The wind whistled past, marking my skin with caresses and tales of the journey it had made before darting off to carry its news to the trees and grass beyond. I lay by the water, hearing the fish swimming, the insects buzzing, birds chirping, and feeling the earth beneath me moving ever so slowly. I fell in love with the stars, wrapped up in the light of the moon, gathering their distant warmth to my side. Everything was so alive, so vibrant, so full of possibility. At the core of each thing a truth nestled and around it a never-ending sea of possibilities formed infinite event horizons. I wept, unseen by any other creature. Pure beauty. Horrible, agonizing, wondrous, uplifting beauty.
I thought of the wraiths, like a dear friend of mine had been (before he killed himself). Though I experienced everything so strongly I had never succumbed to it. I had never been locked into my own mind because of the strength of my senses. They had rarely caused me pain. Those who were overwhelmed by sight and sound became like sufferers of autism; forever bound up in ritual, withdrawal, and obsession. Vampires didn’t often discuss wraiths but most of us did care for them. They were too self-aware to be zombies yet too sensitive to join in regular vampire activities. Mes pauvres. Those doomed, trapped souls. I wept for them as well.
I heard another cry pierce the night alongside my silent wailing. I sat up just as quietly, tilting my head to let my ears better locate the source. The keening cry sounded again, full of sorrow. I bade the lake bon nuit and dashed off to discover exactly who was so sad. A number of kilometers away I found her hugging a tree for dear life. Her dark hair ran down her shoulders. Her caramel skin appeared to glow, as if producing light from within. Her eyes were shut but I already knew they’d be that chocolate brown that melted me. She wore a dark blue hoodie and jeans yet her feet were bare. My head spinning, I brought her into my embrace and held her there for hours, not speaking a word. She sobbed into me, huge, pain-wracking sobs as deep as a crack in the planet we knelt upon. I could not take her pain like Mark Ulf or Blue, nor could I absorb her cries like Mark Ashton. I simply remained with her, simply sat with the sadness beside her. It was nearly dawn when her cries ceased.
Her brown eyes, broken, pierced into me. “I’ll protect you,” she vowed.
“Ma coeur. Ma sagesse. Cherie,” I murmured. “You’ve seen the devastation, then.”
She nodded stiffly. “Before he dropped me here. Where…when are we?” she gulped and leaned back against the tree, the first rays of the morning light casting her in a prison of rainbows.
“We’re in South America. Argentina, I believe. The year…” I trailed off.
“How long have you been here?” she inquired.
“Some months. I’ve been waiting for you.”
“He said… He told me he would bring me to you.” She drew in a ragged breath. “He’s worse than Eve.”
“It’s a good thing she was known first. Evil is much easier to say than Mikassan,” I joked lightly.
A phantom of a smile graced her features. There was more silver and white in her tresses now, I noted. I massaged her hands and her tension slowly dissipated. Her shoulders straightened. “Jean Claude, how do we get out of here? I can only imagine what he’s doing to the crew right now.”
“We find Ulf. He’s somewhere on this Earth trying to find you.”
“How can you be sure?”
“This is one of the times he brought me to. He and I are here somewhere. Now we need to figure out the exact date.”
She sighed. “Can we rest first? And share? There’s so much I want to know.”
“Always, Aeryn,” I gushed, bending to offer my neck.
“He said he’d be back. He’s cavorting around gaining information about my entire family tree. He’s been killing them off one by one. He’s erasing me. That’s why Eve was able to block my return and my memories for so long. He’ll come back to finish me off.” She couldn’t hold back the shivers.
“I won’t let him!” I bared my teeth.
Instead of arguing, she simply drank. We would see when the time came.
*Aeryn’s point of view
We traversed the Andes, heading for North America. Jean nursed me, giving me his blood whenever we were between Incan cities. Most times we avoided the roads. Occasionally Jean would visit a village to barter for animals to drink from. He’d learned Quechua, the local language. He would weave together quipus (special knotted messages) for the Incans and deliver them to far off cities in exchange for the llamas. Most of the quipus were crop inventory and population stats. He was smart enough to stay out of local politics. From their calendars we learned we were in the mid-1300s. A shiver went down my spine as I thought of the plague ravaging Europe half a world away.
Why did Mikassa drop me here? If he’d wanted me to see more carnage, shouldn’t he have left me in Italy? Then again, perhaps he wanted to make the journey arduous for me. Even though Jean and I could travel quickly, we had to gather supplies to build a ship capable of withstanding the ocean. We couldn’t risk flying to Europe, either. With all the panic and violence it wouldn’t make sense to draw too much attention to ourselves. We did manage to find one of Mark Ulf’s notes hidden near what was to become a pyramid. He directed us to Mongolia. Great! Still a monumental jackass. We finished our boat and set sail. We’d constructed a special cabin to keep Jean out of the sun during the day. He held me close often, stroking me and singing to me. We talked about our favorite A Seriesen crew members. We argued about Michón; he adored her and I hated her. He thought my distaste for Mark Blue was hilarious. “You know you want to fuck him at least,” he teased me as we sat under the stars, watching them reflect off of the ocean. We sat back to back, taking it all in.
“So what? I don’t want to pursue something casual with someone who gives me the creeps. He’s damaged, Jean. Not like Joey. Something in his soul is fucking cracked.”
“Are you sure that’s what it is? Or are you simply terrified that he actually matches you? That his hunger is as deep as your own?” Jean challenged me.
“Hm…I certainly missed you, Jean Claude,” I sighed.
“And I you, my love. I also hope to reunite with Mark Ashton soon.”
“You two are absolutely adorable together. You know, I almost thought Stuart was him for a moment,” I laughed.
“I experienced the same momentary disorientation,” he chuckled. “He’s unrepentantly heterosexual and heteroromantic, however.”
“Mm, not entirely. He’s made an exception for Mark Blue. Kind of like Sam did for Mark Ashton.”
“Remarkable. That lucky bastard. And what makes you think you’ll resist him?”
“That’s the thing. I don’t think I can. Not forever. And the way the stories are written it seems I have to help him. But I know it won’t be easy.”
“You’re right on that account, cherie.” Jean laid his head on my shoulder.
“What about you? Can you finally tell me about your time with him in either form?” I wondered.
“He’s amazing…” Jean trailed off, deep in thought. He opened his mind to me and shared some of his experiences as he talked. “He’s so big. And so open. Besides his pranks and the necessities of time travel he’s incapable of deception. He’s so unapologetically himself. He shines, ma coeur. His energy is immense. It folds in on itself. He’s quite like a dragon, actually. He showed me your past, the future. After he took you I spent a year waiting for a sign. Knowing what would happen if you died, if he was unable to save you, I went searching. He’d told me about other universes, other creatures. I went back to the Black Tree. It…changed.”
“Into a Japanese boy, yeah? I met him. He revived me.”
“Yes!” he exclaimed happily. “He was able to transport me to the A Seriesen but he wasn’t quite as talented with time travel as his father and so I was deposited too early in the time stream. When they gathered nearly all of the talismans to seal Marduk away I crossed into the new timeline to warn them about Innocence if the first group failed to stop her. We all returned to this timeline and before the showdown with Innocence Michón sent me to her world. I couldn’t reveal Ripley for who he truly was but I did my best to give her comfort. She was so delightful. After Ripley went insane the others made sure I escaped. A future Michón appeared to bring me here. She told me to wait five months and then to find my past self and Mark Ulf. That it was the best way to save you.”
I shook my head. “I don’t understand her. Who’s worse: her or Mikassa? Is she here to help us or to drive us insane?”
“I think she’s as fascinating as Mark, either of them, but she’s a much better liar. She’s been hiding for so long.”
“Hm. I need to know her better. For myself… Jean, do you know if any of my family is out there right now?” I asked nervously.
“I’m sure there is. Ulf will help us find and protect them. Don’t fret.”
“I kind of wish he operated like you. ‘Call and I’ll come.’ You heard my call for you across the universes. And here you are.”
“Yes, love. Here I am. Let’s go below. It’s nearly sunrise,” he suggested.
“Only for a bit, amour. I have to navigate, after all. We don’t want to end up in Australia or something,” I quipped, following him below.
Mark Ulf and Mark Blue had drawn up an interactive map of each connected universe and each affected time stream. They were color-coded for severity and likelihood of usefulness. We were sending out teams to the places we would be most effective. With Caily and Mitchell’s help the Marks programmed the entire plot into a set of qcomps. I felt some extreme sadness wafting off of Mark Ulf as he handed them to us. When I peered curiously at him he said he knew the creators of the qcomp. Mikassa had ruined them, as well. I squeezed his hand and gathered up a stock of time threads. Joán had made plenty to last for each team. We’d need them to counteract the different pacing effects of each alternate universe we travelled through. There weren’t many that we were visiting where time moved along at the same rate as ours. All of us were given cosmic markers so that we’d be able to check on one another’s progress. We also set a time limit. Mikassa would be returning eventually and we couldn’t risk him finding out what we were doing. We had to make it back before he did and be sure that we covered our tracks.
As Mark Ulf and Mark Blue prepared our various time and space warps I examined my interdimensional map. It looked like a set of tree branches. I took a closer look and decided they more closely resembled neural connections. How interesting. My eyes rose as Soleceet and Archie went through their time warp. Stuart had found him and his girlfriend surfing gravity waves in the Aracely quadrant. Cel seemed a lot more lucid now, or perhaps it was merely due to the fact that Michón wasn’t around. In any case he was gladly up to the task of saving this universe. We’d have him get rid of the tulpa Alana later if we made it out of this alive. Mitchell, Saje, and Karia headed out next to their destination. Caily, Joán, Becky, and Jerry left through yet another time warp. Josh, Disami, Lombardi, and Aerick jumped through theirs. Josh had certainly straightened up after a talking-to from Aeryn. Disami was also given werewolf repellant by Lucian as an additional countermeasure in case Josh lost it again. Micala, Ariel, Stuart, and Richard teamed up. Damon, Ripley, and Mark Blue were remaining in this universe to find John and his gang. Mark Ulf would remain on the A Seriesen, binding all of us together on his internal clock. That left Lucian, Arthur, Rafael, and I to take the last remaining portal. Our first stop was to recharge our energy. I’d need to be a goddess for this task.
*Aeryn’s point of view
Thank Horus we don’t have to eat or drink, I thought and gazed out upon the endless blue ocean. We’d have died of dehydration at the rate we were going. Jean and I were both fairly intelligent vampires but master shipbuilders we were not. The journey across the ocean took us a few months. Mostly that was my fault; Jean was quite the accomplished astronomer but since I was the main one steering the ship (and during the day at that) we ended up off course a few times. He’d scold me about it but I’d respond by giving him big goo-goo eyes. He’d start muttering and go below deck to play on the guitar he’d fashioned for himself. I’d fashioned a spear out of my curved knife to discourage the dolphins from getting too close (most folks mistakenly thought of sharks as being more dangerous but dolphins were one of the few creatures besides humans that killed for fun).
I was ecstatic when we passed by the islands that would one day be known as Japan. Right now the shogunate was rising to power. We decided not to drop by. We arrived in the upper corner of China and stole quickly into Mongolia. We snuck along on a path parallel to but not directly on the Silk Road, thralling Mongols every so often to get wind of their plans. I figured it wasn’t much use asking Jean how he knew their language as well. Then one invader had a very interesting tale for us. Apparently he’d already seen Jean before and he’d been heading toward Crimea. With renewed energy we sped off to the Black Sea in search of Jean’s other self. We found him sitting under a tent among the Italian merchants getting ready to set sail for Italy. He didn’t seem too surprised to see us. “These poor bastards have no idea what they’re bringing home with them,” he remarked. “The hardest thing is finding anyone to drink from that isn’t infected.”
“Tell me about it,” the Jean that had travelled with me agreed. “Where is Mark?”
“Wandering around somewhere. He’ll return soon. Sit. Drink.” Jean’s eyes lit up that mischievous green. He was adorned in fine silks yet somehow appeared more evil than usual.
“Great. What am I going to do with two of you bastards?” I mused, following him over to a randomly set up wooden table further back in the tent. I took a seat, relaxed because this port brought in people from all over so my jeans, hoodie, and brown skin weren’t too odd. Though I did wonder if Jean appearing as if he had a twin would earn us unwanted attention.
“We’ll keep our glamour up and our eyes different,” the Jeans assured me, picking up on my worry.
I nodded, smothering my smile. “You’re Jeff,” I addressed the Jean in silk. “You’re Jean,” I told my travelling companion. They poured themselves some wine I’d never heard of. I examined the gorgeous, ancient boats lining the dock. The sea smelled different here. The salty tang was of a different quality because of the different species living in this part of the world. A complicated mix of languages wove around me. I only understood the Italian (and barely at that due to it being ancient). I muted my nose as the smell of death and plague intruded into my nostrils. I stared up at the darkening sky, seeing if I could spot the minute differences in each star’s position, taking note of stars that existed now that had supernova’d or ended up in black holes by the time I’d been born as Allison. I could recall some of this sky from my memories as Aren (my last life, the life I’d lived the longest after being born Aeryn Su Namun of Egypt. I’d lived two short lives after being Aeryn of Egypt and several of varying length before being born as Aeryn. Yet my most notable lives were my first as Lilith, my tenth as Aeryn, my thirteenth as Aren, and of course my present life as Allison.) I may not have been as astronomically-inclined and talented as Jean but I knew a fair number of stars and constellations.
“Cuore mio, vita mia, our vessel awaits. The crew is all trustworthy. Mark and I have prepared a very comfortable cabin for you,” Jeff announced a while later. “Suivez moi.” He gestured with a crook of his finger as he led the way to a decent-sized ship. Jean took my hand and we followed him up the gangway. The Italian sailors tipped their hats or bowed as I passed. I asked Jeff why and he told me they were all maloks. Thank Nut for small favors! Jeff shouted some orders in Old Italian before directing Jean and I down below. The crew moved quickly, hauling up barrels and securing crates in preparation for our journey. The ceilings were a bit low below-deck but the corridor was long. There seemed to be a good number of rooms. Jeff led us to the end of the hall and knocked on the door with a flourish.
The heavy wooden door creaked open and Mark Ulf stood behind it. “Why Allison Mae, have you come to the past to play?” he greeted, sneering.
I rushed into his arms and melted.