered while looking into both pairs of eyes. It wasn't for their benefit. It was for my own and hers. "Let her see that we're together in this." I swallowed while doing my best to marshal some sort of poker face.

"Let her see that you belong to me now."

I left the mess hall after that dizzy with a feeling of dread hanging over me like some dark rain cloud. Aeolus was quick to follow me, all questions and energy quite suddenly. He was very eager to know the secrets which his sister has confided in me. It didn't take much for me to grew annoyed with his hurried inquiries. I was first and foremost an ear for the young girl, but my strange uncertain duty took second. My fleeting devotion to Aeolus unfortunately came in last, so I provided little insight as to why exactly she was behaving oddly.

Unsatisfied he continued his questions, so I lied and informed him that she was mostly bored. That she was looking forward to the summer months when she could do much more and enjoy the sunshine. It was a transparent half answer and he likely saw through it. It wound up being enough to ease his immediate fears and leave me to return home in peace.

Of course I suggested he leave her to her own devices and not harass her before he departed. He thanked me maybe a little too half-heartedly and wandered back to camp looking at his feet.

Had I really suggested that she continue the relationship that in all likelihood would spell some sort of twisted and terrible fate? I thought myself incapable of such selfishness, but her enigmatic promise still rung in my mind.

The strange creature which stalked minds of those on campus was selective and brutal, but through that a strange and calculating intelligence shone through. Could I trust it to deliver my boys from the doorstep of Hell? Would I be damning myself to some sort of internal torment if I willingly watched this girl slip beneath the waters of madness for my own benefit.

As I climbed the steps of my building I was left wondering if it was required of me, would I do more than passive inaction? I didn't think myself capable of willingly betraying another human being on such an intimate level. But then again several months prior I thought it impossible that I would be unfaithful to my commitment.

In the weeks since I first learned of Altima's influence I could feel my ability to trawl the mind ether increase. At first I snatched snippets from Hanz and Gerald from behind closed doors. But then I learned to stretch out and stroke the influence she wielded. Maybe I had even learned to resist her madness a bit better because of it. Then I had directly spoken with her and held my own. Was it a spark of her smoldering inside of me from her failed attempt to take me as she took Hanz? Or was it just an ability that laid dormant up until now, only uncovered by her tinkering?

Up until that afternoon the only other human beings I had interacted with through that mind fog had been my boys. Ilythia was an unwitting first. But as I walked the long corridor to the home I shared I could feel the flickers of life behind many of the doors. Their hopes and dreams were small and fleeting, but they were there and likely no less important than a wood-jay and its role in eating insects. They were important, but otherwise unseen and unappreciated.

I couldn't focus on any particular one, but they were there before me like an open book.

Perhaps because of this attention to my growing ability I heard their frenzied conversation with my mind's ear before I even reached my door. I slowed my pace and listened.

-uestions again. We can't afford to be so risky, Gerald.

You don't think I understand? Do you think I'm doing all of this just because I have a bad case of the Hanz-syndrome? .....sorry. But no. I understand that they're asking questions. I know they're looking for you. But they're not going to find you, sweetheart. They're army. You know what that means? They were either too stupid or too poor for school. We need to continue our studies before we lose the library altogether. There's already talk of curfew.

They're smart enough. Plus, that alone should tell you they're on to us. God, I never should have stolen all those books. I should have known they'd find them missing and connect the dots.

God? "God" has nothing to do with it. And it's not like you were yourself. As I recall those fits were wholly Her fault.

Regardless. What am I going to say when they drag me in front of the firing squad, exactly? Oh. I'm sorry Captain Aeneas. I wasn't fully myself. But I was under the influence of an ancient evil responsible for wiping out The Progenitors who happens to fancy calling herself Altima. You see, she had this hold over me. My boyfriend Gerald can corroborate.

Don't be smart with me, Hanz.

It's hard not to be.

Cute. Very cute.

I stalked toward the old wooden door which held them. Altima was absent from their minds. I could feel the void that she had left and I relished in the silence that her clockwork heart would have otherwise occupied. As I listened to their conversation it didn't take very long to form my own unique opinion.

It turned out that my suspicion was correct. Aeolus and his cronies were still trying to root out the person responsible for the library murder. I stopped in front of our door and dug around for my key. Was that why she was interested in his sister? Moreover, was that why I watched her like a cat watches a bird?

Was it possible she was trying to protect us in her own demented way? Or was something else afoot?

I was left wondering if I should step aside and let events play out as they would have had I been absent. Just abandon everything altogether and let the three men whose beds I shared destroy one another. But there was more at stake than that. She was capable of murder once and she'd be capable of it again. Beyond that, if what Hanz said was true she was guilty of genocide of a civilization far grander than our own.

She was some sort of unwilling ally now, but she wouldn't be one forever. Her allegiance to us was one of convenience. She had something I wanted. She held my boys hostage and bound me to them with emotional strings of my own making. This I would never be able to change, I realized. Through all their deceit and dark deals I loved them.

When she was done with us she'd go on and do more terrible deeds. Maybe even repeat what she started with The Progenitors. She was an ancient evil far bigger than any petty human invention or greed.

I remembered the wastelands of the south, radioactive deserts that had been scoured clean of life millenia ago. The shattered and buried cities of a long dead people whose grand civilization once tapped creation itself. If she was capable of such raw and awesome power..

No. I thought to myself as I shoved my key into the keyhole and felt the tumblers give. Nothing like that is going to happen.

I turned the door knob and walked into the room. My boys and I had something to discuss.

It didn't take much for me to hesitantly agree without being aware of what I could really do for the situation. He beamed at me adorably, like a child being presented with a precious gift. It was cute, but a little awkward seeing a grown man so engrossed with a minor personality change in a sibling.

I wanted to return to class, but I ultimately abandoned the thought with the hopes of somehow making it up to my professor through extra credit work. I knew this wouldn't be the case, but it helped to think that my schooling hadn't become so unimportant to me that I disregarded it at the drop of a hat.

I followed Aeolus to the garrison's camp and passed row upon row of artillery. Their quiet, sleeping bulks both ominous and strangely reassuring at the same time. He warned me not to get too close to any one of them without mentioning exactly why.

He sat me down in an abandoned mess hall and promised me she'd be right out. He fidgeted and thanked me profusely. I began to wish that I had deflected his request because suddenly I felt incredibly awkward sitting there trying to seem interested in the spartan decor. I could hear the kitchen staff shouting and mucking about behind the dining area, likely busy preparing for the early end of the lunch rush that would soon begin to filter in.

It didn't take too long for her to emerge from the kitchen. She was all long blonde hair and green eyes, perhaps not much older than seventeen. Even though her smile was sincere and warm she had an air of an aristocrat. Maybe it was her posture or the elegant way she carried herself, gliding instead of walking.

She discarded her apron on the lunch table and sat in front of me.

"Hi, I'm Wendy."

I offered my best imitation of a disarming smile and we shook hands.

"Ilythia. Nice to meet you."

The start of the conversation was awkward. We both knew why I was there, but it was a pretty strange subject to just jump right into. We settled with exchanging minor personal details at first, talk of the weather we had been having and how she liked the area so far. She wound up being a talented musician and songwriter, loved early spring and found the campus "quaint."

"So, Ilythia." I started while drumming my fingers on the stamped metal mess table. "I'm sorry that this wound up being so awkward for you. It's pretty strange for me too. I'm just doing it to humor your brother. I tried to tell him that girls just need space when they're your age."

She tilted her head to one side and offered a little smile.

"Thanks. It means a lot to me. He's a really sweet guy, but sometimes he doesn't really understand the way things work. Especially with women. He likes to get all riled up and over protective. Even if everything is fine he'll find something to be worried about."

"He over compensates." I offered with a little nod, knowing the type. I had caught a glimmer of it in Aeolus, but apparently I didn't know the man well enough to see the most of it.

"A little, yeah."

"How have you been lately?"

"Great." She said, her face lightening by a couple of shades. I caught the whisper of a smile grace her lips.

"How's he taking the news?"


"That you're dating." I moved immediately to what I thought was the root of the problem. I didn't like beating around the bush. Her eyes slid from mine.

"Is it really that obvious." She stated, I didn't offer a reply. Ilythia sighed and leaned back in her seat, playing with a strand of her hair.

"I'm not acting differently, Wendy. You can tell him I said that if you want. He's acting differently. It's very frustrating. Whenever I leave camp I get interrogated, even if it's for something stupid. He wants to know every little detail and keeps harassing me to meet who I've been seeing. Oh boy, that'll go over well. Bringing the boyfriend home to meet Captain Pa Pa Aeolus.

"I wouldn't have a boyfriend for much longer, you think?"

She smiled a little with her eyes and reminded me of a little bird, happy and full of energy if a bit dim. I found myself watching her, my eyes following the lines that made up her head for sudden movement. I shook off the predatory gaze once I became aware of it.

It didn't seem to phase her.

"He makes jokes when something bothers him. I'm not sure if he's done it with you yet. I'll catch all sorts of things. 'When are you going to marry this youngun and leave your old man?' or 'Don't get yourself knocked up.' I mean. Really. I know he cares, but it's not appropriate. Even Wind is growing pretty tired with it. But he doesn't have the courage to say anything about it.

Neither do I. I guess."

She shifted her weight uncomfortably. Several soldiers were beginning to filter into the mess hall for lunch. They were milling around what I presumed would be the food line, watching us. I imagined how difficult it must be for Ilythia to follow her brother around like a puppy and deal with the stares and jeers of lonely legionnaires on a daily basis. How many noses had Aeolus broken in an effort to self reinforce his cycle of protection? How many of those had really deserved it?

I found myself staring at her too. I didn't desire her, but it was a predatory type of thing. She was an open book before me and those twisted up emotions only interested me more. It made her weak. It made her vulnerable. Of course there was no conscious thought behind it, but I instinctively stroked the fragment of Altima that lived within me and I felt my mind brush up against hers.

It was soft and supple. It felt warm. It felt safe. Like how I felt in the arms of Aeolus after the madness of my relationship with Hanz and Gerald became too much to bear.

"It's not." I said firmly, trying to ignore my involuntary efforts. More soldiers filtered in from the outside and Ilythia eyed them.

"Wendy," she said as she lowered her voice. "you've had lots of boyfriends. Right?"

"Lots? A few, I guess?"

"This is really kind of new to me. I haven't really had a boy that I've liked before now." She said with a little chuckle at her own naivety.

That explained why her brother was so over protective. He was a father figure. I remembered how my father absolutely loathed my first boyfriend.

"How many is normal it normal. To you know. Have." She asked, looking around nervously for her big brother. I knew he was watching us, but I had made certain that he wouldn't hear what we were discussing. I wasn't a spy, I was someone she could talk to.

"Throughout your life? Uh. I don't know. I've had.. six?" I offered, counting my three current boys and felt dirty and wrong.

"No," she said while shaking her head. "At the same time. You know. Have." I expected her to blush like a little girl, but she didn't. She was mature and confident in her womanly prowess. She was just curious, likely having no other civilian woman to speak with.

My eyes narrowed as a realization forced itself upon me.

"Why?" I asked, drawing it out. "How many have you Had?"

"College boys. Two of them. They're best friends, kind of like Aeolus and Wind. At first it kind of felt wrong, you know? Like I was being taken advantage of. But they're so nice, Wendy. But I don't know how normal it is. If it's weird I don't want to tell Aeolus and have him get even more jittery. You know?"

"Yeah." I offered dumbly. I asked myself whether it was possible she was the girl Altima sought to replace me with. The woman that I had raged against earlier in the week, the one whose noxious and cheap stink filled my home that one day that I enjoyed Aeolus' safe embrace in those mossy woods.

Was that why I watched her with predators eyes? Did I see what Altima instinctively sought? Her enigmatic words floated back to me as I stared at her.

My dear. Because I have something you want and you can help me get something I need.

She was still waiting for a response.

"Yes." I started. "Yes, it's very normal. Especially in college. But don't tell Aeolus." I swallowed hard. "Not yet."

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