Something wet licked Haplo's face once. Twice. On the third time, Haplo moved his hands and grabbed a furry neck, pushing it away from him. He had regained consciousness at the first lick but didn't open his eyes until after he successfully pushed away the one that was licking him. Haplo found himself lying on the deck's floor of his ship with a black, non-descript dog grinning over him.
"Hey, boy. It seems I passed out again, huh?" Haplo petted the dog, a smile on his lips but upset at himself for having allowed Death's Gate to beat him again. Every time he went through it, he blacked out and it was irritating not to be able to control it.
The dog whined and licked him again in an attempt to reclaim its master's attention from wherever his mind had strayed. Haplo absentmindedly scratched the dog's head. "What's the matter? Are we home?"
The dog barked happily and trotted over to one of the ship's windows, wagging its tail. A warm light was bathing the deck, caressing Haplo's limbs with a welcoming touch that put him in motion. He stood up to join his dog and left his self-reproaches on the floor; he wanted to look at the city that was his home now, the Nexus. It felt good to be back. It felt even better to know that he had left the madness of Pryan, the world of fire he had just visited by orders of his Lord, behind. But the warmth that had spread inside his chest didn't last long. Haplo looked down at the runes tattooed on his hands and frowned when he remembered how his magic hadn't been good enough against the terrible force he had encountered on Pryan. But his mission was complete and that was all that mattered. He was sure his Lord would discover a way to control the tytans that roamed the jungles of Pryan, destroying everything in their path.
The Patryn shuddered, shaking off the unwelcome memories, and allowed Dragon Wing to glide over the twilight city for a few more minutes before he walked over to the steering stone that would guide the ship down to the landing site.
Once he made sure everything was in order, Haplo climbed to the upper deck and assessed the damage there. He frowned; it would take him some time to repair his ship but that would have to wait. The Lord of the Nexus was expecting him.
The dog had followed Haplo up and, seeing the green grass stretching before it, barked and glanced questioningly at Haplo. Can I?, its expression seemed to ask, highlighted by the pair of white eyebrows above its intelligent brown eyes.
"Knock yourself out," Haplo replied, a quiet smile on his face. The dog barked again before jumping off the ship and ran like a maniac, too happy to feel proper ground under its paws. Haplo chuckled. He followed the black dog and headed to his Lord's palace.
The Lord was standing in front of a window when Haplo entered the study. A fireplace crackled on the back wall of the room, warming the air within.
"Welcome back, my son. How was your trip?" He asked Haplo without turning his back.
"It was everything you hoped it would be, my Lord."
"Excellent." Xar walked towards Haplo and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Tell me everything."
Hours passed inside Xar's study. Haplo did most of the talking while the Lord of the Nexus listened, only interrupting him to ask questions or make a remark on something he found interesting. The dog followed the conversation closely at first, enjoying the retelling of their adventures on the way too humid world for its taste but it lost interest when the harsh language of the two men filled the room with images of power and war and hatred. That and the dreary, constant sound of the Patryns' voices became a hum that soon lulled the dog to sleep...
"That is all, my Lord," said Haplo when he finished his detailed report, fighting the urge to rub his tired eyes.
"You did very well, son. I'm satisfied with your work." Xar allowed himself a smile that didn't reach his eyes. "You have given me invaluable information that will further our plans."
Haplo nodded, accepting the praise, not that happy himself with how things had went in that strange world. Facing the tytans had been a... disturbing experience for him.
Xar noticed Haplo's discontent and frowned. "What is troubling you, my son? Is there something you haven't told me yet?"
"No, my Lord." The younger Patryn quickly recomposed his face. "I'm just tired, that's all."
"Of course. I should let you get some rest. Your journey wasn't easy."
"Thank you, my Lord." They both stood up. The dog woke up when it felt its master move.
"Come on, boy." Haplo smacked his thigh and urged the dog to follow. The dog raised his hind in the air, front legs stretched, shook himself and barked. It started to follow its master.
"Haplo, before you leave, there is one thing you should know."
Haplo stopped and turned around to look at him. "Yes, my Lord?"
"There is someone else living in this house now."
Haplo raised an eyebrow and immediately thought of Bane, the child he had brought to his Lord from Arianus, the world of air. But Xar couldn't be talking about Bane. Haplo already knew the kid lived there. "What do you mean?"
"Today another Patryn escaped from the Labyrinth and she is going to stay with us."
"My Lord?" Uncertain, Haplo didn't know what else to say. His Lord had never done something like this before, except with him. There must be a reason Xar thought important that Haplo should know about this. He waited to receive more information before making up his mind on the subject.
Xar, carefully studying Haplo's reaction, carried on. "I found her just behind the last gate, mortally wounded. She was dying when she crossed the gate, just like you, Haplo. And by what I saw, her power could almost measure up with yours. She defeated a red dragon, only a dragonling but, alas, a deadly vicious and powerful creature nonetheless, single-handedly."
This stunned Haplo. How was it possible that there was someone who could perform such a feat besides the Lord of the Nexus? A quiet respect for this unknown Patryn grew in Haplo's mind. Admiration, even. Yet, he had heard the same admiration in Xar's voice when he talked about her and it stirred something deep inside of him, a pang of an emotion he could barely recognize, like an irritating itch, that he quickly squashed as he would an insect. The dog whined and stared anxiously at its master.
Before Haplo could open his mouth to reply, Xar spoke. He could read Haplo like an open book.
"If I didn't know you better, son, I'd say you are jealous. I hope I'm wrong. Jealousy is a weakness. Hatred is power. You should know better than anyone that you are my most loyal and beloved follower. Yet, she is one of our own and could prove to be a valuable asset for our plans. Now, go get that deserved rest, my son, and leave me. I have much to ponder about." The Patryn turned his back on Haplo and walked to his desk.
Haplo silently winced at the gentle rebuke but accepted it. His Lord was right. He always was. He knew he had been dismissed and was angry with himself for this failure.
"Of course, my Lord. Excuse me."
He left the room, the dog at his heels.
There were far more important things to be focused on at this time. He purged himself of the weakening feelings as he walked away, and renewed his faith on his wise Lord, who knew what was doing. He was suddenly fiercely glad that another Patryn was free, one more in the army of gods that would soon conquer the sundered worlds, as was their right. And considering what his Lord had said about this Patryn, she would be extremely useful.
Haplo walked across the halls of Xar's palace with the dog trotting at his side. Or, at least he thought the dog was following him but when he reached his room, he realized the dog had disappeared.
"Dog? Where did you go?" He called out, annoyed. He was too tired and wanted to get some sleep.
The dog's tail disappeared around a corner at the end of the hallway where Haplo was standing.
"Hey, boy! Get back here!" Haplo waited but the dog didn't return. "Dammit..." He almost left the dog to his wanderings and entered his room but something made him take a step towards the place he saw the dog's tail instead of the doorway. Just as he reached the corner, he caught a glimpse of the dog strolling into one of the empty rooms of the palace.
"Dog, where are you going? That's not our room. Come on, I'm too tired to play..." A tired frustration had crept into his voice. He followed the dog into the room and was about to tell him off when the sight in front of him stole the words from his mouth and left only silence behind.
The dog was standing beside a bed, wagging its tail like crazy, a huge lolling grin planted on its face. Lying on the bed was a woman, deeply submerged in the healing sleep of their race. Haplo sensed the dog was about to bark so he hissed, "Shut up! You're going to wake her up!" The dog looked at him and the eyes seemed to say Oh, please, after all your shouts, you think one of my barks is going to wake her up. Haplo frowned and ignored the dog. He knew he should drag it out of the room and leave before he disturbed the sleeping Patryn but he couldn't break his gaze away from her. She must be the one Xar told him about...
His eyes started exploring the new territory that stood before them, the admiration that had been planted by Xar in his mind now taking roots somewhere inside his chest.
Long, brown hair with white at the tips framed a heart-shaped face. A face that looked calm, at peace. He could see the traces of a life of hardship in the lines of that face. Strength too, even in her sleep. But there was something else there, something... luring, like the promise of real safety and peace hinting at the corners of her mouth if he could only steal a smile out of her lips, if he could only make the lid-covered eyes look at him...
A wet nose gently touching his hand broke the spell that had taken hold of Haplo for a few seconds and, looking down, he saw the dog giving him a warning look. Only then Haplo noticed he had been getting closer and closer to the bed. To her...
The dog yawned and nuzzled Haplo's hand again before its master had the chance to jump back into the river of fascination that seemed to flow whenever he stared at the sleeping woman. It was tired and wanted to go to sleep now that its curiosity had been satisfied.
"Ok, boy, let's go to bed..." Haplo whispered, still enthralled, and began to walk towards the woman's bed. The dog woofed quietly. Haplo turned to look at him and, with white eyebrows raised, the dog's expression told him, I think that's not your bed, master. Haplo blinked and frowned, feeling the blood rushing to his face. The realization of what he had been about to do hit him like a hammer and he stormed out of the bedroom, mad at himself. What was wrong with him tonight? Mindless impulses, crippling emotions, were escaping the tight control he always exerted over himself and he couldn't afford to lose control. Not now. Not ever. He marched quickly back to his room, not even bothering to see if the dog was following.
Pushing aside all his thoughts, he was fast asleep before long.