Part III: Unintended Consequences
"On the first page of our story
The future seemed so bright
Then the saint turned out so evil
I don't know why I'm still surprised
Even angels have their wicked schemes
And you take that to new extremes;
But you'll always be my hero
Even though you've lost your mind."
- The Way You Lie pt. III, Skylar Grey.
Jareth was undeniably right in one aspect: it was best that I sat down.
I was barely aware of it as he seized me by the shoulders to guide me to the edge of his cot - I do not remember at all the physical act of sitting, nor of the movement of the gyre as he left his self-appointed guardpost at the door to take up roost against the wall that abutted my brother's desk, directly acrost from me, where to my vision he seemed to simply appear, the sharp angles of his haggard, handsome face arranged into an artful scowl. Jareth himself had turned his chair that he could sit between the pair of us, within distance of touch should I require his support or comfort, but not so close that I felt smothered beneath his influence; my brother has always had a delicate sense for my need of breathing room, and never more than in that moment had I felt need of it, my heart pounding a mad triple-time in my temples, my very world seeming to tilt and spin upon its axes. When the reeling of the room around me threatened me with an unbecoming sense of vertigo, I pressed my forearm to my eyes, shielding my gaze, borrowing seconds desperately needed in order to think.
Every event that had befallen me in the better part of the previous year, all of it, had stemmed from that warm afternoon at Rivenstone; in defense of Raum I had nearly lost my shield-arm, had most decidedly lost all reputation and respect among my people when I could not save him from our attackers, sentenced to a failure's punishment in the Barrow, a prison only for Daevas and the worst of mortal offenders. I had lost a man who was close to me as a blood-brother, had even, in the end, lost the will to live; it was only through the malice and cruelty of Avarran Carcarron that I had not died on the flagstones of the very same keep where I had been birthed, and through the trickery of the gyre that I had not done so instead on the white stone floors of Sanctum.
The caravan. The Furiae's intervention, the portal, the injury to my leg that even now howled along the muscles of my calf, stretched tight and painful as bowstring made of briarthorn -
A sham, every moment, perpetrated under the one point of fact that I had never, not once, thought to question.
My life had been ruined in the pursuit of a lie.
I was too weary for tears and histrionics, and in any wise, what use were they to me now? I had done my grieving, for Raum and for myself, and offered for it no apologies. What I needed now was to find a toehold in this strange new world I had found myself in, every bit of knowledge I had been previously sure of reshuffling themselves into new facets of alignment. My arm slipped from my eyes, downward with a sideways slide, that I could press the back of my hand so hard to my mouth that my teeth cut into the insides of my lips; the pain focused me, brought all my scattered senses into sharp relief.
The events at Rivenstone, I realized now, were too well orchestrated to have been either happenstance or even the planned attack of an Elyos vanguard; the distraction of the fire, the ease with which I had been drawn away and then separated from my men - even the relative swiftness with which the hall was set ablaze, the beams brought down with a minimum of effort, and then the blaze that spread afterward, so eager for encouragement, devouring nigh on to all evidence of what had occurred there, save for my own testimony - none of it, I judged with a grim stare for the floor between my brother's feet, could have been so flawlessly executed without aid.
Aid that could only have come from one place: within Rivenstone itself.
Aion, I am such a fool.
"You said we," I said, collecting myself as best I could, lifting my head to shroud myself in mantling dignity; Jareth's face was slack with surprise, betraying his startlement, not at my recovery but at the sharpness in my gaze, pinning my brother to his chair with nothing other than the force of my own will. We had come very far, the gyre and I, to be greeted with such news as set our entire existences upon their ears, and I was in no mood for patience or benevolence, nor willing to be betrayed a second time. "A moment ago. I never lost hope that we'd find you - who is we?"
Jareth shifted his weight backwards in the chair, blinking in mild puzzlement, subtly retreating from the hardness in my countenance and the harshness of my tone; I daresay that my good brother, gentle soul that he always was, had never seen me at my worst before that day, always in the role of his laughing sister and never the warrior that my circumstances have required me to be. It unbalanced him, made him wary of me as the mountain-cat is wary of the worg - never defenseless, practically equals, but on uncertain ground nevertheless. "Jaya, please, don't look at me like that. I am not your enemy."
"Are you not?" I shot back at him, stiffening my back to sit upright upon the bed, frowning critically across the gap between us; it was harsher treatment than my brother deserved, but someone intimately familiar with the workings of Rivenstone had manipulated events to advantage, and of a sudden I felt as if hemmed in by a ring of blades, hostility in every quarter and turncoats where once I had thought I held unwavering allegiance. But I could not fail to miss the hurt that flickered across Jareth's face, nor the way he squelched and hid it with a gesture, tucking and retucking his raspberry hair back behind his ears, baring his cheeks to the cool air. I love my brother, but in that moment of doubt I did not trust him - and he knew it, and it wounded him.
"No, I swear it. You are half of me, sister; I could no more array myself against you as myself. As for the mysterious 'we' -" He sighed gustily, one long-fingered hand rising to rub at his left eyebrow, as if to smooth away an itch there. "Raum came here himself, not long after you were taken. It was the first news of you I'd had in months - the faculty came and confiscated the letters you wrote me last spring, and Aion only knows what's happened to them. They refused to tell me what had happened, of course, on orders of Lord Carcarron. I didn't even know that Raum was supposed to be dead until he told me himself." His hand dropped and met its mate in his lap, his fingers lacing together in an ugly knot of knuckles, palms face-up on his knees, while his gaze dropped to the floor between us, my confident brother suddenly diffident and flinching, the memories uncomfortable ones for him at best. His voice fell to just scarce above a whisper, and for a moment it felt as if it were the two of us alone in all of the Academe, the gyre and his blade and his keen dark eyes forgotten entirely. "He was convinced you were already in your grave, you know. That whatever strange gambit Avarran had been playing had gone monstrously wrong, and in the worst possible way - but he traveled here anyway, to tell me himself what happened. I insisted that I would know if you were dead, that it simply wasn't possible, that every fiber of my being protested against it."
"And he believed you?" I asked; it made Jareth snort softly, a derisive sneer plucking at the corner of his mouth, an expression that I had seen too often on my own face to mistake it for anything other than bitterness.
"Of course he did. What better authority did he have? Our whole lives, he's been aware of our connection." Jareth lifted his silver gaze to mine, a sudden tinge of apology there that I could not immediately find cause for; thus far my brother had acted in an exemplary fashion, and even I, suspicious of the motives of all those around me, could not find fault within him. "He swore to me that he would bring you home, no matter the cost - that while I worked here, slowly, to free myself first of the Academe and then to work out something like a ransom, that he'd do the same, at the head of this... this army he's building." Jareth shook his head disapprovingly, while Oros shifted where he stood against the wall, black eyes hooded and his frame very, very still. "And he still wants me to think that, to join his cause. But I believe he's found better use in proclaiming you a martyr to our people than in actually saving you."
I frowned at that, my brows knitting, feeling my mouth turn downwards at the edges. "A martyr? What could you possibly mean?"
"What he means," and the raspy tenor of the gyre was so loud into that conspiratorial quiet that both Jareth and I started, and edged backwards from one another in our respective seats, "is that the Dragon has been spreading the tale of your kidnapping and likely death through the ranks of his troops, as a means of uniting them in spirit of vengeance. You've become something of a false icon, Jaya," added Oros, his white brows rising just a touch.
The gyre had judged his moment exceedingly well; I had not the energy for displays of true temper, but I attempted one nevertheless, my jaw twitching into a growl that reverberated in that tiny room. "And when, precisely, gyre, were you going to inform me of this?"
"Taion and I both agreed," he returned serenely, meeting my gaze without pause or hesitation, as unflappable as ever, "that it was best you didn't know until we had more information. That was, of course, while we were laboring under the misapprehension that the Dragon and Lord Carcarron were partners in crime, not the same man." The revelation that not only had Oros known the entire time, but so had Taion, made me tense as if to leap forward and strike him across his arrogant mouth; it did not help that he was so damnably calm in it, as unaffected as if we discussed the capricious weather in the springtime mountains, disinterested and completely uncaring that my already much-abused reputation was once again a tool for someone else's profit. Jareth saw it, saw the spark of fury that ignited my weary bones, and wide-eyed he laid a hand upon my shoulder, gentle but firm, to keep me very solidly in my seat.
Hate me and live; even now the gyre was inspiring me to acts beyond my own endurance, and I could have throttled him for it.
I think I frightened my brother, then, with the abruptness of my furor; I had had a temper in my life before Elysea, but I had never been so quick to be mastered by it, so ready to lash out at those around me to assuage the ardency of my feelings, and that he worried for me was plain on the angles of his face. I took a long, slow breath between my teeth, let my eyes fall shut for the span of a heartbeat, and set my anger aside, to be dealt with in its own due course. There were other issues at hand to be dealt with and defeated, and unfortunately, there was nothing to be done about Raum and his abuse of my name. It did not sit well with me, to be used in such a manner, a rallying cry for a flag of war on which I now stood on the opposing side.
And that was a bracing thought, for with it came the realization that if I stood with the Furiae and Ariel, as I had sworn to do, that I would not only stand against my people and my brother, but Raum himself; never in all my short years had I considered the possibility of rebellion against Carcarron, not when the man who had stood to inherit its throne had been raised alongside me, as close to me as my own blood.
I would be forced to strike against all that remained in the world that I had cared for, or I would become oathbroken, an honorless wretch left broken and bleeding on the cobblestones.
Every ounce of pride within my frame rebelled at the thought, and some voice within spoke and declaimed, There must be another way.
"In any wise, we cannot remain here," I said at last, when I had calmed myself enough to once again trust the levelness in my voice; blessedly, it did not wobble nor crack, but from the look upon my brother's face, the evenness of my tone was not enough to convince him that I had sufficiently recovered from my outburst. He gave a strange, stilted smile at my comments, however, releasing my shoulder from his grip and relaxing somewhat into his chair.
"I thought as much - I already have some ideas in that arena, though it'll take some effort to pull everything together, and it won't be safe to do any of the real work until classes let out. Last thing I need is a faculty raid." Jareth rolled his eyes, and I received the distinct impression that precisely such an incident had happened before, though the details of such had never been shared in any of his letters. From the curious, cautious tilt of Oros's head, he was similarly both wary and intrigued - but his eyes narrowed in suspicion, and he was clearly inclined to believe rather more ill of Jareth than I was. "We've got some hours yet to kill. Hungry?"
Undeniably so, but I was not unaware that even as I nodded in the affirmative that I was allowing Jareth an escape from the many numerous unpleasantnesses of our brief conversation, of finding his sister returned to him only to discover her allegiances changed; but when Jareth rose from his seat and made to pass Oros in moving towards the door, the gyre's hand leapt out and snatched my brother by the elbow, hard enough to hurt, judging by the twinging in my arm, as well as the sudden blanching of Jareth's face and the tension scrawled across Oros's own. His gravel-heavy voice was coarse and full of ugliness, the strange accents lilting from his lips only further serving to enhance the alienness of him in that tiny space, lithe and dangerous and as angry as he had been calm but a moment before. "Don't even think," spat the gyre, and the words fell between them like drops of poison, "of betraying us to your authorities. We have come this far with an army nipping at our heels - do not believe even for a second that I will hesitate to use my dying breaths to drag you down with us."
"Aion above, let go of me," gasped Jareth, and I rose from the bed with a sharp, "That is enough, gyre!" but I could not help the unsteadiness with which I stood, nor the sway to my posture that necessitated I stagger for the nearer wall, a palm braced upon it to keep me upright, and I grit my teeth and despised my agonized leg for its betrayal, hated my frame for its simple weakness. Oros and Jareth both flicked their gazes to mine before staring at each other, and, reaching some sort of mutually unspoken agreement that I have never come to comprehend either the details or rapidity of, Oros released my brother, and Jareth, his shoulders drawn tight as twisted wire, slipped from the room without so much as a backards glance.
I sank down upon the cot once more, my leg inflamed to the hip and throbbing in time with my heartbeat; Oros, the slight frown that was his default returning once more to his handsome face, I expected to perch near of the door, all the better to ward off intrusion, but he instead chose the chair at the desk, angling himself in it such that he had a clear avenue of attack, should we come under assault after all. It put him in profile to me, his long legs stretched out before him with his boot soles flat upon the floor and his leathers open at the neck, one arm sprawled in faux-laziness along the the chair's back and the other resting on the scabbard of the Word, his fingers very, very carefully not touching the actual metal of the sword itself. The black radiance it emitted, the red runes carved into the darkened blade, seemed to purr like a kitten beneath even that barest of attentions; again, I was glad that it did not seem to be a sentient thing that the gyre carried on his hip, because for all that it had aided me, I was conscious of it like I would have been of an adder, curled and prepared to strike, and uncaring whose flesh into which it offloaded its venom.
"Even odds, that we end up fighting our way free of here anyway," he muttered in Elyan, the tones low and for my ears only; I daresay that Oros would not have sat at all, had he been less exhausted by our journey here, but even I could see the smudges blue as bruises forming in the hollows beneath his dark eyes, the tremor that appeared, flickering like fireflies through mist, to run through his arms and hands and the long muscles of his thighs under his mud-caked leathers, before subsiding once more. He was wanting for food and rest, the constant awareness of wallowing neck-deep through enemy territory telling on his spare form, and seeing how frayed and worn threadbare-thin he had become, I believed that had Synedell been much farther from Carcarron, that we would have ever made the journey.
I could have remarked upon it, could have cast his waspish weariness in the same unforgiving light as he had Jareth's potential for betrayal; I chose instead to say, in Asmoth meant to be clipped yet emerged merely tired, "We need his help. You ought to be less harsh." As slow and sore as I had never been, I began to pull the armor once more from my frame, as much for something to do as it was for my own comfort - I saw his head turn just a fraction in my direction, then stop, as if he thought the better of watching me remove my armor, though his expression did not change in the slightest.
"I'm not entirely convinced that he won't go running to tattle on us to the faculty - who are bound to be Daevas to the last man, because who else would be teaching at a bloody mage's college?" grumbled the gyre, in Asmoth this time as he followed my lead without resistance. Though he was clearly aware of my every movement in his peripheral vision - and attempting every measure possible to squelch the little twitches and jumps of his overtaxed reflexes when I did - his coal-black eyes were fixated on the door as if it were his lifeline in a chaotic ocean, while I removed gauntlets, elbowcops, pauldrons, and set them all on the floor, one piece at a time. "There's more aether running amok here than I've ever seen before, phoenix. We are quite literally sitting in the middle of a powder-keg, and the both of us are the fuse."
"He is still my brother," I said, lowly, but stern as I could muster, given the pathetic mud- and rain-soaked image I portrayed. "I would that you have a care how you speak to him." He snorted and twisted his mouth into a crooked snarl, but before I could riposte I added, "Please," and that more than anything pulled the gyre off of his careful guard, his head swivelling around to pin me with a startled, searching gaze. He blinked owlishly, once, twice, and then returned to his self-imposed surveillance of the door; puzzled as to his behavior, I ducked my head and continued the process of de-armoring myself, feeling rather like there would be no end to the steel and mesh and mail, that in the days since we had fled the reckoning at the Gate that it had pressed itself into my body, and become a part of me that I could not divorce myself from.
Working in silence filled only by my ragged breath and the occasional grunted oath as my shoulders protested vocally at the movement, it took me near to twenty minutes to pry the armaments piecemeal away from my frame; but it was only after I had divested myself of everything but my boots - the mail hauberk, the padding, all of it, so that I sat in my shirt and breeches and rubbed industriously at the fiery knots of pain in my knee and leg - that I realized that I had said to Oros the word please only once before, back in the earliest days of my captivity, when Kiert had been enlisted to see to my crippled leg and it needs must be bound, a thing I could not do myself and saw little point in refusing. I recalled as well that Oros himself had only resorted to it once in all our acquaintance, and that in the snow-mantled countryside as he showed me how to summon my wings; even when Sara-shi had coerced us into dance, he had not asked so prettily, and I had never asked at all.
The stillness of the room, once I had ceased to have a reason to move, was oppressive, filled only with our breath and the dimly malicious consciousness of the Last Word, half-somnolent at the gyre's hip; though he stared stubbornly at the door, and I pretended utter fascination with the titles of the tomes in Jareth's bookcase, I could not help but know in my bones how aware we were of one another, and how, with all the distractions of survival and flight removed, I felt no discomfort or repulsion from the closeness of position, despite the fact that I could have reached with no effort at all and touched his leathers, if I had been so inclined. In that quiet, small place, I could not blame it on the very real necessity of his presence for my own continued existence; from the tightening of his jaw, a thing I sensed more than saw, his thoughts were traveling upon a similar path. I had disliked him tremendously once, yes, even hated him, but some time between the ill-fated Gate and Synedell, the gyre had become a fixture in my world, a creature acclimated to the gravity of my universe such that I did not even feel the slightest frisson of aversion.
The quiet begged to be broken, but for the first time in our acquaintance, neither of us seemed to possess courage enough to speak.
We were saved by it, blessedly, by the return of Jareth; I am unashamed to say that both the gyre and I scented the food my brother on a covered tray carried long before the door of his room swung inward, and though the food was simple fare - hot stew and fresh bread, and a mug of water for each of us - it was steaming-hot and fragrant, and I could not but notice that the gyre moved the chair such that he could watch my brother while he ate, hunched over his bowl like a starving dog, yet seemed completely unconcerned with giving me his open, unprotected back. It made a weak smile cross my face of its own volition, and I shook my head somewhat, the tray held primly in my lap, hands preoccuiped with tearing and then dipping my bread into my stew. "Did they ask you any uncomfortable questions, in the cafeteria?" I asked, to fill the heavy silence as much as to hear my brother's voice; I had missed the rolling brogue of Carcarron more than I dared admit to anyone other than myself, and Jareth, from the grin that blossomed across his familiar features, was only too happy to oblige me.
"What, about taking two bowls to my room instead of one?" Leaning against the wall where Oros had formerly stood, he shrugged one shoulder upwards in an elegant gesture and smoothed his hands into the pockets of his robes. "I am a very talented mage on a campus full of lady-mages, Jaya. Ever since I hit my first growth, I can barely walk the halls without being assaulted by tutoring requests."
I scoffed quietly into my bread, smiling still. "And is that what you were doing, at dusk four days ago? Tutoring?" It had been meant as a gentle sisterly tease in between bites of my food, but there was a gap of quiet where Jareth should have had a ready comeback; I glanced upwards at his face, saw that his cheeks were pinched-pink and that one palm had risen to rub sheepishly at the side of his neck, his silver eyes skittering off to one side. I had to remind myself to swallow before I choked, and my voice was a strange mixture of laughter and indignation once I had. "Jareth Azhdeen! You were with a girl?"
Jareth appeared incredibly uncomfortable, fidgeting in place like a man with far too much energy and no outlet for it, and for several long moments I enjoyed his squirming in the way that all siblings do; I daresay that my good brother had never expected to have this conversation with his own sister, much less so soon after the fact. "Contrary to what you might think, sister, I do try to keep my business private. Unfortunately, such an incident has had," his other hand emerged from his pocket, gestured in vague circles as he cleared his throat, "a certain effect on my reputation -"
"What," quipped the gyre snidely, his black gaze fixed on Jareth and a crooked sneer tugging at his hawkish features, "has she been spreading the tale across campus that you perform, quite literally, like a demigod?"
Several things happened simultaneously in that tiny room, once that gem had departed from Oros's lips; Jareth quite nearly flushed the colour of his hair, no mean feat given his dusky complexion, while the gyre rather unconcernedly straightened his back in order to scrape the dregs of his stew out of the bowl with the heel of his bread, and I set my tray to the side on the cot, put my head in my hands and began, very quietly, to laugh uncontrollably. It started out pleasantly enough, a low, rolling noise that I could not but allow to escape, bubbling merrily up from somewhere in my chest and spilling endlessly from me, but at some point my exhaustion began to tell, and my voice cracked when I began to shake, turning my mirth into a choked, soblike sound that reminded me of earlier in the day, when I had cried my heart out into my own two hands while Oros had stood for me a steady watch.
When I had finally swallowed down what was entirely too near a miss with complete hysterics, I lifted my head to discover that both Jareth and Oros were staring at me, Jareth's face pinched with worry, the gyre's white brows slightly lifted in what I could recognize as mild concern for my mental health. I shook my head as if attempting to clear the cobwebs from it, rubbed my fingers hard enough into my eyes that I saw spots of brilliant colour flaring across the insides of the lids, like ink released in red water. "Would that that is the worst that you needs must face here at Synedell, brother," I noted hoarsely, dropping my hands to allow them to dangle from my knees. Oh, Aion, even on the journey across the mountains, I had never felt so tired, never felt so old in a young frame. "Asphel above and Ariel below, I certainly hope that such caliber of problems are all what await me, should I ever see the Furiae again."
"You miss them, don't you?" asked Jareth, soft as kitten's paws, his tone much more respectful than it had been mere moments before - I think, at last, that it had begun to occur to him, all manner of the indignities and trials that I had suffered in order to reach the dark, desperate place within which I now dwelt. I nodded in the affirmative before I lost the nerve, laced my hands together in order to lean my chin upon my fingers, and Jareth, with a sideways cut of gaze towards the narrow-eyed gyre, added quietly, "You needn't go back, you know. I believe that I can send your... friend home," and he tripped over the word, because Oros was scowling openly and friend was not the word that I would have chosen, either, not to encompass the boundaries of the strange ties that cleaved him to me - "Not easily, but simply and safely enough; the math and the theories are quite sound - but you could stay. Here, in Asmodae." With me, he could have added easily enough, but the words were so unnecessary between us that he did not feel the need to append them; but there was love and compassion shining in my brother's eyes, and I knew that he wished more than anything for my happiness, and felt that I could be nothing other than unhappy, serving in Sanctum when I would be a free woman in Asmodae.
And certainly there were many reasons to argue for it - I was an Asmodian Daeva, and I thought that not even Terekai's considerable ability to weave illusion could disguise of me that aspect of my soul, not if the coraline that rested in the cup of my collarbones had not been able to do so of its own accord; there was nothing to be done for it in Sanctum, save to cast myself at Ariel's feet and pray either for a solution or a quick demise. Raum, my former liege, was gathering strength for a war, and there was only one opponent that could merit such cooperation among Asphel's own; if I stayed, the option remained open to me to hide myself from the vagaries of it, to remain neutral and unconcerned with either side. I had no such choice in Sanctum, in the Furiae - for if Taion and his legion, meager as we were, were ordered into war, I had taken oath that I would not be able to refuse.
But I had not sworn that I would risk my life in order that I cross the Abyss a third time, and rejoin them all in the boundaries of Elysea.
Oros was watching me very, very carefully as I considered Jareth's proposal, his wearied face as blank and undecipherable as the gyre could possibly make it; but though he was a past master of the stony visage, every muscle of him was tight as if in preparation of movement, and I saw the tendons in his throat work as he swallowed back his first piece of commentary, and quite possibly the second. What emerged from the grim white line of his mouth instead was, "I can't stop you, if that is your choice."
Of all the things he could have said, that was the one that took me most by surprise, and it was my turn now to be startled and searching for meaning in the lines of his hawkish face; we had come to a tentative sort of partnership, and there was a trust between us, but I could find no accounting for the queerness of his behavior since we had drawn within a half-day of Synedell, of his alternating kindnesses and cruelties, of the sharpness of his words and the unexpected offers of mercy.
But then I recalled what Taion had said to me, that his Furiae were volounteers all; he had given me every chance to unsay what had been said, to remain true to the kindred that had already abandoned me in the worst possible way. Now here was another chance, a quieter one, to allow me an escape from the life I had chosen among the Furiae. I doubted even that he would spill my secrets if I remained, for the geas still sat like a wooden yoke about my shoulders, forbidding me to act against Ariel's own - just as easily, he might claim that I had died at that flame-engulfed Gate, or somewhere along the journey, and never fear the risk of anyone who knew the truth of who I was meeting a black phoenix on the other side of battle. It would be, as Jareth said, simple and safe enough.
And from the steely glint in the gyre's impossibly dark eyes, he would think me a coward for accepting it.
It made no matter; I had already chosen once, and I would so choose again. The Asmodians did not deserve to have me counted among them. Not anymore.
"When my own people cast me out," I said steadfastly to Jareth, pride stiffening my spine and making hard the set of my jaw, "it was the enemy that took me in."
"And it would be wrong now, to betray them?" His smile was both sweet and impossibly sad, and seeing such an expression upon my dear brother's face very nearly broke my heart, and my chest squeezed at the thought that I had irrevocably set the pattern to our futures, that I had and would continue to cause us both untold suffering. But I had made my bed; I must now lie in it. With even the tiniest amount of luck, perhaps Jareth would be allowed to remain at Synedell, and live out the rest of his days with nothing more difficult to trouble him than a reputation that made him turn pink to the tips of his ears whenever it was spoken of in polite company.
A pleasant lie, of course, but there were some illusions that I was not ready to shatter, and my brother's safety in the coming days was one of them.
"The Elyos have treated me more honorably than Carcarron has," I said instead, every word honest, even if it was not the complete and utter truth, but there was no argument that Jareth could summon to the field in the face of that knowledge, and he allowed the line of questioning to lie fallow and untended instead. Oros at the desk, his bowl scraped clean, had relaxed a fraction, just enough that I could sense it in the manner in which he held himself; there was no longer an air of tautness around him, as if he were a hide stretched too far on its rack, though his expression and posture had not changed, and Jareth seemed unaware of the subtle differences in the gyre and his attitude.
My brother sighed, low and gustily, eyes shut and shoulders slumped as he quit the field; his reasons for wishing me stay, after all, were almost entirely selfish ones, and though he has always acted in order that he might help me achieve whatever goal it was I had in mind, he had never been one much for dissuading me from it, once I have set myself upon the target. "I thought as much. I really ought to know better by now," he added, smiling and seeming with every moment that passed more like his usual self, "that it's just that much simpler to get out of your way. Now, I will need a little preparation for what I have in mind -"
"Which is what, precisely?" That was the gyre, and though the words were blunt nearly to the point of hostility, their tone, at least, was not; Jareth hardly noticed, for such an opening gave him precisely the excuse he needed in order that he might talk both our ears off. Even as I finished what remained of my meal, I daresay I followed along somewhat more easily than the gyre, having spent my earliest years in the company of mages, and exposed at points between the years to pages-long treatises from Jareth on the intricacies of his chosen art - but it was Oros who discovered the sticking-point first in the flood of terminology, his eyes narrowed as he stared Jareth down and snarled, "Unless I direly misunderstand you, it sounds like you'll need a second in order to execute what you propose."
Jareth, beaming as brightly as if Oros were a student of his own that had made a leap of fine mental intuition that he had not expected, nodded exuberantly. "I'm quite sure I have more than enough raw ability for both the tap and the harnessing even of a temporary portal, but I will be busy enough wrestling with enough power that an outside source of control is required, else I might end up dumping you in the Abyss anyway. I have the perfect candidate in mind," he grinned, pushing himself away from the wall, and for the first time I felt true doubt in my brother and the wisdom of his aim slither down my backbone, an ague of adrenaline, cold as water dripping from an icicle.
"Jareth," I hissed quietly, urgently, "are you certain this is feasible? Keep in mind that you are aiding a pair of what for all intents and purposes appear to be a pair of Elyos war-criminals - there is not a lady-mage on this campus entire that you can charm into helping you commit treason!"
"Ah, but see," and my brother's eyes were dancing with mischief and the peculiar light of a man seeking knowledge no one else before has known, and it twisted the bottom from out of my stomach to see it, "in that aspect, dear sister, you are eminently wrong. Besides, who else are you going to get to help you?" There was an unexpected barb in that lightly-said sentence - Jareth was full of laughter, yes, but there was a sharpness beneath the layers of good humour that I had failed to see, and Oros flicked his eyes to mine, face unchanged but for the tiniest pinscratch of a frown formed between his white brows.
As clearly as if the gyre had spoken the words aloud, I heard his thoughts: And this is the man to whom you would trust our lives, phoenix? To that, I had no answer - knew there could not exist one sufficient for the Assassin, and so I chose only to stare him down, to firm up my jaw again and refute the possibility that I might glance away first. In the end, he chose to forfeit, a sullen cast to his mouth and a slivering of his black gaze sliding sideways, for Jareth, who stood and watched us both with an arched brow and the expression of a man engrossed in a heated match of tennis.
My brother allowed the silence to rein a few moments more, underscoring the oddness of the interlude, before he regained his mental rhythm and pace; the most immediate of his imperatives had been addressed, namely our tentative state of safety and a meal in our bellies, and there were more urgent matters now for him to attend to. Though he did not speak as such, it was etched in every proud-held line of his tall, narrow frame. "Now, get a little rest, the both of you. Like I said, some preparation is required, and when the moment is right, we must be ready to act as quickly as possible. You're as safe as I can make you, in this room - the door locks from the inside, and that," he gestured vaguely in the direction of the Word, still devouring the ambient aether as ravenously as it had when first unleashed, "will keep you hidden, it makes you practically invisible to mage-senses. Try to behave," smirked he in suggestive addendum, sounding less like a proper adult and more like the brother I knew, but before I could muster the indignation his commentary deserved, he had slipped through the door and left us both gaping in his wake.
Oros, in a paroxysm of temper, surged from his seat to stalk the three steps to the door like a conquering god, throwing home the bolt with a violence that was quite telling of the state of his mind, and sounded loud as a thunderclap in that enclosed space; if he had cracked the wood of the door with that simple motion, I would not have been surprised in the slightest. He stood there for a long moment, however, the gyre keenly aware of the momentary lapse in his poise and gathering the shards of it around himself before he returned, sinking slowly back into the chair, the motions smoother with his anger, as graceful and precise as if his bones had been built expressly for the purpose. His eyes never returned to my face, fastened as securely upon the door as if nailed there, and though his throat worked briefly as if he desired to speak, the quiet stretched onward and into eternity.
Try to behave. There was only one meaning behind that particular set of words that I could divine, and that was to bait Oros, for clearly Jareth had not meant them for me. As I pulled my booted feet up into my brother's bed - the mud and dirt would wash from the sheets eventually, and some petulant, childish piece of myself felt the inexplicable need for a petty form of vengeance, in defense of the gyre's honor - and curled on my side on the narrow cot, I could not help but watch him, somehow sprawled at rest upon the chair yet holding himself at complete, utter attention. The silence now seemed a tangible thing, pressing down upon us and squelching all thought of conversation; I nestled my head down on the pillow, pressing the dampness from my hair into it and unable to bring myself to care, and studied the gyre's angular profile until I could no longer lever open my eyes. Perhaps if I had rested first, he would deign to allow me to keep the watch for a while, until Jareth returned -
I do not remember succumbing to sleep, but it seemed to my perspective that in the middle of this sentence, a hand at my shoulder was gently attempting to rouse me from an impenetrable blackness, one that I was reluctant to rise from; when at last I had scraped my eyelids open, that simple gesture somehow more difficult than anything else I had ever done, I saw the grim pale face of the gyre leaning over me, one knee on the floor and close enough that I could smell the desert sand and autumn winds of his aura, even beneath the hungry influence of the Word. "Up," he said tightly, before he followed his own command, rising and removing himself from my immediate sphere of awareness, and aching in every inch of me I levered myself upright, scrubbed at my face with the heels of my palms.
The rest was not enough, I feared, for I was dizzied and bloodless, and my leg was numb from the hip down, needles of pain only gradually heralding the return of sensation, and that executed only with stubborn slowness; I did not trust my knees to hold me quite yet, and so gradually became aware of an addition to the room that was entirely unfamiliar, and likely the source of the gyre's discomfiture. She stood in Jareth's shadow at the open door to the room, a tiny, delicate-framed creature that seemed as if she would have been well at home in any library that I could name - smooth brown hair past her shoulders, a round, disinterested face and a pair of red-rimmed glasses perched on a pert nose, matched a tan jacket tailored to her petite frame and a skirt that seemed out of season against an Asmodian winter, though a cloak had been thrown over the ensemble to guard her from the chill. Everything about her seemed crafted to deflect attention, to make those who looked at her underestimate her, and I had been schooled enough in the art of subtlety to appreciate the affectations - but the mahogany eyes behind her lenses missed nothing, and her girlish features were set in a mask of cold disdain.
Jareth was smiling, though, and as the newcomer was decidedly well within my brother's personal space, I could find no voice for objection. "This is Vee," he said by way of introduction, gesturing to the lady-mage expansively, as if she were a precious treasure on display; she cut her eyes to him in a way that said both that he made such gestures quite often and that she did not appreciate them, and from the twinkle of mischief in Jareth's silver gaze, that he did so precisely to annoy her, like a boy teasing a classmate in the schoolyard. "She will be serving as my anchor for this venture. Vee, my sister, Jaya."
"Well met, I suppose," I said cautiously, easing myself to my feet and noting, if only for my own benefit, how neatly Jareth had sidestepped the fact of the gyre's inexplicable, unexplainable presence. The Sorceress - for she must have been such, for Jareth even to consider her for the task - only seemed the smaller once all of us were standing; if she was aware of her disadvantage in height, however, she did not allow it to be displayed on her face, and rather than greeting me properly she only lowered herself to a sharp not, her pale hands lifting to pull the hood of her cloak up over her face. Secrecy, then, ought not to be a problem - at least, not until whatever construct of magic that the pair of them might concoct was already summoned, given some luck, without alarming the entire campus.
"Right. Let's go, then, before dawn arrives," hummed Jareth, and I saw then that on his near arm were draped a pair of cloaks similar to Vee's, with another flung round his shoulders; Oros took one, and I the other, though I hesitated briefly enough to eye the pieces of armor that littered my brother's formerly clean floor. "Leave it; I'll think of something, but we can't afford the time," he said dismissively, and lacking the time or energy to argue, I pulled on the cloak and tugged the hood down as far as I could without completely blinding myself to my surroundings. Oros did the same, and the hood cast such thick shadows on his angular features, shading his cheekbones and enhancing the otherworldly blackness of his eyes, such that he had the appearance of a Death's head, complete with dark leathers and the blackened-metal sword at his hip.
Jareth led us into the deserted halls of the dormitory, Vee at his back and I at hers, because while I had walked open-eyed into this circumstance I was still aware of the possibility of ambush; I did my best not to imagine the image of Oros as Death, striding silently just behind me, though my imagination did its best to embroider the truth nevertheless.
The grounds of the Academe were strikingly still, in that quiet hour before the dawn when only the last of the moons was abroad in the chill, clear skies. As Jareth deftly threaded us through the lines of buildings, his goal some mysterious location to the rear of the campus, I was preternaturally aware of every tiny noise we made, of small movements in the shadows that made my shoulders tense and my hands jump for a weapon I no longer carried. The silence was almost sacred, and every step on grass or gravel or plain-packed dirt seemed inordinately loud to my senses; my blood pounded in my ears, and once more I felt with every molecule of my being how exposed we were, but without my armor to guard me, it was practically torture, every breath of wind and hint of breeze ruffling through my cloak to chill me to my bones. How easy it would have been, then, for the faculty of the Academe to see us dead or captured - if any man or woman had known the truth of our little band and so much as fancied themselves a hobbyist archer, we were dreadfully vulnerable. The only saving grace was that I had the gyre to guard my back, and though once that thought would not have been a comfort, that predawn in remote Asmodae, I was not inclined to argue with the sentiment, nor examine it too closely.
Our destination was a ring of standing stones around a wide circular mosaic-dais, set into the very earth with elaborate patterns laid in pebbles and gems, such that the whole would have gleamed in a rainbow of colours and intricate designs once the sun had risen - I had little trouble imagining it, gleaming as brightly as sunlight on an edge of watered-steel, the kind of piercing beauty that pained to look upon. The sole moon that had not yet set cast the whole of it into greyscale shadows, but my eyes could still pick out familiarities in the complex, interwoven motifs. A basic summoner's ring was picked out in pale pinkish rubies, and a larger arc laid along and outside of it in blood-dark corundum, this one a protective circle meant for the containment of magics; several triangles of various sizes, interlaced with one another, were set in turquoise on the western side of the dais, while a mirroring set in topaz were placed to the east. I did not cross onto the dais, wary of it and what it represented while simultaneously seeking patterns in the half-dark; Oros seemed similarly cautious, pausing a half-step behind me and to my left, one of his clever hands on the scabbard of the Word and the other flexing slowly, repeatedly, at his side. I could not blame him for his nervousness, for I felt it much the same as he, but when he fully sheathed the Word and the ambient aether of the Academe returned full-force, I screwed my eyes shut against the deluge of sensation, my breath shallow and ragged as aether pressed down on my frame and forced its way into my lungs. Slowly, so slowly, I fought it back, earning my right to breathe, swaying on my feet and hating myself for needing it when the gyre's hand shot out to steady my shoulder, his hand a steady anchor in the choppy seas of my mind. The somnolence of the Balaur-blade was a prudent move, given that Jareth and Vee almost certainly intended to harness portal-magicks, but I might have wished for some warning first, from the gyre.
As we stood at the edge of the dais and I struggled to find level ground, Jareth strode ahead to the very center of them, kneeling to place his hands almost reverently against a complicated arrangement of brilliantly orange fire opals, forming a many-pointed star that was nearly lost beneath the intricacies of the other designs around it. Vee, shoving her hood back from her face, took up a place to my brother's right, her face having lost much of its coldness now that they were on the precipice of scholarly endeavour; I heard her say, so quietly that the words could only have been meant for Jareth's ears, "We'll never pull this off, you know," and as her hand descended to rest on his shoulder, the opals lit from within beneath Jareth's fingers, glowing with a fiery, fel light, like embers forged in the very fires of the burning Abyss.
"Nonsense," laughed Jareth from under his hood, his voice full of mirth and eagerness for what was to come. "You're only saying that because no one ever has."
Oros and I had time for an alarmed glance at each other's faces before the light blossomed and flared, growing from one moment to the next into a roaring bonfire, the leaping peaks white as the moon and licking hungrily at the night sky, the illusion completed by the stench of burnt earth and the taste of ashes floating in the air; Jareth's aether, brought to bear as only a full-blooded Sorcerer could, and despite myself I shrank back from it, kept in place only by the gyre's steady hand. Swift on the heels of the dancing flames was the scent of fresh-fallen snow, beating back the acridity of Jareth's aether - I did not need to glance at Vee to know that it was her own abilities rising to the forefront now, coercing and corralling the rampant flame of Jareth's energy. My brother was powerful, I was proud to see, perhaps as rawly mighty as our mother had been, but he lacked the whisper-fine precision that marked Vee's adjustments to his work - calmly, patiently, her snow and wind spun Jareth's flame into a thin, high column that stretched a dozen feet or more into the air over their heads, the space between the hollow walls just enough to admit something the width of a person's shoulders. An impressive show of cooperation, thusfar, as few sorcerers had such trust to interlink their workings in such a well-choreographed display of opposing elements, but nothing to be remarked upon, nothing out of the ordinary that I could discern, until Jareth's shoulders gave a great heave and he groaned under his breath, as if he carried a weight that was almost greater than his constitution could bear -
And then I felt a strange tearing sensation in the back of my mind, a thing more felt than heard yet made the hairs at the back of my neck prickle; Oros sensed it too, from the way his fingers clenched upon my shoulder, and then I saw it through the dance and weave of the flames: a tiny rip in the fabric of Atreia, a whorl of purple smoke wrapped lovingly and petal-like around a pale white center, the whole of it no larger across than the width of my palm. It came clear to me all at once, that Jareth had never had such base pretensions as to believe he could summon a true Gate and all the complexities of control that such entailed - and why should he? Beluslan was a land of rampant magicks, a land where Rifts between the disparate halves of Atreia formed naturally in the churning aether. He did not need to form his own portal to Elysea, not when he could merely co-opt and control a Rift, instead, guiding it as it formed, encouraging a natural phenomenon to act as it wished, only where he wished it to -
"Oh Aion," I breathed, watching as the newborn Rift shimmered iridescently and began to grow, nurtured by Vee's snow-laden gale, shaped by the boundaries set by Jareth's flame. A part of me feared desperately for my idiot brother, and wanted nothing more than to dart across the dais and shake him free of this foolish pursuit, before the naked blade that was the Rift turned in his hand and sliced him open, but even as I tensed all over for such an action I knew it for the fallacy it was; interrupting Jareth's concentration, not to mention Vee's, would only guarantee injury, whereas allowing this shaping to continue made such merely probable instead of an absolute certainty. Oros's hand was clamped at my shoulder now, hard enough to make my bones ache, and to this day I cannot tell you if it was for his own benefit or for mine; his face, lit harshly by the leaping inferno, was inscrutable, save for the widening of his eyes around his midnight-black irises.
The Rift, under the sorcerers' guidance, grew larger and into an elegantly-formed oval, just tall and wide enough that the gyre and I might pass through it one at a time; it shimmered again as its growth slowed and then finally ceased, the purple mists of the Rift eddying with deceptive tranquility about that white aether-center, impossibly calm, radiating enough aether that I felt as if I had plunged my skull into a bucket of moonlight, even past the heat of Jareth's bonfire. When they were certain the Rift had become stable, the constant impression of drifting snow vanished, and then the flames of Jareth's working flickered and died, Vee removing her hand from Jareth's shoulder and falling to her knees a step to the right, smoothing her hands through her hair while Jareth sat back on his haunches, panting, scrubbing at his face with one sleeve in an attempt to remove the evidence of what appeared to be a bloody nose. The Rift remained, indelible and immovable.
I saw, from where I stood at the edge of the dais, that the opals set into the earth had fused into a solid orange line in the pattern of the many-pointed star, and steadfastly I did not contemplate the energy or heat that would be required to do so.
Gingerly I crept forward, as much out of concern for my brother as respect for the Rift; any child born of the remote places where they form of their own wont can tell you a dozen stories of the nasty things known to be birthed from them, eldritch abominations flung forth either from the Abyss or from the lands of the people who oppose them. This one seemed to have none such unpleasantness forthcoming, but it never harmed one to be careful, and when I at last reached my brother I knelt down beside him and impulsively pulled him into my body, my head bowed, for a moment overcome both with gratitude for his actions and a newfound reverence for the strength he held in his narrow frame. "That could have killed you, you idiot," I murmured into his shoulder, but Jareth only laughed, and when I pulled away from the embrace his silver eyes were glinting like stars, a fang-baring grin spread across the lower half of his familiar face. Rusty flecks of blood yet clung to his nostrils and chin, and it gave him a savage countenance.
"You would have done no less for me, Jaya, don't pretend otherwise. Asphel's balls, I might even parley valedictorian out of this, if Vee doesn't want it herself. speaking of - Vee? Did you survive?" He turned on his hips, and I lifted my head, to regard the little sorceress collapsed a handful of steps away; Oros had padded silently up to examine her for obvious injury, and while she had a palm to her temple as if afflicted with a migraine fit to drop a Shedim Lord out of the sky, she seemed otherwise unharmed, her free hand waving dismissively in Jareth's direction and her eyes flinched shut. "I'll take that as a yes," chuckled Jareth, and we clasped arms that I could pull him to his feet, his knees yet a little unsteady beneath him.
"I suppose this is truly goodbye, then," I said without looking at his face, deigning not to step outside of the immediate influence of his aether; closer examination of his robes proved that they were ashy and speckled with holes in the front, where sparks and embers had escaped Vee's attentions, and once again I did my best not to think of Jareth's insane experiment with Rifts and the binding thereof, and how easily he could have been consumed by his own working. "We may not ever meet again."
"Don't be so sure," smiled my brother, and he tipped my chin up with one long forefinger to coerce me to meet his eyes, calm and irrepressibly optimistic as ever. "Aion has led you this far, sister - I don't doubt that he'll lead you a little further yet." He flicked his gaze to Oros, where the gyre had offered Vee a hand to rise to her feet; the little sorceress had just clapped her palm reluctantly to the tall Assassin's when my brother dropped his voice and dipped his head, whispering words meant only for me. "I love you, Jaya, so do me a favour and be careful around that Elyos. I see the way that he looks at you."
I could not help staring at my brother when he straightened, my face undoubtedly a mixture of confusion and unalloyed horror, unable to grasp what Jareth could possibly be implying. "What way that he looks at me?" But Jareth only shook his head, lips pressed together in a thin, pale line and brows fret in concern; I was prevented from further interrogation of my increasingly infuriating brother by Oros and Vee both turning their heads our direction, and nonplussed, I set my jaw and plotted revenge by saying instead, "I love you too, Jareth, so do me a favour and shave off that ferret that you appear to be growing on your chin."
Jareth made a mildly indignant noise in his throat and lifted a hand to stroke his uneven stubble, which gave us both excuse enough to crack a smile. I did not want my final memories of my brother to be of quarreling, even over such a silly thing, and so I leaned forward again to embrace him once more, his arms crisscrossing over my back with such strength that it told the lie beneath his laughing exterior. When we separated for the last time, he gestured for the Rift, still calmly spinning in the open space of the dais's center, and said, "Two one-way tickets to Elysea, coming right up. Best go through before it dissolves. Vee might be up for this all night long," and the vulgar gesture said sorceress flipped in Jareth's direction made it clear as to the teasing nature of this comment, "but I haven't the strength for a second attempt."
Much to my surprise, the gyre stepped up next to Jareth and offered his arm to clasp; my twin, caught as off his guard by the gesture as I was, hesitantly completed it before Oros intoned, "I thank you. Truly. I owe you both a debt of honor for your aid." At this, however, Vee snorted inelegantly where she stood, and the soft noise of her scoffing made Jareth laugh, genuine mirth this time, which left no doubt in my mind as to where exactly the kind of aspersions Vee might cast on Elysean honor would lie. But Jareth, at least, was too gentle a man to call open attention to them; instead he set his free hand on the shoulder of the gyre and tugged him forward to whisper some sort of confidence into Oros's ear, and from the way his stolid expression flickered beneath the jagged fringe of his white hair, I burned with curiosity to know what wisdom Jareth had imparted. But the gyre did not allow it to colour his visage a second time, saying only "Thank you again," before stepping away from my brother and towards the Rift.
Reluctantly, I removed myself from Jareth's sphere of influence and joined the gyre; he gestured for me to precede him, and with one last smile for my dearest brother, I hurled myself through the Rift, eyes screwed shut and an arm thrown up across my face, hoping for the best but more than expecting the worst -
A moment of vertigo, where my stomach seemed to plummet upwards and my bones turned to jelly in my flesh -
For a terrible span of heartbeats, I thought that we had been flung into the Abyss after all, that Jareth and Vee had failed and that I would fall without end, tumbling for eternity until I had the fortune to find a chunk of solid ground, floating out in open space - but then I flung open my eyes and saw the impossibly deep blueness of the Elysean sky, felt sunlight's caress on my cheeks, the warmth of the spring like a punch in the gut after the chill of Carcarron and the mountains -
My back hit the water with such force that it knocked the breath from my lungs, and I sank like a stone as the lake caught hold of my cloak and tried its best to drag me to the bottom. A split second was all it took for me to understand what had happened, to recover from the sting of the water's surface, and I began to struggle out of the cloak, tangled up in the fabric, my lungs already burning for air, water intruding in my ears, up my nose, pressing at my eyes and skin like a thousand clammy hands. I could swim decently well - most Carcarrese children could - but the water was murky and I had begun to panic, blinded and clawing uselessly at my cloak and the empty lake, as if it were an assailant that I could fight. The part of me that was logical and acted with thought and purpose had been overwhelmed by sudden and unexpected fear, a fear that would see me drown if I could not right myself, and I had to right myself, but I could not breathe -
Deft fingers at the clasp of the cloak, tearing it free of me, and then they were under my shoulders, dragging me upward. The gyre and I broke the surface at the same time, and choking and gasping I heaved in great big lungfuls of air, searching for the shoreline, for solid ground. Through some unspoken mutual agreement, we made for the shore, and though my shoulders have never hated me more for the effort and my leg thudded dully against the cool pressure of the lake, we reached the pebbled shore and lay on our backs in the gravel and mud to catch our breath, my lower half still mostly submerged, the gyre only marginally further exposed, his white hair sleeked back from his face and his eyes shut, basking in the warmth of a spring morning in Elysea.
The terminus of Jareth's borrowed Rift, some twenty feet in the air over the lake, spun and whorled cheerily in place for some long minutes before it folded in on itself like a flower and winked out of existence; inexplicably, I began to laugh, laying there in the muck and damp, wet to the skin and so far beyond weary that I was not sure that there were words anymore for the depth and breadth of how sorely I had been tested. Oros did not open his eyes, did not remark upon it, but his mouth curled at the corners as his laughter joined mine, hysterical and exhausted and utterly, utterly earned. Nothing mattered in that moment but the sunlight and the water and our voices spiraling up into the warming air.
We had done it. We were home.
And there would be time to sort the rest of it out, once we had the strength to pick ourselves up from that revelation.
A/N: Apologies on the lateness of this one, the Avengers ate my life. Vee is a character cameo by Landing Failure, who graciously allowed me to use her taciturn bookworm as a target for Jareth's shameless flirtation.
Some trivia: Jareth's facial hair prompted some negative messages in my inbox, directly inspiring the "ferret" comment. :D