The Water of Aetas

Chapter 4

Disclaimer: Yup, the same it's always been.

This is set at some point after Revenge. Majic's back studying at the Tower of Fang, if that wasn't too clear in the first part, and Cleao and Orphen are out traveling on their own, under the protective watch of Wolfen cub extraordinaire, Leki.

Hey, (some) major plot is finally explained here !! Whoopee!!!! Viva l'exposition!

A gloved fist crashed down onto the ancient, wooden table, sending the crystal gazing sphere flying across the room and ultimately into the far stone wall, reducing it into a shower of glittering splinters. The glass fragments clinked across the marble floors as the fingers rapped lightly across the table's surface.

I just can't believe it! It took me months to create the perfect conditions to conjure up that storm, and I don't have the power left to do anything of that magnitude again. Not that I really expected it to kill a sorcerer of his caliber, per se, but at least it could have slowed him down or maybe broken his concentration a little. Even with the lightning strike he doesn't show one ounce of damage. Impossible luck.

But, but – those idiotic bandits! How hard can it be to kill one stupid girl?! One powerless girl is all I ask, and they somehow manage to botch even that! You just can't find good help these days I suppose. Maybe that old scroll was right, maybe I should have taken the time to grow and engineer my own henchman. Ahh, twenty-twenty they say.

Another hand joined the first, the fingers steepling together. Patience. In a few days he should make it to Amangrade – there should be some decent help there for hire…the city has been going to the slums these past few decades. Perhaps there…. Yes, I can stop him there…He should be well enough distracted. Don't worry, my pet, you'll be safe from him soon enough.

From off a shelf in the corner of the room, another gazing ball floated through the air, coming to rest on the worn spot in the center of the table. A soft light played across the surface as it gradually came to life.

Cleao stretched lazily and placed her hands on her full stomach, a contented smile splitting her face. The remains of a large meal lay on the table in front of her. Orphen sat at the small desk across the room, his back to her and lost in thought over a book he was studying, absent-mindedly tapping a pen against the side of his head.

Earlier today they had arrived in Amangrade, bedraggled and hungry and a bit worse for the ware. They had luckily found a traveling farmer to grab a ride with for the last few leagues, allowing them both a chance of needed rest. Cleao's reserves were all burned up in her speedy healing, and Orphen was still recovering both physically and emotionally. Although he hadn't said much to her over the past few days, he also hadn't strayed more than three feet from her at any point down the empty road. To say the least, she was a little confused by his behavior, but she figured in his Orphen-tinted way of dealing with emotional issues, he'd either tell her on his own time or bottle it up forever. No amount of nagging, she had found through many marathon hours of testing and experimenting, would ever change that.

Orphen stared at the open pages in front of him, his eyes long unfocused from the runes written there. He could hear Cleao finishing up her third helping of dinner behind him, he having long since finished eating. The book was one of many of Rox Roe's personal diaries, ones he had 'liberated' from the Tower of Fang's unorthodox confiscation of the dead man's property – or more correctly, Majic had liberated for him. He figured that Roe would have wanted his collected knowledge to help his former students and protégés, and Orphen figured that he qualified as worthy of that help. While normally he found the old sorcerer's anecdotes and equations to be enthralling, he couldn't seem to finish even one paragraph before his mind wandered.

He had finally admitted to himself that Cleao had really given him a scare, more so than he thought possible. She's important to me, yeah, that's true. But I dunno, I guess I always thought of her as the annoying younger sister type, someone to count on and pick on and always have around when you least want them,… family. Orphen's brows knitted together and he made lazy circles on the book page with his index finger. Something wasn't quite adding up right though. He'd thought of, and still did think of, Azalea as family, but whenever she was in trouble or danger it didn't quite elect the same response as earlier. Everything just seemed more real, more imminent, and more important. He shivered slightly. I, I just don't get it. When did things change? Hell, what under the Heavenly Ones is it changing to? If it was just this one thing, I mean, she did almost – almost,…but then again, there was the night before that. … What the hell was I doing?!

Orphen growled underneath his breath and was jolted out of his inner thoughts when he heard a loud snap. Surprised, he looked down to find his pen broken cleanly in half, slowly dripping excess ink onto the table top. Scowling, he magicked it away and pushed himself away from the desk.

Cleao was kneeling on the floor tossing a small, worn ball at Leki, who romped around, yipping happily with the attention. Orphen watched her silently for a moment, leaning back on the desk, arms crossed in front of him. She was so happy, so carefree, although it seemed to him she might have been trying just a little too hard. He could just make out small lines around her eyes which he was certain weren't there a few days earlier. He grimaced again to himself. And why the hell did I make note of that anyway?

Cleao looked up from tossing the toy at Leki and felt the smile slide halfway off her face. Orphen watched her from across the room, looking like murder warmed over. He must think I'm wasting time, as usual, she thought to herself, and tried harder to fix the remains of her smile. He must be pretty mad at me for gods knows what reason…Bet he thinks I'm the dumbest thing around now or not capable of taking care of myself at all or something like that. But damn, would it kill him to look a little more friendly?

She threw the toy to Leki one last time and stood up, immediately launching herself onto the nearest bed and crossing her arms behind her head. "Man, we sure were lucky finding a room this nice, and with two beds too, what with this festival coming up and all." Cleao rolled over to her side and turned towards Orphen. "What do you suppose this festival's all about? I didn't hear too many details from the townsfolk on the way in."

Orphen grumbled and stalked over to the other side of the room, where a mess of broken vases and dishes were piled on the floor. "The only reason we got this room in the first place is because I was 'volunteered' to fix all the broken china by a certain loud someone. Also, I wouldn't consider still having to pay full price on our currently empty purse as "lucky"'.

Cleao grimaced. So much for trying to change the subject. Man, something really has that man's underwear tied up in a –

"And speaking of our less than comfortable monetary situation, I got a part time position for the next couple of days helping to clear away the rest of the storm wreckage in time for the festival." Orphen looked over his shoulder pointedly at her. "If , by any chance, you feel like helping for a change, I'm sure there's something the festival crew could use you for, even if it was just cheerleading."

Cleao fumed and bit her tongue as Orphen turned back to repairing the broken plates. That – that insufferable excuse for a - Cleao stood and straitened her dress, before stomping off towards the desk. Sweeping Orphen's work aside, she plopped herself down in the chair and found a clean piece of parchment. Picking a pen at random, she began to scrawl furiously on the paper.

Dear my favorite male, Majic,

Orphen is a jerk . I mean, a real class-act piece of crap. I don't really want to go through all the details on paper here, but do you think it'll kill the man to be perhaps a little sociable or considerate once in a while? Really Majic, I don't get it. Like, well, one night a few days ago he…

Cleao paused and looked down at her writing and chewed on the corner of her lip. Maybe Majic really wasn't the best option to be writing to, especially when it came to advice about men. Sure, Majic was a guy and all, but she really didn't consider him an expert on anything masculine. Now, if she needed an opinion on a new carpet or flower arrangement, she'd know who to go to. Also, she didn't really feel comfortable explaining the last couple of days here in writing, that would make it too final, and would much prefer just to tell him in person. Or maybe really not at all. Cleao still wasn't certain of her own feelings in the matter to be adept enough to explain to another. Scratching through a few lines and revising, Cleao continued.

Let's just say it's like I'm traveling with two different Orphens. It's incredibly confusing and tiring. Dammit Majic, when's your semester break?! I could really use another outlet for his abuse here!

Anyway, how're things at the Tower and with Eris? Hartia not been working you too much? Well, we're in Amangrade now, and as far as I know, we'll probably be here for a while yet. As far as I know, Magic Man wanted to do some research here, and from what he seems to have to go one right now, it'll probably take some time. He still hasn't explained to me fully what the hell we're doing out here. Maybe tomorrow I can pry some more out of that steel trap.

Well, take care Majic. Don't forget to do your laundry, or take Eris out every once in a while. Girls like to be treated nice, and for some reason you men just can't seem to understand that!

Hugs and Kisses,

Cleao and Leki

Cleao folded up the letter and sealed it with a bit of wax just as Orphen was finishing up the pile of china. Ignoring him as he watched her cross the room, she gathered up her night clothes and headed for the attached bathroom, slamming the door practically in his face.

Orphen frowned once she was in the other room and slammed his fist into the floor next to him. What was his problem? He did it again, made her angry for no reason for the second time that night. He was beginning to think there was something seriously wrong with him. The more he came closer to admitting that Cleao perhaps was more important to him than he thought previously, he said something even more heinous to her. He wanted to be nice, well, maybe cordial, to her, but any good intentions flew out his ears when he saw her. It was just too damn entertaining to push her buttons.

That's it though. I almost lost her there, before I've had a chance to even decide how I really feel about her. Come on Orphen, how hard can it be. Orphen paused for a moment in his mental tirade before pushing himself off the floor and heading towards his bed. That's it, tomorrow. Tomorrow I'll make a real effort this time to try and be nicer to her. Or at least maybe just not royally piss her off. That might be easier. I can be charming, dammit! ….do I even want to be charming?

Stripping off everything but his pants, Orphen flung himself into bed and rolled under the sheets. He lay awake as he listened to her finally emerge and climb into her own bed and waited until he heard her settle down into sleep. Turning over onto his other side, he watched her sleeping form in the dim moonlight. Leki was curled around her head as usual, his tail draped protectively across her neck. Orphen sighed to himself quietly. At least sleeping she looked peaceful enough. He was afraid she'd have restless nights or nightmares these past few days, but as long as the Wolfen cub was near her, she seemed to sleep fine. Satisfied at least that he hadn't made her mad enough to disrupt her sleep. He'd have to tell her eventually about her narrow brush with death, since she obviously didn't consciously remember a thing, shock he supposed. But not tonight, maybe not for a while. Orphen pulled the covers up around his shoulders and tried to get his own rest amid his running thoughts.

"And what exactly do you mean by that?" Cleao asked, leaning forward a in an attempt to look more menacing.

Orphen looked at her pointedly once before returning to packing his small knapsack with books. "Exactly what I said – Leki has to stay here in the room today." Knotting the top closed, he stood and turned towards her. "Look Cleao, I'm not exactly thrilled with having to leave him behind either, but there's no way we can risk bringing him. It's the Tower of Ea's Research Library after all. There's a good chance someone there will recognize a Wolfen by sight, and his magical aura alone will alert the entire conclave that something is up." Orphen paused and squinted at the cub in question, who was happily gnawing on and old ham bone. "Besides – doesn't he look bigger to you? I don't think he'll fit well in this bad anymore"

Cleao joined him in his scrutiny of the pup. "You know, I thought I was imagining things. I thought he might have been getting heavier, and he definitely hasn't been fitting on my head as nicely as before." Suddenly all smiles, Cleao clapped her hands and scooped the cub off the floor, who yipped in surprise at being separated from his chew toy. "My little boy's growing up!" Cleao squealed, tickling his belly fur.

Orphen sighed and scratched his head. "Yeah, uh, whatever. We won't be gone all day so he should be fine in here." Leki's ears wilted and he whimpered softly.

"Don't you worry your sweet little head," Cleao crooned into the pup's fur. "Mommy will be back to play with you soon."

"Oh, god," Orphen moaned and hoisted his bag, heading for the door.

Along the way to the library, Cleao took some small notice of the surroundings of the new city, but mostly just let her mind wander. Orphen had given her a map of the area earlier that morning, in case they got separated so she wasn't too concerned. Apparently, he didn't trust her sense of direction. Which, of course, was stellar. And thinking of the man, what's up with him again? I'm honestly beginning to think something's finally snapped and he should be taking medication of some kind. Isn't there some sort of behavioral problem that looks like this? Mad, nice, mad, nice….Argh, I could strangle him! Or me. Truthfully, she was still a little bent out of shape over having to leave Leki behind, even if rationally she knew he was right on this one. She liked having both the men in her life around, especially since only one of them really seemed to like her on a consistent basis.

"We're here," Orphen said, jarring Cleao back to the present. She mouthed a silent 'O' as her eyes traveled up the façade of the building looming in front of her. Now this was a Tower! The Tower of Fang, to her educated sensibilities, had long been let fall to ruin and was nothing more than a dusty old pile of crooked stones. These sorcerers new how to keep a place up! Cream colored marble walls flew up into the clouds, ornately –yet not gaudily – decorated with tiny bass reliefs. The tower itself was situated at the top of a grand staircase, also marble, and wide double doors were flanked by the grandest archway Cleao had ever seen. The building fairly sparkled in the early morning sunlight.

Orphen however seemed unfazed by the architectural wonder before him, and immediately trudged up the stairs. Cleao sighed and ran along after him, holding up the long skirt she had chosen to wear in an attempt to look 'secretarially', as she put it. Once inside, Orphen made his way across the pillar lined antechamber to a fashionable wooden desk, with Cleao slowly advancing behind him, walking backwards and staring at the painted ceiling.

Just as Cleao made it to the receptionist desk, Orphen spun around and thrust a card at her. "Here, I've just checked us in for the day. Keep this with you at all times, or well, else.."

"Or else we'll have to bodily remove you from the premises," the woman behind the desk cut in, who happened to be the most bird-like woman Cleao had ever seen. Her name tag read "Zu" and Cleao couldn't help but snort. Yeah, her parents got that one right. "Trust me dear," she said, glaring at Cleao over her half-moon spectacles, "you wouldn't like it."

A young boy standing to the side took his cue and escorted them to the 'Magicals Librarary', as he dubbed it. Cleao immediately had a sinking feeling in her gut as she and Orphen entered the immense room. A large dome of skylights crowned the center of the ceiling, and bookshelves reaching at least three stories high ran across the floor. Small desks and study nooks were strewn throughout the shelves, and Orphen led them to one close to center of the room. Cleao shied away from approaching anything within a three foot radius, with the intention of not touching anything until they left. She'd had far too many accidents in magical libraries to want another added to her name.

Cleao began unpacking his bag on the table and watched out of the corner of her eye as Orphen began to pick books off the nearest shelf. "How do you know what you're looking for? You're not even taking time to read the table of contents." Orphen answered without stopping. "I asked earlier. While you were sightseeing in the foyer."

Cleao harrumphed and sat down in the nearest chair, pulling a pad of paper towards her. Taking up a pen she prepared to begin note taking and then woodenly put the instrument back down on top of the tablet.

"So um, hey there Mr. Big Time Sorcerer," Cleao asked a little tersely. Orphen grunted in acknowledgement and continued to pull down volumes. "You know, I'm here to help and all, except there's one tiny, little, oh nothing really important…problem here." He looked over his shoulder at her and raised an eyebrow, listening. Grimacing, Cleao hefted the pen in one hand and pointed the end at him. "Fancy Pants, if you want me to be of any use, you gotta tell me what in the seven hells I'm supposed to be looking for." Orphen paused for a moment, his face devoid of emotion and unreadable, before seating himself in the chair across from her.

"I suppose there's no great harm in telling you now –"

"No GREAT harm? What the hell does that – "

"Now that we're finally here in Amangrade," Orphen continued, running her over. "You remember those volumes of Roe's I got a few months back?" Cleao nodded curtly once, still prickling over his remark. "Well, there was something interesting in one of them." Orphen paused now and ran a hand through his hair, his eyebrows knotting together in thought.

Cleao sat, demurely she thought, shortly before poking him with the pen end. "Weeelllll?"

"Well? Well… Let me put it like this. Let's say you were a two year old – "

"Now hold it right there, buster!" Cleao began, eyes blazing.

"HYPOTHETICAL two year old, you idiot," Orphen glared back. "Now, saying you were one, how would you feel that while possessing the body of a toddler, you had the memories, experiences, hopes, desires and fears of ..oh, a forty year old?"

She paused for a moment and chewed her bottom lip, thinking. "That - that would officially suck," she finally concluded.

Orphen couldn't help but smiling at her response. "Yes, that would officially suck, I agree. Well, from what I can glean from Azalea's letters," Orphen dropped his voice now and leaned forward across the table, "that's exactly what's wrong with 'baby' Childman."

Cleao sat back stiffly and couldn't help her jaw from falling down to greet her feet. "You're kidding?!" She all but screamed at him. Passing researchers stopped to glare at her, and she waved at them sheepishly.

One of Orphen's eyebrows quirked in amusement. Trust his Cleao to piss off every sorcerer in the room that easily. His Cleao? "No, I'm not kidding. Granted, her letters are pretty hard coded in case anyone else gets a hold of one, but that's the only answer I can get out of them. And besides," and now it was Orphen's turn to look sheepish, "I'm not really sure what I did when I…" He faltered once and Cleao waited patiently for him. He still didn't like to talk about the day he faced the Bloody August for the last time.

"In any case, here's where Roe's journal got real interesting." Orphen pulled out the book he had been studying the night before and opened it to a well worn page, one depicting a strange looking sculpture, almost fountain-like. Checking over his shoulders quickly, Orphen tapped the picture with one long index finger and continued in a whisper. "According to Roe, this here is an ancient device of the Heavenly Ones, one which had control over aging. The Fountain of Aetas."

Cleao raised an eyebrow at him. "You mean, like those crazy eternal youth guys, like Lycoris' dad?"

Orphen shook his head. "No, I don't think so. If I'm reading this right, it has the ability to make a person younger or older, depending on how you envoke it. I don't think I'm translating the details quite right though, it's babbling on about something with small particles multiplying and weird double spiral magical things."

She decided to make a leap of faith. "So….you want to try out this thing on Childman?"

Orphen slumped back into his chair and nodded, wearily it seemed. "It's the least I could do, especially after the way I treated him. He deserves better than this." He snorted softly, amused. "Besides, I think this is why Azalea sailed off for that new continent all those years ago. She wanted to hide herself and Childman and what had actually happened, just in case something could be done to make him, well, old again."

Cleao paused before looking a little disgusted. "You mean, she still wants to marry him? He's her son now! I think. Kindof. …….That's gross."

"I dunno." Orphen shrugged "I – don't really want to think about the logistics of that. Whatever floats their collective boat I guess." Picking up half the pile of new books, Orphen handed them over to her side of the table. "Go through these. Mark anything that's even remotely relevant. I'm still missing quite a bit of information for this to work."

Cleao shrugged nonchalantly and opened up the book on top of the stack. Prepared to help Orphen in his surprisingly noble, yet frankly disturbing, task, she turned to the first page. Cleao liked Childman just fine, and thought he was a handsome old gentleman for the brief time she knew him, but she still couldn't figure out what he saw in that manipulative, crazy, bitchy, Dragon-Lady, all current biological incestual issues aside.

She was crestfallen at what she saw. "Orphen… it's all in rune. You know I can't read that." Well, that was a little bit of a lie. In the years traveling with the sorcerer she had from necessity picked up pieces of the language here and there, but had no where near the mastery for this.

Orphen looked up from his own book, confused, and then blushed, of all things. Digging into his vest pocket, He needs new clothes – Cleao thought – he brought out a long and thin leather pouch. Orphen cleared his throat as he passed it to her. "I uh, well Hartia really, had these commissioned from the Tower of Fang's resident Fabricator. Open it."

Cleao did as instructed and looked quizzically at the item in her hand. A pair of glasses? Granted, they were pretty, and very elegantly crafted, but she wasn't sure whether to be confused or insulted, or just giddy Orphen bought her a present, even if it was grossly inappropriate.

As she sat there cradling them, Orphen continued. "Put them on."

Aw hell, nothing to lose anyway, she figured. Slipping them on, she gasped in surprise They fit perfectly, to the point she could barely even feel them resting on her nose. Her eyes darting around the room, Cleao was confused as nothing seemed to be any different. Well, maybe some colors were a little brighter, but no big difference. Then she looked down at the book in front of her and giggled, clapping her hands like a small child. I can read it! I can actually read it! Most of the runes on the page appeared to be nothing more than normal text now, with the occasional one still blurred and uncertain.

Cleao looked up at Orphen and beamed, who easily returned the smile. "I thought you might like them." A soft look slowly crept into his eyes. "You know," he said, resting his chin on the palm of one hand, "I wasn't sure if lens setting was right when I first saw them. You look cute in them." Cleao's smile froze on her face and her eyes glazed over a bit. Cute? Did he just finally admit that I was cute – how many years has it taken? Is someone recording this?

Immediately blushing, Orphen cleared his throat and began briskly burying himself in the book in front of him. Cleao regained her smile and gloated quietly in her chair. That's right, I'm damn sexy. Eat it, all you sorcerers – I'm his good looking partner and not yours. Hmm, maybe I could do this sexy secretary thing more often.

The minutes, then hours, ticked by as Cleao and Orphen leafed through the volumes on the table, Orphen occasionally getting up to retrieve more off distant shelves.

Cleao was down to her last volume and had become a little disillusioned with her search. Rationally, she knew that any artifact with claimed powers such as these would have little research on it, but she had still hoped for Orphen's sake that she'd find something worth noting.

Flipping through the pages slowly, a thicker page in the center of the book caught her attention. Lifting a corner gingerly, she examined the paper in question. It wasn't actually thicker, but really a double width page folded over on itself, the loose end tucked into the center binding. Lifting the fragile page carefully, Cleao gasped at what she found. The three pages side by side formed a large map of the continent, one more detailed and expansive than any current map she'd ever seen. This must be old, really old. Maybe even from the Heavenly Ones?

Cleao looked across the map and its strange tiny markings, trying to make out landmarks and places she knew. Here's about where Totokonta is now…huh! A forest?! Who would have guessed! Lessee, nope, Tower of Fang isn't there either. Either this map is really freaking old, or the Tower sorcerers lie about how long the institution's been around. Maybe both, she finally decided. Looks like there was a town here at Amangrade before, …Ammancity maybe? Something like that at least. Wandering over a mountain range, her eyes came to rest on a name which looked vaguely familiar. Eithahs Mountains? Eithahs….you know, that almost could be…

Taking a chance, Cleao spoke up without removing her gaze from the page. "Hey Orphen, how did you pronounce that Fountain name again?"

Orphen looked up at her from his tome. "Hey, nice map there. Aetas. Eye-Tahss," he said, drawing it out.

Cleao bit her lower lip, hoping she wasn't crazy. "Maybe you should come have a look at this." She started to push the book over to him, but he stopped her by getting up and coming around to her side of the table. He leaned over her to get a better view and placed a warm hand on her shoulder for balance, sending a shiver down her back. He cupped the curve of her shoulder gently, and as she thought, perfectly. Down girl. It's just a hand for gods' sake. "See here," she said, pointing out the surrounding mountain ranges, "I remember from my studies that this has traditionally been thought of as ancient Heavenly Ones areas." Orphen nodded. Gathering steam, she pressed on. "And see here, Ammansitie, that's here, at Amangrade. Pretty similar names, don't you think?" She felt Orphen breathe out heavily along her neck as he thought.

"Yeah, that does seem to be a little too much for a coincidence. Languages do gradually change after all, especially over the amount of time since this map must have been drawn. It's practically ancient."

Drawing one last breath, Cleao moved her finger over to the mountains in question. "So, would it be too far of a stretch then to assume that Eithahs, here, is actually a former spelling of Aetas?" Cleao waited as Orphen studied the map, wildly wishing she wasn't getting his hopes up for no reason.

Finally, Orphen drew back from her and she turned around in her chair, expecting him to be angry. Instead she was surprised to see him smiling down at her, quite pleased. "Good work, Cleao. I can't say for certain, but I've got a hunch you may be on to something. We'll start cross-referencing some from there." Orphen went back around to his side of the table and begin to hunt through the books anew, humming softly to himself, off-key.

Cleao all but shone. Not only was she not useless, she actually had made a fairly big discovery! Rolling up the sleeves of her blouse, she prepared to make a detailed copy of the map in front of her. Orphen thought she did a good job! I can't believe it! Little ol' me, fighting with the big boys! Look out sorcerers, Cleao Everlasting, researcher extraordinaire is on the case. Rar! Damn, I feel smart and sexy. Can't beat this. Smiling to herself, she began tracing out the outlines of the landmass.

"I'm going look for a few geography books in another wing. Be back soon," Orphen waved as he disappeared around a bookshelf. Cleao absent-mindedly stuck two fingers up in reply, her attention bent on the sketch in front of her.

Putting in the last of the labels, Cleao leaned back in her chair and stretched. She had to admit, the map looked pretty damned good. Looks like all those drawing lessons Mom paid for finally have found a use. Who'd have thought. As she gave her map one last look over, Cleao started when a large shadow fell across the table.

"Orphen, by other wing did you around the table –" she started, and then looked up with wide eyes, trailing off. "…Oh."

Two, strikingly handsome, sorcerers stood at the edge of her table, looking down at her. "We thought he'd never leave," the taller of the two, Blondey - Cleao labeled, began. "Thought we might have to wait here all night at this rate." The shorter redhead winked at her. Spunky, she thought, supplying the other label.

"What my friend here is trying to say is, it isn't often that beauty such as yours crosses these thresholds," Spunky continued on, leaning on the table. He picked up Cleao's slack hand and moved it towards his face. "Charmed, my Lady," he whispered as he brushed his lips across her fingers.

Cleao felt her face heat up in a vivid blush, and dimly heard herself murmur some appropriate response. Come on girl, snap out of it! You haven't been removed from the dating race for so long to have lost all your game. Get it in gear, at least for appearances sake.

Spunky had just gently pulled her to her feet she felt a strong arm wrap around her waist and haul her backwards. Panicking, she was some what relieved to see a familiar silver trimmed black glove.

"Friend of yours?" his voice asked, soft and menacing.

Cleao really wanted to take the opportunity to tease Orphen about this, but something pulled at the back of her mind in warning, and she decided maybe she'd better opt for straight out truth in this case. "Oh no, they just came over to say hi, right boys?"

Spunky and Blondey stiffened, and looked askance at each other before walking off towards the back of the wing. Cleao let out a held breath and gasped when he spun her around to face him, holding her at arms' length. She began to fidget a little under his unrelenting gaze as he studied her, but finally shrugged and released her shoulders. Cleao backed up a step and watched confused as he stomped back to his chair, and begun separating books on the table. Well, that was weird. What's with him? she thought, lightly rubbing her arms.

Orphen stuffed his journals into his bag, sliding all the other books over to the edge of the desk. Let the librarians deal with them later, he frankly wasn't in the mood to track down every last shelf niche. Drawing the bag closed with more force than necessary, he rounded on Cleao, still standing beside the table.

"Well, you coming?"

Cleao stared at him blankly for a second. "What?"

"Just what I said – you coming? I'm going make some money for this sorry outfit and I wanted to know if you'd perhaps deign to join me in a bought of manual labor, your Highness?"

She narrowed her eyes at his tone of voice. If she didn't know better - and she most certainly did! – she'd have thought Orphen was jealous. Instead, she tilted her head and sniffed. "Oh come now, we all know it's the man's job to make money. Go out there and make me proud," she stated, motioning off towards the door with one hand.

He met her stare with a matching icy one of his own. "Uh-huh. So sorry for bothering you. Didn't realize you'd made plans already," he growled. Swinging the bag onto his back, he turned and headed for the door, sending passing scholars scurrying back to their desks.

Cleao could only stand in dumb shock and watch his retreating back. He had walked out on her! The role reversal was decidedly unnerving and it took her a few minutes to pull herself back together. The surrounding sorcerers had all stopped their work to stare at her, whispering quietly to themselves. Flipping her hair over her shoulder, she glared at the nearest one. "Oh what? Like you haven't seen this before?" She all but fled the building

"Man, it's not fair I'm telling you. It's not often you see a woman around this dump, and the cute ones are always taken."

The blonde haired man leaned back in his chair and rest his feet on the desk surface. "Oh come now, Darrell. You really didn't expect her to fall for that little knightly bit, now did you? It's soooo passé," he drawled, waving a hand in the air.

Darrell slumped over in his chair and rested his chin on an upraised palm. "Yeah, I guess you're right. But damn, why can't this order get good looking chics every now and then? I'm fuggin' tired of chasing brainless barmaids. It's like sorcereress ability leaches out good looks. Is asking for one pretty sorcereress too much for a man to ask?"

The blonde laughed and slapped him on the back. "You keep wishing there, buddy. I for one am fine with your 'brainless barmaids'. More for me then." His laughter died down as an older man, dressed in volumous black robes, appeared at the foot of their desk.. As he sat himself down, Darrell cleared his throat. Loudly. "Uh,. hey there old man. We uh, we and my buddy Mitch here were in the middle of a conversation you know. There's plenty of unoccupied tables if you'd like me to point you in the direction of one."

A small grin split the wizened face. "Charming, truly. And here I was offering to help you in your …predicament." His voice was like wind blowing across dead leaves. Mitch felt compelled to remove his boots from the table surface and shuddered under the old man's stare. Something didn't seem quite right about the man, but Darrell seemed interested enough in what he had to say, so he kept his peace for the time being.

"You what now, geezer-dude?"

"Such respect you display for your betters. I offered to help you with your problem with the …ahem, aforementioned young woman. What if I perhaps persuaded her to reconsider your earlier advances?"

Small warning bells were now going off in Mitch's head, but he couldn't quite place what the problem was. Granted, it was a little hard to focus on the old guy, like he was a little hazy around the edges, but he was willing to attribute that to the extra ale at lunch.

Darrell sat up a little straighter and gave the man a reconsidering look. "Keep talking, that is, unless you're suggesting I'm incapable of finding a date on my own."

The stranger's laugh sent cold shivers down Mitch's spine. "Nothing of the sort, my young friend. Some women can just simply benefit from the guided experience of a more …mature mind."

Now things began to fall into place and Mitch jumped up from his seat, startling Darrell in the process. "Now look here, man. That's compulsion speak you're talking about now, and I am not going to sit here and get kicked out of the Tower because of you. Come on Darrell, we're leaving." Darrell gave him a bewildered look and tried to rise out of his chair, only to find that his limbs were frozen stiff. He turned wide eyes to Mitch, pleading for help.

A rolling darkness had begun to spread from the old man's seated form, who smiled crazily at them from across the table. The dark tendrils flowed down the table towards them, leaving an icy chill in their path. "Leaving so soon? Come now, we have grand plans to discuss." The wave of black enveloped Mitch and he remembered sitting calming back down in his chair, before the rest of his mind went blank.

Shops and homes passed by in a blur as Cleao aimlessly roamed the streets. By the look of the sun, she'd been wandering for quite some time and had an hour or so left of daylight. Ordinarily she'd go back to the inn to get Leki and have some company, but she didn't want to risk an encounter with Orphen before she figured out what to say. The man was angry with her, that much was plain. Hells, he'd never walked out on her like that before – well, maybe once before – but never in a fit of rage like this.

She'd just been having the hardest time reading him since their time back in the woods. Hells again, he completely refuses to talk about anything that happened. She absent-mindedly fingered the patch of white skin poking out of the collar of blouse. This is the only proof I have that something happened….I wish I could remember what it was!! Something bad must have happened, because he's jumping between being unbearable rude and angry, and walking around me like I'm made of eggshells.

Cleao grit her teeth in frustration and began to stalk down the avenue more so than walk. And now there's this from him. Jealousy's the only emotion I can come up with that seems to fit the bill, but what in gods' name does he have to be jealous over? Leki?! I frankly didn't even know he expressed emotions besides anger and apathy.

Stopping dead in her tracks Cleao bellowed out "Damn that man!" and immediately regretted it. Passerby turned to stare at her, and one worried mother hurried her child quickly down the street. Feeling a blush spread across her cheeks, Cleao quickly turned towards the building beside her. Her reflection looked back at her, interlaced between rows of golden necklaces and earrings. Oh, a jewelry shop. Shrugging, Cleao headed for the door. Well, since when in the history of civilization has shopping failed to raise the spirits of confused women across the continent? Jewelry store, meet your match.

It wasn't the largest selection she had ever seen, but it was of high quality, and Cleao found herself quickly bent over one of the display cases. White gold chains and rings were artfully arranged across dark blue velvet swatches. White gold, I always did like it – the way it catches light and colors around it. Much prettier than that yellow stuff. Oh well, she sighed outwardly, Mother always said I was a yellow-gold-complexion-child. None for me today it seems.

She continued to scan the large case in front of her and stopped, imagining what clothes she had which would go with the various pendants, when an embarrassed looking man ducked into the store. Cleao watched from the corner of her eye as he kneaded a crumpled hat in his hands as he talked to the store owner. Something's got him in a bind. He'll need a new hat at any rate.

She continued to watch as the shopkeep removed a small box from a back shelf and pushed it across the counter. The young man's face beamed when he opened the box, showing off a beautifully cut sapphire set in a delicate platinum ring. Cleao blinked back unexpected tears and turned away from the man and his box. Probably an engagement ring from the look of it, she thought. Lucky girl. Cleao had always thought growing up that by this time her age, she'd have finished her studies – nope – met a devastating handsome, witty, rich, fun young man - a definite nope - and been long married with a place of her own and a household to run – not even in the running anymore. She wasn't sure exactly when she'd let go of her young adolescent dream, but it must have been for years past now. While she could readily admit that now she'd be bored out of her mind in that fairy tale setting, it still stung a little when she saw some things, like the stranger with his ring. Most of her friends from school were already married with at least one set of pattering feet to their name, and the rest were either engaged or part of some celibate religions order. Even Mariabella's had plenty of suitors – she just can't make up her damned mind which one she likes best! What in the nine hells is so unlikable about me?!

Cleao was about to storm out of the store as well, even angrier than before, when her eyes caught sight of a small piece refracting the late afternoon sunlight in the next case over. Bending down to see it at eye level, she placed a palm lightly on the glass surface in front of her. The case held men's jewelry, mostly chains and pocket watches, but a few other pieces as well. Near the corner of the bottom display a ring sat reflecting the light, giving the silver a faint orange cast. The ring was cast as a serpentine dragon biting its own tail. The hard angles of the casting would go perfectly with Orphen's pendant, she thought, and moved a bit to get a look at the price tag.

Yeouch. For that price, it better go well with anything. Standing up, Cleao sighed, still looking at the ring. It might be perfect, but it was rather on the expensive side for a make-up gift. Shaking her head, she gave the shopkeep a parting smile before heading out back to the street. Better to figure out why he was angry first before trying to buy her way out. With her luck, she'd just make him angrier.

Traffic in the street had thinned out, with only the occasional rider passing through and the pedestrian traffic all single-mindedly heading home as well. Cleao could make out the last rays of the setting sun over a line of buildings and raised her eyebrows a notch. She'd been in the jewelry store longer than she thought. A small wonder the owner hadn't kicked her out for loitering. Well, can't really stay away forever. Besides, maybe an afternoon of physical labor's cooled his head a bit. Damn, I'm hungry. Cleao readjusted the frame across her nose and headed off in the direction of the inn. Ha, still wearing the glasses – totally forgot about those. Eh, might as well keep them on. He took the case with him after all.

It was already dark by the time Cleao started recognizing the passing buildings, and she hurried her step even more. I must have wandered across the entire length of the city. Man, Orphen is gonna be pissed it's so late and I'm not back yet. She quickly turned a corner and was brought up short when her nose almost collided with a robed chest. Jumping back, she let out a held breath that had caught in her throat.

The two men from the library scene earlier now stood in front of her, jovially smiling down at her. Spunky, she recalled, offered her his hand. "Fancy running into you again out here. Luck must be turning up." He glanced over her shoulder and frowned slightly. "What, no sorcerer? Where's your friend run off to, missy?"

Cleao straightened her blouse and ignored his proffered hand. "He's busy. Sorry, boys, but I don't have time to chat. I'm running late as it is." Blondey now cut in and moved to her side. "Not to intrude, but it is dark out now and the town watch has been undermanned lately due to the cleanup. Perhaps you'd like an escort to your destination?" He offered her his arm.

She paused and thought for a moment. Well, if what they say is true about the city watchmen, it probably wouldn't' be a bad idea to have some guys around incase there's any trouble. Orphen didn't even let me take my boot knife this morning. Hell, couldn't hurt. They seem nice enough, if a little dull around the edges.

She gave Blondey a lady-like nod and took his arm, setting out again for the inn . Spunky fell in step to her other side and slightly behind, and they let her pick the route. At least she didn't have to worry about getting mugged on her way back now. Not that she had any hard cash to give the mugger in the first place.

Cleao judged from the amount of time they had been walking that she must be fairly close to the inn now, and decided it was probably for the best if Orphen didn't by chance see her with the other men…provided that of course he was jealous. This certainly wouldn't help matters. She stopped and looked up at Blondey.

"Well, thanks for the escort, boyos. I'm pretty sure I can make it back the rest of the way myself, so you two can run off now. See you around." Cleao tried to take a step forward, but Blondey caught her, roughly, by the upper arms. "What do you think you're –" Cleao began to hotly ask, when a flash of light in front of her face shut her mouth. Spunky held the silver dagger an inch from her eye, and she tried to pull away, only to be stopped by Blondey's mass behind her.

"Well, that's no way to say goodbye, girly," Spunky began. "How can you think of going when we haven't received payment yet for services rendered?" Blondey wrapped one arm around her entire torso and slapped the other across her mouth, stifling any attempt of hers to scream. Glancing once over his shoulder, he pulled her into a nearby alley kicking and biting.

Orphen flung the baginto the corner of bedroom and lit the room candles with a flick of his wrist. Gods, he was tired, and wanted nothing more than to take a long bath, eat and get some sleep, in that order. Leki bounded up to him from on top of Cleao's bed, and ran circles around him. Stopping, he sniffed Orphen's boot and looked up at him, confused, one ear wilted.

"What, what's wrong with you?" Orphen closed the door and nearly tripped on the Wolfen cub, who refused to move away from his shoe.

"Dammit, Leki! What do you want?!" The pup had now begun to run madly around the room, yipping frantically. Orphen watched him, confused, until the cub came and sat down in front of him, howling at the ceiling. Looking around the room for what could possibly be distressing the young Wolfen, Orphen for the first time consciously registered that Cleao wasn't there. In fact, looked like she'd hadn't been there all day. The girl was not the neatest person around, and given an hour or two in any room, her presence would be noticed for days.

Orphen kneeled down and scratched Leki's head. "She never came back today….did she?" he asked, softly. Leki looked up at him with round green eyes and mewed pathetically.

Cursing vehemently, he jumped to his feet and wrenched the door open, holding it for Leki to follow after him. He'd parted company with her hours ago, and with Cleao's penchant for unluckiness, trouble had probably found her quickly. Orphen cursed himself again for having left her by herself at the Tower. What the hell was I thinking? She's completely incapable of defending herself, and here I just left her to wander the streets of a city, at dusk, alone. Gods, I'm an idiot.

Orphen bounded out into the street, with Leki quick on his heels. He stood poised in the middle of the dark road, uncertain where to go. Should he start immediately at the Tower and try to trace her from there? Or would it be better to try and anticipate where she might have gone to. While he mulled this over, Leki sniffed the air around him. Orphen physically jumped when Leki leapt off down the street, howling madly. Shaking himself, he took after the cub at a dead run. Thank the Heavenly Ones, …again… for Leki. Gods, I hope I'm not too late.

Yep, this one's a lot longer – figured partly I'd make up for it since I sucked up the December update. Also, it's nice to finally be into the beginning of the main plot and done with the exposition. FINALLY. This calls for a beer.

As usual, thankees to all of you who've R&R'd. Even though I know the little hit stat thing says people look at this, you're the guys who actually make me believe someone's taking the time to read. Kudos to you!