Chapter 6: Collection
One heavy, wooden door creaked open as soon as they hit the threshold. Not surprising. Collection in Empyrean was always scheduled, same time, all the time—a stipulation in the treaty. Unscheduled visits to Empyrean were forbidden, and if some idiot rogue Protector thought to go against the rules, Teenesee would make short work of the intruder, keeping the energy as penalty.
The punishment didn’t hurt the lawbreaker, not really. Yes, death happened. But death wasn’t the end, was it? No, the maleficence only pissed off the Synod. Losing unplanned energy to the next strongest world never boded well, hence the ever-present threat of authority tracking down wayward Exemplians not willing to follow protocol. Hell, the risk of Winston Candell on one’s ass usually created enough of a deterrent. The authority captain enjoyed a fair amount of respect, mostly due to fear.
But none of that mattered now, not today. Today, at this exact time, Teenesee expected them.
Tarek chanced a look at Lena, her face now pale and bottom lip trembling. “Breathe, Lena. Just breathe.”
She inhaled deep, exhaling slowly. “I don’t want to lie.”
“Shh…” Tarek clenched her hand tighter. “Don’t say that, not here.”
Walls had ears, despite the illusion of privacy.
But no one met them as they navigated corridor after corridor. A welcoming party wasn’t necessary; Tarek knew the way. Only one room in this cavernous place, with its buoyant marble floors and opulent red silk wallcoverings, could Exemplian collectors go. Anywhere else ventured—a wrong turn or attempt to explore the mysterious Warden’s keep—and those ears hiding behind walls turned into weapons held by Empyrean’s military.
Tarek had no plans to explore, now more than ever. In and out operation, no deviations. Lying to someone whom he respected tasted bitter, coating his mouth with acid, and he wanted nothing more than to get it over with as quickly as possible. But he’d do it—to keep them alive, he’d say whatever it took. If only Lena had the same outlook on self-preservation.
They passed bust after pedestaled bust of important figures, an homage to those Teenesee and her people held in high esteem. Centuries upon centuries of history revered here, nothing like Exemplar, where only the future counted. As their boot soles thudded against the sleek floor, Lena stumbled while adjusting to walking through a structure suspended in air and taking in the décor at the same time. Tarek steadied her, still quiet, afraid any sound would activate Lena’s conscience, make her say something that would get them both killed.
Fucking Cassondra. The woman knew exactly what she was doing, giving them this assignment. A clear message to Lena: stay out of Synod affairs, stop prying, or face consequences.
A woman that dangerous, running one of the most important branches in the Synod—unbelievable was all he could come up with.
Finally, the blue door appeared. A blue that didn’t resemble the sky, but a bruise, mottled and distorted. The only bruised door in the entire home as far as Tarek understood. And behind that door would be the Warden, more than likely one or both of her daughters, and a cot. Nothing more. In a keep with huge, arched windows allowing the breeze to waft in and polished history everywhere eyes landed, the room was a misfit. A prison-like place with no windows and no color—except the blue door.
He stopped and pulled Lena to his side. Deep breath. Another. He didn’t want to knock. More than anything, he didn’t want his knuckles connecting with the blue. Sweat dribbled from his hairline and traced down the sides of his face. Lena’s hand turned clammy in his, her fingers shaking despite the determined set of her jaw and unwavering gaze. But, they could do this. They could. And when they made it home, he’d go to the elders himself, file a complaint, do something.
“All right,” he said, as much to himself as to Lena. “This shouldn’t be too hard, the easiest collection you’ll ever have, actually.”
“Understood.” Lena’s tongue darted out, wetting her cracked lips, her eyes glued to the oppressive door. “Knock, would you? I don’t think I can.”
He lifted his free hand. One rap against the door. Two more.
Quiet shuffling answered, followed by the door giving way to a dim room. The woman who answered wasn’t Teenesee. No, she was the gorgeous younger version of the Warden. Calian, her eldest daughter. Sleek red hair, smooth ebony skin that begged to be touched, and eyes that glittered topaz.
Surprise brightened her face, the sneer twisting her lips transforming to a beaming light. “Tarek!” Calian said in Empyrean, bowing her head and hiding her smile. “It has been years. Decades.”
Lena stiffened beside him. Her language translator implant seemed in fine working order. Unfortunately.
Tarek swallowed, trying for professionalism he couldn’t quite muster. “I’ve been Paired again.”
He had all but forgotten the woman’s…fondness for him, the threat to Lena superseding anything else. The attention used to flatter him when he had come here with Roderick, and he even considered acting on the temptation a time or two. Calian was older than he was by centuries, and no doubt knew her way around a man. But the Warden would’ve had his head. Death didn’t scare him much then, but Teenesee’s respect meant more than a tryst with her heir.
Now, looking at Calian’s iridescent face, simmering with sex and promise, all Tarek worried about was how Lena reacted to the woman’s attention.
Did she care? Did she even notice?
“Come in, Protector. Let us be done with this.” Teenesee spoke from the shadows, her lyrical voice as hypnotizing as her face—in the most literal sense possible. All Wardens had particular abilities, and Teenesee’s happened to be heightening her beauty. When threatened or in battle, she transformed to an irresistible, dangerous foe. No chance to fight back if you couldn’t function beyond a drooling, doting idiot.
Thankfully, the Warden kept her weapon under wraps today, her beauty only mildly paralyzing. Tarek sighed, relieved. At least now he wouldn’t embarrass himself by acting like a slobbering twit—not counting his awkward exchange with Calian.
Saving him from any more small talk, Teenesee’s voice interrupted Calian’s appreciative assessment of him. She stumbled to her mother’s side; her eyes apparently not yet finished taking him in.
Tarek bit the inside of his cheek to hold in a groan, especially when Lena jabbed a subtle elbow to his side. She did notice. And her noticing made him ecstatic and ashamed at the same time. How to explain to her nothing happened without explaining why it was so important for him to explain it to her?
He would, though. Tell her about this part of his forgotten past—when they returned home. Lena could yell and accuse all she wanted, and in the deep recesses of his twisted mind, he hoped she would scream and fight. Show she didn’t like the woman’s appraisal of him. As selfish and backward as it was, he wanted her to hate it.
Tarek moved forward, tugging Lena with him. He craned his neck to meet Teenesee’s gaze, her frame towering over his six and a half feet of height. “It’s good to see you again, Warden.”
Teenesee didn’t recognize his greeting, letting him know loud and clear she didn’t feel the same. Instead, she scrutinized Lena, actual curiosity gleaming in her jeweled eyes. No one spoke while she evaluated Lena like cattle. Finally, she said, “You are new, are you not? Young.”
Lena moved ahead of Tarek, her hands folded demurely in front of her. “I am, Warden. And thank you, for your generosity. I…I am honored to meet you.” She swallowed, and spit out, “As well as your daughter.”
Teenesee remained quiet.
Seconds passed. Hours.
If the deafening silence went on any longer, Lena would crack, and Teenesee would kill them. As appealing as a life here sounded, since knowing Lena, Tarek had no plans to live without her—now or during any life after this one.
He dipped his foot into the tension bunching inside the room. “This will be my Guide’s first collection, but I assure you that your people are in capable hands.” Only a half-lie, Lena was capable.
“I shall hope so.” The Warden nodded once to Calian. “Leave us, my daughter. I’ll not have you distracting this Guide’s Protector during her first time.”
Heat traveled up his spine and scorched his cheeks as Calian smiled softly at him on the way to the door. Before she left, she brushed a hand across his forearm. “I hope to see more of you.” Her gaze slipped to the fuming Lena, whose lips thinned to disappearing. “Now that you’ve been Paired again.”
“Ah…yes… I… Yes.” Not smooth, but he never claimed to be.
Once she left, Teenesee gestured toward the cot, a bland, uncomfortable contraption Guides complained about after a collection trip there. Most believed the rickety bed was a silent message from the Warden, a metaphor for Exemplar’s intrusion into her world: uncomfortable and unwelcome. “Please, Guide, make yourself ready.”
Lena moved forward, her hand out and back straight. “Lena. My name’s Lena Mi, and I promise… I…”
No, Lena, don’t. Tarek’s hand went to his side, where he holstered a taser on his hip. It wouldn’t do much, but hopefully it would stun the Warden enough to get Lena the hell out of there.
“I don’t like collection, either,” Lena finally said in Empyrean, her outstretched hand beginning to tremble. “I don’t know what else to say but that.”
Teenesee tilted her head and crossed her arms, a slight curve lifting her mouth. Was that respect on the woman’s face? Tarek wouldn’t know; he’d never seen it before. Not toward him, and not toward Roderick.
The Warden unfurled her arms and actually clasped Lena’s hand. “I admire your candor…Lena Mi.”
Tarek’s grip loosened on his weapon and his knees threatened to give. Now, if Lena would just leave it at that. Please leave it alone.
Lena pumped the woman’s hand a few more times, her mouth opening and clamping shut again. Tarek knew her well enough by now; she wanted to tell Teenesee, admit their intended plans. If she did, there’d be nothing left to do but beg the Warden to show mercy, see reason as they had to see it. Cassondra tied everyone’s hands, one person with a secret agenda and apathy enough to turn her back on the entire human race to realize her goal.
Without another word—miraculously—Lena released Teenesee’s hand and lay supine on the cot, just as she had done a thousand times over in training. Her robes fluttered over the side, the bright white of the fabric making her look both ethereal and vulnerable.
As if a sort of feral instinct commanded it, Tarek rushed over to stand at the end of the cot with his hands resting at his sides, one near his taser. The precaution wasn’t necessary in a routine collection in Empyrean, but that didn’t concern him.
Teenesee glanced in his direction and raised a brow as she stood at the other end of the cot. He ignored her inquisitiveness to focus on his Guide. “Take your time, slow breaths, imagine your center…”
He crooned the same words again and again as Lena evened her breathing, her hands folded over her abdomen. Cassondra was right about one thing: Lena was a natural.
Her light slipped from her gaping mouth, its green luster animating the dingy cell of a room. Guides in their energy form captivated him before, but Lena’s glow, the very essence of her, mesmerized him every time he had the fortune to stand in the same space. This was privilege at its best.
Teenesee held her now-luminous palm over Lena’s body, which still pumped oxygen and blood and life as if on mechanical support. “Come, take your life,” Teenesee said to Lena’s energy.
And even though Lena couldn’t respond, she heard.
I’m scared, Tarek.
Advantage of Pairing: Lena could use telepathy with him in this form. Regrettably, he had to speak aloud. Some Protectors had telepathic ability and more, like Winston. But not him.
He wet his dry lips. “Don’t be. I’ll be right here.” He refused to look in Teenesee’s direction as he spoke.
Lena hovered just above the Warden’s radiant palm, staying inches from her. All Lena had to do was touch the woman’s flesh with her light, absorb the lives she reluctantly gave, and zip out of here. It’d only take minutes for Lena to distribute; she just had to collect the damn energy.
You can do it. You can do it. You can do it.
He replayed the mantra in his mind, wishing it would transmit to her. But her green glow floated there, pulsating and hesitant.
“All is well, Lena Mi,” Teenesee said. “You must do what you must, and I shall do the same.”
The Warden’s coaxing helped, and Lena’s vacillating light finally bobbed to the proffered energy. As soon as the two orbs released from Teenesee’s hand, Lena’s energy expanded, the red and gold Empyrean glow turning her green to a rainbow of color. She didn’t falter again, and rocketed from the room—to give new lives to two people. One would become a “privileged” Exemplian once a rare pregnancy transpired. The other…the other would more than likely start a new life sooner in Andor, a life most certainly filled with fear and hate and pain.
Tarek held still, watching Lena’s chest rise up and down, holding his own breath. Just a few more minutes, and they’d be finished, with only the aftermath of guilt to handle. He could do that, as long as she was safe beside him to doing it, too.
“Your suit,” Teenesee said, interrupting his vigil. “Why do you leave in on in here? Do you not feel safe?”
Tarek didn’t miss the challenge in her voice. “Of course I do, Warden.”
“Then I’m afraid I do not understand.”
He didn’t answer right away, debating between truth and an empty excuse. Finally, he went with the former. “I promised her.”
Then, “She is different, is she not?” Teenesee’s voice, like music and honey, melted against his ears like a balm.
Different? Too small a word. All the colors, every one…
“Yes,” he said, his gaze remaining on Lena’s empty shell.
“And you love her.” It wasn’t a question.
But Tarek wanted to answer, a confessional of sorts. Admit a potentially sinful thought to a woman who cared nothing for the sinner. He nodded, and whispered, “Yes.” To say it aloud, admit it, made him light and heavy. Scared and so ridiculously exuberant.
“It is not hard to understand why, Protector. I have a feeling about her, this Guide.” A pause. “She may just change the universe.”
His head snapped up, surprise rippling down his spine, prickling his skin. Teenesee didn’t give two shits for Exemplians. And she never asked questions, never made predictions. “How do you mean?”
Teenesee smiled. She smiled! “Sometimes, one knows.” She smoothed the front of her emerald green tunic, hesitating as if debating her next words. And then she shocked him again—more than shocked him. “Bring her back soon, not to collect, but so I may speak with her.”
What? Never had Teenesee—What?
“I… I don’t know if—”
“Find a way.” She gestured to Lena’s body. “My intuition…it is never wrong.”
As soon as the words left her mouth, Lena’s light ripped into the room, gliding into her open mouth. She lay still. A moment went by, and a few more followed.
Tarek pushed Teenesee’s unexpected words to the back of his mind and moved from the end of the cot to sit on its edge, waiting.
As if a switch clicked, Lena’s eyes popped open and promptly filled with tears. A cry left her lips.
Cry, after cry, after cry.
Tarek gathered her in his arms, stroking her hair, whispering incoherent words in her ear, willing all of his strength to seep into her flesh. He rocked her, back and forth, ignoring the fact that a Warden stood in the room next to them. Lena’s reaction, it wasn’t normal. All of this… feeling.
Of course she was different, and the Warden saw it, just as he always had.
“Lena…” He nuzzled the top of her head, his arms cinching tighter with every sob she gave. Her pain was his pain—her fear was his fear. What happened? What happened to you? But he knew already. He knew.
“Please.” She gripped his forearms so tight her fingertips whitened. “Take me home, Tarek. Please take me home.”