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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps it was an unconscious celebration, Hanz told me.

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

Instead I gasped.

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

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

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


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