Sex was the closest he came to companionship, yet it soothed only his physical hunger, leaving him with a deeper craving. Despite the Dreamers he met and the innumerable Guardians he worked with, he was alone.

And would be for eternity.

"I figured I'd find you out here," rumbled a deep voice behind Aidan.

Continuing his exercises, he turned to face his best friend. They stood in the clearing at the rear of his house, knee-deep in wild grass, bathed in the magenta glow of the simulated approaching dusk. Sweat slid down his temples as he wielded his glaive, but despite the lengthening hour, he wasn't yet fatigued. "You figured right."

"Word of our new assignment is spreading rapidly through the ranks." Connor Bruce paused a few feet away, his crossed arms boasting massive biceps and brawny forearms. The blond giant didn't have the speed or agility that Aidan boasted, but he made up for it in pure brute strength.

"I know." Aidan lunged toward an imagined adversary, his sword leading the way in a mock fatal thrust.

He and Connor had been friends for centuries, ever since they were dorm mates at the Elite academy. While spending their days toiling through multiple classes and their nights indulging in women, they had forged a bond that held tight through the years.

The academy was a rigorous course, with an extremely high attrition rate. When times got rough, Aidan and Connor had goaded each other to continue on. Of the twenty students who started out in their class, they were among only three to graduate.

Those who didn't complete the training picked up other callings. They became Healers, or Players. Some chose to be Masters and teach. It was a worthy goal. Aidan's mentor, Master Sheron, had been a pivotal figure in his life, and he remembered the Guardian with admiration and affection, even after all these years.

"I can tell you're not happy about the Elders' decision," Connor said dryly. "But lately you're unhappy with everything they do."

Aidan paused, his sword arm falling to his side. "Maybe that's because I don't know what the hell it is that they're doing."

"You've got that look on your face," Connor muttered.

"What look?"

"The I've-got-one-hundred-questions-to-ask look."

Master Sheron had invented the nickname for Aidan's pensiveness. It was one of the many things the Elder-in-training had imparted that stayed with him to this day.

Aidan missed the hours he'd spent with his mentor at the stone table beneath the tree in the academy courtyard. He would ask a multitude of questions, and Sheron would answer them all with laudable patience. Shortly after they graduated, Sheron had gone through Induction to become a full-fledged Elder, and Aidan had never seen him again.

Lifting his hand, Aidan fingered the stone pendant

Sheron had given him the day he'd graduated. He wore it always as a tangible reminder of those days and the eager youth he'd once been.

"Don't you ever wonder why anyone would want to become an Elder?" he asked Connor. Yes, the possibility of finding answers was tempting, but Induction changed Guardians in a way Aidan found alarming. Sheron had been youthful in appearance, with dark hair and eyes, and tawny skin. Now he would look like the other Elders— white-haired, with pale skin and eyes. For a nearly immortal race, a change that drastic had to signal something. Aidan was damn sure it wasn't good.

"No, I don't." Connor's jaw set stubbornly. "Tell me where the fighting is. That's all I want to know."

"Don't you want to know what we're fighting for?"

"Shit, Cross. The same thing we've always been fighting for—to contain the Nightmares while we search for the Key. You know we're the only barrier between them and the humans. Since we screwed up by letting the Nightmares in, we've got to stick with it until we find a way to keep them out."

Aidan blew out his breath. Unlike smarter parasites who knew from whence their meal came, Nightmares drained their hosts to death. Leaving the Dreamers unprotected would ensure the extinguishing of humanity, perhaps their entire plane of existence.

He could picture it. The endless nightmares they would suffer. Afraid to sleep, unable to work or eat. An entire species decimated by horror and fatigue. Madness would ensue.

"Okay." Aidan moved toward his house, and Connor fell into step beside him. "So, hypothetically speaking, what if there was no Key?"

"No Key? Well, that would suck, because that's the only thing that keeps me going some days, knowing there's a light at the end of the tunnel." Connor shot him a narrowed sidelong glance. "What are you getting at?"

"I'm saying it's possible the legend of the Key is bullshit. Maybe we're taught it for just the reason you mentioned, to give hope and motivation when our task seems endless." Aidan slid open the shoji door to his living room and retrieved his scabbard, which rested against the wall. "If that's the case, we're screwing Dreamers with this new assignment. Instead of protecting them from the Nightmares, half of the Elite are going to be wasting their time looking for a miracle that may not exist."

"Man, I'd tell you to get laid," Connor muttered, striding past him and heading toward the kitchen, "but you were with Morgan this morning, so that's not what's eating you."

"Leaving Dreamers with subpar protection doesn't sit well with me, and it pisses me off that the Elders are so secretive about why we're doing it. I have trouble believing what I can't see."

"But you chose to hunt Nightmares for a career?" Connor snorted and rounded the corner, out of sight. A moment later he returned with two beers. "Our success is based entirely on what we can't see."

"Yeah, I know. Thanks." Aidan accepted the proffered drink, and drank deep swallows while crossing the room to a wooden-framed chair. "It's not our glaives that kill Nightmares, but the power of our determination that in-spires fear. It's something we have in common with the bastards—killing through terror."

Which was the cause of the rift between him and his parents—one a Healing Guardian, the other a Nurturer. They couldn't understand the path he'd chosen, and the constant questions they pestered him with had eventually driven him away. He couldn't seem to explain why he needed to be working against the Nightmares, not cleaning up after them. Since they were the only biological family he had, that left him with only one emotional bond—Connor. A man he loved and respected like a brother.

"So how do you explain how we ended up living in this conduit," Connor queried, sinking into the matching chair opposite him, "if there isn't a Key?"

According to legend, the Nightmares found a Key into their old world—the world Aidan was too young to remember—and then the Nightmares spread, killing everything. The Elders barely had time to create the fissure within abbreviated space that allowed them to escape into this conduit plane between the human dimension and the one the Guardians had been forced to leave behind. It took Aidan a while to fully grasp the concept of multiple planes of existence and the space-time continuum—one a product of metaphysics, the other a product of physics. But the idea that a single being—the Key—was capable of tearing those fissures open at will, spilling the contents of one plane into another, was something he still didn't quite comprehend.

He trusted things that could be proven, like the change this conduit had wrought in their species physiologically, making them nearly immortal and ephemeral like the

Nightmares. The Guardians had been defenseless before, but here they were on equal footing with their enemy.

"The Elders got us into this fissure without a Key," Aid-an pointed out. "I'm sure the Nightmares could do the same."

"So you toss out a widely accepted answer, and replace it with conjecture." Connor crushed his empty beer container. "Wine, women, and kicking ass, Cross. The life of an Elite Warrior. Enjoy it. What more do you want?"

"Answers. I'm tired of the Elders talking to me in damn riddles. I want the truth, all of it."

Connor snorted. "You never quit. That persistence makes you a great warrior, but it also makes you a pain in the ass. I've got three words for you: Need. To. Know. How many missions have there been when you were the only person who knew what the hell was going on?"

"That's not the same," Aidan argued. "That scenario is a temporary delay of information. This is permanent avoidance."

"^Kfou used to be the most idealistic person I know. What happened to the trainee who swore he'd be the Guardian to find the Key and kill it?"

"That was teenage bravado talking. That kid grew up and got tired."

"I liked being a teenager. I could fuck all night and still tear up Nightmares the next day. Now it's one or the other."

Aidan understood that his friend was trying to lighten what was quickly becoming a volatile conversation, but he couldn't contain his disquiet any longer, and Connor was the only person he trusted with such matters.

Conner knew him well enough to sense his determination.

"Listen, Cross." He rested his forearms on his thighs, and stared at Aidan with narrowed eyes and a taut jaw. "I'm telling you—as a friend, not your lieutenant—that you have to forget your doubts and rally the troops."

"We're wasting valuable resources."

"Man, I'm jazzed that we're switching things up! What we were doing wasn't working, so now we're trying something new. That's progress. You're the one stagnating. Get over yourself and get with the program."

Shaking his head, Aidan pushed to his feet. "Consider what I'm saying."

"I did. It's stupid. End of subject."

"How's the smell?"


"You've got your head shoved so far up your ass, it's got to stink."

"Them's fighting words." Connor pushed to his feet. So did Aidan.

"How can you dismiss something without even giving it a moment's thought?"