Life is surprising. Good, bad, sometimes just plain weird and inexplicable, in more ways that people can account for, life is capable of throwing curveballs that they don’t see coming. When he was young, that fact bothered Darius tremendously. Without predictability, he didn’t see how anything could make sense or have meaning. As he grew older, he was able to look back on his past self and see that his struggles with randomness stemmed not from a philosophical dilemma but from the very real concerns of a young boy whose whole life had been lived in a warzone.
It wasn’t order that he craved, it was safety. Osgood had illustrated the difference between the two for him at one point with a simple pack of cards. Together they had built a carefully constructed house, each piece in near-perfect balance with the ones around it. It was a monument to control and precision and predictability.
Thanks to their engineering prowess and steady reflexes, it expanded from a tiny hut to completely fill the dining room table they constructed it on.
Then a stiff breeze blew in through the window and all of the cards collapsed into a pile of two dimensional rubble.
Darius was young enough at the time that he made no effort to hold back the tears that came at the loss of his great effort. That was when Osgood introduced him to the concept of glue.
Their next card castle was much less regular. Cards were stuck wherever looked good and then affixed in position with a healthy dollop of fast drying adhesive. The result was as chaotic as only a child’s unrestrained artistic workings can be, but the castle managed to survive all of the gusts the open windows could throw at it.
That simple afternoon shaped more of the teenage Darius’ thoughts than he paid conscious attention too. Unlike many of his fellow students, he pursued a rigorous course of personnel development, honing both his natural Mental aptitudes as well as an unforeseen talent at manipulating Energetic anima. Those gifts were the “glue” he looked to for safety, and the strengths that made life on Hellsreach bearable.
Then he met Mel.
On an unsafe world, Darius had learned to take the “smart chances”. He’d learned to fight when he could win and evade when victory was uncertain. He was good at it, but he knew he needed to be a lot better than “good” in order to truly be safe.
In Mel though, he found something he’d never expected he could cherish. She didn’t take smart chances. She didn’t fight when she could win. Instead she fought when she needed to.
She fought when people were in trouble, or when there was something wrong that only she could put right. And she didn’t stop just because the odds looked long, or the path was fraught with pain and loss.
Darius knew people who tried to act like that, but he’d never seen anyone make it work before her. She somehow invested herself in what she did completely enough to bring her full strength to bear on the problem, but managed to maintain enough distance from it to be self-aware and able to adapt in ways highly driven people often couldn’t.
Though she never claimed to be, or appeared to have any understanding of it, Darius saw that as genius in Mel. He suspected if he ever tried to emulate her, even with his fairly well developed Mind skills, he’d fall short. Her brain had to be a maelstrom of activity, parsing and analyzing everything around her.
Or maybe she just listened to the people she knew when they offered improvements on her mad schemes or warned her she was going too far. That was a talent all unto itself, and one Darius knew he needed to work on quite a bit.
Whatever the cause of her success, Mel made Darius feel safe about discarding the need for safety. Or at least she had for the several years they’d been together. All of the old desires for safety had come flooding back in recent months though after a new life entered the picture.
“Not that we’re not delighted to see you, but why are you here?” Hector asked. Darius and his biological father had a strong, solid relationship, which meant that Hector was able to be blunt and straightforward with his son in place of the tact and circumspection his career as a politician demanded of him.
“We’re on the run,” Darius said.
“Then why didn’t you break in through the secret doors like we taught you?” Osgood asked as he waved Darius and Mel into the foyer.
“My fault there,” Mel said. “This barge doesn’t do well with squeezing through narrow spaces.”
“You’re not a barge,” Darius said, the words issuing as a reflex.
“Indeed,” Hector said. “You are quite lovely, and also quite wise. Dusty crawlspaces are unpleasant in the best of times. Now, should we be alerting Imperial command for reinforcements, or are you on the run from the Empire itself?”
Darius smiled at the question. From Hector and Osgood’s expressions, either alternative was acceptable. If they had to take on the galaxy for their son, he doubted either of his fathers would hesitate a moment before drafting their battle strategies.
“Neither actually,” he said. “We’re on unofficial leave for the next few months.”
“Unofficial leave?” Osgood asked. “Is this what we called ‘deserting’ on Hellsreach?”
“Less ‘deserting’, more ‘we talked with my boss and arranged for some dopplegangers to take our place for a little while so that we wouldn’t be targeted by a crazed deathcult’,” Darius said.
“I feel there’s a story here that needs telling, but the foyer isn’t the ideal spot for such things,” Osgood said. “Can we get you anything.”
“A place to sit and directions to the bathroom would be nice,” Mel said. “But not in that order.”
Minutes later, Darius found himself alone with his father’s who were waiting eagerly for the story he had to tell.
“This all started with a festival,” Darius said. “Or kind of a series of them.”
He related the tale of their original departure from the Horizon Breaker after Fari’s trouble with organizing one of the Crystal Empresses Gala celebrations. He told them of the various planets they’d visited to help her get an understanding of what people were really looking for, including the Frog Festival planet where they’d been transformed into amphibians.
“I could see that visiting festivals wasn’t getting at the real problem we faced though,” Darius said. “So I sent us on a random skipping path off a black hole and got us shot to the far side of the galaxy.”
Hector choked on the tea he was drinking.
“He obviously made it back,” Osgood said, patting Hector on the back to help him clear his lungs.
“We did,” Darius said. “Fari’s too good of a navigator for that to have been a long time problem. And I think it worked out well.”
“How so?” Osgood asked.
“We needed a break,” Darius said. “All three of us. We’d become so mission-focused that we kind of forgot how to connect with anyone outside a tactical planning room.”
“It would seem you managed to make some kind of connection with Guardian Watersward,” Hector said.
Darius blushed lightly. He didn’t mind acknowledging his relationship with her, but he wasn’t about to get into the specifics of his love life with his parents.
“That was…complicated,” he said.
“Children usually are,” Osgood said.
“We talked about it, having kids, but it wasn’t something Mel though was even possible for her,” Darius said.
“Why not?” Hector asked.
“She’s a Void anima caster,” Darius said. “It’s powerful stuff, but it causes her problems too, like needing special healing techniques when she’s injured and not being able to receive certain magical enhancements.”
“And not being able to bear children?” Osgood asked.
“She wasn’t sure,” Darius said.
“It seems like something convinced her to try though correct?” Hector asked.
“Three somethings in fact,” Darius said. “First there was Fari who pointed out the obvious thing neither of us had considered and set us on the path to figuring out whether it was possible.”
“And that was.”
“Mel’s mother was a Void caster too. She was so powerful of a Void caster that she sort of out-lived her own death,” Darius said. “And she had more children than just Mel, so it wasn’t a fluke pregnancy or a miracle.”
“I take it talking to Mel’s mother was the second ‘something’ that helped convince her to try?” Osgood asked.
“Yeah,” Darius said. “It wasn’t easy from the other side of the galaxy but between the maternal bond between them and the crystal bond between Fari’s gem and the Ravager gem that Mel’s mother inhabits they were able to talk for a little while.”
“And that’s how Mel discovered how dangerous a pregnancy could be?” Hector asked.
“For herself and for the baby,” Darius said. “It takes nine months of diligence and special trance sleeping to ensure that Void anima she carries is kept in check.”
“And there’s a danger to you as well, isn’t there?” Osgood asked, guessing from his son’s expression and what he knew of Mel’s courage that there was more to the story.
“Only as much as I chose there to be,” Darius said.
“What could happen to you?” Hector asked.
“Mel’s anima levels aren’t easy to keep balanced,” Darius said. “That’s true for a lot of pregnant human women, but in her case it’s a bit trickier since she can’t always be sure if what’s draining her strength is the baby, who needs it, or her own Void anima, which doesn’t.”
“So when she gets too low, you step in and offer her some of your energy,” Osgood said.
“As much as she’ll let me,” Darius said.
“And the danger is that she might take too much?” Hector asked.
“It’s a theoretical issue,” Darius said. “But no matter how much I tell her otherwise, she’s not actually the burden that she thinks she is. If anything she needs to let me help her more.”
“So what was the third thing?” Osgood asked. “And how does a crazed death cult factor into this scene of domestic bliss?”
“Well, despite the fact that we were on vacation, we decided to visit a planet named Kies that was holding an ‘Eternal Harvest Festival’,” Darius said. “As it turned out though it was less a ‘harvest’ festival and more a ‘fertility’ festival.”
“That sounds promising,” Hector said.
“We’d kind of decided to take things slowly and let Mel practice with the trance-sleeping techniques for a while before we made any serious efforts to expand our little family,” Darius said. “But then we went to the ‘Summer Crop Whispers’ room.”
“I’m going to guess that it wasn’t a market with talking lettuce?” Hector said.
“Not exactly,” Darius said. “It was a cavern on the seashore, and inside it we heard our daughter’s voice for the first time.”
“Your daughter?” Osgood asked.
“Oh, yeah, Mel’s pregnant with a girl,” Darius said.
“And you heard her speaking?” Hector asked.
“Kies has some odd Aetherial flows,” Darius said. “The Summer Crop Whisper’s cavern carries voices from the future in the present. Specifically the voices of children who will one day be part of your life.”
“But that would suggest your daughter could have been adopted no?” Osgood asked.
“She could have been,” Darius said. “Except when we got back to our ship, Fari ran a scan and, surprise, Mel was already pregnant!”
“A mystical pregnancy?” Osgood asked.
“No, no.” Darius said. “She was conceived quite naturally. We just didn’t think that would be something that could happen yet. Not without significant effort on both our parts.”
“It’s often easier than you imagine it to be,” Hector said. “It’s all the things that come afterward that require the significant effort.”
“Like the death cults that come after you,” Osgood said.
“You know, I was honestly hoping that would be an experience unique to us,” Darius said.
“I’m afraid not,” Hector said.
“It’s actually how Hector and I met if you recall,” Osgood said. “So it’s becoming something of a family tradition I guess.”
“That was a death cult?” Darius asked. “I thought you just rescued me from a bombing attack?”
“Yes,” Osgood said. “A bombing attack by a group that thought Hellsreach had to be purged of all life to regain its spiritual purity.”
“They managed to get themselves nice and ‘purified’ in the end, thankfully.” Hector said.
“But tell us about your death cult?” Osgood asked.
“Well, we made the mistake of telling people at the festival our joyous news,” Darius said. “And that’s when we learned about the prophecy.”
“Damn Aether casters,” Hector said.
“This one read; ‘A child of darkness will be born into the light, and when she claims her power the heavens will tear and a time of great destruction will be upon the galaxy’,” Darius said. “Which, apparently, some people on Kries took to be a reference to our daughter.”
“So Mel is bearing ‘The Chosen One’?” Osgood asked.
“Not as such. Apparently the Kries Old Keepers, as the cult is called, make it a point to kill any offspring of a Void caster who comes to their planet order to forestall the prophecy,” Darius said.
“And the Empire hasn’t stopped them yet why exactly?” Hector asked.
“Kries is outside the Empire, and the cult itself is slippery as hell,” Darius said. “We tried to help the Kries government track them down but we only managed to catch a few cells before we had to get back on duty.”
“A duty which is now being performed by doppelgangers you said?” Osgood asked.
“Yeah, that’s Fari’s present to us,” Darius said. “In order to give Mel and our daughter the best chance of making it through this we wanted to find a nice calm environment for her. Part of creating that was having Fari play puppet master to two doppelganger bodies of us on the Horizon Breaker. She’ll have them make appearances and be nice juicy targets for the Keepers while we spend a few months here seeing that our daughter makes it safely into this world.”
“About that nice, calm environment…” Hector began to say.
He was cut off by Mel’s return.
“I seem to have find some tiny saboteurs working on a nefarious scheme,” Mel said. On her shoulders she was carrying Quinn and Alendo. “They have taken me over and forcing me to demand both cake and pudding.”
The two children cheered at the notion and urged Mel forward like she was a giant robot they were driving.
“Uh, who would these be?” Darius asked, looking from one father to another in confusion.
“You were away too long,” Osgood said.
“Meet your new brother and sister son!” Hector said.
Life was just full of surprises.