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Iain pulled the fur lined hood of his cloak closer around his face as he trudged up the path. The wind was erratic but strong and the snow whipped viciously around him as he walked. He was inured to the cold, but the snow kept trying to blind him and progress, even with his perception, was slow. It didn’t help that the bundle of meat roughly wrapped in hide that was strapped to his back was heavy, ungainly and kept shifting when he turned or moved up or down, like on a snowdrift. He knew it wasn’t deliberately trying to spill him in the snow, but it seemed like it was.
He slowed when he approached a large pile of rocks. “I can see you,” he said loudly. “Go away and live or come out and die.”
A pair of dark shapes detached from the stones to face him. The winter had been hard and seemed to last forever, and it showed in the starved bodies of the wolves facing him. Their ears were back and the bigger one snarled loudly.
Iain’s recurve bow sprang into existence in his hand and arrows hit both wolves in the throat in the span of a single heartbeat. He gave a small shake of his head as he shrugged out of the bundle of meat and drew his knife. “You’d have not settled for the meat, even if I’d been willing to give it up,” he muttered. “I’m warmer, filled with blood and not frozen through like this elk is.” He expertly skinned the wolves and rolled their pelts up before strapping the furs to the bundle he carried. Then he put the knife away and regarded the bodies thoughtfully. “I can’t carry everything,” he muttered to himself, “and this way I won’t need to eat for several days.” He shifted to his dragon form and gulped the wolf carcasses down whole before changing back to elven, shouldering the package again and continuing up the trail.
After another hour or so of walking he smelled smoke for an instant. He paused, examining his surroundings carefully before speeding his pace slightly. Soon a sturdy rock cabin hove into view. It had been built into the side of the hill and Iain excavated deeper into the hill every spring to make room as time allowed. Originally, he’d done it with a specific intent, but now it was merely a way of denying the truth he refused to accept.
A heavy stone coffer rested a dozen meters from the house and Iain deposited the hide wrapped meat and furs into it before closing and securing it tightly. While there were predators in the area powerful enough to open it, there were only a few of them and most of them could also batter their way into the house, so putting the smelly meat out here was safer until he could get around to thawing it out and preparing it so as to cover its scent before moving it inside. He was tired from being gone on such a long hunt with no rest during it and the meat could wait until he was rested up and ready to deal with it.
He stepped into the tiny hallway and shut the door behind him. It was chilly here but, compared to the cold of the storm raging outside, it felt almost too warm. A basin of water waited for him and he washed the blood from the wolves and elk off before hanging his cloak up and opening the inner door.
Ava looked up from where she’d been sweeping with a rough straw broom. She smiled and bounced into his arms. “Greetings, husband,” she said before kissing him hungrily. Iain kissed her back for some time before she pushed him away. “Go say hello to Mother too. She was starting to get worried about you.” She grinned. “Then come find me in the gardens.”
“What if Kasserine wants to go to the gardens with me,” Iain asked teasingly.
“She won’t leave the food until its ready, but if she does, then I will hide until she’s had her fill of you. Then I’ll have my turn.” She pushed at him gently. “Now go to her.”
Iain stepped into the kitchen where Kasserine was slowly stirring a bubbling pot of rich stew. Her head shifted slightly, letting him know she was aware of his presence but she didn’t otherwise react until he slid his hands inside her blouse and up her skin to cup her breasts from behind as he nuzzled her neck. Then she sighed loudly and leaned back against him. “I was starting to worry. Three days is long for you to be gone on the hunt, especially in a blizzard like this.”
He kissed the back of her neck and let his hands drop to wrap around her stomach and pull her against him. “Spring is late and the elk are searching for whatever they can find to eat,” he said against her neck. “It means I have to hunt for them too and the storm helped them more than me.”
“My weather spell says it should break tomorrow,” Kasserine said softly. “And there shouldn’t be any for at least two weeks, during which we should get our first real thaw.” She put the spoon down and turned in his arms to wrap her arms around his neck and kiss him gently. “Welcome home, my love.”
“Thank you, my love,” he murmured back.
Kasserine raised an eyebrow. “You taste like blood.”
“A couple of wolves decided to challenge me for the elk meat. I did bring their pelts home, but it wasn’t far from here and their bodies would bring bears or worse, so I ate them.”
She smiled. “So you’ll only want one bowl of stew tonight?”
“That depends on how much exercise I can get with you before dinner,” Iain said suggestively.
“Ava is already waiting for you, if I know her at all,” Kasserine replied. “I can wait until bedtime and after you’ve bathed and rinsed out your mouth.”
“She said she’d hide if you didn’t want to wait.”
“And she always comes out to watch,” Kasserine retorted. “I am not having sex with my daughter.”
“I have never asked you to,” Iain said.
“Which I am very grateful for,” Kasserine said. She kissed him again. “But she distracts me when she watches us and I do not wish to be distracted when we’re making love.”
“Then I will cheerfully wait,” Iain slipped free of her arms.
“You will go satisfy Ava now,” Kasserine corrected him with a smile, “so I can get the time I want with you later.”
“I hear and I obey.” Iain headed out of the kitchen and stopped in the entrance to remove his boots before heading to the back of the house. There a door was fitted into the wall and he opened it and stepped through without hesitation.
Magical grow lights glowed softly over the garden of potatoes, squash, other vegetables and herbs. It had taken a lot of work to hollow out the interior and fill it with fertile dirt, but the effort had been worth it since it meant crops grew in here the year round.
He paused and something niggled at the back of his mind as he looked at the smooth walls. For an instant he saw stone pilings shoring up the walls and ceiling to keep them from collapsing, but then they vanished from his mind. This place was perfectly safe, he reminded himself, and would remain that way. A flash of white in the back of the room showed where a nude Ava had laid down a blanket and waited for him and he brushed the thought aside as he eagerly headed for her embrace.
“I’m starting to get concerned,” Ninhursag said as she looked around the room.
“I became concerned five hours ago and went from there to worried four hours ago,” Eve replied. “I called you when I became concerned. Ganieda keeps saying that things are going well though and that she doesn’t want to end the session because of some impending breakthroughs, but I don’t like it.”
In front of them, Iain, Kasserine, Ava, Ganieda and Canaan were stretched out, each in one of a row of futon chairs. Everyone’s eyes were closed and they breathed slowly in unison.
“I thought the session was only supposed to last an hour,” Ninhursag looked at Eve. “It’s been six.”
“It’s not exact,” Eve replied. “And I’ve seen where waking them up without doing it properly could hurt all of them. But if you order me to, I will.” She glanced at her maharani. “Another trained telepath could enter dreamtime and tell them it’s time to come out. I know Scheherazade is good enough to do that.”
“Then I want them woken up, impending breakthroughs or not,” Ninhursag said firmly.
An instant later, at her summons, Scheherazade appeared with Marguerite. “What is it,” the Dread Wolf asked.
“This was supposed to only be an hour long dreamtime session,” Ninhursag said. “It’s been six hours. Go in there, tell them to find a stopping point and shut the session down.”
Scheherazade’s ears flicked. “It’ll take me few minutes to safely synchronize into the dream so don’t expect anything instantly.” There were a couple of empty futon chairs and she dropped into one of them. “I should be back in less than ten minutes,” She closed her eyes and her breathing evened out to match the other sleepers.
“Let me know when they wake up,” Ninhursag said before vanishing.
Marguerite tapped Eve on the shoulder. “I’ve got this if you need a bathroom break.”
The Megami Sama shot to her feet. “Back soon,” she muttered as she almost ran from the room.
Marguerite chuckled as she sat down in the recently vacated chair and leaned back to watch nothing happen for several minutes. She came alert when Scheherazade twitched. “I’m inside the dream,” the Dread Wolf said calmly. “Things are at a critical point and we’re close to a significant breakthrough. Ganieda and Canaan don’t want to wake them up and I agree we should give them a few more hours.”
“That was not your order,” Marguerite said decisively. “It is time to wake up now.”
“We need to wait,” Scheherazade replied. “And we will wait. I will remain in dreamtime while we do so I can monitor the simulation.”
Marguerite glared at Scheherazade for a long minute. “No, we will not.” She got up. “Theodora, send that conversation to Ninhursag and Eve.” She settled down in the chair with Iain and wriggled against him until she was comfortable there. “In the meantime, I’m going to see what I can do.”
“You are not certified to run dreamtime exercises,” Theodora said.
“I’m not going anywhere near their session,” the Unicorn replied as she wrapped her arms around Iain and closed her eyes. “In the best tradition of the clan I am going to cheat,” she muttered before falling silent.
Marguerite opened her eyes and looked around curiously. She stood in a forest of dead, leprous looking white trees. In the distance she could see what looked like a fortress made of some black metal. She turned in a slow circle. “I have never been here,” she said quietly.
“You shouldn’t be here now.” She spun to see a dragon that resembled Iain in his full sized form watching her. “This place is off limits to anyone but us.” The dragon’s jaws parted to reveal its sharp teeth. “You are an intruder.”
“Iain, it’s me,” she said, “Marguerite. There’s a problem and I entered your mind to address it. Your mind sent me here, I swear it.” The dragon lunged, mouth gaping and she screamed in terror as its jaws snapped shut on her.
“You are very fortunate that the defenses told me that you were here before it moved to destroy you,” Iain’s voice said. She opened her eyes to see she was sitting in a chair in an office. Iain was focused on a game of chess that he appeared to be playing alone. He spoke without looking in her direction as he studied the board. “It was a very close thing. I nearly wasn’t able to bring you here before it killed your mind.” He held out his hand over the board and a rook slid several places. Then he got up and moved to the opposite side of the board. “Why are you here, Marguerite Grey?”
“Who are you?”
“I am more of a what than a who,” Iain replied. “As part of our training in survival, portions of our mind have been given more purpose and volition than they normally would have. I am one of those portions, which is why I was able to decide to act to save you from annihilation by the automated defense system you encountered.” He leaned forward slightly. “Understand that you are still under sentence of death. I have merely stayed your execution in order to determine why you are here. If I decide that you imperil our survival, you will be destroyed. I will ask this only one more time before I act and destroy you. Why are you here?”
Marguerite suppressed the shiver the slid down her spine at Iain’s emotionless voice. Fortunately she already knew what was supposed to have been happening. “Six hours ago Iain entered dreamtime with Ava and Kasserine to work on some of their emotional issues. This was the first session and was supposed to determine what needed to be addressed to deal with some of the emotional damage either or both women had undergone. Canaan and Ganieda were controlling the simulation and it was supposed to last no more than an hour. It has not ended yet. When asked to end it, Ganieda refused, saying that they were close to a breakthrough. Ninhursag sent Scheherazade in to bring them out and now she refuses to do so. That is not her normal behavior from what I understand. Something has to be wrong.”
Iain sat back and looked at her and she shivered again at the solid black soulless eyes that sat in his face. “That behavior would be unusual in Scheherazade before her death, but she has been dead for a long time and has undoubtedly changed.”
“I can only tell you what I know,” Marguerite said desperately. “Iain is what I’m concerned about and you need to see what’s going on, if you can.”
“I cannot help you,” Iain said. “I am controlling some simulacrums and that and defense of the self is all I can do. I need a monitor.”
“Where can we find,” she began only to break off when one wall melted into a tunnel. Another Iain, identical to the first except his eyes were solid green, stepped out.
He looked at the first Iain. “Situation?”
“I am being disturbed by this intrusive foreign presence which insists there is a problem outside my parameters,” the first Iain said. “It claims the situation may be survival related, so I have not destroyed it yet.”
“Share,” the second Iain said. He turned to Marguerite. “Your reasoning is weak. However, if the simulation does not end in a controlled fashion, eventually the minds controlling it will die and the simulation will collapse. At that point the minds inside the simulation will likely be rendered nonfunctional. Our mind is one of those and so this is an undesirable outcome. We must survive. That is law. Without survival there is nothing.” The tunnel behind him flowed back into the wall it had originally been while the one in front melted into another tunnel. “Come with me. If you remain, this portion will assume the functions of the defensive system and you will be destroyed.” Iain walked into the tunnel and Marguerite hastened to follow.
They emerged into an office that was decorated in an old style that Marguerite didn’t recognize. A large window overlooked a waterfall that dropped into depths hidden by the spray. “I have summoned a troubleshooter,” Iain said as he sat down at the desk. “It will have the volition you require.”
“This climbing the chain seems pretty cumbersome for efficient survival,” Marguerite noted acidly.
“That depends on the time intervals involved,” Iain replied. “You have been inside our mind for almost exactly three one hundredths of a second. And it is true that this event is taking longer to resolve than it should, but I am a monitor and I am developing new protocols which will double the speed of resolution of future intrusions.”
Another Iain appeared in the middle of the room. He had shoulder length hair and his eyes were the color that Marguerite saw when she looked into her male’s. He held out his hand to her. “Come. I agree that the situation is survival related and that the current outcome is failure. I will correct that and you will aid me.”
“Review,” the monitor said as Marguerite took the troubleshooter’s hand.
“Adjust the automatic defenses to acknowledge the use of our name and summon a monitor when that occurs instead of immediately destroying the interloper,” the troubleshooter replied. “Otherwise the response was almost optimal.”
“Agreed and done,” the monitor replied as the troubleshooter and Marguerite vanished.
Iain knelt to drink from the stream. It was the middle of spring and the snow had melted, the white replaced by green as shoots thrust their way skyward. The water was icy, but then the stream was fed from snowmelt. He stood, wiping his mouth as he watched a hawk fly overhead. When he looked down again, a man and a woman stood in front of him. The man looked familiar but it was the woman that arrested Iain’s attention. First of all, she had a golden horn in the center of her forehead. She was wearing sandals and pants that were very thin and tight enough that he could see the muscles in her legs. Her shirt was a slightly lighter brown than the pants and was molded to her expansive breasts so tightly that he could see her nipples. Some odd design was on the shirt, but he couldn’t identify it and dismissed it. She was blonde and beautiful, with bright green eyes that looked at him worriedly. “Iain?”
The man with her released her hand. “There is a potential problem regarding survival.”
“I don’t know either one of you,” Iain admitted, although there was something familiar about the woman. “But you seem to know who I am. Who are you?”
“Iain, I’m Marguerite,” the blonde said.
The man stepped forward. “I am part of you,” he said. “You are currently in an artificial dream state that, if continued unchecked, will kill you and some of the women you love. Marguerite is a Unicorn in your harem and clan and she brought word of the problem. We have entered that dream state in order to effect a solution to the problem.”
For an instant, Iain felt, something, but then it was gone and he shrugged. “My wives and I have lived in this valley for several years. This is no dream.”
“One moment.” The man closed his eyes. “There is a problem and all troubleshooters are released to address it. Memory is being suppressed, at this point presume suppression is external and unwanted. Question: How to overcome without killing support elements Canaan and Ganieda?”
“What,” Marguerite blurted.
“This simulation is maintained by their minds. Destroy the world and their minds may be destroyed with it.” The man’s eyes opened “We respond well to logic, do we not?”
“I certainly do,” Iain said. “I can presume you do as well, sir.”
“How long have you been married to Ava and Kasserine?”
Iain thought for a moment. “It’s been nearly a decade. We came here six years ago.”
“The People are known for their fecundity with the lesser races,” the man said. “It is one of the reasons they do not breed with the lesser races often because of the dislike of mixed bloods. There are no children. Whoever is controlling the simulation cannot provide children. There will be no visitors, either.”
“We live out in the hinterlands,” Iain noted amusedly. “But you’re right about the children.”
“We have many children in reality,” the man stated. “Remember them.”
Iain grimaced. “I don’t remember having any children.”
“Whether you remember them or not, they are real and they exist in reality, unlike this place. Vanessa gave you Myrna and Saoirse. April gave you Dorothy, Meara and Regan. There are many others from many other women in your harem and family. You have held them, fed them, changed them, praised them and spanked them. Remember them.”
Iain frowned and then straightened. “Why are you here?”
“The simulation was scheduled to run for one hour to collect baseline data,” the man said. “According to Marguerite the simulation is into its sixth hour and the controllers refuse to end it. Eventually they will weaken and the simulation will collapse. Survival is threatened.”
“Survival is threatened because when the simulation collapses, it’ll destroy the minds of everyone inside it as well as those supporting it,” Iain said grimly. He turned to Marguerite. “Thank you. You’ve probably saved all of our lives.”
“Scheherazade is trapped too,” Marguerite said. “She entered the simulation to convince Canaan and Ganieda to end it and started talking like they do. How can this be going on?”
“Kasserine, Ava and I are all truewizards,” Iain said. “Someone doesn’t want this idyllic little story to end and she has been controlling everyone else to go along with it. It’s probably unconscious and she may not be really aware of what’s going on.”
“She?” Marguerite smiled at him. “What about you?”
“I’m aware of the danger,” Iain said simply. “And I would never voluntarily leave you and the other women I care for to disappear with just a couple of them.”
“You are more powerful than they are,” Marguerite said. “How can they control you?”
“The suggestion was very subtle,” Iain answered. “Even now I’m having a problem tracing it. It’s probably Ava who is doing it.”
“Reasons,” the other Iain asked.
“She can’t simulate something she’s never done. Both she and Kasserine want children but she can’t simulate it since she’s never been pregnant. And she would have a problem simulating the children as individuals since her mind hasn’t been trained yet.” He looked at the troubleshooter. “Can you get Marguerite out of the simulation?”
“She became trapped here with everyone else when she entered it.”
“Then you did your job well. Return to it.” The troubleshooter vanished as Iain turned to Marguerite. “I’m glad you came here to wake me up and I’m sorry that it may cost you your life.”
Marguerite smiled again. “I am a pokegirl, born for war and bred for killing. Death will come for me someday, but you said it may cost me my life, not that it will. So we’ll fight to make sure I don’t die as long as my living doesn’t cost you your life.”
Iain stroked her cheek. “Unfortunately, you can’t do much here. I have to confront Ava or Kasserine, if I’m wrong and it’s not Ava doing it. If I can’t talk them into voluntarily relinquishing control, I’ll have to fight whoever it is and that could prove lethal for the other minds in here with us.”
“Neither is evil,” Marguerite said. “Tell them of the cost before you fight them.”
“I will.” He held out his hand. “Take it.” Marguerite did and the scene shifted around them. They were now standing in front of a stone cottage.
“When did you learn to teleport?”
“I can’t.” Iain let her hand go. “This place isn’t real and now that I know it is the substance of dreams, it’s under my control, at least until someone fights me for it.”
“You’re like a god here?”
“Dreamtime is still a dream,” he said. “You can influence your dreams and, here, anyone with enough control can.”
“How come I didn’t know about all the survival stuff you’ve done in your head?”
He glanced at her before opening the door to the house. “I’ve been keeping it hidden. I’d really like it if you didn’t mention it again. It has to do with Nightraven and things I don’t have permission to discuss yet.”
Marguerite followed him inside and pulled the outer door shut behind her. “Will you ever get that permission?”
“I doubt I’ll get permission to discuss everything and, right now, I don’t know what she may eventually allow me to discuss. That makes the safest course not discussing anything.”
“Is she really that scary?”
“Marguerite, I don’t have the words to explain just how scary anyone with a clue should find her.” He pushed the inner door open. “I have seen her will to death an army and it didn’t seem to take any effort on her part. It certainly didn’t bother her to kill them. The only person it aggravated was me.”
He glanced back at her. “She killed them when they surrounded her home and insisted she surrender. If she didn’t, they said they’d storm her tower. Then they just fell over dead. I was her student and she ordered me to dispose of the bodies. She did helpfully tell me where there was a wheelbarrow after she pointed out the chasm where I was to dump all of the corpses. The only thing she did to make it less onerous was she kept them from rotting until they were in the ravine and I think she did that because she didn’t want to smell them. It was a good thing since it took me weeks to dispose of them all.”
“How much loot did you get from them?”
He grinned. “All of it. I ended up stashing it in a nearby cave and ferrying it to someplace where I could sell it on my trips.” He cocked his head. “Kasserine is in the kitchen. Ava isn’t in the house, but she often goes to down to the stream to bathe on nice days in the spring.”
“Is this perception?” He nodded. “I may have to see if I can adjust to having it.”
He stepped into the kitchen. “Kasserine, we have a guest.”
“We’ve never had a guest here,” Kasserine said in surprise. She smiled at Marguerite when the Unicorn followed Iain into the kitchen. Her eyes flicked up to Marguerite’s horn for an instant and then she ignored it. “I am Kasserine and I am one of Iain’s wives. Has he welcomed you into our home?”
“He has. I am Marguerite. Do you remember me?”
Kasserine frowned and stared at her for several seconds. “You do seem familiar, but I must admit that I do not remember you. Where have I known you from?”
Marguerite looked at Iain, who was watching curiously. “I have come to take all of you home where you belong, Kasserine. There are people who are depending on you, all of you and we need you back with us.”
Kasserine turned worried eyes on Iain. “I don’t understand what she’s saying.”
Iain took her hands. “I need you to focus on my words just as hard as if you were learning a new spell from me,” he said quietly. “We met when I was brought to your home in Drelagara. I came there in the company of your son, Kerrik. He wanted me to meet you and Ava and to court Ava for marriage because he thought that if she was out of your life, your life would be easier. It didn’t work out as he wanted and I ended up engaged to both you and Ava. We journeyed to my home in Texas, along with Selsharra and a bunch of moon horses led by Ava’s friend Dancer. This is a mental construct so that we could begin trying to address the problems that the abuse left inside you and Ava.”
Kasserine shuddered violently and pressed her head against his chest for a long moment before raising her head. She looked past him at Marguerite. “I remember you now. You’re a pokegirl, clan and harem.” She frowned. “Dreamtime.” She looked at Iain. “Something went wrong?”
“I think Ava decided that she wanted it to be just us three,” Iain replied. “It may not have been a conscious decision, but she used her power to make us think all of us belonged only here and we forgot about the truth. I think that even she’s under the influence of that wish or whatever she accidentally did.”
“It’s that easy?”
He nodded. “It can be if we let our attention wander.”
“I had thought the warnings that you and Kerrik both gave were overly dire,” Kasserine was looking thoughtfully out the window. “Now I know they weren’t dire enough.” She braced herself before turning back to him. “What of Ava?”
“I will try to reason with her, but if she refuses to release us I will have no choice but to fight her. She may refuse. I think that all three of us liked it here and some part of me wants to stay.”
“Me as well,” Kasserine said.
He nodded. “But we are needed in the real world and, in our world of duty and responsibility,”
She finished for him, “need always outweighs want. I understand. What can I do?”
“Help me try to reach Ava and make her understand. If I have to fight her, I will win, but it may take a while and she could do a lot of damage while resisting.” He sighed. “She could kill every other mind in here except mine, including you, Marguerite, Ganieda and Canaan.”
“Scheherazade too,” Marguerite reminded him.
“And Scheherazade,” he agreed.
“My daughter will not harm any of her family.” Kasserine said confidently.
“I hope so too,” Iain released one of Kasserine’s hands and took Marguerite’s. “Now to find out.” Suddenly they were standing on a path and, up ahead, light flashed through leaves as it danced on water. “Should you try talking to her first?”
“I should,” Kasserine said. “You will have to talk to her too, but I am her mother and she trusts me in ways she cannot trust you. When I call you, I want you to bring Marguerite with you. Her presence will help prove what we will be telling her.” She reached up and stroked his face with her free hand. “I remember what is like there. I will miss having to share you only with Ava,” she said sadly.
Iain smiled and kissed her palm. “I’ll miss it too, but it is why there were no children. We all want that, and once we’re free we will have them.”
“I’m sorry,” Marguerite blurted suddenly.
Kasserine regarded her curiously. “Whatever for?”
“I’d kill to have Iain to myself,” the Unicorn said in an anguished voice. “I’m sorry I’m taking this away from you now. You could have had years here before you had no choice but to leave.”
Kasserine took her hands. “Marguerite, this is a lie,” she said gently. “While it is a wonderful lie indeed, a lie it remains. I have had ten wonderful years with Iain already. I will treasure this falsehood but it cannot be allowed to continue once he and I know the truth. I was raised to understand that my life could never be what I wanted, and Iain has come to learn that is the truth for his life as well. Both of us are subordinate to the needs of others and, out of love and duty, we accept that as our fate. If I am honest, I am not happy that you have exposed this lie, but it had to be done. As it is, I will feel a great deal of guilt for the time I had with him for you and the rest of my sisters are never going to have a decade with him alone or with one other, as I have done. Longer would have just given me more guilt that I would have to atone for.”
Marguerite gripped her hands back fiercely. “I had similar responsibilities for my batch sisters but I don’t know if I could be as strong as you are.”
“You are a leader and you are clan,” Kasserine said. She kissed Marguerite on the cheek. “My sister, you will be as strong as you have to be when you must. But this battle is mine to fight, not yours.”
“It’s mine too,” Iain added.
“You feel that every battle is yours, Iain. It is one of your greatest strengths and it is one of your greatest weaknesses. You must learn to control that urge for not every fight of each women in the clan is also your fight.”
“I’ve been working on that, but this fight is still mine.”
“I will speak to Ava first and try to reason with her.” She turned and walked toward the stream, pushing through the trees as she called ahead. “Ava!’
Her daughter was seated on a blanket near the stream. She grinned at Kasserine. “Mother, the stream is still a little too cold to bathe in, but the spring sun is wonderfully warm. Join me!”
Kasserine settled down next to Ava. “I love you so much,” she said quietly.
“I love you too, Mother.”
“There is something that you need to do, and I can only hope that I have taught you well enough that you will have the strength you will need for this.”
Ava laughed. “Mother, I am Ava Grey, the daughter of Kasserine and the wife of Iain. I have fought owlbears and I can be stronger than anything I face. Whatever it is, I will overcome it!”
Kasserine nodded. “I hope you are right. Do you remember when we met Iain?”
Ava grinned. “How could I forget it. We were swimming at the base of the waterfall and Iain was swept down it from above. He almost landed on me and was most appreciative that we bathed nude. We’ve been together ever since.”
“That was the second time we met Iain, and that was here,” Kasserine watched her daughter closely. “Do you remember the first time we met him?”
Ava frowned. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Mother.”
“We were living in Drelagara. You had not yet become an adult. You were the student of Lyssand Swift Arrow, who was the best tutor I could find for you. Unknown to us, he was a treacherous worm. We were waiting for the High Council to evict us from our home when your brother, Kerrik, brought Iain to us.”
Ava’s eyes were troubled. “Mother, I don’t remember any of this and I don’t like this story.”
“You don’t like it because part of you knows this isn’t real and what I just told you is.” Kasserine took Ava’s hand. “We are betrothed to Iain and we journeyed to his home to make a new life with him and his family, who welcomed us into their arms and hearts.”
“Then why are we here, Mother?”
“Canaan and Ganieda, two of our new family, used their powers to create this place so that you, me and Iain could examine what hurts we had in our hearts and how best to heal them. Instead, we stole this place from them and are using their minds to make this world so we can be alone with our husband.” Kasserine peered into Ava’s eyes. “You did this, my love, but I did not fight it for it is a wonderful place with just you and the man we love, but it must end and it must end now, for if we let it go longer none of us will want to leave, and then disaster will befall all of us.”
“Why don’t I remember this if it’s true?”
“In our happiness, we all forgot about the truth,” Kasserine squeezed Ava’s hand. “And we would not have remembered if one of the women who accepted us hadn’t come here to remind us that we must leave. And we must.”
“All spells must end, Ava. Either they are ended by the caster or they end on their own. Did I not teach you that is much safer to end a spell than to let it linger, lest it cause harm to those who did not deserve it?”
“I remember, Mother.”
“Canaan and Ganieda make this world for us with their power, but it is not infinite. When that power runs out, and it will, they will die. When they die, this world will end. You remember the stories. What happens to the people when the gods end the world?”
Ava swallowed hard. “They die with it and are reborn in the new world.”
“And when this world ends, we will die, Ava.” Kasserine rose and pulled Ava to her feet with her. “And there will be no new world to replace it that we will be reborn in. Iain will come to us now, with the woman that will also die with us because she wanted to save us, because she knew that we had to leave or all of us would die. When you see her, I want you to try very hard to use her as a focus, like a spell focus, and remember the truth. She is our friend and you like her. Remember her, remember our duty and remember that what happened is not your fault. We all wanted this or this dream could not have seduced us as it did.” She turned to face Ava. “Prepare yourself.” She looked over her shoulder and raised her voice. “Iain, please come to us and bring our visitor.”
When Kasserine left them, Marguerite turned to Iain. “I am sorry,” she said softly.
“We’d have died here,” Iain took her hand. “And we are needed in the real world. You have nothing to be sorry about.”
“You don’t want to leave here.”
“True.” He glanced at her. “Would you? Even if the winters sucked ass, we were happy here and life was relatively simple.” He squeezed her hand. “We’ll be almost as happy in the real world and I won’t have to argue with wolves about who is going to get the scraps of frozen meat anymore.” He smiled at her. “I’m proud of you.”
“You know that going into my mind can always be dangerous and yet you did so, to save me. I know it really wasn’t for Kasserine or Ava. And the truth is that Poppet would never have done this.”
Marguerite chuckled. “No, she wouldn’t have. She’s never been very brave. She’s always careful to let others take the dangerous chances while she stays at the base. She’s just a, I believe the term is Fobbit.”
Iain grinned. “It is. And she doesn’t matter. I have the best of the batch.”
Marguerite squeezed his hand back. “That you certainly do, but if we were to compare males, I got the best too.”
“Thank you.” His head came up. “Kasserine is calling us.”
“Iain.” Marguerite let go of his hand. “If you have to fight, try to save Ava and Kasserine even if the rest of us have to die. They’ll protect you from Kerrik.”
“I don’t intend for anyone I care about to die today,” Iain motioned her forward. “Now I haven’t seen that ass in ten years, so you go first.”
Marguerite giggled softly. “Greedy drake.” She headed for the creek with Iain close behind.
“Remember what I said and focus,” Kasserine said softly to Ava as Iain and Marguerite came into view. “You know who she is, now tell me her name.”
Ava stared at the woman with her husband. She frowned and then her eyes went wide. “Marguerite.” She looked at her mother. “You said I did this? I am so sorry, Mother.”
“I am proud that you remembered so quickly.” Kasserine kissed her daughter on the cheek. “But I am not the one to whom you should be apologizing. Marguerite risked her life to come here and warn us.”
Marguerite put her hand on Ava’s shoulder before she could speak. “Iain told me that you did not do this intentionally. Is that true?” Ava nodded. “Then you do not need to apologize to me or to anyone else, sister. Any of us would want what you had here, and none of us will fault you for trying to make it a reality.”
“If anyone needs to shoulder blame,” Iain smiled at Ava, “it’s me. I had been concerned that something like this might happen and I was trying to be on guard against it.” He shrugged. “Either I went along with it or I didn’t recognize what was happening and I don’t think it was the latter. Apparently, I’d be happier with a simpler life too.” He looked to the side. “Canaan.” He sighed. “Ganieda. Scheherazade.” When nothing happened, he nodded and walked behind Ava, wrapping his arms around her from behind. “Do you remember when I had you picture that sunrise?”
She leaned back into his embrace. “I do, my love.”
His lips brushed her ear and she smiled happily. “I want you to picture a sunset this time. I want you to focus on it to exclusion of all else. Now, close your eyes and picture that sunset and tell me when it is the entirety of the universe for you.”
Ava’s eyes drifted closed and a few minutes passed. “This is hard.”
“It is,” Iain murmured into her ear. “But you can do it.”
Finally she smiled. “I have it.”
Iain closed his eyes and rested his forehead against the back of Ava’s head. “Ganieda,” he said quietly.
A wavering image of the Snugglebuny Splice appeared. Her ears flicked. “Iain?” She sounded exhausted. “Help.”
“I order you to end the simulation,” Iain didn’t move his head. “I have Ava’s mind trapped in a repeating loop so she can’t resist you, but you need to move as quickly as you can. Scheherazade is in here too, and you can use her strength if you and Canaan are too tired. Try not to hurt us, but you must end the simulation even if it does. We’ll heal.”
Ganieda nodded. “Prepare for possible turbulence,” she said as she faded out.
Marguerite chuckled. “Please return your flight attendant to her upright and locked position.”
“While this might not look difficult,” Iain growled in a low voice, “it is. Making me laugh is not going to help.”
Ninhursag stood with Eve and tried not to vent her frustration on the Megami Sama. “Has there been anything new from Marguerite?”
“No. And since Theodora can’t monitor magical or psychic dreamtime, we have no eyes in there. But it’s only been one and a half minutes.”
“Shit. Where are Ryan and Lynn?”
The Elfqueen jumped when Iain spoke. “Wait.”
“Iain?” Ninhursag scowled. “Iain? Damnit.” She jumped again when Canaan groaned, rolled over and noisily vomited on the floor. She lay there, panting and seemingly unaware of her surroundings. “Eve, go get Siobhan and Irena.”
Eve vanished as Ganieda opened her eyes. She tried to sit up but couldn’t. “Fuck, I’m weak.”
Ninhursag grabbed her by the shoulder. “Medical is on the way. What happened?”
The Snugglebunny Splice gave her a weak grin. “Iain fixed it, of course.” Her eyes slid shut. “I’m going to just rest right here. Pester him.”
Scheherazade sat up suddenly and blinked as she watched a remote trundle from the wall and begin neatly cleaning up Canaan’s vomit. “I got trapped supporting the simulation,” she said as Ninhursag looked in her direction. “Iain got things sorted out and all three of them will be waking up in a few seconds.”
“Some kind of haywire magic, I think. Iain can explain it.” Her ears flicked. “I feel like I just ran the obstacle course while carrying a building on my back.”
“The simulation,” Iain said as he sat up and swung his legs off of the futon, “uses your psychic energy to maintain its existence. If you run out of energy, the simulation should stop when you pass out, possibly harming the people inside it, but in this case it started draining your life as well as Ganieda’s and Canaan’s to maintain dreamtime.” He held up a hand as Ninhursag started to speak. “Just a moment.” He touched Kasserine and Ava on the forehead before moving down to Canaan.
Canaan shivered when he touched her. “What,” she said as she sat up, “was that?”
“Energy.” He repeated the process with Ganieda and Scheherazade before heading back to his chair as Marguerite stirred. “The short version, Ninhursag, is that this was a bit of truewizard magic gone astray. It trapped me, Kasserine and Ava inside a simulation where we could be alone and together. Ganieda, Canaan and Scheherazade were the batteries needed to power the world we lived in.”
Ninhursag’s eyebrows crawled up her face. “Did you do that?”
“No. I have learned enough about dreamtime that, although I can’t create a dreamtime state, I could have powered the simulation and kept them asleep and alive forever to provide the backdrop we were living in. And, honestly, who started it isn’t important. Part of the magic made us forget the outer world. We all accepted the scenario and liked it, so none of us fought to escape until Marguerite came to tell me what was happening.”
Ganieda sat up. “Wow, that was like a quadruple shot of expresso.”
“Don’t get used to it,” Iain said. “I gave you my energy because you need it right now. This is not going to become a regular occurrence.” He looked at Ninhursag. “Now I need to have a quick conversation with Kasserine and Ava. It’s going to sound weird because, in that simulation, we’ve been married for a decade and that’s what they’re going to remember. It will be fresher to them than what happened this morning before we started here. I want to help them integrate that into what they remember from here before we do anything else so they can function in the real world. They’re smart, so it shouldn’t take long, but we need to discuss a few things.”
“Is this what you go through when you come back from shadow walking to Nightraven’s?”
He smiled. “Every single time, although it’s just me and I know what to do so it doesn’t take long once I get back on the Theodora or the Danger Room.” He touched Kasserine on the shoulder and her eyes opened. “Welcome to the real world.”
She sat up slowly, looking around the room before focusing on him. “How is Ava?”
“She’s still asleep. I wanted to wake you first.”
“Is this the same spell you used to put her to sleep when she injured herself with her bomb?”
Iain smiled. “Yes.” His smile faded. “We will need to present a united front to her. We were married for a decade. A very active decade.”
Kasserine nodded and took his hand, using it to stand. “Here she is still a minor.” She glanced at Ninhursag. “And here we are not married.”
“We are what we say we are,” Iain countered. “Even among Moon elves, a family that announces they are married is.” He wrapped an arm around her and she leaned against him. “While the ten years weren’t real, to us they were and what happened during them did happen. Our love is real and still exists here.”
Kasserine sighed. “If I make Ava wait, I will have to also wait and I do not want to.” She looked up at him. “What should I do, husband?” She glanced at Ninhursag again. “I apologize. I should have not called him that.”
Ninhursag smiled at her. “If you and Iain say you are married, then you are. Clan precedent is already well established on that fact. You can have a ceremony later, if you want, but if you say you are my sister wife and Iain agrees, then you are.”
Kasserine looked down at her daughter again. “I will not make her wait if I do not.”
“I’m more concerned that she might not wait no matter what. She’s had a decade of figuring out how to worm her way into my heart and bed,” Iain sighed. “If she turns up in my bed at night, I’m not likely to toss her out.”
“It’s only a year,” Ninhursag quietly joined them. “Especially for someone with Ava’s lifespan, is it that important?”
“I conceived Kerrik when I was still a minor,” Kasserine reached down and stroked Ava’s hair away from her face. “I promised myself that I wouldn’t let that happen to her too.”
“Then don’t,” Ninhursag smiled when Kasserine gave her a puzzled look. “What you’re missing is that Ava being sexually active and becoming a mother are not completely intertwined. Iain can keep from getting her pregnant before she comes of age.” Her smile became a grin when Iain raised an eyebrow. “You have to have some way to keep from getting the women you fuck pregnant when you’re with your teacher. I know you want to be a father to all of your children so there’s no way you leave something that critical to chance.”
Kasserine turned questioning eyes on him. “Iain, is she right?”
“She is. I just don’t do it when I’m here so I didn’t even think of it.”
“Could you do it with Ava until she becomes an adult?”
“I can. We might not want to tell her what’s happening, though.”
“She is eager to have your child,” Kasserine agreed. “And if I become pregnant during that time, she will not think that you are not just as fertile when with her. She will accept that chance has kept her from conceiving for the next year.” She gave him an amused look. “Even if she conceives on the night of her majority.”
“Do you want to become pregnant during that year,” Ninhursag asked curiously.
“I love Iain and he loves me,” Kasserine replied. “He is a good father and I am a good mother. Our children will be well loved and, yes, for the first time in my life I want a child from someone.”
“You’re not a pokegirl, so you can’t be harem,” Ninhursag said. “You will have to be married to him instead.” She looked at Iain. “I hesitate to think about what someone like April’s response would be otherwise.”
“What does that do for Arianrhod and Mielikki?”
Ninhursag shrugged. “Arianrhod has not yet been put forward as a potential recruit and Mielikki and you are working things out. These rules are for any other elves who might show up and try work their way into your heart.”
“I am Iain’s senior wife,” Kasserine smiled slightly. “Any elf that wants to join us will have to deal with me, and then Ava.”
Ninhursag raised an eyebrow and then grinned. “Now she sounds like a pokegirl.”
“No,” Kasserine disagreed, “I sound like a Grey, for do not Ygerna and Kasumi have similar functions as the guardians of the gates to their respective racial families?”
Ninhursag looked surprised. “They do,” she mused, “and that generalizes the system into something that we, the pokegirls, can understand and respect since it mirrors our organizational structure.”
Iain nodded. “Whatever. Can I wake Ava up now?”
“Let me stand over there first so she doesn’t wake up to me towering over her,” Ninhursag said as she moved away from them. “After all, she hasn’t seen me for a decade.”
Iain waited a moment and then touched Ava on the shoulder. She blinked, yawned and stretched luxuriously. She looked around the room before sitting up. “I remember this now. Are we still married?”
“We are,” Kasserine assured her. “We’ll have a ceremony in a year when you come of age, but you and I are still married to Iain.”
“If I am his wife, his place is in my bed.”
Kasserine smiled. “We must remember that there are now many other women who will have the same desire, but I release you from your promise to me to remain chaste until you are married.”
“You don’t have to,” Ava winked at Iain. “I am married so that promise is no longer in effect. How long were we gone here?”
“Six hours,” Eve said from the doorway where she, Siobhan and Irena had been watching events unfold. “Which is five hours longer than planned.” She looked at Siobhan. “They’re all yours.”
The Nurse Joy nodded. “All of you except Ninhursag who are standing will lie down again until I or Irena finish our medical evaluation.” She smiled around the room. “Since I’m almost due, and therefore shouldn’t engage in combat, anyone who wants to disagree can be checked over by Irena.”
Irena grinned cheerfully as she summoned a scalpel and spun it between her fingers. “So, who wants to argue with me first that they don’t need medical care?”
Iain shook his head. “Everyone sit down again.” He turned to Marguerite as Kasserine and Ava returned to their futons. “I owe you.”
“Can I have a reward?”
He nodded. “What do you want?”
Marguerite didn’t hesitate. “I want the week that everyone else keeps bragging about having that I don’t.”
“You don’t want more than a week?”
She shook her head. “I want to be equal with them, nothing more. I can earn my superiority. I certainly don’t want to be given it.”
“Zareen and you are very much alike in some ways,” Iain noted as Ninhursag joined them. He looked at her. “Marguerite has saved my life and the lives of several others of her clan. I offered her a reward and she has asked for a week with me, like you and the others have and most have not yet cashed in.”
Ninhursag nodded. “Just one week?”
“Like I told Iain, I just want equality. I’m good enough to at least hold my own or I don’t deserve anything else.”
“Many of your sisters wouldn’t be so gracious,” Ninhursag noted.
Marguerite shrugged. “You would. The other leaders would.”
Ninhursag smiled. “You’re angling to become a leader in the clan and harem?”
“Of course I am. I was one before and I was damned good at it.” She glanced at Iain. “I’ll be a good one for him, too.”
“I believe you will,” Ninhursag said. “Theodora, give Marguerite a week with Iain and explain the rules to her.”
“Done. I’ve updated the scoreboard.”
Iain looked at Ninhursag. “Scoreboard?”
She smiled innocently back at him. “How are we supposed to know who is winning if we don’t keep score, and how is everyone else not going to be jealous of the leaders if we don’t post those scores?”
“Are there going to be a bunch of challenges for Marguerite at the next challenge day?”
“I certainly hope there are,” Marguerite flashed a quick smile.
Iain’s response was forestalled when a scalpel suddenly appeared under his nose. “You’re not sitting down,” Irena said cheerfully. In a quick move, Iain plucked the scalpel from her hand and her eyes went wide in surprise. “You’ve gotten faster.”
“I have. Should I stab you in retaliation?”
“I’d prefer it if you didn’t.” She opened the hand that had been holding the scalpel. “May I touch you?”
“Better, and yes.” Iain spun the scalpel in his hand and offered it to her, hilt first. “You were never allowed to threaten me like that and that rule hasn’t changed. Don’t do it again.”
She took the tool and it vanished. “Do I need to apologize to you?”
“No, but next time you will get stabbed.”
Ninhursag smiled unpleasantly. “You are aware of how Eve reacts to threats to Iain’s safety?”
Irena nodded. “Violently.”
The Elfqueen’s smile vanished and her eyes took on a dangerous glint. “I’m not like her. I won’t strike by surprise. I’ll warn you once, which is what this is, and next time I’ll act. The reason I won’t strike by surprise is because it doesn’t matter if I warn you or not. You will not be able to stop me, and you will want to make sure you have your pokeball with you and that it isn’t hard to find so you don’t die when I act.” Irena’s eyes had gone very wide. “Do we understand each other?”
The Sanctuary Goth nodded. “Perfectly.”
“Good. Now, yes, this was a threat and I refuse to apologize for it. Do you wish to seek redress?”
“I do not,” Irena said carefully. “But I do need to examine Iain.”
“Then examine him, but we both know that it doesn’t require you to stick a weapon in his face. Don’t.”
“Yes, maharani.” Ninhursag nodded her approval as Irena turned to Iain. “You need to lie down, Iain. While it’s not strictly necessary for this particular exam, it’s protocol so when it is necessary, neither Siobhan nor I have to listen to people argue with us as to whether it is or not.”
“Very well.” Iain headed for his chair.
Misery grinned at them as Ganieda let Iain go. Beside them, Canaan released Kasserine and Ava. “So, do you have any good gossip for me?”
“Maybe,” Iain said. “And the possibility is strong enough that I don’t want you touching any of us until we talk to Kerrik. Since you’re taking us to him, you’ll be there and get to hear it then.”
Misery nodded and waved them on ahead. “Kerrik’s in his office.”
“Please lead the way,” Iain smiled at her. “We have a spell up so Whisper and other telepaths can’t read us and I’m serious about you not touching. In front I can keep an eye on you and keep there from being an accidental contact.”
Misery grinned. “Can’t blame a girl for trying.”
“I have learned the spell to return you to your pokeball,” Kasserine’s tone was polite but firm. “If I must, if you touch any of us, I will use it to keep you from spreading word of what we want to keep private for the time being. Please do not try. It is important that Kerrik hear the news from me and from me first.”
Misery’s long ears slapped gently against the backs of her legs as she flicked them. “It’s that serious?”
“It is,” Iain assured her.
“You’ll let me stay and hear it?”
She turned and strode rapidly towards the house. “Keep up.”
“As planned, Canaan and I will stay here,” Ganieda told Iain as Ava chuckled and they fell in behind Misery.
“Thanks. This shouldn’t take too long.”
Kerrik was waiting with his hands folded on his desk and an amused look in his eyes. “Misery warned me to stop whatever I was doing and be ready to greet you,” he glanced at the Mini Top. “What’s with her?”
“We took steps to ensure she couldn’t find out anything before we inform you,” Kasserine said. “But we will allow her to remain to hear this as well, unless you forbid it. I am officially invoking privacy.”
Kerrik raised an eyebrow. “Misery, sentry duty and remain quiet unless it’s an emergency.”
“Yessir,” Misery moved to close the door to the office and take position near it.
“This room is secure,” Kerrik leaned back in his chair. “So, what’s this about?”
“Iain will explain the situation,” Kasserine said. “He has technical knowledge that we have not yet acquired.”
Kerrik nodded. “This should be interesting.”
“Earlier today,” Iain began, “we set up an introductory session in dreamtime with me, Kasserine and Ava to explore what issues they may have from the problems they’d been dealing with in Evermeet. This was a baseline study and was supposed to last an hour.”
Kerrik’s ears flicked. “Was?”
“I’m sorry,” Ava blurted.
Kasserine took her hand. “It is not your fault. Continue, my,” she broke off, “Iain.”
“Apparently, Ava would really like it if it were just the three of us,” Iain smiled at the two Moon elves. “Her magic went a bit impulsive and trapped the three of us inside the simulation, where six hours in this world passed while we experienced a decade.” Kerrik cocked his head curiously. “In that decade, I met Ava and Kasserine, we fell in love and married.”
“That would make sense,” Kerrik said slowly. “You already liked them and they you after the month you spent together.” He glanced at Misery, who was watching with rapt attention. “How did you escape?”
“Marguerite entered my mind to warn me after Scheherazade entered the simulation to do the same thing and got trapped too. She made me aware of the problem and we resolved it and ended the simulation. What you need to know is that we discussed the situation afterward and our love is still real and we have decided that we are still married. Ava is still physically a minor and when she comes of age we’ll have a ceremony to formalize our marriage.”
Kerrik looked at each of them in turn. “Thank you for telling me this quietly and thank you for doing it face to face.” He flashed a grin. “I’m still not going to call you Father.”
“Still don’t want you to.”
Kerrik nodded. “Do I have a bunch of half siblings or nieces and nephews on the way yet?”
“No, but soon,” Ava said.
“You cannot predict when you will become pregnant,” Kasserine smiled at Ava. “However, Kerrik, you were correct in that my feelings on more children have changed and Ava desires the same.”
Kerrik’s ears flicked. “Are you happy with the situation, Mother?”
“When I held Ava in my arms I did not think I could ever be happier than that,” Kasserine said. “I do not know if I am happier than I was during that moment, but I believe I am as happy as I was then.”
“I’m glad to hear that.” He smiled at her. “What did Selsharra say when you told her?”
“We decided to tell you first,” Ava announced. “She doesn’t know yet.”
“I see. And did Iain’s family welcome you?”
“They did,” Kasserine assured him.
“Then I think the only thing I can add is to tell you thank you for informing me promptly and congratulations to all of you.” Kerrik looked past them. “Was that juicy enough, Misery?”
“Oh yes,” she breathed with a grin. “This is awesome.”
“At the moment it’s still covered under my mother’s invocation of privacy,” Kerrik reminded her.
“They won’t want it to last,” Misery said. “They just wanted to make sure you heard it from them.”
“We’ll see,” Kerrik turned to his guests. “Well?”
“Misery is correct,” Kasserine said. “We release you and her from privacy in this matter.”
“Yes!” Misery grinned. “Can I go?”
Kerrik shook his head. “Who are you going tell first?”
She grinned. “There’s a pool involved but I didn’t win, so I’m going to tell them that I know who did win it and then refuse to talk. They won’t believe me but they will wonder until Raven comes to you to complain or to verify I’m not more crazy than usual.”
“Of course that’s what you’re going to do.” Kerrik motioned towards the door. “Go cause mayhem.” He watched Misery race out of the room. “Thank you for involving her.” He gave Kasserine a sideways look. “While I’m glad to be right about you finding love with Iain, I never thought it would involve dreamtime and so little real time.”
“It was not a planned happening,” Kasserine reminded him. “And we were fortunate that Marguerite warned Iain before the simulation collapsed and our minds were destroyed.”
“When you have lived as long as I have,” Kerrik got up. “You will learn not to be concerned about what might have been. Marguerite did what was necessary and nobody died today that I care about.” He came around his desk and smiled at Kasserine. “But I will thank her when I see her next.” He looked at Iain. “I don’t know much about dreamtime. I’m not sure I could have rescued you.”
Iain chuckled. “Well, I love Ava and Kasserine and they love me, but we are not going into dreamtime together for a while until both of their control is much better. The real world is going to be interesting enough.”
“Pregnancy will make your training more difficult,” Kerrik told the two Moon elf women. “It makes your emotions more volatile sometimes so you will have to learn more control during your lessons with me. But pregnancy will not get you out of those lessons. You will always be a truewizard and so you need to learn that control now, for whenever you get pregnant.”
“We understand and we want to learn that control before we are pregnant,” Kasserine took Iain’s hand. “We do not wish to harm anyone that does not deserve it.”
“Admirable,” Kerrik looked them over before giving a slight shake to his head. “I didn’t really expect much when I brought Iain to meet you and Ava, Mother. I think my expectations were colored by the memories of my aunt. She would not have been as accepting of Iain as you have been, especially since he’s a dragon. I only hoped that Ava would jump at the chance to escape Evermeet and give you the opportunity to try and live a somewhat quiet life.” He smiled ruefully at her. “I’m glad you found happiness.” He put his hand on Ava’s shoulder. “As for you, young lady, when I found out I had a sister I only thought about the burden you must be for Mother and didn’t give an iota of concern for what you might be like as a person. Other than some gaps in your knowledge base that Mother never expected you to need but that you do now that you’re part of the rulership of the clan, you are remarkably well informed.” His ears flicked. “In spite of everything that Lyssand filled your mind with.”
“Never say that name around me,” Ava snarled.
“I rather thought you’d be planning to try and see him again,” Kerrik’s smile was amused. “Now that you’re Iain’s wife, as soon as his face appeared in your vision it would probably get a large hole put in it by your husband, probably almost instantly.”
Ava cocked her head curiously. “Mother, there may have been a few things that I left at our home in Drelagara that I may need more than I first thought. Perhaps Iain and I should return there for them. The trip shouldn’t take very long.”
Kasserine laughed softly. “Daughter, in such a situation you should wait a few days before making such a determination, in the hopes that I would not draw the obvious comparison between Kerrik’s observation and your sudden desire for some of items you chose to leave behind and assured me that you would not miss.”
“I’ll remember that for next time,” Ava told her seriously.
“What is interesting,” Kerrik said to Iain, “is that I suddenly have two sets of memories of the time between their leaving Evermeet and the present. Nothing changed in my immediate past because of my choices to deliberately avoid any place that had an organized elven government and because I left soon after you did and didn’t stick around in case a new branch tried to trap me, but in the new present the Retreat was much smaller and not all of the mainland cities were abandoned.”
Iain’s sudden interest was obvious. “What about Evereska?”
“The valley was still colonized about the time I first remember,” Kerrik replied. “I did try to trace the changes back to determine what happened. It’s still pretty vague, but I think that the Swift Arrow you killed, Zarn, was supposed to later kill someone that he now didn’t, being dead long before he was supposed to be in the previous timeline. Either that person, or more likely their descendants, would have come to be in a position of influence at Evermeet’s court and convinced the ruling family not to support the Retreat, something they were quietly for in what I originally remember the timeline being. Their resistance to the Retreat made it much smaller since they were willing to offer more support to the mainland cities and kingdoms. Over the millennia, that support and some advantageous marriages brought many of the mainland kingdoms under the control of Evermeet, which has lasted until today. Myth Drannor still fell due to stupidity, but it was reclaimed and today is doing pretty well. Its heyday was most definitely before the fall, but it is a well-known power in the world and part of the reason the humans and elves associate so closely around the world.” His ears flicked. “The dwarf kingdoms are still fairly powerful, the dragons are in decline and the humans, who in many ways are more like the elves socially, are slowly spreading but the orcs and other goblinoid races,” he flashed a savage grin, “are not doing well at all.”
“Iain told us about the wars and what happens with the dark elves,” Ava looked unhappy, but then her goddess had been severely affected by those events. “Did that still happen?”
Kerrik nodded. “As far as I can tell, it did happen pretty much as I originally remembered. However, with the dwarves still much more powerful due to the checks to the goblin races and some advantageous alliances between elf and dwarf kingdoms, the drow have been much less of a problem than they were in my first set of memories.”
Kasserine frowned. “From what Iain has told me about time, you should not have two distinct sets of memories.”
Kerrik smiled. “That’s correct, but I have magic in place that allows this to happen so I can look for attempts to change my past by people who don’t have my best interests at heart. It preserves all my memories even if the timeline gets altered, allowing me to compare the two memory sets and try to determine where the meddling took place. I know where Iain joined the timestream, so this was a very nice practical test for my theories.” His smile vanished. “While it is extraordinarily difficult to move between branches of your own timeline, since I know there’s another me there and he’s as interested in this as I am, between the two of us we can send information back and forth, letting us examine what the other is experiencing and how our theories mesh with what we’re seeing.”
Iain leaned forward eagerly. “Can I learn to do that?”
“It’s surprisingly easy to learn how to do. You should be able to do it now, and I can show you what’s involved the next time they come for lessons, if you come with them.”
“I’ll be there.”
“Good.” Kerrik leaned back against his desk as he looked from his sister to his mother. “Now, I want to make sure I understand the situation. You two spent ten years in dreamtime with Iain as your husband. Were you still as you are in reality or did you limit yourselves as part of it?
“I do not understand the question,” Kasserine said.
“Were you still a former princess, mage, warrior and all of the things you have been in reality or did you or Ava limit yourselves to being something less than you truly are?”
“We were as we are now,” Ava said. “The only obvious difference was that I had just become an adult when we met Iain in the fantasy.”
“Excellent,” Kerrik said. “You have class with me in the morning and I look forward to seeing how much you’ve advanced in the decade you had for studying.” Both Kasserine’s and Ava’s eyes went wide as he continued. “I don’t expect miracles, but after ten years of slow but steady progress in your studies the advancements should be obvious. After all, you both reassured me that you’d continue your studies whether I was around or not. In fact, I think you promised me, a fey, to do just that.”
Ava gave him a nervous smile. “What if we don’t show the progress you think is sufficient?”
“In that case I don’t think calling the Wild Hunt down on you will be necessary, but I will have to find a way to motivate you to remember our agreement,” Kerrik said pleasantly. “Iain was properly motivated by me letting Raven use him as a training tool, perhaps you will find it encouraging too.”
“But that time wasn’t real,” Ava protested.
“It was real enough that the love you have for Iain and his feelings for you were such that the three of you decided to remain married. That means it was very real.” Kerrik shrugged. “But if you didn’t study during that time period your sessions with Raven and the others will motivate you in self study when you’re not in class here. In about a year of dedicated study you should be where I know you would have been if you’d kept your promise to me. I know that you don’t want to break that promise and this will help you to catch up.”
“I heard what she did to Iain,” Ava was looking at her brother desperately. “It was terrible.”
“I disagree,” Kerrik eyed her evenly. “None of my harem did anything terrible to Iain. They did exactly what I told them to do until he got good enough to begin preventing them from doing it to him. The fact that he might have felt it was terrible didn’t really mean it was. You will learn to keep them from doing these things to you too.”
“Is this really necessary,” Kasserine asked.
“Absolutely.” Kerrik’s ears flicked. “You three were trapped inside a mental simulation for ten years because Ava lost control of her powers. If Marguerite hadn’t rescued you, I would be trying to figure out how to rescue you instead of having this conversation. If I couldn’t do that, I would have lost my mother, my sister and a close friend. I have only one mother and one sister and I don’t really have that many friends. If you had continued your studies during that simulation there is a likelihood of sixty four percent that one of you, probably Iain, would have realized what was going on. If the simulation had continued for another five years and your studies had continued, that probability would have reached eighty two percent. I don’t care if you are bewitched, pregnant, lost somewhere in time and space or anything else. You must always practice your magic and you must always study. All of us must and it must become an ingrained habit. Iain already has that habit and you will get it whether you like it or not.” He looked at Iain. “Did you practice while you were in the simulation?”
“I did metal exercises and whatnot while out hunting or gathering and worked with my book when I had the chance.”
“If you’d done studies of any sort with these two, you or maybe Mother would have realized that the simulation didn’t completely obey the laws of physics or science and gotten curious. Ava was maintaining the logic of the simulation and her education in those still needs a lot of work.”
Iain blinked. “You’re right.”
“I know.” He looked at his sister. “You are impulsive and, while not lazy, are willing to let things slide if they’re not important to you at the moment. Part of my job as your teacher is to find out what motivates you to decide that your truewizardry is vitally important all of the time. I’ve been very good at doing that with my previous students and neither you nor mother will make me fail this time either.”
Ava swallowed hard. “You’re scaring me.”
Kerrik smiled thinly. “If that motivates you, good. If it doesn’t motivate you, work through it.” His eyes flicked to the clock on the wall. “Now I have to be in Dallas in half an hour so I’m going to have to cut this short. So,” he said as he rose, “I’ll see you again tomorrow for lessons.”
A few minutes later found them with Ganieda and Canaan. Ava sighed. “Kerrik isn’t punishing me, is he?”
“No, but he was serious,” Iain looked at Ganieda. “You and Canaan please take us to the Sabine house.”
“You’re supposed to be with April in an hour,” Ganieda noted.
“I will be, but first I need to show these two something. We will be going to the Theodora and we’ll be back in twenty minutes.”
“I’ll be waiting,” Ganieda said to him as they teleported to the ranch. Canaan appeared with Kasserine and Ava as she let him go. “Whatever you’re planning to do, don’t fuck with April right now.”
“I am too smart to think I can,” Iain watched her and Canaan leave. “Let’s go, ladies.”
A few minutes later they were on the ship and Iain turned to them. “Did you promise Kerrik to study?”
Kasserine nodded. “He insisted, so we promised him to never stop our studies.”
“I want you to make the same promise to me. That way I’ll know about it and I can use it as a goad when you slack off or try to distract me.” He eyed both of them. “Without that promise, I won’t try anything extraordinary to help you avoid tomorrow’s appointment with Raven and we can just go back to Earth.”
“I realize now, and even more so than when I made this promise to my son,” Kasserine said, “that I must progress in my studies constantly or I risk harming those that I care for and those who have done nothing to me. I promise to be diligent in those studies and to always make time to pursue them, and that promise is to last for the rest of my life.”
Iain nodded. “Ava?”
“What can you do to help us?”
He raised an eyebrow. “I’ll have your promise first before I explain anything.”
Ava scowled. “I promise.”
“Say the words.”
She sighed and repeated Kasserine’s words to him. “Now, tell us how you can help us. Is it some new offensive spell?”
Iain chuckled. “You know much more offensive magic than I do. Now, understand that I’m not going to threaten you like Kerrik did. You did promise me and I intend to hold you to that. If I find you’re not doing what you said you would, I’ll politely remind you about your promise a few times, but after that I’ll stop helping you. I have my own studies and I won’t waste my time trying to figure out how to bring you up to speed again if you don’t buckle down. You’ll find that you will come to enjoy your studies and you’ll become a lot more self-motivating after a certain point, but you’ve got a few years before you reach that crest. Until then it’s still kind of an uphill slog.”
“I understand,” Kasserine said solemnly. “Can you help us?”
“I think so. I make regular visits to the pressurized stations we have throughout the solar system. It’s part of the program I instituted where I can pretend I have a clue as to the magnitude of what Daya and Theodora are doing. I want that because they’re doing it in my name. That and I like space. For you two, what’s important is that I was last on the Titan station a month ago and nobody has been there since.”
Ava looked skeptical. “Why is that important?”
“Because, now that I have your promise, we’re going to cheat. We’re going to shadow walk to the Titan station right after my last visit and spend the next month in focused study. I believe that if you are suitably motivated and focused, in that month you can make the kind of progress that a decade of lackadaisical study would give you. We’ll return to here and now when we’re done.” He looked seriously at them. “It isn’t going to be fun. It’ll be sixteen to twenty plus hour days of hard study every day. Every four days we’ll take a day and do physical conditioning and that will be our break. Instead of resting, Theodora will manage our resting time while we sleep or reverie in healing machines so our bodies and minds are rested and ready to go the next day. If anyone even suggests we take a day off to carouse or lay around, I will end the training, we’ll return and you can take your chances with Raven.”
“Do you do this often,” Kasserine asked him.
“I do not. If you tell anyone about this, I’ll probably never be able to do it again, either.”
“As far as we’ll know,” Ava said with a smile.
“And that proves you can be as smart as your mother. Do you want to do this?”
“I do,” Kasserine said. “Why are you doing this?”
“You are my wife. Ava’s my wife too and both of you are clan. Clan is always about us versus them and I will help my family to avoid being harmed by outlanders or people from a different clan. The fact that I love you both just makes me more willing to do this.”
Ava grabbed his hand. “What do we do?”
Iain took Kasserine’s hand with his free one. “Trust me. Step when I tell you to and don’t let go until I tell you that you can. We will have to travel through at least one universe before we get to the Titan station, and no matter what happens you do not let go. I will get us away from something if it’s scary or dangerous and we can always come back later if it’s very interesting.” He smiled at them both. “Now, step.”
Ninhursag Grey - Elfqueen & Maharani
Allison – Umbrea & Maharani Executive Officer
Eve Grey - Megami Sama
April Grey - Duelist & Beta
Silver – Pegaslut & Beta Executive Officer
Dominique Grey - Blessed Archmage
Pandora - Fiendish Archangel
Canaan - G Splice (Hunter Amachamp & Alaka-Wham)
Zareen - Nightmare
Raquel - Fiendish Rapitaur
Sofia - Ria
Vanessa – Evangelion
Lucifer – Megami Sama
Ganieda – Snugglebunny Splice
Heather - Elfqueen
Dianthus Barbatus – Elfqueen
Marguerite - Unicorn
Daphne - Whorizard
Lynn – Dire Wolf
Chuck – Wolf Queen
Ryan – Unicorn
Winifred - Rack (German)
Rosemary - Mistoffeles (Uruguayan)
Joyce – Milktit
Irena – Sanctuary Goth
Scheherazade – Dread Wolf
Melanie – Iron Chef
Siobhan – Nurse Joy (Glasgow)
Golden Cloud – equine unicorn
Arianrhod -Fey Goblin Female
74 male Goblins
89 female Goblins
Queendom / Outer Harem
Dionne - Elfqueen
Adrianna - Elfqueen
Heltu - Wet Queen
14 Wet Elves
Dead Harem (22)
Eirian - Silver Dragoness
Aurum - Gold Dragoness
Skye - Blue Dragoness
Emerald - Green Dragoness
Beryl - Red Dragoness
Julia - human
Ling - Cheetit
Matilda - White Tigress
Liadan - Twau
Sorrel - Armsmistress
Natalie - Blazicunt
Maria – Slutton
Rhea Silvia – Chimera
Geraldine – Human analog of Iain
Alabaster – Dragoness (white)
Onyx – Dragoness (black)
Lapis – Dragoness (blue)
Garnet – Dragoness (red)
Iolite – Dragoness (purple)
Malachite – Dragoness (green with white swirls)
Dabria – Dark Queen
Omisha – Demoness
Mother s & Children