It was a common belief that everything would last forever. Young Coren, looking out upon the grand buildings made of bright crystal, the cultivated gardens that should not have existed this high in the sky, the crowds of mensch walking their meticulously crafted pathways, never questioned why any of it shouldn't. Certainly, what doubt could there be, when he and his people tirelessly worked to maintain the order that he saw, to keep this pristine view of harmony?
A small group of humans had trailed after him, watching in wonder as he conjured up the sprout of a tree, bringing it to full maturity, towering over their heads. They breathed in awe as he crafted the white coralite of the isles, making small homes for each of them. He sang to the land, willing the river to appear and flow down the deep trough his fellow Sartan made, and he heard the mensch behind him whisper in both gratitude and praise.
No question that many worshiped their betters, their gods. Coren would always tell them, quietly, that he and the others were not immortal beings, they were not divine. "We're simply your protectors, nothing more." He would say all this with ultimate conviction, and then continue on down the road, performing one miracle after the next.
The Lords of Night, giant floating isles situated on top of the world of Arianus, slowly moved across the sky to block the sun. It darkened considerably, reminding Coren that his time with the mensch was over. Though it took some time for him to finally be alone, needing another fellow Sartan to enchant their flock.
He made his way out of the city of the High Realms, wandering over to more isolated territory. Gathering his white robes tighter around his chest to ward off the chill, the hem dragged across the ground. It was free of dirt, still as perfect and pure as the day it was made. What might have been a long and tiresome journey for a human, he quickly traversed across the terrain, the ground seemingly moving for him so that he only took a dozen or so steps to reach his destination.
He eventually came upon lake that was quite a far distance from civilization, cut deep into the ground. It was clear blue and fresh, much better than what they had been in the ancient world, or so he'd been told. Long, deep green reeds, poked up from the surface, small insects skidded across, creating tiny ripples. None of it would have been possible without the magical barrier covering the isle, preserving life as it was. Relaxed, Coren turned toward the Sartan-made city that was like a dazzling jewel from afar, waiting eagerly with a quiet smile.
He watched her walk across the freshly cut grass. Her feet moved through flowers, pruned, their petals bright and symmetrical. Her movements did not ground them to the dirt, her body disturbed nothing that was in her path, like all Sartan who did not wish to do away with perfection.
Coren was unable to keep himself from smiling widely. "Lya," he spoke, and he said it softly. His tongue suddenly felt thick, and he looked down, feeling silly and light-headed and so many other wonderful feelings.
He felt her hand press lightly against his chin, raising his eyes. He saw fair skin, long white hair that fell around her shoulders, dark green eyes. She gave him a kiss before he could gaze at her any longer.
Despite all they were, despite their power, there was one simple fact; not even a god was immune to love.
"What have you been doing today, Coren?" she asked him. Her voice was smooth, effortless. There was no fluttering catch in her tone. Coren admired her for it, and inwardly cringed at his own voice's failings, how it seemed to squeak and break at all the wrong moments.
"I brought the me- ahem, the mensch through the city. I showed them where they would st- stay and how they can keep the land cultivated and help ration the water, once the time comes for them to travel back to the- um, ahem, I'm sorry, t-the Mid Realms." He grinned deprecatingly, fidgeting with his hands.
Lya giggled prettily, like small bells, like the tiny chimes of the crystal hargast trees as their boughs swayed in the wind. "Love, you must stop being so nervous."
His grin softened to a smile. "I know," he whispered, bravely gathering her in his arms. "Sometimes I just forget myself, especially…" he let the sentence hang in the air, kissing her forehead.
"Oh Coren, you know we don't have much time now," she protested, nestling deeper into his embrace. Rest came only briefly for the protectors. There were still so many things to teach the mensch. Both knew a Sartan's duties were never-ending. All for guidance, for helping the world of Arianus get back to true order and peace. But still, they remained by the lake together, private in their solitude, free to let their responsibilities slide away from their minds. Besides, harmony was within grasp. It would not take much longer for them to complete their tasks.
"I know, Lya, but…we still have now, don't we?" Coren held her tight, letting his lips travel down to her own, blissfully happy. The grass was inviting, nurtured with care. It was softer than a bed, warmer with the woman in his arms. Their location, had anyone knew, would have been met with stern disapproval by their brethren. Such thoughts were cast away as he kissed her, moving over her, lost and exhilarated.
He was convinced that their love would last forever. What doubt could there be?…
Alfred opened his eyes. He hadn't been sleeping, a simple action that no longer came easily. He wished just once it did. Maybe the vision would have lasted longer. Maybe he would have actually been convinced that the present was non-existent, nothing but a dream, that she was still alive, still warm.
He hadn't meant to think of her again.
Alfred stayed in the corner of the cell, or the vat used as a cell by the Gegs, waiting for all the others to prepare for sleep. Bane was curled up in his blanket, deceivingly innocent. Hugh was seated on the far side, pipe in his mouth, his face expressionless. Limbeck was staring up at the ceiling, nervousness in his eyes. Haplo was laying in the other corner, eyes closed, his dog curled up by his side. Bandaged hands were draped over his chest, covering the boils that plagued his skin.
At least, that's what he had told everyone.
Alfred took a deep breath. The descent into the Sartan mausoleum had not been planned, especially not with a female Geg- or dwarf- beside him, hanging onto his large hands. The crystal tombs had been strangely comforting, for he had been among family once again, a family that had unexpectedly packed up and left him behind, one that he could not follow.
And he had tried so hard not to look at her, but their tombs had been right next to each other. He placed his hand on his own, as his eyes lingered on her's. She had still been so beautiful and young. She really did look like she was asleep, waiting for him to wake her up with a touch of his fingers against her hair, or the press of his lips against her cheek.
He wondered dimly if Jarre had seen her as well. Did it even matter?
No, nothing did now. All the Sartans efforts had been for nothing, the lands were growing more chaotic. And now there was this young man, this man with the bandaged hands…
There is nothing there.
He whispered the rune magic, as quietly as possible, draping everyone in the cell to the comfort of sleep. Even the young man called Haplo was suspect to it. Alfred watched him breathe evenly. He watched his dog remain still, dark nose poking through a bushy tail. No, if Haplo had fallen under the spell, surely that meant he could not really be what Alfred had thought he was. Even if he had expended more effort when he cast it on Haplo, even though his heart was beating frantically at the sight of those hands.
Don't be foolish. There is nothing there!
Alfred took his time standing up, nearly an hour or more. The enchantment was sound. No one would hear him if he screamed or banged at the walls, let alone walk softly across the floor. But it was difficult. He didn't want to be right. He was too tired, too frightened, why couldn't he have continued to sleep away the years with her? Why did he have to wake up to nothingness?
When he bent over Haplo, eyes locked on the man's face, he dared not breathe. Haplo was young, perhaps around 25 cycles, but there were lines of hardship on his face, so subtle and hidden away that it could only be seen from such a close distance. But everyone on Arianus faced suffering and hardship. It didn't make this man any more likely to be something else entirely.
You'll laugh after all this is over. There is nothing there after all.
He swallowed, shifting away the bandages, peering at the skin beneath. Curling shapes of blue and red greeted him through the dark.
The Patryn's runes were made of the same symbols as his own, but were foreign to his eyes all the same. The lines curved at slightly different angles, branching at different pathways, shorter and concise. But it was their arrangement that unnerved him, patterned in their own separate words. Runes that he could understand individually, changed drastically when set next to another, shifting their context. An organization of alphabets that clashed with his own perception, threatening his understanding.
The runes were second-nature to him, or at least they used to be. He could still trace their shapes through the air, could still sing their sad melody, could still move his body to dance to their mysterious rhythm. But it'd been years, centuries, since he'd felt the true thrill of it, the act of weaving reality without missing a step, without fear of being seen. Either he did small, insignificant things, or rushed through his spells too fast to let it dwell in his mind.
He was sure this man was more comfortable with the magic, more attuned. More dangerous.
Alfred couldn't stop the tears from coming. He hastily fixed up the bandages with shaking hands. Would it be too late now to crawl through the vent, to find the hidden crypt beneath the Geg's dwellings, to lay inside his tomb and sleep away this nightmare? It was only there where he felt the magic come back in its true form, dancing to the hexagonal runes on the floor, lighting up their power, remembering when it was so easy to bring forth fruit and water without worry.
I can't face this alone!
Alfred stood up, but he was shaking so much, so overcome with dread that he stumbled. A habit born of protection, now forever ingrained in his body. He fell, his knees hitting against the metal floor painfully. His hands caught on the vat's sides, preventing him from hitting his head on impact. His leg moved against something soft. He opened his eyes and looked down.
The Patryn was below him, still in sleep. Alfred realized that he was only inches away from the other's face, that he could see several thin strands of hair resting over his eyes, dark brown ending in a white tip.
The Sartan couldn't move. Why not? What made it so difficult to just lift himself to his feet? His body, always disobeying, always leading him into more trouble than he could handle. And he couldn't stop staring at Haplo.
That was when he heard the shift in breathing, saw the body stir, the eyes moving beneath their lids.
"Oh no," he whispered.
Haplo moved slowly, like a man trapped in heavy binds. He stretched his back slightly, eyes beginning to flutter open. Alfred was unable to move away. He was beginning to feel the familiar dizziness, the routinely shutting down of his body. It took all his will to keep himself conscious, thinking, shouting inside his head, Of all times to faint! Don't do it now! Anytime but now! Don't faint on top of him!
He caught the brief glimpse of blue; startlingly bright, like crystal, like the shining lake from years past. The spell hadn't completely worn off, the Patryn looking on at Alfred like a sleepwalker who had wandered into the unfamiliar.
"What…is…" His voice came out, husky and subdued. Not like the casual, matter-of-fact tone he had been carrying with everyone. Alfred felt like he had stumbled onto something intensely private, something rare. The thought only made him lock his limbs in place ever tighter, sending his mind into a panic.
Haplo raised up one of his hands. The bandage hadn't been completely wrapped, compliments of Alfred's handiwork. The runes glowed lightly in the darkness of the vat, the soft blue matching with his eyes, the lurid red painting his cheeks. They reached for Alfred's face, and the Sartan was certain he was about to die. He waited in horrid anticipation for the Patryn to burn him away, and could only think that at least now he could join with Lya, and be cemented in the knowledge that, by himself, he truly could do nothing at all.
He flinched as the fingers brushed against his cheek, but not because it stung or burned or seared him through. The touch was simply that; a touch that felt warm to his skin. It was gentle, thoughtful. Like a caress almost, except that shouldn't be.
He looked down at Haplo, whose eyes were still caught in some dream. Blue glinted in the darkness, finding some memory, something warm and comforting. He thought he could even see the Patryn's lips form into a smile, and suddenly, he was nothing at all that the Sartan could have imagined. There was sincerity, longing…things he recognized, and knew he should not be seeing at all.
Because this is not meant for me.
Finally, when the Patryn's body started to shift, when his voice mumbled something unintelligible and thoughtful and heartbreaking, Alfred blinked. Quickly, he whispered the rune-magic again, one hand gripped on Haplo's arm, unaware that it had wandered there, his body stubborn in its independence.
Haplo's eyelids lowered. His chest rose up and down evenly. His hand slowly fell against the floor, the runes dark, nothing but ink.
It took Alfred an eternity to move his body again. He rearranged the bandages once more, making sure they were put on tight this time, his fingers working with a deftness few would see. When he finally walked back over to his corner, curling up against the wall, he let himself be guided away by his confusion. He clutched his blanket around himself, trying to rid himself of the memory of the Patryn's hands. Not just because of the tattooed runes anymore.
He knew what the eyes saw. They had been trapped, blissfully lost in a memory long since passed. It reminded him. He was over her, and she was smiling up at him, sharing a secret, unspoken.
…No, a god was certainly not immune to love.