Author: Darkhymns PM
"Deadly enemies, they were strangers to the rest of the world- but they were not strangers to each other." Haplo/Alfred slash- with a dash of Alfred/Lya and Haplo/Marit.Rated: Fiction T - English - Romance/Hurt/Comfort - Chapters: 5 - Words: 31,320 - Reviews: 11 - Favs: 3 - Follows: 9 - Updated: 08-24-12 - Published: 01-12-12 - id: 7733540
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Okay, well, these chapters are just getting longer now. I'm sorry. :( You could say I'm just making up for the four month absence, or I don't know how to edit.
But instead of self-hating my writing again, I'm just gonna say enjoy. Oh and feedback is pretty cool. -backflips out of a window-
"My name…is Alfred."
Samah frowned; a mar on perfection, a tatter in a dream.
"That is not a Sartan name."
He knew that none of this -any of it- should have been so agonizing. Finding his own people, after years of loneliness, should have made him happy. And he was! …At least…he thought he was. It was obviously a far better welcome than Abarrach, where the once powerful Sartan had become unrecognizable. But this man before him, resplendent in his long robes, his face stern and formal- in his words, Alfred could hear life and light, a language that he had thought he would never have the chance to listen to again. Then why was he so…?
"I am head of the Council of Seven," spoke Samah. Alfred gaped, recognizing, wishing he didn't. "And as head, I have the right to ask you questions, not out of simple curiosity, but out of necessity."
"Of- of course," Alfred bobbed his head, trying to swat away the cold feeling in his chest. The Council of Seven, the Sundering- all of that he remembered from the old Sartan books, the kind that he had read as a child learning his people's ancient history. And if what Samah said was true, which Alfred really hoped it wasn't- but a Sartan couldn't lie and Alfred was then appalled at how he had wanted this man to lie…!
"And yet," Samah continued patiently, like a long-suffering father. "You will not give us something so basic."
The mausoleum Alfred was standing in, high-arching white, with rows of blue crystal coffins, was a familiar sight, identical to the underground chamber in Arianus. It was no surprise that he took this place for home, that he came to the conclusion that he never should have left it at all. And yes, certainly he should have thought it over on just why the people in those coffins were not his friends, that the woman in Lya's place was not Lya at all, and that his coffin was already occupied. But he had hoped- as he always secretly did, the one thing that had kept him alive. Because they had been breathing, these people in their soft, white robes, their pale hair- these people who were now gathered around Alfred in his tattered mensch clothes, his hunched shoulders.
They looked at him in confusion, because what Sartan carries himself like this, meek and afraid? This is not how a demigod should act at all.
"I'm sorry," he said to them all, meaning it completely. His whole existence was wrong, even among his own, and only later did he realize how strange that was.
Samah's frown grew deeper, a cloud passing over the sun. But there was something else in his expression that made Alfred cringe. He had the sudden urge to escape from it, and so looked over to the woman standing by Samah's side, the one he had mistook for Lya at first. Her hair was a polished white, her face matured with a line down the center of her forehead, matching Alfred's years. She was unlike Lya, who had been a young girl when she went to sleep, escaping the burdening responsibilities of the world with her love. No, this woman had already borne so much weight, had already seen so much, and sleep had done little to lift it.
"Brother, where are the rest of our brethren?" Samah's voice came out at him, unwelcome, erasing the woman's face with past memories.
They are still in their tombs back home, they are living within dark caves in terror, they are murdering every living thing in their path. All that we were before is gone. Only civil war and death and emptiness remains.
"I am… alone," Alfred finally said, knowing the other Sartan could see just what he meant. But the images his words brought were jumbled, distorted. Their looks of confusion turned to fear.
"I apologize, but I am afraid I don't understand you." Samah kept his voice even, diplomatic. His words brought clear waters washing over Alfred's head. "Has something happened?"
The question very nearly made Alfred laugh bitterly. Of course something has happened! It was every possible thing that could go wrong, every fear his people had dreamed up, every nightmare that was sure to follow him for the rest of his life! There was no single answer to the question, that he had no hope of even trying to answer.
He swallowed back his voice, mortified that the thought of laughing in this man's face even crossed his mind…
"Yes," he said simply, his voice quiet. "Something has happened."
And suddenly, he wanted to be left alone. He didn't want to be standing here. He didn't want his own people looking at him like this. Especially the Sartan woman, whose eyes were disquietingly familiar.
"Then tell us, Brother," Samah asked again. His patient tone was wearing off, his frown creating deep lines in his face. Alfred noted how he didn't call him by the mensch name he had given, hearing the unspoken question there. It was on the tip of his tongue, because what he wouldn't give to just tell his own people this one simple thing. And if this was Samah, then yes, it should definitely be required of him to give it! Except, his name has never been that easy to say aloud, especially now.
He half-expected for the man to draw it out of him. It was inevitable. Alfred was too weak to stop it, because it had already been done before, hadn't it? Even if he didn't realize it, even though he allowed the Sartan to jump ship to escape-
His mind suddenly went very, very still.
"I… I'm not on Arianus, am I?" he whispered, thinking back to his dear friends, to floating isles, to crystal trees.
"Of course not. What would make you think that? You are on the world of Chelestra." Samah's tone was slightly harsh, a brief gust of wind that would tear away at only the weakest of dying leaves.
As it tore away at Alfred as he fainted to the floor.
The young Sartan boy, one of many in Arianus, never liked introducing himself.
"H- hello," he uttered, consciously saying it louder than he usually would. He was looking down, trying to calm the fluttering in his chest. But at least his voice didn't break this time, which he couldn't help but be a little proud of.
He was standing just outside one of the tall, white spires of the High Realms, its surface near the base blazing with runes. He recognized each sigil easily, all of them placed next to each other in a single line. It was a command, gentle but firm in its superiority, for the elements to veer away from this building, to not sand down the surface, to let the runes continually shine on the sculpted coralite. But it was not complete yet- the last remaining runes being traced into the wall by the girl he was introducing himself to.
It was not the first time he had seen her, technically. It was back on the Low Realms with the dwarves, as she was trailing behind another group of Sartan, obviously her own parents. Her family were part of those Sartan, more technical in their nature than the rest, working on the great machine, outlining instructions to the dwarves for its maintenance. At the age of fourteen, he had been brought down to Drevlin by his father to see it in person, his last visit having been when he was much younger. Though he was taken aback by its immense size, its shining surfaces, and its innumerable metal arms that clawed away at the hard coralite of the isles, (even if the loud sounds had hurt his ears) he was more impressed by the young girl that had just passed his sight, smaller than the rest, seeming to glide across the floor. He remembered how her hood had been pulled low over her face, leaving only a few stray locks of white hair, a bit tangled and unkempt, to escape its confines.
What struck at him though, besides her hidden face, was when he overheard some elder Sartan talk with her, his robes trimmed a bit differently than the rest, obviously a person of high standing. Her parents had stood by, conversing with him pleasantly. But when he had directed a question to the girl, she didn't respond. She didn't even seem to notice him. Her eyes were locked to a cluster of cogs embedded in the walls, her attention given over to a part of the great machine that was continually grinding away.
One of the parents, he could no longer remember, had swiftly reprimanded her. "Don't be rude!" Which was a phrase nearly unheard of. Sartan were well-mannered, well-behaved, a necessity for the demigods of Arianus. While there were always strange ones here or there, such as Coren with his shyness, or his friend, Ivor with his recklessness, (among other things), they were still few and far in between. Still, it was a discovery for him. Especially when all she did was look back to the man, nodding, without even a whisper of an apology.
He had went back to the High Realms before he could get a chance to speak with her, not that he believed he even could. He was more introverted than most Sartan, an oddity his parents didn't really understand, though it didn't diminish their love for him any less. Besides, she was living in the underground chambers of Drevlin, while he in the airy heights with the human mages they were caring for. But then, suddenly, he found her by the spire, finishing off the basic spells the adults had started. He had seen others, some passing by, some doing their own work on the spire before leaving, try to talk with her. None of them had succeeded. Why did he think he could do any different?
She turned at the sound of his voice, the sigil she was tracing just half-done. He couldn't see her eyes.
His nervousness suddenly increased. She was shorter than him by two inches or so, her face tilted slightly downwards. It was hard to tell if she was looking at him- or at something else past his shoulder.
Well, there was no backing out now. He wished she would say something in return though.
"My name is… is Coren," he finally blurted out, a weight lifted from his chest. There was the age-old embarrassment whenever he said his name aloud- the name that so many other boys had, that was given out of expectation.
He waited for her to speak. And waited. He started to fidget with his sleeves. The silence was loud in his ears.
He risked a quick glance upwards, finding her still staring at him. Or through him.
This was such a mistake. He suddenly wanted to get away and had to restrain himself from whispering the runes of teleportation. She was most likely busy with her task and didn't appreciate his interruption, because he knew the instant that he spoke his images were made so very clear.
Soft hands grasped his own. He blinked, the girl standing right in front of him.
"I'm sorry," she said, her tone moving effortlessly. "I get very… distracted." At this, she smiled with a little embarrassment.
The Sartan were a close people, sharing their thoughts with one another by instinct. But expressing such physical touch was usually reserved between close friends and family. The polite thing for him to do would be to respectfully slide out of her grasp, murmuring his apologies. Instead, he held onto her fingers, his heart stuck in his throat.
"Oh, it's, um… it's okay!" he finally answered.
Bright images came forth from his words- of the girl when she was in Drevlin, of his sudden need to find her. And while Coren would never dream of hiding his thoughts, he wished that he could temper down his infatuation, that he could brush away the feeling of warmth he got when she took hold of his hands. Except he knew it was as plain as day.
"I just saw that you were new here, and, well, I wanted to see if you needed any help with… something." He had never been that talkative, but he couldn't recall the last time he had been so tongue-tied. It was an uncomfortable sensation.
The girl herself gave a smile, nervous in her own way. She then finally released his hands as if aware of what she had been doing.
"This is my first time up in the High Realms. My mother said the fresh air would do me some good." She shrugged, her body moving shyly, which was a strange contrast to the clearness of her voice. "It's a bit too quiet though."
At her words, he saw the great machine again, continually clanking away. He saw the dwarves scurrying around, pulling levers and twisting metal cogs. The noise was intense, hammering away at his head, but he saw her standing before it, a small thing against such a beast, impossible to take it all in one view. She was perfectly still, the hard clanging just a background noise to her. He noted that she was the only white-robed Sartan there, among the dwarves and their never-sleeping charge.
She knew what he saw and smiled again, a bit more sadder this time. "I was around it too much. Strange, I know."
He remembered sitting at the library, a large tome in his hands, his father's voice snapping him out of a reverie (Coren, you're still here?), the hollow feeling he would get when he left the bookshelves.
"I don't think that's strange at all," he said without thinking, because it reminded him- of getting lost within words, within the magic that hummed through the air.
The girl stared, not expecting that. Her eyes were mostly hidden by the white cowl. He wanted to ask her why she wore it so low over her face, but figured it must be because of the brightness of Solarus. He remembered how Drevlin was continually assaulted by thunderstorms, its skies there always dark with clouds.
"Are you…" He coughed, suddenly aware of the weight of his body, the warmth in his head. He started over. "Are you going to be living here from now on then?"
The girl shook her head. "Only for a couple of months, then I am to go back to the Low Realms to continue work on the machine."
Coren couldn't keep out the disappointment from his words. "Oh…"
"Still… I haven't seen much here yet. I only have my older brother and he's always too busy to show me around."
He heard the unspoken offer, and grasped at it immediately, his thoughts bursting a little chaotically.
"T- Then would you like to go somewhere?" he asked. He had no clear destination; there was the grand library which he was usually at a majority of the time, or the lake that he once came across in his wanderings.
She smiled widely, nodding. "Sure. But I should probably finish this first." She gestured toward the newly traced runes. "It shouldn't be long."
"Oh! Yes, of course."
He breathed evenly, putting his thoughts back in order. Silently, he watched her finish up the rune patterns- just two more characters were needed to complete the spell. She was humming softly, her voice gently moving through his head. It was a clear note, clearer than most Sartan. He supposed it was that way because she was continually around such loud noises, and increased the volume of her magic accordingly, now becoming reflex.
Her hand finally left the wall, the rune emitting a soft blue. He hadn't noticed the large satchel lying at her feet until she bent to retrieve it. It was certainly… not of Sartan-make. He recalled one of the dwarves carrying such a thing around, quickly rushing over to a machine part.
Ashe she picked it up, the tinkling of metal hitting against each other reached his ears. She rushed over to his side, and saw how his eyes traveled to the object.
"I… brought some of my work from home. My family doesn't know." She looked guilty, as if she had just entered someone's dwelling without permission and had been discovered. "Promise not to tell?"
It wasn't like Sartan to keep secrets from one another- but there was something thrilling about it. And Coren couldn't help but feel a little flattered that she was asking him for this. It was a nice feeling; having already this level of trust from this girl.
"Okay," he said, nodding in agreement.
He felt his fingers wrap around softness and realized then how his hand had somehow met with her own without his knowledge. Had he reached out to her, or vice-versa? He didn't mind it though- he really didn't. And with the way she smiled at him, it seemed she didn't either. He brushed a hand through his hair, trying to take his mind off the rapid beating of his heart.
Then he remembered something, instantly feeling like a fool. "Sorry, I forgot to ask you your name." He had the urge to pull his own hood over his face.
She turned to him, her eyes peeking out, showing him a dark shade of green. When she spoke, her voice instantly got lower, as if what she said was meant for his ears only, as if what she said was another precious secret between them both.
"My name is Lya."
Alfred sat inside a room -a bedroom to be exact- the walls made of cut marble, with high, oval-shaped windows to his right. The bed he sat on was soft, the furniture surrounding him; a small reading table circled by plush chairs, a dresser to the side, was arranged perfectly and out of the way. His feet rested against a floor covered with a soft carpet, simple in its design, so unlike the lush extravagant ones back in the castle of King Stephen, their colors blinding. And resting right next to his feet, curled up in a small ball, was the black dog of Haplo.
It had been three days since Alfred had become a prisoner of the Sartan of Chelestra.
Throughout his incarceration, he hadn't really done much of anything besides rethinking events and mindlessly petting the dog. He eventually came to the conclusion that, no matter what, he always managed to upset everything he ever came across. A truth that was, sadly, not new to him at all.
The Sartan had not been pleased with the sorry excuse for a demigod. His reveal that their once carefully constructed plans of order were, in reality, on its last legs and consumed with rust, had made them frightened, and made Samah suspicious. He couldn't even manage to hide away, or blend in with the people he had missed for so long. It was all so painfully apparent when he remembered how, in his early days in Surunan, he had run into a table that had been off to the side, no where near the path he and Orla, had been taking through the house. He remembered how she had gasped as he stumbled to his knees, the heavy wooden table falling to its side with a loud clatter.
He had looked at his disobeying feet in eternal misery. "I'm so terribly sorry…"
But she had brushed away his apologies, helping him stand, handling his gangly body with skill. "Alfred, you are suffering. Your mind and body can't even cooperate with each other. If only you would share your burdens with us."
So he had told her everything, at least most of it. Waking up to nothing, living out a lie, his thoughts of ending it all, the despair leaving trails inside his head. He had told her and only her, because unlike the other Sartan, there was something in her eyes that he recognized ever since he saw her in the mausoleum, standing by Samah. A familiar, saddening thing, an edge of loneliness despite being surrounded by others. He felt connected to her, even though, somehow, he still could not tell her his real name.
Her eyes were a lovely dark shade of green.
It wasn't the city, the people, or the culture that was nothing but an archaic past back in his world. Any happiness he felt, any understanding that was shared, all of it was because of her. She had been the one to kneel down beside him from his fainting spell, holding his hand. She had been lying in Lya's coffin- the coffin that was never really Lya's in the first place. But it brought back old feelings either way, and it was then he realized that he was falling in love with her.
The dog raised its head, as if knowing where Alfred's thoughts were leading to. Having his own suspicions about the animal, it probably did.
"Why couldn't I have just been happy?" he said out loud. He was staring at his hands; large, knobby, and creased with wrinkles. Clumsy and useless. No matter that these hands, as well as the rest of his limbs, became graceful during his magic spells. They still broke everything they touched, so incapable of doing anything right. "I could've been happy."
But then the dog had arrived. And if the dog was here, then Haplo was as well. He was no longer the only stranger on Chelestra.
A small whine broke his thoughts. He turned, finding the dog sitting up, its head tilted to the side. While I'm sorry for what has happened, I still don't really appreciate the full blame on me.
"But if I hadn't gone to the library again…" Alfred trailed off. Even though the doubts had been sleeping within him ever since his arrival, even though he was in love with another man's wife. Still, he could have found a way to be satisfied if he had tried hard enough. That was it really, he just hadn't tried hard enough.
This sneaking around, trying to discover the Sartan's secrets that must have been kept locked away for a good reason; these were such things Haplo would have done. He wondered, suddenly, what the Patryn was doing right now, and if he even missed his dog.
It had been three, long days.
The soft knock that came from the door didn't seem real. He was still staring at his hands, still feeling the dog's eyes bore into his head, occasionally puncturing the silence with a thump of its furry tail against the floor. He answered automatically, never even looking up. "Come in."
Orla came into the room, her footsteps brisk, the hem of her robe hanging from her stiffly. Short, white hair framed her face. The lines around her mouth had faded, and Alfred, taken in by her silence, knew that she hadn't smiled since his imprisonment.
He stood up, words forming in his throat. She was here. If she was here, then maybe-
She held up a hand, stopping him before he could begin. "I just came for the dog," she said, her tone formal. "Ramu said you requested it be given exercise."
Her words brought forth no images, nothing. They were as rigid and uncompromising as the wall she had built around herself. Alfred just barely suppressed a sigh.
"Y- yes, of course. Go on," he gestured to the dog. "Go with Orla."
It did so with amazing cooperation, its eyes bright as it walked up to the Sartan woman. Sneaking to her side, it licked her hand, making her pull it back in surprise. It had always been so curiously affectionate, Alfred thought. He couldn't help but think how Haplo wouldn't have approved.
"I want to thank-" he started, but she had already turned away, heading straight for the door.
He wasn't sure where he got the courage. Alfred was anything but brave. It was the sight of her back to him, of her white robes held up by her shoulders, a different shade from the white of the room. Older, more worn, dismal. And he loved her with all his heart.
"Orla," he called out to her. He was unable to restrain the images from his voice- of his arms around her, of his jealousy over a distant husband. He didn't really want to. She already knew anyway.
She stood very still for a moment or two. The dog was pressed against her leg, getting small strands of its black fur on the white cloth.
"You make things very difficult for us," Orla finally answered, just barely turning her head. For me, came the unspoken thought, a fine thread connecting them both.
"I know." Alfred looked to the side. That's all he'd ever done for anyone, hadn't he? And despite knowing this, he couldn't stop himself. He was truly horrible. "I've missed you."
She turned around fully, facing him. The line in her forehead had deepened, but for Alfred, it didn't mar her beauty at all.
"You have to leave this place."
The very nature of the words left him dizzy and breathless. He struggled. "I…"
"Please, Alfred," she said softly. Images poured out of her own voice, confusing and fearful. There was a face. Alfred was stunned, remembering how Orla had always maintained great control over the Sartan language. "Just leave. I'm afraid of what will happen."
The dog suddenly barked, wagging its tail. The sudden sound made Orla step back. The images, conflicting in essence, yet with the same recurring portrait of the face- Samah's, suddenly vanished.
The doubts festering in Alfred's heart, the hunger to know about his people, the mensch, the worlds around him ever since his long sleep, that had made him defy Samah for a second time, sprang to the forefront of his mind. He walked up to her, never once stumbling.
"Orla, what happened to the other Sartan? Did Samah…" he let the sentence hang, unable to voice such a horrible idea, unable to even comprehend it.
Orla's eyes widened, indignation flaring. She opened her mouth to refute the unspoken accusation, but nothing would come out. Her hand, which had been laying near the dog, held its head, clinging onto it desperately.
Sartan couldn't lie.
He reached out a hand, having the absurd notion to touch her hair. He stopped himself in time, appalled at his action. And then she was suddenly embracing him, arms around his neck, face buried in his chest.
"I'm sorry, Alfred. I'm sorry." She didn't cry or shout. Her voice was calm, detached, reigning in her images again. But her hands were shaking. "We are your people. You're part of us, but…I don't know if it is because of the mensch or the Patryn, but Samah fears you."
The head of the Council of Seven? The legendary Samah fearing Alfred in his mensch clothes? It made no sense at all. He said nothing, unconsciously resting his hands on her shoulders, feeling her warmth.
"Believe me. I want you to stay," she whispered. "But not if it means…"
"Orla, please. Tell me." Certainly he was being much braver now. Just the very idea of his own brethren turning against their own, being capable of acting out those disdained mensch words -deceit, betrayal, treachery- was incredibly frightening. But he had seen the Sartan engage in civil war, stood witness to a wife, her soul trapped in-between, murder her own husband with bare hands. Abarrach had taught him that his people were capable of many, many things.
She raised her head and stepped back. Not too far off, for his hands were still on her, and her fingers still lightly trailed against the collar of his shirt. Even so, she tried to maintain that wall, moving past his questions.
"There is a power in you, Alfred," she said, strangely monotonous. "It is different from the rest of us." Her eyes slid through him, far off, far-seeing. It was an intensely familiar gaze that made him tighten his hold on her.
She said his mensch name effortlessly. She was hurt that he never told her, that one part of himself that he hid so well through the years. Orla deserved to at least have this. He swallowed, remembering the long-forgotten Sartan name, brushing away the other debris in his mind. But it wouldn't move past his throat, and then there was that ridiculous thought, the one he had been thinking over as he stood before the other Sartan in the mausoleum, that had reminded him when the dog had inexplicably arrived, bereft of its Patryn master. How could he give it, when somehow, impossibly, someone else already had it? Without even knowing it? And as he was thinking this, he moved closer. She was leaning forward.
Nothing good would come of this. They weren't young. They didn't have the excuse of being ignorant or foolish. Their years had taught them a multitude of painful, harsh lessons. The love he once had was gone, torn away in sleep, made him old. The love Orla had, if she ever really did, was distant, leaving her stranded in doubt. But comfort between two lonely people was all too easy to fall into.
He realized, too late, that he was kissing her. Arms circled around her, bringing her close. Orla didn't move away. Her hands lightly pressed against his neck. She leaned against him. He loved her, and he knew, in a rare, ecstatic moment of happiness, that she loved him too.
And she was married.
She separated from him, lingering for only a short moment, her hand grasped in his own tightly. She wouldn't look at him, instead increasing the strength of her grip to leave marks against his skin, her body shaking. Then she let go, leaving the room- leaving the dog behind from its promised release.
The feel of her stayed within him, the touch of her still lingering in his mind. He shook in sudden horror. He had… with Samah's wife! It had only lasted less than a minute, surely, but even so! Orla would never speak to him again. The shock of the moment stunned him in place. The old Alfred would have never done such a thing. Had he really been corrupted so much? From the mensch? From Haplo?
At the last thought, he looked to the dog. It stared at him, wagging its tail, seated by the door Orla had run out of. It was tilting its head again, as if the Sartan was the most peculiar creature it had ever seen.
"We cannot agree with this," spoke the elven leader named Eliason, his voice incredible subdued. "You sentence us to death."
The mensch leaders, five in total, looked small against the imposing Sartan, seated tall at their marble table. Samah had his hands clasped together, resting on the surface. His face was creased with frown lines. His eyes were narrowed.
Alfred watched the meeting between his people and the mensch in horrible fascination. The human leaders, a man and woman with dark skin, their lips twisted bitterly, were already turned toward the door. The dwarven leaders, also two, both looked ready to strike out at the Sartan in their flowing white robes. Only the elven representative remained calm and diplomatic, even as the great Samah had shouted down his requests. But once he had denied their only hope for survival, restricting them access to the vast land of Surunan to instead freeze in the Goodsea, anger finally sparked in the elf's eyes.
"We have complied with your commands, been humiliated and derided through every moment of our presence here." Eliason's voice never rose, as still as placid water. But the politeness that used to be there had all but evaporated. "Yet we cannot abandon one who we consider a dear and valuable friend."
At that, Alfred couldn't help but turn towards that door, to where Haplo had stalked out of not too long ago. A friend. His thoughts bubbled, images formed. He did all he could to push them down. He looked back to the dog seated at his feet.
"I had hoped dearly it would never come to this, to walk down the path of force. But you leave us no choice-"
"Ah, so now we hear the truth." Samah's smile was triumphant, which frightened Alfred immensely. "This is, of course, what you've always intended. You mensch races have not grown out of your warlike natures at all. Very well then. Be witness to the disaster your Patryn friend has led you to. Perhaps you might even live to regret it."
After he finished speaking, Samah traced the sigils in the air, sang the runes with mastery. A flash of light suddenly erupted, accompanied by a deafening bang. Alfred shuddered. The mensch fell back in a daze, their eyelids fluttering. Once the light dimmed, Samah was no longer in the Council Chamber.
Confused and angry, the mensch marched out of the room.
Alfred turned to Orla who had stood up with the rest of the council members, all of them ready to leave. "He doesn't mean it, does he? War against mensch? Against those we were meant to protect? He can't mean it!"
She flicked him a glance. Her eyes were veiled by her hair, her face impassive. He remembered the woman that had been in his arms not too long ago, but the person before him was like a statue, entirely composed of a fear that he knew that Samah shared- that he did as well.
He didn't reach out to her as she left the room (even though he desperately wanted to), following the other Sartan. Eventually, he felt a little grateful that he was alone now. His thoughts began to turn, revisiting to when Haplo had come in with the mensch, confident in his manner.
Seeing the Patryn across the grand Council Chamber had brought back a lot of strange and confusing memories. He was surprised at how well he was able to suppress them then, at least enough so that the other Sartan couldn't infer them from his face. Even the words he would later speak aloud -Do you remember, Haplo? The One that guides the Wave!- kept certain events in the dark. Whether it was because he was getting used to the Sartan rune-language after years of disuse, or because of unfathomable luck, he really had no idea.
Either way, as Haplo had glared at him in undisguised anger, turning away from him and the dog who would not respond to its master, Alfred simply knew there were some things he didn't want any of his people to see. So of course he couldn't stop thinking about the sequence of events that led to it, especially now that he was alone.
So there he was; a tall, gangly Sartan seated on the bench, with the Patryn's dog wandering about, sniffing at the floor occasionally. The clicking of the dog's claws echoed around him, highlighting the emptiness. Hours might have passed. He wasn't sure. But he remained there in that room of white, with a symmetrical beauty that reminded him of innocent days. And he couldn't stand it.
That was when Alfred concocted a plan.
It came to him all the sudden, just as the plan to get inside the library had done. Except this time, he didn't try to forget it. In fact, he felt vast relief once it hit his mind.
He knew he couldn't stay with his people any longer. He was afraid of them, of what they would do. Just the very thought of his distrust of them made his soul curl up inside him, made him long for his lost days.
Even Orla, the only one who had stood up for him, who seemed to understand his own doubts, was keeping secrets, even if she was doing so out of compassion. His mind felt fragile enough as it is. Whatever terrible history his people held, whatever Ramu had hinted at his father during their talk -We should do to him what we did to the others- Alfred was sure he could no longer take any more deception, seeing those airy words of the Sartan underlined by shadows, barely seen, but there all the same.
No, he couldn't stay with his people any longer. He had to get away.
And Haplo provided the perfect opportunity.
The Council meeting with the mensch had been a disaster, but if his plan worked, maybe he could fix it! …Okay, perhaps not fix it completely, but he could at least make amends on the Sartan's behalf. If he could just explain to them -and to Haplo- everything would be alright. He didn't exactly know why he felt this was so, but it was certainly better than standing around here while the relations between his people and the mensch grew even more strained than they were.
Besides, he was certain the Patryn would like his dog back.
"Come here," he called to the animal who had been pacing around the floor restlessly. "We're going to see Haplo. C- calm down, boy! Calm down. Oh, dear…"
The dog, hearing the familiar name, started barking happily, pawing at the Sartan's legs as if he was hiding his former master just nearby.
"St- stay quiet," Alfred pleaded as he knelt on the floor. He reached out shaking hands to scratch behind its black ears. His eyes kept flicking to the doorway, convinced that someone would come in and demand what was going on.
Surprisingly enough, the dog complied, leaning into his large hands. He stared at its brown eyes, suddenly feeling comforted, more secure in his decision to leave. Yes, the dog may not have exactly gone up to Haplo the last time they had seen him, instead choosing to circle back and rest itself at Alfred's feet, but it had probably just been confused then. There had been a large number of people in the chamber, their silence suffocating the room as they watched the dog try to choose between the two men, like some nervous child. Alfred's prompting hadn't done much then, but he was sure that once they got at a closer proximity, the dog would certainly go back!
Because otherwise, why would it keep whining like it was now, whenever he mentioned his master's name?
"Everything will be fine," he said, partly to the dog, mostly to himself. He remained kneeling for a bit, staring at the dog's eyes that were dark and warm. There were brief flashes of towering trees, of rune-covered bodies slipping through the grass, of a sky so pitch black that no stars could be seen. He shook his head of the memories- trying to remind himself that none of them were his own.
"I'm not…" he whispered. His body shook. The dog nudged its head against his arm, offering whatever little comfort it could give.
He took deep breaths, trying to replace the dark prison with pictures of floating isles, trying to replace the image of a hard-looking woman, patterns decorating her arms, with that of a small girl, slim in her white robes and her face hidden away. With that, the feeling of terror lessened considerably, the surge of adrenaline finally leaving his veins.
Instead there was the familiar loss, the regret, the longing- acute to what he felt back on Arianus in that Geg prison cell. He thought longingly of Orla. How ironic that what he had wanted for all his life was right here in this beautiful world of water, and he could not have it.
Slowly, he rose to his feet. All he had was the plan now, hopeful in his heart. He focused on it. He couldn't let them come to war. He had seen enough of it back home.
After looking around the area, he sang the magic. His voice was low, enough so that no other Sartan could have heard unless they had been nearby. He wove the runes with his hands, with his feet, his entire body shedding away its clumsiness like a shell. The dog watched, its plumy tail wagging excitedly.
Transportation was not an easy spell to perform- especially this type, where it called onto a person specifically instead of a location. His voice rising just a fraction higher, he brought the image of the Patryn to mind, of one image in particular. It was of Haplo leaning against the wall in the chamber, arms crossed, his entire manner casual- except for his eyes, hard and impenetrable. Alfred remembered their intense gaze when they locked on him- and how he flushed as those eyes encompassed the dog that had been by his side.
But he also remembered those eyes when they were open, completely unguarded, even gentle. It was then Alfred's hesitance finally melted away.
The magic engulfed him, took him past the walls of Surunan, past the encompassing seawater. He reached out his hand, felt the familiar furred head of the dog beside him. He arrived at his destination quickly enough, the runes depositing him onto solid ground once again. Blue light faded, leaving him in darkness that felt…unnatural. He blinked, looking around in confusion.
His gaze rested on Haplo then, who happened to be just a few feet away. He was standing upright, clad in the same clothes he had worn in the meeting which consisted of his leather vest, trousers, and a loose fitting shirt. His hands and neck were exposed, the intricate runes (their fierce glow lost on Alfred) engraved against his skin.
Alfred felt such deep relief and happiness that the magic had worked so accurately, he had completely missed the look of anger on the Patryn's face.
"I'm so glad I found you!" he said, walking up to him. "You have no idea how difficult that spell is-"
"What are you doing here?"
Haplo's voice was tight, barely getting out of his throat. And Alfred was oblivious.
"I came to return your dog." He waved behind him, the animal trotting up on cue. The Sartan felt oddly proud.
"If I'd wanted the damn dog, which I don't," Haplo emphasized, his fists clenched. "I would've come for it myself!"
Said dog suddenly barked furiously, the sounds echoing around them with a hollow tone.
It was then Alfred took more note of his current location.
There was sand under his feet, much of it covered in a strange blackness, with high cavern walls surrounding him. The shadows felt thick- oily almost. He hesitated breathing the air, the very taste of it making his throat tighten. His body shook, he began to sweat. He had expected Haplo to be on the sun chasers with the mensch, and after gazing at the sand one more time, seeing no dwarf, human, or elf appear into his view, he had to conclude that this was not so.
Then he made the mistake of turning around.
They slid themselves out of the darkness, creating slimy trails against the already tainted shore. Eyes of flame burned through him, hitting him with such malevolent force that he thought he would shatter on the spot. They had long, sinuous forms, briefly reminding him of the quicksilver dragons that dwelled in the High Realms of Arianus- until he remembered Samah's images, speaking of the trouble the Sartan had endured here.
One of the beasts, bigger than the rest, lowered its head. Poison coated its scales, dripped from a toothless mouth.
Its words stung him, drowned him in such palpable, unendurable hatred. He knew in that instant that it wanted him dead, wanted him to suffer, wanted his very existence to be erased, to never have been.
So he fainted, because what could he do against such a force that was as timeless and powerful as this? Nothing at all. Absolutely nothing. He couldn't…
Even unconscious he could still hear the monster's horrible voices, like acid hitting against his skin. He buried himself deeper into his mind, hoping to fade away into complete forgetfulness. There was movement. It wasn't his own. A familiar furry head nudged against his hands, followed by the swipe of a tongue.
And then he woke- to Haplo leaning over him, squatting down on his knees. He didn't look the least pleased.
"H- hello," Alfred wheezed out, still a little dazed.
The Patryn did nothing but stare. His eyes were intense, focused, completely aware.
They were outside, the cave from before just a large, gaping hole cut into the side of the mountains. There was the sound of water lapping at the shoreline. The dog was pawing at the sand, trying to dig up a little hermit crab that had tunneled away.
The breeze, the water, the snuffling of the dog, only emphasized the silence between the two. Alfred felt vastly uncomfortable. He desperately latched onto a fresh memory- instantly regretting it.
"Are they gone?" he asked, eyes shifting to the cave. It was completely shrouded in blackness.
Haplo spoke then, ignoring the question completely. "What do you want, Alfred?"
It's not a word he hears, but an impression, digging inside Alfred's skull. He had to remind himself (and for some reason, it is difficult when he does) that what he thinks is swimming through his head is certainly not what Haplo had said, or insinuated, or anything of the sort. There was no one living who knew this. He had even forgotten it himself, content to do so, satisfied to bury the pain that came with it before it could overwhelm him completely.
But the Patryn had come along, his bandaged hands held up in front of him, softly speaking aloud the names Hugh had given him on their introduction. Magic lived in their words, and it was the only thing to Alfred that made any sense as to just why he was reminded of it all. But Samah hadn't said it, neither did Orla, or any of the Sartan- his very own people. He was afraid to know why Haplo was the exception, because there had been no Death's Gate to blame then; just a voice, and a meaningless thrill.
It's what he felt as Haplo looked down on him. He apparently took a long time in answering.
"I asked you a question."
Haplo was now standing, pointedly taking a several steps back, his arms crossed. He made no move to help Alfred get to his feet.
"I just… I came to return your dog."
"Like I'd believe that."
"It's true!" He clambered up, legs shaking. "I thought you would be with the mensch, and I-"
"I'm obviously not," Haplo interrupted. "Did Samah send you?"
"Y-you're not listening. No one sent me. I just… your dog has been very unhappy lately."
The animal sat just between the two, (the hermit crab had gotten away) its tail brushing the sand. A plaintive whine echoed from its throat.
Haplo kept his distance. Alfred could see the walls of his being erected high. Bits of it crumbled at the dog's sound, but only that.
"You're not lying, Sartan," he said, his voice dangerously low. "But you're not telling me the whole truth either."
He was speaking Patryn. Dark shadows leaked from his words. There were unspoken threats, an anger suddenly fueled, and Alfred knew it was because of him. He had made another stupid mistake.
Still, he remained under Haplo's glare. It was uncomfortable, yes, but… he wasn't frightened. It was hard to be, remembering the man before him as a hurting child in the forest. Besides, all of his fear had been used up; from his people, from Ramu's vague threat, from-
He unconsciously turned towards the cave. Something moved inside.
"I wanted to talk to the mensch. To convince them to just wait a little. This war," he clutched at his arm, looking to the sand. "It will bring disaster."
Certainly something that the Patryn emissary of Chaos would want, but he felt, somehow, that Haplo would understand what he meant.
His tone was pleading. "If I could just figure out what to do… but I need time. Because if those terrible things…"
When he looked back to Haplo, he finally noticed the other's skin. There was a blue glow, incredibly faint, highlighted against his arms, outlining the interconnecting runes.
"You don't trust them either, do you?"
Haplo's only response was to turn his eyes toward the cave. And it was then Alfred realized there was something quite different about him. He hadn't really noticed back in the council meeting, too immersed in his own unhappiness. It wasn't a specific thing either, nothing readily apparent in Haplo's demeanor. He was still quiet, thoughtful, forever aggravated by Alfred's existence. But there was something else- a flash across his eyes, wings of doubt resting in his head. There was worry, and it wasn't just for himself.
Chelestra, Alfred recalled sadly, was a world of change, it seemed.
The dog softly padded over to the Patryn, its whine subdued. Haplo let a hand rest on its head.
"Is that really what you came for?"
Alfred blinked in confusion. His thoughts scattered.
"To talk with the mensch," Haplo reminded, his gaze moving back to the Sartan. His tone had lost its sharpness, taking on a gentler shade that Alfred thought was much more becoming. "Right?"
"Of- Of course," he replied, because what other reason, besides bringing back the dog, could he have?
Haplo wouldn't let up his stare. It was as intense as before, but the flames of anger had died. Now they were distant, observing, analyzing him. Alfred wasn't really sure what to think of the scrutiny, though he supposed he couldn't really blame Haplo for still not trusting him. Feeling a sense of defeat, he directed his own gaze to his shoes. His chest felt oddly tight.
Coren. There it was again. He kept his eyes down. No. No, he would not think about that- or its implications. He would rather just stand here and examine his own footwear. (Dark leather, faded boot clasps, with scuffs all around the edges from his travels. He had gotten to know them quite well). Of course it wouldn't leave his head still. The name, the memory of it, forcefully brought back young faces that he had taken for granted, brought back a feeling that he had thought had died completely.
"Alfred! I'm talking to you!"
The dog entered his line of vision, sat down at his feet.
Alfred raised his head to find Haplo much nearer than before. He had only a moved a couple of feet closer to him, but Alfred certainly hadn't heard the other's footsteps. He flinched involuntarily, frightened how his mind had just shut down for that brief moment, as if he was ready to faint again…
Haplo's arms hung by his sides. The runes on his skin were a couple shades darker, their light barely visible.
"I need to ask you something else."
The dog was pawing at the Sartan's leg with great affection, tongue lolling from its mouth. Alfred tried to push it aside gently, all the while aware of Haplo's stare, of his incredibly serious tone.
"What is it?" Alfed inquired, his eyes looking every which way but at him.
At this, Haplo suddenly looked annoyed. His fists clenched, his lips pressed firmly together. Had he expected Alfred to know what he was referring to?
"You have to tell me what you did to me."
"I…" Alfred trailed off, clueless. "What did I do?"
"On Abarrach." Haplo forced the words out, as if holding them in caused him physical pain. "What you did."
Throughout his stay in Surunan, he had tried adamantly to forget his horrible travels in that world of stone. Yet still, he could recall the ever shifting face of Jera, her echoes of pain, of Haplo lying in the cell, near death. That was all Abarrach was. Nothing but death. But of course that wasn't what the Patryn was talking about, not those moments on the world but above it, when his eyes had suddenly changed.
"It wasn't me."
And he was sure, (well, fairly sure at least) that what he said was true. He could blame himself for not moving away soon enough, to let the feelings of confusion, of nervousness, of something else, lock his body in place. But certainly not… that.
Haplo gritted his teeth, looked away. It was not the answer he had wanted. At all.
Alfred prepared himself for accusations. He wasn't sure if he could defend himself again, because he still had no idea what had happened. Maybe trying to heal the Patryn had done something. He had never tried to heal someone like that before, so what if he had-
"Then what is happening to me?"
Haplo's face hadn't changed. His tone was even, still. But the question was genuine, the doubt he had been trying to hide away now making itself more apparent. The rune-language painted his uncertainty in the air much too plainly, so much that Alfred couldn't mistake it for anything else.
"Memories keep coming back to me," he continued, letting out the words slowly. "Things that shouldn't even matter now."
"I don't…" Alfred gestured helplessly. "I really don't understand."
"Some of these memories aren't even mine."
His words portrayed a white mausoleum, of young people in their tombs, cut down in their sleep. There were brief flashes of those same people walking in the light, their robes shifting in the breeze- and then it focused on one person in particular, a young girl, her hood down, her voice incredibly clear and resonant.
They were private images that had been locked away in Alfred's heart, the dust of the passing years covering them. And here was Haplo, revealing them, handling them with a disquieting familiarity.
"Can you explain that at least?" Haplo was asking, his voice a fraction louder. There was a faint, desperate edge to it.
"But, I don't know," Alfred said, feeling useless. "If I did somehow cause this, it was certainly not my intent!"
"Really now?' Haplo quirked an eyebrow. "You certainly do strange things with your magic often enough. All without intent, or 'forgetting.'"
"But…that's the truth. I would never want any of this. I can't even sleep because of what I see! At times I even forget who I-"
He shut his mouth quickly, taking back the words. It seemed to him that the dog was grinning.
"What? What did you see?" Haplo moved closer. The dog had to step out of the way for fear of being trampled. "Sartan?"
"Nothing." But his mind was whirring, repeating scenes that were so foreign yet familiar. His eyes strayed to the dog, who was staring back at him with its brown eyes, tail brushing against the sand happily.
Something grabbed his wrist. He jumped slightly, looked down to find a tattooed hand just over his own. The grip wasn't forceful, at least not in a way that would have been painful.
"It- it's nothing!" Alfred tried again, but the words were ineffectual. His voice brought forth the images that had been lodged inside his head, transmitting the knowledge of a darkness that no Sartan of Arianus could have ever possibly experienced.
Haplo's eyes widened slightly. His grip tightened. Private things that no one else should have known.
Alfred knew that now would be a good time to pull away. But of course his body wouldn't cooperate. He stayed in place, rooted to the sand, hearing the water currents crash in the distance. Because, as strange as it was, he still didn't feel frightened. He was a bit nervous, (the Patryn was very near), but that was all it was. And the nearness brought to mind of Orla grasping his hand in shared pain, of Lya reaching out to him gratefully.
Both of them remained where they were, trapped in a silence that felt oddly companionable. Haplo had turned his gaze to the ground, suddenly looking very, very tired.
It was only the knowledge of the dreaded serpents, of the cave that was still right near them, that prompted Alfred to speak. "I'm sorry I'm not much help."
As if in reaction to his apology, Haplo suddenly grabbed his other wrist. Left hand in his right, right in his left. Alfred nearly stumbled backwards in shock, and it was only because of the other's hold on him that he didn't fall over completely.
"Haplo?" But the Patryn had shut his eyes. The runes on his arms cast a stronger light. An attack of some kind? But a warmth, electrifying, was moving through his blood. Alfred realized what he was doing; he was trying to forge the circle between them again, though to what goal he had really no idea.
I need to know why. A voice echoed in his head, a voice that belonged to the one before him. I need to know what is going on.
"I don' think-" Alfred started to protest, but Haplo tightened his grip, making clear that he was to shut his mouth. The Sartan swallowed, feeling the magic form around him.
Haplo was chanting, his words uttered low and beneath his breath. It was not a healing spell, that was for certain. And though Alfred tried to discern the words, it was difficult to do so over the rushing in his ears.
The Patryn language, harsh in its existence, dove straight into Alfred's chest, bringing Haplo's consciousness with it. Pictures swam before his eyes- of a ship breaking apart, runes being wiped clean from the skin. There were children as well, mensch children of each race respectively, looking at him with a mixture of wonder and suspicion.
Going through Death's Gate had made them exchange identities for a brief, torturous moment. Memories locked away were finally let free, their pain still so very fresh, no matter the years that had passed. An experience of loss and devastation, a feeling that each knew so intimately, and were able to find in another. Alfred still didn't know why the tumultuous magic of Death's Gate had made them go through that, but it had no doubt connected them on a similar level, reinforcing the brief things he had seen on Arianus. Was that what Haplo was trying to do? Recreate the magic that had made them go through one another's heads?
But the memories only came from one source. Haplo continued supplying Alfred with a multitude of images. And in them, Alfred was Haplo, going through each flash as the Patryn. He was standing in the control room of a sun-chaser, the area full of the same darkness he had experienced within the cave, of fear seeping through his skin. Red-green eyes blinked at him as a voice spoke in soft, disgusting hisses. This switched to a meeting with the serpents on this same beach, calling him 'Master,' plotting with him to overtake the Sartan of this world.
Alfred felt Haplo's anger, his hunger for vengeance, for blood. And it was completely understandable. He wasn't shocked, or terrified- only sad.
There was a waterfall of interactions with the mensch; of a dwarf maiden side-eyeing the Patryn whenever he passed, of a young male elf silently hanging up from the vines, and a human girl, her features echoing those of the human leaders back in that chamber, looking up at him with clear admiration. Confusing, chaotic- the anger was fading, compassion taking hold of him for the mensch's predicament, pity for a life that tried to take itself away, mercy for a girl's fragile, naïve sentiments.
Alfred felt overflowed. So much to experience in such a short amount of time. His limbs shook, air left his lungs. He tried to copy Haplo's actions, releasing some of his own memories through Haplo's arms, but his legs suddenly failed him. He fell forward, felt strong arms hold him off the ground.
"Alfred!" Haplo shouted, his tone slightly worried, mostly annoyed. "Alfred!"
He had taken that name when he finally left the mausoleum on Drevlin, after spending so many long months waiting there, hoping that one day his people, his Lya, would wake up again. It was a name he had come upon in his youth, a passing reference in one of the books he used to read. He was not sure why it stuck in his head, but it had been there, echoing inside him after hearing nothing but silence. The crashing thunderstorms of Drevlin had bore down on his body, the rain drenching the robes to his skin. When he looked to the skies, seeing the shadows of isles just against the clouds, he took hold of it -Alfred- and finally left his home. Even though it would take years for him to finally come to heartbroken acceptance that there were no other Sartan left in the world, he carried the name around, slowly burying Coren away, piece by piece.
And yet that was all he heard as Haplo was shouting at him. Coren! Coren! And he really, truly felt like he was home again, more than he ever had been in Surunan, among his own kind.
With shaking breaths, he was able to hold himself up, still grasping onto the Patryn's arms for support.
"I'm…I'm okay," he gasped out. Though he felt he would really like nothing better than to fall asleep. The magic still covered around them both like a blanket. He was grateful for Haplo's strength, that he was here. Haplo was looking at him, silently questioning, and he wanted to tell him then and there. He wanted to reveal the name he had once so vehemently despised, because he was certain- no, he knew that Haplo would take it, would hold it with great care, and more importantly, would know.
Just as he was about to speak again, Haplo raised his head, narrowed his eyes. He straightened, stepping back as he released Alfred's arms. The Sartan crumpled to his knees.
What he heard next was like a spear impaling itself through his back. The deep voice was triumphant, rising above the frantic barking of the dog.
"So I find you here in the company of a Patryn," spoke Samah. "Why am I not surprised?"
After years of living in Drevlin, Coren finally got used to the constant storms.
Moving out of the High Realms, an open place of air and light where he had spent his childhood, had been a difficult transition. But Lya, his love (just thinking the word made his head wonderfully lightheaded) reassured him, ecstatic in her own way to properly introduce him the home she had always known. Upon first arriving, she whisked him away to the tunnels, easing away his sadness by showing off all the parts of the great machine that the dwarves were now affectionately calling the "Kicksey-Winsey." It had gotten even larger than the last time he had visited; expanding itself, creating new walls, new domains, its skin of polished brass shining from the glow of the lamps. There were many diverging pathways, much more so than he was even aware of than on any of his previous visits. The runes guided their way, but Lya traversed the tunnels with such ease that he was sure she didn't even need the magic for help.
Rain was a rare, nearly unheard of phenomenon in all other parts of Arianus. Yet Drevlin, embroiled near the maelstrom, experienced it every day of every hour. Breaks in the storm lasted for only a few minutes at most. Even the Sartan dared not venture out into the weather for very long. Lya, strange as she was, liked to watch the dark clouds from the doorways, their shapes lit up by the lightning. Coren would sometimes watch with her, and grew to like the soft pattering of the rain, the deep rumbling of the thunder.
But today, he was watching alone. The wind was strong, whipping around his robes, water falling all around him heavily. His eyes were on the sky. He hadn't been out for very long, and the sounds of the storm relaxed his mind.
They had three days left. Three days before the Sartan would go to sleep.
"Coren?" A voice called out from behind him. He turned to find Lya near. She had grown taller over the years, her hair a bit straighter. Her hood was still up, still covered her face, as it usually did whenever they were in public. He watched as small hands reached up, pulling back the cowl just a little, enough to reveal her eyes.
Coren unconsciously gave a little smile. His hand, large but graceful, found hers. Usually so willing to gaze at her, he found himself turning back to the sky, his attention lost to the rain.
Something was flying through the clouds.
"Is it a ship?" Lya asked, her voice clear and pronounced against the storm. Coren's was soft, nearly inaudible in comparison.
"It's a dragon."
The creature was incredibly large, the leathery wings outstretched against the sky, its color a bright green. It wasn't the slender, sinuous forms of the quicksilver dragons, but those that the humans had trained for war and travel, those the elves butchered for their dragonships. A distant roar echoed, fighting against the thunder.
The wind buffeted the dragon around continuously. It tried to fly alongside the lightning, nearly losing its momentum. Any second it would fall, plummet straight into the maelstrom, and be lost. Dragons didn't come down to the Low Realms. No human ever flew the creatures past the dark clouds unless they were set to die. But there was no harness on this one, no emblazoned crest of a lord on its chest. A wild, free creature that somehow ventured below the isles of its home.
It made a bright shape against the darkness. Coren couldn't look away.
The dragons were an anomaly on Arianus. After the Sundering, reptilian creatures, a myth of the old, ancient world, had appeared in the World of Air. The Sartan had found this unsettling at first, but the quicksilvers were few in number, and the winged dragons, while more numerous, were little more than beasts, simple in their intelligence. They were also easy to control, to the point that even the human wizards could house the animals in their own keeps, like glorified horses.
Coren himself had never seen this type of dragon before. He looked at it with undisguised admiration. It was fighting against nature itself to live. It flapped its wings, climbing higher into the sky. Whatever situation that had led it here, it was intent on surviving through it. And somehow, it made him wonder, briefly, what would happen if he had chosen to stay awake instead.
Both Coren and Lya watched silently as it disappeared into the distance, finally leaving their sight. They remained there still, holding the other's hand with increasing tightness.
Coren shook away the doubts in his head. No, he was still intent on leaving this world. There was the mensch wars, the dwindling populace. The magic of the High Realms had grown harder to maintain, the shield that helped the plants thrive and the humans to breathe, already failing. He hadn't truly believed it then, that his people were growing so weak, not even when he came across the lake he and Lya had walked to so many times. The water had dried up, leaving nothing but a hole in the ground. It took the death of his mother, as sudden as the rest, to finally convince him.
What could he do here if he stayed anyway? He was not as strong as his other brethren, not as smart, not as skilled. No, he would rather sleep, with Lya beside him. His people from the other worlds would come. Then everything would stop breaking. People would stop dying. Everything would be fixed. He believed this wholeheartedly. There was nothing else for him to do.
The storm abated for its short few minutes, finally letting go of Coren's attention. He turned back to Lya who beamed at him with a smile. But for a brief second, he swore that her eyes had been wide and thoughtful, much more than he had ever seen them before. It was as if she had seen something in him then, something that she recognized, like a shape that covered him whole, that highlighted his person against the shadows.
Flying above the tortured seamoon, his claws embedded in the largest of the fat, wriggling dragon-snakes, Alfred was engulfed in a thrill he had never before felt. His leathery wings stretched out further, pushing down on the air as he ascended. His prey hissed in fear and rage.
It would not be a memory he would recall. Instead it would be buried away like all the other pieces that had ever belonged to Coren, like the knowledge of greater things, like the wondrous creature in the storm. It was always easier to forget, or so he had once believed.
The Serpent Mage, dressed in the form of a green and gold dragon, looked down, saw the Patryn lying on the sand, staining it with his blood. Eyes clouded with pain, with the need for sleep, gazed back at him with a sudden clarity, an inborn recognition that the dragon felt an affinity for. He dropped the dragon-snake then, crashing its repulsive body onto the sharp crags of the mountain below.
The experience already started to fade from his mind. But still Coren rose, slowly waking from a sleep that had lasted much too long.