A Lifelong Search
Author's Note: This is a prequel to the Guardian Chronicles. Read "A Rocky Beginning" before you read this. Blah blah blah all characters belong to--well--actually, to Biku and me, except for Rayden, but we're keeping him locked in Biku's basement anyway. I should probably mention that most of this story takes place in a parallel universe, just to avoid confusion.
Her foot caught on the edge of her skirt and she stumbled, windmilling her arms in their long sleeves. Her staff clattered down the steps behind her. She felt herself begin to fall--
--and then stopped, held up in midair by invisible bonds of energy. "Thank you," she called, turning her head to see who had caught her.
"No problem," Rayden answered with a grin. He lowered her back to the steps, picked up her staff and hurried up to hand it to her. She accepted it gratefully. "How's the leg? Any better?"
Samantha grimaced. "Not really. Medicalis does his best, but he really isn't used to working on mortals. I'm going to see a doctor in Veritas when I have the time."
"Of all the people I know," Rayden commented, "you're the last one I'd expect to have problems with scheduling."
"True enough," Samantha agreed with a smile. "I'm just too tired to do anything right now. I've been out in the Realms for the last--well--a long time, and now I just want to go home and sleep."
Rayden nodded understandingly and took her arm to help her walk. "Why does your house have so many stairs anyway?" he asked curiously. The stairs climbed in a broad spiral up the hill to a white stone mansion, three storeys tall. It wasn't an ugly building, but it was more ostentatious than seemed to suit Samantha.
She smiled. "I designed this place after the house in Sennoma where I grew up. My mother and father were servants, and I was raised as one. When I first became Guardian, the idea of owning a place like the one where I had to serve appealed to me. Now--well, it's familiar, and I haven't seen the need to change it." Her smile broadened. "Do you ask everyone so many questions, Rayden?"
"It's my Role," Rayden said with a shrug. "God of Stories. My father may be disappointed with my powers, but he can't fault my dedication."
Samantha looked fondly at him. "Is Thor still upset about that?"
"No, not really. It was only when I was little, really; once my parents had Rai to carry on the family powers and Realm, they didn't care much what I did." They reached the top of the steps. "How's your search going, Guardian?" Rayden asked.
She shook her head. "Not well. I thought I had found someone in Officina, but she turned out not to be suitable."
"Not suitable how?" Rayden asked. "If there's anything I can do--"
"No, no," Samantha said. "She was critical to the timeline, that's all. I couldn't have removed her without serious repercussions, and it would have been almost impossible to repair the damage I would have done. I'll just have to keep looking." She pulled open the ornate silver-inlaid door. "You can come in if you'd like. I don't think you came here just to save me from a nasty fall. Or to make conversation."
"No," Rayden admitted, "I didn't. Celebria asked me to come."
"Oh." Samantha led the way into the living room, which was furnished in silver and white like the rest of the house. Rayden's colours fit right in, but the dark green of Samantha's dress and the green-black of her hair stood out sharply. "So shall I consider this an official visit, then, Lord Rayden?"
"Consider it--a courtesy call," Rayden answered, taking a seat. "Celebria's concerned. We all are. It isn't only the Council that cares about you; they're just the ones who are the most involved with the--problem."
"You don't have to mince words, Rayden," Samantha said with a bit of a snap to her voice. "I'm dying. Everyone in the Omniverse knows it. Your wife is just more blunt about it than most people."
Rayden sighed. "That's unkind, Samantha."
"I know. I'm sorry." She sighed, leaning back in her chair. "Really, though, I can't do more than I'm already doing. I have no idea how long I have; I feel fine. If Medi hadn't told me, I wouldn't even have any idea I was sick."
"Really?" Rayden said quietly. Samantha shook her head.
"You know me too well, Rayden. I don't think there's anyone who can read me the way you do. No, to be honest, I know something's wrong. Physically I feel fine, except for this stupid leg, which has nothing to do with anything, since it's my--"
"--your own fault for being careless," Rayden said at the same time she did. She laughed.
"Right. Never cross the God of Assassins--one of my first lessons as Guardian, and one that I certainly intend to pass on to my successor, when I find her. Would you like some tea?"
"No, thank you," Rayden said politely. "You were saying that you knew something was wrong?"
Samantha nodded. "Yes. My own future is unclear even to me, but I sometimes know things that will happen. I know my tasks as Guardian will be finished soon."
The way she said it, so calmly, made Rayden shiver. "You and your visions," he said, trying to lighten the mood. "You're so knowledgeable--for a mortal, of course."
An old joke, and Samantha laughed, as she always did. "And you're very perceptive--for a deity, of course," she said. The old answer, and both of them laughed. "She doesn't deserve you, you know," Samantha said.
"Celebria?" Rayden said with a shrug. "We're compatible." Truth and Stories was a good pairing; the Elders had said so.
"I'm sure you are," Samantha said noncommittally.
Rayden got up quickly and knocked over Samantha's staff, which was leaning against the wall. He hastily retrieved it before it could roll away. "I should go," he said. "Celebria and Suyuan are expecting me home soon. Let me know if you need--if you need anything, all right?"
Samantha watched him go. He was always this way around her; not that she blamed him. He was a married god, after all, and while she would never do anything improper, any reminder of their shared history seemed to make him uncomfortable. Samantha wondered if he regretted it. She supposed he did. It had never really troubled her that she was a mortal among gods, that she was inexorably bound toward death from the moment she had been born, but it had been difficult for her, to know that she and Rayden were destined to be apart. His marriage to Celebria had been necessary, but Samantha sometimes wished she could have allowed herself to be selfish.
Still, it was the Creator's will. That was what the gods always said. Samantha, who had been raised to worship Arnold the God of Lamps, wondered sometimes whether this supreme being was in fact as incompetent as the first one she had been taught about; but she never speculated about such things in front of the deities. Still, it would explain a lot. If she were to die before finding a successor, there was no way to know what would happen. The Guardian of Time couldn't come into her powers on her own the way deities did; she needed a teacher, someone to show her the way, as Samantha's predecessor Manwe had done for her. The chain of teachers and students stretched far back into the mists of time, farther even than Samantha could reach, perhaps back to the First Realm itself. If it were broken--there might never be a Guardian again.
"And what would happen then, Arnold only knows," Samantha muttered in the idiom of her home Realm. The Omniverse had faced plenty of crises during her time as Guardian; if she hadn't been there, there might not be an Omniverse now. She needed a competent successor, and it was imperative that she find her while there was still time to train her. It would do no-one any good if she found someone with time powers and then died while her successor was still half-trained.
There was a knock on the door. Samantha, who almost never received visitors at home, jumped up in surprise. "Come in?" she called.
"Samantha, dear!" It was Celebria. The Goddess of Truth wore a pale blue gown and a falsely bright smile as she breezed into Samantha's living room. "I told my husband to come and see you, but I'm not surprised he forgot--"
"Rayden just left," Samantha said.
"Really," Celebria said slowly. "So Rayden remembered. How interesting."
"What's interesting?" Samantha asked.
"Oh, nothing, nothing at all." Celebria smiled. "How are you feeling, dear?"
"Fine," Samantha said calmly.
"Isn't that nice." Celebria looked around. "This is a lovely place you have. Do you live here all alone, or do you bring in other mortals to keep you company?"
Samantha tried not to smile. No doubt Celebria was feeling jealous; there was no other reason why she would be trying to offend the Guardian. She decided to play along, though she was really quite tired. "Other mortals?" she said. "No, I've never needed to bring mortals here. I have other amusements."
Celebria's mouth opened in a silent O of surprise; then she caught herself, and glared at the other woman. "Do you think that's funny? I don't know what my husband ever saw in you."
"I don't know either," Samantha said, abruptly tiring of the conversation. "Did you come here for anything in particular? If you want a report for the Council on my health, you can get it from Rayden."
"I'm more interested in the progress of your search," Celebria answered icily. "I take it you haven't found any promising candidates yet."
"No, none yet."
Celebria appeared to consider. "Maybe you should go to Sennoma," she suggested. "I mean, Manwe found you there, didn't she? Maybe if you look hard enough, you'll find another mortal slave girl who fits whatever qualifications you've made up."
The barb struck home, though Samantha tried to control her expression. "My parents were servants," she said coldly, "not slaves. There's a difference."
"Perhaps to mortals," Celebria said indifferently. "I wouldn't know." She smiled. "Anyway, I'll tell the Council you still haven't succeeded. Please try to hurry up, if you can; we're all so worried about you." With that, she turned and left, leaving the door open behind her. Samantha sat on her chair and seethed.
After a few minutes, though, she decided she was too tired to be angry anymore. She got up, leaning on her staff, and walked into the kitchen. A staircase led from there to her room on the second floor. For most of the first twelve years of her life, she had climbed stairs like these at the end of every day, up to the small cramped room that she shared with her mother and her younger sister Chana. Now she walked down the upstairs hallway, her staff tapping on the bare wooden floor, and into a room as ornately decorated as the one she had cleaned for her mistress every morning.
She closed the bedroom door, stepped out of her dress and hung it on a hook, and slipped a soft green nightgown over her head. She turned off the lamps, muttering the invocation of thanks for the light that was so much a part of her nighttime ritual that she never noticed it anymore. She lay down in bed, pulled the covers up to her chin, and was very soon asleep.
Her dreams that night were singularly unpleasant, but when she awoke the next morning she couldn't remember any of them. No doubt she was just worried; she almost never saw visions in her dreams. The previous Guardian, Manwe, had often done so, but Samantha's visions, on the rare occasions that she had them, were during her waking hours.
She sat on the rumpled bed, legs crossed, eyes closed. It was her custom to meditate at the beginning of every day, to let her thoughts run over the time stream that was in her care. Any problems in the stream would show up as a discontinuity, a break in the natural order of things, and would have to be seen to. Today there was nothing, and after a few minutes Samantha opened her eyes and stood up.
She dressed quickly and ate standing up; today would be another long day of searching. Just like on every day since all this had begun, there was a feeling of futility in her. It seemed as though she would never find the one she was looking for.
"How did you know I was the one you wanted, Guardian?" she remembered asking, shortly after being taken from Sennoma. She was twelve then, black-haired and broad-nosed and pale, and terrified of the strange woman who had bought her from Mistress Arren.
"I just knew," Manwe told her with an arch smile. "I was in thirty-fifth-century Sennoma on other business, and I felt you halfway across the Realm. I can't explain it."
Back then, Samantha hadn't even known she was going to be the Guardian of Time; she had assumed that she was to be Manwe's servant as she had been Arren's. Manwe had always explained everything she did, though, and when she was killed doing an experiment that she had warned Samantha was dangerous, Samantha had known enough to step in and take the staff and the Role. It was several weeks more before she had realized that this was what Manwe had intended for her all along.
Now, though, it was imperative that she find someone else in the same way that Manwe had found her, and she couldn't seem to do it. With a sigh, she considered where to look, where she hadn't already searched. The list of Realms was extensive. She decided to check Imperiatum and Earth today, and Veritas if she had the energy. At the bottom of the broad steps outside, she created a portal and stepped through into Roma's Realm.
Hills greeted her, gentle green hills undulating as far as she could see in every direction. Imperiatum was all hills and rivers, pleasant and pastoral, if monotonous. Life wasn't difficult for the mortals here. There was a city close by, and Samantha made her way toward it, trying to feel out the Realm as she did so. There was nothing like what Manwe had described, but there was a sense of something--impending. Something was going to happen soon.
After a few minutes of slow walking, she came on a wide well-beaten track. The city, a neat and orderly place of stone and clay, filled half the horizon. Samantha knew her green dress--she always wore green--would mark her as an outsider here, but she didn't worry too much. She made her way into the city, leaning on her staff. The jewel was dull, resembling a common stone; no-one would suspect its power. Not that the mortals here had much experience with power; Roma demanded worship but didn't bother to speak to her mortals directly.
"Hey! Stranger!" someone called out from an open-fronted building: a tavern of some kind. "You look tired! Come, sit, have a drink!"
"I have no money," Samantha answered calmly, and continued on. Hawkers shouted their wares in every direction, but most of the pedestrians paid them no attention. A pair of musicians with wooden flutes sat against a low adobe wall with a bowl in front of them for coins. Small animals and children ran wild in the street. The crowds babbled and called and chattered in a thousand voices. It was all quite overwhelming. Samantha took a seat on the edge of a fountain carved like a trio of acrobats. The day hadn't seemed all that hot when she had arrived, but now she was sweating heavily even in her light dress. "Too much walking," she mumbled. For years, ever since the day she had gotten in a fight with Turan and he had nearly crippled her, she had avoided walking whenever possible. She was so tired.
Water slapped her face and she coughed violently, trying not to breathe. Someone grabbed her arms and hauled her upright. She had fallen backwards into the bowl of the fountain. Her arms didn't seem to be working properly; they twitched as she tried to move them, but that was all. A small crowd was gathering. "Are you all right?" the man who had grabbed her demanded. "Are you sick? Answer me, woman! Are you all right?"
She tried to answer, but she couldn't seem to form words. "Roma," she muttered, then, as strongly as her dishevelled mind could manage, Roma! Help me! I need help-- She was sick, that was what it was--
The dark-eyed Numina stepped out of the air a few feet away. "Come on, mortal," she said, not unkindly. "Let's get you to the Hall." Ignoring the city people around her, she scooped up the Guardian in her arms and carried her into the portal.
"Guardian, open your eyes, please."
Samantha's eyes snapped open. "What? Oh--Medicalis." She felt woozy, but her body seemed to be back under her control again. "What happened?"
The Healer shook his head, looking frustrated. "How should I know? What do I know about mortals? You're fine for now, but you're not going to stay fine, and there's nothing I can do about it."
"Oh," Samantha said. Medicalis was blunt, but he wasn't usually this blunt. "What happened to me, though?"
"I told you before that you were sick, didn't I? I told you to take it easy, didn't I? You've been overextending yourself, haven't you? You haven't been getting enough rest. This is what happens when you don't take care of yourself." He grimaced and laid a hand on her cheek. "You should be feeling better now, but all I can do is mask the symptoms. I honestly don't know what's wrong with you."
"Oh," Samantha said again. "Well, what should I do?"
Medicalis shrugged. "I suggest you find a mortal doctor. Maybe they'd know what to do. But--can I be honest with you, Guardian?"
She nodded. "I'd prefer that, yes."
"Good, because I've never been much good at lying to patients. You've got a few more days left, at most. I don't know if you've found another Guardian yet--"
"Light," Samantha muttered, "that's all over the Omniverse by now, isn't it."
"--but I suggest you stop searching," Medicalis continued. "The strain on your body when you use your powers in your condition is incredible. Stay at home and rest. I don't think there's much you can accomplish in two or three days--is there?"
Samantha shook her head. "Even if I found another mortal who could take the Role, I wouldn't be able to train her in time."
"So go home. Rest. I'll try to find out if there's anything else that can be done for you."
She nodded slowly. So that's it, she thought. Her mind seemed numb. I'm going to die. Two or three days at most. She licked her lips. "Can you tell Rayden--" she began, then shook her head. "No, never mind. It doesn't matter." Carefully, she lifted herself out of the bed, balancing on her good leg. "Where's my staff?"
Medicalis handed it to her. "I'm sorry, Guardian," he said. "I wish I could do more."
She managed a smile. "It's all right. I knew this was going to happen." She created a portal for herself to her house, then, considering, abolished it and created another. "I'm going to go home now. Thank you for your help." Without waiting for another awkward apology, she stepped through.
"Excuse me, young miss?"
Carylla turned around, careful not to spill the jug of water she was carrying. She was small for a thirteen-year-old, and she was forever dropping things.
The woman who had hailed her was tall and black-haired, with a broad pale face. She wore a simple green dress cut like a servant's clothing, though the material looked costly, and she leaned on a wooden staff. Something about the staff caught Carylla's eye, though it was really quite ordinary. The wood was carved in the shape of a cluster of oak leaves at the top, with a dull red gem--glass, maybe--set in the middle of them. The woman didn't look old enough to need a prop, but she was limping. "Can I help you, good mistress?" Carylla asked politely.
"Could you direct me to the temple?" the woman asked. Her voice was harsh, but her expression was kindly. "I need to see a Priest of the Light."
"There aren't any priests in Sandayne, good mistress," Carylla said apologetically. "We go to the temple in Adros on feastdays. I'm sorry. Can I help you with something?"
"No," the woman said. "There's still no temple here, is there? I thought they would have built one by now." She seemed preoccupied by something.
"Listen," Carylla said impulsively, "I can take you to my home, if you need a place to rest. I work in the house of Mistress Arren--"
The woman's arm shot out to grab Carylla's wrist. "Mistress Arren?" Carylla nodded. "Tell me, girl, who is your family?"
"My--my mother's name is Chana," Carylla answered, trying to balance the jug of water on her other arm. "We've served Mistress Arren for generations--Is something wrong?"
"Little Chana," the woman murmured. "There's a limit to the number of coincidences I'm willing to accept." The statement seemed to amuse her.
"Good mistress, come with me," Carylla said firmly. "I think you need a place to lie down out of the sun." The woman nodded and let herself be led.
The house was mostly empty; Mistress Arren was away on a trading journey and wouldn't return for days. Carylla would never have brought a stranger in otherwise; Mistress Arren was kind, but she had little patience for vagabonds and strays. "This way," Carylla said, setting down her jar of water by the door, but the woman had already turned toward the kitchen as though she knew where the servants' stairs were. "You can rest in my room until the evening," Carylla told her as they entered the cramped room that she shared with her mother.
The woman ran her hand along the wall, then laboriously lowered herself onto one of the pallets on the floor, setting her staff beside her. "Thank you," she murmured. "Little Chana. Who would have thought?"
Carylla was confused, but she sat down beside the woman on the floor. "Where are you from?" she asked.
"Here," the woman answered, "a long time ago. This was my home once."
"This town?" Carylla asked. The woman smiled as though she found something amusing. "Yes," she said, "this town. I lived here--" She broke off in a fit of coughing.
"So now you've come back?" Carylla said.
The woman smiled. "Yes," she said. "They told me to go home, and I thought--if I'm going to die anyway, I'd rather do it here. Less inconvenience for everyone, I think."
"You're dying?" Carylla asked. "I can send one of Mistress Arren's messengers to fetch a priest from Adros; he could be here by this evening."
"I don't think I have that long," the woman said, still smiling. "How old are you, girl?"
"Thirteen," Carylla said, confused at the abrupt change of subject.
"I once knew a girl about your age," the woman said softly. "She served in--in a house much like this. Sometimes I wonder--" She began to cough again. This time there was blood on her hand when she took it away from her mouth.
Outside the small open window, a bell began to ring. It was midday, and the town bell was sounding for prayers. The woman touched her eyelids and her chest, and Carylla automatically did the same. "Thanks be to the Light giver," the woman mumbled. "Praise be to--" She faltered, looking as though she had forgotten the words. Perhaps she had. "Praise be--"
"--to the fire and the flame and the source of light," Carylla took up the catechism. "Glory be to the God of Lamps, glory to Arnold, glory. May we have light today and tonight and every day and night to come."
She looked over at her companion. The woman's eyes had closed. Carylla wasn't surprised to see that she wasn't breathing. She stood up and went downstairs to get one of the other servants to take the body away.
The God of Thunder looked up at the green-haired woman who had just entered the Bar. "Guardian."
She smiled. "So formal, Rayden-sama?"
"Just trying to be polite. What brings you here, Samantha? I've never seen you drink nectar before."
"Actually, I came to see you." She sat down on the stool beside him. "I'd like to ask you a favour."
"Of course," Rayden said. "What do you need?"
"Rayden-sama--" She seemed almost at a loss for words: unusual for the normally very self-possessed Guardian. "You know that I am mortal. Eventually I will need to find a successor."
"I know that, Samantha, but--" He stopped. "You mean now?" She nodded. "Already?"
Samantha laughed. "It's been a very long time in mortal terms, you know. Anyway, I believe I've found someone who will do. He's in your Realm, some time in your past." The phrasing of that seemed odd, but Rayden couldn't quite work out why. "In any case," Samantha continued, "I thought it might be easier if you went to fetch him. His people are very primitive, and you'd probably be better able to deal with them than I."
"Should I be insulted by that?" Rayden asked with mock surprise. Samantha laughed again.
"Will you go?"
Rayden nodded. "I'll go. You'll send me to where I have to be?"
"I'll give you an amulet--here." She reached into one of the deep pockets of her dress and brought out a small round medallion. She opened it to reveal a gilded clock face. "This will take you where you need to go, and bring you back to the present afterward. It's probably best if you don't bring the boy to me right away. Everything will seem very strange to him; he'll need to adjust."
"Just like you did," Rayden said with a smile, remembering. Samantha grimaced.
"You have a way of recalling the most unfortunate things," she said. "But hopefully we can bring him into this world more gently than Manwe did with me."
"I think I know how to do that," Rayden said. He studied the small clock. "Well, there's no time like the present," he said.
Samantha nodded. "How true," she murmured.
Rayden held the clock in his fist and began to create a portal. "Samantha?" he said.
"How long--" He didn't finish the sentence, but she knew what he meant.
"Long enough to train the boy to replace me. After that--I don't know." She touched his shoulder. "Don't worry about it. You'd better go now."
Rayden stepped forward into the portal, and was gone. Samantha watched until the swirl of energy vanished, and then created her own portal back to the crystal palace that was her home. Rayden and the boy would be along soon, and she would be there waiting for them.