The dreams were back.
The stitch knitting her side, the icy flare in her lungs, the lead weights in her legs, and of course, the maniacal squalls behind her – they were all back, and so real Aislin doubted she was dreaming. She tore through the black expanse before her, as the voices grew louder and louder:
Rip her limb from limb!
Crush her throat between our jaws!
Gouge out and eat her heart!
Save our people from the Cataclys!
Kill her…Kill her…Kill her!
Aislin dared not look back, though every fiber in her body wanted to check the distance between her back and their claws. Now that she knew these monsters were draconians, the thought of looking back paralyzed her internally. What if Juniper was back there? What if Jerran was there? What would that mean?
It at least explained why he hadn’t appeared yet to help her. She vehemently wondered at Jerran’s whereabouts, but he still hadn’t shown. And wasn’t he always supposed to be close by? That was his promise, wasn’t it? So how was he supposed to protect her if he didn’t even show up when she needed him most?
Her legs finally dragged Aislin, panting, to her knees. This was it. She was going to die. She couldn’t run anymore, couldn’t even stand up.
But it was then the black expanse opened ajar, revealing a narrow passage before her. Stone bricks tinged with red constituted the walls of the passage, and though the path appeared incomprehensibly long, Aislin thought she saw a light at the end.
She had no time to lose – the wingbeats and stampede of the hunting draconians resounded louder and louder the longer she idled. She dove into the passage, and just in time. Clawed hands and spined arms groped after her as she crawled away, and with her back to one side, she edged along sideways, leaving the clamoring monsters behind her.
The passageway still echoed with their dull roars as Aislin inched down the passageway, and just as she thought, the light at the end didn’t appear to be coming any closer. She stopped to catch her breath, and even managed to look back down the passageway. The sounds still echoed, but darkness shrouded the other end of the narrow corridor. Aisin looked up, hoping for some respite, or even a sign of incoming help, but the same darkness veiled the sky. She saw no monsters flying above, and she certainly didn’t hear them, either.
She sighed in relief. No immediate help was on the way, but at least she was safe. Maybe she could wait for Jerran here, or maybe even Juniper, or, Sei forbid, Sealiah?
But the more Aislin listened to her own rushed breathing and pounding heart, as well as the clamor reverberating down the passageway, the more she fidgeted. She soon began sidling her way down the corridor again, the light ahead inviting her to continue. Her imagination conjured up hopeful images of the light’s source: Dad’s forge, Jerran’s fire, Sealiah’s sword… This was a dream, after all, right? That meant she had some amount of control over it? Maybe the stone bricks were the walls to home, and she just had to pass through a long, long test in order to get there.
Finally, the light grew nearer, and as Aislin made the final push to it, she emerged into a larger chamber, a meeting room of some form. She nearly ran into one of the pillars surrounding the center, but instead used her momentum to plaster herself firmly behind it. Aislin spied a large circular table at the center, but even before she could examine, she found herself wary of the figure standing next to it.
Hooded, and with his back to Aislin, the figure appeared to meditate at something he saw in the table. He spoke just as Aislin thought to creep around to investigate. “So…an Origin Theory.” It was a young man, not much older than Aislin, she guessed. “And you’re certain of this?”
“The Lessers can be a little dull sometimes,” a voice responded, “but I have a half-dead bronze here, okay?” Aislin thought on the voice a moment. Female, and strangely familiar, it was a voice Aislin recalled as the source of much rebuke – Eurami. Aislin shrank even more behind the pillar, hoping Eurami couldn’t somehow sense her through the table. “I told you I’d need at least a platoon in order to drag little Mailera home. Not even one of the Primal recon squads could do it.”
The young man at the table sighed. “I’m starting to think it’s a bad idea in general to try forcing the Ranger to do anything. That’s how it was the last time…”
“You mean wait for him to go back to Sephone? Ezel will get his grubby paws around him before I do!”
“But Eurami, your main concern is the new Cataclys, isn’t it?”
“Oh don’t worry, I’m working on that right now. They found my deserter, you see. He was assigned to my dear little sister back in the day. A sorry concoction, really; he’s lost his edge since, but if anyone knows where Aislin’s hiding, he would. He could at least sniff her out, I’m sure.”
“But I do worry!” the young man replied. “I don’t know what you’re going to do if you find Aislin, and I don’t want you to hurt her!”
“I won’t, I won’t; Fu’s blazes, would you shut up and stop whining? The last thing I need to deal with is you doing your sob-story crybaby thing again. But at least tell me you have an idea of what to do with Order Arcana?”
The young man sighed. “With Priestess and Ranger giving us so much trouble, we’ll have to focus more on the other members. I won’t repeat the same mistake I made so many years ago…”
“Right, you keep crying about your past again, okay? I have some hunting to do.”
The glow at the table died down, dowsing the chamber with dim torch lighting.
Aislin refused to move. Was this still a dream? Who was this young man? Would he notice her if she moved?
He appeared to rub the surface of the table. “Origin Theory…” he mumbled. “You just can’t leave me alone, can you, Sister Azariah? You and Aelec.” He sighed again. “But it’s not going to work. I mastered Origin Theory, you see. So…you can’t use it to stop me this time.”
For a young man, he really talked a lot to himself. Aislin wasn’t sure what “Origin Theory” meant, but she did recognize Azariah’s name. Aelec was also a member of the 13th Order Arcana, and served as the Dark Ranger during Azariah’s time. But what was this talk about stopping this young man “again”? Azariah and Aelec, along with the 13th Order Arcana, were 2000 years ago!
Maybe the stress had finally gotten to her, so her dreams were trying to make sense of the whole mess. The mind did that, didn’t it? It conjured up new characters and familiar voices, then constructed some link between everything to quiet the dissonance. If that were the case, the answers Aislin witnessed most likely had no value, but she also couldn’t deny her interest. The young man appeared to be absorbed in his own thoughts, so with a deep breath, Aislin crept out from behind the pillar.
Immediately, the young man at the table whirled around. “Who’s there?”
Aislin froze in place, unsure of what to do as the hooded figure stared straight at her. This is a dream, Aislin told herself, this is a dream and there is no way any of this is real. I am a fragment of a dream, I’m not actually here, nothing could possibly go wrong…Right?
The hooded figure raised both of his hands, indicating peace. He inched slowly toward Aislin. “A…A dream projection?” he whispered, incredulous. “So…So it’s you? Is it really you? I finally…guided you here?”
Aislin edged back, considering wedging herself in the narrow passageway again.
“No, no, don’t be scared! Here, I’ll light this chamber up again!” He stepped back and pressed his hands together. Light sparkled between his palms, and with a sweeping arc of his hands, the fires upon the walls curled into orbs of bright light. A warm radiance soon washed the walls, and as Aislin stared in awe, the young man sighed in relief. “It’s amazing how a little light can affect a person.”
She could still hear her heart hammering, but after glancing around again, Aislin gathered her nerve to speak. “What is this place?” She swallowed and pressed her fingers to her throat. Her voice sounded hollow, and echoed.
“My chamber,” the young man replied. “It’s…It’s the place where I belong.” He trailed off and leaned toward Aislin. “Can…Can I ask? How did you find this place?”
Aislin shook her head. “I don’t know how I got here, I really don’t. I was sleeping, in a nightmare with monsters chasing me, and when I thought I couldn’t go on anymore, a small passageway opened, and I followed it, and, came out here. I can even show you the passage! It was…” She turned to point out the opening, only to face solid wall. “It was just behind this pillar, I swear!”
“D-Don’t worry! I believe you! Really, I do.” He shuddered and raised his hands to his face. “But…I can’t believe this. You said you were dreaming? I must be dreaming.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because I’ve been waiting for you! I’ve been waiting for you for so long, it’s…it’s really rather overwhelming! I-I-I’ve been trying to make contact with you, but you’ve been shrouded so well, I just couldn’t…” He breathed again, excitement making his voice tremble. “Aislin. Your name is Aislin, right?”
Aislin gazed at the hooded man askance. “You know that through Eurami.”
“Yes, but, please, don’t be suspicious! She’s just…an acquaintance! A means to an end!”
“You’re not…very good at persuasion, are you? Eurami’s not fond of my existence, you know.”
The young man sighed in exasperation. “You have to believe me!” he said. “I’m your brother, Aislin, your twin brother! Of course, we’re a couple thousand years apart, but from the gods’ perspectives, it’s only a couple minutes! Really!”
Aislin wanted the dream to end. Now. She turned to the wall, looking for the passageway she came through. Jerran calling her the Cataclys was enough. She didn’t want to figure out how she could possibly be related to someone claiming to be “a couple thousand years” older than her. And this was a dream. Anything Aislin witnessed in the dream was just another confusing mess.
“Wait, Aislin, please!” He finally ripped off his hood. “See? See? You have to believe me!”
Wary and skeptical, Aislin glanced back.
It was like looking in a mirror.
He needed a trim, and he definitely had not seen sunlight in a while, but they reflected Aislin’s own features. And the eyes, too: tired, yes, but they were red, the same crimson as Aislin’s eyes. They really were remarkably similar, and he claimed to be her older twin brother. But were those similarities really enough evidence? Aislin shook her head in disbelief and backed into the wall. “I’m an only child,” she said, trembling. “I…I don’t have a twin. My closest sibling is only half-related to me, and she wants me dead!” Yes, that’s right, Eurami was still in this picture somewhere. She had to be pulling the strings. “You’re associated with her. Why should I believe anything you say?”
He covered his face with his hands, which, Aislin saw in the light, sported tattoos of rune circles on his palms and behind. “I know,” he murmured sorrowfully. “I know, it’s too difficult to believe me, even less to trust me. But we’re the same.” He dropped his hands and smiled. “We’re really the same, Aislin.”
This is a dream, Aislin told herself. I can wake up from this at any time. So maybe, giving this person a chance wasn’t such a bad idea. She sighed, and played along. “So…what should I call you?”
He showed her to the central table as he replied, “Zerenas. A mother I don’t know gave me that name. Do you know yours?”
Aislin shook her head. “I feel like I should, but I can’t remember. I don’t remember much from my childhood, really, and Jerran won’t tell me anything.” She sighed again, rubbing her eyes. “Surely we have different mothers. We can’t be twins.”
Zerenas cocked his head to one side. “It depends on perspective, really.” He laid a hand on the elevated circumference of the table. “It starts with what’s on this table. Take a look.”
“Well, there’s a mirror,” Aislin started. “And there’s a white dragon on the left side. On the right side’s a black dragon.” She paused and glanced between the two dragons. “Their colors are inverted for their eyes. So these two are…”
Zerenas nodded. “The Traveler and the Shepherd, Sei and Fu, respectively. A lot of things started with them. The formation of this world, the Archsages, magic, life, Order Arcana…but namely, the two of us.”
Aislin frowned. “They were twins, though, and they fought all the time.”
“But they did make a truce. Supposedly, there came a time when both were too weary of fighting to continue. Per their natures, however, they clashed even in their sleep. So to protect themselves, they created guardians: the manaketes and the draconians. Much like the ongoing stalemate between the twins, the battle and relationship between the manaketes and draconians would always be a hateful stalemate.”
Zerenas raised a finger. “But say, for instance, a manakete and a draconian overcame their differences? They realized they had more similarities than differences, and came to accept their differences as unique aesthetics? And, what if, that same manakete and draconian happened to…fall in love?”
“Well, neither population would condone the union.”
“That’s a start, yes. But let’s say the dissenters have no effect. The manakete and the draconian unite, and have a child.” Zerenas tapped the table. “You see? The manaketes are descendants of Sei, while the draconians are descendants of Fu. That child, by extension, is a descendant of the gods. And it’s a truly remarkable child, too! It’s born as a human, but can, first of all, understand the languages of the dragons. It can learn and excel at magic like the manaketes, which the draconians have no hope of doing. And it can excel with weaponry as well, much like the draconians. That child can choose what path it wants to take, and ultimately, choose which of the gods it wants to take in.”
Aislin blinked and shook her head. “What?”
“That’s the Cataclys.” Zerenas smiled. “Or at least, what it means to be Cataclys. The Cataclys is a descendant of the Astral Twins, born between a manakete and a draconian. Both races fear the Cataclys, you see, because it has the capability to summon one of the gods into its body. In other words, the Cataclys is a vessel of the Twins, and it can choose which Twin it wants to ally itself with.
“And there’s only way to tell who’s the Cataclys.” He tapped at Aislin’s cheek. “The eyes, Aislin. Red eyes mark the Cataclys. Red is the same color of old, dying stars. It’s a color that signals a new beginning approaching. And people are afraid of that huge of a change.”
Aislin, still disbelieving, pushed Zerenas’s hand away. “That doesn’t make sense! That means my parents were…and you! You were the same!”
Zerenas nodded. “My parents were a manakete and a draconian.”
“Why, after two thousand years, have I not become a vessel yet? And how did I survive those years? In regards to the second question, I…” He rubbed the back of one of his tattooed hands. “…have my ways. And then the first question – I…failed, the last time. Before I could make my decision, the gods went back to sleep. I thought I wouldn’t have another chance.”
“I’m guessing that’s where I come in?” Aislin crossed her arms. “Jerran did say I’d have to stop the war. So by becoming a vessel for one of the Twins, I can do that?”
“You can stop the Rift War and even change the entire world in a heartbeat. One little decision, Aislin, and we can change everything. We can create places where we belong.”
Aislin gazed at the mirror. She and Zerenas really did look like twins. And creating a place to belong, after so much confusion…That sounded nice. “Is that what you wanted to do when you became a vessel?”
“It’s what I’m going to do,” Zerenas replied. “I haven’t given up on that. But it’s going to take some time before Sei and Fu awaken again.” He turned to Aislin. “So…I need your help.”
Doubts came flooding back again. “But you’re working with Eurami! You were talking about ‘taking care’ of Order Arcana, and I doubt you meant that in any positive way!”
Zerenas shook his head. “That’s…that’s really just…a means to an end. I can keep Eurami off of you, I promise, and, your guardian too. Jerran, was it? I can try to convince Eurami to keep him alive as well, but I think there’s something personal there. You though…” He pressed his hands on Aislin’s shoulders. “You’re my twin sister. I can keep you safe.”
Aislin’s grip on the table’s edge tightened. “This is just a dream,” she muttered through gritted teeth. “I’ve just been so tired lately. My mind is just imagining things to make it all better.”
“You came here in a dream,” Zerenas agreed, “but the two of us, meeting here, that’s not a dream! I’m real, I guided you here! Just imagine all the things we can do together as Cataclyses! The confusion, the exhaustion you’re feeling – we can make those go away if we work together! You see, don’t you? We’re brother and sister. We’re twins.” He touched his forehead to Aislin’s. “We belong together, Aislin.”
The embrace Zerenas gave Aislin then was the embrace of seeing a lost family member after many years of separation. It was a promise to never let go.
“We can create a world where the two of us belong,” Zerenas continued. “I just need your help, okay?”
“I’ll…” Aislin clutched at Zerenas’s robes. It was so nice to be surrounded by family again. “…I’ll do what I can.”
“I still can’t quite pinpoint your exact location,” Zerenas whispered. “But I promise, we’ll see each other here, again.” They reluctantly pulled back from each other. “For now, be careful. When you wake up, Eurami might be nearby. I’ll work to st—!”
A thunderous crash split through the dream. Aislin bolted up from bed, just as Juniper rushed through the door. A fire outside the window illuminated his frightened features as he panted, “She’s here!