I do not own the Death Gate Cycle. Please don't sue me.
Dedicated to Darkhymns, the only other person who hangs out on this site and my future co-ruler once we take over the world.
Creak. The door opens. A shaft of blue rune-light penetrates the room, born of a single floating sigil, diffusing as it grows wider. It crosses the smooth wooden floor, revealing the whorls and patterns within the oaken boards. Weaker now, it touches a pallet of reeds, a pile of blankets, the man and woman within.
The light is blocked, a body sliding into the opening between door and frame. He doesn't enter the room, not really, just peeks. Most of the light is shadowed over now—the figure is a tall one, despite his habitual stoop, and he cannot help but block all the light but a single sliver. But that sliver is enough for him to see.
There are two faces in the blankets, close, their faces relaxed and unlined in sleep. Their breaths are soft, content, barely audible in the quiet room. The watcher smiles. Relief brightens his wan face, chases away the deep lines of worry around his blue eyes. He slips out of his position, unusually silent. The light increases, momentarily casting the sleeping figures in brightness.
The sleepers stir. The figure freezes, feeling unaccountably guilty, more than a bit silly. Hopefully they will just go back to sleep, will ignore him—
But life in the Labyrinth had taken its toll. Heavy sleepers die there, the magical warnings supplied by their runes insufficient to keep them alive. These two survived the Labyrinth. It is a miracle that they didn't hear him in the first place, a testament to how tired they were.
They shift. The watcher remains still, breath caught in his throat, in his chest. He doesn't want them to wake up, to leave their dreams of peace and safety. He's just being foolish anyways. No need to wake them just because of a silent whisper in his head, a deep scar that never quite finished healing, the shock of crystal shattering into a thousand thousand splinters.
The man's eyes open. They don't blink once but are awake, alert from the start. Pity twinges in the watcher's heart. Even here, in the heart of safety, the Nexus itself, his beloved friend can't quite believe it.
He knows the feeling well.
The woman pushes herself up, prepares to move. Seeing the still, silent figure in the doorway, she stops. Her head tilts slightly to the side, lips pursing in confusion. "Yes, Alfred?"
The Sartan flushes, ducks his head. He feels silly now, a child who hadn't quite gotten over a nightmare, a little boy who needed his parents' reassurance that the monsters wouldn't get him. Which, in a way, he is.
But he can't deny how good it feels to see his friends sleep, to see them wake. Warmth makes his chest go tight, his throat constrict. He coughs once, partly from embarrassment, partly to force down the rapidly growing lump inside him.
These friends woke up. These friends still are.
"Alfred?" The woman is sitting now, the blankets strewn carelessly across her lap. One eyebrow is quirked, her gold-flecked eyes filled with curiosity and a bit of annoyance.
"I'm sorry." Hands wring together. He looks at them, hiding his gaze from the man and the woman. "I didn't mean to wake you up."
He doesn't hear them walk across the room, doesn't realize they've gotten up until they are standing right in front of him. "Is something wrong?" the man asks in a concerned baritone.
"No." The hands stop wringing. The blush fades. "Nothing is wrong at all. I just—good night." He backs away, relieved. The door slides shut.
He sleeps well that night.
"Go to sleep." A hand, callused from gripping sword and dagger and spear, its back covered in softly glowing blue runes, pats the dragon's snout. The creature is big enough to devour the hand in one go—the entire arm, if he felt like it—but the woman has long ago forgotten that fact. She knows that the mighty jaws will not snap, that the neck won't snake forward, that the ivory fangs will not rend her body to shreds. "He will be fine."
"I know." The dragon does not speak in the traditional sense of the word. Instead, he communicates directly to the woman's mind, bypassing her ears to fill her mind with the familiar tenor. There is a hint of worry in that tone, worry and stolid determination. "But I would prefer to stay awake anyways. I will keep watch while you rest."
A soft chuckle. The woman squeezes her sleeping husband's hand. It is limp, a bit cold. All his body's strength is otherwise occupied, healing him instead of providing warmth to his extremities. "Sometimes, Alfred, I wonder which of us is really married to him."
She expects a laugh, the lips curling back in a smile. Instead, the dragon shifts a little, moves ever so slightly closer to the sleeping man. "You shouldn't, Marit. Can't you tell how much he loves you?" The great green head, the brightest source of light in this dark Labyrinth night, lifts. Golden crests expand, reminiscent of a dog's ears when it senses danger. "Do you hear that?"
Marit looks at her hands. The tattoos are glowing more brightly now, the individual runes melding into a tapestry of light. "Danger," she growls, letting Haplo's hand fall onto his chest.
The dragon rises to his feet, sleek and dangerous in a way that few other beings can hope to match. There is something different about his advance, an agitation in his movements. The lips curl back in a snarl; white teeth, sharp and pointed, glint in the maze's faint light. Thunder rumbles though the sky is clear; it takes Marit a moment to realize that the dragon, the gentle bumbling Sartan, her sweet and kindhearted friend, is growling. The sound is low and soft—he doesn't want to wake Haplo from his much-needed healing sleep—but full of menace. Goosebumps break out across the woman's skin. She is very glad that this dragon is on her side.
"Leave!" Is there a hint of command in the silent voice? No, not quite command—simply stone and steel, a resolve. The dragon is not ordering his enemy to flee, simply letting it know the consequences, should it choose to advance.
Something rustles in the bushes, hesitant, uncertain. Marit can feel the maze's malignant will around them, twisting and demanding. She almost feels sorry for the thing lurking in the undergrowth, caught between the Labyrinth and the Serpent Mage.
"I guard this one's rest."
The runes on Marit's skin fade into almost-darkness. They don't dull entirely, for this is the Labyrinth and danger is never far, but they would not be this dim if the monster were still nearby.
The low rumble stops. The only sounds around them are the soft calls of owls, the flit-flit of bats (the natural ones, not the enormous beasts brought forth by ancient magic) swooping through the air, the chirping of insects. The dragon steps back, his every movement graceful and elegant. The neck turns. Golden eyes return their attention to the sleeper, to the steady rise and fall of his chest.
"Coren…." She still feels strange using that name. It was given to her more for Haplo's sake than for her own (or so she feels), an effort to connect with the woman who loves him. She almost feels unworthy of it, for she has not always been the best of friends to its bearer. Never mind that the same could be said of Haplo, who truly does deserve the name—yet Haplo was forgiven, wasn't he? It is not in the Sartan's nature to hate; he loves to, lives to love.
The tail twitches as its owner adjusts his position, settling in for a long night without sleep. "Yes, my dear?"
She runs a finger along a warm green scale, tracing its outline. It is easier to look at the scale than at the eyes. "…Is this because they never woke up?"
He does not answer, but the slender neck presses against her, as gentle as the man himself. Warmth radiates through the scales, banishes the chill of the evening. "You should sleep too. We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow, and you've got a nasty bruise on your leg." But there is something in the voice, an intangible pang that makes her remember the night she awoke to a Sartan in the doorway, his gaze intense.
Marit wraps her arms around the neck where it meets the dragon's skull. She holds her friend for a long moment, then pulls away. Her fingers trace the lines of his face, brushing against the deadly fangs which hold no fear for her. "I will wake up. We both will."
"Of course." He's trying to make light of it, embarrassed by his fear. She almost wants to hug him again, quashes the urge, curls up beside her mate. As she drifts off into slumber—for it has been a long day, and tomorrow will be just as long—she notices something peculiar. The runes on her skin, always alight when she returns to the Labyrinth, have gone out completely. And she is not surprised.
A child yells, his voice high and furious and demanding. Haplo and Marit jerk awake, launch themselves out of bed. They have only just adopted some children, the first of many to come, and though the shout is probably just because of a nightmare….
Their room is close by the children's. It takes them only seconds to burst through the door, spin on their heels. It would have taken only a few seconds more to enter the boys' room, but Alfred is standing in the doorway, face red, mumbling something incoherent under his breath. The boys aren't listening to the Sartan man; they are hostile and awake, hands clenched around the small daggers which no child of the Labyrinth let out of his sight.
"He was coming into our room!" yells one of the boys. He juts an accusing finger at the ancient enemy.
"I was just checking up on you," Alfred says quietly, shuffling his feet back and forth.
"Yeah, right." The child, an impetuous ten-year-old called Lotto, snorts his disdain. "What were you really doing, Sartan?"
Alfred flinches as though cut, the words cutting through his skin and into his heart. He loves children, wants so dearly to be loved in turn, but these boys (and girls, who are crowding into the hallway) need to be weaned of hatred.
"It's true," Haplo said, sharp as a knife. "Alfred does that sometimes to Marit and me, comes to make sure we're still breathing."
The Sartan lifts his head. He knows that the man and woman caught him that one time, but had they really known…? Yes. They had known about the other nights, the nights after he'd fixed that accursed creaking door, the nights when a cruel game's ghost came back to haunt him. What makes you think that these friends will be any different? So he played the old game, a relic from his time in the tombs and tunnels, when he would leave for a bit and tell himself that this time, when he came back—this time, they would live.
He had lost that game on Arianus. Here in the Nexus, he always won.
He meets Haplo's eyes, which are surprisingly soft with understanding. Haplo knows. A part of him remembers, though his very being shudders away from the memory, from the meaning of his name. "It's just a silly habit of mine. That's all."
Haplo touches his chest, fingers brushing across the heart-rune. We all have our scars, my friend. Alfred cannot help but glance at Marit's forehead, where her bangs hide proof of a loved one's betrayal. Yes, they all have their scars. His are just better hidden than theirs.
"I'm sorry." And he is. He knows how foolish it is to keep checking up on them, knows that their breaths will not slow to a stop, knows that they will wake up the next morning. It's just so hard sometimes, curled up in his bed, sweat matting his hair to his brow, wondering if he was alone again. He needs proof sometimes, pathetic though it is.
"I'm very sorry for waking you all." He backs away, uncomfortably aware of the children's eyes on him. They do not understand, and he is glad they don't.
They, too, have scars of their own. They do not need to deal with his.
Toss. Turn. The pallet he uses as a bed is uncomfortable, digging into his back. His blanket is too heavy, too warm, a bit moist from his sweat. His heart flutters like a frantic dancer.
The fear is irrational, he knows that. He knows that! And last time he tried to quench it, the children had accused him of trying to murder them in their beds. They are a bit better now, if only because he hasn't killed any of them (though some always mutter, "Yet," whenever Haplo or Marit points that fact out) and because they are beginning to learn his story, but if they wake to find him standing in their doorway, then all their hard-won trust will evaporate.
A plan forms in his brain, as unwelcome as wakefulness. Haplo and Marit understand. Perhaps they—no, no. No need to wake them up. Besides, he isn't certain if the children have set traps for him, guarding their rooms against the Sartan. It's quite possible—they're only a little bit better about trusting him. He doesn't want his friends to trigger those traps, to cause awkward questions.
Finally he gives up trying to sleep, pushes himself out of bed. He sings a rune of light, enjoys the sensation of magic brushing against his skin. He has many books in his room, and he always did love reading. The books he's reading now, Constin's journals, are particularly fascinating (for more than one reason). Perhaps the builder of Abri's walls can ward him against his inner demons.
But it is not to be. For once, the other man's words cannot banish his fears, cannot slow his pounding heart. He is still afraid. For the children, for his adult friends, for himself, he is afraid.
Perhaps he should have Haplo and Marit—
Alfred grimaces, turns the page. It's not like he doesn't possess self-control; he spent years on Arianus without magic, hidden behind a human name. But no one's discipline can last forever.
He holds out until morning before the paranoia becomes too much to stand. When he leaves his room, his eyes are red from lack of sleep, underscored by purplish bags. But there is a tension in his stance, a tautness in his shoulders, that doesn't leave until he has found every child who calls this house home.
The day passes. He is the student that day, not the teacher. The drakes put him through his paces, ease him into his still-unwanted title. They are gentler than usual, well aware that their charge and pupil is tired, even if they don't know why. One asks; Alfred mumbles an excuse about how Constin's journals are fascinating, really, and he's very glad that Headman Vasu gave them to him. The drake nods, hearing what it expects to hear, and makes a teasing comment about Alfred's bookworm tendencies. He smiles and nods back, not mentioning that he though he'd sat with Constin's books before him for half the night, he hadn't read a single page.
The lesson tires him. He expects to collapse into slumber the moment he hits his bed, but as he lies down, cold terror wrenches his heart. A soft groan escapes his mouth as he turns to his side. He pulls the blankets over his head, prepares for another sleepless night.
Time stretches on. He gives up his attempt at sleeping earlier this night, goes back to Constin's journal. If he's going to stay awake, then he should at least try to get something useful done. Try being the key word.
He notices immediately when the door opens. The Sartan climbs to his feet, wonders why Haplo and Marit felt the need to visit him at this time of night. The Patryns slip inside, quietly shut the door behind them.
The fear is back now, wrenching in his gut. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing." Haplo's voice is low, soothing, a blunt contrast to Alfred's high-pitched demand. "We just wanted you to know that the kids are fine."
Alfred blushes, his red cheeks tinged purple by the blue rune-light. "Am I really that obvious?"
"I'm afraid so, my friend."
"We do understand, you know," Marit assures him. She, too, is quiet, knowing that too much noise might wake the still-jumpy children. Her words conjure up images that are not meant to be seen, images of a cold, hawk-like face; of stalking away from a stock-still man; of a little baby girl in another woman's arms. Her scars, her fears.
Haplo frowns at the images. His arm lays down on her shoulder, pulls her that much closer to his warm body. He let her leave once. He will not make that mistake again. If he has anything to say about it (and he does), then she will never again taste the sting of betrayal, of humiliation and degradation, of leaving and being left. He will never use her, never fall out of love with her.
Just as she will never fall out of love with him. Just as she understands him. Xar betrayed him as well, let him die, tried to change him into one of Abarrach's cursed corpses. She and Alfred know how deeply Haplo feared that transformation, how he still has nightmares about his soul shackled to his decaying body, the runes of protection overlaid with runes of twisted life, the once-handsome face warped into the visage of decay.
"Thank you." There is a warmth in Alfred's chest now, a tingly feeling rather like magic. It is good to have friends. He wishes he could do something in return, something to soothe their own aches, but what?
He thinks of a dog, black-furred and brown-eyed, with white eyebrows and a plumy tail. The dog in his mind is grinning at him, tongue lolling, tail wagging back and forth. Alfred smiles slightly. Dogs do not betray their packs. Perhaps another dog could help them. He makes a note to find a puppy, to bring it back home, give it to Haplo. Yes, a dog would help them both, but he still wishes he could brush away Haplo's fears of necromancy, Marit's fear of abandonment.
The Patryns say their good-nights, head back to their room. Alfred crawls into bed, snuggles into the blankets. He still cannot sleep, but not because of anxiety. His thoughts are a-whirling.
His friends are so very good to him. It's time for him to return the favor.
Four days later, Alfred walks into the house with a squirming puppy in his arms and a grin on his face. The children are out playing stickball at a friend's house; his adult friends are taking advantage of the rare solitude and reading. Alfred had instilled his love of books in them, and Haplo is reading one of the Sartan's favorites, one of Constin's journals. The Patryn looks up with a smirk, ready to tease Alfred horribly ("Did you know that your idol was a shameless womanizer?"), then blinks. "A dog?" he asks.
Alfred nods. He deposits the wriggling creature onto his friend's lap. Marit sets aside her own book, eyebrows raised. She offers a hand to the pup, which sniffs, gives her a little lick. "I found him in the woods. He doesn't seem to have a family, so I thought you might like him." He pats the dog's head, stares at his hand upon the soft fur. "Dogs are very loyal, you know. Once they like you, they like you for life. This little fellow will never leave you, and he won't ask for much in return, just love." He ruffle's the pup's ears. It gives a little whine of pleasure, tongue lolling. It likes these two-leggers.
Marit raises an eyebrow at him. He flushes, resumes patting the dog. Perhaps he's being a bit too heavy-handed. "Trying to tell us something, Alfred?"
"…I'm just saying that dogs are wonderful animals."
She smiles at him, pretends not to realize the reason he brought home a baby dog. She remembers the last one, Haplo's soul personified in the form of an animal. That was a good dog, skilled at making her—and its master—feel better, skilled at chasing away fear and loneliness. Hopefully this dog can do the same, even if it cannot keep its master alive on Abarrach.
Her smile fades as she thinks of Haplo's other scar. They are both wary of betrayal, of abandonment, but she does not wake from nightmares of rotting flesh. Well, not often, anyways, and those nightmares are never about herself.
"This one will need a name, of course," Alfred continues. There is something in his voice, something that piques Marit's curiosity. The Sartan is clearly going somewhere, clearly transitioning to his real point. She wonders what that is. Probably some more chatter about how dogs are wonderful and loyal, and this dog will never betray its pack as Xar did, a silent plea for them to heal inside. "Preferably something rune-based so I can use my new necromancy-prevention spell on it."
…Or maybe Marit had been wrong. Maybe Alfred isn't just going to chatter on about the wonders of puppies.
"What?" Haplo demands, taking the bait.
Alfred feigns casualness. "Oh, yes. I've been working on a spell that will keep people from being raised once they are dead." He is too light, too cheerful, pretending that he isn't giving his friend a cure for his nightmares. "I know that Balthazar and his people have no intention of using necromancy again, but you never know what the dragon-snakes will trick Ramu into doing." He doesn't meet their eyes as he speaks the half-lie, but he doesn't need to. Haplo and Marit already know the real reason for Alfred's experiment.
"When will it be ready?" Haplo asks.
"As soon as you give the dog his name."
Haplo pretends to be gruff. "You think I'm going to let you cast an unknown spell on my new dog, Sartan?"
"On all of us, actually. If that's all right."
"…Thank you." Quiet, raw, and spoken from the heart.
The spells he hid earlier that day in the Patryns' rooms assure him that they are fine, still breathing, but Alfred still pads down the hallway. His steps are soft, unusual for such a big-footed man, especially one who is still a bit clumsy. He is not foolish enough to check on the children, though they are beginning to accept him (and that thought swells his heart with joy whenever it flits through his skull), instead opting to look in on the adults. So he ignores most of the doors to his sides, opens the one at the end of the hall.
There they are, curled up together, content and happy. Their breathing is gentle and regular, untroubled by nightmares. In the corner of the room, the dog—Haplo named it Spear—glances up, brown eyes reflecting the blue rune-light. Seeing that the open door is not a threat, the dog scoots around, settles back to sleep.
Alfred steps a bit closer, positions himself so that his shadow does not block his light-rune. His friends' faces are relaxed, the lines of worry and hardship almost gone. It does him good to see them there together, taking strength from each other. He wonders what they're dreaming of that makes them smile so, but he isn't about to wake them and ask.
In the morning, when they wake up (and they will, he thinks happily), they will have plenty of time to share their dreams.
To those who think that the scene in the Labyrinth was OOC, I maintain that anyone who can turn himself into a dragon is contractually obligated to fulfill a BA quota. It's in the handbook.
It says in the end of Seventh Gate that Alfred's grandkids love him, but I can't imagine that they loved him immediately. I did, but I'm not a Patryn. They need time to warm up to him.
This is not the one-shot I promised in my last chapter of "Traitors." That one-shot is over 18k and... probably shouldn't be a one-shot anymore. I make references to it in here, though. For instance, why it's so hilarious that Constin is a womanizer is explained in that work.