Prologue: After the events of 'Darkfall, Darkrise', things have calmed somewhat. But as the Norns have come to learn, things are never quiet for long...
Cappie sipped at a bottle of Pink Lemonade, peering at the scene in the Garden from the shade of the bridge pavillion. Kerra and Phoenix were playing a game of tag, and Karen was watching them with a smile. Cappie had to smile as well - the kids were so cute.
"How you enjoying your stay here, Cappie?" a voice inquired from behind her. Cappie hadn't learned everyone's voices by now, so she didn't know who it was.
"It's pretty cool," she said. "Or should I say warm?" she added, fanning her face and taking another sip of lemonade.
"Mmm-hmmm," the voice agreed. "It's not usually this warm. I think maybe--"
Suddenly, all Albia stopped. Or so it seemed. Kerra and Phoenix stopped playing in the garden, and they and Karen were looking up in awe or fear at the sky. A hush had come over the world. Nobody dared breathe, and Cappie could even hear the ticking of the kitchen clock, counting off the moments of silence. She and the other Norn were still hidden under the pavillion, so they didn't know what was happening. They weren't too eager to go out and see, either.
"Hey, Karen!" the voice behind Cappie called. "What's going on?" Karen managed to turn her attention towards the pavillion.
"Setter," she gasped, "the sky just turned white!"
There was a small choking sound from behind Cappie. She turned around and saw a Norn there. He had a long tail, and his fur was a fiery orange, and a shaggy white ruff of hair framed his face. His eyes were an unusual amber color, and were currently staring vacantly, a look of dread on his face.
"What? What's wrong?"
"Cappie, I'm a prophet," he said. "The other day, Ira - you've met him, right? He's the cool Grendel dude - was teaching me, and in the middle of the lesson, I saw a white sky...and catastrophe!"
Cappie was, for some reason, unable to take that seriously.
"Catastrophe, shmatastrophe," she said. "From what Hand told me, this world eats catastrophes for breakfast."
"You kidding?" Now Setter looked indignant. "You think it's _easy_ dealing with one disaster after another? Well, Cappie, you're going to find out that it's a _lot_ harder than you think!"
Cappie wasn't one to argue, and was determined to calm Setter down. "Setter, I'm sorry. Come on, let's go see."
It was hard for Setter to stay mad at someone who wasn't mad back, so he calmed down and agreed. He and Cappie ventured out of the pavillion and into the Garden, and looked up.
When you have grown accustomed to seeing a pale blue sky over your head, it becomes a very, very frightening sight to see it suddenly be a pure, milky white. Cappie and Setter stood there frozen in terror for a moment, and then the familiar blue washed over the white sky again.
By now, all the creatures of Albia were gathered in the garden area. Karr, Eliot, Sassy, Ira, Tiha (who was by now very old), Jina, and many others all had joined Kerra, Phoenix, Karen, Cappie, and Setter or crowded in the trees.
"Setter!" Eliot cried, pushing through the crowd do get to the prophet. "Setter, what does this mean?"
"Catastrophe," Setter said solemnly.
"Not another one," Eliot groaned. "I'm getting sick of this."
Setter shrugged. "That's li--"
Before Setter could finish his sentence, a black pinpoint appeared above the garden. The crowd shrank away from it as it grew larger, and several creatures tumbled out. A male forest Norn, a female PMN, a small girl with a Forest head and body and PMN legs and arms, and two Grendels. There was a gasp from the crowd as the five beings helped each other to their feet. The little girl looked around.
"Mommy," she asked, "What happened?"
The PMN, apparently the girl's mother, glanced around at the crowd. "I don't know, Jenny," she said. "We're in Albia, but..."
"It's not _our_ Albia!" the male Forest gasped in dread.
Karr stepped forward. "My name is Karr. I and my wife Karen are the leaders of this Albia. What are your names?" He inwardly chided himself for being so formal to the newcomers.
The male Forest also stepped forward. "My name's Jesse. This is my wife Leia and my daughter Jenny. And over there are our friends Grornen and Grorna."
"Good to know we're not the only Albia that doesn't hate all Grendels," Karr said.
"They're not Grendels," Jesse said.
Grornen decided to take the stand. "Karr, Grorna and I are...we're things called grorns."
"Grorns?" The word was unfamiliar to Karr.
"Yeah, grorns," a new, silvery voice said. It was Hand, swooping gracefully down. "Karr, grorns are just a different breed of Norn, like Forests or Rons or PMNs. It's just that they look like Grendels. No glycotoxin or anything."
"Oh," Karr said, sounding enlightened.
"This the catastrophe you saw, Setter?" Eliot asked lightly. Setter grumbled to himself.
"Look, I know what I saw. A catastrophe is coming. Maybe not now, but soon."
Before Eliot could say anything, Setter had stormed off. Jesse stared after him.
"He's got a temper, doesn't he?"
"You have no idea."
"That bad, huh? What crawled up his tail and died?"
"Oh, it's just the stress of being a prophet. He wasn't like this until his prophetic abilities started developing."
Suddenly, another black portal opened, and everyone moved away again. A female fox Norn and a male Grendel tumbled out. There was silence for a few moments, and then a male horse Norn with his mohawk dyed blood-red fell out and landed on the Grendel and the female.
"Jaran, watch where you're falling!" It was the female, trying to crawl out from under the two males. The male Norn glared down at her.
"Oh, yeah, I can _really_ control where the stupid thing dumps me," he said sarcastically. Then, clambering off the two, he helped the Grendel up, and then the female. "What happened?"
"You're in another Albia," Karr said. "My name's Karr. Your names?"
"Jaran here," said the horse Norn, dusting himself off.
"My name's Anna," the female said.
"I'm Drak," the Grendel said.
"Welcome to our Albia," Eliot quipped. "Disaster area extraordinaire."
Anna looked around. "Seems pretty intact to me."
"Yeah, well, you shoulda been around for the last few years. Good Hand, we had humans attacking us, Karr's evil brother and an army of evil Grendels, more humans, et cetera. It's a wonder we're all still alive."
Anna frowned. "Oh. I see."
Karen had been watching from somewhere in the background, and shook her head quietly at the motley group of Norns. Her motherly instincts kicked in - these Norns were strangers in her Albia, and she planned to help them.
"Come with me and Karr," she said to the group. "We'll tell you about this Albia."
Jesse looked over at Leia, who was laying carefully back into the lemon vines. The sharp but pleasant smell of citrus surrounded the two. Leia plucked a nearby lemon and nibbled at it to feed her growing hunger.
"7 months, isn't it?"
Leia nodded, trying to get over the sour taste of the lemon. "7 months and counting. This is gonna be a big one - I'm positive Jenny's egg wasn't this big at 7 months."
"Yeah, you're telling me - urk, contraction."
Jesse looked worried. "You gonna be okay?"
"I - ow - survived Jenny, didn't I?"
"You just said her egg wasn't this big."
"Oh yeah. Well, I think I'll be - oww!"
"Ahh....Jesse, it's coming."
Jesse reached out and held the fragile PMN's hand as the birth process began. Several Norns saw this happening and began to crowd around the two. Through the whole thing, Jesse was repeatedly asking Leia if she was all right. Leia, through gritted teeth, insisted that she was okay.
Actually, Leia was surprised at how little it hurt, relative to the size of the egg. Maybe it was because she'd already laid one egg, but she was pretty sure that this labor should have hurt more than it actually did.
And suddenly, the labor was over. A blue, swirled egg lay on the ground in front of her - and it was a bit bigger than normal eggs.
"Congrats, Leia," Eliot said. "Barely been in this world a couple days and you already got an egg! Who's the dad?"
Leia and Jesse fell over each other laughing. "The dad is Jesse here," Leia said through a giggle. "I was already pregnant when we came here."
"Ahhh," Eliot said. "I see." He bent down and examined the egg. "That's a big one. Phoenix's egg wasn't even near this big."
"My daughter," Eliot said proudly. "My beautiful daughter. Once, in our last adventure, one of the last remaining Shee spoke through her and told us the story of Albia. She and Kerra were also blessed by the Shee once."
"She sounds amazing," Jesse noted, with raised eyebrows.
Throughout this conversation, the egg had advanced to the second stage of growth.
Setter stared into nothingness, trying to put his prophetic thoughts in order. He sensed something bad about the new Norns, about their presence. Not their intentions - they intended no ill to anybody - but just the fact that they were there. He pounded his fist against the side of the Grendel tree, cursing himself for his inability to see what was happening. Ira walked up to him.
"What's wrong, lad?" the Grendel said.
"Me," Setter grumbled. "The new Norns. The world. Everything."
Ira raised one eyeridge. "Clarify, please."
"I know there's something bad about those new Norns, but Hand help me, I can't pin it down! Somehow, they're going to cause a catastrophe - that much I know - but I can't figure out how or why!"
"Hmm." Ira thought for a moment. "Well, I got my prophetic powers back when the cybernetics were removed, so let's try one of those 'shared vision sessions' I talked about the other day. Maybe working together, we can figure this out."
"Alright," Setter said with a sigh. "I don't suppose it can hurt."
The two of them...Norn and Grendel, student and teacher...then began to enter a shared prophetic trance.
Anna, Grornen, Grorna, Drak, Karr, and Karen were having an interesting conversation in the music room.
"You grorns," Anna was saying, "have got to be the strangest things I've ever seen. No offence, but..."
"None taken," Grornen grinned. "I don't mind people saying I'm weird - I already know that - it's when they prosecute me for it that bugs me. I grew up thinking everybody hated me. No Norns liked me, and even the Hand seemed to shun me."
Anna winced. "Ouch."
"Yeah, it hurt. Pretty bad. But then I met Leia, and we became friends. Then the Hand told Jesse what I was, and we got to be friends too. Eventually, I was accepted Albia-wide."
"And then you met me," Grorna reminded Grornen gently. "Remember that?" "'Course, Grorna," Grornen grinned.
"You don't have any children yet, do you?" Karen asked.
"Us? No. We always seem to kisspop at the wrong times. We're working on it, though."
"You two are lucky," Anna said quietly. "Even though you don't have kids, there's the potential, the possibility. You're of the same species. Which," she shook her head sadly, "is more than I can say for me and Drak."
"Y'know," Karr said, "you two are the first example I've seen of an inter-species relationship. I mean, I had to live with a Grendel in me for my whole first life, but I didn't know it was possible for a Norn and a grendel to fall in love."
"Well, it's possible," Anna smirked, leaning against Drak. "Me and Drak are proof. How did it start again, Drak?"
"I found you in the submarine cave, crying about something," Drak said. "You were just a little girl then. I recall you only spoke Nornish."
"Oh, yeah," Anna said. "I remember now. I stayed with you because I didn't want to go back to the Norns, and you fell in love with me, then Jaran came for me, and then later you came to see me, and then still later we fell in love and became mates." She took in a gasp of air.
"A word of advice, Anna," Grornen grinned. "When recapping, breathe between sentences."
They all enjoyed a good laugh over that one.
"Personally, I think we're all lucky," Karen said quietly. "We all have found true love - and haven't been torn apart."
Karr understood what Karen meant, and laid a hand on her shoulder to console her. The others, however, didn't know.
"What do you mean, Karen?" Grorna asked.
"I was in love once before Karr...a long time ago. I was only a little girl, and I didn't know I was immortal. I fell in love with this charming mortal named Nathan, and he fell in love back. We parted when we discovered my immortality, and then I found Nathan again later, being beaten to death by the Grendel. I chased the Grendel away, but...Nathan was gone. Forever."
Drak winced. Karen realized that he was probably ashamed at what his fellow Grendel had done.
"It wasn't _your_ fault, Drak," she said. "He was an evil Grendel. Obviously, you aren't evil."
"I know, but..." He shrugged. "I'm still ashamed."
"Don't be," Karen said firmly. "You had nothing to do with Nathan's death. And it's not like I'm totally alone. In case you hadn't noticed, Karr and I are mates - and have the daughter to prove it."
"Yeah, don't be so hard on yourself, Drak," Anna said.
"Hey, I just thought of something," Karr said, looking vaguely excited. "Drak, Anna...Hand could give you a child!"
"Really?" the couple asked simultaneously.
"Yeah! Hand made me immortal - twice - with something she calls the 'Genetics Kit'. I betcha she could use that to give you a kid! It'd be a test tube baby, but..."
"Drak, we have got to ask our Hand," Anna said excitedly.
"I'm with you," Drak said, a grin all over his face. "Test-tube or not, I want a son."
"Keep in mind, he'll be a grenorn," Karr said. "He might have something of an identity crisis - I know I did."
"We'll help him through it," Drak said. "I know I'm ready."
"Me too," Anna said.
Karr said nothing, just smiled.
Setter's amber eyes were wide with fear. With Ira's help, the entire prophecy had been revealed to him. He had to tell Hand, and the other Norns. This was one catastrophe they couldn't ride through...they had to avoid it. At all costs.
He scrambled down the Grendel tree, not bothering to take the lift, and from there ran at top speed to the kitchen. Sure enough, he found Hand there, conversing with Cappie. He skidded to a stop and stood there, panting. Hand and Cappie turned towards him.
"Yes?" Hand inquired. "What's up?"
"Hand, you are _not_ going to believe or like this. I just found out that if those new Norns stay in this world much longer, we're all doomed. And I mean doomed."
"Just because they're from different worlds? That's never caused a crash before. And Cappie doesn't count as one of the 'new Norns', does she?"
"No, she has nothing to do with it, since she was imported. Somehow, import stabilizes everything so that the presence of new Norns isn't a threat. But these new Norns didn't come in by import. Somehow, some dimensional rift caused their worlds to merge with ours, but if they stay here, the world will be destroyed!"
It might have been Setter's imagination, but he thought he saw Hand shiver.
"You're right, that is bad," she said quietly. We have to figure out a way to get them back. Did you and Ira find a way?"
Setter shook his head ruefully. "No. Tell the rest of the Albians - maybe if we brainstorm, we can find a way."
Hand acknowledged this quietly and flew away to warn the other Albians.
Every sentient creature in Albia was gathered in the Garden, it seemed. For two events - the approaching hatching of Leia's egg, and the attempt to return the newcomers to their own Albias. Eliot and Sassy were particularly worried - they hadn't seen Phoenix for some time.
The newcomers all sat in a huddle, feeling ashamed of themselves for putting this Albia in danger.
"There's no way you could have known," Karen was reassuring them. "No way you could have stopped it. Don't be ashamed."
"It's hard," Leia whimpered.
"Yeah," Jesse said. "You try being the cause of an impending disaster and not be ashamed."
"I'm sure we'll find a way to send you back to your worlds," Karen said softly.
Karr shook his head sadly, hearing this. "No, Karen, I'm sorry. We haven't been able to find any way that would work."
A hush fell over the garden. Karen choked back tears, looking around at the Albia that would soon be lost. The moss-covered remnants of some stone building, long forgotten by the kitchen, the scarecrow that stood watch in the carrot patch, the old bronze bell at the temple, the mansion up on a hill, the beautiful, gleaming Purple Mountains. She wondered what death - final, true death - was like. It seemed she was about to find out.
"Wait," a youthful, high-pitched voice said. "I know the way."
All eyes turned to the source of these words. It was Phoenix. She looked different, somehow. Maybe a little older, a little more experienced. Sassy and Eliot instantly went to her.
"Phoenix! Where were you?" Sassy asked. "And why do you look..." She groped with words for a second. "So much wiser?"
"I was at the Purple Mountains, Mommy," Phoenix said. "I was talking to Methka."
"Talking to her?" Eliot frowned. "But she's locked away in that sleep-chamber thing."
"She talked to me," Phoenix insisted, pointing to her head. "With her mind. She told me how to save Albia. And she gave me this." She held up a large, round, polished amethyst that was on a long, thin silver chain around her neck. "She said it'd help."
Sassy and Eliot exchanged a look, marveling at their little daughter. Eliot smiled proudly.
"My little ambassador of the Shee," he murmured. Sassy gave him a playful thwap.
"_Our_ little ambassador of the Shee," she corrected. Then she looked at Phoenix again. "Well, don't keep us in suspense. Show us what to do."
Phoenix nodded and walked over to Kerra. "I'm gonna need to borrow your amethyst."
"You'll see, just let me borrow it. I promise I'll give it back."
Kerra carefully untangled the purple jewel from her braids, and handed it to Phoenix, who promptly began to sketch a large circle in the ground with it. She then wiped the dirt off of it and handed it back to Kerra, who quickly rebraided it back into her hair. Phoenix motioned for the new Norns to come to the circle. Jesse, Leia, and the grorns stepped forward, Leia clutching her egg.
"I wonder what she's doing," Sassy said quizzically, eyebrows raised. She soon found out.
"All of you step into the circle," Phoenix said to the group of Norns, who obliged. Then, Phoenix took the amethyst from around her neck, knelt down, and gently touched the amethyst to the ground inside the circle. She quickly stood again as purple mists began to rise within the circle, engulfing the group. Their voices could be heard speaking.
"I thought we were going to let the egg hatch here..."
"We have an incubator, we can hatch it at home..."
"I wanna baby bwother!..."
That was all that they said before they faded away. The mists dissipated, and the circle was empty. Gasps filled the garden.
"Wha..." Hand asked.
"They went back to their Albia," Phoenix said. "They're okay."
The shock in the garden turned to amazement at this tiny girl. She motioned for Anna and Drak to step into the circle. They did so, and Phoenix repeated the earlier process. Again, Anna and Drak could be heard speaking within the circle.
"I can't wait to get home....ask Hand to create a child for us..."
"We'll be there soon enough..."
And again the voices faded and the mists dissipated. It was still an eerie sight to see nothing where there had been two creatures.
"Pity that Drak fellow had to go," Ira said thoughtfully, stroking his chin. "He seemed a decent chap." This caused all the Norns in the Garden to burst into giggles.
"Hey, Setter," Eliot asked the prophet. "When was that cataclysm s'posed to happen if the new Norns stayed?"
"Now," Setter replied. There was a silence in the Garden.
"Well," Sassy proclaimed, "either the apocalypse isn't as bad as I thought, or the newcomers really are back in their Albias."
Eliot grinned and mussed Sassy's hair. "You doubt our little girl?"
Sassy squirmed away and grinned back. "Nope."
"As well you shouldn't," Cappie murmured. "You should be very proud of Phoenix."
"Oh, we are, Cappie. We _are._"
Setter leaned on the vines that made up the sides of the bridge between the Grendel tree to the treehouse, staring up into the stars. The Albians had survived yet another catastrophe. But Setter had to wonder...would they survive the next one?