Crossing the Streams

The travel way station had been empty when Daxia arrived last night, and it stayed that way — to her surprise — all night. Only Morning Star kept her company as she dressed and said her prayers as She rose over the ridge of the Black Mountains to the east. However, her solitude was interrupted by what sounded like an Eastern hunting beast crashing through the underbrush along the trail as she finished saddling her companion. She thought she heard someone, a young man most likely, speaking angrily, though she couldn't make out any of the words. The Dayalan was instantly alert, but beyond scanning the area she made no move save to place a hand on the hilt of her sword.

Unfortunately, she wasn't particularly surprised that the trip from the Vale down to Cragside was interrupted by a problem, as small as this one might turn out to be. It was, of course, too much to hope that someone's ruff had found a hare that wanted to fight back. That thought only underscored the fact that Darian and Longtooth — as well as the rest of her friends — were still a handful or more days away. She was about a handful from Cragside... none of them had been particularly interested in venturing back into that town. Even with the Wild Horde likely already there, Daxia couldn't really blame them.

The Dayalan sighed softly. Yes... something ordinary and perfectly innocent would be too much to hope for... especially since Kisa had given her another tile for her growing set. This one was simply two crossed lines with what looked like feathers on the ends of each line... almost giving the image a sense of circular movement. She'd asked Kisa what it meant, and the look on her dearest friend's face had been one of complete confusion.

"I don't know. I just felt I needed to draw that particular shape. It's nothing I've ever seen before."

Daxia had held the small Doublebluff tile in her hand for a moment, her eyebrows drawing together. That was unusual in and of itself; Kisa knew more symbols than Dazi had ever known existed.

"I don't See any Paths, Kisa. I don't mean that I don't see any relating to this tile... I don't See anything."

Kisa shook her head, confusion slipping into worry. "I don't either... not when I'm holding it."

And that was even more unusual — even disturbing. Kisa was the greatest of the Witches — as Romana called those who could See the Pattern, though Morning Star called her a small Witch — the world had seen in many generations.

Right now, the tile was tucked away with many of the early ones Kisa had used as messages... wrapped in a square of linen inside the pouch Romana had given her as a Midwinter gift several years ago, tucked in the depths of her saddlebag, which was still at least three paces away.

And she couldn't See any Paths. It was entirely too much like... standing on marble bridge long after and yet not long after my Brother was killed?

She sighed softly. Yes.

I am still the Most Magnificent Font of All Knowledge, the Unicorn said, tossing his head so that his mane flowed in the slight breeze and Her light glinted off his horn, and not trapped in the form of a common horse, he add disdainfully.

Daxia sighed again. Yes, yes... you certainly are magnificent. You're also a touch on the insufferable side, too.

Unicorn looked at Dayalan for a moment, then tossed his head again... this time feigning insult. You've been talking to that little one again. You can walk today.

Her eyes going back to scanning the trees around her, Daxia simply shrugged. One walks down this part of the trail anyway if one has any sense. And you know I haven't spoken to Kay since she joined her cousin and the Horde last year. She smiled though; for all it might sound like bickering, this was simply the way she and Morning Star had worked out their particular way of teasing. All Starriders teased their unicorns... all unicorns teased their partners.

She saw movement, heard someone who sounded like city folk crashing through the underbrush followed by more careful and considered steps. The angry voice was growing louder — and closer. The city dweller stepped out from the cover of the trees and stopped short when... he?... saw her and Morning Star. He... yes, possibly he... also yelped something unintelligible.

# # #

It's been a while since we've been back to Everness. I can't blame Maddie for feeling edgy about it. But our kids have been driving us bonkers lately... sometimes it feels like this is the only place in the galaxy those four won't follow us. And three cheers for small favors!

Of course, for some reason, I feel damn twitchy today. At least all the Spirits aren't following me everywhere — today — like the children do, but something is. Well, besides half of my usual quartet — Cobra around my waist, Opossum riding on my shoulder.

I can't tell you why I put my uniform on today, but I get the feeling it has something to do with these two. And, of course, I'm not really sure I trust them. Oh, where it counts I trust them. I just think they're up to something. Again.

Okay, maybe they're just spying on me for Maria. Gods, what a worry wart she's gotten to be! You'd think she was the first person in the history of the Diné to ever get married. Her brother just laughs at her. And to think there was a time I thought Paul was the less sensible one! I'm not sure how Vin puts up with it — well, he's made out of patience, I think — but Em absolutely does not put up with her cousin's insanity. I thought I wouldn't need to, either, by coming out here with Maddie and Logan.

Whatever is following me is quiet... it almost sounds like the big cats that used to live on the mountain up above Golden. Earth will always be home, and I love Denver... but people just kept pushing and pushing and pushing the wildlife farther and farther west. When the great grand kits of my three favorite cats — themselves nearing the ends of their lives — left Jefferson County for Clear Creek County... well, I think that was when I decided it was time to move to the Dinébah.

I pause, looking about forty five degrees away from the sound I heard. Definitely sounds like a big cat. And it's definitely been following me for the past — hell, I don't have a watch in my head like Maddie does, but it's been at least an hour and a half. I sigh.

"Okay, Kitty. You have my attention."

Are you sure it is wise to interact so directly with the native wildlife, Warrior? Fox asks almost nervously.

I look down suspiciously. Do you guys know something that I don't? Because I got really tired of that game about a hundred years ago.

Fox shakes its head. No. Something is odd about this place today, though.

I shrug slightly. Maybe it's just my impulse to wear the uniform and carry the staff today.

Perhaps, Fox admits as a panther — black as night and slightly larger than I'd expect from such an animal, with unusually golden eyes — glides out of the forest and sits down about ten paces away from me. It seems to study me with a great deal of intensity.

Or not.

"You're Andrea Yazzie!"

Cobra squeezing my waist and Opossum nearly ripping my ear off in surprise are probably the only things that keep me from yelping. Oh, this reminds me way too much of the days before Pablo and I got married and Raven was a fucking loon. Panthers should not talk.

"Maybe," I say slowly. "Who wants to know?" No, I'm not suspicious at all. I'm just... wary.

And don't tell me they mean the same thing.

The panther Shifts into a young man... about my height, blond, eyes of gold, doesn't look more than twenty... possibly less. "It's me! Shane Jerafalco... Falcon? We went to college together?"

I narrow my eyes at him. I suppose technically it's not impossible, but it's highly unlikely. I'm a hundred and ninety years old; I graduated from DU's undergrad program a hundred and sixty seven years ago, and their graduate program a hundred and sixty four years ago. So yeah... highly unlikely. Also, despite the fact that I'm related to... crap, I've lost count... well, a bunch of Shifters including my worry wart of a daughter, it's still damn disconcerting to watch a person Shift.

"Oh, please don't look at me like that, Andrea! You have to remember the hundreds of hours we spent pretending to stare at art we didn't understand in the University Art Museum so we could talk about philosophy instead?"

I swear to Great Spirit, the boy looks downright dejected! But at least my expression morphs to something closer to confusion.

"Dude, I don't think I went to the Myhren Gallery more than half a dozen times. The Museum of Anthropology was always way better."

"Huh? There was never a Museum of Anthropology in Albuquerque."

He looks utterly baffled. I'm starting to freak out. Just a little. Pablo?

"No, I don't think there was. But I wasn't in Albuquerque." Yep, definitely edging into fight or fight even more mode here. Unfortunately, flight isn't an option. Oh, if only.

Yes, dear? Is this youngster giving you a hard time?

Not really. He's kind of freaking me out, though... Looking for an Andrea Yazzie who went to college at the University of New Mexico.

"Wait. You didn't live in Albuquerque?"

I raise an eyebrow. "Visited often — still do, I have plenty of relatives there — but, no."


Ut oh.

Oh, ya think, wise guy? Where's Rene? And how fast can Maddie and Logan get here?

He's with them, but says he'll split and watch you, too. They're down in the canyon... Logan could probably climb out a bit faster than Madeline, but you know he's not going to let her out of his sight. It would take him half an hour to get here on his own, nearly twice that together.

No, no... I know Rene needs to watch them more than he needs to watch me. I think we're all a little... okay, a lot... on edge after what happened the last time we were on Everness.

"Son, I really don't like the sound of that," I say as I try very hard to let the qi from Mother flow into my by body slowly. It's not as easy as it sounds. She really wants to push, and give me everything. Again. She's smarter than I am, but I also don't want to start glowing as brightly as the sun.

Shane... or Falcon... or whatever the hell his name is shakes his head and sighs. "I suppose I should have noticed right off, what with this not being Earth and you wearing..." He gestures in my direction. "...whatever that is."

"It's my uniform. And the weirder you talk, the happier I am to be wearing it." No need to mention the weapons, of course.

"Yeah, sorry for the weird. It's just that..." He drops down to the ground, cross-legged with elbows splayed on his knees, holding his head in his hands. He groans. "...she understands this whole traveling through dimensions and universes thing that I do... and understands it better than I do, too, even though I've been doing it a long time. I think."

I take a step back and Pablo becomes corporeal beside me.

"Honey, you're still a magnet for weird," he says affectionately.

Shane's head pops up so fast he nearly tumbles over backwards.

"Holy shit! What the hell??!"

"Ha! Now you know how I feel," I tell him, giving him the stinkeye. He should be happy my guardian Spirits are remaining incorporeal.

"Who are you?"

"Do you ever get tired of that song?" Pablo asks.

"Yes. Every time I've heard it for the past hundred and fifty years, in fact. Maybe even longer." I nudge his shoulder. "As you well know." I look at the young man, still wary... primarily because Mother still wants me to have the energy of an entire planet.

"I am Andrea Yazzie. I am Ninja. I am the Warrior of the Diné and all the First People. This is my husband, Pablo Garcia, one of my guardian Spirits. Sort of."

He seems to have regained his composure. Mostly. "I hate when I wind up in the wrong place." He slowly rubs his temples. "This universe has got to be butting right up against hers."

I shrug. "Yeah, that's what we figured when we wound up there... or at least not too far off from this one."

"Wait... you've been there?! How?"

I sigh, and Pablo puts his arm around me. This is not helping me get over the uneasiness of being back on Everness.

"Our Sister Madeline got snatched one day while rock climbing with her Mate. Logan was hurt badly. I'm not going to pretend to know the mechanics of how it happened, though this one," Pablo says tilting his head in my direction, "and a few other geniuses worked out a pretty reasonable hypothesis. One that we're in no hurry to test, by the way."

"No, no... I get that. Unintentional travel between universes is hell. It's only been my shapeshifting abilities that have kept me alive sometimes."

I grunt. "Well, Maddie doesn't have that advantage, but she does heal up from dead really well."

Shane raises both eyebrows. "That would be a handy skill to have."

I give him a hard look... just stare at him for a minute before shaking my head. "It's fucking painful, both for the person healing and the people connected to them who have their souls ripped out while they're in... well, where they go."

I know Maddie waits it out with Rene... mostly I chat with Great Spirit, but sometimes hang out with Pablo and Rene. I don't think I've ever asked Logan where he goes. I've always gotten the impression, though, that he'd rather not discuss it. The kids? Yeah... they're nuts. According to my two, they go back to the "not born" place and commune with other souls. I don't know about Maddie's two. They're less weird. Slightly. Sometimes extremely less so.

"Uh... sorry. I obviously hit a nerve there. I didn't mean to." He stands gracefully, reminding me of a gymnast or dancer; Mother is not as impressed... the ground trembles slightly. "Whoa. Earthquake? Is this planet known for them?"

"It's not. And it's only an earthquake in the sense that the Earth doesn't seem to be happy with you," I say wryly.

He looks at me with the same expression I get when Billie tries explaining the physics of the portals to me. In those cases, I'll just nod, say something pithy like uh huh, and then go ahead and open the portal. Shane doesn't even get to the nodding part. "Huh?"

I shrug. "Mother Earth and I have been friends for a long time, and She's a mite protective."

"That's an understatement," Pablo mutters.

But the young man nods slowly. "Okay. I've heard of that kind of thing, just never saw Nature manifest so... forcefully, I guess. You were saying, though, that your sister got pulled into your alt's universe. How'd she get out?"

"Semi-standard extraction mission." I shrug again. "Pablo couldn't get through the portal, nor could Maddie's husband or even any of the Spirits. I was the only one who could still sense Pablo and Rene once we went through, my guess being that since they were mortal at one point there was more of them to latch onto. That's the only other universe we've traveled to — thank the Gods, Buddhas and Spirits! — but since the Spirits can't get to some dimensions, it seemed a reasonable assumption that there would be universes they couldn't access either."

"You went in alone?! You're a lot braver than I am! It was starting to get a bit tense when I was there, and I could see the writing on the wall that it could get a whole lot worse before it got any better."

"No, I didn't go alone. I'm crazy, but I'm not fucking insane." I take a deep breath; I'd rather not rehash the whole story, but I might be able to manage a few highlights. "Logan and our four children — Maddie and Logan have a set of twins, Pablo and I have a set of twins — went through the portal. And the world had pretty much gone to hell by the time we got there." I regard him for a moment. "If you went to college with my twin, then something like a hundred and sixty five years or so had passed. The world we found was a very ugly place. I'd like to think we made a difference while we were there... that things will get better. But I have no desire to go back to find out."

"You... you actually met Andrea?" He shakes his head. "I didn't think that was possible. It shouldn't be possible. Two identical people shouldn't be able to exist in the same universe." He groans again. "Damn, that makes me glad my people are thoroughly uninterested in leaving their planet."

I grin at him... Ninja scary, Ninja sarcastic. "Just wait until you run into the universe where your people decided they want to explore the galaxy."

Shane looks at me with horror, then turns to Pablo. "Is she always this evil?"

Pablo laughs. "This? This is nothing! If you want to see evil, piss her off."

I continue to grin. "I don't recommend it, though."

"Yeah, okay. You know, I thought for sure you were Andrea... well, the Andrea I'm looking for... but I don't think she can make a face like that. I never heard her swear either. Not once in four years." He narrowed his eyes at me then. "How did you manage to get into her universe, though? From everything I've seen, you should have been repelled like magnets with opposite polarity."

"Well, that's the thing... she and I aren't identical, except for genetics. I'm the Warrior, she's the Ha'atathli. We didn't have much time to chat before the Wolf Pack needed to take care of a few problems Maddie had discovered on her trip from New York — and the gods only know why she fell through a portal from Everness onto the grounds of what was left of the Xavier School..."

"Andi, come on," Pablo says gently. "Even that brainiac son-in-law of our agrees it was probably because of the enormous emotional attachments Madeline has to the area, and the school in particular."

I contemplate my husband and his words for a moment, then nod. "I know it makes sense, Pablito, and I know Vin and Em both accept that explanation. But there's something that's nagged me about it for the past five years. Even though Maddie and I haven't talked about it, I get the feeling she's bugged by it, too. I don't know... maybe it's that thing that's between me and her that our two lunatics are always going on about. She's got the attachment and I don't, so it feels out of balance to me." I look at him a moment longer, then give him the smile that is for him alone. "But I'll go with your assessment for now."

Looking back at Shane, I continue, "Anyway, we figure our lives diverged somewhere around puberty... so by the time I walked into her world, we'd been traveling different paths in increasingly divergent worlds for over a hundred and seventy years... very nearly our entire lives. Logan and his twin, on the other hand, probably started down different paths about a decade later than Andrea and I did. Well, that's the best guess we came up with since no one really wanted to talk to Jimmy." I shrug. "He was a horse's ass, though that might be insulting to horses and their back ends. A much greater percentage of their lives were close enough to identical as to make no difference, though. That much we did figure out, especially given that Jimmy and Logan are considerably older — well, were at the time of divergence... it's all relative — than Andrea and me. It was harder for Logan to get through the portal than it was for me, but even for me it was no picnic."

Shane still looks concerned. "It still shouldn't be possible at all."

Pablo chuckles. "Andi's a magnet for weird. Anything is possible."

We stare at one another for several long minutes... he's certainly suspicious, I'm rather enjoying myself.

"Fine, fine, fine! You're not her, but you met her, so maybe the two of you talked about these portal things and you can help me out."

Poor kid. He looks so lost and pathetic. That doesn't stop Pablo from laughing heartily, and it doesn't stop me from giggling.

He sighs. "Okay, what did I say now?"

"I'm probably the foremost expert on portals that you're going to find. My son is as good at opening them... I have more power to draw from." I gesture to the world around us. "Mother likes to share. Also, even though Billie could make your brain go numb with the physics and by now I think Vin could explain the math of them, too... I understand them on an instinctive level. Paul's just good at opening them."

He grins and seems to be trying not to jump up and down. "This is great, though! I can find them if a planet has one... most of the time... I think... but I can't always get through." He deflates then. "Sometimes being able to make an escape through one of the pools is the difference between getting caught and running away to fight another day."

I raise an eyebrow. "The portals are doorways. And like the average door in the average building, each portal only connects two destinations. Some of those destinations are worse than whatever's chasing you."

He shakes his head. "No. Well, yes, sometimes. But if one of Nabob's senior lackeys is after me, I'd rather chance winding up in the middle of a Klingon family feud than risk getting caught by those scum."

"I don't know... from the portrayal I've seen of Klingons, that's not a place anyone would want to be."

"Yeah, so you see why I'd want to find an escape hatch. Well, except I was certain that the energy pool on that world — at least the one between those two villages — went to Andrea's world. Not here." He looks almost pathetically confused.

"Hmm. Well, we can talk. The portals do move, however. Something about the synchronization between dimensions, or something. That's part of the physics stuff Billie could talk about if she was here. Which she isn't." I shrug. "I don't know how much help I can be, but talking seems safe enough." Of course, I'm not going to mention the whole subtopic of my being able to call the portals to me. Supposedly. According to Cat.

I look at Pablo.

"Madeline and Logan will meet us at the cabin." He links his fingers with mine and smiles. "In the meantime, it's a beautiful day to take a romantic walk with my lovely wife."

# # #

Falcon was getting tired of the constant rain. It figured that he'd get here just as the rainy season started. And once the rainy season started, there were no off-world flights for a good four months. All he could do was keep a low profile until then. The only good part of the whole situation was that there weren't any incoming flights from off-world either. He'd managed to outrun Nabob one more time.

Sooner or later, his luck was going to run out. He was pretty sure the next time one of Nabob's goons caught up to him, Falcon would find himself in a small box and delivered to the man himself — well, that was assuming Nabob was, in fact, a man. All the talk pointed to a male... Falcon merely questioned the human part of the equation.

It had been surprising enough to discover he could traverse different universes as well as space... it had been even more surprising to learn Nabob's slave trade spanned many of those universes, too. Nabob had found, or more likely stolen, the technology that allowed his ships to hop through wormholes into other realities as easily as they hopped from one side of the galaxy to the other. A few honest traders made use of the technology, and Falcon much preferred hitching a ride with them. More often, however, he had to stow away on one of the ship's in Nabob's fleet... always in a non-organic form. Sometimes he was able to sabotage the ships so landing was almost always fatal to the living things on board. Many were the times he could have sabotaged the ships, but didn't because of the human cargo.

Falcon might not be human... might not truly understand the full range of human emotions... but he understood fear, despair, compassion and hate. Oh, Falcon understood hate all right. Nabob and his minions seemed to pull it from the very core of Falcon's being. But as much as he hated them, Falcon felt enough compassion that he couldn't kill other sentient beings without cause.

There was a third way he'd found to travel around the multiverses; it was erratic and he hated that he didn't understand it. On some worlds, there were... well, pools of energy somewhat similar to that of his home world that allowed him to travel from one universe to another. Most of the time, Falcon could sense where they were... though never where they went. There had been a few times, however, when he'd just fallen into those pools and didn't realize he was in a different universe until he'd unconsciously shifted his form back to something solid. He always seemed to arrive in those universes after a fall from a great height.

He shook the rain out of his fur again as he huddled against the side of the building, his dog form looking thoroughly pitiful. The rain would let up soon, just after nightfall, though it certainly wouldn't stop. But it would be enough that he could travel through the woods that bordered the road from this town to the next. Travel during the day was dangerous in any form. Even with the rain, hunters were out whenever there was available light. Any form he took that would allow him to move quickly enough would also be something the folks around here would find tasty for their dinners.

He knew the location of one of those pools was on this world — there might possibly be more than one, but he was certain about the one he'd used in the past. And the best part about this particular pool was the person he'd met in that other universe the last time he was there. She seemed to instinctively understand the pools. She couldn't find them... she couldn't do much with them when she happened upon them... but she knew they were some sort of energy. Falcon just hoped not too much time had passed on that world — well, maybe enough time for her to have learned more about the pools — and that he could find her again. It was one of the universes Nabob couldn't reach, so maybe she'd be able to help him learn more about the pools... or portals, as she called them.

Unfortunately, the relationships among the various factions of humans on the planet had started a downward spiral — the primary reason he'd left in the first place — that might have taken a decade to explode, or a century. Humans were frustratingly unpredictable when they got themselves agitated like that. That he was going to attempt to find his friend was not a decision he second guessed... his concern was the lengths to which he'd need to go to protect himself.

The door behind him opened and he glanced over his shoulder at the woman who poked her head out, careful to not look directly at the light. On this world, dogs with golden eyes were a bit more than odd... they were unheard of.

"Ah, poor hund," she said as she produced a large hart bone that still had a bit of meat on it. "We have enough to share, ja? Not enough room for hund to come in, tut mir leid."

Falcon turned and quelled the instinct to shake water from his fur again as he looked at the bone and then the woman's face. He nodded once, as if he understood, and yipped softly before taking the bone and backing away from the door. It's not that he distrusted her, but it would be the normal reaction of a natural dog.

As he backed up with the bone, the woman nodded. "Gut nacht, ja?" She closed the door again as he pulled the bone into the deepest overhang of the eaves. He was still going to continue getting plenty wet, but having some food helped ease some of the misery. The meat — the little there was of it — was still fresh enough. The goodwife's hunter husband had brought the hart down yesterday; this was a family that would be lucky to have meat in their stew throughout much of the rainy season.

Falcon wasn't picky about what he ate... or even when. If necessary, he could always shift back to True Form if he didn't have enough energy to maintain a more solid form. He preferred the solid forms, though... always had.

An hour or so later, as the rain let up as much as it was going to and the bone was picked clean... he'd had to shift his jaws a bit to snap the bone so he could suck out the marrow... Falcon started out into the forest, looking for the pool of energy. He knew it was somewhere between this town and the next, and no more than twenty paces from the road in his favorite human form. He just didn't remember which town it was closer to.

Although it wasn't quite the midpoint between sunset and sunrise, the moon was full and high in the sky, occasionally peeking through the rain clouds. The moon. From what Falcon remembered of this planet — and having been here only twice before, as well as having been on dozens of similar planets that enjoyed the somewhat disconcerting juxtaposition of a primarily agrarian society with a highly technological sector that included a space port, he was entirely certain he remember with total accuracy — that meant it was about mid-month. The second and third moons, which were always paired together, would rise just after midnight.

Still, it was the largest of the moons that shown and, though diffused by the clouds, it was certainly bright enough for him to pick his careful way parallel to the road looking for the energy pool.

Thankfully, it didn't take much longer to find it. He was always surprised that other people couldn't see these things. Maybe he'd have been less surprised if it wasn't such a crap shoot on whether he saw them himself.

Well, no time like the present as someone once said. He shifted to one of his human forms, but prepared to shift to True Form the moment he stepped into the pool. He took a deep breath, let it out slowly, then stepped into the pool of energy.

# # #

I land, hard, swearing mentally because I've got a lot of broken bones that are knitting and oh my fucking gods it hurts! It's possible I even blacked out for a few minutes.


I reach out to Pablo... since he died, he's always helped me get through the pain of healing by sitting at my side and metaphysically holding my hands.

Pablo? Where are you? I'm sure I hear a sigh of relief from him.

I'm right where I should be. You're not, though. Madeline and Logan are on their way. Rene is already here.

What the hell happened? One second we're walking toward the cabin, and the next I'm falling through the air and coming into contact with the ground with entirely too much speed.

You and Shane fell through a portal.

What?!? How could that have happened? Oh, fuck this hurts! I didn't sense any portals, I sure as hell didn't open one, and I've never seen one flat against the ground... at least never in our dimension.

I can only tell you want I saw, love. Like you said... one minute we're walking along, and the next you're both dropping into the ground. Your hand just ripped right out of mine. By the way, even I can tell Mother is furious right now.

I pat the ground beside me, noting first that most of my healing is complete and noting second that the earth isn't quite as alive here as other places I've visited. It's alive... but seems to be very much asleep. And feels... well, 'odd' doesn't quite encapsulate it, but it's going to have to do.

Tell, Mother... if you can... that I'm fine. That I can tell I'm in a place She's missing. And that I'll be back soon enough.

Are you fine, Andi? And weirdly, She seems to have gotten your message.

I take a deep breath, testing my body's functioning and movements. Mostly... and I will be in another couple of minutes.

Bear pops into existence a few feet away. Yes. Pops. Normally, the Spirits just appear. This time there's the very real sense of displaced air... or more likely, displaced qi.

Warrior! Are you well? How can we assist you? You disappeared for a tiny fractional period of time, and we worried! What are you doing here? Where is this place? It feels strange!

I sigh. Bear has always been the most excitable of my guardians. I have my theories why — theories that uncharitably link Bear to Raven, and Bear spending too much time watching an old Disney animated movie about a human boy child named Mowgli — but nothing I've ever said has stopped the Spirit from being overly excitable.

Chill out, will you, Bear? I'm fine... or will be in a minute. I don't know what else to tell you. Pablo, how can Bear get here and you can't? And spare me the discussions... if you could be here, you would be here.

I don't know, Andi. Rene can't get to you either, but obviously at least Bear can get to you.

Andi, what kind of trouble are you getting yourself into now?

I'm not going to say it's not my fault, Rene, but I'm also not going to take all the blame for this one.

Just then, Cat jumps on my chest, displacing a smaller amount of qi than Bear did, but there's still a slight pop.

Oof! Cat! Do you really need to do that?

Warrior, we worry. Your Sister felt your pain and nearly fell!


God damn it, Andi! What the fuck?

I wish I knew, Sister mine. Hopefully when that idiot wakes up, he'll explain a few things.

I reach out for the Pentad, and I can feel them all surrounding me with their love. I push Cat off my chest and tentatively sit up. Yeah, this place is pretty, but seems oddly lacking in life. I also reach out for Shane, because that boy has some splainin' to do.

Well, that's weird. I'm certain I noted the location where Shane hit the ground, but where I expect to feel his energy signature, there's an amorphous area of barely cohesive energy — actually, it's fairly similar in the way it feels to the Spirits when they're on their own plane — with a distinctly feminine vibe to it.

With more barely perceptible pops, my other guardian Spirits appear. Cobra wraps itself considerably more tightly than usual around my waist, Opossum appears on my shoulder gripping my ear very tightly, and Fox starts licking my face.

Guys, stop it! I'm fine! See? Sitting up now. Good grief, will the lot of you settle down?!

Andi, that hurt nearly as much as your dying does. What the hell is going on? Where are you?

I wish I knew, Maddie. It's definitely mountainous but I'm below the tree line. It's similar to a lot of the high peaks of the Rockies. But Mother isn't here, so I know it's not Earth.

Well, sit tight and we'll come get you.

I sigh. Maddie. My mental voice is half warning and half exasperation.

She's quiet for a minute, though the Spirits aren't as more of them pop into the area around me. Oh, good grief... what the hell are they doing now? Finally, Maddie says, Sorry, I wasn't thinking clearly for a second. You're the only one who can open a portal. And no, I'm not calling the kids... any of them.

I smile. I think she'd been feeling even more hemmed in by the kids than I was.

How can we help you?

I stand up and dust myself off... unnecessarily of course, since absolutely nothing will stick to this fabric. I reach over my shoulder and pull out my staff, inspecting it to make sure it's still whole. I landed more on my side — more than a hundred and fifty years of practice of not landing on my back and my staff — so, as expected, it's in better shape than I was when I landed. I re-sheathe it then check my belt. Everything is where it ought to be... even what passes for a phone these days is intact, though it's not connecting to anything. Well, that makes sense. It's not designed for cross-dimensional use.

I'm not sure yet, Maddie. I guess all I need to do is find a portal...

Warrior, Cat interrupts, you can call one to you!

You know, that never works the way you seem to think it works, Cat. Maybe I do call them, but only to my general vicinity, which could be a few miles in diameter... or more. I still need to go looking for wherever it attached itself. Anyway, as I was saying, I just need to find a portal and I can get home. Well, back to Everness. I suspect I'll wind up in that clearing where we opened the portal to Andrea's world. Hmm... or that field about five kilometers from the cabin.

That's helpful. Those spots are at least twenty kilometers apart. But the time shifts between dimensions are what concern me. It means we're going to get cut off from communicating, Maddie notes. Andi, I'm not happy.

I take a slow, deep breath to center myself. In doing so, it's easier to see the qi... it's easier to see my Bond with the Pentad.

I know, Maddie. I'm not exactly thrilled myself. But look at our Bond. I know you can actually see it better than the guys... it looks exactly the same as it does when we're all together in the same dimension. So there's something really peculiar about this particular dimension — or universe, who the frack knows? — and it works to our advantage. There's no open portal nearby, and yet we're communicating as though there is. The Spirits can move freely back and forth... well, I'm assuming they're moving back and forth since some of them are flitting in and out of my vicinity... and we can feel one another.

I can sense my Husband and Brothers deferring to my Sister... which sort of makes sense if my two insane offspring are right about me and Maddie being the same soul. In essence, if we all look at this from Paul and Maria's perspective, I'm just having a conversation with myself. And even though they sprung the theory on me close to a hundred and sixty years ago, I'm still not able to completely wrap my mind around it. I do grok its rightness, though. Yep, I'm totally a magnet for weird.

You'll yell if you need any help. Coming from Maddie, it sounded like an order, which makes me smile. And as the leader of the Wolf Pack, it could logically be seen as one.

Aye, you know I will.

I hear a groan from several dozen paces away. I should probably stay right where I am, because I'm feeling a little mean and vindictive at the moment.

Ah, my problem child awakens. I'm going to have a nice little chat with that one, possibly Gibbs slap him — or her, this is not a typical Shifter — and then find me a portal to get home. I'm going to hope this is one of those dimensions that runs faster than ours so you should all see me soon, even if it takes me a couple of weeks to find the portal.

Be careful, Sister.

I'll do my best, Maddie. I've got the Spirits with me. Panther is here and will no doubt temper my impulsive nature.

Yes, but I assume Cobra is with you, Rene remarks dryly. That one just eggs you on, you know.

I chuckle mentally. Yes, Rene. I figured that out quite a while ago. But Opossum creates diversions for me as often as it helps me create diversions for others, so things generally balance out.

I can feel the surprise of all the Spirits. Pablo chuckles. I sense someone smacking the back of his head.

Ow! What the hell, Logan?

Indeed. Logan wasn't generally the one to smack Pablo for continuing to think in strictly human terms.

You still trifle with the Spirits despite being one. Grow up.

I have to bite my lip to keep from laughing out loud.

I love you all. I'll be home soon. You're in my heart, you are my soul and my purpose. I'm going to sign off and maintain radio silence unless absolutely necessary.

I feel a surge of love from all of them, but no further words. Nodding, I turn and stride toward Shane... or whoever the hell he, she or it is.

How long have you known I have been balancing Cobra's gifts, Warrior?

How long have the two of you been my guardians? It didn't take more than a couple of months to figure it out. I didn't think it was necessary to say anything, since it was so obvious.

They're all quiet... they're all in that very present but completely unseen state that they favor so much. I reach the spot where Shane is sprawled on the ground. He looks like he's trying to keep his head from falling apart... that's how tightly he's pressing at his temples. I just look down at him, hands on my hips, for several moments before speaking.

"You're an asshole."

He just groans again.

"Also, you're not actually a humanoid, though you play the part rather well."

That gets a reaction! His eyes fly open and he stares at me in... fear? Wow. That's interesting.

"Why do you say that?"

I snort. "While I was over there healing up the hundred or so bones that broke, and the punctured lung, and the severely bruised liver and kidneys, and a few other minor injuries, you were over here in a purely energetic state. I assume that's what you meant when you mentioned Shifting to get rid of your injuries?"

"You couldn't have seen that." Ah, what a suspicious look the lad can emulate!

"I don't need to see it to know what's going on. You didn't have all the necessary conversations with Andrea to understand what the basic underlying gift, Curse or power we have that allows us to do all the fancy stuff we can do. We channel and manipulate qi... energy... the stuff that makes up everything. I've spent most of my life with beings made of pure energy... my guardian Spirits, and their siblings. Other, not so pleasant, beings made of energy. Great Spirit Herself.

"So I recognize energy beings when I meet them. Who are you really... and where are you from?"

He waits another minute, and I can see the energy rearranging itself now that I know what I'm looking at. He doesn't have meridians any more than the Spirits do. Finally, he sits up... apparently decides he's whole again... and then stands, Shifting as he... she does so.

"In truth, this is the first human form I chose, as its shape matches the gender of my True Form. My name is Shia... though in this form I most often go by the name Shashina, a variant of Shahina, which means Falconess in one of the Earth languages. From there I took my most common name, Falcon."

I move to cross my arms. "So you're an asshole, and exist originally in Spirit form. Well, it's not the first time I've met an energy being who's an asshole."

"I swear I didn't know the portal was there!"

"Yeah, right, sure. You know what? It's virtually impossible to hide the energy signature of a portal from me. But you did. And you caused it to lay out flat against the ground, which does not happen in my dimension! So if I'm a magnet for weird, you are a magnet for dangerous energy. Who the hell are you, anyway?"

Her hair is long, straight and dark like mine when I don't have it braided up. Her features are a vague mix of a lot of the First Nation people. Our builds are similar, too. If not for the golden color of her eyes, we might look like cousins. My eyes get that color, too... but only when I'm really pissed, and they tend to also glow unnaturally.

She sighs. "Sometimes even I'm not sure anymore. I'm originally from a planet the Federation called Daled IV..."

I open my mouth, but then snap it closed again. "No, no," I say between clenched teeth, "go ahead."

She nods. "I'm not sure when I first realized I was moving through different universes until I realized the pilot of one ship, whom I assumed was a Caitian, was actually... well... not a Caitian. Mostly, I try to stay ahead of Nabob — a major slave trader in a lot of the universes — and do as much damage to his organization as possible. I was looking for Andrea because she seemed to at least kind of understand these portals — and around me they're always, always, a pool of energy on the ground. Most of the time I can see them. Sometimes, like back there on your world, I can't. But I need to be able to see them and find them if I'm going to keep from getting caught by Nabob's goons."

I stare at her for a moment. "Fine. You had me at 'slave trader'. But I don't know how I'm supposed to help you."

She shifts back to the form of Shane. "Sorry. I've gotten more used to the male forms. I find they're generally safer."

I reach out and Gibbs slap him, and have my fists back on my hips by the time he realizes he's been slapped.

"Ow! What the hell just happened?"

"I smacked you... just to help you get over the idea that male forms are safer. You should have learned from Andrea — but I'll give you the lesson now — that among the First Nations, gender doesn't usually matter. Also, around me, you're safer in your True Form." And then I grin, in my special Ninja way. "But that doesn't necessarily make you safe... as my husband and Spirit brother would be happy to verify."

"You know, you're not a very nice person, are you?"

I shrug. "No. Not always. I'm a glorified law enforcement officer, for gods' sakes. I'm not in the community relations department either. Back in the day, that was Peregrine's job. Now..." I pause to consider that one. "Well, these days I suppose if anyone from the Wolf Pack is center stage, it's going to be Maddie. It's her show, and doesn't hate it as much as the rest of us do."

He glares at me. "You have a way of convincing people you're not one of the good guys."

"Why? Because I'm not all warm and fuzzy?" I laugh. "I never did get my copy of the Super Hero Handbook, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say there's not a chapter devoted to playing well with others. I met enough of the other Supers to know we're not all a public relation person's dream. Plus, most of the assholes I deal with are seriously bad people. Oh, and I don't have a whole lot of patience either." I shake my head. "Family and friends get the nice Andi. Maybe even strangers... if I'm not in uniform. But once I put on the uniform and pick up my staff, you're stuck with Ninja. And with Ninja, you just need to roll the dice to see what happens. Guess you'll just have to deal with it."

He mutters a few things about crazy people — apparently my counterpart never mentioned exceptional hearing as one of her talents — then turns and starts walking toward what I'm hoping is a road.

I follow Shane through the forested area for a while, stepping far more quietly than he does. I'm not sure if he's really that inept, or if he's just trying to make enough noise to scare off the local wildlife. This is going to be a fun journey — and by 'fun' I mean he's going to really piss me off — if either is the case. Okay, maybe he's just trying to put as much distance between us as possible. That would at least be a smart idea, given how annoyed I am. I focus a broad but fairly gentle jolt of qi at the back of his head.

"Ow!!" He stops and turns toward me. "What the hell? What did I do now?"

"You're making enough noise to wake the entire planet. Also, you didn't apologize?"

"Yeah, I did."

I just tilt my head and raise both eyebrows.

"I did!"

"No, you said it wasn't your fault. Not the same thing."

"Fine! I'm sorry. Now will you stop hitting me?"

"Depends. Are you going to keep on making enough noise to attract every large predator in the area?"

He sighs. "Listen, this looks exactly like the planet I jumped from before I met up with you." He looks around and frowns slightly. "Though the rainy season is over, so we'll need to get back to the energy pool while avoiding the spaceport." Then he shrugs. "The largest predator around is human, and the elevation is too high for good hunting."

"Uh huh. Because the people on this planet don't like rabbit? There are a hell of a lot of them around."

"No, because they don't like coming up into the mountains. It's where their gods lives. That's how the spaceport can operate so easily on a pre-industrialized world."

"Riiiight. I'm not even going to go there, because that makes all kinds of sense," I say sarcastically.

Shane stares at me for a few seconds, then turns on his heel and stalks off.

I know. I'm a bad person. I push buttons. It's my thing. Fox, at my side, just seems to sigh. I don't think I avail myself it its gift of diplomacy often enough.

"Oh, shit!" he exclaims as he reaches the edge of the forest and stops in his tracks. Needless to say, I do the same and listen for whatever alarmed him.

Guys? Danger assessment?

Human female armed with... a sword? Yes. Bear seems to be peering intently in the direction of the clearing beyond Shane. Her companion is a Spirit Horse.

Really? Cool.

But not a type of Spirit we have ever seen, Warrior, Bear cautions.

Well, it's not a snake, so that's a plus. And very unlikely to be Aztec, so I'm willing to start off being friendly.

Fox sighs again.

# # #

"Hoi!" Daxia called out. "Do you require assistance?"

The young man seemed startled at her words, and looked around for several heartbeats. He had the posture of one who was in fear for his life. Then he looked down at his clothing, which was peculiar beyond anything Daxia had seen before, and this time he yelped almost comically. He looked back at her for a heartbeat, then turned and ran back into the forest.

"I forgot to get dressed!" she could have sworn she heard him say.

"Say yah or no. Be helpful," the Dayalan muttered to herself before shrugging and fetching her saddlebags.

# # #

First, he saw the redhead, dressed in fairly normal traveling clothes for this planet, though it was less usual to see a woman wearing armor and carrying a sword. Oh, it was by no means unheard of... or even unseemly. But it was usually the women from the... what the heck was their clan name again? Krieger? Well, something like that, anyway. The point being, of course, that all the people of that clan were blonde. In fact, Shane was pretty sure he'd never seen a redhead the whole time he'd been on the planet.

Then he saw the unicorn.

And swore.

She called out to him in that weird common tongue that he almost swore was some variant of Old English, and he knew they were in deep shit.

# # #

Shane turns around and stalks toward me, muttering. "Shit. Shit, shit, shit. Shit!"

"If you'd like, I can teach you a few more swear words," I say helpfully. And snarkily.

He stops, looks at me, then turns back toward the clearing and points. He seems angry.

"This is not the world I left! I've been here before, and I never wanted to come back here, ever!" He twines his fingers in his shaggy blond hair and screams through clenched teeth.

I sigh. "And perhaps you'll tell me why...?"


I cross my arms and nod sagely. "I see. Yes, that certainly makes sense."

Warrior... Fox says wearily.

I throw up my hands and look at my guardian Spirit. "What? Despite a hundred and fifty plus years of your guidance, I am not a naturally diplomatic person! You should know this by now. I am a smart ass, I have always been a smart ass, and I can't foresee any circumstance that would cause me to cease being a smart ass for any length of time time. So what am I supposed to say, O Fox?"

That did get Shane to stop his histrionics, though, and look at me as though I might be a crazy person. Well. Yeah. I mean, of course I am.

"Who are you talking to?"

"Fox. One of my guardian Spirits."


I sigh. "Listen, I don't remember exactly when Andrea said Raven got more involved in her life, but it was sometime after she got out of grad school... and definitely earlier than the pesky bird got uber interested in my life. So she probably wouldn't have mentioned that many... most... possibly all People of the First Nations have a guardian Spirit. Some of us get more than one. I have four... plus a reserve team, I guess you'd call it. Fox is one of my guardians."

He starts to look panicked again. "Oh, this is so not good! It's bad, bad, bad!"

"Dude, do I need to slap you again? Because you're seriously wigging out here, and annoying me by impeding our progress toward the portal we need to find so I can get home."

"You don't understand! This place is scary."

I study him for a moment; it's like trying to gauge the temperament of one of the Spirits by looking at their underlying energy patterns. In other words, not very easy. However, I'm going to go with my gut and all the things I learned from my Husband the homicide detective and my Sister and her Husband the mercenary and Legionnaire, respectively. I'm going to go with the theory that young Shane here is really upset about something. Right, yes, I know. It's as plain as the nose on Daddy's very handsome face, as he liked to say.

"Okay, kiddo, why don't you start by defining 'scary' for me."

"This world has gods. They're real."

I know I look puzzled. "Right. Look, I believe you. In my universe, gods are real, too. Most of them just aren't very much the way their followers think they are. I mentioned that I met Great Spirit, right? And two of her daughters, the goddesses of mercy and compassion, Quan Yin and Madre Maria — as my husband called her — who is Corn Woman in the Diné creation myths." I smile, recalling the overwhelming kindness of both deities. "I met her grandson, Corn Woman's son, who's really kind of shy and sweet. I've been very interested in meeting her Celtic sisters and nieces, but she says they'll just corrupt me." I roll my eyes. "Can you imagine?"

He stares... this time as if I've grown an extra appendage. I suppose if it would help matters along, I could Shift to something more innocuous. That would be pretty boring though. I'm not interested in invisibility... that's hard to maintain in the long term. I suppose, if necessary, I'll need to make do with camouflage.

"You... you're..." He clutches his head again, eyes closed tightly. "No, no, no. We have to do this. There's no way around it. But you can't go around talking to invisible spirits. People will think you're crazy." He groans softly. "What the hell do they call it again? What, what, what?" He opens his eyes to look at me with, I think, as much seriousness as he can muster, dropping his hands to his sides. "It's called touched by Chaos, and that woman out there is a follower of the goddess of time and order. I think that means she can execute you nilly willy. Well, maybe it depends on what part of the world we're in. She might have to turn you over to one of the Imperial Judges."

I nod slowly. "Okay... don't talk out loud to the Spirits. Got it. I don't usually do that around people anyway unless they're physically manifesting."

"No! No, they can't do that, and you can't do that!"

I swear, the poor kid is going to start crying.

"Hey, hey, hey... settle down! I've got practice being normal. It's not like I spend all my time doing the superhero gig. While the whole family knows who I am — I am the Ts'ah Yisk'idnii clan mother, after all, and have been since the last of my mother's cousins and nieces took their last walks — most of the time, I'm just Aunt Andi."

"It's not just that," he whined. "And I don't have time to tell you everything about this place. It's dangerous!"

I look at him suspiciously. I don't know if it comes across to him, but I'm not all that sure I believe he's as adept at doing some of the things he claims he does.

"Yeah. Okay. You know what? I'm a fairly quick study, I've been fighting crime for well over a century, I heal up fast even from dead... so why don't you talk to me on the road, hmm?"

He stares at me again. I'm getting tired if this.

"You heal from dead? You can't do that here! They'll burn you as a witch! How would you explain Krysta rejecting you?"

"You realize I have no idea what you're talking about, right? And it's not like I have a choice in the matter. It's part of my genetic structure. I heal fast. And I heal from everything."

"Yeah, but if Krysta wanted you to stay dead, you'd stay dead."

"Who's Krysta?"

"The pagan goddess of death. Not to be confused in any way with Jagnar, the Imperial — and semi-official, but definitely not acknowledged — god of death."

I look at the array of Spirits around me. Bear shrugs. Panther looks thoughtful. Fox looks unhappy. Cobra, not surprisingly, looks placid. I can't see Opossum, but I feel it stroking my ear... perhaps in an attempt to be comforting? Who knows? I look back at Shane.

"Listen, we just need to find the portal. I've always preferred talking my way out of a fight, and if I need to fight... well, I really don't like the healing from the dead thing — especially not knowing how it's going to affect folks back home — so I'll fight dirty if I need to. Can we just go with the assumption that this Krysta isn't going to be interested in me in the first place?"

He shakes his head. "No. No assumptions. If Krysta wants you, Krysta gets you."

My brows furrow. "But what about this Jagnar fellow?"

"Shhh... no one really wants to talk about him."

"Do the two of them fight over souls or something?"

"No. Well, I don't think so. I think Jagnar gets the Imperials, and Krysta gets everyone else. Except Dayalans. Some of them? Sometimes? I don't know!" he whines.

"By that logic — or non-logic — my life belongs to Great Spirit to grant or withhold at Her pleasure."

He looks at me doubtfully, but then sighs. "Well, there's nothing we can do about it, I guess. Just... please don't die."

"That would definitely be my preference."

He Shifts slightly... just enough to change the style of his clothing from jeans, sweater and hiking books to something almost from a Ren Faire.

"Oh, goody..." My snark is going to get a good workout here, I see. "We're stuck on a backwards world that doesn't even have AM-FM radios or LPs."

He simply glares at me; I grin.

"Are my shuriken going to be a problem here?"

"Aside from the fact that they don't exist? Oh, why would they?"

My grin grows even wider.

"See? Now you're getting in the spirit of things! Sarcasm can be a beautiful thing."

Shane shakes his head and gestures to my uniform. "That is more of a problem."

"No, it isn't. What you just did? I can do the same thing." I shrug. "Well, sort of. It's much easier to just use Fox's gift for camouflage to create the illusion of different clothing than to actually Shift so I have a new outfit. That definitely takes more energy... the Shifting, I mean. And since I don't have unlimited access to the energy Mother likes to share, illusion would be best. Now. What should I be wearing?"

"This is a world of magic. People will be able to detect any magic spells you're using."

I consider that for a moment, running through mazes of logic. "If their magic is similar to the true magics of my world, you need to be a believer to use the magic."

He nods. "That sort of magic is fairly high level, and would be granted to initiates, acolytes, maybe only priests or priestesses of different churches or cults. So, yes?"

"And if I don't believe it's magic, then is it magic? Or is it a skill I have... like being able to slap the back of your head from twenty five paces away?"

He groans and rubs his head. "Please don't do that here. It would be — probably — considered casting a spell."

I shrug. "Okay, whatever. Now, what am I supposed to wear?"

"Hang back and take a look at the woman out on the trail. Something similar, without the surcoat. Commoners don't wear them. Well, it's actually more complex than that, but average travelers wouldn't. I don't think. Just... just the tunics, okay? No sword! You can use the staff as just a walking stick, right?"

I chuckle. "Does the word 'duh' mean anything to you?"

He takes a deep breath before answering. "You're way more of an asshole than Andrea is."

"Why, thank you for noticing, Shane," I say, smiling sweetly.

He shakes his head. "You should probably pose as my wife... the only women who can get away with traveling alone are Dayalans... warriors, and Atterans... healers. You aren't either."

"Yeah, fuck that shit. Sister, cousin, neighbor... you figure it out. I already have a husband, and you're not him."

He glares at me one more time, then turns on his heel and storms off. Yep. I'm betting bossy older sister.

Parrot glides down from... well, nowhere... to land on Bear's shoulder.

I have come to assist with communications, Warrior. Opossum said the language sounded odd to its ears.

Why, thank you, Parrot. I appreciate the assistance should they speak a language completely foreign to me.

I should wear an eye patch!

We all just stare at Bear.


No. From what Shane said, I suspect laughing at how ridiculous you look would be a bad idea.

Bear sighs. The rest of them — Fox, Cobra, Opossum, Panther and Parrot — pretend he doesn't exist.

# # #

Daxia had just finished the final check of the way station, leaving it in the condition in which she found it — and because she had the strength and means, she added to the supply of wood — when she heard the young man call out to her.

"Hello, Lady Knight! May I and my sister travel with you?"

His accent was peculiar... not something Dazi had ever heard before, though he could well have come from much farther back in the Kierkegaard lands than she'd ever ventured. Still, if he came from deep in the mountains, it did seem odd that he moved and behaved like someone from one of the larger towns. She looked beyond him, toward the trees where he'd first emerged, and saw a woman carrying a pack slung across her back and another in her hand. She had a tall walking staff in her other hand. From the way the woman walked, Daxia surmised the staff was not primarily for picking her way across uneven landscapes. She wore simple travel tunics in earth tones.

Daxia looked back at the young man and nodded. "Trail is free to walk. Company is always welcome on trail."

Morning Star, too, was studying the woman. There was an intensity in his gaze that was unlike anything Daxia had seen before.

"Shane," the woman said when she was in speaking distance, "you left your pack. Again."

Daxia managed to hide her smile as the woman handed the pack to her brother, who dropped it as though it was full of rocks. The sister chuckled... the brother bit off whatever he was going to say.

"I am Verchovai Daxia Yurisdotter. But unless it is necessary, I do not hold with formalities. Please call me Daxia." She patted her companion's neck. "This is Morning Star."

"I'm Shane of Naardskell. My sister is Andre... ah... And... er..." That earned him a flick on the back of his head from the woman's fingers. She also sighed, closed her eyes and shook her head in a manner that very clearly said, Why me?

"Hello, Daxia... Morning Star. I am Andi Sandrasdotter." Her smile was friendly, but her eyes seemed to hold a burden of sadness.

Daxia nodded. "Are you bound for training with Lady Catherine, Andi? Or perhaps you were considering taking vows at the Dayalan temple?" She looked older than her brother, though not by many years. Daxia guessed she was closer to her own age. While the Kierkegaards certainly held to Imperial ways — officially — they never seemed to mind if their people held differing beliefs.

"If such is the case, I fear you must walk back toward the Vale alone, as I have promised to meet my company beyond Cragside in less than two handful."

There is something strange about this one, Morning Star said as he tossed his head in Andi's direction.

Daxia did not miss the glance at Morning Star and the very slight narrowing of the eyes before Andi answered.

"Oh, no... goodness, I've been told often enough that I have little patience. I would not make a good healer. As for other training..." The woman's gaze first strayed back toward the forest, then focused on a spot near her feet. She shook her head. "No. Shane..."

Her brother studied her for a moment, then looked at the Dayalan. "My sister has borne considerable tragedy of late. I thought the markets of Cragside might give her reason to be of good cheer again."

Daxia simply nodded. "I would not think a pair such as yourselves would find Cragside to be a fitting destination, if you pardon my bluntness. Would the Marketday gatherings in the Highgaard or Kraigskell Keeps not be more suitable?"

The woman looked up and smiled sadly. "My brother is a scamp, and truly is a fair storyteller. He has perhaps also a fair hand with his gitar when he does not forget it, and leave me to chase after him with it. A new setting would do him well."

Shane looked surprised. "Thank you. I know how rarely you give out compliments... I will treasure this one."

Daxia allowed herself to smile just a bit. "Perhaps I was more fortunate than I realized to have an elder sister who doted on me before she heeded the call of the Lady Attera." Bright blue eyes looked again at Andi. "You have no husband?"

Andi bit her lip as she shook her head. "He was a... a soldier. He is not in this world, but he will always be in my heart."

Despite the odd way of phrasing her answer, Daxia could only say, "I am sorry to bring you sorrow by mentioning it. Perhaps your brother is right, and you will find something in Cragside to cheer your heart." She nodded to the unicorn and began walking down the trail. "For myself, I find no good cause to visit Cragside, save to pass along messages to my Temple Sisters and speak with the Khorall's cousin. I have no love for the merchants of that town, and they harbor no love for me."

She watched the siblings — certainly as different to behold as she and Bekkah were — as they picked their way down the trail. It was not treacherous, at least not at this time of year, but it was one of the steeper parts of the trail. Andi seemed born for it, her balance always perfect, while Shane stumbled every now and again. Yet each time he did, Andi's hand seemed to be there on his elbow or shoulder to steady him.

How did you mean, Morning Star, that there is something strange about this woman?

The unicorn looked back over his shoulder at the Dayalan. The hand of a Deity in on her, yet for all my Magnificence, and despite the depth of my Font of Knowledge, I cannot say which Deity it might be. Though impossible, it almost appears as if multiple Gods and Goddesses claim her.

# # #

Shane storms off without any sort of pack, which... Well, all I can do is shake my head. Maybe I've spent too many years acting too many roles, but I'm with Pablo on this one... it's like going undercover. So make sure you have all the props you're going to need before you actually need them.

I get a peek at what the other woman is wearing and am both relieved and slightly dismayed that Shane's garb is considerably more suited to a Ren Faire than the woman's. The layered tunics are, in truth, rather attractive. I really hope those are split skirts, though. Oh, they've got to be! That's an odd looking saddle on the Spirit Horse, but it's definitely not a sidesaddle one. Clothing camouflage isn't something I've needed Mother's help with for decades upon decades... though she still wants to help. I get a clear picture in my mind of what I want my tunics to look like, then simply pull a bit of energy from my dan tian to change my appearance. I pull my staff from the scabbard and, with the slightest bit of energy expenditure, give it the appears of a pack. I guess once having a career as a librarian comes in handy yet again... in helping youngsters find materials for their papers and research projects, I had the chance to see what people might have carried in pre-industrialized, agrarian societies as backpacks. Let me assure you that my Jansport backpack that I used as an undergrad was more comfortable to carry... and it was kind of crappy.

And shouldn't Shane have a backpack, too? Why, of course he should! It doesn't take more than a minute to find a suitably heavy rock, and camouflage it, too, as a pack. I look at my staff. Hmm. Gold caps and inlays probably won't go over well; showing all the subtle carvings of words would probably be a bad idea, too, if these folks are as paranoid and Shane claims. I sigh. My staff is a formidable weapon, and it's a thing of beauty. But safety first... always, safety first. In the blink of an eye, it looks so ordinary that I don't think anyone would give it a second look. I look in the direction Shane had gone, sigh, and follow him.

I'm not sure how Parrot — or any of the Spirits that facilitate communication — actually do what they do. Do they understand the thoughts of the people speaking foreign languages? Do they eavesdrop on a multitude of conversations to quickly learn a language? Do they just know things?

I might not actually want to know. I used to be overly enthusiastic about learning just about everything. But when it comes to the Spirits, it seems like the more I know, the greater my Weird Magnetism gets.

As I walk toward Shane with the camouflaged rock, it takes a little effort not to giggle. I try to keep the expression on my face one that a long-suffering sister might have for her absent minded brother. When I get close enough, I hold it out to him. I have no problem holding a twenty pound weight as though it was a mere three or four pounds; I'm willing to bet Shia Shashina Shane doesn't have that same ability... at least not without some warning.

"Shane, you left your pack. Again."

I can almost see him trying to figure out why he needed the pack. From everything he's said, I've gotten the impression he's essentially deep undercover whenever he's trying to evade this Nabob creep. I have to admit I'm relieved that his hesitation is slight enough that it can easily be explained away as ditziness on his part. It's probably a good role for him... not because I don't think he's smart. He probably is. But I don't think he knows as much about this world as he's trying to pretend he does. A ditz can get away with the occasional social faux pas, especially if he's charming and adorable.

When he takes the backpack and realizes that it's actually a rock — since I'm using camouflage, I've only change the appearance of the rock; it still feels like a twenty pound chunk of the mountainside — the instant of surprise on his face is so comical that I can't keep from chuckling. For a second, he seems to be considering a continuation of our earlier conversation regarding what a delightful and wonderful person I am, but he decides against it.

When the woman introduces herself, I have no trouble understanding her. Her accent is thoroughly foreign, yet has enough similarities to half a dozen locales on Earth that I'm hit with a wave of loneliness that I don't expect. When Shane attempts to introduce me... and can't figure out what name I should be using... I just flick the back of his head with a finger rather than giving him the full Gibbs slap treatment. After all, having met both me and my counterpart, I can understand the confusion. And... well, I just want to get back to my family. Ninja's game of constantly toying with people has lost some of its luster.

Not only has Parrot done a fine job helping me understand her words, but also manages to fill my head with the necessarily information so I can introduce myself properly. I even understand that this Lady Catherine teaches the young women who want to be healers, and that the Vale is the location of the training facility for the warrior women.

However, when the Spirit Horse makes his comment about me being strange, I can't stop my eyes from flickering to him for a second.


I cannot explain it, Warrior. We cannot hear his words except as echoes through your mind. We cannot communicate with him at all... not even I have been able to speak to him.

First, I am very disturbed that I can hear what the unicorn is saying. It's not just what he says... it's the fact that I can hear him at all.

Second, if I can hear him... does that mean he can hear me? I'm not going to be especially happy having someone — even if they are a Spirit — eavesdropping on my conversations with my guardians. I'm really not a nice person when I'm in uniform, and I tend to think some rather unkind thoughts.

Parrot does seem to pick up on my latter concern, however. I believe you would need to put greater force in your mental voice in order to be heard by the Spirit Horse, Warrior.

He seems to be a Unicorn — I guess the horn in the middle of his forehead gives it away — which makes about as much sense as an Aztec demigod looking like a winged snake, I suppose. Yes, I'm cranky.

Though, seriously? Why am I even surprised? I've never had a problem understanding the Spirits. Or Great Spirit. Or the aforementioned ancestral pest. Or even the ancestral pest's twin. It's only Mother and Father who were difficult to understand... and that was only for a few years.

So, sure! What the hell! Why shouldn't I be able to understand a mythical beast in a different universe? It makes about as much sense as anything else.

I answer her questions as best I can, but I really don't know how to respond to the suggestion that I might want to train as a member of her... cult? Really? It's considered a cult? Damn, I'm going to have to wring as much information out of Parrot as I possibly can. I glance back over my shoulder toward the place we'd landed when we fell through the portal, then look down at Fox. I think it would be diplomatic of me to let Shane field that question. I shake my head, because... Oh, no, ma'am, I do not want to answer that question.

It takes Shake a minute, but he thinks up what appears to be a moderately acceptable tale about... huh? Taking me shopping?!?

I'm going to need to remember to slap him later. Shopping!

Well, two can play at that game, as I accuse him of being a more than adequate storyteller and singer. Would that make him a bard? A minstrel? Well, we'll need to see who the news carriers are on this world, won't we?

He seems to take my comments as a compliment, which hadn't been my intent... but it does tell me he at least believes he's adequate at spinning takes and singing. Good. I'll have to keep that in mind, too. I almost miss the swordswoman's question.


And I wish I had, but it hits hard. Just as I could when we went into the world of Andrea Yazzie, the one Shane was actually looking for, I can feel Pablo's presence in my heart and wrapping around my soul. I thank Great Spirit that I can feel the rest of the Pentad, too, or I'd probably be looking for someone to kill by now. I cope with that sort of madness differently than my sister... if I don't have the opportunity to spend hours upon hours doing Taiji, then I'd just as soon kill a pack of Eaters.

I manage to stumble through some sort of reason for not having my husband with me. I'm grateful that she neither presses the issue and accepts Shane's lame story about shopping in this town where we're headed.

We start down the trail, walking mostly in silence. It's hardly a challenge to me — riding my bike from Denver to Flagstaff taking the route through the mountains tested my dexterity and speed of reflexes considerably more than this trail does. I don't even feel I need to use my staff as one might use a walking stick. It's just too easy. For some reason, Shane is pretending to be a bit clumsier than I suspect he actually is. I mentioned to him that I'm related to Shapeshifters, and have done some Shifting myself on occasion — it's pretty rare to not pick up traits from the forms you practice most. My favorite cousin Billy loved Shifting to the big cats — well, when he wasn't entertaining the younger generations with cartoon characters — and he only got more graceful as he got older.

After the fifth or sixth time Shane "stumbles" and I reach out to steady him, he gives me a sly little smile and winks.

I don't know what game he's playing here, but I don't think that pretending to be a klutz is really helping anything. I give him the stinkeye as Daxia says something else to her Spirit companion. I'm not sure what she says, as her mental voice is distant and strangely distorted.

But Unicorn Spirit, named Morning Star by the swordswoman, looks back over his shoulder at her, and in doing so, his gaze passes over me and Shane — the two of them have the two of us bracketed. And I can hear what he says loud and clear.

Uh huh. So in world, I'm guessing that the Spirits look like... Deities? Except they don't have genders. The only Deity, if one wants to think of Her in that way, who might claim me would be Great Spirit, the Creator. Mother is exceptionally fond of me, true... and so is Father. But they are simply Earth and Sky, not exactly what I'd think of as either goddess or god.

And if this Spirit is going to talk about me, shouldn't it know that... hello! I can hear it? Him. Right... him. Mustn't get into the same jolly habit I had with the ancestral pest of emasculating it until I know whether or not this Spirit deserves that type of scorn. Still. Should I say something?


Fox? I can't look at my guardian because Shane chooses that moment to pretend, yet again, to stumble.

"Stop it," I say under my breath to Shane, hoping he can hear me... hoping neither the woman nor her Spirit guardian can. "I think we get the idea that you're a klutz."

"No fun," he mutters, but smiles cheerfully.

I don't doubt he'll be thinking of some other way to drive me crazy.

It might not be the wisest idea to make it known you can hear this Spirit... at least until we know better what the consequences might be.

I don't sigh, as much as I'd like to. I know, O Fox. No matter how much time has passed for me, in matters relating to your sibling Raven I often think as you might... that all time is now. And when I encounter beings or situations that bring up memories of the stress it and its so-called friend Quetzalcoatl caused me, I become just a little annoyed.

It is good that I am here to assist you in making the most careful of decisions then, Warrior, Panther say as it paces us from the side of the trail. Parrot's assistance for communication is welcome, of course, but its gift for pondering your words before sharing them might be of great use in this place, as well.

But do not call upon my gift for mockery, Warrior, Parrot cautions, for you have this gift in natural abundance!

It's only the many decades of practice in not reacting to some of the more outrageous things the Spirits say — and I include my Husband and Spirit Brother in that group — that keeps me from chuckling.

I'm so pleased to have my talent noted by one renown for such a gift! Thank you, O Parrot!

Fox sighs — something I suspect it will do quite frequently in this unknown place. Parrot sounds a little confused when it answers.

It... was not meant that way, Warrior.

Speak to Pablo and Rene about the Warrior, Parrot, Fox says almost wearily. She is very much like an animal that toys with its prey before giving it a merciful death.

I actually have to bite my lip to keep from grinning. I know Fox doesn't mean it as a compliment, but it really is. Sort of. I mean, isn't it better to torment the miscreants until they run away or until they're so confused by my words that the proper authorities — who generally don't tend to be me, by the way — can come fetch them? I think so. Besides... it's fun.

Opossum pats my ear. It has been an excellent strategy for you to use as a diversion.

# # #

Daxia kept her emotions from her face, though she could not hide them from her companion.

How could such a thing be possible, Morning Star? While there are some on this world who are not claimed by one of the gods, there are none who can be claimed by many. Or can they? You are the Font of All Knowledge... in your memory, has anything like that ever occurred before?

The unicorn slowed as they reached one of the small valleys where the trail leveled out, allowing his partner to walk beside him as the two strangers walked ahead, following the trail.

Dayala says this is not possible, though humans might convince themselves otherwise... but only in the sense that they choose to serve, for example, Arylis in life yet know they will sleep with Krysta when their life is over. Had humans existed prior to the Shattering... well, perhaps. All was Chaos then above the Heartwood. As you well know, my cobble block.

You only call me that when there is something I'm missing. What is it?

Would you rather not work it out for yourself? You do seem to enjoy digging out the truth from hidden places... almost as much as you like talking.

The Dayalan sighed softly. I say the words that need to be said. If it amounts to many words, then there are many words said. I do not think I say more words than most people, she said almost haughtily. I merely save them up to say all at once.

The unicorn snorted. A distinction those Blue Robes would find fascinating, I'm sure. The effect of all those words being poured over one — even one as Magnificent as myself — all at one time makes the distinction not worth noting. Morning Star eyed the woman beside him. Except to you and the Blue Robes.

Daxia looked at him, eyes narrowed. You're goading me into figuring this out myself. It's what you do, you know. You'll parcel out the very minimum amount of information possible, no bigger than a very small apple, and then call me a cobble block until I've found the entire apple orchard.

Morning Star shook his head, his mane flowing fetchingly in the light breeze.

How clever of you to have divined yet another of my innumerable skills! You have been taught well by the Second Witch of Dawnview, and have used what she taught you to find the answers to ever more challenging puzzles that have taught you even more! Well done! Surely, knowing all you know, you can answer your own question.

Daxia gave the unicorn a steady stare for a heartbeat, then turned her attention to the strangers.

Had humans existed prior to the Shattering Wars, it might have been possible to serve multiple gods?

Prior to the Shattering Wars, was it possible to serve multiple gods? she asked him.

He seemed to laugh. Who would do such a thing? Even we did not agree to serve Dayala in the small way we do until Humankind, your kind, you... the ones who follow Her... came to be. Possible? Anything was possible, for all was Chaos.

She pondered this for a while as they traversed the valley. Shane and Andi were far enough ahead of them that only the sound of their voices drifted back to her; she understood none of the words.

But an Immortal could, even now, follow multiple gods... if an Immortal were to choose to do such a thing.

A possibility does not lead to a probability, and most assuredly not to certainty. I'll ask you again, though... who would do such a thing?

Ha! Your sisters might well do something like that, being the flighty and silly creatures that they are!

For a moment, the unicorn seemed taken aback, then looked at his partner with — perhaps — the barest hint of respect.

Indeed. If any were to do so, it would only be they. Even then, they would only following Mother, Daughter and Granddaughter.

Daxia nodded. But that makes sense, following only Dayala, Krysta and Arylis. Dayala represents the beginning, time, order, law. Krysta is the end of all there is... life, time, human frailties. In between is the fullness of life represented by Arylis.

You are certainly every bit as clever as your Kassia believes you to be. The Mother, in herself, can represent all three of these aspects, but as you said... my sisters are flighty and silly. They are more apt to favor the Gardener... though who can blame them, when the Gardener does provide apples. I should remind you that I haven't had any apples since we left the last Keep of yours.

It's not my Keep, and it's not even an Allaine Keep... it's Kierkegaard, it's called Highgaard as you surely must know since that's been its name since the First Age. She smiled and shook her head. Your Magnificence, O Most Magnanimous and Generous Font of All Knowledge, I do believe you are teasing me again. And as to the answer for your riddle, it would be my conclusion that one must be an Immortal to serve more than one god.

Again, Morning Star tossed his head, laughing. Was it but a moment ago that teasing you about such things caused you so ignore me from Her rising until Her setting?

A moment for you, to be sure. For a mere mortal as this humble Starlord of Dayala, it has been considerably closer to four years.

Really? Four years? You're certain about this? Well, of course you are! You are, as you so eloquently stated, a mere mortal servant of Dayala... though the Starlord rank is well earned, despite your misgivings, for your conclusion is likely correct.

It is not that I had misgivings, my friend, it is simply that such an honor has not been conferred upon a Wild Dayalan... well, I'm not certain it has happened in this Age prior to my meeting with High Priestess Karina. Now, if my conclusion is correct, then the impossible must be true and Andi is an Immortal.

And one unknown to me, the Most Magnificent Font of All Knowledge, as well as all my brothers. Even our sisters, as silly as they are, do have long memories and have no memory of any such creature as this person. Morning Star sighed dramatically. Perhaps like my brothers and sisters, like the dragons I will once again caution you to avoid, she is from Beyond.

Whenever you hint at this Beyond, I fear that my head will roll from my neck and splatter on the ground like a ripe melon dropped from a Keep's highest tower.

Ah, but you will know you are ready to be a Priestess when you can grasp it. Or perhaps you will grasp it when you become a Priestess. Either Path is a true one.

Daxia simply shook her head. There always came a point in conversations with His Magnificence when she still understood the individual words he was saying, but as a whole they stopped making much sense. They'd just reached that point.

Brigands are rare on the road up to Dawnview Vale, but not unheard of, especially when one is more than a day's journey past Highgaard. The closer to The Rock and Cragside one traveled, the more likely it was to encounter someone unpleasant on the Highgaard Path. Everyone was always quick to point out that such encounters happened only two or three times in a handful of years.

This was one of those two or three times.

The Dayalan was always alert for danger west of Snowgate Pass. Although the back country siblings kept a sure and steady pace on the road ahead of her, it was a faster pace than necessary. She'd allowed them to get farther ahead of her than she should, thinking — obviously quite erroneously — that they'd need to slow down sooner rather than later.

These men were good... she hadn't hear a sound that was out of place along the Path until the first one rushed toward Andi with a yell. Daxia unsheathed her sword as she began to run, but by the time she reached the two of them, there was nothing to be done. Four men lay sprawled on the ground, unconscious... Shane peered at them from a shallow spot at the side of the road... and Andi stood over them holding her staff in a way that was all too familiar to Daxia. Though she looked nothing like Daxia's favorite teacher, Andi held the same position Gilly did when sparring with multiple partners. Gilly was the most accomplished person with the staff that Daxia had ever seen... until now. That this woman was even better than Verchovai Gillyflower said much... and some of it, Verchovai Daxia did not like at all.

And Andi was speaking angrily to the clearly unconscious men in an unintelligible language. It definitely wasn't Ancient, nor was it either of the two dialects of Imperial that Daxia understood. It sounded nothing like the Forestalk she'd heard Celi use on occasion when talking to her softpad. While the possibility existed that it was High Imperial, that possibility was remote indeed as it was her understanding — an understanding that she readily admitted could be false — that High Imperial was no longer really spoken, that was was primarily a language for the scribes of the Empire so they were able to decipher their Ages old documents. Of course, it was also a commonly held belief that Ancient was a long forgotten language... even though every Temple-trained Initiate of Dayala and many of the educated lay followers of their Goddess could at least speak it. Within the ranks of Dayalans, she was likely the only non-Priestess to be as proficient at writing in the language as she was. The Noble Family Allaine required its daughters to be proficient as well. That skill had certainly been helpful the first eight months she'd been outside the Vale, sending reports back to Kisa.

Daxia lowered her sword, but she did not return it to its scabbard. Yet. Because beyond the fact that the four brigands were unconscious on the ground and the newcomer spoke in an unknown language, the Dayalan was trying to reconcile what her eyes saw with what her mind insisted was an impossibility. Andi had moved faster than any person should be able to move.

"You are more than a simple widow from the highlands."

Her words broke Andi's tirade, and the other woman blinked, then looked up at Daxia. She wasn't certain if she imagined it, but Andi's eyes seemed to almost glow with a golden rage. However, after taking a single breath, they were dark and calm. Perhaps she had imagined it.

After another breath, Andi set one end of the staff back on the ground, leaning against it so very much like Kay Koromov leaned against her spear.

"You have no idea," Andi said.

© Kelly Naylor