2285/VIb: WHEELS WITHIN WHEELS

By John Hightower

 

 

 

[Note from the JumpNow.de editor:
Please send all feedback for the author to fanfiction@jumpnow.de . We will forward it to him.]

 

 

 

 

*****

   Earth Year 2285

   Somewhere beyond the Wall of Twilight…

   …Sister Ardenn of Valeria shivered and clasped her too-thin cloak more tightly about her neck and shoulders as she and her cold, whiny companion stood uncertainly on the landing pad in front of their flyer. Gazing around at their windswept surroundings and doing her best to ignore Vadenn as her elder sibling alternated between cursing her and bemoaning their situation, she could feel her heart sinking. It was dark, but not completely. Turning full circle, she noted that she could see a glow on the horizon although no direct light reached her location. The effect was much like twilight back in Tuzanor…barely enough light to see, but not enough to see clearly. Where dusk in Tuzanor had been beautiful, however, the eerie half-light of the North was empty…seemingly crafted by some sad power in Minbar's prehistory to generate nothing but feelings of loss and loneliness.

   "In Valen's Name…what a desolate place…" the young Minbari murmured dejectedly, fighting off tears as she took in the drifts of snow and ice piled around the edges of the landing platform. Beyond, a flat, icy, featureless plain stretched in every direction. She had no doubt they had arrived at the Temple of Frost, yet there was nothing to be seen. No temple stood to beckon them. No structures of any kind were visible…just a small landing area in the middle of nowhere, and no one present to greet them. Hanging her head, she could hear the soft whine of the flyer's engine starting behind her and she felt a frigid gust of air as the small ship's gravitic lifters engaged and pushed the ship away from the pad.

   "They are leaving us, Ardenn!" Vadenn cried, her muttering interrupted as she spun around to face the departing ship. Waving her hands at the cockpit, she shouted, "Wait! We do not know where to go! Do not leave us to freeze to death here!" It was no use. The flyer's pilot took no notice of the Sister's frantic gestures and gained altitude quickly…speeding back towards the glow on the horizon, seemingly in a hurry to leave the barren wasteland and its two newest residents forgotten behind.

   "I do not think the Mistress means for us to die here, Vadenn," Ardenn muttered sadly as she watched the ship pass out of sight. "She means for us to live…and life here may be a less desirable option than the freezing you seem to fear." Plopping unceremoniously down to sit on her small satchel, the young Sister could not stifle a cry as a bitterly cold blast of wind surged across the frozen tundra and savagely bit through her cloak and underlying robes to chill the delicate skin beneath. "Oh, David! I am so cold!" she moaned, pulling the hood of her cloak down with trembling fingers to cover her face. "I am so sorry you fell in love with such a fool! I should not have come back…I should have let them cast me out! I know you, love. You would have stood beside me if I had…you would have found a way to stay with me…"

   "Does it really matter, young one?" a new voice answered behind her. Turning to look back over her shoulder, Ardenn raised her hood slightly and saw the source of the voice. Two females had joined her and Vadenn while their attention was on the flyer. The first, the one who had spoken, wore a heavy gray cloak that almost completely enfolded her stooped frame, only a quick flash of red beneath as she shifted identifying her as fellow Sister. From her voice and posture, the young Minbari could tell that she was old…beyond old…an ancient. She had once been tall…perhaps as tall as Vadenn…but now she was bent by the passage of many, many cycles and stood no taller than Ardenn herself did. As she continued to watch, the woman hobbled forward, leaning on a staff and the young Minbari got her first good look at her face. It was craggy and bone white…lined both from advanced age and the harsh environment. Altogether, she appeared to be the oldest Minbari the young woman had ever seen…but her eyes…they were a bright blue, her gaze alert and piercing.

   Seeing that she had the younger woman's attention, the old Sister repeated, "Does it really matter whether he would have kept you or let you go? You did not choose that option, so it gains you nothing to speculate on it. You are of us now, and you are here. This is your place, your path, perhaps your life from now on." Moving closer, the old female continued, "And your purpose…your purpose now is to serve those who have gone before you. Welcome to the Temple of Frost."

   "I see no temple," Vadenn muttered through chattering teeth, rubbing her arms vigorously in an attempt to fend off the bone-numbing cold. "All I see is ice and all I feel is wind."

   "Do you think we live exposed on the tundra?" the old one laughed, seeming not to feel the wind or cold at all. Indicating a large door set horizontally flush into the landing pad with her staff, a door that had escaped the two new Sisters' notices in the faint half-light, she continued, "We did not appear out of the ether, young one. Most of the temple is buried under the ice sheet," Tapping her staff on the ground, she explained, "This landing pad is actually the roof of our central spire. Before the latest ice age came, the spire towered high above what was then a small island in the Great Northern Sea. Like everything else you will find here, time and the elements have since overcome even the best laid foundations."

   Ardenn and Vadenn glanced at each other uncertainly and looked at their feet in unison before returning their gaze to their two hostesses. "That…that cannot be," Ardenn stammered. "The ice has been always. Were it as you say…this structure would have to be tens of thousands of cycles old. Even our history does not reach back nearly that far…"

   "Merely tens of thousands?" the hooded old woman echoed inquisitively. "Were this temple a woman she would be flattered you think her so young. Try thousands of thousands. You are now standing on the roof of the largest ancient artifact on our planet…one built in a time so far past that our red sun burned blue, giants walked the stars and even the Vorlons were children." With a chuckle, the ancient woman turned to her slightly less elderly companion and muttered, "I speak of children…how appropriate. Look at them, Neriss. Irilenn and Rakell entrust wide-eyed younglings to see to us in our dotage. What is our Order coming to?" Pointing at Vadenn with her staff, she continued, "This girl cannot be over thirty cycles." Swinging the walking aid to point at Ardenn, she said, "And this…this infant? Why, she cannot even be old enough to breed, much less wear crimson! I wager that her crest is still rough along the fusing seam! How old are you, girl? Twenty cycles?"

   "Uh…I am eighteen cycles…" Ardenn abashedly mumbled, casting her eyes down both in embarrassment and in an automatic gesture of respect for an elder.

   "Eighteen cycles…" the old one breathed incredulously. Hobbling over to stare Ardenn in the face, she reached out with her free hand and lifted her chin. "So soft and smooth," she whispered, sliding a gnarled finger along her cheek. "I was already over one hundred when you drew your first breath in this incarnation. Eighteen cycles! Our Mistress now sees fit to elevate those barely toilet-trained." Shaking her head, she looked back at her companion and snorted, "This young one is most pleasing to the eye, however. I imagine that her lover…David is his name, you said? I imagine that he and many other males spent their nights dreaming of caressing her pathways before she disappointed them by donning crimson." Turning back to Ardenn, she peered underneath the youthful Sister's hood, noting the freshly rounded points of her crest. Grinning, she added, "Or perhaps this David explored her in more than just dreams…"

   "Perhaps," Ardenn echoed testily, irked that one unknown to her would discuss her romantic life so boldly with her present to hear it. "I do not mean to be rude, but if we are preparing to hold an open forum about my experience level in the bedchamber I would at least like to know who I am speaking to. May I inquire as to your identity?"

   "You may," the old woman cackled. With a mock flourish, she bowed. "I am Wyndan, High Sister of the Veil and Custodian of the Crypts." Indicating her companion, who bowed more respectfully, she indicated, "And this is my senior Sister, Neriss." Turning to Vadenn, she said, "Now for your introductions. Not that the distinction matters much between two so young, but as you are the elder, I will address you first and get you out of the cold before your brash companion. Did the Enlightened One give you a letter for me?"

   "Yes, High Sister," Ardenn's companion replied, calmer now that she realized she had not been abandoned and was at least being given precedence over her already-defensive younger sibling. From Ardenn's tone, Vadenn could tell her younger sibling's overactive mouth was already going to get her into trouble with the ancient High Sister. Determined to both make the best of her situation and to not allow the older Sisters to mentally associate her with the young nonconformist, Vadenn quickly schooled her features into an expression of quiet attentiveness. Reaching under her cloak, she hurriedly produced the letter Rakell had shoved in her hand as she was put aboard Ardenn's flyer and handed the folded parchment over with a low bow of her own. "I am Sister Vadenn, respected elder," she continued as the old Sister read. "It pleases me to meet you and I look forward to making my small contribution to our Sisterhood within your great temple."

   Wyndan's face crinkled with suppressed mirth at the younger Sister's sycophancy. "I do not doubt it, respected younger Sister," she chuckled as she folded the parchment and handed it to Neriss. With a hint of sarcasm in her tone, she asked, "Assignment to the Temple of Frost has become much sought after among those who serve in the warm South? If so, much has indeed changed since last I saw our sun." Seeing the look on Vadenn's face her words engendered, she waved a dismissive hand and said, "You wish to flatter me with pleasant greetings, Sister Vadenn. Save your breath…I hold to no illusions about this place or the service we render, and I am far too old to care about artful wordcraft. Your skillful tongue is better saved for comforting those you will assist in passage to the next life, if such is your fate." Indicating her companion, she said, "Please walk with Neriss. She will see to your quartering and, after you have rested, she will introduce you to your fellow residents."

   Without even sparing a look back at Ardenn, Vadenn gathered her traveling bag and hurried to catch up with Wyndan's companion. <Assisting in passage to the next life…>, Ardenn thought with a shudder as she watched her elder sibling alternately trotting and walking to keep up with her older escort. The look on Vadenn's face was almost enough to make the younger Minbari feel sorry for her. Almost. Sighing, she trembled as the bone-chilling wind gusted again, sending tiny needles of pain through her skin. Tightening her cloak, she shook her head and noted that the Mistress had told her this was to be her fate if she refused her cooperation…and Irilenn was nothing if not true to her word, at least in this instance. Pulling her gaze away from her quickly departing elder sibling, she faced the ancient head of the northern temple and hoped her trepidation was not evident on her face.

   High Sister Wyndan eyed the remaining young Sister speculatively for a long second. "You, woman- child…you are Ardenn, correct?" she asked.

   Ardenn nodded in surprise. "You…know me?"

   "Know you? Know you? Of course I do not know you," Wyndan cackled. "I know of you. How many full Sisters of your young age do you suppose there are in our organization? You have become a bit of a celebrity." Shaking her head, she continued, "My temple is indeed remote, but we do communicate with the rest of the Order occasionally. I was told to expect you. I apologize for feigning no knowledge of you and for keeping you out here…I know you are cold, but this will only take a few minutes. This is the only place we can speak freely and I needed your companion to leave first. You were personal assistant to the Blessed Delenn?"

   "Yes, for three cycles."

   "And while in her service you pledged your heart to her son…your David." Shaking her head and chuckling as Ardenn's eyes widened again, Wyndan continued, "Yes, young one…I already knew of him as well. Please forgive my earlier jesting at your expense. I did not mean to embarrass you in front of your elder sibling, but your rather aggressive claim staking did not go unnoticed within the Order's hierarchy. Among the High Sisters, the knowledge that David Sheridan is the grandson of our Mistress is common…and neither you nor he have been particularly discreet."

   "Perhaps not, but he and I are one soul in two bodies," Ardenn somewhat archly replied. "I did as my heart commanded and I have no regrets."

   "Now that is not entirely true, child," Wyndan replied with a smile. "If it were, you would not have been sitting on you bag nearly in tears as I approached. You do not regret the loving…nor should you…but you can probably envision many places you would rather be than standing at Minbar's dark north pole chatting with an old crone while freezing your shapely buttocks off. Am I correct?"

   "You are…at least about the loving and freezing parts," the young Sister admitted, crooking her finger to her chin and pursing her lips. "And, as my intended shares your opinion regarding the positive visual appeal of my buttocks, I can only conclude that is correct as well. As for the rest…well, while you appear to be a woman of considerable life experience, I am withholding judgment on the 'crone' observation until I know you better."

   "Ah!" Wyndan chortled. "Cleverly said! Rakell warned me that your wit is as sharp as your face is fair. It is good you have a sense of humor…you will need it here. In this place, you will be the youngest resident by many tens of cycles…except for your companion." Holding out her hand, she said, "Your letter, please?"

   Ardenn handed the document over and the old one examined it for a moment, pursing her lips in a slight frown. Finally, she tapped the parchment in her hand and murmured, "It is as I suspected."

   "What do you mean?"

   "You have been exposed to the link," Wyndan noted rhetorically. At Ardenn's affirmative nod, she handed the parchment back to the smaller woman and indicated a symbol scrawled in the upper corner. "This mark. I know the light is dim here…you will grow used to it after a time, but do you see it?"

   Ardenn squinted and looked closely at the paper. "This circle and triangle glyph? I noticed it when I was given this document, but I paid it little mind. My attention was more focused on keeping the contents of my stomach down at the time."

   "Do you know what it is?" the old Minbari queried. When Ardenn shook her head uncertainly, Wyndan explained, "There is a small group within our Order made up of those entrusted with our most sublime and sacred obligation; securing the future legacy of our people. Those who are necessary to this…this Plan, for lack of a better term…are exposed to the departed Mistresses of the Circle as a form of initiation." Snorting, the ancient Sister continued, "This symbol indicates that you faced the Circle and that a member spoke to you. While I have never placed much faith in anyone's ability to judge the usefulness of an individual based on the cryptic words of artificial spirits, it is the general belief of some in our little group that the Circle can tell. Whether you wish it or not you are a member of our secret society and so…Ardenn, your presence here creates an enormous problem for me."

   "I do not understand…"

   "At least you admit it. I doubt your smooth-speaking companion would have." Wiggling the paper, Wyndan continued, "The problem is that I do not know what to do with you, child. See here…Irilenn scribed this parchment in her own hand, although Rakell's chop is on it. She commands that I assign you as a Sister of the Veil…one who prepares the dying to pass beyond. The introduction of your companion was not personalized by Irilenn and not so detailed in its instructions to me regarding her. All it tells me is that you and she are to share living arrangements."

   "That much I…I understand, revered elder. The Mistress wishes for me to suffer. She said it would be so for me if I refused to accept my place in the Plan. It is likely that she cares not what you do with Vadenn."

   "You do not understand suffering, young one. Sharing quarters with one you do not like is merely an added annoyance, not suffering." Reaching out, Wyndan took Ardenn's hand and caressed her fingers gently. "Child, the Veil is the smallest of our Order's four Disciplines. Sisters of Healing, of Service and of Knowledge often perform taxing, even arduous tasks…but the duties Irilenn commands me to give you are without a doubt the most thankless and emotionally grueling a member of our Order can undertake. They are traditionally performed by only the most experienced among us, those who like Neriss and I also stand closer to the curtain of Night than the Dawn. Within the Discipline of the Veil, we fulfill the last unspoken obligation…serving the Sisters who have served our people before us and are now laying down their own responsibilities. The rituals performed by a Veil Sister are not those I ever assign to the young, yet with you the Mistress commands that I do so." Lowering her voice, the old Minbari whispered, "Tell me…have you ever held someone and looked into her eyes as she passed beyond, little one? Have you ever had to whisper litanies of comfort and calming to once-proud and vibrant people who have become like terrified children again? Have you ever put your mouth to that of a dying one as her body finally fails and sucked her last breath into your own lungs?"

   "I…I…no, respected one, I…have not..." Ardenn stammered, averting her eyes back to the ground.

   "For one as young and full of life as you, that would be suffering I think. Yes…I see that the idea makes you uneasy." the old High Sister soothed. "Do not be ashamed. It is natural for you to feel this way. Such intimacy with the dying should trouble one of your few cycles. Yet this is what being a Sister of the Veil entails…and sometimes the comfort of your touch and your claiming of an old one's last breath can be required many times in a day. Over time, it can be soul wrenching. Some who pass…most, even…struggle at least slightly to remain. At their worst, they can be like drowning people. They cling to anyone within reach, vainly trying to hold onto life in this incarnation, forsaking everything they believe…everything they have learned. Fear of the unknown finally wins at the end and they forget themselves because of it. They can become violent, bitter and they often speak in envious vulgarities."

   "Envious? Of who?"

   "Of you…of me…of anyone who will see the next day, the next hour…the next minute," Wyndan murmured sadly. Brightening, she continued, "Fortunately, such traumatic departures are rare, but even when they are slow and gentle some of our departing Sisters desire intimate companionship near the end. When such requests are made, Sisters of the Veil are expected to honor them. Could you share yourself with a dying Sister if she asked it of you?"

   "I…I do not know…" Ardenn answered hesitantly. "The idea of…of opening myself to anyone other than my intended holds no appeal for me and I have never been intimate…um, with another female."

   "I thought as much," Wyndan observed. Sighing, she explained, "Though many within our Order practice it, abstinence is not one of our obligations. How can it be?" Reaching out, she slid a finger along the rounded points of Ardenn's crest and continued, "Like you, many come to us after having taken mates. Their Joining vows are forsworn, but the mating urge is still upon them. It does not go away when one dons crimson and it would be heartless to demand that it be denied for life. As a result, Sa'fela relationships between Sisters are not uncommon. As an Apprentice you were not exposed to them, but here the close proximity of the long dark can make even the most celibate members of our Order ask for one last brush with the ecstasy of life before crossing over."

   Ardenn hung her head, feeling as if she had failed a subtle test. "I am sorry," she murmured. "It is not the physical act itself that causes my hesitation. David loves me, but he understands duty. Accepting this as such would be difficult for him was he to learn of it, but he knows my love for him extends beyond the bedchamber. Our love would survive, but on a personal level I…I simply do not know if I could become that intimate with another knowing that at the end I would have to help her pass away."

   "And that is my point, Ardenn." Smiling gently, the old Sister of the Veil reached out and placed a comforting hand on the suddenly uncertain young woman's shoulder. "Now you understand my problem with having you here. The older Sisters who are called to serve here come with many, many cycles of experience to draw upon to help them fulfill these and other similar personal requests without losing their objectivity. You have neither the experience nor the detachment. If I assigned you as Irilenn wishes, I have no doubt that you would do your duty whatever was requested of you. Despite your youth, you are still a Sister of Valeria first and you would find a way…but you would also become emotionally involved. You would surrender to the natural temptation to try and extend the lives of your charges in this incarnation rather than easing their travel into the next. It is a battle many Sisters of the Veil have fought before you and none have ever won. Over time, defeat after defeat would muffle the aspect of your soul that revels in life." Releasing Ardenn's shoulder, Wyndan reached up and caressed the young Minbari's cheek affectionately. "Irilenn understands this. She is a Healer, has assisted in more than her share of transitions, and knows how stressful experiencing the end of life over many repetitions can be to one within whom it is just beginning. She wishes for me to break your spirit using this. Undoubtedly she hopes that you will find the duties of a Veil Sister so distasteful that you will beg her to let you comply with whatever design she has for you."

   "And…and are you with her? Will you try to break me?"

   "There is no try, little one," the ancient Sister corrected. "You have a strong, quiet soul. I can see its power reflected in your eyes even in this dim light, but if I desired it I could begin your breaking with a single command." Lowering her hand, she leaned on her staff and sighed, "And I guess that is the fundamental question, is it not? Should I utter that command? Should I do as the Mistress wishes or are you worth the price of disobedience?"

   "How can you not?" Ardenn murmured, looking down at the icy ground forlornly. "The command of the Mistress is absolute, and I do not wish for you to suffer Irilenn's displeasure."

   "Me suffer?" the Order's oldest Sister exclaimed with a sudden bark of laughter. "I thank you for trying to protect me, little one, but I am not speaking of myself. I am far, far too old to be concerned with Mistress Irilenn's vexations. What could she do to me? Assign me as a Sister of the Veil? Banish me to the Temple of Frost? Turn me into a thorny old woman whom most in the Order think is taking too long to enter the Light anyway?" Her laughter abruptly ceasing, Wyndan again stabbed a bony finger at the glyph on Ardenn's introduction. "No, young one, I will not suffer over this. Our Most Revered Sister Rakell penned this symbol as her way of asking me to circumvent Irilenn's command. She is the one defying the Mistress for you and she will be the one to pay when Irilenn finds out…if I choose to acquiesce. Unlike me, she has much to lose. Why she should care is beyond me, but as our Religious caste friends say, sometimes understanding is not required."

   "Rakell was kind to me. I have no wish for her to fall into disfavor."

   "Ardenn…when a foodbeast passes waste, are you one of those odd people who feel compelled to inspect the animal's anus to see where the offal originated?" Wyndan amusedly observed. "My advice to you is to simply accept that excrement has fallen to the ground and step around it."

   "What does that mean?"

   Frowning, the old Minbari's face shriveled up like a Bur'ka fruit as she snapped, "It means that you ask too many questions. When the Enlightened One of the Sisters of Valeria offers her hand to you in assistance, you do not examine her face for motives and you do not slap her fingers away. You close your mouth, reach out and take it. Can you understand that?"

   Startled, Ardenn involuntarily backed away a half step under the older woman's intense gaze. "Yes, High Sister. But I…I was not…"

   "You do not wish for me to suffer Irilenn's displeasure? You do not wish for Rakell to fall into disfavor?" Wyndan archly repeated, throwing the young Sister's words back at her. "It sounds as if you do not wish for anyone to help you. Good…that makes my decision easy. I risk nothing by doing as the Mistress commands, after all. In fact, I protect a Sister who is both a leader of our Order and my friend by ignoring what will likely prove to be an unfortunate request on her part. After all, she cannot defy the Mistress if I choose not to aid and abet her. The status quo is maintained and everybody is happy…except you, of course." Leaning in close, the ancient High Sister dangerously murmured, "Because if no one helps you, you will be a virtual prisoner in this place for the rest of what could prove to be a very, very long life."

   "No!" Ardenn blurted out. "No…please, High Sister, I want help! Anything anyone can do for me, I…I appreciate. I just…I have caused pain to everyone whose life I have touched…I do not want anyone else to be hurt over me…"

   "Then your wisest move is to close your mouth and dispense with the protestations. Accept whatever aid others provide you gratefully and humbly. Both Rakell and I are sufficiently experienced to choose our battles and determine the level of pain we are willing to endure." Looking over Ardenn's shoulder, Wyndan saw her senior Sister's crest point poking up from the entrance to the main tunnel. Gentling her features and her voice, she continued, "I see that Neriss has returned to collect you, and you must be freezing. Gather your things. We have spoken long enough for now. I know what I need to know about you." As Ardenn collected her bag, the old Minbari added, "While I am afraid that I cannot warm your bed as well as your David probably does, I can at least get you out of the wind. If you will go below and wait for a moment inside the door, Neriss will be along behind you. We will discuss exactly what I should do with you at greater length after you have rested."

   Wyndan fell silent as her second approached. Once Neriss arrived, the elderly Sister turned to Ardenn and said, "One last thing, little Sister. I have been asked to pass along a message. One of your human friends from the world outside, Anla'Shok Na, has met with our Enlightened One. She has asked that we inform you that no one has forgotten you, and that she and the Blessed Delenn are working to secure your return to those who love you. She says to have patience and requests that you not give up." With a smile, the old Sister added, "It sounds as if you have some very powerful friends if the likes of Anla'Shok Na can spare the time to seek your return. I suppose a frail old woman like me would do well to ensure that nothing untoward became of you here, eh?"

   Ardenn straightened with her bag over her shoulder and the High Sister saw the faint hint of a hopeful smile on her lips. "I have supposedly forsworn those relationships I held in the world outside," the young woman announced. "But I would be the happiest Minbari on the planet if the hope in my heart were realized. Does this mean that you will help me?"

   "I am going to explore the option. That is all I will say until I have had more time to think on this."

   "I…I suppose that is a better answer than 'No', at any rate," the young Sister murmured. "Thank you for the message." With that, the young Minbari padded off toward the temple entrance, her back a little straighter than it had been before.

   As Wyndan's second turned to follow, the old High Sister caught her arm. "Sister Neriss…a word, please?"

   Stopping, Neriss asked, "Yes, respected elder?"

   Wyndan put a quieting finger to her lips and watched over the other Sister's shoulder until Ardenn passed out of sight. When she was gone, the slightly younger Sister spoke again. "I know Rakell contacted you privately about that one. You have now spoken to her. Do you intend to help her?"

   "My final decision is not made…but I do not see how, in good conscience, I can assign Ardenn as a practicing Sister of the Veil. To do so would be an injustice both to her and to our kindred who would depend on her to help ease their journey into the Light. She is not weak of spirit, and in forty or fifty cycles she could be a wonderful comfort to our weary ones. Now, however, she does not have the necessary life experience to divorce herself from those she would attend nor is she emotionally prepared to perform some of the more intimate rituals some might request of her. The Mistress commands, however…and we must obey." Wyndan sighed and passed her companion Ardenn's letter of introduction. "Read it and give me your thoughts, respected younger sibling. Perhaps you will see something I have missed."

   Wyndan's slightly younger companion scanned the letter, pursing her lips and furrowing her brow. "Fascinating…it is much different from the letter Vadenn carried. I note the Circle's glyph is inscribed. Ardenn has stood in the Circle and spoken to a shade?" Shaking her head in disbelief, the Sister continued, "She is so young…what possible reason could Irilenn have that would justify putting a child through the pain of the main temple's link?"

   "I do not know…she mentioned that she refused to accept her place in the Plan, but provided no details. Rakell did not feel comfortable doing so when I spoke with her, either. Even among friends, it is as secrets within secrets as one nears the corridors of power in Yedor." Digging the point of her staff into a patch of ice affixed to the landing pad, the old woman poked idly as she continued, "Up here in the frozen lands we learn little and are usually forgotten until our services are required. Out of all the Sisters here in this temple, only you or I would have recognized the glyph of the Circle on Ardenn's introduction. Rakell meant it for us…and she is no fool. She knows I am the only Sister that Irilenn would hesitate to challenge, but my influence extends only as far as the confines of this twilight realm. Our Enlightened One indirectly asks me to shield this child even as our Mistress commands I give Ardenn duties she knows are beyond her emotional capabilities. In a way, this bothers me more than Ardenn's presence here."

   "How so?"

   "Because it means that the two highest ranking Sisters of our Order are in disagreement and either cannot or will not communicate. This indicates to me that Irilenn no longer listens to her Enlightened One and Rakell no longer trusts her Mistress. Thus, we receive letters like this…letters that contain conflicting instructions." Sighing, Wyndan pulled her staff out of the ice and began a new hole. "What of Ardenn's companion?"

   "She should not have been sent here," Neriss stated flatly and without hesitation. "Sister Vadenn is not appreciably older than Ardenn as we reckon age here, and when all is taken into account she is actually less experienced. At least Ardenn knows what unconditional love feels like. Vadenn does not, and she has the added weaknesses of arrogance and impatience. She does not care for her young companion in the least. I tried to explain some of the functions we fulfill, but I do not believe she truly heard me…she was too busy deriding Ardenn as her reason for being banished here. I do not believe she is suited to being a Sister of the Veil, and I doubt our other Sisters will befriend her. One without friends will not survive here for long."

   "They are both from Tuzanor, one of our Sisterhood's smallest chapters," Wyndan observed. "Vadenn was a Sister in a place where there are few other Sisters. In such an environment, she would have been an important person. Her personality flaws no doubt stem at least partially from that."

   "Nevertheless, I think they are traits too ingrained to be unlearned. Either Irilenn or Rakell should have stopped her assignment. Sister Ardenn seems pleasant enough. If she must stay here, an older Sister will take her under her wing and she can survive if we find meaningful work for her. As for Vadenn…well, the point may be moot but I think if there is any possibility of sending her elsewhere, we should explore it."

   "Oh, I intend to," High Sister Wyndan indicated. "Here we have Sisters reassigned without explanation, mixed messages from the Main Temple, Irilenn exposing a woman-child to the collected shades of the Mistresses, clandestine meetings between our leadership and the civil hierarchy…and our Enlightened One relaying messages from the head of the Alliance military?" Snickering, the ancient Sister observed, "We seem to have intrigues around every corner. Exciting, is it not? Almost like life in the Sisters of Valeria must have been before the Ban of Valen." Leaning against her staff, she continued, "Still, if the rift I sense forming between Irilenn and Rakell is allowed to widen, matters could become chaotic for us. If they break openly, a schism will result. On a personal level, I simply do not appreciate my temple being involved in Yedor's maneuverings without explanation. It is time that the Mistress and Enlightened One were both reminded that there are still four High Sisters out here and that we are becoming...concerned…about their suspicious activities."

   "Shall I contact the High Sisters of Healing, Knowledge and Service, then?"

   "Oh, yes…by all means contact them. My peers love a good conspiracy. I am sure they are following the chain of events surrounding this young woman with as much interest as I and it is probably time we came together and compared notes. Also, Ardenn seems to have powerful friends as I noted earlier. Somehow I think neither President Delenn nor Anla'Shok Na will allow her to remain here should they learn her location, despite Irilenn's command. Anla'Shok Na is a human and subject to all of the impulsiveness one expects from that race, and Delenn…well, she has become more human in that regard that probably even she would acknowledge."

   "And that returns us to the original question," Neriss noted. "What of our two newest additions?"

   "Vadenn's disposition will require some thought. For now, assign her to an older Sister and begin her training…but only as an observer. I do not want her performing any rituals, particularly intimate ones…assuming she knows how. That will secure me some time to consider our options." Wyndan smiled and added, "As for Ardenn…even if Delenn comes for her, the Mistress's command must be followed. She must become a Sister of the Veil."

   Seeing the smug look that lit her superior's features, Neriss smiled slowly. "But…you have had a thought. I can always tell."

   "Oh, yes…I have thought of a way to both obey and be disobedient simultaneously. I will place her in the one position a Sister of the Veil can fill without necessarily having to perform all of the rituals of parting…my own."

   Neriss gasped. "You would train her in the Art of Creation? We do not even know if the Artifact will accept her…"

   "True, but Irilenn commands that she be a Sister of the Veil. Rakell asks that I protect her from that command. How am I to make both our leaders happy? I cannot…but in this way Irilenn cannot accuse me of defying her and Rakell's request is at least partially fulfilled."

   "Irilenn will forbid what you are doing if she finds out. The intent of her command was to have Ardenn serve the desires of our fellow Sisters in passing."

   "Then she should have been more explicit in her instructions, hmm?" Wyndan chuckled and noted, "Our Mistress knows of my advanced age…she should realize that the elderly are often not as mentally acute as they were in their youth. It is not my fault that my thinking was a little foggy just now when our two new Sisters presented their letters, eh?"

   Pursing her lips, Neriss noted, "She means to compel something from our youngest Sister. No doubt Irilenn thinks a few days or weeks spent serving the old and dying in the cold will bend her into compliance…and if she has to warm a few beds in the process, all the better. Our Mistress is indeed a master of manipulation, but I cannot imagine that she intends for one as young as Ardenn to serve her remaining span here. Barring accident or injury, she easily has a hundred cycles still before her."

   "Yes…a hundred at least," Wyndan echoed, stroking her chin speculatively. "And so I serve our Sisterhood in this decision as well as meeting at least the stated intent of our leadership. On a practical level, I will be gone from this incarnation very soon. Someone must be taught the crafting…and the more I consider it, the more I think Ardenn is the perfect candidate. The Artifact has not tasted a young soul in many tens of cycles. It will like her, I can tell already." Patting her second on the hand, Wyndan added, "Now, you see to Vadenn. I will introduce Ardenn to the Artifact. They will need to get used to one another and I do not think there will be much time." Looking up, the ancient High Sister gazed at the stars beaming brightly down from the heavens above.

   As she watched, points of light seemed to detach from the starfield and move across the sky, leaving bright contrails in their wake. Only a few at first, they shortly multiplied until there were dozens. She was witnessing a meteor shower, she noted. Rarely were they seen this far north. In ancient times, meteor showers were considered omens of dark times to come, and Wyndan, not a superstitious person by nature, found herself filled with a sense of foreboding as she turned from the stars towards the temple entrance.

   "No, Neriss," she murmured. "I do not think there will be much time at all."

   ***

   Both Vadenn and Ardenn sat on their beds, silently looking anywhere but at each other. They had slept and any words between them had already been said. Now nothing remained but a common nervousness about their ultimate fates.

   She had seen little as she followed Neriss to her quarters other than impossibly ancient-looking corridors, had heard little other than hushed whispers from behind veiled chambers as she passed. She had felt eyes upon her, some curious…and some speculative. A few of the chambers they passed had made her unaccountably nervous, and she now thought she understood the meaning of the human adage about one's 'skin crawling'. Ardenn did not believe the disembodied spirits of the dead wandered the world of the living, but if she were wrong, then surely this place would be their gathering point.

   Upon being shown into their shared quarters, Ardenn had tried. She had relented and attempted to explain to her frightened and bitter elder sibling some of the information Wyndan had passed her about the duties of Veil Sisters, only to be met with stony indifference. After a few moments of being ignored, Ardenn had sighed, shaken her head in resignation and allowed her words to taper off.

   Vadenn would not accept anything from her younger sibling. Their relationship, always strained and sometimes cruel, had degenerated to the point that any word Ardenn said was already suspect in the older Minbari's mind. The young Sister, even after a lifetime of anguish at the hands of her elder, wished no ill upon her. She wanted only two things. She wanted Vadenn away from her and she wanted no contact between her elder sibling and her mentor's family…particularly David.

   With nothing else to do, Ardenn examined her surroundings. She found herself in a room not unlike the one she had briefly occupied at the main temple. It was essentially the same, with a small shrine in the corner, two desks, red Valeria sigil affixed to the wall and pegs for her clothing. The only appreciable difference was the number of beds. Instead of one slanted bed there were two, with a privacy veil that could be drawn between them. Snorting, she noted that Vadenn's first act upon being shown their quarters was to take the bed nearest the door, leaving the one nearest the shrine for her younger sibling. Ardenn could not enter or leave without the older Sister knowing about it.

   There was, however, a small cleansing room…for which Ardenn was grateful. Her joining with David had been gentle and exploratory for the most part, but the evidence of their final surrender to the mating urge was still visible on her delicate white skin and she had no desire to have Vadenn examining her and making snide comments as she bathed. Not that it mattered…Vadenn had no authority over her any more…

   The door chime startled Ardenn out of her reverie, and Vadenn jumped as well at the soft tone. Both found themselves looking nervously at each other, and the chime sounded a second time before Ardenn found her voice. "Yes?"

   "It is Neriss. May I come in?"

   Both of the new Sisters stood and smoothed their rumpled robes as best they could. "Yes…of course," Ardenn continued, unable to keep a tremor out of her voice. Her features already schooled into her normal expression of cool indifference, Ardenn's older sibling added, "Please do come in, Sister Neriss. We have been expecting someone to come for some time."

   Neriss entered, another Sister trailing behind her, and Ardenn's brow ridge rose as she examined the two. Neriss and the other Sister were clothed slightly differently from the Sister of Valeria norm. They still wore a red outer robe over a white inner one, but the garments were cut slightly looser and, as Neriss passed in front of the doorway's light, Ardenn noted that the material was thinner than a normal robe. Looking up at the older Sister's face, she noted that both she and her companion wore translucent red veils.

   Through the veil, Ardenn could see Neriss smiling at her as she watched the younger Minbari. "These are the robes and veil worn by our discipline when we are performing our duties. You may touch me if you wish."

   Ardenn reached out and fingered the fabric. "The comfort of our touch…" she murmured, echoing Wyndan's earlier comment about serving those passing. Understanding dawning on her features, she asked, "This is the same material used in the making of Shan'fal robes?"

   "Yes," Neriss confirmed. "As I believe our High Sister explained to you, occasionally those we serve desire physical contact. In these robes, we can move freely and be touched without being touched. Those we serve can request similar robes, if such is their wish. You have worn a similar garment?"

   "Yes…my beloved and I wore them together before I returned to the Order." Indicating the thin hood Neriss wore, Ardenn said, "And the veil?"

   "Often, those we serve have minds that become clouded near the end. They look upon us and imagine us as others…faces from their pasts, people who were once important to them. It gentles their passing, so we aid in maintaining the illusion by making our true identities indistinct. As we often serve passing Sisters we knew and loved in life, the small barrier the veil represents also helps to remind us of our own objectivity as we ease their way to the other side." Turning to Vadenn, she indicated her companion. "Sister Vadenn, this is Sister Selise. Prior to your and Ardenn's arrival, she was the youngest among us. High Sister Wyndan has commanded that you be trained as a Veil Sister, and I have asked her to act as your guide."

   Sister Selise stepped forward and bowed to Vadenn. "I am honored to be chosen to teach you, Sister Vadenn." Straightening, she held out a bundle of clothing. "If you will put these on, I will show you around those portions of the temple we are allowed to enter. If we have time, I will take you to observe a passing."

   Vadenn cast a furtive glance at Ardenn. "And what of her? Is she not to be trained also?"

   "High Sister Wyndan has decided to undertake Ardenn's training personally."

   Vadenn hesitantly fingered the garment, but did not take it. Whirling on her younger companion, she snapped, "So…once again, Ardenn, you are treated specially! This is ludicrous! I have stood by and watched as honor after unearned honor has been tossed into your lap like candy for a sweet-toothed child! You…you get to live outside. You get to take a lover. You get elevated earlier than any other in our Order ever has been and you get personal audiences with the highest authorities among us! And now, you are to be trained by the High Sister herself! What star shined over your birth to bless you so? Tell me!"

   "Elder sibling," the younger Sister retorted, "You have no idea about that of which you speak. I am many things, but honored is not among them…far from it. If you knew half of what I have been through since returning, you would not think me blessed in the least. Even now, I suspect that the honor of being trained by the High Sister will prove to be a dubious one at best." In a low voice, she concluded, "Because there is one thing I have learned since returning, Vadenn. Nothing favorable is ever given for free in the Order…nothing at all."

   Vadenn glared at the insolent one for a moment before turning back to Neriss, who had stepped away and was watching the interplay between the two with polite interest. "This…Neriss, this is a mistake," she stammered. Jerking an accusing finger at Ardenn, she growled, "I told you as you brought me here! You know I am only here because of…of this one's disobedience! Take her! I am sure the Mistress means to retrieve me as soon as Sister Ardenn's intransigence is rectified!"

   Selise looked at Neriss uncertainly as Ardenn reached for the clothing. "She is…she is correct, in a sense. If one must serve, I will go."

   "No, Ardenn," Neriss admonished gently, placing a hand over hers to stop her from accepting the thin robes. "These are for Vadenn." Turning to the reluctant Sister, her tone was still soft, but Ardenn detected an undertone of command. "Sister Vadenn…you may be correct, but the Mistress has sent you here nonetheless. We have no way of knowing what your final disposition will be until we receive further word from her. Until that time, High Sister Wyndan has decided that your training should be started. Her decision is not negotiable." Selise held out the garments once more and Vadenn, seeing little sympathy was forthcoming, muttered a curse at Ardenn under her breath and snatched them away. Turning, she stomped angrily into the cleansing room and keyed the door shut.

   Neriss turned and whispered to Selise. In response, the second Sister nodded, bowed and went outside.

   "Vadenn will be difficult for you," Ardenn murmured regretfully as Neriss turned back to her. "I have known her all my life. She is afraid now, but her personality is not much different from what you see even when she is not. I have never understood why." Sighing, Ardenn continued, "Is the High Sister coming to bring me my new clothing?"

   "Yes. She has commanded that you become a Veil Sister also," Neriss confirmed, "But she is uncertain about you and the circumstances that brought you here. Until your disposition is confirmed, she has decided to give you other duties."

   "She thinks me incapable of fulfilling all of a Veil Sister's duties," Ardenn murmured.

   "Not…incapable," Neriss corrected. "Just…not yet prepared. In reality, Ardenn, neither you nor your companion are truly suited for this place, but something must be done with you both while we seek further guidance. Vadenn will begin training but will not be allowed to participate and you will serve also, but with different duties from those most of us perform."

   "And those duties would be…?" Ardenn probed.

   "I think you will find them…interesting," the older Sister answered cryptically. "It is better that Wyndan herself discuss them with you. She would have come with me, but she is receiving an unexpected communication from the Outside at the moment. Please be patient…and understand that it is almost unheard of for the High Sister herself to take one in training under her. You are being afforded a great honor…one greater than you can possibly realize right now."

   "A great honor. That is what Elevation is supposed to be," the young Sister noted dourly. "This…communication. Does it concern me?"

   "Questions," Neriss chuckled. "I am told it is always questions where you are concerned. Any more and I will start looking for your ears to rise and hair to sprout from your scalp. Still…" Ardenn saw Neriss chew her lip uncertainly beneath her veil, as if she were considering something. "Ardenn…I do not think the communication concerns you specifically, but you are involved. Something…distressing…has happened on the outside. I do not know what it is, but Wyndan…she is worried. That is all I know."

   "And all you should know for now, my overly talkative old friend," came an ancient but strong voice from the doorway. Using her staff for support, High Sister Wyndan moved into the small sleeping chamber, a bundle under her arm. Somewhat regretfully, she continued, "Indeed, you are involved, Ardenn. There is word from the outside and we are all involved…but you on a more personal level. We need to talk…but not here. What I have to tell you is for you alone." Holding the clothing out, she continued, "I brought these for you. Put them on."

   Taking the outstretched garments, Ardenn saw they were nearly identical to those Vadenn had been provided, with the exception that she had been given a cloak of heavier material to wear over them. In answer to the unspoken question written across her features, Wyndan said, "It will be colder where we are going. You are not yet used to our climate and will be thankful for the additional covering."

   Ardenn glanced quickly at the door to the cleansing room. Vadenn had not yet emerged and, as neither of the older Sisters seemed inclined to give her any privacy, she mentally shrugged and unbuckled her outer robe. As the garment slid to the floor, she reached for the pin holding her inner robe together, hesitating almost imperceptibly as she recalled what Wyndan had said about relationships between Sisters.

   Behind her, Wyndan chuckled as if she were reading the younger woman's mind. "Be at peace, Ardenn. You are indeed fair to look upon, but I think Neriss and I will somehow manage to control ourselves."

   If Ardenn could have blushed, she would have. Embarrassed that she had been read so easily, she shook her head and pulled the stickpin free. Hastily, she unfastened the catches holding the robe's seam closed and let the garment pool around her ankles, still conscious of the two older Sisters observing her. Bending over, she gathered the discarded robes and hung them on the pegs before turning to her new clothing. Quickly scooping up her new inner robe, the young Minbari stepped into it and pulled it up around her. She was just sliding her arms into the sleeves and pulling the shoulders up when Vadenn emerged from the cleansing room. The elder Sister looked her over speculatively, and Ardenn involuntarily shivered.

   "I see that your feeding patches have become no less of an encumbrance," she noted snidely, "But…I have heard that human males are aroused by such physical attributes. I am sure you researched facts like that thoroughly before you lured your human into your bed."

   With effort, Ardenn bit back the rejoinder forming on her lips and forced a condescending smile. "You are correct, elder sibling," she said sweetly. "I did not consummate my relationship with David in complete ignorance. I studied human sexuality extensively and, just so your curiosity is satisfied, breasts are indeed considered an erogenous zone. My David did not find them to be an encumbrance in the least, and he showed me that they can be quite, ah…responsive…pleasure centers when properly stimulated." With a twist, she fastened the final catch on the silky, thin inner robe and smugly added, "But you are incorrect regarding the circumstances surrounding our joining. When the time came for us to complete one another, I went to David's bed, not he to mine. It would have been most inappropriate for me to give myself to him with the Blessed Delenn in the next room, do you not agree?"

   "That is enough," Wyndan indicated, holding up a hand to forestall further comment between the two. Pointing to the door, she continued, "Sister Selise awaits you outside, Sister Vadenn."

   With a final sidelong glance, Ardenn's elder sibling marched from the room and Wyndan turned back to Ardenn, who had retrieved her outer robe and was buckling it. "Ardenn," she stated reprovingly, "It was proper for you to respond to Sister Vadenn's unkind comments, but to use one close to you as a weapon to do so was not."

   "I did not think of it that way," Ardenn abashedly murmured. "I would never dishonor the commitment David made to me. I am simply tired of listening to her denounce my relationship with him. I have never given her cause to do so."

   "Jealousy fuels her words, young one," Wyndan noted gently. "A root cause is not required. She speaks so because she desires to know what you know…to have what you have. And in her heart she knows she never will." Tapping her staff on the floor, she briskly said, "Such knowledge is enough to make the best of us bitter, but I think you already realize this. Now, we are spending what little time we have together unwisely. We must go."

   "What little time we have together?" Ardenn echoed, catching the ancient Sister's last comment. "I thought…"

   "Your circumstances have changed." The High Sister responded nebulously. "Much about our world has changed today, Ardenn…and not for the better."

   ***

   Wyndan led Ardenn through a maze of corridors, only the slight disturbances of curtains closing off other portions of the structure created by their passage indicating they were ever there at all. The ancient High Sister moved with amazing speed for one so old and seemingly frail, and the younger Minbari was hard pressed to keep up. Pulling the cloak Wyndan had provided more tightly about her, she noticed that as they wound their way deeper into the bowels of the temple, it was indeed getting colder…uncomfortably so. "Where are you taking me?" she huffed as the older Sister paused at a bend in the corridor.

   "Here, to begin with," the old Minbari replied. Motioning the young woman forward, the High Sister pointed down the passage ahead. Ardenn peered into the distance, noting that they had reached a point where the structure of the walls and ceiling changed. Thus far, the overall appearance of the temple had been Minbari, with crystal-inlaid stonework and ample lighting being the norm. A few meters ahead, the crystal gave way to naked stone, and in place of glowlamps, burning braziers were affixed to the walls. The lighting was dim at best, with flickers from the flame contributing to the gloomy appearance.

   Beside her, Wyndan murmured, "I told you that this temple was old, but now you will perhaps grasp that fact more succinctly. This is the place where we leave our modern world behind and enter the world as it was many, many millions of cycles ago. We are entering the original structure."

   Ardenn walked a few steps forward and held out a hand to one of the braziers. In shock, she quickly drew it away. "There is light, but no heat! How can this be?"

   "A trick of the ancients…an illusion." Wyndan explained. "We do not understand how this can be, even now. To our knowledge, these torches have burned since before our race was born…without ever being extinguished." Darkly, she added, "You are truly entering a place of secrets and wonders, Ardenn. Few among our Order know these ruins exist, and even among the Veil Sisters, few are allowed to come down here…but this is the least of what you will learn today." Moving past the younger woman, Wyndan motioned and began walking again, her staff tapping rhythmically on the stone floor as she went. "Come, we have other matters to attend to."

   Ardenn followed, her unease growing as she trailed closely behind the cryptic older Sister. The light from the torches was barely adequate, and seemed to brighten only as they approached. As they passed, it quickly faded behind them…seemingly swallowed up by the surrounding darkness. The young Minbari's sense of direction was acute, but there were so many turns, branches and bends she doubted she could find her way out alone. For the second time that day, she could feel her skin crawling…this time with the haunting knowledge that one could become lost in this ancient edifice and never emerge.

   Unconsciously, she closed the distance between herself and Wyndan…to the point where she nearly fell over the ancient woman when she unexpectedly stopped again. With a small cry, she pulled up short just in time. "Uh…pardon, High Sister," she stammered, backing off the older female's cloak.

   "It is all right," Wyndan chuckled, seeing both nervousness and abashment on the younger woman's face. "This place affects everyone the same way when first they venture here. Once the pathways are learned, it becomes far less oppressive. Do you have any idea of where you are?"

   Ardenn glanced around. They were no longer in a corridor. At some point behind them, the passageway had opened up into a chamber, the dimensions of which were not readily apparent. A few meters in each direction was all she could see. She could not see the walls, but the feel of the area was…massive. Massive and ancient beyond anything she had ever experienced. In the shadows outside their circle of light, she could make out a few oblong stone chests, neatly arranged in rows extending into the blackness. "No, High Sister. We are fully under the ice sheet, I think…perhaps underground as well, but that is all I can tell."

   Wyndan spread her arms wide and commanded, "Ill'sivia!" the Adrihi'e command for light. In response the chamber began to brighten. As the light increased, Ardenn gasped. The chamber was indeed massive…so huge that the walls were still indistinct. The few rows of containers she had dimly seen before became many. There were hundreds…no, thousands…of chests, all arranged in rows with mathematical precision. Each chest bore a red Sister of Valeria sigil on the lid, and each bore smaller Adrihi'e script around the beveled edges.

   "Sarcophagi," the young woman breathed in amazement, moving to the closest of what she now realized were tombs and trailing a finger across the Sister's name engraved in the lid. "This is the crypt of our Sisters."

   "Yes…welcome to our final resting place," Wyndan confirmed. "That is, unless you are a Mistress. As you know, they rest in the Shrine at the Main Temple."

   "And the rest of our Sisterhood…eventually find their way here?"

   Indulgently, Wyndan smiled and shook her head in amusement, "We all have to go somewhere, would you not agree? Our Sisters are all here with us…and a few others of note." Motioning the younger woman over to a tomb slightly separated from the others, Wyndan indicated that Ardenn should look.

   As he approached, Sister Ardenn could already see that this tomb was different. The lid was clear crystal rather than stone, and the sigil atop it was that of the Minbari Federation rather than the Sisters. Peering through the crystal, Ardenn was again surprised. "This…this is a male!" she exclaimed.

   "Not just any male, Ardenn," Wyndan explained as her young companion continued to stare. "You look upon the Great Dukhat himself. As you were to Delenn, so she was to him. She loved him as a second father and would give much to know his whereabouts today."

   Wondrously, Ardenn continued to gaze. The man within the tomb was perfectly preserved…his face set in regal repose, eyes closed as if he were sleeping. He was a striking male of advanced age, but he did not appear frail or elderly in the least. Even in death, the young woman noted to herself, the deceased leader radiated vital energy…an energy that reminded her very strongly of Entil'zha John when she paused to reflect upon it. The two men did not resemble one another overmuch, but they were of similar size and commanding presence. Idly, Ardenn wondered if this similarity of bearing had occurred to Delenn when she took John as her mate…perhaps it had even been a subconscious factor. Not that it mattered…Delenn loved her husband first no matter the circumstance.

   Looking more closely, she noticed the Minbari staff of leadership rested upon his chest…a staff devoid of only one thing. "Should there not be a Triluminary set into the staff?" the young Minbari murmured.

   "There should be," the older woman answered, "but Delenn possesses it instead." With a smile, she added, "I doubt he minds, and it is of more use to her than it would be if it were buried in this vault."

   Ardenn drew back from the sarcophagus and faced her companion. "Why…why is he here? He should be resting in his memorial temple in Yedor."

   "He did reside there for a while. The Mistress before Irilenn was a woman named Avaier. In her former life, she was Dukhat's mate. When her end drew near, she wished to be reunited with him. We arranged for him to be brought to her before she departed this realm. We laid him beside her as she was imprinted so she could look upon him as she chose her environment. Now her remains are in Yedor, and Dukhat…he remains here. I knew him and he was never overly sentimental about where his final resting-place should be. This is as appropriate a place as any." Motioning to another row, Wyndan indicated simple stone tomb devoid of almost all adornment. "Others not strictly of the Order rest here as well."

   Ardenn followed Wyndan's pointing finger and approached the second tomb. No sigil was affixed to the lid, and part of the inscription had been defaced. At some time in the past, someone had chiseled part of the second name away, but Ardenn knew. Straightening, she looked back at Wyndan and darkly muttered, "Clarenn, daughter of Katrenn."

   Wyndan's brow ridge rose. "So…you know. Rakell intimated as much to me, but she would not confirm it outright. That is why I showed you that tomb. Had you not recognized the name, I would have been more surprised than I am that you did."

   Somewhat defiantly, Ardenn replied, "Yes, I know our distasteful little secret…this one, at least. It would not surprise me to learn that there are others. You never did ask which shade spoke to me when I arrived."

   "Such questions are not appropriate. Those that reveal themselves to us…reveal themselves to us personally. Among our inner circle, we speak of them and record their words…but no one is forced to reveal the messages they receive." With an amused snort, Wyndan noted, "You did not ask me about my shade, either…but I can guess at yours." Sighing, she continued, "Please understand…not all Sisters look upon Katrenn as a betrayer. Many of us, Rakell and I included, respect the choices she made, even if she defied the will of her Mistress in the process. Officially, she is outcast…but, as you probably recognize better than any of us, she still resides in an honored place in the Shrine."

   "Honored?" Ardenn retorted. "How so?"

   "Is she not still up on the dais, nearest to Valeria herself? What departed Mistress would presume to have her shade occupy such an august position? Even Irilenn, a woman who is not one of our Mother's great admirers, would never dare remove her. As for secrets, it is the nature of both our Order and our people to collect them. Take your Delenn, for instance…oh, yes, little one…she has secrets, some quite distasteful indeed."

   "Delenn is the best of us."

   Wyndan smiled and nodded at Dukhat's tomb. "For a time…at least until the next 'best of us' comes along. That is what they said of him also, yet he had his secrets. Not all secrets are inherently bad…and when you emerge from this place, you will carry your share as well." Gripping her staff, the old Sister indicated a doorway at the far end of the chamber. "Now, it is time you learned them. Follow me."

   "I already know what you intend for me," Ardenn murmured dejectedly. "At first, I thought you meant for me serve as Vadenn will serve…but that would not break me. Now, you mean for me to serve in this dark place…alone with the dead. High Sister…in my heart I know that I cannot spend the rest of my life serving here." Gesturing listlessly at the tombs, her voice broke as she added, "I will quickly become as they are…"

   Wyndan turned on the young woman, not an iota of sympathy on her face. "You presume to already know my intent for you, little Sister? You know nothing! I have served here for over half my life! Think you that I spend all of my time in this chamber? How much care do you think the dead really need anyway? It is not as if they are asking me to fetch tea for them every time I turn around!" Ardenn flinched away from the older woman's anger, and Wyndan's expression gentled. "Listen to me, Ardenn. Irilenn wants you to serve as a caretaker for the dying…as Vadenn is learning to do. I am trying to protect you from that fate in the only way I can…by training you in my own duties. Now, we can continue…or I can send you back to the upper levels and watch as you learn more about stimulating pleasure centers than you ever wanted to know. Which would you prefer?"

   Ardenn straightened. "Um…as you have presented it that way…"

   "I suspected that you would see reason. Now come. There are other things I must reveal to you."

   "Like what?"

   "Like the true purpose of this place…among other things."

   ***

   Following her elderly guide, Sister Ardenn proceeded across the vast crypt of the Sisterhood to an archway set in the far wall…an archway engraved with runes and symbols in a language she did not recognize, but instinctively knew was not of Minbari origin. Trained as a linguist, she paused to examine the esoteric, angular script, tracing the outlines of the lettering with a curious finger.

   "Yes…fascinating, is it not?" Wyndan murmured when she saw what her young companion was gazing at. "In shape, it somewhat resembles human English, but the words you see were placed here long before either their race or ours even walked upright."

   "Who were they? The people who created this?"

   "I will explain…but you must see everything first. Come along…it is only a little farther."

   Reluctantly, Ardenn drew away from the gothic-looking script and continued on, the corridor growing dimmer as the light of the crypt faded behind her. Puzzling over her surroundings as she walked, she speculated that the relative dimness hinted at a race accustomed to a lack of light, perhaps a nocturnal civilization. Her own race craved the light, and did not see very well in the darkness. Her thoughts occupied and her vision still adjusting, she barely noticed that Wyndan had stopped and gently taken hold of her elbow to make her pause as well.

   "We are here," the older Minbari whispered, her voice echoing hollowly off the walls.

   "Here?" Ardenn repeated curiously. Turning in a circle, she surprisedly noted that she now stood in a darkened circular antechamber. At first the chamber seemed small, but she quickly realized that her initial impression was only because she lacked perspective. Indeed, it was smaller than the crypt, but still easily one hundred meters across. At least she assumed so…the area was almost completely bare and contained no recognizable object she could use as a frame of reference. Over her head, the ceiling rose in a high stone dome, with no seam visible. As in the ancient passages that led to this place, braziers were affixed to the walls at measured intervals. The entire interior surface of the walls and dome were covered in ancient runes similar to the ones she had been examining at the archway. Here, though, they were rendered in some sort of silvery metal, and the lighting effect of the torches made them glow a glimmering red.

   The Order's newest Sister absorbed all of these observations in just a few seconds. A few seconds was all she was able to spare before the antechamber's purpose for being captured her attention and wrested it away from any mundane concerns. Before her, in the center of the chamber, three massive crystal monoliths rose high above the stone floor, each casting an eerie bluish glow and seemingly placed to form a perfect equilateral triangle between them. The huge crystals were roughly conical, rose at least thirty meters into the air, and were canted towards one another in such a manner that the base of the triangle spanned an area of about forty meters while the pointed apexes were separated by a mere ten meters from one another. Were she to stand in the hollow at the center of the object, Ardenn uncomfortably noted, the giant crystal tines would look as if they were about to collapse upon her. Instinctively, she realized that they would not fall in, and that she was looking upon something impossibly ancient. "In Valen's Name," Ardenn stammered, awe and trepidation in her voice. "What…what is this?"

   It appeared that the center of the object was, in fact, where Wyndan intended to go. Motioning for Ardenn to follow, she murmured, "It is known only as the Artifact." To the young Minbari, her elder companion seemed as in awe of what she was seeing as Ardenn herself was, although she had undoubtedly been to this place many, many times before. "You now stand at the heart of our temple…its whole reason for being," she continued.

   Ardenn hesitantly followed. As she drew closer, Wyndan stepped into the space between the pillars and disappeared behind one of them. Rounding the nearest monolith, the young Sister got her first look at the interior and nearly screamed in surprise...

   Wyndan stood in the center of the monoliths staring at her with a knowing smile on her face. Above her head floated a large, amorphous sphere of bright blue energy, small discharges of what appeared to be lightning flashing within. "Forgive the theatrics, little Sister," the ancient woman chuckled as her young companion gaped. "I do not get to show my secret off much, so I strive to impress those few I bring down here."

   "You…you have succeeded, respected elder," the young Minbari whispered in response, not taking her eyes off the blue sphere floating over Wyndan's head. "Your…secret?"

   "Oh, yes. The Artifact is known to only a few," the elder Sister acknowledged. "Myself, the Mistress, Rakell, others of our discipline that accompany me here from time to time…and now you."

   "What is it?" Ardenn again asked. Seeing that Wyndan was not being harmed, she slowly stepped inside the boundary created by the bases of the monoliths. In a rush, more questions poured forth. "Who created this device? What is its function? Is it the only one of its kind? Why is it here?" Wyndan smiled wider, knowing that the young Sister was indeed hooked, as the humans would say. With a trace of petulance, Ardenn concluded, "You said you would explain."

   "Ah! Yes…I did promise an explanation," the old Minbari amusedly responded. Mentally casting about for a starting point, she gripped her staff and her face grew more serious. Drawing a deep breath, she began, "Our civilization is ancient, Ardenn. Among those known as the Younger races, we are the only people with an unbroken history. Yet, when compared to the history of our galaxy, we are latecomers…merely sparks cast away from a long burning flame. Many others there were who rose and fell before us, and many visited our world when it was young."

   "The First Ones."

   "The First Ones…yes," Wyndan echoed. "You know of the Vorlons and the Shadows, but there were many others, all millions of cycles older than we. Visit here in our prehistory they did indeed, but Minbar is a very, very old world, little Sister, even as worlds are considered. Cosmologically, even planets such as Earth are mere children by comparison. Before the First Ones…before the Vorlons and Shadows…there existed beings that were to them as they are to us, beings so powerful that they walked the young stars like giants and could almost be called gods."

   Captivated by the older Minbari's story, Ardenn was barely aware she was speaking. "The Progenitors…" she whispered.

   Wyndan paused, her brow ridge arching in surprise. "Yes…some call them by that name. How did you come by it?"

   "When I was in the link. Sister Katrenn told me the Vorlons took Valen to meet a Progenitor at the end of his time with us."

   "Katrenn knew of this? Did you speak of this to others? Tell me!" Wyndan hissed. "Did you tell Irilenn of it?"

   Worriedly reviewing her last confrontation with the Mistress, Ardenn eventually stammered, "No…no, I told her of my time in the link, but I do not believe I mentioned that specifically."

   The old Sister relaxed slightly. "It is well you did not. That information is unknown to her…I thought it was unknown to all but I, yet it is logical that Katrenn would know as his mate. Do you know why that information is dangerous?" The young Sister shook her head negatively and Wyndan explained, "The Vorlons of eight hundred cycles ago had never traveled beyond the Rim. For them to have taken the Blessed Valen to a Progenitor indicates that at least one was here, present in the physical realm in Valen's time…and by inference, perhaps present still. Even the possibility of such might be enough to make Irilenn abandon the Plan and instead set the Order to searching the galaxy for him."

   "But…why?"

   "Because the Progenitors link us and the humans, child," Wyndan replied. "Irilenn explained nothing to you? The Humans and we are both their direct descendants…the only two that still survive. This is why during the last Shadow War, while other worlds suffered greatly, the First Ones never attacked either Minbar or Earth. But our race has stagnated and will itself fade from existence if steps are not taken. To find one of the elder race among us…Irilenn would cast aside the slow process of creating one race from two in favor of what she would perceive as a quicker solution."

   "One race from two?" Ardenn haltingly whispered. "That is why…that is why Irilenn wants David and I to conceive! I…I understand now. I am kas'Valen and David is the only human Child of Valen. That is why Rakell said we were closer to one another…"

   "Yes, it makes sense…" the old High Sister confirmed with a nod. "Unlike us, our human brothers are still viable as a separate species. Their genetics have something that ours lacks, and David Sheridan carries the essence of both our races. Unlike you and other Children of Valen, his human legacy is the dominant one. You are kas'Valen you say?"

   Ardenn nodded. "Irilenn said I was twice again as human as a normal Child of Valen."

   "A joining of two unique beings…one a Minbari/human hybrid and the other a human/Minbari one…yes, it does make sense indeed. This explains much about your presence here…" Wyndan mused. Focusing her attention back on her younger companion, she explained, "As children of the same father, we and the humans are close but not close enough to intermingle naturally, and a device such as the Chrysalis is a poor substitute, only suitable for one person at a time. It will not save a race. To do so, intermediaries are necessary…people who are not strictly Minbari or human, but just enough of both to mate with either and conceive." Sighing, Wyndan added, "But creating such people takes time…it will take generations of selective interbreeding between humans and transformed Children of Valen such as Delenn to produce the proper genetic balance between our peoples. Our Order has worked towards this end since just after Valen departed, husbanding his and Katrenn's human legacy for every slight advantage it might give our people while we waited for our brothers to come as the Nok'Isil told us they would." Shaking her head sadly, she continued, "But I am older than Irilenn and have studied this problem for far longer. The assistance of a Progenitor would make little difference. At the height of their power they could manipulate life…they could extend it, enhance it, even change its nature to an extent…but they could not create it. They could delay death, but could not stop it. Perhaps a Progenitor could extend our time, but one could not save us. If they could have, they would not have needed devices such as this one."

   "So, this device…and others, I assume…was created by the Progenitors. Why?"

   "The passage of time within our Universe has not always been as it is now, Ardenn. Little is known of the Universe's early days…only the little we can comprehend from the engravings on the walls here. From what we can surmise, we believe that the Progenitors were the first intelligent race to evolve. They were born in the Great Light…the spark that ignited time and the Universe. Because of this, we believe that the first few to arise among them predated entropy and were not strictly subject to its effects…in essence, they were as immortal as the Universe they were born in conjunction with. Time as we know it meant almost nothing to them and they spent perhaps billions of cycles exploring the cosmos at their leisure."

   "But…if they are immortal, then they should still be here. Where did they go?"

   "Where did the other First Ones go?" Wyndan asked in response. "If we knew that with certainty, perhaps I could then answer your question. We do know that although the first Progenitors aged at the pace of the Universe, they were still living beings…beings subject to accident and injury just as we are. Immortality does not necessarily imply indestructibility, and some among the immortal few no doubt fell prey to death in that manner. Additionally, the temporal laws we exist under established themselves as the chaos of Creation settled…and those of their race who came later were born subject to them. These later Progenitors had inconceivably long life spans…but like us they were finite, and as the first of these later Progenitors began to fall prey to old age that knowledge weighed heavily on both them and their immortal elders. We believe they reacted to their changed circumstances in many ways. Some took to aiding the advancement of the younger races that had independently developed as the Universe expanded as a way of securing their legacies, and from those efforts the First Ones arose. Others went farther…physically giving of themselves to alter primitive life into their own images in an attempt to reenact their own creation. We believe that to be the origin of both our ancestors and those of the humans. A third faction developed advanced technologies in an effort to extend their already long spans. The Artifact is one of those technologies."

   "So the Artifact is an immortality device?"

   "That depends on what you believe the definition of immortality to be," the ancient Sister replied mysteriously. Ardenn continued to gaze at the glowing sphere of energy and something in her expression made Wyndan pause. Pointing her staff over her head, she said, "This energy sphere…it is familiar to you?"

   She was surprised at Ardenn's answer. "Yes," she whispered. "It…it was in a dream I had." Shaking her head, she closed her eyes and struggled to remember. "I have…forgotten. Strange…it was a fascinating dream, and I remember having it quite vividly…but the details escape me. Someone spoke to me of songs and mountains and…and children playing." Pursing her lips, the younger Sister concluded, "But that is all I can recall, other than a blue sphere similar to this one was present."

   "The Progenitors were not beings of mere flesh. They were beings of both matter and energy. What you see above me is, I believe, a representation of a Progenitor's energy aspect. It is to a Progenitor much as a hologram of you would be when compared to your true self. It has form and substance but no life…at least, not as we understand life."

   "That is what Irilenn said of the shades in the Shrine."

   Wyndan paused and looked understandingly at the young Minbari. "Now…you begin to see. This device creates the shades. The Progenitors who built it believed that by imprinting their consciousness on crystal, a material that will last far longer than even their spans, they could achieve a type of immortality. Crystal, of course, is a mineral Minbar has in abundance, which is why the device is on our world. The sphere above me is, for lack of a better term, the central processor of an advanced computer. At its heart, it is technology…technology long ago abandoned and now used by our Sisterhood." Sighing, she muttered, "It is time, I suppose," under her breath. With her staff, she indicated that Ardenn should look off to one side. "Go there and lie down."

   Following the tip of her staff with her eyes, Ardenn saw that a low stone slab had arisen from the floor. Her eyes narrowing, the young Sister made no move to comply. Looking back at her ancient superior suspiciously, she cocked her head and slowly asked, "What are you planning?"

   "This is…necessary," Wyndan intoned. "Some things are easier shown than explained, little one." Glancing hesitantly down at the floor, she paused a moment and then added, "I mean you no harm. Trust me."

   "That is what Irilenn said," Ardenn nervously observed without taking her eyes off the slab. "Shortly thereafter, I found myself paralyzed and engulfed in extremely painful electric discharges. Upon later reflection, I regretfully determined that she was being somewhat less than honest with me."

   The High Sister paused and appraisingly considered the young woman before her. After a moment, she said, "I merely want you to meet someone. I am not Irilenn and I will not command you, little one…I understand that you are uncertain about who to trust and who not to. I hope you realize that not everyone who wears crimson stands against you. Our Enlightened One does not and she would not have entrusted you to me if she thought I might harm you. You will feel no pain, I promise you. I cannot explain any better than that until you have experienced it."

   Ardenn eyed the older Sister, a trace of suspicion still in her eyes. Hesitating a moment longer, she then uncertainly padded over to the stone slab and sat down, nervously sliding her fingers across its smooth, glossy surface. Hoisting herself up, she stretched out on her back, clasped her hands across her abdomen and found herself staring up at the sparkling blue sphere and crystal tines of the monoliths. Licking her lips, she shakily asked, "What do I need to do?"

   Wyndan shuffled over to Ardenn's side and looked down at her, her face unreadable. Reaching out, she placed a wrinkled hand over the younger woman's. "Nothing. You need do nothing except close your eyes and listen to my voice. How are your meditation skills?"

   "As the humans would say…piss-poor."

   Wyndan laughed and patted her hand. "That is what they said of me when I was young. I fear they have grown no better with age. I finally decided that some of us are meant to stare at rocks…and some to throw them. Remember that."

   Ardenn faintly smiled and relaxed a little. As Wyndan had instructed, she closed her eyes. Drawing in a breath, she heard the old Sister shuffle away. Try as she might, she could not completely banish her nervousness, remembering only too vividly the helplessness she felt in the stasis field and the agony of the linking process.

   "You are too tense," she heard Wyndan murmur. "Clear your mind, little one. Set your worries aside for a moment and let yourself just simply be. Think of…nothingness."

   Ardenn strove to comply. Oddly, the closest she could come to nothingness was thinking of a series of documentaries she had viewed about Earth bears. One segment had been about creatures called Polaris bears…so named, she assumed, because the Human pole star shined down on their homeland at night. Rather than attempting to divorce herself completely from thought, she ruminated on the Polaris bear. There had been a scene with a Polaris bear in a driving snowstorm. White bear, white ground, white sky, white snow…all was white…pure whiteness…only the hiss of the wind…like static…static on white…

   Distantly, she noted a blue glow intensifying against her eyelids…or did she imagine it? Blue light…white bear? Her brow ridge furrowing, she felt her tenuous hold on 'nothingness' slip away. Grunting disappointedly, Ardenn opened her eyes to find the crystal tines of the monoliths still towering over her head and the same stone dome above them. She did not know what she had expected, but nothing had changed. "I am sorry, respected elder," she murmured. "I could not calm my mind as you wished. I failed…perhaps this was not meant to be."

   "Who says you failed?" a low, musical voice answered.

   ***

   Ardenn literally leapt off the stone slab and spun to confront the source of the different yet oddly familiar voice that seemed to hover just outside her view. She found herself facing a female of about her own age…one garbed as a Veil Sister, just as she was. "Who are you?" the young Sister barked. "Where is High Sister Wyndan?"

   The Minbari before her smiled smugly but did not speak again.

   "Did you hear me?" Ardenn tersely repeated. "I do not know how you infiltrated this place, but if your intentions are malicious, I am fully capable of defending myself!"

   "That will not be necessary, Ardenn," the woman laughed. "No harm has come to Wyndan, and I intend none towards you." Stepping closer to the tense woman, the stranger said, "Look at me closely…it will come to you."

   Seeing that she was not about to be attacked, Sister Ardenn relaxed a little. Cocking her head and peering appraisingly at her unexpected companion, she observed that the female facing her was noticeably taller than she. She was smooth-skinned, fair of face and clean-limbed, with a slender waist and well-toned body that even the young Minbari had to admit was appealing in a subtly sexual way. Her face was expressive, with high, chiseled cheekbones and full red lips. Her mirth-filled eyes were a haunting shade of bright blue and reflected far more wisdom and knowledge than her few cycles would attest. After a moment, the truth dawned. "High…High Sister?"

   Ardenn's no longer ancient companion smiled brightly and nodded. "I knew you were a quick one."

   "But…but nothing has happened!" Ardenn exclaimed. Gesturing at their surroundings, she continued, "I tried to clear my mind, but I could not hold on! We are still the same place we were before!"

   "Of course we are," the young Wyndan retorted amusedly. "What did you expect? Did you think I was going to teleport you somewhere? Use some matter disintegration device to transport your atoms into orbit? That sort of technology exists only in fantasy. Oh…I see…you expected this to be like the link in the Shrine? Sorry to disappoint you."

   "Evidently, then, the Artifact is some sort of youth-restoration device. You are now no older than I."

   "Oh…how I wish that were so," the transformed High Sister chuckled. "Unfortunately, I am as I was. Despite what you see, I am still old and you are still a full Minbari."

   "What do you mean…still a full Minbari?"

   Wyndan peered closer. "I have to admit, you are physically attractive as one of our people, but you are breathtaking in your hybrid form."

   Ardenn paused, not moving. Furrowing her brow, she looked suspiciously at her companion and mumbled, "The hair is back, correct?" in a low monotone.

   Wyndan smiled again and nodded in confirmation. "Oh, yes. White hair…and very light skin. It is not much different than Minbari, but definitely human nonetheless. The Chrysalis process is most becoming on you. I think that when your time comes, you will perhaps aesthetically rival Delenn herself."

   "I do not understand," Ardenn murmured, raising a hand to her scalp and for the second time finding hair there. "I am as I was in the Shrine, yet there was no stasis field and no electric discharges. I did not even notice that anything had taken place."

   "The process you just underwent is similar to that initiated by the linking globe in the Shrine," Wyndan clarified, "But it is not quite the same. The globe is merely a communicator with no computing power of its own. When you were exposed to the shades, it had to use your brain as its computer. Because our minds are far different from those of the Progenitors it was intended for, the process is agonizing to us and a stasis field is required to keep us from damaging ourselves. This Artifact is a far more complex device. Unlike the globe, it takes the images we provide it and processes them externally." Gesturing around her, she continued, "You see the same environment now that you saw before because I recreated it, with the exception that I am projecting myself as the woman I was a hundred cycles ago. In reality, I am still standing under the sphere and you are still lying on the imprinting slab." Reaching out, the young Wyndan took Ardenn's hand and squeezed it affectionately. Smiling, she concluded, "I thought we might relate to one another better if you saw me this way…as a female of similar age rather than an old woman."

   "The imprinting slab…" Ardenn murmured. "You are now a shade, then? Like Katrenn and the departed Mistresses?"

   "No, little one," the young-appearing Minbari noted with a grin, "You are." The young Sister's expression widened in shock and Wyndan gave her hand another reassuring squeeze. "But only temporarily, I assure you. I brought no crystal to load your imprint on to. Be at ease…I have brought others to this place and done the same to them on occasion. There is no harm…and it can be quite, ah…fascinating."

   "Others?" Ardenn asked. "Who?"

   "The Mistresses, obviously…but that is very rare," the young image of Wyndan replied. "They come here shortly before they pass. In my time, three have been imprinted. The last was Avaier, about sixteen cycles ago." Looking down at the ground with a hint of shyness, she continued, "As for others…Ardenn, I told you that intimate relationships between members of our Order are not forbidden, and I am not one of those who chooses to deny myself by practicing abstinence. The very nature of our duties make such almost impossible in any event. At my age and the ages of those who choose to accompany me, however, our flesh is often weak even though our spirits are more than willing. Under the influence of the Artifact, we can be free for awhile to experience each other as the young women we once were…as the woman you see now."

   "Oh…" Ardenn breathed, her eyes widening. Her hand slipping out of Wyndan's, she continued, "I, ah…I think I understand. You brought me here to…"

   "To seduce you?" Wyndan finished as her young companion's expression became guarded and uncertain. Shaking her head with mirth, she laughed, "Oh, child…please…no, I did not mean…that is not why you are here!" Stepping back, her laughter faded as she appraisingly eyed her now-uncomfortable subordinate. Crooking a finger to her chin, she smiled secretively and murmured, "Still…I did not lie to you before. You are indeed fair, both in your present form and your true one. I have lived a long time and there is much I could teach that you will not find in any text…if such interests you."

   Ardenn hesitated, unsure whether her companion was serious or was merely making a jest at her expense. She suspected the latter, but something in the other female's eyes hinted that the former might manifest itself if she expressed willingness. Fleeting visions of her submitting to the caresses of the sensual but illusory woman flashed through her mind and she cast her eyes downward guiltily as she realized that her body was involuntarily responding to them. Ashamed, she quashed the thoughts. "I, uh…I am honored by your generous offer," she stammered, caught unprepared by her superior's proposition and unsure about how to gently rebuff it. "But…no. I do not believe it would be a good idea."

   "As you wish," the young-appearing woman acknowledged, a trace of disappointment in her voice. "It is a pity, though. I think you would have found a skilled female's touch delightfully different from anything you have previously experienced." Folding her hands in front of her, she sighed and said, "Well…we seem to have digressed. I brought you here to meet someone, as I recall." Glancing over Ardenn's shoulder, she pointed and indicated Ardenn should turn around.

   Ardenn turned and gasped, the previous topic instantly forgotten. Not two meters from her a formless blue glow hovered, apparently waiting to be noticed. Recovering quickly, she peered curiously at the cloud of energy. It was transparent and she could see one of the monolith bases through it. "This is…the energy sphere?"

   "Yes," Wyndan acknowledged. "Surely you noticed it was missing when you opened your eyes?"

   "With everything else being so new, I did not," the young Sister admitted. "How am I to meet it and why do you want me to? I thought you said it was not alive, yet you refer to it as if it were a conscious being."

   "It is not alive…but there is consciousness of a sort." Sighing, Wyndan continued, "I told you I brought you here to protect you from the fate Irilenn planned for you, and I told the truth…but I also have an ulterior motive."

   Ardenn shook her head, disappointed but unsurprised. "Everyone seems to where I am concerned. What is yours, if I may ask?"

   "I look fair in this form I wore long ago…but as much as the Artifact makes it seem true while I am here, it is nothing but an illusion I provide, just as you provided your hybrid image. My reality is…I am an ancient, Ardenn. I am one hundred twenty-five cycles as our people reckon age and no technology of the Progenitors will change that. I do not have much time left in this incarnation."

   "You are dying?"

   "We are all dying," the young image corrected with a chuckle. "All of our life-paths lead to the same inexorable destination. Some are simply farther along that path than others. I do not believe I will pass tomorrow, or the next day…or even the next cycle, but my termination point is in sight. When my time does finally come, my passing will be more than that of a simple Sister. Through this Artifact, I am the Creator of Shades…I imprint the Mistresses when their times come and I am the only one within the Order that can do so."

   "That makes no sense," Ardenn noted. "One of the things I learned from the humans is that there must be redundancy. Forgive me for remarking on it, but you should have trained a replacement."

   "It is not from a lack of foresight that it is so," Wyndan replied. "The Artifact must accept the person to be trained…and it is very selective. As the existence of this device is one of our Order's greatest secrets, not many even among those who wear crimson can come down here to be tested. Of those few who have, the device has never accepted any. Thus, my ulterior motive…I brought you here to see if the Artifact would accept you. If it likes you, my original intent was to train you in what we call the Art of Creation. It is the only function within our discipline that does not involve attending the dying." Sadly, she added, "As I say, training you was my intent…until a short time ago. Now, things have changed and I will have to content myself with merely seeing if the Artifact finds you suitable."

   "Why?"

   "First things first," Wyndan demurred. "Ardenn, right now I am the intermediary between you and the device. You are here with me, but you are not in direct contact with it. The Artifact cannot see you…it senses your presence, but I am masking you from it. To see if you are acceptable, I will have to step aside and expose you. When I do, it will be curious. Will you allow the Artifact to touch you?"

   "I do not see how…"

   "Will you?" Wyndan repeated more demandingly. "It will not damage you. Either it will approve or it will not. You will be no worse off either way, and I think you will find the experience an interesting one."

   Noting that the High Sister had been truthful about the painlessness of submitting to the Artifact's link, the young Minbari had no reason to disbelieve her. Nodding, she turned back to face the blue glow, unconsciously bracing herself.

   "Again, you are too tense," Wyndan remarked. "Relax. Close your eyes and think of a location that places you at ease…a favorite place, perhaps? Picture that comfortable place and mentally try to project it outwards. Pretend you are a telepath."

   Ardenn relaxed, eyes closed, and after a moment, she heard Wyndan chuckle. "Better…much better. Ah! I have stepped aside. It sees you now…and it is indeed curious."

   "I…I do not feel anything…"

   "Nor should you…for the moment. It is assimilating the environment you are projecting so it can interact with you directly."

   Ardenn kept her eyes closed as Wyndan instructed, and after a moment, she heard the older Sister laugh again. "Little one…is your intended's bedchamber the location you truly want for this? A comfortable place for you that may be, but the device will give form to every detail you provide for it. If your thoughts become erotic it will try to fulfill your fantasy. While such can be pleasurable in the extreme, I recommend that you not encourage the Artifact to mate with you…at least not during your first interaction. Provide it another location."

   Embarrassed that her desire for David had inadvertently leaked through her mental barriers as she relaxed, Ardenn breathed an epithet and hastily pictured another place. "Yes…this is a good choice," she heard Wyndan murmur. "Quite suitable. Open your eyes."

   The young Minbari complied, only to gasp once more as she looked around. She had returned to the Presidential compound and was perched at the rail of the main balcony, looking out over the spires of Tuzanor. A slight breeze wafted across as she gazed in wonder, and she noted that is smelled just as it should…clean, with the faint scent of flowering plants and moisture off the mountains. Above her, the sky was as reddish-blue as she had ever seen it, and Ardbar was high in the sky. It was a perfect mid-spring day.

   "You chose well," Wyndan murmured from behind her. "Your memories of this place are vivid. The Artifact was easily able to recreate this environment for you."

   Ardenn turned to the woman…and was startled to find that she now appeared in her true, aged form. "It…it read my mind?"

   "No. The Artifact does not read minds…at least not as a true telepath would. It is limited to scanning your surface thoughts and taking only what you provide…what you project to it. It cannot delve into you and retrieve anything against your will. You gave it this place and it constructed the illusion of it within the crystal latticework of the monoliths. Similarly, my illusion of youth was stripped away when I allowed the device to see you." Smoothing her robe, the now old Wyndan took a seat on Delenn's bench and glanced behind the awestruck young Sister. With a chuckle, she added. "This place is not all you provided. Look behind you."

   Ardenn turned and nearly forgot to breathe. Just outside arm's reach stood Delenn, hands clasped before her, wearing her finest robe and eyeing the young Minbari as if she had never seen her before. Ardenn stared and Delenn cocked her head curiously and stared back.

   "This…this cannot be!" the young Minbari stammered, her eyes glued on her former mentor. "Delenn does not know of this place! She is far from here!"

   "She is not as far away as you think, little one," Wyndan quietly replied. "But you are correct in one respect. She is not truly here...yet your memories of her are. You provided several images associated with this place to the Artifact, and it chose this one to assume while interacting with you. You love and respect Delenn as a friend, yet you also associate her image with parental authority. No doubt that is why it selected her form." Her young companion remained as if frozen and the High Sister amusedly added, "Surely you did not think a glowing blue blob was going to descend on you and perform some sort of mind meld?"

   "The…the thought had occurred to me." Ardenn muttered. The image of Delenn stood as if nailed to the floor and Ardenn was unsure of what to do. "What is she…it waiting for?"

   "An invitation. A gesture. A greeting, perhaps?" Wyndan mused. "As her living counterpart is superior to you socially, tradition dictates that you initiate the contact."

   "Oh…" Ardenn replied dumbly, at a loss regarding the proper etiquette for greeting one so familiar, yet so alien. Thinking a human hug might be inappropriate given the circumstances, the young Minbari resisted her initial inclination and decided on a more formal introduction. Bowing to the Delenn-image in the manner of a junior family member, she intoned, "Greetings, respected one. I am called Ardenn, and it pleases me to meet you."

   The Delenn-image looked at her quizzically for a moment and then returned the bow with a smile. As the image straightened, Ardenn got her first look at the illusion's eyes. Rather than being green-tinted hazel as her former mentor's were, both the irises and the pupils were a bright translucent blue.

   "Offer it your hand, little one," Wyndan murmured from behind her.

   Hesitantly, Ardenn complied. As if mirroring her, the Delenn-image reached out as well. As their fingers lightly made contact, the young Minbari's skin began to tingle as if she were being subjected to a slight electrical discharge. The feeling was not unpleasant, and reminded the young Sister most strongly of the sensation she experienced whenever David touched her…

   "No erotic thoughts, Ardenn…" Wyndan softly warned. "Remember what I told you."

   Shaking her head slightly, the young Sister banished David from her mind once more as a strangely hungry expression briefly flashed across the Delenn-image's face. Disappearing just as quickly as it had come, the image's smile returned and she stepped closer, walking in a circle around the motionless Minbari and trailing her fingers lightly up Ardenn's arm to her shoulders without breaking contact. Completing the circle, the image stopped in front of Ardenn once more, her expression curious. Raising her hands, she placed her fingertips lightly on the young Sister's truncated crest, idly exploring the small crown's folds and the hair surrounding it. Swallowing nervously, Ardenn strove to ignore the intimacy of the touch and, after a moment, the Delenn-image's fingers ceased their exploration and came to rest on her temples. Locking eyes with the young Sister, the image's bright blue orbs gazed inquisitively into her grey ones.

   "This is a very good sign," the old High Sister murmured. "She has not stepped away. Usually, the testing ends at this point."

   "Does she speak?" Ardenn queried.

   "You are about to find out, I believe…"

   ***

   <…You are incomplete...>

   "Pardon?" the surprised young Minbari replied. The image's lips had not moved, but she heard words spoken in Delenn's voice. Outwardly, she watched as the Delenn-Artifact's brow furrowed thoughtfully.

   <You are damaged. You are not whole.>

   "I…I do not understand," Ardenn stammered. The slight pressure of the image's fingertips on her temples made her pause and think for a moment. "Oh…my bonecrest…yes, it is damaged, I know…" Hastily, she recalled the events at Fulmer's Colony several months prior and tried to project them.

   The Delenn-image shook her head. <No. That injury is transitory and does not affect us. You are…empty in a way we do not understand…> Lowering a hand from Ardenn's temple, the image placed it gently on her abdomen. <Yes. We sense it. The damage is that of loss, not of the body. Show us…we are curious about how this came to be…>

   Ardenn was confused. Other than her bonecrest, she had never before been injured. "I…I am sorry. I do not know what you seek."

   The image gazed harder at her…as if it were looking for something hidden. After a moment, its expression softened in sympathy. <We understand now. Your memory has been…shielded, rendered painless…and it is well that it is so. We will not expose that which has been wisely hidden from you.>

   "I…do not understand…"

   <And that is as it should be.> Placing the hand that had been on Ardenn's abdomen back on her temple, the Delenn-image smiled. <Did our present companion explain that we are testing you?>

   "Yes. To see if we are compatible."

   <Compatible?> the image repeated. <No. Not compatible. None born of flesh alone are truly compatible with us. We test you with questions…and we judge your answers…>

   Ardenn sucked in a terrified gasp and tried to recoil as the Delenn-image's soft blue eyes began to glow and her expression hardened. The image stopped her, clamping down on her head and holding her in place with strength her mentor could never have mustered even as a full Minbari. Staring intently into her eyes, the Artifact's words rang through head, seeming to echo off the walls of her skull.

   <DO YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE?>

   The surprised and stricken Sister tried to struggle but found that she was held motionless, immobilized so completely that she could not even tremble in fear. "I am…Ardenn…" she managed to breathlessly stammer. "I am a Minbari. I am a friend and companion to those who wish it…I am the mate of a man who loves me as I do him…" Trailing off, she could feel herself wilting under the images bright stare. "I…I cannot answer…I do not know the answer…I am only what you see, nothing more. I am…I."

   <THROUGH US YOU CAN HAVE ANYTHING YOU DESIRE…ANYTHING YOU CAN IMAGINE. WHAT DO YOU WANT?> The Delenn-image peered closer and an image of herself appeared in Ardenn's head. She was garbed in ornate robes, white hair cascading out from under her crest to flow down her back as she strode regally through what appeared to be a massive temple. David…her David, trailed meekly behind her and people stood aside as she passed, bowing in awe and trepidation lest her gaze fall on them and find them wanting. She was…powerful. Terrible and beautiful at the same time…<YES…ADORATION AND DESPAIR. YOU CAN BE THIS PERSON. ALL THAT IS REQUIRED IS THAT YOU WISH IT…>

   "I DO NOT WANT THAT!" Ardenn cried. Tears streaming down her face, she strove to collect herself enough to show the Artifact what she did want. Her wants were so simple and plain compared to what the Artifact offered that she was almost embarrassed to expose them. Desperately trying to center herself, she projected an image of herself awakening in the morning in the crook of David's arm as the giggles of their children wafted down the hallway outside her door. She imagined herself sitting at the dinner table with David, John, Delenn and Susan. They were having an amusing conversation and everyone was relaxed and happy. Finally, she projected her and David alone together. He was holding her. She whispered a soft request into his ear and gazed at him demurely. In response, he smiled, swept her up in his arms and carried her back to their bedchamber…

   "Friendship, acceptance, family…love…" Ardenn whispered. "That is what I wish for. Can you give me those things…and make them more than a mere illusion?"

   <WE WERE CREATED TO MAKE MORTAL BEINGS IMMORTAL. THAT IS OUR PLACE, OUR FUNCTION, OUR PURPOSE…WHAT IS YOURS?>

   "My purpose is…I live my life. I…I would like to believe that I touch the lives of others…and hopefully make a few better and happier than they were before…" Trailing off, Ardenn sniffled and tried to rein in her tears as she struggled to find an explanation that would satisfy the demanding image holding her. "I…I suppose it does not sound like much…when compared to immortality," she whispered, "but…it occurs to me that your purpose is less than the truth…because nothing is immortal."

   Ardenn had not thought the image could squeeze harder, but it did. Through the haze of pain pulsing within her skull, she imagined she could hear her thinned crest starting to crack from the pressure. "Oh…please…do not kill me," she whimpered. "I do not want to die like this…"

   The pressure lessened slightly. <EXPLAIN YOUR OBSERVATION ABOUT OUR PURPOSE.>

   "Immortality…is an illusion, much as this…this place you have made from my thoughts," the distressed woman whispered through gritted teeth. "The crystals you imprint…they are…they are of this Universe and will be made…dust some day. Even your…makers…they will end, because the Universe…the Universe itself is…finite." Screwing up her courage, she breathed, "So I…I ask you, which is more…more valid? My humble, uncertain…purpose or…or your grand but…unattainable one?"

   <And where are you going?> the Delenn-image asked, its voice no longer booming. The demanding expression on her face relaxed, and her grip loosened. To Ardenn's amazement, the figure looked genuinely impressed.

   "I do not know," the young Minbari gasped, relieved that her skull had not been crushed. "And I do not desire to."

   <Why?>

   "Because to know your answer…would steal the adventure from my life," Ardenn replied. "To know our ultimate destinations would…would rob us of the wonder of the journey."

   The Delenn-image relaxed completely, its fingertips again only slightly grazing Ardenn's temples. After a thoughtful moment, the illusion cocked her head mirthfully and released the young Sister, placing a gentle hand on her cheek as she did so. <You answered our questions very wisely, Ardenn.>

   "Wyndan told me this would not be harmful," the young Sister retorted in irritation. Gently searching her crest for cracks with her fingers, she continued, "Subjecting me to physical restraint was unnecessary. I would have answered just as well without it."

   <We caused no harm to you. You did not completely trust the words of the other and expected a stressful test…an inquisition. We provided the scenario you projected.>

   "So I answered correctly, then? I passed your test?"

   <There is no pass or fail. No answers are correct or incorrect, only good and bad. Even with all their knowledge, my makers could not answer them any better than you did.> Glancing away momentarily, the Delenn-image then added, <Did you know that you have carried the essence of an Elder One? We sensed its presence. Did one give of himself to you?>

   "I do not understand."

   <Those are the four wisest words in our Universe,> the image replied with a smile, ignoring the implied question. <We have discovered that the first step to understanding a little is recognizing that you do not understand anything. We would like to help you understand a little in the short time you have. Will you return to us when your other tasks are complete?> Taking her eyes off Ardenn for the first time since initiating contact with her, the Delenn-Artifact glanced over at Wyndan, who was idly toying with her staff and studiously trying not to pay attention. To Ardenn, she looked tired.

   An expression of sadness passed across the image's face. <Our present companion understands a little, but she slowly fades. We can sustain her…for a short while…while you see to your other duties, but her life-energy is beyond replenishment.>

   "My other duties?" Ardenn echoed. "I thought this was to be my duty in the Sisterhood…learning Wyndan's function."

   <We would like that,> the image replied. <We would like for you to stay with us…but that cannot be.> Her gaze becoming grave, the Delenn-Artifact continued, <We were one of many machines created by our Masters in the times you call ancient. Some of the devices they created were so powerful they could hear and study the Song of the Universe itself. They could even bend back the fabric of time. We are not an engine of that fearsome reach or magnitude, yet in our small corner we see and hear much…and what we see now is fire and what we hear is strife. Violence has come once again to your world, and others…those whose love you depend on…have need of you. That you will serve here brings contentment to us, but we…in your heart…will always be a distant second to those who share the grand illusion with you. And this is also as it should be.>

   The young Minbari began getting a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. "Fire and strife?" she incredulously repeated. "On our world? What has happened?"

   The image did not answer. Instead, it glanced over at Wyndan, who had risen from the bench. Spinning around, Ardenn faced the old High Sister. "You are hiding something from me. Tell me what it is…now."

   "Ardenn, Minbar has been attacked…attacked directly. Many other worlds have been, also. Here, the damage was light…but in other places, it has been heavy indeed. We are at war, and there is much chaos in the world outside."

   "And what of Delenn and Susan? Oh…Valen…what about David and his father?"

   "Sus'Minhat Delenn is unharmed. Anla'Shok Na is gathering the fleet. As for your Sa'fela and his Va'mala…I cannot answer you. We do not know, except that they were off-planet when the initial attack occurred."

   "You must allow me to contact Delenn! Please, High Sister…I know it is forbidden, but I must know!"

   "There is no need, Ardenn. She is coming here."

   "Here? To this temple?"

   "Yes. In truth, we have spent some time down here and she has probably arrived by now. I have been instructed by Mistress Irilenn to allow you to accompany her when she departs."

   Ardenn had no idea of what to do or how to feel. She was being freed…freed! Even now, Delenn might be in the temple above, waiting for her. But…she had no idea about her beloved. Was he all right? Was he hurt? Was he even alive?

   Unconsciously, the young Sister hugged herself in despair. <Oh, Valen…certainly I would know…>

   Around her, the balcony scene began to disintegrate as her surface thoughts became chaotic. The Delenn-image's expression became confused as it attempted to make sense out of her unintended projections. <We cannot assuage your fears…our reach does not extend beyond Minbar, and the one you seek is not here.>

   Quietly, Wyndan stood and motioned with her staff, resuming control of the device. What little of the balcony not already dissolved into randomness faded completely, and the young Minbari felt an odd but gentle tug in her soul. Abruptly, she was once again lying on the stone imprinting slab looking up at the tines of the monoliths and the blue energy sphere that was the Artifact's true form.

   Shakily, she sat up. Behind her, she heard her ancient companion murmur. "You are one with yourself again."

   "Exactly where I should be," Ardenn retorted nervously. "I apologize…but you understand I have to go. I cannot remain here while my heart is threatened. What now?"

   "Now?" High Sister Wyndan repeated. "Now…I find myself in somewhat of a quandary. The Artifact approves of you and want you to be its next Companion…yet it also recognizes that your fate lies elsewhere." Shaking her head sadly, she continued, "You may leave, of course, but what the illusion told you is true. A part of the reason I remain in the realm of the living is because of its sustenance…a sustenance that cannot last." Plaintively, she whispered, "Will you come back to us when your other tasks are seen to? Will you allow me to train you in the use of this device? There is time enough for that, but not much more."

   Ardenn stood uncertainly. Every fiber of her being was screaming at her to return to the surface as soon as possible, collect her belongings and rejoin her Va'saia. Her few days as a full Sister had been horrible, and at that moment she never wanted to look upon a crimson robe again…yet, she had also found that the old Minbari's earlier observation was true. Not all Sisters bore her ill will. Rakell was not her enemy, and Wyndan herself seemed to care about her on some level beyond her potential as a replacement. Trepiditiously, she considered her life as a permanent resident of the frozen North and shook her head. She could not do it, could never turn her back on the people who loved her, the people she loved. She started to say 'no', but as her lips formed the word, another thought occurred to her. "When this device is used to create a shade, they and their environments begin separately, do they not?" she asked.

   Wyndan looked at her quizzically. "Yes…yes they do. The creation process is much as what you have just experienced. When a Mistress nears final passage, I use the Artifact to coax their ideal environment into their surface thoughts. At that point, I invoke the dying one's shade, emplace it into the environment and hold it there. The two become melded upon the death of the physical body. But yes…they are separate until that point."

   "Can the process be reversed? Can a shade be separated from its environment once the melding is accomplished?"

   The Keeper of the Crypts pursed her lips. "I do not know," she finally answered. "I have never tried to do so."

   Ardenn sighed. "Respected Elder, I cannot live here. My heart is not in this place, and I would wither if I were forced to be a permanent resident…but, when you have that answer, contact me. If some accommodation can be reached that will allow me both service and my heart, I will return…and I will have a request of you."

   ***

   It was cold…bitterly cold as Sister Ardenn of the Veil stood silently on the landing pad roof of the temple and gazed into the dark sky, waiting for her ship to come. Although she seemed calm enough, any telepath within sensing range would have had to consciously block the contradictory mix of thought and emotion she radiated like a small sun. She was happy to be leaving, happy to be rejoining Delenn…yet she was gripped with sheer terror at the prospect that their world was at war. On a personal level, she was nearly frantic with worry about David. Ardenn knew he was resourceful and could take care of himself, but she could not help her own fears. Clasping her hands in front of her, she began absently twisting her ring, in the process noting that she was trembling…and not from the cold.

   As she continued to watch, she first heard and then saw the approach of a ship. Her night vision was not particularly keen…not nearly as keen as a human's…but after a moment the approaching shape resolved itself not into the flyer she had expected, but a full-sized White Star. Landing legs extended, the vertical thrusters of the medium-sized warship fought with the howl of the wind for prominence as the ship lined up for landing. The young Minbari tightened her cloak, retrieved her satchel and made her way back to the temple entrance, unsure if the pad was large enough to accommodate the Ranger vessel and wanting to give them as much space to set down as possible.

   Fortunately, the pad was large enough…barely. Ardenn found herself facing the closed personnel ramp as the vertical thrusters of the ship went idle and the weight of the vessel settled on the landing legs.

   The White Star was a new one, Ardenn noticed, her hull a bright, inexperienced white with little blue tinge. Much like her. When she had given herself to David, he had told her that she reminded him of a White Star. Then he had made love to her. She had never known true passion until that moment, had never become one with another until she had totally let go of herself with him…

   It seemed as if that had occurred in another life…months or even cycles ago. It had only been a week. Just a week. Everything about their lives had changed so much in just a week.

   There was war. Ardenn's choice-mother would see to that. Susan was a warrior…a great one even as the Minbari measured warriors. She would win the war for them. Ardenn had no doubt whatsoever that any war against Anla'Shok Na and the Rangers could have no outcome other than victory on the side of Light.

   But her Ranger was lost. Hers and Delenn's. Ardenn knew what had to be done. She and Delenn would go find them…because great people never stood alone, they always had others who loved them standing beside them. And, when circumstances required it, those others waited, arms outstretched, so those they loved had someone to catch them when they fell.

   Delenn would catch John. Ardenn would catch David. To the young Minbari's mind it was as simple as that. That was the way matters were when you loved someone as much as she loved…

   "You seem far away. I have missed you."

   Ardenn jumped slightly. She had become so lost in her own musings that she had not seen the ramp lower on the ship, had not seen the willowy, cloaked figure descend and make her way over. Had not seen the sadly smiling face of the person she admired most in the world looking into hers. Eyes alight and mouth agape, she hastily extended her arms, meaning to engulf Delenn in a very un-Minbari hug. Just as hastily, she caught herself even as Delenn extended her arms in response.

   She was a Sister of Valeria now. She had forsworn Delenn…had forsworn everybody. "Um…yes…forgive me, my attention wandered momentarily." Lowering her arms as Delenn eyed her quizzically, she formed a triangle with her hands and bowed respectfully. "I greet you, President Delenn. I am…Sister…Ardenn of the Order of the Sisters of Valeria. It pleases me to meet you."

   Delenn gazed at her a moment, surprised at the extreme formality, before realization dawned. Before her, the young woman held her bow, waiting for the older woman to return it. Instead of bowing, Delenn knelt down so she could look up into the young woman's face. Cocking her head as she looked into Ardenn's grey eyes, she smiled amusedly. "Such formality your Sisterhood requires. It is good to practice it, as you never know when you will find yourself in the company of your betters…but it is not appropriate to bow so low before those who occupy lesser positions than you." With a snort she added, "Besides which, those who bow as you do often find themselves forever bumping into things."

   Seeing that Delenn was not going to return her bow, Ardenn straightened. "What do you mean…lesser position?"

   "I am no longer President. In their…ah, wisdom…the Advisory Council felt I could best serve as a private citizen for the duration of the crisis."

   "So you now occupy…a lesser position than me?"

   Gesturing at the ship behind her, Delenn smiled and continued, "I suppose my position as a Religious caste leader is unaffected…although it is not as formal as the one you occupy. I an not really elderly enough to be considered a caste elder, and Callenn is the leader of my clan, not I. It would seem, then, that the title Anla'Shok and temporary Alyt of David's ship is about the highest position I hold at the moment." Her grin becoming bemused, Delenn made the symbol of the triangle and bowed low, just as Ardenn had before. "I greet you, Revered Sister Ardenn. I am Anla'Shok Alyt Delenn Sheridan of the Religious caste. It pleases me to meet you. How may I serve you?"

   Ardenn returned the bow, afraid to reply because she could feel tears welling up. So much had changed. "You can serve me…by…by taking me away from this wretched place," she whispered. "You can please me by…by telling me that you still have a place for me…" She really needed that hug now…and Delenn could sense it.

   "Take this, Ardenn," the older woman murmured huskily, tearing the envelope from within her cloak and stuffing it into the silently crying younger woman's hand. "Take it and keep it close to you always. That document has cost us more than you will ever realize…and you most of all." Once Ardenn had the suppression crumpled in her hand, Delenn reached out and drew the smaller woman into her arms, gently stroking the folds of her crest and playing her hands lightly down Ardenn's back as she shivered and cried. "I am so sorry it took me so long," she murmured. "But we are together now and I will not let you go again. Do not be afraid. I love you…we all still love you."

   Ardenn squeezed the envelope in her hand tighter, realizing what it was. "I love you also. Entil'zha told me not to give up and I never did."

   "I knew you would not," Delenn murmured into Ardenn's ear. "I have no doubt that John trotted out one of his inspirational speeches for you." Drawing away slightly, she rested her hands on Ardenn's shoulders and gazed into her eyes forlornly. "I do not know how much you have been told…but much has changed, over and above my removal as President. We have been attacked by a race known as the Dilgar, and there is much confusion now."

   "Yes…I had heard of that. And David…"

   "David and John are both unaccounted for," Delenn finished. Releasing the younger woman, she became more businesslike. "We believe they are still alive, but stranded on a planet called…"

   "Khon'dar…" Ardenn interrupted. Delenn arched her brow ridge in surprise and the young Minbari explained, "I was with Susan…Anla'Shok Na when the initial report on that place was received. We must go and find them."

   "That is my intent," Delenn muttered. "I have David's ship. It is the only one that could be spared. I also have his crew. I think you know most of them." Grasping Ardenn's bag lightly, Delenn indicated that they should start for the ship. "Now…we shall return you to Tuzanor while I go to retrieve them…"

   Ardenn stopped. "Absolutely not," she declared. "Why would you even suggest such? I will go with you."

   Delenn turned to her companion and pursed her lips. "Ardenn, you are no longer an Apprentice," she explained. "You are a Sister of Valeria and, although you do not yet realize it, that makes you a person of some importance. Our people will look upon you with a measure of reverence and even a little awe. Sisters of Valeria are considered keepers of arcane and esoteric knowledge…and some of the more superstitious believe them to possess strange powers. You cannot just stand out of the way and go unnoticed any longer. Your presence will be noted wherever you go…and there will be danger where we go now." More gently, she added, "You are also my Ier'saia, if you still wish it. I would not risk you lightly so soon after regaining you, daughter. There will probably be enemy where we go, and you are a non-combatant."

   "Would you wait at home were you in my position?" Gesturing at the ship, Ardenn continued, "I think the answer is obvious." Delenn's expression did not change and the Sister hung her head. "Must I…must I command you to take me with you?"

   "Were I you, I would not test your new authority so quickly," Delenn countered with a sad smile. "Nor would I do so against one such as myself." With a chuckle, Delenn shook her head in acquiescence and added, "But your point is made. No, I obviously would not wait at home. Very well, you may accompany us…but make no mistake. You life will be in jeopardy, as all of ours will be."

   "I am not afraid."

   "I am," Delenn noted softly. Shaking the somber words off, she continued, "Well, let us get out of the cold and on our way, shall we? It is at least a three-day trip and time is not our ally. You and I have much to discuss along the way."

   "Such as?"

   Darkly, the older woman murmured, "Such as what we will encounter when we arrive. You may have second thoughts about having me as your Va'saia once you see this place. It is one known to me, although I wish it were not."

   "That will never happen."

   "Never say never, Ardenn," Delenn intoned. "Someday, you will find that the Universe is far too broad for such a term…if you are fortunate."

   To Be Continued…



 

*****

 

 

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