“Morning, Maykal.” Her voice slides through the darkness and into my ears. I feel her sit on the side of my bed seconds before my eyelids drag open. Mom looks so youthful and carefree in her cardigan and beige corduroys. Her smooth olive skin and chocolate ombré hair seem to glow in the gray light of dawn dribbling through the window. My lusiere, nestled in a small white pot, is an azure and purple torch on the sill. “Your father’s whipping up breakfast.” She wraps her hand around mine, her mouth arranging itself into an easygoing smile. “Feeling okay?” I scoot myself up into sitting back against the headboard, check the bedside clock for the time (eight-thirty), brush my gaze over the Kasma sitting next to it on the tabletop. Currently a twenty-sided die, it glints in the light, a steely gray eye favoring me with a cold stare.Shifting my attention to look directly at Mom, I ask as calmly as possible, “Why do you keep coming around?” She blinks at me, maybe in bemusement. Instead of answering me, she counters, “When are you planning to see us?” “Today.” I press her hand; the warmth of her skin seeps up my forearm. “I’m sorry, it’s just that . . .” My words trail off. I want to tell her how much I treasure my time with her and Dad. How desperately I’ve clung to those moments like they’re nutrition packets I’m relying on to survive a trek between outposts on an ice planet. How exhausting it is to juggle the family I was born to with the family that’s presently caring for me. How agonizing it is to open my eyes and see through the phantoms I created. Most of all, I want to tell her how anxious I am to see her and Dad today, for real. Anxious in both senses of the word, nervous and eager. I know I should’ve done this earlier, but I couldn’t, I just couldn’t. Sidney and Penelope never pushed me, either. They know what a hard day this will be. “I gotta go,” I tell Mom, my tone shaded with sorrow. I lean forward to hug her. “I can’t wait to see you,” she says faintly. When I draw back, she’s not here anymore. I push away the Chameleons for Breakfast covers, swing my legs off the bed, plant my bare feet on the floor. My eyes drift around the room, then stop on the wood box displayed on top of the bookshelf—a spot once occupied by the Arka model of the Gollinger Park meadow where Sibrilich tore my family apart.After returning from the Welkin, I got debriefed and then . . . On the ride home, a part of me implored life to return to normal, tried to veil Penelope and Sidney in Mom and Dad’s apparitions. But I curbed those impulses, even as we entered the apartment, where the religious statuettes, the gold-and-blue print of Xies in her rainbow-feathered bird form, the cabinet stuffed with DVDs and videocassettes, tons of things from my old life—they coexisted with the table covered in Toppa figurines and various other trinkets beneath the far window, the paintings of Gollinger Park and the genderless figure hung above the bookcases, the ornamental prisms glittering up on the ceiling, the soothing yellow illumination spilling from the short black pipes attached to the walls.The room felt slightly off-kilter while I approached the table of baubles and laid eyes on a Kasma set as a coin. I used to have one of these. But I lost it some time ago, I told Sidney when I was at her place after she saved me from Brone’s ambush.I did lose Dad’s Kasma, in a way. Agony clawed my heart whenever I toyed with it, a souvenir of his absence. I almost threw it in the trash. Sidney stopped me. I don’t know if it was deliberate on my part afterward to let it fade from my consciousness like the last of the sunlight shrinking into the horizon. But when I returned home . . . it was strange to have two copies of the Kasma, one from Dad, one I picked up in the Welkin.That night I dismantled the Arka meadow. It reminded me of the poisonous illusions I used to trick myself into believing I was the architect of my world and I had the power to obliterate the darkness simply by denying its existence. It was a shrine to the grief I buried within my heart and the pain I inflicted on Sidney and Penelope. I didn’t want that, I had to let go, but I’ll never forget, I swear it. All the memories are precious. Now I have the lusiere on my windowsill and the box it came in atop the bookshelf.There are times when I wonder about the motives behind Gargant’s apparent generosity. Sidney and Penelope have asked me on separate occasions how I got the lusiere and I told them both I ran across it in the Welkin. I’m not certain either of them believe me fully, though they’d find it much harder to swallow the actual truth. Glancing at the Kasma on the nightstand (from the Welkin, Dad’s is still in the living room), I pick up my phone to check the newsfeed. It’s being overwhelmed by Sornis’s latest Walnut rant, which defends a twenty-year-old male Starsapien who shot dead three members of a Vermusk protest in Jem-7. Oh, how I love the news. As I stand up in my pale-blue T-shirt and boxers, making smacking noises as I realize just how horrible my gummy morning breath is, there’s a brisk knock-knock from the other side of the door. “Wy? Are you up yet?” Sidney. Inhaling in and out, I go up to the door, unlock it, and crack it ajar. She’s in the corridor wearing The Marty Gooseling Show-themed socks, plaid pajama bottoms, and a dusky purple wool sweater with a turtleneck collar, her blond hair plaited into a fishtail over her shoulder. A flush of heat wiggles in the pit of my stomach and I can’t stop myself from grinning at how absolutely beautiful she looks. “Morning,” we greet simultaneously. We chuckle together, then she asks, “What’s wrong with your mouth?” I don’t realize until now that I’ve been covering it with one hand. “Morning breath.” At the look I shoot down the hall when I hear Penelope talking in the distance, Sidney says, “She’s on the phone with Seris.” I flippantly roll my eyes. Penelope’s big on spending half the day chitchatting over the phone with Seris and the other half gushing about her to me and Sidney. They’re so joyful and cute all the time and it’s disgusting. “How are you feeling?” asks Sidney. She’s speaking carefully, as though afraid her words will shatter me. I shrug, keeping a hand over my mouth, my eyes trailing over the Choro-Cuffs encircling her wrists and the tattoos twined over her toned arms, and I’m trying to formulate a response when she continues, “Listen, if you’re not ready for this, we can put it off—” “No,” I say, watching her amethyst eyes consider me ruminatively, worriedly. I lower my own eyes to her pendant—a curio that was passed down from her mother. It’s funny how I keep recalling bits and pieces of Sidney as we go. It’s like we’re traipsing along the beach and every seashell and stone I pick up from the sand imbues me with another memory.“Breakfast will be ready.” She reaches for my raised hand, tugs it away from my mouth. I make no move to stop her from pulling me into an eager kiss, a gesture that still leaves me dizzy with pleasure.After she breaks the kiss with a nibble of my lower lip and pads back to the living room, I head across the hallway to the bathroom, glimpsing the closed door to her bedroom along the way. I look over my shoulder at my own room, where Penelope once slept before adopting me.Sometimes I think I fucked up by letting you steal my room, she’s told me from time to time with frivolous resentment. Makes sense, considering she’s the one who has to slumber on the living room sofa.I walk into the living room minutes later, having peed, brushed my teeth, yanked on a pair of sweatpants with the Olympus logo stitched on the hip, and slid the Kasma in my pocket. Sidney and Penelope are already at the dining table eating waffles; Sidney has generously topped hers with maple syrup and Penelope’s are loaded with elderberry jelly. Delben is busily hovering over a third place setting, covering my waffles in syrup and pouring me a cup of aurium tea.“Enjoy your breakfast!” Delben chirps at me, the purple eyes in her ovoid head lighting up expectantly. She zips off with a hum, then floats down into the armchair and settles into standby mode, her eyes dimming.“Eye booger,” Penelope says as I take my seat at the table. She points the handle end of her fork to the inside corner of her own left eye.I build a napkin and wipe my left eye.“No, your other eye.”After I clean the sleep out of my right eye, I let the napkin disappear with a flicker, then start in on my waffles and tea. Cutlery clinks and scrapes against the plates, mouths chew quietly, Penelope mutters an oath when a waffle chunk stumbles off her fork and into her lap. We’re still figuring out how to slip into a comfortable groove with each other in this new life.No, old life.And for the first time in a while, Penny’s letting her dark hair down into a messy ponytail, a good look for her. Her prall pin, instead of sitting on a bun, is affixed like a brooch to her black blouse, which is printed with tigon daisies. The metallic red prall looks like it’s perched on one of those daisies, patiently awaiting prey.When I ask how Seris is doing, Penelope replies, “Great. We were talking about, among other things, how fucking fun it is to take a fake phone call to ward off dickweasels who want to talk to you.”“Doesn’t work all the time,” I contribute. “They’ll stick around if they’re extremely desperate to socialize with you.”Sidney puts forth, “Even if they overhear you rambling over said fake phone call about how clearing out your inbox steadies your life into equilibrium?”“Especially.” This sets the tone for the rest of the meal. At one point Penelope complains about her knee feeling tense and I tell her, “You sure do sound knee-dy,” at the same time Sidney says, “No need to be so knee-dy.” The side of Sidney’s mouth edges up at me and I smile back. “You two, shut the actual fuck up,” Penelope remarks, eyebrows arched over her glasses. After we eat, Delben clears away the table and Penelope ducks into the bathroom (“No way am I pissing at the hospital.”) and I go back to my bedroom to shrug into my Olympus letter jacket, double-check the contents of my messenger bag to make sure I have what I need to bring today, loop the strap on my shoulder, and grab the Kasma off the nightstand and tuck it inside my jacket. With tender fingers I trace the shimmery petals of my lusiere for a breath, then turn to find Sidney propping herself on the doorjamb, arms folded together, taking me in with those bottomless eyes. For no particular reason a fuzzy memory of us exploring the sci-fi section of a bookstore while my parents and Penelope chat at the interior café nearby arises from the depths of my brain. “Do you—” She breaks herself off, chews on her cheek. “Do I what?” I prod. Her eyes flit sideways. “Why do you think she wanted to turn you into a Paladin?” My muscles tense as I remember the figure who strode into this room in her long ashen hooded robe, gloves ornamented with wood tokens, pale mask chased with a flower where the face should have been. It has to be her, it has to be. Last week I confided in Sidney this belief, though she’s known about Sibrilich for years. She was the only one who made me comfortable enough to talk about what happened at Gollinger Park. Not even Penelope knows the truth. “Your guess is as good as mine,” I respond, thinking privately, To carry out Gargant’s wishes. Since I haven’t revealed the part where Sibrilich serves the Grimhet-loving warlord, I don’t say that aloud. Despite everything that’s happened, even I realize how ridiculous it sounds. The faint line appearing between Sidney’s eyes says she has tons of questions dancing in her head. She seems to want to ask one of them but hesitates, scratches at the corner of her mouth, then steps through the door and draws me into a hug. Heat rising up my neck, I return the hug, close my eyes, feel my mouth lift into a smile and my heart tick against hers. “I love you,” she whispers, her lips inches away from my ear. I freeze on the spot. I can’t recall when she last said—No. She’s said it plenty of times. I simply haven’t listened. “I just need you to know that.” She cracks on the last word. The hand I’ve rested on my bag reflexively curls its fingers into the canvas. I’m about to find my voice, but I open my eyes and see Penelope standing in the corridor outside, her sharp features tight, eyes somber. I let go of Sidney and confusion flashes over her face before she twists around with a bit of a guilty look, as if Penelope caught us making out. “Ready?” Penelope says, motioning her head down the corridor. Minutes after saying our goodbyes to Delben and leaving the apartment, we’re cruising through the city in Penelope’s huge Maesse. Radio’s pulsing on the Alt Peak channel. I’m in the backseat with Sidney and I watch as she checks the feed on her phone, pauses on an article that features a mugshot of Augen underneath the headline DID CRIMSON CUBS KILL NOTORIOUS POB LORD?Three weeks ago, her body turned up at Gollinger Park. The news passed around photos of her lying in the grass, arms folded over her stomach, dressed in the velvety green coat and gray trousers she had on when I met her at Myrius. Her eyepatch was gone, baring the gaping pit in her face for all to see.I wasn’t shocked by this. What I felt instead was—Well, it’s like when you watch a movie that everyone’s been hyping up for months because it’s mind-blowing and life-changing, but it turns out to be mediocre and leaves you with an oddly dull emptiness. It doesn’t help that the media is throwing so much lurid attention at conspiracy theories about Augen’s murderer.The world is ill with misery . . . We’re all diseased with hate, apathy, prejudice.My jaw clenches. I don’t want to think about any of that right now. I touch Sidney’s hand, and she turns off her phone and laces her fingers with mine. When we come up to Galen Hospital, Penelope pulls off the road and parks in the adjacent garage. Edea pryn hits me with the memory of my last visit as we step out into the warm and leisurely weather, as we check in at the front desk and type our names into a guest sign-in tablet, as the admin hands each of us a guest’s badge.We go to the elevator bank and take one of the cars up through the hospital to the sixth floor, where we proceed to a wing on the other side of the building, stop at the locked doors at the end of a hall and wait for the scanner, a small black dome with an orange light like a pupil affixed to the right door, to approve our badges. With a chirp the doors slide open slowly, allowing us entrance into the psych ward. We cross through a lounge where patients watch a cooking show on the television or play board games, all stuck in a deeply drugged daze.A couple minutes pass before Sidney, Penelope, and I find Room 646 in the middle of a corridor that reeks of disinfectant and flowers. Through the halfway-open door, I see a wisp of a man lying on one of two beds, an equally thin-looking woman sitting in a wheelchair adjacent to the second bed and its messy sheets, an electronic board on the left wall displaying numerous endlessly looping digigraphs. Both of my parents are dressed in fresh sets of white pants and tunics. I hardly recognize them. The pressures of time and loneliness have severely eroded their souls and their bodies.“If you don’t want this . . .” Penelope tells me softly.I rub my lips together, appreciating the weight of Sidney’s hand when it comes to rest on my shoulder. “It’s okay,” I murmur, putting my palm flat on the door and pushing it open.I step over the threshold and into the room. Dad doesn’t even look my way, just lies there in bed and gawks with glassy eyes at the digigraph board opposite him. Across the room, however, Mom’s head snaps up, her gaze momentarily darts throughout the room before settling directly on me. She blinks once, twice, then motors out her wheelchair from around her bed, two fingers pressed down on one of several buttons in her armrest.“Is Maykal here yet?”The slow and brittle sound of her words digs claws through my heart. She lifts her fingers off the button and her wheelchair stops in front of me. She tilts back her neck to look up at me with a bizarre hopefulness that doesn’t distract me from the pinched lines in her unsettlingly wan face or the Augen-level stringiness of her hair. I glimpse the item in her lap—a golden eagle plushy with shiny black eyes, frayed strings coming apart along the hem of one wing, covered in a thin layer of gray grime. Mom gave it to me on my fourth birthday and I called it Eggy (I know, what a clever name). I gave it back to her on my last visit. I never thought she’d keep it after all this time.“He’ll be here soon,” I promise Mom. She beams and I have to resist the overwhelming urge to hug her.As she backs up her wheelchair and rotates it so she can absently scan the digigraph board, I glance over my shoulder at Penelope and Sidney, who have remained right outside the open door. I reassure them with an I-can-handle-this smile. Penelope touches Sidney’s elbow and motions her down the hallway.I turn back around, move into the empty space between the beds and build myself a chair so I can take a seat. Dad throws me the barest of glances as my cerulean light weaves itself together but otherwise doesn’t acknowledge me. It’s now dawning on me how torpid and fragile he looks. Gray threads sprayed over his temples, sunken cheeks, thick stubble dusted along his jaw, wrinkles assailing the skin around the pair of absolute voids that have replaced his once-vivid hazel eyes.Sourness burning the back of my throat, I dig my phone out of my bag. “Hey guys, I’m gonna play a song. Is that all right with you?” Without looking at me Dad raises his eyebrows slightly, though I can’t tell if that’s meant to be an answer. Mom hums tunelessly, her back to me as she keeps studying all the digigraphs. “Okay then,” I murmur. With a few swipes and taps I open the Euphony app, start Ilsa Rosior’s most popular song, and up the volume a few notches. Heart beating an anxious tattoo on my ribcage, I hold up the phone in front of me as though I’m taking a call on speakerphone. I can smell the orchids, even though they’re out of season. Almost immediately recognition glitters in Dad’s eyes and he sits up a little straighter and pulls his brow into a frown. I try to suppress the hope flickering deep within me, but then I hear the low whir and turn to watch Mom pivot her wheelchair and close the few feet of distance between us, her face luminous with jubilance.“I haven’t heard this in so long,” she recalls with such tenderness that my breath lodges in my chest.Don’t you want to unravel? sighs the rift inside me, the gash that refuses to heal over no matter how much I treat it.As more verses from “Delusive Eyes” float along Rosior’s silvery inflection, Dad’s lips curve up and he drums the fingers of his right hand on the blanket stretched over his legs. Pinky to thumb, thumb to pinky, over and over. A sharp hook jerks at my heart when he slides his gaze over to me, eyes brimming with warmth.“We used to listen to this all the time, Maykal,” he says.I nod absently as a deluge of emotions sweeps through me. One of my earliest memories is hearing “Delusive Eyes” for the first time at the age of two. My parents picked it as the accompaniment to their wedding dance. It holds such a special place in their hearts that it’s the only thing that can offer them a moment of lucidity. They’ll ignore everything else, but this song . . .“I’m sorry I’ve been gone for so long.”They exchange a funny look with each other, seeming to have picked up on something off in my low tone. I stare at the phone in my hand, its screen fading to black as the song plays on. I see Mom shake her head in my peripheral vision. She takes my empty hand, caresses the back of it with her thumb in slow and loving circles.“You have nothing to be sorry about.” I’m taken aback by the firmness in her voice.The song has about two minutes left, so I ignore the stinging in my eyes. In order to keep ahold of Mom, I put my phone in my lap, freeing up my other hand to reach into my bag for the gift I brought today: a round clear tub full of roseate and deep blue berries that I picked from Gollinger Park yesterday.“Oh Wy,” Dad says quietly. He takes the tub from me, places it in his lap, peels off the orange lid. He scoops out a smattering of berries and leans forward in bed to pass them to Mom and me, then collects another bunch for himself.While the three of us snack on our juicy fruits, the dreamlike quality of this event dimly hits me. We could be doing this at home. We could be going to the park or the beach. We could be any old family enjoying our lives and remaining blissfully incognizant of how rapidly our world can change.Sibrilich ruined all that. She ripped my family away from me and turned them into husks of their formerly vibrant selves. Anger ripples through me. I can’t listen to “Delusive Eyes” anymore unless it’s with them, otherwise I’ll fall apart. I can’t truly reunite with them, even as I’m sitting here with them. They’re only going to be steady for the next minute. I could restart the song, but I don’t think I can do that right now.After I mumble something about wanting to be home with them, Dad says, “Maykal.” I look up from my empty hand, having eaten my berries, and meet his magnetic gaze. “Have they given you a good home?”Penelope and Sidney. I nod without hesitation.“Then you’re in the right place,” Mom declares, brushing her warm fingers over my cheek.As the song wraps up with its last verse, I make sure to absorb the pure love in their expressions, the vivid glint in their eyes, all before it fades away, before bewilderment carves a furrow into Dad’s brow and his gaze drift away from me, before Mom’s eyes turn glassy and her hands worry at the grimy eagle in her lap.I stand, touch my chair and dissolve it, kiss my parents on the cheek and promise them I’ll return soon. I emerge from the room, leaving the berries with them, and find my other family in the waiting area down the corridor. Sidney is munching on chocolates from her pack, Penelope’s swiping through her phone. The former looks up first, her thoughtful expression telling me she’s in the process of deciphering my state of mind. Penelope looks up next and the prominent steeple of her eyebrows says she’s expecting the worst from me.“Let’s go,” I tell them, lifting a hand up to my jacket and feeling my Kasma through the fabric.They share an inscrutable glance before escorting me across the floor to the elevator bank. Halfway there a heaviness forms in my chest and I attempt to discreetly wipe the prickly sensation out of my eyes and either Sidney or Penelope put a hand on my shoulder and tears start spilling down my cheeks and I’m enveloped in a hug.“We’re here, Wy,” Sidney murmurs in my ear as my face buries into her shoulder, as my body spasms with sobs.It’s funny, but not funny, how I felt like such a coward when I used to try being vulnerable. But really, making myself invulnerable was the cowardly choice.I hear myself croak, “I’m sorry.” “For what?” “Shutting you out for so long.”She quickly pulls back and cups my face in her hands. “Don’t do that to yourself.” She rests her brow against mine. “Don’t you dare.”“Yeah, you little stinker, we’ll always be here for you,” Penelope vows, scrubbing her hand through my hair, and then we go into a three-way hug.When it’s over and we break apart, I ask half to myself what we’re going to do now, and Sidney shrugs, “The best we can do, is we’ll see what we can do.”I smile in spite of myself. “Thanks . . . Monkeygirl.”She chortles, then Penelope interjects, “Also, you and I”—she pokes me in the arm—“need to lug our asses to the lab.”As we head back to the elevator bank, I think about how it feels like a millennium ago when I lost the family to which I was born. Yes, there’s still a gap inside me calling out for them to come back. But I also gained a new family, and my Metura, I’m grateful that they’ve stuck by my side. Whatever else we have to confront in the future, I know I can rely on them.Waiting for the elevator to arrive, I turn to the window and admire the suns climbing up from the skyline and into the brilliant blue Civit Lumin sky, casting the city in their fire.
As Sibrilich moves one of her pieces on the reglintel board to an empty cell, Her Magister nonchalantly queries from across the iron desk separating them, “Why didn’t you take it upon yourself to endow him with his powers?” Sibrilich feels a quick tingling in her fingertips as she folds her hands in her lap, her gaze sealed on the game board. He has no right to probe her like this. “Choosing to go about the issue the way you did . . . I would have thought it gratuitous,” he continues in a low tone, leaning forward in his chair. “Even a little cruel.” Sibrilich lifts her eyes to assess the brutal frown lines stretching through his features. “That’s none of your concern,” she says matter-of-factly. His expression changes from dismay to fury with each passing breath. “You approached Sidney. You gained her trust. Then you took advantage of that trust and manipulated her into making Wyatt a Paladin. This is very much my concern.” Her Magister pauses, as if awaiting his apprentice’s rebuttal. When she strategically remains silent, he goes on, “When they remember the truth—and they will, eventually—it could become the blade that severs the tenuous string between them. Your duty is to guide them and protect them, yet you seem to be making every effort to tear them apart.” Sibrilich shakes her head, unperturbed by his accusations. “Not at all. I’m making every effort to bring them closer together.” His obsidian eyes stare at her for several beats, the white-gray boils on his head throbbing. Then he makes his next move in their game and comfortably sits back with a smug twitch of his lips. “Katako.” Looking down at the board and realizing he’s trapped her stone, Sibrilich accepts her defeat with a fractional dip of her chin and a courteous “My Magister.” For a moment, she lets memories flare through her—offering Sidney the autoinjector, convincing her it was necessary for Wyatt’s safety, empathizing with the love and terror and guilt warring within her soul. It is surreal for Sibrilich to consider how heavily her plans rely on young mortals like Sidney and Wyatt.“Are great times still ahead of us?” Her Magister inquires.“Of course,” she confirms.His face clouds over briefly before he dismisses her with a flick of his hand. She stands from her chair and marches out of the study with a bitter taste in her mouth.
Now that the final chapter is up, I want to give my profuse thanks to the readers who have been following me on this long and winding journey. It helped clarify my vision for Project Super Nex, and I’m already considering different approaches to take with it. Plugging away at it has also served as a minor distraction from the crapstorm that is 2020—a year that feels as though twenty screenwriters came in to work on a single script where the only prerequisite was that they come up with as many daunting, inventive, and torturous obstacles for the characters (e.g. the human population) to overcome as possible. I hope my story helped take your mind off things as well. I’ll continuing polishing it up till it’s ready for publication. As always, my thoughts and prayers go to you, readers. Stay healthy, stay strong, and get out there to vote and make your voice heard.