CHAPTER 1–PATROLLING THE GATE

 

    As each new infant donor cries - its first sweet breath of life.  It is our duty, to the families, to bind their mind threads tight. To take their fragile tendrils and tie them to the grid.  That they might learn to serve their masters for the greater good.  Match them to the matrix.  Lock their mind links tight and never let them know of the song or of the light.

                                    Excerpt from: “The Book of Binding”

 

“If they break the bridge and seal the lightways – it will isolate us on this world!”  Powerful baritone words rang rough and grating against the muffled silence of a misty evening.  Little more than a vague silhouette, far from the soft glow of a single camp lamp, the displeasure in Dell r’ Thorson’s voice was unmistakable.  The veiled outline of muscled shoulders, shrugging in resignation, was faintly visible even in the semi-darkness.

A unique lamp, illuminating one part of their compound, was generating broad bands of altered light frequencies.  Fitted with a single Dirina Chu, true light crystal, this lantern intensified the normal light's spectral range.  In this glow, more things became visible to their Elfkin vision.  After a moment, Dell r’ finished venting a gnawing frustration, his words fading into silence.  “Most of the magic lost to us…”

A half-tone figure, standing tall near the opposite edge of their camp, Garith de’ Graoin ignored the comments.  With precise motions, he shifted a slender body length staff from one hand to the other as he silently stared into the darkness.  Altered training gloves, open at the fingertips and backs of his hands, made a soft slapping sound as he snapped the top of the staff from hand-to-hand.

“Tic.” The resonant tone of polished pseudo-oak slapping against the worn leather of one glove, then back again.  “Toc.”

“The player’s move to the rhythm of the music… but do not understand the purpose of the dance.”  Fine lines creased the corners of Garith’s eyes as his mind followed the rhythm of waltzing thoughts flowing through his head.  The base of the staff, planted in the earth, provided him with a stable grounding.  He understood that Dell r’ was processing frustration at not being able to take direct action against an unknown enemy.  They trained warders to evaluate, analyze, and act with the emphasis on taking immediate action.  The current threat required a definitive response, but not before they understood the problem.

“One for the king who failed his people…”  After a long moment, Garith heard the familiar scraping hiss of Dell r’ whetting the blade of his favorite sword.  With each sharpening stroke, the polished edge sparked and sang in response to his touch as he recited stanzas from an ancient Elfkin codex.  He prepared for battle, but against what?  Against whom?  These questions and others had to have answers before they attempted a strike.

At a peripheral level, Garith sensed Rison Mercury, one of his youngest scouts, returning from perimeter patrol.  There was a subtle tug in his mind as the scout passed through ‘the veil’, an energy curtain protecting their camp.  This curtain rendered their compound invisible to anyone or anything outside the tourist complex.

Only a shadow, flitting through pools of dim light and deep dark, Rison slipped from the surrounding jungle.  With a quick sprint, he crossed the team’s spacious compound.  Without hesitation, he moved toward an area near the small camp lamp that provided limited light for the Warder’s circle of seven.

By tradition, the core members always comprised a circle of seven–all chosen from the Clans' elite.  While other Elfkin circles might consist of mixed clan groupings, Garith’s team was pure Elven.  The only partial exception being one special protector class, Dim Cheung/Eastern Elf blend.

“My old friend, what secrets do you hide even from me?”  Garith also sensed Ramas Crow’s touch through their mental link.  He considered the mysteries surrounding his lifelong mentor.  Nicknamed ‘Cookie’, he had volunteered for this team as Garith’s aide-de-camp.  Because they classified his actual role within the Warder organization, this mixed-race Elf held no official rank on the ‘Misfit’ team.  Altogether, the unit comprised three bonded couples, a protector class elder, and an Elven trainee.

“Welcome back, kid.  Good job out there today.”  Without conscious thought, Garith shifted a minor part of his mind back to the returning scout.  Just a feather-light mind touch.  There were no audible words, no questions, just a warm sensation intended to give the youthful man comfort and pride. 

However, Dell r’ and Rison were mere distractions.  Garith centered his focus on the flow of thoughts and images coming from around the planet.  Long lashes dropped, veiling vibrant blue eyes, as he concentrated on the pictures surging through his racing mind.  In this mild trance, the immediate world faded away as he held open a mind gate and extended his thoughts through the filter of a birth stone bonded to his forehead in a silver circlet.

“Long talking, huh?”  Rison’s hazel eyes flicked over the shaded silhouettes of his colleagues before settling on the shadowed highlights of his leader’s stoic features.  His seeking gaze was drawn to the banded silver circlet, with the glowing white mind gem pulsing on Garith’s forehead.  A visible sign he was channeling power.  Probably communicating with other Team Leaders and Council members at remote locations around the planet.  With a boyish smile, the scout wiped away a sheen of light rain, still clinging to his narrow face, as he focused on the team lead.  “I guess we won’t be hearing much from our fearless leader for a while.  This meeting of the minds may take some time.”

“Look at the purity of that light.  That level of mental discipline is incredible!”  Whispering thoughts to no one in particular, Rison continued to study the Ward Master for an extended moment.  Long fingers pushed back a wet tangle of shoulder-length reddish-blonde hair as the young scout considered his own development.

“How long will it take me to reach that level of purity?”  All Warders wore variations of the same circlet and the same quality gemstone, but the wearer's mental strength and focus gave the stone its color. Though many Elfkin chose ornate circlets, most Elves preferred simple designs.  Garith’s band featured thick silver twists that reflected the strength of his inner-self.  Strong, but with a few intricate twirls that reflected the complexity of his mind and soul.  “A lifetime?”

At birth, they tuned each Elfkin child to a mind-stone.  The joining of the crystal with the Elfkin life form was a delicate procedure. The bonding intended to last beyond a lifetime.  Anyone could wear a mind jewel, that was as simple as placing it on the owner’s head.  The bonding process was a delicate procedure, the act of melding two separate entities that required effort.  Once joined, it became a part of the owner. But selecting the proper gem, with a compatible vibration frequency, was slow and challenging unless you were a stone master.  Even after choosing an appropriate stone, bonding with one of these gems became an intricate sublimation of mind and body.

“My gift.”  Rison smiled at this thought.  Only Elfkin, born with a special gift, might easily find the proper gem for an individual. Rison had this gift. “My talent!”

Once bonded, even in death, an Elfkin remained bound to the stone and might store their life essence for later retrieval.  An individual did not wear a mind-stone–they joined with the gem in a complete melding that blended the human body's crystalline waters with the matrix's mineral structure.  This creative synergy brought the mind and form into harmony with the universal flow.  This special bonding gave the Elfkin race a focal point for channeling the multiple energy strings that formed life's essence.  On his best days, Rison got his stone to phase from a dark to light green.  He could not even come close to creating the pure white blending of shades that comprised the 13 hues of their primary spectrum.

“Lan is joining the conference.”  The young scout shifted his gaze to the team physician. He watched as her stone phased from a light blue to a soft white.  By the blinking patterns of her birth stone, he understood she was focusing her energy on building a mind link.  Though her circlet's shape was more intricate than Garith’s, with many interlacing loops of delicate filigree, her primary bands were solid hoops with strong sweeps of glittering silver.

“Thanks…”  Sensing motion near his left arm, Rison lifted his head and accepted a mug of warm kaff offered to him by the team cook.

Typical of Western Elves, Rison’s 6’ 2” frame was slender and angular with the supple strength of a ‘far runner’.  Long, lean fingers engulfed the worn wooden mug in a tight grip that pulled warmth into his willowy body.  With a subtle move, the scout shook off the last drops of dew, still clinging to the black fabric of his trail cloak. Then, he shifted his gaze to the steaming mug of warm liquid.  His thin, angular features shaped another smile as he smelled a trace of peppermint.  Ramas knew he loved peppermint in his kaff.  Eyes closed, he inhaled and enjoyed the rich aroma of this pungent creamy drink.

“Ummm...” Ramas Crow made a single sound.  Nodding in response, he turned with a slow motion of controlled power and started back toward his cooking table.  Stilted beams of soft light caught the groomed strands of his brown, waist-length hair as it swirled in reaction to the movement.  Woven into a single braid, the dusky weaves of his hair shone with a polished luster that reflected and refracted light as he moved with a slow-rolling gait.  His startling blue eyes seemed to twinkle with pleasure as he glanced back and watched the young scout take his first sip.  “Cooking is an art form intended to give instant gratification.  Enjoy!”

“Good boy.”  A slight smile softened his weathered features as he returned to preparing an evening meal for the team.  In the soft glow generated by the camp light, he sorted through various wooden and clay containers looking for ingredients.  Ramas did not need to read labels; he sensed each vessel's weight, feel, and content.   As a master chef, he understood which herbs and spices gave the best flavors to every meal prepared in his kitchen.  Ramas loved to cook!

“The spices that make life special…”  Ramas gave a small shrug as he physically focused on his cooking. But his mind was multi-tasking at a staggering level.  His thought flows reaching out through the night to touch many minds.  The clean-shaven angles of his face sparkled with drops of dew as he checked the heat of his cooking fire.  Tiny flames highlighted the angles and creases of his features as he leaned close to the glow.     

Wearing a sleeveless silver vest, roughly cut from the standard Warder uniform's fabric, the corded muscles of powerful arms glistened with small droplets of moisture.  His regulation trousers, knife-cut to knee-length, and black soft-soled short shoes, shimmered in the light as he sorted out items to prepare for the evening meal.  But his eyes often closed as he reached out with his mind to ‘feel’ the night.  He did not wear his birth stone circlet, but his mind was already hard-linked with the Ward Master in ways unknown to the other team members.  Again, his eyes closed as he checked another link connecting him with a ‘friend’ outside the Warder team.  So many links, each tied to the other, as he mentally attempted to weave the fabric of truth.

Blue eyes shifted as Ramas watched Rison rise from his first position.  Still carrying his cup of kaff, the youthful man moved to his rough-hewn wooden workbench.  Near a raised perch, he stroked the pseudo-feathers of a surveillance drone.   With a lifelike quality, the large gray hunting bird blinked in appreciation and turned its head to peer with one intelligent, mentally linked eye at its partner.  Long smooth plumage ruffled, the raptor’s blue-white feather tips flashed in the dim light as the eagle-like bird leaned into the touch.  Slender fingers stroked pseudo wings with a soothing downward motion.

“My faithful sky hunter.”  After the last stroke, the young scout turned to settle on a crude workbench.  With slender fingers, the Warder fiddled with a few small crystal mind chips he was using to build one of his smaller pets. 

“What ‘cha makin’ today, kid?”  Ramas watched as the scout displayed an impressive skill level as he rolled out a tiny piece of life dough.  Even judged by Cookie's high artistic standards, the craftsmanship was excellent.  This form of life dough was a carbon-silicone amalgamate, capable of being imbued with life force properties through the mind crystal shard.  Infusing it with a drop of his blood, Cookie watched as the young scout closed his eyes. 

“Painstaking work.”  Ramas nodded his approval as a flare from the younger scout’s mind-stone flashed with a sharp, soft green hue.  Carefully, Rison embedded a minute shard into the dough.  A moment later, a tiny insect appeared on the table.  The scout shaped the life dough through focused mental energies, giving it texture and various shades of color, blending every aspect of the creature until a lifelike insect emerged to crawl across the workbench in controlled patterns.

“Kids and their toys.”  Cookie allowed his eyes to switch out of focus as he checked the young scout’s life aura.  Besides being the team cook, Ramas was also the unit’s assistant physician.  His ability to read auras was as natural to him as breathing.  Here, he saw sharp, clean blue-green colors dominating the boyish man’s rainbow hues.  “No worries here–a perfect health profile.”

“Ah!  Our field cat.”  Pulling everything back into focus, Cookie watched as the youthful Warder paused when a tawny pseudo-lynx feline crept to his side and rose on hindquarters to offer a greeting.  The elder Elfkin chuckled to himself as Rison mentally bonded with his auto-pets.  Lifelike, the critters provided excellent support for a scout team. 

“Where is that girl?”  After a moment, his eyes swept the shadows of their enclave, searching for the slender figure of Rison’s bonded mate, Muirisc.  Then he noticed the pseudo-lynx bounding out of camp toward ‘the veil’.  He remembered she had the night watch.  Rison was sending ‘the cat’ out to help her patrol the perimeter of their compound.  “Ah!  She and Huang Di have guard duty this evening.  I must remember to save some food.”

“Anything to snack on while we wait?” 

“Maybe…”  Ramas didn’t jump when Ala Mujaji appeared by his side.  Though her dark-toned skin and careful tread masked her approach, he sensed her movement the instant she separated herself from the nighttime shadows enveloping their camp.

“P-l-e-a-s-e…”  For humor, she extended the word and gave it a whiny, nasal sound.   Ala was a creature of the night.  The streams she followed in the darkness were endless.  The dreams she might visit in the nights black were countless.  It was as if when she stepped away from the light, her physical form dissolved to be one with the dark.  It was her gift.

“Maybe a small snack until I finish cooking.”  With a sideways glance, he noted that Dell r’ had set aside his great prayer sword and was also approaching the expansive table where Cookie artfully prepared each meal.  Rison glanced in their direction but returned his attention to training the new pet.

“Something sweet, maybe?”  Without looking, Ala extended one hand behind her back and waited for Dell r’ to stroke the inside of her palm in their traditional greeting.

“Yeah, something sweet!”  Dell r’ slid one finger along the inside of Ala’s waiting palm as he projected a bright smile toward Cookie.  Despite ruggedly handsome features, the fine lines creasing his face hinted at gentleness and humor, giving some insight into the quality of his soul.  Deep within his bright blue eyes, flecks of swirling silver danced to a merry tune that only his bonded partner heard.

“You two are impossible.”  Cookie pretended to grumble while he held them in a long stare.  “Our Lady of the night and our Lord of day.  A paradox of light and shadow when you are together.  Aiiiya!  What a pair.”

            “This should do until I finish cooking.”  After a moment of delving through a pile of sealed packets, Ramas produced a bundled collection of sweetmeats.

            “So, what do you think they’re talking about?”  Ala nodded toward Garith and Dr. de’ Tian.  Then her gaze moved to Dell r’, her golden-red eye flakes sharing the mind-dance only a bonded mate can share with their partner.

            “They are probably discussing whether you two misfits will eat all the food before they can finish their meeting of the minds with the other planetary elders.”  Ramas handed over the packet.

Another slight smile brightened his features as he watched them nibble at the snacks.  White teeth showed in sharp contrast to his brown and weathered skin.  He understood that though each team member feigned indifference, all watched the Ward Leaders for a clue to their future.

“I’ve heard rumors there may be a plague sweeping through the Federation?”  Ala phrased it as more a question than a statement.

            “The wheel turns as the wheel turns.”  Ramas glanced up from his meal preparations.  “We will see.”

            “Now, take your sweetmeats and leave me to my work.”  Cookie intoned his words as a command to leave his kitchen.  He softened the order with a smile.  “Scoot!  Scoot!” 

            His gaze shifted back toward the two ranking team members.  Though Ramas had a classified rank within the Warder organization, he had no official status on this team.  He was a volunteer advisor in this capacity, so both Garith and Lannie served as the formal team leaders.  Already linked with Garith, his gaze drifted toward the figure of Dr. Lan de’ Tian, nicknamed Lannie, forming a second ‘joining’.

            Typically, a doctor could not lead the warrior members of a scout team.

            However, this lady was not an ordinary physician.  Lannie was not only the second-highest-ranking member of the group but was also a certified warrior class Warder.  As the assistant team physician, Ramas knew first-hand that her body held the many scars of a seasoned combat veteran.

“What do you sense, my husband?”  Lannie let her thoughts link with Garith as she pulled the soft black fabric of a full-length field cloak tighter around her lean yet powerful shoulders.  The lowered hood of the mantle added extra warmth to the nape of her bare neck as the silver shades of her uniform almost vanished beneath the thick cape.  As she stepped nearer to the team leader, her left hand brushed his right elbow in a momentary caress. 

“Good evening, my wife.”  On contact, he ceased shifting the staff from hand-to-hand.  A slight tingling sensation ran up his arm.

After an instant, her brown eyes lost focus as she followed his gaze into the night.  The world slipped away as she melded her consciousness with the intricate patterns of her mind-stone, channeling energy while strengthening the link she shared with her mate.

“The Council blocked the bridge, but they did not break it.”  Garith accepted the soft kitten warmth of her mind touch while continuing to consider the vague images that floated in his head.  “They cannot block the energy for creating our gates, but they forbid us to use the power.”

“You feel nice…”  Garith interjected a personal thought.  With many, a mind touch was a hard, cold, academic, pragmatic linking, but her joining was warm and soothing.  Her aura radiated pure, focused thoughts, wrapped in a soft blanket of caring and concern for others.  Though his bright blue eyes still stared vacantly into a night filled with misting rain - he enjoyed this moment of shared joining.

“Thank you, my husband, you feel nice also, stupid–but–nice.”  Lannie quipped with a wide smile. 

“I should know this pattern…”  Lan’s smile turned down toward a slight frown of concentration as she picked up the flow of thoughts flashing through the night.  “I have seen scenes such as this in your mind.”

“Perhaps.”  Stoic, face neutral, he showed no sign of the inner turmoil raging in his soul.  Still sheltered under the fronds of a tall palm, his angular but chiseled features remained impassive.  “Our Ilfkin leaders seek time to think.”

“You have a hunch.”  Though her mind focused on the flow of thoughts, Lannie still glanced toward her husband, seeking a hint.

She read his face even when he tried to hide a secret.  As a healer, she instinctively checked the dominant sunburst hues of his aura, looking for problems.  After a moment, she smiled.

He was excellent, better than fine; he radiated great health and excellent energy levels.  As a doctor, she was intimately familiar with the molecular cell progression needed for transferring Qi-energy throughout the body.  She understood how to flow the energy resonance to the mind-stone for amplification.  Yet, for all her understanding of the principles involved in this process, Garith was the undisputed master of the ‘magic’.  For Garith, riding a lightway was as easy as drawing a single breath of air.  It was his gift.

“The Ilfs, the Faes, and the Dim Cheng join in calling all Ilfkin families to a council meeting.”  As clan elders, both Garith and Lannie’s thoughts linked to the other council chiefs.  Their silver headbands did not allow them to hear actual words—instead, it provided a flow of ideas, images and basic concepts.  Visions of concerned faces, puzzled leaders without a clear understanding of the dangers they were facing.  Leaders that were relying on his team to find answers.

“But–you have a hunch.”  Lannie pursued the thought.  She knew the pieces of data were familiar to her.  She had seen similar images in his mind.  Most of the current scenes flashing before them were from linked Warders on other worlds.  They were being transmitted to the Council, on this planet, as an emergency warning.  Frightful images that hinted at a disaster of a scope never known to the Federation.

“I have a hunch.”  His face remained impassive.  He always had hunches.  More than a century of experiences gave him an extensive pool of data to draw the information he used to form conclusions.  These informed conclusions were the basis for his hunches.

“I see parts of the picture.  But not enough to offer a theory; yet.”  He had seen many things in over one hundred years of conducting tourist expeditions on thousands of planets.  In addition, he had executed countless secret missions on behalf of The Warder Council.  That time did not include the decades spent on his home world mastering his craft.

But, thanks to a cultivated discipline, his features showed nothing to betray the thoughts swirling through his churning mind.

“I would rather not speculate until I have more empirical data-more evidence.”  In the pit of his stomach, there was a gnawing dread he understood precisely what was happening.  Scattered fragments of images brought back terrible memories from one of his last off-planet assignments.  Still, his face remained impassive as he absorbed the flow of data channeled from around the world.

“I understand…”  From the corner of one eye, Lannie continued to study Garith’s impassive face.  At a glance, he appeared to be in his thirties.

But she understood there was an element to his essence that transcended physical appearance, a timeless quality radiating from his entire being.  One moment he could be a little boy.  His eyes reflecting childlike innocence.  The next instant, a man who had seen too much of life.  Consistent with the universe's flow, his physical presence swung in time to the occasion's needs.

“My special man.”  Again, her small hand touched his long slender fingers.  He had lived long enough to understand the artificial construct of time.  It was one thing to use time as a simple measurement tool, but it was an enormous mistake to believe that time was linear.

“How many worlds have you seen?  How many adventures before we were together or while you were on a classified assignment?”  Lannie wondered to herself.

“What surprise will you reveal to me next?”  She understood he had experienced the actual flow patterns of both this universe and the overlapping fringes of linked dimensions.  He had traveled through unique spatial gaps, where parallel universe crossings might occur.

“Where next?”  If even a single beam of light from another star slipped through, he might ride that wave of dimensional vibration to another world or a different universe.  When linked with his mind-stone and following a thread of universal light, his physical form shifted to an astral-like projection capable of being tangible or ethereal.  In this mode, his actual body was free to move outside the restrictions of standard time-space travel.  If his mind-stone matrix found an entangled matrix anywhere in any universe–first his astral form, then his physical body could step through the hole and appear light-years away from his point of origin.  A simple change in his molecules' oscillation rate, a shift in vibration frequencies, and the entire universe opened up for travel.

“No matter, my love, you are my true soul mate.”  She thought about the reality of his physical form.  The warmth and vitality he generated, his caring for others. When firmly grounded on a single planet, without his mind-stone linked to a specific light thread, his body was healthy and vibrant with the power of an eternal warrior.  His touch gentle but solid.

But, when linked with his mind-stone, he could visit the fringes of far-flung galaxies and venture beyond the haloed splits that separated expanding and contracting star systems.

“Twinkle-twinkle little star.  Garith knows just what you are…”  Lannie knew that already in his lifetime, he had studied and surfed the edges of the time-reversal points known as black holes.  Those unique places often referred to among the Elfkin as the axles on the wheel of time.  Her husband understood that within these black folds, the universe periodically corrected aberrant flow cycles.  He understood the leakage between alternate worlds and could navigate the dividing seas.  He was intimately familiar with the associated rewards versus risks that awaited those who dared travel through the crossroads of time sequences and interstellar spatial weaves.

 “Time is a trickster… don’t count on it to play you fair.”  Lannie remembered one of Garith’s favorite quotations when he was explaining time sequences to a recruit.  “Time is not the cycle of one world sweeping around a sun.  It is a spatial conundrum, as fluid as liquid silver.”

“Don’t measure it—feel it!  Time is a process, not a dimension.  In a block universe, the arrow of measured time usually flows one way, but we can change that angle of flight similar to a projectile launched into a powerful wind.”

“Aiiiya! My husband.”  To most, he was just a simple Warder working on one of the many tourist planets spread across the universe. Still, for the few who understood more of his history - he was a ‘Light Master’ who had trod the dust of a thousand worlds and crossed the great divide to visit alternate universes.  “So simple… so complex.”

Though it was a guarded secret, he and Ramas were among the few Elfkin that, on extraordinary missions, had crossed the artificial divides of spacetime investigating alternate dimensions.  Places they reached through haloed cracks in our universe.  For Garith, travel to parallel worlds was an ingrained part of his life.

“Silly boy-man.”  In her heart, she knew he enjoyed this location above all other places.  There was something special about this planet, this one tiny precious jewel speeding through the heavens.  Here, life was fresh, possessing unlimited potential.

“After all these years and our many travels… I can understand why you chose this world as our home base.”  She understood, in part, his fondness for this locality was because of the primitive simplicity of life on this world.

Garith had seen much in his years of travel.  He had dealt with the politics of interstellar intrigue and compromise.  Battled for the rights of others and to defend the innocent.  But too often, the pure intentions of his actions resulted in planets being manipulated.  Greedy individuals could use new worlds, joining the Federation, to fulfill the wants of a few versus the needs of the many.  Here, life was immediate, visceral, tangible.  The only games you played were live, love, survive.  With her entire heart, she loved this world and this man.

“Showtime, kiddo!” Garith’s voice was light as he prepared for the freedom of action.  It was time for his ‘moon dance’.  But this was no ordinary moon dance.  Tonight, he danced with a super moon, and the light frequencies would open a virtually infinite number of stellar pathways-doors to the stars.

Garith shook off the final tendrils of his mild communications trance and turned to Lan with a roguish grin.

Instantly, the timelessness of his features showed a boyish quality.  At this moment, he was just a big goofy kid with a playful smile and a twinkle in his eyes.  For him, life was one splendid adventure after another.  Time meant nothing. At this moment, his age was somewhere between 3 and 300.

            “Humph.”  Lan did her best to hide a blush as she met his vibrant gaze.  For all the years and all the mission assignments they shared–he still took her breath away, not that she admitted it to him except on rare occasions.

“Time to race the dark and run the woods.”  Garith used an Elfkin expression for the freedom of unfettered action.

  “If you had planned better, you wouldn’t need to run.”  Lan gave him an affectionate smile and watched as he stretched his lean body to prepare for his nighttime jog.  A little over six feet tall, with the Northern Elves' willowy strength, he radiated exceptional strength and power.  Even in the dim glow of their ‘Dirina Chu’ camp lamp, she saw his deep blue eyes dancing with a blending of silver-gold life-flakes.

“Be safe, my husband…”  Lannie did not speak these words out loud.  Square chin, shoulder-length auburn hair, held back by his bright silver communications circlet, a perfect smile with bright white teeth, he was physically attractive.  But it was the quality and purity of his mind, heart, and soul that made him irresistible.  Lan had seen him in action on a hundred separate worlds and understood his character, pride, faults.

“Stupid, man, stupid boy!”  Lannie’s eyes appeared to glow with personal joy as she studied his features and whispered an earlier thought out loud.

Consistent with his personality, his nose was a little too bold, and his chin a bit too strong.  But there was no other man she would have as a husband.  As she continued to study his face, she winced when noticing the tiny white scar near his hairline on the right temple.  It reminded her of the time he took the point of a blade to protect her.  She was a rookie and too slow in recognizing an attack.  With one athletic move, he had saved her life and disarmed the assailant, taking a slash to his temple from the tip of a razor-edged blade. 

“Dance with me?”  Removing a vision mask from the equipment belt fit around his narrow waist, he gave her a quick wink.  Then slipped on a molded mask and raised the snug-fitting hood of his Warders field suit.  With a final adjustment to earbuds, secured in the cowl, he gave Lan a gentle touch on her cheek, took two long strides into the night, and vanished.

Endless legends abounded about the members of field agent Warder teams.  Their rigorous, decades-long, mental, and physical training made them smart, tough, and nearly unstoppable.  The blending of a team was a controlled procedure.  It required matching the talents and abilities needed to complement one another.  Done correctly, the entire group became more potent than any single individual.  Mind stones were also screened to ensure compatibility at every level.

However, a Warder’s field suit was another critical component to the success of these extraordinary units.

They made each field suit from an advanced fabric capable of absorbing energy from both the Elfkin body and natural sunlight.  Woven from intelligent fibers, the Warder uniform collected power and converted it to kinetic or potential energy as needed for each mission. 

“Can you see me now?”  Garith laughed with childish glee.  He loved racing the dark and running the woods.  Though data poured into his mind from the multitude of sensors in his suit, he ran ninety percent on his instincts.  His body intuitively understood what to do.

“I’m testing the latest modifications to the suit fibers on this run.”  His suit maintained a stable body temperature during a regular day while allowing him to move in constant chameleon mode.

“Roger, that…” Lannie acknowledged the report.

  Aside from making the Warder virtually invisible, it also provided the wearer with a mind-powered energy shield.  In emergencies, the power shield also allowed the Warder to create small plasma and electromagnetic pulse bursts.  As with most Elfkin technology, the explosive pulses' strength depended on the wearer's mental conditioning and focal power.  For most Warders, the energy burst might create little more than a mild shock. But, a Warder with Garith’s discipline and training could send a searing bolt of scorching energy or a disruptive pulse over one hundred yards.

The functionality of the suit embraced the best of Elfkin technology.  With virtually limitless capabilities, a Warder might change their uniforms, against regulations, to match their individual characteristics and styles.  But this only happened after they gained enough experience to understand their personal style.  Garith preferred quarter sleeves loose at the elbow and knee-length trousers ending just below the top of his black battle boots.  Modified gloves let him sense the things he touched while still providing adequate protection.  He chose these changes as they increased his flexibility without significantly compromising the functionality of the suit.

“Are you reading my suit metrics?”  Now Garith raced the dark and ran the woods with youthful abandon.

“Yes, dear…”  Lannie shaped the words with an exasperated tone, though her features brightened with a slight smile.  “Grow up!”

“Too late!”  As Garith vanished deep into the jungle, his goggles allowed him to see while his chameleon suit shaded to hues that matched his surroundings.  Within relative terms, he was a wraith, a phantom of the night flying through enveloping darkness.

“Brat!”  Lannie laughed.  “You know I hate you… right?”

“Yes, dear, and thank you for hating me.”  Garith hummed to himself as he ran untethered through the jungle.

“The latest fiber updates appear to work well… no bugs so far.”  There were gimmicks and gadgets of many types and sizes built into the standard uniform.  With everything from medical assistance appliances to collapsible wings and inflatable body inserts, the suits were a technological marvel.  Despite his unapproved suit modifications, he kept most of these connections intact. 

In a dormant state, the material had the look of shimmering silvery silk while maintaining the texture of soft velvet.  But during field operations, the uniform rippled through a full spectrum of colors as the wearer shifted position.

“Hi Ho, Hi Ho!”  Garith shifted the grip on his staff to improve balance.  At night, the suit continued performing the daylight functions but also powered the infra-red lenses built into the vision masks.  He now used these capabilities to full advantage as he ran headlong through twisting vines and dripping fronds, spray splashing against bare skin where the altered suit did not give complete protection.

In strider mode, the uniform also created a small aurora of ambient light around the wearer to illuminate the surrounding area.  Through experience, Warders learned to use this feature carefully.  Though capable of providing emergency illumination, it also drew unwanted attention from various bizarre and savage creatures inhabiting most primal resort worlds. 

“I’m headed to the tallest peak on our left.  I must be in the clearing before the last sliver of moon crests the horizon.”  Fluid movements, blending both suit functionality and honed Warder skills, allowed him to weave through thick vegetation without making a sound.   Tread patterns on the boot soles helped ensure powerful traction and non-slip stability. The ergonomically designed lining inside his knee-length black battle boots, combined with soft soil still moist from the light misting rain, cushioned his long strides and helped make certain his movements were silent.  

Through filtered sensors, his earbuds picked up the constant rhythm of a distant waterfall that cascaded into the valley occupied by his team.

“Trouble!”  Zigging more to the left, he whipped up his goggles when a flare of unexpected light blinded him.  His suit flashed into strider mode, giving him enough light to continue forward.  Still moving at a quick pace, he sent a short message back to the team.

“What is it–my husband?” 

“There are migrating natives about 3 miles from our site.  There’s a large campfire.  It appears they just arrived and are settling in for the night near one of the water-worn caves close to our gate.  A sentry may have glimpsed me ‘striding’.”  Though unnecessary, he added.  “Take precautions.”

“Buhao!”  When the campfire triggered his uniform's illumination function, the suit left a visible band of light marking his passage.   Though this soft glow allowed him to continue his swift journey, it also left an ethereal trail of streaming light.  It only took a few seconds for the lenses to complete the transition, but his earbuds picked up a call of alarm from the native campsite.

“I must pick up my pace to compensate for this delay.”  With the vision goggles again in sync, Garith slipped them back over his eyes while using his extensive training and strength to increase his speed.  Pairing an uncanny grace with the use of his pseudo-oak staff for leverage, he bent his body at phenomenal angles as he glided between water-soaked fronds, thick ferns, and jutting moss-covered stones.  With blurring speed, he slid over slippery slopes en route to his goal.

“So far, none of our Gorilla friends in sight.”  The Warder followed a natural path, winding through thick jungle foliage, as he ascended the slope of a cresting hilltop.  More droplets of moisture scattered across his weatherproof uniform as he dashed through water-laden fronds hanging low with the weight of their burden.

“Double buhao!  No!  Make that a triple Buhao!”  Garith made a sudden jog to his right, again extending the time required for him to reach the hilltop.  “Five miles out a family of Giant Gorillas and a mile north of them a group of Giant Pandas.” 

“They are almost ready to settle in for the night.  Only a few are still grazing on bamboo.  But if we don’t run some clever diversions before full daylight, there will be big trouble when the three groups meet up tomorrow.”  Garith briefed as he threaded a path between the two divergent family groups.  “Humans, Pandas and Gorillas in the same quadrant.  Aiiiya!”

“Rison, please have your ‘cat’ track all three parties through the night so we can act in the morning.”  Things had become more difficult for the Warders over the last few decades as more indigenous tribes and wildlife migrated into this protected resort.

They might ignore the problem and let nature take its course, but the Warder’s prime mandate was simple - preserve life.

Safely passed the two groups, he was now ten miles away from camp.  With smooth strides, he maintained a steady pace despite an uphill grade.

“How am I doing, Doc?”  Garith whispered into thin air.

“You need more ego-stroking?   How insecure.”   Lannie smiled to herself as she checked a small hand-held monitor.  Slender fingers darted over the surface as she tracked his biometric data.  “Ten miles of hard running with no change in your body temperature, heart rate, breathing… et al.  As you knew perfectly well.”

“Hey Doc, the regs say to check–so–I’m checking.” Garith smiled to himself as he added on even more speed in his efforts to reach the hilltop before a newborn full moon broke through an envelope of low-hanging clouds.  “Any change now?”

“Funny.”  Lan shook her head.  Even with all the technology packed in his suit–this guy was nothing less than a human phenomenon.  With a glance around to make sure no one else might see her suit readings, she gave a silent sigh.  He understood he was driving up her pheromone levels.

“Jerk!”  Lan suppressed a shudder as she realized she had said that out loud over the comm link.  She blushed, her high-boned cheeks phasing from a golden brown to a rose red.  As she glanced around, it relieved her to see that the rest of the team pretended not to hear anything, but she realized they would tease her later.

In times of significant danger, there was even more teasing among the team members than usual.  It was in their nature to use humor to off-set underlying concerns.  They still had no details about the threat to their society.  Yet, the team members shared an unspoken concern about the sudden change in events rocking their world.  The consensus among the elders was that a great peril placed their entire civilization at risk.  But they needed data to understand the issues. 

A few weeks before, they had been entertaining tourists and teaching them the ways of this planet.  There had been adventure, singing, dancing and romance; now, they worked alone with no civilians around to witness the team’s secret tasks.

After checking her husband’s suit's latest readings, Lannie tried to put together images from this evening’s Council meeting.  Could it be true that an unstoppable plague was sweeping through the primary planets of the Federation?

“Rumors.  They are only rumors.  But can it be true?”  She muttered the words into the surrounding darkness.

“Garith will find the key for us… he always wins.  I should be with him right now.”  She fought the urge to race the night and run the woods side-by-side with Garith, no longer bound in unproductive thought. With a disciplined decision, she instead focused on her immediate task.  “No!  He needs you here.”

“What if the images are true?  I am a certified medical doctor.  If I were not a field agent, maybe I might have helped find a cure?”    

“What if…?”  Her mind rolled down the tangent of wondering what things she might have done. It was a crazy spiral of reviewing lost opportunities and potential possibilities that typically led only to frustration.  “What if I had done this one thing differently?”

“No!  Deal with what is- not- what if.”  Dr. de’ Tian scolded herself.  Discipline!  For now, they were living defensively.  Things might change. “Life is change!”

“Deal with it… one positive action at a time.”  She schooled her mind; they would run together soon enough. 

“Now, we need data to make intelligent decisions.  Not rumors, not guesses, we need objective, verifiable evidence.”  Dependent on how things went, the next step might be a return to normal activities and lifestyles—or—it might be to minimize and shift to survival mode.  If the latter happened, it would first be simple things.  Men protecting women rather than treating them as equals.  A shifting of roles and stratification of responsibilities, targeting the continuation of the Elfkin races.  Anything necessary to increase the chances of species survival.

“Life’s just that!”  A pureblood descendant of the Eastern Elven clans, Lan had the solid but petite frame and delicate features of her ancestors.  It was easy for people to underestimate her.  At the moment, her long black hair flowed down the back of her field suit, stopping at the bottom of her shoulder blades.  Would she cut it shorter in a warrior manner or grow it longer in physicians' current style?

“Stupid thoughts - focus!”  A fine line formed on her forehead as she played with this thought string for another moment.  Lannie was a proud, strong, independent woman.  She would not easily accept a dependent role in their society.  She was a full partner to both this team and Garith.  But a part of her realized she might be the one to lead this role change, to ensure the Elfkin people continued to thrive.

Lan shook off this string of thought.  She instead found her mind drifting down forgotten pathways that had been the key to her development.  At a peripheral level, she also continued tracking her husband’s every movement. 

“Hey, little girl, whatcha doin’ in line with the men?” As a graduate Medical Doctor, Lan was older than most new candidates when she entered the Warder Academy’s warrior training program.  Garbed in a simple fatigue uniform, with no insignia, she was smaller and slimmer than most of the trainees.

“I said, whatcha’ doin’ in line with the men?”  The cadet behind her, waiting in line for breakfast, increased his voice volume when she did not answer.

As a graduate medical professional, there was no need for her to compete at the full warrior level.  She needed to pass a few basic classes to enter the Warder family as a doctoral initiate.  Within the system’s hierarchy, she would rise through the ranks in any administrative positions available to someone with her drive and intelligence.  Frequently, they reminded her there was no need to be a certified warrior.  The requirements for this level of certification were intense.  The physical training criteria rigorous and demanding.  She could do the minimum, take a few simple classes, and coast through the minimum curriculum.  There was no need to compete against the Federation’s best athletes.

“Haaaaa!  Fixin’ to whoop you recruit.”  Lan turned with a graceful motion and stared up at the heavily muscled man who challenged her.  As the daughter of field agents, she had received training, from an early age, in a variety of martial arts.  But, for this encounter, Lannie stepped in close and positioned one foot behind his back leg.  As the bigger man instinctively backed away, his balance shifted.  With one finger, she tumbled him to the ground.

Before the cadet could scramble to his feet, an instructor stepped between them. He gave them both a stern look and waited a moment before moving off a scant distance.

“Sorry, I was just using my finger to make a point.”  Lan understood her strength and recognized her abilities, both physical and mental.  Orphaned in her early teens, she grew up in a series of Warder foster homes where she was always the other kid.  They were not bad to her, but she never fit.  She never got the sense she was part of their family.

“Ma, Ba…?  Why both of you together on the same mission?” Lannie experienced a twinge of self-pity. Her parents were both Warders field agents killed in the line of duty.  She understood that field agents often died in the line of duty, but she never forgave them for going on that mission together.  She knew the Council had assured them this was a low-risk mission, and she had been told the assignment required both their separate skill sets.  But, in her heart, nothing could replace this loss.  At a primal level, she felt wronged.  The universe had cheated her and taken all the love from her life.

“One of you should have stayed with me.”  They had left her a more than adequate trust fund and an expansive estate, but she was only twelve.  The law required her assignment to legal guardians.  Hence, she moved from one foster home to another, seeking a fit.  It never happened.

She learned, at a young age, to be resilient, independent, self-reliant.  She studied harder, worked harder, fought harder.   Even after obtaining her medical doctorate and being accepted to the Academy’s warrior program, she continued to press, learn, and grow.

She still searched for the missing part of her, though she did not understand why she felt incomplete.  She competed and won, again and again.  If her opponents underestimated her, they lost.  Man, woman, big, small, they learned not to underestimate this cadet.  In a physical contest, she fought smartly, using superior skills to dispatch an opponent.  If they respected her abilities, they had a chance of beating her, albeit not an excellent opportunity–but–a chance.  “Don’t judge me on the size of my body… judge me on the size of my mind and heart.”

Yet for all her victories and many accomplishments, there was still something missing, an undefined wrongness.  She was hollow, incomplete, empty.

“Arrogant, man!”  The first time she met Garith, he was preparing to give a series of Academy lectures at the request of the Council.  One look at him, from a front-row seat in a still empty lecture hall, and she knew she would hate him.  Handsome, with a straight-shouldered bearing that spoke of incredible self-confidence without words.  Groomed ginger hued hair, piercing blue eyes, a wide smile.  She recognized this type of man.  Lannie was sure they would be rivals.

The rumor was that he had just returned from an interstellar assignment, and the Council wanted him to pass on his field knowledge to the fresh cadets.  She had seen other field veterans return to teach.  Without exception, they were puffed with pride, self-obsessed, arrogant.  The kind of person who would underestimate her, then she would take them down.

“What do you think you will teach me?”  Arriving before the other cadets, Lannie had approached him at the podium as he shuffled through notes to prepare for his talk.  She didn’t know much about him except what she read on the lecture announcement.  But she had heard that the Council considered him one of the best, and she wanted to top ‘the best’.

“I’m talking to you… Warder.”  Dr. de’ Tian regretted the words' tenor as she spoke them, but her pride would not let her back down.  As he turned to face her, his smile was infectious.

“Did you say ‘Good Morning’?”  His voice was soft but carried throughout the acoustically shaped auditorium.  He stared at her in silence for a long moment.  “I’m sorry… I think I missed the part where you said ‘Good Morning’.”

“I said… what do you think you can teach me?”  She had still refused to give ground.

“It is not my job to teach you… it is your job to think.  The Academy has many qualified instructors trained to teach.”  Words spoken so softly, she instinctively leaned in to hear them.  “Our task is to tell you what we experienced. You need to figure out how you would handle a similar situation.”

“She has courage, Garith… strength, and a good heart.”  With the sturdy build and a trained warrior's stride, a small man stepped up beside the young instructor.  “I like her.”

“Who are you?”  She had been so focused on the younger field agent she missed seeing his partner.  Her gaze swept back and forth between the two men.  She suddenly sensed that these two individuals were unique.  Was she wrong to have based her first reaction on his physical appearance?  Was it wrong to condemn a person just because they were physically attractive?

“To many, I am ‘Cookie’… because I love to cook.”  The smaller Warder’s blue eyes appeared to glitter with internal merriment.  “To others, I am Ramas Crow.”

“I like her too…”  The young Warder slapped his partner on the back and nodded.  Still holding an infectious smile on his full lips, he studied her with a gaze that did not focus on her physical form.  “But, it must exhaust her.”

“The chip?”  Ramas nodded in response to Garith’s words. “It seems to be a rather large one.”

“Can we help you carry that…?”  The field rep continued to hold a bright smile.  His eyes seemed to twinkle with an inward humor that rivaled the amused look of his partner.

“Carry what?”  Lannie stiffened.  They were making fun of her.  Then, the elder agent reached up, with a slow motion, to touch her softly on the left cheek.

“That chip on your shoulder…”  The Dim Cheng’s mind-stone blinked once, and then he shared a smile similar to the one Garith gave her.  “When you finish your schooling–join us–please.”

“Cadet de’ Tian…” ‘Cookie’s’ smile turned down for a moment as he studied the name stenciled on the silvery fabric of her cadet uniform.

                                    … 

“Good Morning.”  Garith’s voice rang loud and clear throughout the auditorium.

“Good Morning.”  A chorus of voices answered his greeting.

“Good morning…”  Lannie whispered while raising one hand to the cheek just touched by the older man.  Something had just changed inside her - what?

            Suddenly glancing around, she realized that cadets now filled the auditorium. Students eager to hear real-life stories from genuine field agents.

“As I mentioned to this cadet, Ramas and I are not here to teach you the academics of being a Warder.  We are here to share a few tales of survival.  These are real-life survival situations, in the field, against real-life challenges.  Sometimes, our solutions are clean; sometimes, they are ugly but workable.  We’re here to talk about real-life.”  The active-duty agent and his diminutive partner turned to the now packed theater and spoke, creating vivid images of life in the field.

After a few minutes, Lannie had dropped her first perceptions, found a seat, and listened to their tales.  They were spellbinding.  It was no secret field agents sometimes died performing their duties.  These were operatives stationed on primitive, often brutal worlds where civilization was a guise rather than a truth.  Lannie was poignantly aware of the dangers associated with fieldwork.

They did not share sagas of grandeur and glory.  These were words from Warders who made hard choices on the ground running.   The decisions they made could affect the Federation for years or even generations.  They admitted their mistakes; laughed at themselves.  They brought the field to life for these city-bound students.  Some were gritty, rough-edged tales.  Other stories poignant, frequently funny, and occasionally tragic sagas that inspired her mind to seek greater heights.  When an innocent child died, both the field agents and the audience wept.  If a tainted politician made people small for his personal gain - both the lecturers and the audience were angry.  When right triumphed over wrong, both the agents and the audience cheered.

“Don’t let me gloss over the dangers faced by field agents.  ‘If’ you follow this calling, you will be in constant danger.  Your assignments will be on primitive worlds where physical violence is an eternal reality.”  He paused for emphasis, letting this thought settle in their minds.  “Because you typically work as covert operatives, they do not target you specifically.  However, collateral death on most of these developing planets is a tragic reality.  Think carefully about this before even considering serving as a Federation field agent!”

“My parents…”  Lannie thought to herself.  During their presentation, she realized she would never hold a desk job in the Warder organization.  She was poignantly aware of the danger, but being a field agent was real, visceral, and possibly the most critical role in the Warder Corps.  Lan realized that, without a doubt, she must work in the field.  In her mind, the grand estates held by senior Warder administrators paled next to the lure of visiting the over one million habitable worlds protected by the Federation.  To find new, livable planets, bring new populated planets into the family.  Help young civilizations grow and learn so they might one day accept membership in the Federation.  This was the role that would give her life true meaning - it was what she was born to do.

“Feel better?”  After the lecture, Ramas Crow had approached her.  He singled her out in the crowd that still lingered in the auditorium, hoping to speak to the agents.  “You will be a Great Warder!”

“I…” The cadet could not find words.  Again, the field agent was staring at the name on her uniform.

“Sorry, a little sentimental today… your parents were excellent field agents and good people.”  Ramas reached up to brush a tear from one eye.  “A tragic loss.”

“You knew them?”  Lannie realized her birthstone throbbed.

Ramas studied her a long time in silence.  Then shrugged… “I knew-of-them.  I never had the privilege of working with them.  But their intelligence and courage are legendary throughout the Corps.”

At a loss for words, Lan bowed in thanks.  She then turned, fighting a sudden urge to cry in public.  She never cried in public.

As she pivoted, starting to step away, she noticed Garith’s piercing blue eyes.  She watched as the fine lines on his face shifted subtly, reflecting a series of thoughts flashing through his mind.  Then he smiled.

“He’s right… I can sense it; you will be a Great Warder.”  His smile widened, brightening the lines of his face.  But there was a genuine sincerity in his eyes that touched an icy part of her heart and brought warmth.  

The two men only stayed a few days before returning to the field–but she couldn’t forget either of them.  When she graduated as a certified warrior and medical doctor, the first thing she did was request assignment to their team. To her amazement, they remembered her and accepted her as a member of this very exclusive unit. 

That was well over one hundred planet cycles ago, and despite more than a few battle scars, she had never regretted the decision.

Here she found the part of herself that had been missing - Family!

“Aiiiya!  No time for this now.”  Lannie broke off the thought flow and leaned forward to study her instruments.   Garith would soon be in position for the transition.  This action would put a massive strain on both their energy levels.

“Okay, Kiddo!  Just a little further.”  Garith continued to increase his sprint speed uphill, realizing that the ‘Super Moon’ was peaking.  His rapid strides carried him through thinning layers of low-hanging clouds and beyond their upper limits as he burst above the final fringe of misting vapor and reached the top of the hill.  In greeting, the last sliver of a giant full moon crested the horizon.

            “King of the Mountain, baby!  King-of-the-Mountain.” Garith struggled to pull air back into his lungs.

            While the strenuous run had not taxed his strength, the beauty of the scene surrounding him took his breath away.  The illuminated surroundings greeting him as he broke through the clouds were spectacular.

“Doc, I sure wish you were here to share this with me.  Amazing!”  Removing vision goggles and pushing back the hood of his uniform - he allowed himself a quick moment to revel in the wonder of the panoramic scene playing out before him.  The peak of the hill stood high above the top of low-hanging clouds.  The air was crisp and clean, following the recent rain.  Drinking in the sweet nectar of pure air, Garith realized his strength was increasing.  From this lofty perch, the entire world lay bathed in the silvered glow of a giant full moon.  A silvered dusting of moonbeams painted the hilltop with shimmering light.  Bright beams of light sparkled on the cloud tops below his lofty perch.  Silver haloed the trees and ferns that crowned the mountain crest.  It was magical.

Garith stepped into the center of a clearing.  With the powerful grace of a trained athlete, he drew a deep breath, exhaled, and extended his arms with the oak staff held horizontally between both hands.

“Time mark…”  He spun the shaft in a tight circle. At first, the movement was crude but became smooth as the motion's speed turned into an incredible blur.  “Now!”

With one flip, the staff sank perpendicularly into the soft soil, and Garith froze in place.  The fingers on both muscular hands intertwined to grip the top of the shaft.

“Open baby… open the hole.”  His eyes closed as he went into a practiced trance.  This act spent only a tiny sliver of energy, as he projected the Warder’s shroud, a screening illusion.   The illusion shifted his form, so he appeared to be a young tree rooted in the ground.  Any witnesses saw only a graceful tree, a young sapling with flowing branches, where once stood a man.

“That’s it!  Easy does it.”  His physical form gripped the shaft of his staff as what appeared to be slender limbs, at first fragile and tenuous, sprouted.  Branches rapidly grew longer and more substantial, twisting, turning motions, as they emerged from the pseudo-oak shaft.  Each limb, infused by the light of the full moon, sparkled and glittered with an ambient glow.  Garith was oblivious to the material aspects of this planet.  Instead, he focused his thoughts on the flow of the universe, the shifting, and the blending of perceived time.  The pretext of past, present, and future swirling together.

Back at camp, most of the team bustled with activity.    They monitored tablets, checked meters, and recorded the millions of signals transmitted from Garith’s staff antennas.  Almost all were busy preparing to collect messages sent from the center of countless universal flow points.

The only exception was the Team Weapons Master and Cook, ‘Cookie’.  He stood apart, appearing to be in a trance of his own.  He stood with eyes closed while idly wiping clean his cooking table.  Lines of deep concentration crinkled his features and grooved his forehead as he focused on the flow of events in his own way.  He had a perspective different from the other team members based on his unique origin.  An origin he did not share with anyone.  Even Garith only understood a little of his genuine nature.

On the other side of the camp lamp, Lan sat on a short tree stump.  In her own trance, resting cross-legged with her back straight, eyes open but looking into ether.  Lost in the universe's flow, she remained as nearly as motionless as Garith.  Her form barely shifting in shadowy motion as she fought the desire to dance in time to this universal song.  Within this void between light and dark, she gently swayed to the rhythm of a melody only she and Garith heard.  Locked together, she shared her husband’s trance, his visions, his emotions.  Together they listened to the voices of the stars as they sang their parts in a cosmic symphony.

“It always amazes me how each star can have such a unique color and sound based on their vibration frequencies.  A universal light show, with choreographed music, to match the dance of lights.”  Lannie’s whispered words drifted into the moist evening air.  Both Warders in a complete mind lock.

“Travel safe, my husband.”  She was not only his safety net but also a fellow traveler following the ribbons of spatial distortions perceived as time sequences.  When her energy drained to the point of physical exhaustion, she would collapse.  This act pulling Garith out of his trance.

“I got your back, Doc.”  After a few minutes, Huang Di, the team apprentice, stopped calibrating equipment, silently moving to her side.  He prepared to catch her if she collapsed. 

“I’m here if you need me…”  A slender youth, from an eastern Elven clan that bordered the lands of Lan’s ancestors on their home planet, he still had inordinate strength.  If something went wrong, he could handle her weight without issue.  She might leave the trance before drained of energy, but this never happened in his two years with the team.  Garith and Lan would pull every bit of information from the universal shift, even if it meant nasty headaches, or worse, the next day.

The frozen silver monolith of a man on the top of a distant hill.  The sturdy grounding of a silver cloaked woman in the fertile valley far below. Linked at many levels, they raced through the cycling currents of the cosmos.  Together they shared the rapture of a universe alive with light and sound.  Each star bringing its own spectral glow and voice to this mesmerizing event.  Similar to instruments in a great orchestra, each star possessing a tone and timbre unique to itself.  Each jewel suspended in the tapestry of the heavens. Each alone, but when woven together by the holder of the wheel, sharing a collective harmony.  In their communion of minds, two linked Warders witnessed a billion separate melodies blending into a universal whole.  In this moment of the cycle, they were audience to a cosmic symphony conducted by ‘The Creator of the Song’.  A simple Elfkin phrase intended to capture the mystery of ‘The Wheel’.

Huang Di moved closer but did not dare touch Lan.  He understood the power of this bond from his apprentice training–but–he could not even imagine the strength of the link between these two incredible individuals as they witnessed the flow of the universe.  How did it feel to ride the waves of creation?  What was it like to merge your very soul, your essential essence, with the rhythm of the stars?

But in this state of sublime submission, none of that mattered as this was different.  Love and hate were human emotions tied to individual wants and needs.

This linking exceeded physical limits.  The bond transcended physical rapture or any definition of fleshly connection.  At this moment, minds, hearts, bodies and souls joined at every level.  Their combined essences joined to the cyclic patterns of the universe.

“As I said, you feel good.”  Garith could sense her presence through their link.  She was feeding him strength for the task ahead.  Together they prepared to race with their minds through a few of the millions of space-time ribbons opened in this instant of divine grace.  Some ribbons were actual active pathways.  Others, shadowy remnants of ancient truths, while still others reflected potential realities that might never reach fruition. “Save some power for yourself, my love.”

“Don’t worry about me; I’m smart enough to know when to let go.”  Lan fed him more power.  “Unlike my stupid husband.”

Though his physical body did not move, Garith’s astral form stepped into the whirling vortex created as his mind's power shaped the moonlight.  Supercharged energy channeled through the staff via his mind-stone.  He fashioned the energy curves needed to allow him access to thousands of different spatial drift lines with practiced precision.

“Come on, baby, take me home.”  Shaping the silvery sparks that coalesced in the moist jungle air, dancing like brilliant fireflies in the night, he pushed aside vapor veils with his mind.  As he separated the pages of sheet music that scored this divine show, he dared to dance with the stars through the reflected light of the moon.

“Amazing!”  Before Garith lay lightways to what many perceived as the past, present and future.  Not connected to a single solar system, these flows sent seeking fingers throughout the universe and beyond.  With the aid of his mind-stone, he could distinguish any level of spectral light or tonal sound that reflected from the full moon at this moment. Universal and inter-dimensional flows were open for his exploration.

“Let your mind go free.”  To the untrained mind, it might seem to be an eclectic cacophony.  But, for him, it was the song and the light of life.  With his stone's aid, he adjusted the patterns to correct for the lag time associated with light waves traveling enormous distances.  A single spore, released from his staff, could follow and fold a light wave, allowing exploration at any point along the path of any specific star.  At this moment, Garith focused on projecting the spores down the full length of the light wave, with a maximum number of folds so he could capture near term or real-time events.  He pushed the spores back along the light streams to get the most recent impulses generated from any star sector.  Many spores could separate and traverse divergent branches on a single star wave seeking individual planets belonging to that system.

“Nice!”  Though sweat dripped from his forehead, as his gemstone flared with brilliant radiance, a childlike smile suffused his face.  Fireflies of cosmic beauty twirled throughout the night, weaving patterns that flowed and spun in time to the symphony.  Eyes wide, he joined the dance of the stars.  Riding a wave of cosmic consciousness, his mind surged through the vortex in search of knowledge.

This effort might take hours and every bit of his famed energy, but he must try to understand the ‘way of the light’.

He controlled the silvery dancing spores sprouting into creation from the shaft of his staff with his mind. Through a conscious effort, he directed them down the nearest pathway.  In a quick micro-second of observation, he peeked at a moment in the past on a particular planet.  He did not attempt to understand the scene.  He merely sent in the drifting fireflies to record what they saw and pass it back to the team for later analysis.

The next timeline was a glimpse of a potential future, vague and shadowed, but it might provide clues about the path they must follow.   Quick glimpses of a gigantic volcanic eruption, thick cloud layers of dust and ash, heavy snowstorms - then there was ice everywhere.

He pushed aside one veil after another with quick motions, collecting as much data as possible for the team to analyze.  This information might determine whether they opened the bridge again or closed it for a very long time.

Down another star ribbon, he glimpsed an Elven home planet at star coordinates 3.4 +23.7.  A polished world of glistening towers with swirling spires rising proud and tall into a bright azure sky.  Willowy trees and sparkling ponds interwoven into a lush landscape to create a natural harmony between the forests and human habitats.  But there was something wrong.  He made recordings, automatically shared with the team, then moved on to the next ribbon.  There were limits to even his famed power, and his time was inadequate.  He did not have the luxury now to focus on a single flow line.  A detailed analysis would come later.

He had been sorting for hours when abruptly Garith slowed his mad dash through the vortex.  Something was troubling down one of the timeline sequences.  This intruder did not share the song of the universe.  It was black and empty, filled with a hunger to devour the light.  It was as if another presence had joined in his search, or worse, was searching for him.  But it did not share the song.  It did not witness the light.  It was dark, hard, and empty.  It was devoid of the divine spark that made life magical.  His instincts told him it was attempting to use a gateway to this world.

“Buhao!”  Doctor de’ Tian panted with a heavy rasping tone.  Huang reached out to support her but checked his motion.  The situation was not usual; he heard her mutter into the night.  “Careful Garith–there’s something wrong in this shadow path.”

“I sense it!”  Garith did something he had never done before.  He jerked up his hood.  Slapping his goggles into place, he snapped the connection shut.  He must not allow another to walk the silver path he had opened even at his peril.  It might lead them or “it” to this world.

The once silver monolith became a silver bullet as the universe reacted to him breaking the link.  He flew 20 yards before slamming hard against the sturdy trunk of a tall tree; the oak staff still held tight in his hands.  His head spun, consciousness flickered in and out.  Without complete mental control, the shaft's sprouting arms appeared to wither as they drew back inside tiny openings along the length of the staff.  The world went silent.

In the valley, Huang caught the doctor as she collapsed.  With a protective motion, he leaned over and checked her pulse.  It was fast, but already settling.  He glanced around and noted that the rest of the team had also suffered from the shock.  The change affected anyone linked to the analysis systems.

Even Ramas stood frozen in place–locked in on something the other team members did not share.  A grim look was settling across taut features as he muttered to himself.  “Soon, we finish this dance, and then I must rest.”

For long seconds, stretching into eternity, there was silence.

“I felt her… I’m certain it was her.”  ‘Cookie’ kept his eyes closed as he again wiped his cooking table.  The furrows in his forehead were a little deeper, but a slight smile touched his lips.  This was the opportunity he sought for years.  “It was faint in the background… a shadowy image surrounded by the stain of evil - but I felt you.”

A broader smile reshaped his features as he recognized the rasping hiss of Dell r’ again sharpening the blade of his great prayer sword.  The team was already recovering from this shock.  They were reliable, resilient; they were a part of his family. 

“What!?!”  Doctor de’ Tian jerked into a sitting position and shook her head.  “Garith?”

There was another long, painful silence.

“Sorry, Doc.  Guess I should have let you know sooner; I was already preparing to break the connection when you gave your warning.”  Starting to press himself up from the roots of the giant palm that had ended his flight, Garith grimaced. He realized he would probably have broken some bones if not for his suit's force field properties.  Instead, he would probably just be sore for the next few days.

“Hmmm… I will definitely feel this in the morning.”  Garith used his pseudo-oak shaft to ease himself back to the ground and wedged himself snug against the tree's rough bark.

“Not if I can help it.”  Lannie studied the metrics on her screen, performed a quick mental triage, and plotted a course of action.

“I think I will sleep here tonight.  We still have the triad of humans, Giant Gorilla and Giant Panda families to deal with first thing in the morning.”

“I will ‘call’ the gorilla family to the North using one of their distress voices.”  As he shifted against the tree, he grimaced again.  “Dell r’, you use the same technique on the humans and pull them to the South.”

Garith already sensed his suit applying helpful pressure to bruised ribs.  “Ala–ditto for you–get those Pandas moving west.”

“Doc, how do I look?”  Garith adjusted his hood and let his head settle against the tree as he sagged in exhaustion.  With a careful movement, he slipped off his vision goggles and stuffed them in a pouch.

“Ugly, of course!”  Lan smiled as she again checked the readings on her monitoring unit.  “Other than that–you’ll live.”

“Oh–by the way–this will sting a little…”  With a grin, she ordered the suit to inject him with mild doses of antibiotics, painkillers, and sedatives.  He would experience some pain in the morning, but not as much as he expected.  “Just what the doctor ordered.”

“Love you too, cutie.”  Garith smiled to himself.  “Guess you snuggle with the pillow tonight.  Sweet Dreams!”