"So it's come to this," the woman said when everything fell apart. There was no malice in her voice, nor was there pain, but there seemed to be a small sigh of relief.
They could not be so easily separated, but still, when the shockwave hit them, she tried to let David go, only to change her mind and tighten her grip after a moment. It was the only thing she could do; the power would have destroyed David otherwise.
At the very moment when everything disappeared, David saw a small boy in the centre of the chaos, reaching out for him.
Rush was the type of person who could make friends anywhere. From nobilities to the Silver Falcons, from Third Committee members to infamous bandits, he captured the hearts of the people he met with ease, as if it came to him as naturally as breathing. He talked about them like they had been friends since years ago, and his sincerity made them treat him with the same.
After Rush left, some of these people - the ones who could go near Athlum Castle without being arrested or at least questioned - came to see David. David received them in a private setting, though there was little for them to talk about. He could not look at them in the eye, just as he could not really look at Irina ever since they left Elysion. He was the one who failed them. Had he been faster, had he fought harder, perhaps they could have killed the Conqueror without that machine spinning into action and Rush would not have had to make that sacrifice.
Rush's friends didn't seem to mind, though, and invited him to what they called a small party, where they were going to gather around and toast to Rush's memory. Thinking he might not be able to handle such an occasion, David declined, but thanked them from the bottom of his heart for the invitation, for thinking of him and not shun him for his status or his involvement in Rush's departure.
But when the date of the meet up drew near, he changed his mind. He wanted to meet the people who saw Rush as their closest friend, just as he did. He wanted to hear their stories about Rush.
So when the night finally arrived, he put on his plainest clothes and left the castle on his own, aware that he was being irresponsible but also that Torgal's subordinates, if not Torgal himself, must be following him. All under the name of protection, of course, but David knew the true intent, which Torgal could deny as much as he wanted. David was never going to become what his father once was, and therefore he would never have Torgal's complete trust. That was fine; over the past five years David had learned how to play this game.
The night was warm, humid. Summer was almost in full swing. Still, David ensured the cloak concealed his hair and most of his face, since it really would not do for the Lord of Athlum to be seen wondering the dark streets alone. The address David was given was in Virtus Parish, an area he knew well. After he passed under the archway that led into the area, he paused, then very casually turned around.
There Torgal was, some twenty feet away, the moonlight casting an elongated shadow of him on the ground, longer than even his already superior height, like something that came out of a nightmare. After the initial surprise, Torgal started to walk closer, opening his mouth to speak, but at that moment David turned around and continued to walk. If Torgal insisted on following, then he could assume permission had been granted. Sometimes David had to tighten the leash, other times he had to let it slacken. This was the best, and the only, way to deal with Torgal. It wasn't to say that David hated Torgal, not at all, but the very person who still saw him as a child was the one who would not allow him the room to grow.
But tonight wasn't about Torgal.
David arrived at the address a little later than he ought to. There were around fifteen people in the house, men and women of all races, some of whom David knew personally because of Rush, others only by reputation, and a few who were complete strangers to him. His arrival caused a lull in the conversation, but when he pulled off the hood of his cloak and they recognised him, there were delighted smiles and offers of food and alcohol.
Sitting around on sofas, cushions and rugs, a fire crackling in the background, each person talked about their meeting with Rush, sharing their memories of him. There was a lot of laughter as well as a few tears. David sipped at his dangerously alcoholic drink as he listened, knowing the burning sensation in his chest had nothing to do with what he was drinking at all.
When it was David's turn to speak, he could not find the words, or the strength. His mouth moved, but no sound came. After a moment he bowed his head.
He was the last person Rush spoke to. Not Irina, not anyone else. He. He ought to tell Rush's friends - also his friends now, he'd like to think - what those last words were, let them know Rush left with the usual goofy grin on his face. But to repeat those words was to admit that Rush had died. In his mind, Rush only left, rather than died. He could not talk about him in the past tense.
"Rush quite literally fell into my life a little over a year ago," David began after taking a deep breath, his gaze fixed on his own hands, his voice tight, "because of the Gae Bolg, ironically enough. Other than that, I'm afraid there is little I can say. I have not yet come to terms with what has happened. I do not wish to weep in front of you, and I believe he doesn't want me to, either."
Seated next to David, the leader of the Silver Falcons put a hand on David's shoulder and squeezed it. "That's okay."
"He often talked about you. He admired you very much, saying what tremendous work you do for your people and how patient and supportive you were of him. Listening to him made even someone like me consider offering my services to Athlum."
"I dare not imagine the legal problems that would cause, but thank you for the sentiment, truly." Years of emotional training kicked in. David was able to chuckle politely instead of show how much those words got to him.
Through the night, David learned that Rush mentioned him to other people a lot. Dave said this. Dave did that. Dave was awesome.
David would not have used the same words, but if he was to talk about Rush, he would have said the same thing. But he never talked to anyone about Rush that way.
It had been a month since their return from Elysion. During that time, David ordered that no one was to touch the personal effects Rush had left in his suite. After spending the night with Rush's friends, however, David decided it was time to face the aftermath.
It should be a quick task. Even though he had stayed in Athlum for more than a year, Rush didn't have much personal possessions. But even so, David had not expected to find the suite completely cleared and tidied up, as if no one had ever lived there.
His first reaction was to summon one of the staff and demand to know who it was that dared to come in here against his orders, but he stopped himself. Did it really matter any more?
He found a bag on the sofa. It contained everything Rush brought with him from Eulam, neatly packed.
There was something else. Another bag, a small one, in the fireplace, charred but mostly intact. Instead of burning, it appeared to have smothered the fire of air. In the clean and tidy room, the blackened item stood out, as if calling for David to look at it.
David remembered raising an eyebrow when he saw Rush carrying this bag when they were about to depart for the Sacred Lands to fight the Conqueror. Rush said he had a few things he didn't want to leave behind, only to be told by David that they would come home straight afterwards and nobody at the castle would steal his things, so Rush shouldn't take any additional weight when he didn't have to. They had a small discussion - not quite an argument - about it until David asked just what it was that Rush meant to take. At that point Rush became silent and put the bag back in his suite. Later, David felt a bit guilty and asked him about it, but he shrugged and said that he most probably wouldn't be able to take it with him anyway. David never did understand what he meant.
He had no business nosing around Rush's belongings, but David rescued the bag, shook the ashes off it, and looked inside.
It was full of visistones.
Alarm bells began to ring in David's head.
He drew the curtains, took out one of the visistones at random and set it up on the floor. Light sparked and flickered for a while, then an image of Torgal formed in the space before him, looking slightly perplexed.
-- "Just what are you doing?" Torgal asked.
-- From the background came Rush's voice. "Testing to see if it works. I've only ever used crappy ones that can film for two minutes. Smile, Torgal!"
-- Torgal's expression became a little strained. "The layout of the castle is not public information. You mustn't - "
-- "I know. I won't show this to anyone."
-- The angle of the image changed, then Rush appeared. He stood beside Torgal and waved at the visistone for a brief moment, a grin on his face, before going back to pick up the device from the floor.
The sight of Rush made David's chest clench, but also made him smile. The fact that Torgal was clearly uncomfortable with being recorded this way only added to the amusement.
-- "What is the purpose of this?" Torgal crossed his upper set of arms.
-- "Just keeping a record of my friends. Then if I go away... say, if I go back to Eulam, then I have these to look at."
-- "Do you not intend to stay in Athlum? I thought - "
-- "Who knows? We'll see, yeah?"
David paused the playback.
So it was true. It was Rush who tidied the room. He had packed his own things, knowing he might not return, to help make life easier for whoever had to sort things out after him.
He went to the Sacred Lands to die.
Taking a shuddering breath, David let the playback resume.
-- Rush found Blocter next. The yama's image grew larger and larger as he neared Rush, then disappeared as he, presumably, threw his arms around Rush.
-- "I'm so chuffed, Rush! Athlum's independent! Aw, man, I've been running around all day, I can't stop! I'm so happy. Can't believe that Qubine brat just came and said all that!"
-- "Yeah, it's totally awesome!" Rush laughed, Blocter slowly appeared again as a partially-transparent image.
-- "Hey, wha'cha doin' with that?" Blocter peered at the visistone.
-- "Well, it's a big day for Athlum, so I thought I'd make a record of it."
- "Brilliant idea! You should talk to Young Master! Then we can all watch this years later and it'll be really cool!"
- "Yeah, I'll do that. Where's Dave?"
-- "The inner garden I think?"
-- A while later, David's own image appeared. He was standing in his mother's garden. Unlike what he did with Torgal and Blocter, however, Rush didn't approach him. David had not noticed he was being filmed. Was Rush hidden somewhere, perhaps behind a pillar?
-- For several long minutes, neither David nor Rush moved, the former lost in his own thoughts and the latter probably too polite to intrude. Rush just watched him.
-- The image jolted when suddenly there was the sound of footsteps.
-- "Mr David." It was Irina.
-- "You're up. How do you feel?"
-- "I'm great! I'm totally fine! I hope I didn't worry everyone too much..."
-- "We're just glad you're all right."
David remembered this conversation. This was soon after they got Irina back from Darken Forest, the day Celapaleis relinquished its control on Athlum, around two months ago. When he cast his memory back to that day, every detail crashed into his mind in vibrant colours and emotions.
Rush must have turned away at that point, because all of a sudden all David could see was Rush's feet, although voices could still be heard.
-- "Mr David, congratulations on Athlum's independence."
-- "Thank you. You know, it is partly because of you that this is even possible. For that, I'm truly grateful."
-- "Me? I didn't do anything! I..."
Listening to this memory being played before him now, David realised he never thanked Rush for what he had done. But surely Rush understood.
-- There was a moment of quiet. He was waiting to hear what Irina had really come to say, maybe an explanation on why she went to meet the Conqueror on her own, an act very out of character for a girl who had always been so responsible.
-- "Sis, don't..."
In retrospect, it was all so obvious. Marion's Blessing had told Irina about her brother's true nature, something Rush already realised some time ago. This was why Irina chose to speak to the Conqueror.
-- Irina wasn't ready to talk about it. David didn't push her, allowing her to escape with the excuse that she needed to pack for the trip to Undelwalt.
-- Rush breathed a long sigh of relief, then came out of his hiding. "Hey, Dave!"
-- An incomplete image of David came into view, showing only his torso. "Rush. We depart for Undelwalt soon. Have you made preparations?"
-- "Er, well..." There was nothing to see again. Rush must have put the visistone away. "Not really."
-- "Then please get to it. I don't want any delay."
-- "Fine." Footsteps, slow at first, then becoming a run, sound of shoes on stone floor echoing loudly in hallways, followed by a thump.
-- "Be careful!" Emmy's voice.
-- "Are you in a hurry?"
-- There was a hint of a smile in Rush's reply. "Yeah. Toilet."
-- Emmy laughed. Rapid footsteps resumed, followed by the slamming of a door, and then a body crashing against it.
The recording ended there.
Staring into the empty space in front of him, the high-pitched sound of silence in his ears, David wished Rush had told him what he was doing back then. If he had known, he would not have sent Rush away so rudely. There could have been images of them smiling together, David would have talked about Rush's pivotal role in Athlum's independence, Rush would have got the recognition he deserved. They could have had memories of stolen moments of peace and happiness, rather than of war, one which brought Rush to him and then snatched him away.
He wished Rush had told him the truth about everything then.
Instead, David was left with nothing but regret and questions.
Caedmon sent David a message using the secret arrangement David told him about. With very artistic handwriting that reminded David of old literature that were copied by hand rather than printed, Caedmon wrote that Nora had something she must discuss with David.
David's impression of Nora was vague. With Rush as the intermediary, the Ladies of Bloody Alice and Athlumian forces had joined hands once to eradicate remaining members of the Third Committee at Plain of Luhang, but it wasn't an operation directly led by David and even on the field, he and Nora did not speak to each other. He only knew her to be an intense woman, fuelled by an unusual hatred and anger. When David asked Rush about her, all Rush said was that Nora was a good person. She and Rush were rather close and at one point Blocter had even joked that perhaps Rush liked older women. Suspicions were indeed raised when Rush had supposedly gone out to meet her and didn't return for the night, but when asked, Rush always just shrugged and let people say whatever they wanted to say, causing more than a few arched eyebrows.
It was something David never commented on. He might imagine himself to be the closest person to Rush, but of course his company could not be compared with that of a woman.
To be truthful, he had been waiting for this day. He had to face her at some point, and explain the circumstances under which the man she loved had left.
Since Athlum and Bloody Alice had worked together before, it would not be too strange to put out an invitation. Under the pretence of a discussion on how to locate and remove any Third Committee member still in hiding, he requested Nora to come to Athlum Castle.
Nora came the next day. David waited for security to let her through. When she appeared at the meeting room, she was holding her knee-high purple boots in one hand and threatening to punch a member of staff with the other. The staff shirked back and once again tried to tell her to put the boots back on before meeting with the Lord of Athlum. Chuckling, David dismissed the frightened man with the wave of a hand. Before Nora closed the door, he saw that Torgal was standing outside. He sent him away.
Nora helped herself to a seat and began the laborious task of putting her boots back on. "Goddammit. First they tried to strip-search me, then they made me take these off. Do you know how long it takes me to do the laces? They didn't even get me a chair!"
"I'm sorry about that. I will get them to review the arrangements."
Nora sneered, tugging hard on her boot laces. "Whatever. It's not like I want to be coming here often."
Something about Nora seemed different from before. Not that David had seen her that many times, but to his memory Nora used to wear a lot of cosmetics, whereas the woman who was battling with her boots right now was completely fresh-faced.
David blinked several times in surprise when he realised that Nora was, in fact, quite young, perhaps only a couple of years his senior.
When she was finally done, David took a seat near her. "I guess you want to talk about Rush."
Twisting herself a little, Nora let an elbow hang over the back of her chair. "Yeah, so where's he? I need to bloody kill that kid."
Shocked, David just stared at her. Didn't she know? "Miss Nora, Rush... he's gone."
"Do I look like an idiot?" She glared at him. "I know he's gone. I felt it when it happened, it kept me in bed for a month. Sheer hell, that was. If you haven't got him back yet, we need to do it now so that I can kill him!"
At that, he didn't know what to say, except the truth. "I'm afraid I don't understand what you are talking about."
The response made Nora pause. She regarded him. "Didn't he tell you about me?"
"Was there something I was supposed to know?"
She snorted, shaking her head slowly. "I did warn him not to tell anyone, but I thought he might have told you."
"I know very little about you, I must say. Rush doesn't seem to like to discuss personal relationships."
Her eyes widened as she studied the look on David's face. "What, you think that punk and I are together?"
"Are you not?"
"What made you think that?"
David looked to the side. "Well, sometimes he said he was going out to meet you, and did not come back for the night. We teased him about it a little, but he never explained himself."
Nora smirked. "Oh, this just gets better. Apparently we're fucking as well?" She flicked her wrist. "Not a bad thought; he's quite cute."
David tried not to gape at her but failed miserably. He had met all sorts of people in his life, but never a woman who talked like this. Anyone, however unreserved they claimed to be, became mindful of what they said when they were in front of him.
"You don't look convinced."
"No, I'm simply surprised by how frank you are."
"Frank, huh." Nora uncrossed her legs and stood. "Life's short, no time to waste going around in circles. I'll get straight to the point. Look at this."
To David's shock, the woman began to pull up her top, tugging down her skin-tight trousers at the same time. He turned away immediately. "Miss Nora! Please remember yourself!"
He heard a snort. "You're cute. Come on, take a look. Don't be shy."
David dared to steal a glance, then what he saw made him gasp and look more closely. There was a scar across Nora's lower abdomen, easily ten inches or longer, the dark brown tissue wrinkled and twisted against the pale smoothness of the rest of her skin. It suggested a wound too severe to be healed by mystic art, sewn back together hastily and without consideration for how it would look in the future.
"Is that... from battle?"
"Surgery." Nora covered herself up again and sat down. "The Third Committee took out my woman parts: the organs, the sensory bits, the whole shebang. Makes me a more efficient fighter, I don't bogged down by monthly cycles and there's no chance of me running off with men. Funny of you to think I've been sleeping with Rush; I don't feel anything down there and can't have kids. Though that might be just as well, God knows what kind of monster would pop out if I reproduced."
His mouth agape, David had no words to say. The fact that Third Committee was capable of doing something so inhuman came as no shock, but to see it with his own eyes and hear it described to him with such crudeness was not something he would ever have expected.
"Dave - I'm going to call you that - I was an experimental subject. They fused me with a Remnant. They literally put it in the space where they pulled my organs out, then fused it to me with magick. Until a month ago I had to eat several times what a normal mitra eats just to stay alive. That's what Rush and I had in common - we were both Remnants. Or half Remnants, freaks, whatever you want to call us."
David didn't really dare to speak. He imagined Kellendros being fused to his eye. "Please continue."
Nora helped herself to the cakes the servants had laid out on the table beforehand. "When Rush pulled that stunt, my Remnant died. It's the single most fucking painful thing in my life; I hadn't been able to get out of bed until a few days ago. I need to kill him for that."
David's mind began to rewind to what she said earlier: we need to get him back. She couldn't possibly mean there was a way for Rush to return. But if she survived the Remnants' destruction, then...
"What he told me was," Nora leaned back into her seat, cake in hand. The old furniture creaked gently, "he wasn't sure if he was born a Remnant or became one by accident when he was young, he just remembers being in the Sacred Lands as a kid and seeing his mother there, crying because he wasn't supposed to be in that particular place. He might have been born a mitra and then got fused with a Remnant because he touched something he shouldn't have. Best way to clear that up would be to ask his mother."
David stood up and began to pace. Could he afford to hope? "You are suggesting that, if Rush was not born a Remnant, then it is possible that he still lives." He looked at her and she nodded. "If that is true, then where is he now?"
"How should I know?"
"Miss Nora," David stopped, hands behind his back. He turned towards Nora but didn't really look at her, "what would you have me do then, if that is your answer? You've come here to tell me these things about Remnants which are beyond my comprehension, but where it truly matters, you have nothing. What am I supposed to do?"
"That's for you to figure out, isn't it? I was an experimental subject, not a researcher. I can tell you in every gory detail what they've done to me if that gives you the kicks, but I can't explain anything, okay?"
The outburst made David check himself. For a young woman to show something so intimate and personal to someone who was essentially a complete stranger, only to witness his fears, disguised as anger and frustration - how could he do this to her? But how could he tell her that he did not dare to get his hopes up only to have them shattered?
"I apologise," he started, but did not know how to continue.
Nora pushed her chair back, making its legs scrape on floor boards, and stood. "Do you want him back or not?"
"Of course I do." He couldn't even begin to tell her how much he wanted Rush back. "However..."
She clearly disagreed with that last word. "Rush would never hesitate if you were the one who disappeared."
David had nothing to say. Nora was right. He was still the same idiot who just sat there and watched the Conqueror blaze a trail of destruction until Rush put sense into his head. What was he doing standing here, debating whether or not it was possible to save Rush? How could he know without trying? Even if it all turned out to be in vain, what was the pain of anguish compared with the sacrifice Rush made so that he could live?
"He thinks so much of you, but you turn out to be nothing but a wuss." Nora went to the door. When her eyes settled on his again, the anger that burned in them was had the same intensity as that when she fought the Third Committee. "You are the one with the contacts and the resources. You are the one who watched him go. You failed him. You bloody well bring him back or I'll make sure you never sleep at night again!"
She yanked the door open, but did not leave right away, waiting for his response.
"I will, Miss Nora," David said, ashamed, and with renewed conviction. "Thank you."
They studied one another for a while, then Nora smiled and let herself out.