Prologue: A short time after Sassy and Eliot's marriage, Setter saw something in a dream, too vague for him to make out. Meanwhile, Sassy prepares for the birth of her first child.
The waves broke against the cliffs, below Eliot and Sassy. Sassy stirred in her half-sleep and let out a contented sigh. Things had gone well, after Karen's resurrection. Setter was developing his prophetic abilities quickly, and things had settled down after all the commotion.
Sassy smiled, her hand going to her belly, beginning to swell with egg. She could hardly wait until the egg was laid. Of course, she was enjoying the waiting.
"You up?" came Eliot's voice from beside her, he sounded sleepy.
"Mmm-hmmm," she said. She sat up carefully and looked at the sunrise. Eliot sat up as well, and ran a hand through his silver-blue hair.
"How is it that you, with all that blond hair, can go through a night and still wake up with your hair less of a disaster than mine?" He gestured in frustration to his short hair, which was somehow more tangled and matted from the night's sleep than Sassy's.
Sassy smirked. "I stay still when I sleep, unlike you," she teased.
"That might change," Eliot remarked, glancing at Sassy's belly.
"Yea--oh!" Sassy yelped halfway through her sentence.
"I think the baby hit its head on the inside of the egg," Sassy said.
"I still wish I knew how you two have that weird link."
"Don't ask me." She stood up with extreme care and stretched. "I'm gonna go have some breakfast, I'm starved."
"You're always starved, these days," Eliot quipped as they headed for the teleporter.
"Remember, I have to eat for two now," Sassy replied, hitting the button on the teleporter. The two were transported to the platform with the carrot machine. She headed to the machine and pushed the button, getting a carrot.
"I wonder what Setter's up to these days," Eliot commented, getting himself a carrot as Sassy ate hers.
"Maybe we should visit him," Sassy said through a mouthful of carrot.
"Yeah," Eliot agreed. "Let's go."
Setter groaned, rubbing his head as he sat up. He had woken up with a terrible headache...not the best way to start your morning. He groped for an aspiring bottle. Finding one, he shoved the pill it contained into his mouth. Instantly, the pain in his head ebbed. He sighed in relief and looked around for something to fight off the sleepiness caused by the pill. Pulling a Morning Glory out of a nearby herbbox, he munched on that while he pondered the dream of the night before. He remembered the strong and definite impression of something in the sky...he wasn't sure what, but he knew it wasn't the egg that some Norns saw. There was a definite sense of calamity and ruin, but also of resurrection. Normally, he would have passed the whole thing off as just a weird dream, but now that he was a prophet, he viewed it quite differently.
Eliot's voice cut into Setter's ears and he groaned inwardly. 'There goes that aspirin,' he thought, and turned to his friend. He wasn't particularly surprised to see that Sassy was with Eliot.
"Heya, Eliot," he said. "How goes it with...the chick?" He put an extra, sly emphasis on the words 'the chick'. Sassy and Eliot laughed.
"Everything's going fine," Eliot grinned. "'Fact, Sassy's pregnant."
Sassy grinned and bapped Eliot playfully. "Don't say it that straightforwardly, Eliot," she giggled.
"But I couldn't think of a good euphemism," Eliot pretended to whine. Setter grinned at their banter. 'How's that for your match made in heaven?' he thought. 'They're perfect for each other.'
"So, how you doing, Setter?" Eliot inquired.
"Prophecy, right? What'dja see?"
Setter sighed at Eliot's ability to guess any secret he might be keeping. "I dunno, I just saw something in the sky...I couldn't make it out, but it sure as hell wasn't the egg. There was this...this sense of calamity, and ruin, and just...catastrophe! But there was this tiny little spark of light, in all the blackness..." he broke off and grinned sheepishly. "Sorry. I get carried away when I talk about my prophecies."
"Well, thank you for scaring the living daylights out of us, Setter," Sassy said sarcastically. "I'm sure I shall sleep quite well from now on - especially with the baby on the way."
"I did say there was light, didn't I?" retorted Setter irritably. "Sheesh."
"He's right," Eliot assured Sassy. "Besides, worrying about the future isn't gonna do anything but make the present a lot less enjoyable." He winked, and Sassy smiled.
"Yeah," she agreed.
"Off with you two," Setter said tiredly. "Go do whatever couples do after their honeymoon."
The couple grinned. "Alright, see you later Setter," Eliot said, and the two walked away. Setter massaged his forehead, in sudden fear of the future.
The human spaceship moved slowly through space, towards the small flat planet of Albia. Commander Sven Maida stroked his goatee as he stared out the window at the planet. It was inhabited by Norns...almost universally known as a cute, generally harmless species. Apparently, from the way they had reacted when Lars Maida, Sven's brother, had attacked their planet, 'harmless' was not a word to describe them. Only one radio transmission had been sent...and it had flawlessly and dutifully related one of the 'cute, harmless' Norns blowing Lars's brains out with a blaster. Sven's face hardened at the memory.
"Orbit the planet, Captain Piett," Sven said, glaring at the small, peaceful planet, as if he could explode it with the sheer force of his will.
"Affirmative," the captain said, and hits the proper sequence of buttons. The ship began to move, slightly faster, towards the idyllic planet.
"Captain, come here," Sven said. Piett gulped and walked towards the black-uniformed commander.
"Captain Piett...Ever since I heard that recording, I've wanted to come to this planet and seek out the Norn that killed Lars. When I find him, I will say to him...'Hello, my name is Sven Maida. You killed my brother. Prepare to die.'"
Captain Piett refrained from commenting on the fact that that line was almost totally ripped off from 'The Princess Bride', and merely said "I see, Sir," as the starship _Destroyer_ began to orbit the planet.
Eliot and Sassy sat under the waterfall, listening to the soothing sound of the water as it poured from the rocks above into the pond. Eliot put one arm around Sassy, who let out a little purr, leaning against him. The two sat there for a long time, not saying anything, just enjoying each other's company. Eliot glanced down at Sassy's belly.
"How many months?" he asked.
Sassy grinned. "You don't know?"
"I lose track of time easy."
Sassy grinned more. "Almost full term. It's coming soon." She glanced down and smiled. "Seems excited about it, too. It's been telling me how impatient it is to hatch and see Albia."
"It's been _telling_ you?"
"Just impressions, really. It's that link again."
They continued to sit there, when ssuddenly an unnatural, droning sound was heard overhead. Both Norns peered from behind the waterfall, to see a large starship screaming through the sky.
"Oh, my Hand!" Sassy shrieked. "The humans! They're _back!_"
Eliot understood his wife's fear. The last time the humans had come, they shattered her world. He became aware of his hand being gripped tightly by Sassy.
"Don't worry," he whispered to her. "You won't lose me like you lost Annie and Sam. I promise."
Sassy said nothing. Suddenly, a red beam of light shot down from the sky and into the pond. Sassy's face paled under her fur. She yanked Eliot away from the waterfall and the two Norns ran into a lift, which another Norn brought up.
"Come on! Get to safety!" the Norn said, beckoning to Sassy and Eliot and running towards the cable car. The couple followed, laser blasts raining down around them. Setter watched all of this from his new home in the trees, an expression of sorrow and denial upon his face.
"Get to cover!" Karr yelled from the safety of the pavilion. Everyone, take what cover you can! We cannot let the humans do this to us as they did before!"
"Karr!" Karen said worriedly. "There isn't enough cover for all the Norns in Albia! What are we going to do?"
"I don't know," Karr said solemly, a breeze stirring his snowy hair and red headband. "I don't know."
Sassy and Eliot bolted towards the submarine cavern, planning to take refuge in the island catacombs. Sassy felt clumsier than normal. She couldn't run well with the egg growing inside her belly, and her feet felt heavy, numb. She stumbled and fell to her knees.
Eliot skidded to a halt and dashed back to her. "What is it?"
"The egg...ohhh, Hand...it's coming!"
Eliot squeezed Sassy's hand tight, helping her through the egg-laying process. It was thankfully swift, and soon both Eliot and Sassy were hiding in the temple, Sassy staring anxiously at the jade-green egg that was still too small to move. It would have to grow before they cool move it. As fiery beams slammed into the stone floor around it, the small egg slowly grew. Once it was large enough, Sassy leapt forward and grabbed it, running towards the cavern again. Eliot followed. Sassy looked behind, and Albia seemed to slow. She tripped, fell, dropped her egg. She got up, and twisted around to see Eliot. A laser beam bolted from the sky, clipping Eliot. He fell. Sassy screamed and fell to her husbands side, checked for a heartbeat, for any sign of life. There was none. She let out a scream of rage, challenging the humans, challenging them to take her. Another beam was shot, catching her in the heart. The world dimmed as she fell to her husband's side...
Her eyes snapped open, her heart pounding. She was clutching her egg. She was alive. It had been a dream. She turned to Eliot...he was not moving. Sprawled on the ground, his eyes closed...
Sassy's eyes flooded with tears. She ran to the submarine, put her egg inside. She tried to climb out again and go for Eliot's body, but the submarine sunk and bore her through the icy waters. She clutched her egg, stroking it softly.
"I feel your turmoil, little one," she said softly to the child within the egg. The egg had been moved, it could not hatch. Not without the incubator. Sassy began to cry again. Everything had gone horribly wrong. Setter's prophecy had been right.
The submarine arrived at the island. Sassy went up in the lift and ran to the other lift, sending it down to safety. Once there, she leaned against the observation bubble, stroked her egg, and sobbed loudly.
It was terrible.
The ship landed, and humans swarmed out. The Hand, writhing, flew towards Karr and Karen, taking refuge in the cellars. Karen's hair was disheveled, and Karr's headband was askew. Kerra cowered between her parents, her hair done into many small braids. Karr and Karen looked towards the Hand in despair.
"How, Hand?" Karen asked despairingly. "We thought we'd gotten rid of them for good."
"I don't know," the Hand said, clenching and unclenching her fingers distraughtly. "But There's nothing I can do to them while there's so many Norns in the world. I'll have to export everybody."
"All of us?" Kerra asked.
"Everyone I can get to in time," the Hand said. "There's some risk, but it's a hell of a lot safer than staying here with the humans."
"All right," Karr said solemnly. "Let's go."
The Hand acknowledged this by flying away. Karr felt a jolt go through his body, and then his was in the stasis of export. Karen and Kerra followed, and soon Norns began disappearing all over Albia. The Hand, still writhing with distress, nevertheless faced the army of humans.
"Get out of the way, you stupid flying appendage!" Sven roared.
"No," the Hand said, her voice cold. "We're on my turf now."
The child within the egg writhed, in turmoil. She wanted to hatch. But she could not hatch. Her egg had been moved. She tried to speak to her mother, tried to communicate her distress. A soft voice from outside the egg responded.
"I know, little one," it said. "I'm sorry. We have to wait until I can get you to the incubator to hatch you."
The baby girl considered this, then asked where her father was. Her mother's voice hesitated before responding.
"He's...he's hurt, he's...not well."
Will he be okay?
"I'm...I'm not sure. I'm afraid that...that he isn't going to recover."
I'm afraid, Mommy. I'm afraid.
"So am I...so am I."
Blackness. Dark. Oblivion. No, not oblivion. Eliot was conscious, wasn't he? He walked a path of nothingness, spanning over nothingness. It was dark, all around. Cold. Silent. Not his heartbeat, not his breathing, not his footfall penetrated the silence.
Wait. He wasn't walking. He was lying down. There was no silence. The soothing crackle-pop-hiss of the kitchen fire was just ahead, exuding its warmth. The warmth was welcome. Farther ahead there was a repeating sound. Tick, tock. Tick, tock. Tick, tock. It was the pendulum clock. Even farther ahead, he heard the sound of birds singing peacefully. No screams, no pain, no violence. The world seemed perfect.
A voice, off in the distance, calling. No, not off in the distance. Close. very close.
"Eliot?" it called. This was not the high-pitched voice of any Norn, nor the low growling of a Grendel, and _definitely_ not Ira's half mechanical, half growling voice. This voice was cool and languid, silvery. It was the Hand.
"Eliot?" it repeated. Eliot felt his nose being tickled. He forced his eyes open.
"I'm awake," he said quietly. "What happened?"
"It's over, Eliot."
"What's over? Am I...did I..."
"No, you're alive. You didn't die back there. When I realized you hadn't been killed after all, I exported you, like the other Norns of Albia."
Export. It was a word Eliot had forever held in awe. Export meant a Norn was taken from Albia and placed into stasis. Export meant that the Norn was safe from all dangers of Albia, but was at the mercy of the dangers of the stasis world. Often, the Hand made many copies of Norns for safety, so there could be any number of any given Norn at any given time. It had often frightened Eliot. But he knew what export meant. Safety.
"And then you re-imported me?"
"Yeah. You wouldn't believe my belief when you weren't killed on import. That happens sometimes, you know."
"I know." He tried to get up and failed. he decided that just lying there for a while would be a really good idea. "Sassy? Did you export her?"
"No. I forgot, in all the confusion--"
"Sassy!" Eliot clambered to his feet. "Where is she? What happened to her? If you killed her, Hand, I'll..."
"Whoa, whoa. Caaaaaaaalm down. She's okay, I saw her. She's in the catacombs, talking to her egg."
Eliot's knees nearly buckled from the relief. Without saying a word, he ran out of the kitchen and headed towards the submarine cave.
Sassy stared up at the fish from the observation bubble, one hand on her egg. She felt numb, emotionless. Her world had been shattered once before, and now again. Eliot. She missed him.
There was a muffled ding from the level above, and the lift chugged down. Sassy turned, and gasped.
The Norn within was Purple Mountain, with Forest norn legs. The twinkle in his eyes identified him as...
Sassy jumped up and ran towards her husband. The two hugged tightly and kissed. Sassy was elated.
"Eliot, I thought you were dead!"
"Nope," Eliot grinned. "Just unconscious. The threat's over. The Hand dealt with the humans."
Sassy smiled and laid her head against Eliot's chest, purring. Her husband was alive, the threat to Albia was gone...her world hadn't been shattered, after all.
It was wonderful.
Karr smiled, holding Karen's hand as Sassy walked towards the incubator, cradling her egg in her arms. The doors to the incubator lay invitingly open. Eliot smiled, standing somewhere in the background. This was Sassy's moment.
Sassy smiled happily as she placed her egg into the incubator. The incubator doors shut, and the chamber warmed up. Everybody in the kitchen held their breath in anticipation, waiting for the egg to hatch. Finally, a cracking sound was heard, and the incubator shut down, opening its doors. The egg rolled around aand finally split in two as a young female Norn hatched out. Her face was that of a PMN, her hair already done up in a neat little ponytail. Her arms were Forest, her tail was long and tapered, and her legs were also PMN. Sassy smiled and took the baby out of the incubator, cradling it in her arms. The child looked up at Sassy with wide, purpl-gray eyes.
"Mommy? What's my name?"
Sassy had to grin at the tiny baby, asking such a question fresh out of the egg. "I don't know, little one," she said to the baby. She turned to the other Norns - Karr, Karen, Kerra, Eliot, and Setter. "What do you think? What should I name her?"
"I say we name her Phoenix," Eliot said. "The phoenix repeatedly rises from its own ashes, and her birth marks the rebirth of Albia from its ashes - again," he added wryly. Sassy grinned.
"You're Phoenix, then," Sassy said to the girl. The other Norns cheered loudly, and Setter offered around bottles of pink lemonade for a toast. The Hand watched these proceedings, and smiled to herself, flying away and leaving the Norns to celebrate the birth, and the triumph.