Chapter 1: Act 1
When he thought of his mother, it was to remember the soft scent of her skin, the warmth of her hands, and the lulling swish of her skirts.
"Erik, love," she would say, putting aside her work--her sewing or her cooking or her carving--to come and kneel at his side. Back then, she seemed impossibly ancient, full of wisdom and all the things Erik would never know, born to the wrong gender.
She would take his hands and stop him from doing whatever it was he was doing; and those days it was taking apart everything he could get his hands on, Erik fascinated by the inner workings of things.
"Erik, love," she would say, "let's try making one instead of taking one apart," and then she would guide his fingers--so much smaller than her own--in threading braided grass around polished stones and carved bone. Together, propped on cushions and rugs, she would teach him to weave ceremonial headpieces, or to carve intricate wooden puzzles like the ones she sold at market.
And she would speak of the void.
"When you're older," she would say, "when you come of age, you will see the void for yourself. It is a sacred place; a place where our world ends and another begins. It is the barrier between this life and the next and you must never cross it. We do not breach the void. Say it, Erik."
She would set a gentle hand on his head then, fingers ruffling through his hair, Erik too young to know the fear in her eyes.
"We do not breach the void," he would parrot, and she would smile and return to her teachings.
She would teach until he grew impatient, and then she would send him away, out into the pale yellow sun to dart between the yurts and clay-baked houses, scrapes of green and gold fabric fluttering in the wind. He would venture out onto the steppe, grass tickling the soles of his bare feet and the scent of horse thick in his nose, a soothing, comforting scent. He would stay out until the sun dipped down to kiss the horizon, Erik watching the falcons swoop and dive across the grasslands, their sharp cries carrying as they chased their quarry. He would linger until he knew she would begin to worry.
He never wanted to worry his mother.
She was always waiting, seated near the entrance of their yurt upon a pallet of rugs, feet tucked beneath her skirts, lost to a sea of red and purple silk. In her hands she inevitably held her carving knife, steel kept sharp, its bone handle worn by the press of her palm. Some days she carved basalt, black shavings gathered in her lap, and some days she carved birch, the scent of wood catching his nose, cementing as nostalgia. She would smile as he slipped inside the yurt, like they were the only two in the universe, a moment of stillness before the chaos of the evening meal.
He kept those memories close, even now, a bright spot in an otherwise dark existence. When he closed his eyes, he could still hear her singing; Erik tucked away in his pallet, blankets drawn tight, his mother's voice carrying from the alcove where his sister slept, nearer their parents. She would sing of the steppe and of the horses; she would sing of great caravans of silk, and of warriors brave and true. And she would sing of the void.
Through the shimmering walls they came
Carrying gifts to name them true
An Envoy sent from across the divide
Beyond the void,
The City of the Dead.
Erik would listen to the soft cadence of her voice, letting it lull him to the edge of slumber, clinging to consciousness until she drew aside his curtain; came to kneel at his side.
"My darling, Erik," she would say, fingers carding through his hair. Even years later, in the months before her death, he would beg a story; plead until she caved with a soft sigh, fingers stilling as she drew a breath.
"Long ago, before the void, when the steppe was all around and an endless expanse of towering mountains led all the way to the sea, an old man walked amongst the tall grass."
Erik knew the story. It was one of his favourites.
"He came upon a horse, white as the mountain peaks, but this was no ordinary horse. It held the spirit of creation, the spark from which all life came. The old man did not see this and tried to tame it, for his feet were weary and he wanted rest. But one does not tame the spark of life, and so the horse cast him aside with a toss of its mane."
It was so easy to picture, his mother's voice carrying, breathing life into the old man, withered and decrepit, and into the horse, fierce and strong. He sat, as he always did, enraptured.
"The old man was a fool who saw then only a prize, not the horse's true worth. He drew his knife, blade rusted and old, and ran at the horse, intending then to slit its throat and take its meat. And the horse did despair, because the race of man was newly made and he had found them wanting. So he struck the man down, taking back then all that had been given. He took the man's language, and the man's music, and the man's art, and the man's knowledge; and he cast him into half the world, where the steppe was sparse and sandy and the mountains insurmountable, and he called forth the void.
"And all the man's people, every drop of blood that was his blood, appeared at his side. 'Beyond the void,' the horse said, speaking now with its true voice, which echoed like thunder, 'are your fertile lands. Beyond the void is your music and your language and your knowledge. Beyond the void is paradise beyond your imagining, and you are barred from it. To breach the void is forbidden. When you are worthy, we will send an Envoy.'
"And the horse disappeared, taking with it all that had defined them; all that they had lost to the old man's arrogance."
His mother would stop then, fingers again moving against his scalp, Erik wanting then to hear of the Envoy, another of his favourites, but his mother would always tut and tell him it was late; that he ought to sleep.
And Erik would sleep.
He missed those stories now, so long lost Erik could barely remember most of them. He remembered best the story of the horse, banishing Erik's people for the old man's transgression, and the story of the Envoy, stepping through the void to return their music and their art and their language. Mostly he remembered the sound of his mother's voice, low and soothing, and the feel of her fingers carding through his hair.
Their yurt never held the same life after his mother died. It grew quiet and still; sombre. Where once there was laughter and music, now there was only endless shadow. His sister grew thin and wan, his father ragged and worn. Erik closeted himself away from the press of family and friends, well-meaning but unwanted.
He kept his mother's knife in a chest beside his pallet, the blade dull with disuse, the bone handle having lost its shine. It was his prized possession, though try as he might, he could not match her skill at carving. He worked instead with the set of charcoals she'd bought for him the year before she died, traded for half a dozen wood-carved puzzles; far too expensive a gift for Erik to allow them to go to waste.
He drew her face, careful attention paid to the creases of her eyes, the lines around her mouth. He drew her hair, strand by strand; practiced again and again until he'd perfected the way it framed her face. He drew her skirts, wide and flowing, lamenting only that he could not capture their colour, his mother having earned the red of her silk.
He was not yet out of his mourning clothes when his father found the sketches. He did not comment; merely sat and stared, eyes clouding over, pain written across his features. He had loved her so.
He must have found something in them, some indication that Erik had grown, for the next day he brought Erik to the Elders' yurt, sketches clutched to his chest and his father standing at his shoulder. Wary and uncertain, and at his father's bidding, he handed the papers over, the Eldest accepting them in age-worn hands, curled nails coloured by time.
"Sit, child," she said, and Erik sat.
He knew these women, his mother having ranked amongst their apprentices. They were wise and ancient and held untold secrets, their will the will of the settlement. They passed his sketches between them, silent scrutiny filling their circle. Erik toyed with the tassel of his cushion, the felt soft between his fingers.
He knew why he was here. He was here to await their judgement, his mother buried, the Elders making the decision in her place. He did not know how they would know, but if they thought him ready, they would send him to look upon the void. And like his father before him, and his father's father before him, he would stare into the veil between worlds, cast aside his youth, and return a man.
Within their circle, his sketches made it back into the hands of the Eldest. She did not look them, instead addressing Erik's father.
"He is ready. You may take him to the void," she said, and nothing more.
He had known the moment was coming--had anticipated it since his thirteenth naming-day--but in his mind's eye he always returned to his mother's embrace, her pride as vibrant as her skirts; her smile as warm as the sun. He would go now as intended, at his father's side to cross the bridge between childhood and maturity, but with no one to celebrate his return; no one to chase aside his lingering fear.
Erik tucked his sketches beneath his arm and stood, letting his father lead him from the yurt.
"They no longer see you as a child," his father said when they were outside, pride in his voice, The still of approaching evening was falling over the settlement. In the west, the sun painted the horizon in shades of lavender, another day without rain.
"Your mother would be proud."
Erik tried to feel pride--tried to feel brave--but in that moment he felt more a child than he ever had, his mother's absence sorely felt.
His sister, when he told her, cried, tears made bitter by their mother's passing. "She should have been the one to decide," she said, and then hugged Erik fiercely, too young to accompany him; too young even to have the braids out of her hair.
"I'll draw you a picture of it when I get back," Erik said, tugging at her plaits. She would go in her own time, when the Elders deemed her ready, led by the Eldest in place of their mother. To look upon the void was not for inexperienced eyes. For the first time since leaving the Eldest's yurt, Erik felt the enormity of what was to come. He drew himself up to his full height, feeling the weight of responsibility; the heavy burden of age.
It was Ruth who helped him choose his sacrifice, and it was she stood at his side on the day of his leave-taking, taking his mother's customary place, Erik was grateful for her presence.
There was fanfare--there was always fanfare--but in place of the joy and fulfillment he'd expected, there was only the sharp reminder of loss, his earlier pride having fizzled. They mounted their horses, Erik's skittering beneath him, as though catching his apprehension. He swallowed aside his nerves; laid a calming hand on the animal's neck and forced his gaze ahead, staring past the streamers and banners. Beyond the settlement, the steppe stretched out across the horizon, swallowed then by ragged mountains. Erik no longer saw the fluttering of brightly coloured silk; no longer heard the raucous din of the crowd. He ignored the cluster of boys his own age--friends, if Erik could call them such. They elbowed each other and jeered, not yet having been granted permission for their own trips. He ignored it all and started towards the void.
Their horses picked their way through the settlement, the crowd trailing behind. Erik kept his gaze locked on the point where blue sky was swallowed by horizon, until the last of the clay houses vanished.
His father pressed them into a trot.
The thundering of hooves across the steppe drowned out the frantic beating of his heart. Erik's hands were clenched on the reins, making his horse jerky and tense. He was a skilled rider--had been since he was a child--and yet his heart wasn't in this, still shattered against his mother's burial stone.
We do not breach the void, her voice echoed in his ear, Erik remembering then her teachings; remembered, too, the songs she used to sing.
He fought to keep his horse at a steady pace.
The void, when it loomed on the horizon, stole his breath. With every song and every story he had tried to imagine what it must look like. He had seen its likeness on carvings and on paper and painted into the fabric of silk, but the images did nothing to prepare him for his first glimpse.
The steppe slopped east, turning away from the mountains, the horizon ahead no longer painted in dusty blues or vibrant greens. Instead Erik stared into a seemingly endless curtain of white, his eyes not yet making sense of what he was seeing. The void stretched in every direction, a barrier of fog that raised the hair on the back of Erik's neck.
The horses grew nervous; Erik's grip on the reins needed now, his horse twice bolting out from under him. He drew rein alongside his father, trying desperately to soothe the heaving of his mare's breast. She whinnied at him, eyes rolling, nostrils flaring in her fear.
"We must leave them here," his father said, Erik following his gaze to where a single ring had been driven into the ground, the iron coloured through with rust.
Erik dismounted and handed his father the reins.
He could see the void clearly now, but it was still like nothing he had imagined. It was as though someone had whited out half the world, his vision simply swallowed by a wall of mist, nothing else to indicate this was a place of legend; a place of lore. His father came to stand at his side.
They stood a moment and stared at the line of white, the occasional object laying in the grass, sacrifices brought by countless youths as they stood on the threshold between childhood and maturity, final ties to a life they were leaving behind. In Erik's pocket, his mother's carving knife was a heavy weight.
"Come on," his father said, stepping forward then. Erik followed a pace behind. His father drew him close enough that, had he wanted to, Erik could have stretched out his hand and touched.
He kept his arms pressed firmly to his sides and did not breach the void.
"And beyond, paradise, where the dead do rest," his father said, quoting the songs, but Erik thought only of his mother; imagined her standing on the other side, watching, a soft smile playing across her lips.
He drew his mother's knife, blade carefully shielded inside a grass braid wrapping, and turned it over in his hand. He had no idea why he'd chosen it for his sacrifice, save perhaps that it was the one thing he was loathe to part with; the one thing fitting of this ceremony. When he glanced to his father, he was wiping aside a faint trace of mist from his eyes, her passing still heavy in his heart.
"Do you think she's on the other side?" Erik asked.
"I do," his father said, staring straight ahead.
"Do you think this will reach her?"
There were no rules for this, though something flashed in his father's eyes; uncertainty and hope warring for dominance. In the end, he nodded.
"I think she would like that," he said.
Erik turned back to the void.
He did not hesitate in tossing the knife through, though it pained him to be parted from it. The knife cut into the fog, disappearing from sight, Erik waiting a long minute in hopes of hearing it land. There was nothing.
At least she will have her carving, Erik thought, and then turned away, unable to bear the wide expanse of white.
They did not linger. There was no ceremony to accompany this moment. His father remained wordless, stoic and reverent, while Erik wished for something more; some indication that something inside him had changed. It did not come.
His father led them swiftly back to their horses. Even with his back turned towards it, Erik could feel the void's pull. He thought too--though he knew it was fancy--that he could feel his mother's knife, shrouded though it was. He could almost close his eyes and point to it, the hint of steel a bright point in the back of his mind.
There was no one to greet them when they returned, a boy's leaving more important than a man's homecoming, though Erik still felt like the boy he was this morning. He had seen the void, and it had filled him with awe, had sacrificed his most treasured possession, and yet what was a wall of white in the face of his mother's passing? Try as he might, he could not push aside his grief.
A boy, no older than Erik was the first time his mother told him of the void, took their horses when they dismounted, Erik left standing outside the thick tapestry that was his door. He ducked inside and found his sister waiting, brow furrowed with worry.
"I left her her knife," Erik said, and saw then his sister's pain, though she acknowledge his sacrifice with a gentle nod of her head.
He wanted so badly to ease her sorrow, so he went to his pallet, where his charcoals and paper were kept, and spent hours sketching a veil of white, though he could not capture its scope, or its strange, ethereal beauty. It would be years before she made her own voyage.
The void crept into his dreams, Erik walking nightly into the mist, the veil between worlds damp against his cheek. He dreamed of coming through the other side, into the City of the Dead, where towering columns and intricately carved monuments rose towards a burning yellow sun. He dreamed of a steppe, stretched out beyond the city's walls, more lush and green than any he had seen. He dreamed of his mother, knife in her hand, its blade singing as it carved delicate patterns into white wood.
When he woke, his face was flushed with fever, his skin sticky and damp.
The echo of voices rang through his alcove, though try as he might he could not discern actual words. They spoke in angry whispers, sounding so very afraid. A hand, cool and dry, slid alongside his own, Erik turning then, hoping to see the soft lines of his mother's smile. Instead he found his sister, kneeling at his side, her expression coloured with worry.
"Hush," she said when he tried to speak, pressing a cool, damp cloth against his forehead. Erik's eyes fell closed, though not before he caught sight of something hovering beyond her shoulder, a battered iron tea pot, its lid floating half a hand above it. Erik fell back to sleep, certain then it was nothing more than a fever dream.
It was easier the next time he woke, his fever broken. Ruth was no longer sat at his side, Erik alone, his alcove strangely quiet. He struggled to sit, body aching and sore, and found his pallet littered with bits of metal. There were tea pots and lanterns and dented cups. There were knives and figurines and a still sheathed dagger. Bits of jewelry were scattered around his feet, and a horse's harness lay across his chest. Erik blinked; struggled from the pallet to find the floor littered with more of the same.
His father's voice came through the heavy felt curtains.
"Can you get rid of it?"
"You of all people should know better, Jakob," said the voice of the Eldest. "Edie was one of ours."
"Then there is nothing we can do," his father said, though if the Eldest gave an answer, Erik did not hear it.
He found no solace after that day, though his strength returned and his spirit renewed. He could feel the iron in the ground; could close his eyes and point due north, and when his sister looked at him, it was with fear in her eyes. She did not long hold his gaze.
His newly found ability came to him slowly, without mastery or control, Erik alone in his alcove, bits of metal scattered across his lap. He could feel the steel in the spoons--feel the iron in the kettle--and if he concentrated hard enough he could hover a spoon in the air, make it turn before him. Always in private, Erik as afraid as he was amazed.
Still, his father knew, and he wore his disappointment like a yoke, unwanted and heavy; his worry a gaping wound gone rank with infection. The people in the settlement stared and whispered, and then turned away, fearing him as much as they pitied him. The Elders merely watched, mouths pressed into thin lines, their gaze lingering overlong. Erik could not say which was worse
It was Erik who sought their council: his sister's advice--a rare moment of contact that left him aching anew, missing then the soft words of his mother, the light touch of her hand.
"Come, Erik," the Eldest said, beckoning him into her yurt, the first time she had called him by name, Erik having seen the void, no longer a child.
She bid him sit upon the carpets. Erik was quick to obey. He crossed his legs before him, gaze coming to rest on the carpet beneath him, a fire serpent eating its own tail, its scales patterned in soft yellows and browns that reminded him of the steppe in autumn.
"I know why you have come," the Eldest said, sitting before him, Erik's gaze drawn to her eyes, their colour lost to age. Her hair hung loose over her shoulders, winter-white that stood in contrast to the sun-battered brown of her skin. In her youth, she might have been beautiful, though Erik could not see past her wisdom.
"You wield powers no others possess."
Erik nodded, and when she did not speak, he narrowed his gaze at the kettle resting over her fire pit, trying then to lift it. It gave a brief shudder and then fell dormant, but the display was enough to make his point. He turned back towards her; found her expression turned grim, familiar pity re-colouring her eyes.
"Please," Erik said. "I don't want this. Can't you do something?"
"Oh, Erik," the Eldest said. "You are not alone."
She lifted a single hand, fingers gnarled and crooked, bones snapping as she turned her palm towards the ceiling. Erik watched, mystified, as a tiny grey cloud grew over her hand, the mist growing denser until he saw a spark of electricity; heard the first rumblings of thunder. Tiny drops of rain, no bigger than tears, fell into her palm.
Erik stared, wide-eyed with hope and wonder, until she closed her palm, the cloud dissipating into the room.
"It is our curse," she said, though she spoke as though reciting from a book, the words not in her heart.
"Curse?" The word hurt to hear, dread and despair pooling in his stomach. He had stood and stared into the void, felt its pull, but he wanted now only the naive thrill of boyhood he'd felt before seeing it, not the responsibility that came with age.
Instead of answering, the Eldest settled upon the cushions, arranging her skirts, red and gold, upon the carpets. They held so many layers--far more than his mother had earned. Erik was reminded of this woman's place; this woman's position.
"Long ago, in the days after the void, our people struggled to survive. They had lost everything that defined them. They knew not music or art. They knew not the tending of crops or taming of horses. They knew not the healing of sick. They were lost and broken and starving."
The Eldest paused and calmly met Erik's gaze.
"They knew only what the old man had done, for their sin was upon them and they could not forget. It was then the old man's daughters struck him down, for he had cost them paradise. The eldest daughter called forth ice, for her rage lay frozen in her breast, and she held the man in place while the youngest daughter drew the air from his lungs. And they knew that they were cursed."
Erik knew this story. His mother told it well. The Eldest told it as though it pained her.
"But when the Envoy brought back our language and our knowledge, they left the curse upon us, for we were still barred from paradise, so great was the old man's sin."
The Eldest stopped, frown tugging at her lips, as though the story was unpleasant. Erik spoke.
"But the horse promised one day the void would fall, that we would return to paradise lost, to reunite with those on the other side," he said, proud to have remembered.
The Eldest paused, a shadow crossing her face. When she spoke, her voice was heavy with reluctance.
"The void may fall, or it may forever endure. It is not our place to question the spirit's will." She glanced then over her shoulder, seeking out her altar before turning back to meet Erik's gaze. "But let us not dwell on that which cannot be changed. You can learn to master this; to keep it hidden deep within, as have I, as have others. We are not so few, you and I, and with discipline it can be controlled. Our curse can cause great harm if you do not learn to control it, but you will, this I promise.
"Come, Erik, offer thanks with me."
His mind still swam with all that she had said, but he stood and crossed to her altar; knelt before it and lit a candle, saying then the words he knew by heart. The Eldest's voice rang alongside his, crisp and authoritarian, her faith unyielding.
To our ancestors we give thanks, for persevering when they might have faltered.
To the spark of life, we give thanks, for sowing us upon this land.
To the steppe we give thanks, for offering us shelter and sustaining our herds.
And to the Envoy we give thanks, for returning that which was lost.
"And in the days to come, may we find a way beyond the void, to reunite with the dead in paradise lost," the Eldest finished, Erik ducking his head at her words, wishing then that the iron of her altar did not beckon; that he might take comfort in her words.
Instead he left her yurt with his head low, ignoring the pitying stares of those he passed, glad then that his mother had died; that his taint could no longer stain her name.
It was delicate work, the forging of arrowheads, Erik's knack for the craft earning him independence at work despite his apprentice status. There were none who did not know his affinity for metal, though with the passing of years the stares had vanished; replaced instead by tentative acceptance, the settlement tolerant if not outright friendly. He was one of theirs, but he was different.
He ran his thumb along the arrowhead's edge, razor-sharp point slicing through his flesh, leaving a trail of blood in its wake. Erik hissed; drew his thumb into his mouth and sucked at the pearl of blood welling there. The metal of the arrowhead sang to him, a seductive siren he struggled to deny. Erik set aside the finished head and chose another, sharping its point on his whetstone.
He had not his mother's skill in carving, and the steel was strong, but it was little work to etch his master's mark into the base of each head. One day, when Erik was no longer apprentice but master, he would design his own mark; would carve it into his swords and spearheads. That day was a long way off, Erik not a moon past his sixteenth naming day, his assigned trade still newly learned. Erik added the head to the pile and reached for another; found his task complete.
Logan rarely left him enough work for an afternoon, and today was no exception. Erik tidied his things, letting the billows run cold before moving to the retaining wall; leaning upon it to stare out over the green. A group of children, flushed with the innocence of youth, sat rapt with attention, hanging on the words of the Eldest. A wide silk awning sheltered them from the sun, making their circle look as dark as night, while a sacred fire burned in their centre. The Eldest spoke with arms stretched wide, her voice carrying.
"In the days following their banishment, the daughters of the old man, furious for what they had lost, stripped their father of his power. They braided his authority into plaits of grass, threaded through with gentians, tiny blue stars to represent their sorrow. From these plaits they wove stoles of power, the same ones we wear today. They were the first Elders."
The Eldest wasn't wearing her stole today, instead a wide shawl, the Edlers' stoles rarely seen outside ceremony and festivals. It did not diminish her command, her power seen in the lines of her face and the white of her hair.
Erik knew the story she told. It reminded him painfully of his mother, even all these years later. It reminded him too, of the time he sat under that same awning, colourful silk casting red light across his skin. He used to dream then of going to the void; of seeing it with his own eyes. Now he dreamed of passing through; drawn by his mother's knife.
"The first Elders' rule was strict, but kind, and though their new lands were harsh and many did die, many more survived. Their stoles were passed from mother to daughter and when the Envoy came it was they who negotiated the return of their history.
"We are their descendants and someday the daughters among you will stand to take our place. Let us pray." The Elder bowed her head. The children followed suit.
The blood they shed washes the land
In shades of scarlet flame.
Renew the steppe once desolate
Sow seeds to fertile ground.
Hands shall wither and be reborn
To daughters strong and true.
"And what of the sons," spoke a voice into Erik's ear, Erik starting then, surprised at having been spoken to. There were so few who sought his council, and none who sought his company. He did not keep friends, Erik the subject of taunting and whispers, not camaraderie and brotherhood.
He turned then, finding Graydon and William, childhood friends who'd forsaken his company soon after they'd learned of his taint.
"You should be careful, Graydon," Erik said. "You would not want an Elder to overhear you saying such things."
"They don't frighten me," Graydon said, though the tension in his shoulders gave away the lie. It was William who stepped forward then, slipping smoothly between them, speaking before Graydon could worsen his blasphemy.
"We're going to the void. We thought you might want to come."
Graydon and William were of Erik's age, not yet respected men of trade, but no longer irresponsible boys. They were past the age of mischief, or ought to have been. It would have been wise to refuse them, but Erik's life was a lonely one and he could not help the pull of inclusion. He longed for companionship.
"I have work," he still said, though there was no conviction in his tone and the billows still sat cold.
He glanced then to the children on the green, drawn by a peal of laughter. They were free from their lesson and ran carefree across the dry grass, shouts and cajoles rising from their ranks. Erik remembered then that euphoria; remembered a life free from taint. He'd counted Graydon and William amongst his friends, though he remembered now tagging along; following them as they ran across the steppe, or sitting at their side as they watched fireworks displays, giddy at the prospect of learning their secrets. He'd longed for their inclusion then, too.
"We'll need horses," he found himself saying, feeling then only the desire for approval and not the guilt of neglected tasks.
There were none to protest their leaving. To visit the void was not forbidden and they were of age. Horses were plentiful and easily acquired and when Erik started the group forward, proud at having been chosen to lead, it was with the first sense of belonging he'd felt since his mother's passing; since his curse manifested.
They rode hard and fast across the steppe, Graydon whooping and William silent; Erik wearing the barest hint of a smile. Nearer the void, the horses grew skittish, easily spooked by the rustling of the wind. Erik dismounted, his companions doing the same; walking the animals the last few paces to secure their reins inside the iron ring.
Ahead, the void loomed large and white, so much larger than Erik remembered. He stepped towards it, still drawn by its beauty; its power. He was standing before it before he realized his companions had not followed.
They still stood with the horses, frozen with fear. Erik smiled at their unease, feeling then bolstered by his bravery.
"It is perfectly safe," he called.
This close, he could smell the void; like a winter fog, tiny crystals of ice filling his lungs. Erik breathed deep, wanting the cold to fill him completely. A single step would take him through it. His body shook with desire; the pull of the beyond almost too much to bear. In that moment, he understood why so many had crossed, though their names were no longer spoken, their existence wiped from history. To cross the void was death, and yet denying its pull left him trembling with the effort.
"We must not breach the void," William answered, though he took a step forward. Graydon, refusing to be outdone, took two.
"They say the City of the Dead lies on the other side," said Graydon, "but the only way to reach it is to die on this side. They say if you try to cross while living, you'll end in limbo; a frozen steppe that stretches as far as the eye can see, and no matter what direction you choose, you always end exactly where you started."
Erik rolled his eyes. "You should listen more to the Elders' sermons and less to stories meant to frighten young children." He turned then, staring into the milky wall of white.
"They say," Graydon continued, unperturbed. He took another step forward, until he stood at Erik's side, the void looming before them. "Only someone with the taint can cross unharmed; that they may pass to the other side and back again." He glanced over then to catch Erik's gaze, Erik suddenly understanding his place in this. This was not an overture of friendship. It was not camaraderie. It was curiosity, plain and simple.
He ought to have suspected as much.
"I guess we'll never know," Erik said, turning then, wanting only to retrieve his horse and return home. He could feel the metal Graydon wore; a simple chain around his neck. Had Erik wanted to, he could have tightened it; sought retribution for the hurt Graydon had caused.
"If you're too afraid," Graydon began. Anger, a newly born thing, seized in Erik's chest; it grew into a steady flame as Graydon turned to William. "I told you he wouldn't touch it."
Erik spun back to face him. "You said nothing of touching it. You dared me to cross, and I won't. We do not breach the void."
We do not breach the void, his mother had said, when he was still a boy, her fingers gentle against his scalp.
We do not breach the void, the Elders had taught, Erik gathered around their fire.
We do not breach the void, the Eldest had said, firm command in her tone.
"We do not breach the void," Erik said again, unwavering.
Graydon was unaffected. "Touching isn't breaching, and you don't have the stones either way."
"Neither do you," Erik countered, his longing for friendship dashed.
In the years following his mother's death, Erik would cloister away inside his alcove, his father distant and distressed, his sister apprehensive and uncertain. Erik would stare at his sketches, his mother's likeness seeming then to come to life, to smile with gentle fondness as though Erik wasn't an outcast; as though she loved him no less for what he'd become.
He thought again of what it might mean to pass through the mist; thought of the whispers that said he could cross. He thought of those who'd left their settlement, vanishing without a trace. He wondered then how much of it was true; how many were tainted like him. He wondered how many survived; if they'd chosen to stay because they'd found paradise.
And then he found himself turning, the void seeming so impossibly close. Erik reached towards it, hearing then Graydon's sharp inhalation--William's anguished cry. But his hand was already moving beyond the barrier, cool mist developing texture, Erik's entire body humming as his hand breached the milky white tear, and encountered something solid and warm.
Erik glanced up sharply, gaze drawn from where his hand now rested, pressed against a wall of white. He thought only to see the swirling mist, impenetrable, and instead found himself staring into a pair of startlingly blue eyes.
He drew his hand back as though burnt, but the image remained; wide eyes staring back with shock and wonder. Erik registered then the face of a boy, no older than himself, his mouth parted as if to speak. Beyond, a desolate landscape stretched out across the horizon, rolling dunes washed in shades of tan and yellow. Tall pillars rose to meet a cloudless sky, the sun a blazing ball of intense light. Erik recoiled, stepping back. The boy's expression fell, his hand reaching out then, as if to reclaim Erik's hand; drag him through the void.
Erik turned and ran.
He heard the shouts of Graydon and William, asking what had happened--asking what he'd seen--but Erik paid them little heed. He reclaimed his horse, the animal as eager to be away as Erik. He was up and riding before Graydon and William reached his side, his horse thundering across the steppe, chased by the still lingering image of haunting blue eyes.
It was not until later, the curtains of his alcove drawn tight, that Erik convinced his racing heart to calm. He sat then, cross-legged upon his pallet, staring up at the sketches that hung on the wall. His mother's face, a dozen times over, stared back at him, as did the void, years of practice getting him no closer to capturing its mystery.
He had touched the void--we do not breach the void--and seen into the other side. Only there was no City of the Dead. No carved monuments, no white clay dais. There was only desert wasteland, the ruined remains of what might once have been a city. Erik shivered; wondered then why he had been chosen, why he had been cursed.
He wondered, too, who the boy was; what part he played in all of this. Try as he might, he could find no answer. Erik turned to his papers. He drew out a fresh sheet and a new piece of charcoal and began to draw. He drew wide, startled eyes, Erik wanting then for colour.
His master paid him in coins, though Erik occasionally requested the odd piece of metal and the use of the billows instead. If Logan thought it odd, he didn't say, instead shaking his head and retreating back to his work, not a man for idle conversation.
He treated Erik well, so long as Erik attended his tasks and didn't complain. More importantly, he didn't shy from Erik's curse, not even when Erik forgot himself and used it to coax the metal to his will.
"Not that I care or nothin', but what are you planning on doing with ‘em?" he asked once, the first time Erik requested some of the scraps.
Erik shrugged, not entirely certain, though he had a vague idea in the back of his head, the memory of his mother's wooden puzzles still lingering in his mind.
"'Suppose it's your time. Have at ‘em."
He left then, Erik sorting through the metal discarded that day--the stuff not fit for arrowheads or knives or even ornamental plates. He melted them down and then poured their liquid into the molds used for the rings on horses' harnesses. He followed the pattern exactly, twisting the metal into awkward shapes while it was still warm, and when he was done he had dozens of broken rings, warped and misshapen. He threaded them together until it was impossible to tell one from the other, and then set about trying to take them apart.
It would have been an easy task with his curse, but Erik left that aside and let his mind trace patterns where none existed. The task was not impossible, but it was difficult, Erik pleasantly content when he had accomplished it. He set about making more.
He managed four that evening, and then four the next, and then brought them to the market the following day, trading them for mineral paints in a host of vibrant colours. There were green paints and red paints and white paints and yellow, but above all there was blue, Erik unable to forget the blue of the boy's eyes.
How many times now had he seen the blue of the boy's eyes? It seemed dozens, the boy there each and every time Erik braved returning to the void. Years had passed and in that time he'd told only his father, though when his father looked, he saw only misty white, the desert landscape beyond--the broken pillars and golden dunes--hidden from his sight. He could not bring himself to tell his father what had precipitated the change. Could not admit to touching the void, the act forbidden and Erik afraid. The boy watched the exchange with an impassive gaze, seeming to see only Erik, Erik raising his hand then, the boy mimicking the gesture until they were pressed together, the electric tingle of the void their only barrier.
But, oh, how he dreamed of those eyes.
At home, tucked inside his alcove, away from prying eyes, he drew those eyes, again and again; the outer wall now covered in the image, his mother's smiling face buried beneath bright, mysterious eyes and the endless expanse of the void.
He drew those eyes now, using for the first time his new paints, though try as he might he could not capture their colour. He thought perhaps it was the void, colours made more vibrant when seen through its veil. Still he drew until his hand cramped; and then drew a little longer, the boy coming to life on paper.
It was like marking the passage of the time, Erik able to trace back along the line of pictures, seeing the boy grow old alongside him. He'd long since grown into a man and should have established his own forge, taken on his own apprentice and accepted a courtship. Instead he drew, wondering who would court him or buy his goods or work under his tutelage.
"You'd be surprised," Logan told him once when he asked, Erik polishing spear heads, the sun a hazy ball of warmth above the forge.
"How can you possibly understand? They see me and they see only my curse. I'm surprised I haven't been exiled."
There were others, Erik knew, those who had been driven out, their curse making them dangerous and those who were named only in whispers. He remembered a boy from his childhood, younger than Erik was now, apprentice to the fireworks master. Erik was too young to understand what had happened at the time, but he knew now that the boy had fled, his family dead, a blast having collapsed their yurt while they slept. An accident the Elders had said, but Erik had heard the rumours; knew the firework's master had no missing inventory.
Logan was shaking his head, expression grim. "They ain't gonna hold it against you forever," he said. "They know you ain't dangerous. And you're just gonna have to trust me on that one."
He extended his hand then, turning his palm over to curl his fingers into a loose fist. Erik watched, shock and awe warring with disbelief as the skin at Logan's knuckles parted, three points emerging. They made an awful scrapping sound, Logan's grunt suggesting the process was painful. When the points stopped moving, Erik found himself staring at protruding bone, like the claws of a cat, sharp and deadly. They came dangerously close to piercing Erik's neck.
"You ain't alone, kid," Logan said then, bones retracting as quickly as they'd come. "There's more of us than you'd think." He turned away then; went back to the forge and his work.
Erik released a shaky breath and began packing away his things.
He wondered then how many there were; how many hid from the others, and from each other. He wondered then what it would mean to embrace his curse; to use it freely without the threat of repercussion. Everywhere he went he could feel the pull of metal.
He felt its pull inside the forge, so much of it his breath quickened and his pulse raced. He felt its pull as he walked the settlement, belts and swords and arrows and tack; a thousand points inside a single step. He felt its pull as he entered his family's yurt, iron tea pots and steel utensils beckoning from their cupboards. He could even feel it in his paints; crushed minerals laced through with metal, Erik a part of every picture he painted.
He knew even the pull of his sister's jewelry, newly worn, her betrothal chain around her neck, golden ibex soon to represent her house. Erik paused, feeling then her presence, discerning her location before he stepped fully into the yurt, tapestry fluttering shut behind him. He crossed quickly to his alcove, drawing the curtain roughly aside.
"What are you doing in here?" he asked, finding his sister sitting in the middle of his pallet, fingers tracing the lines of Erik's sketches, lingering on the bright blue of the boy's eyes.
"Who is this?" she asked without turning. She was a woman now, fully grown, having taken their mother's place as apprentice to the Elders. She wore her hair free around her face, its colour an exact duplicate of their mother's.
"I asked what you were doing here," Erik demanded again. She turned to meet his eye over her shoulder.
"I came looking for you, and found these instead. Who is he? I know everyone in the settlement, but I do not recognize him."
Erik seethed, even as he tried to rein in his temper. He cared not for his sister's standing, or for her impending nuptials. He cared not for the stern lines of her face, or even her assumption that she could take their mother's place and see to his care. And he cared not that she no longer looked at him with fear but with pity.
"These are my private things; you have no right to them."
His sister remained unaffected. Her frown deepened. "Father said once that you were convinced you saw something--someone--across the void, that that's why you go so often. Is this him?"
He could tell, just by the lilt of her voice that she thought him mad--that she thought the taint had somehow corrupted his perception. He had no doubt his father thought the same, his obsession with the void unnatural. It is only a matter of time before he tries crossing, the people whispered. Erik's anger grew cold.
He took his sister by the arm, though he handled her delicately. She was to become an Elder and so demanded his respect. She came without protest, Erik pulling her from his alcove, wanting then only to be away from the prying eyes of everyone he knew. He thought, not for the first time, of leaving this place; of crossing the void. The boy, at least, did not look at him with such disdain. Instead he beckoned, like a siren, calling Erik to the other side.
Ruth wore her disappointment clearly, his mother's eyes--she had their mother's eyes--flashing with exasperation. "Put this aside, Erik. It will gain you nothing," she said as she left, shaking free of Erik's grasp.
Erik scowled, waiting until she was gone to duck back inside his alcove. He sank to his knees upon his pallet, staring then at the sketches tacked to the wall, countless dozens, all the same. In a fit of rage, he tore them from the wall.
The settlement seemed a distant thing, though Erik could hear the shouts of children and the clanging of metal on metal--Logan's forge. He thought, too, he could hear the distant melody of singing, the Elders' hymns welcoming the day. Erik stood before his yurt, newly built, and watched. There was something comforting in being so far from the others.
It was comforting, too, to stay so near his mother's burial stone, Erik having chosen the location for its proximity. To the east, a slight mound rose from the earth, covered over with grass, tinder dry with the lack of rain. At its head, a single stone marked her final resting place. Erik turned towards it; watched the sun rise above it. Beyond, a hard morning's ride led to the void, Erik feeling its pull, even from so great a distance. He turned back to his yurt and ducked inside.
It was not as large as his childhood home, though Erik had chosen to work under Logan rather than start his own forge, and he had neither a wife nor children to fill its walls. It was not as lavish, either, but he had no need for silks or cushions. A few simple carpets, scattered across the floor, a pallet in the corner and a handful of cupboards and chests were enough to see to his comfort and keep his few meager possessions.
He crossed to one of those chests now, still unpacked, and knelt beside it. Inside, he kept his charcoals and paints and loose sheets of paper. He kept, too, a single book, pages given over to his sketches. Erik sorted through them now, smiling when he caught sight of his mother's smile. His drawings of the void brought a pang of longing, years having passed since his last visit. The pull had grown too great, Erik no longer able to resist its lure; no longer able to stare into blue eyes without wanting to cross. He had nothing keeping him here, but the thought of his sister's anguish, so soon after their father's death, weighed heavily on his mind.
Erik's hand hovered over the last of his sketches, almost afraid to see them now. He thought back to the last time he'd gone--the last time he'd stared into those impossibly blue eyes.
Something seized in his chest, pain and longing and want, things he'd spent a lifetime refusing to acknowledge. He pulled out the first now, a single page, covered over in those same eyes. Erik's breath caught at the sight.
He wondered again what was keeping him here; why he didn't simply cross the divide. For so many years fear had stayed his hand. We do not breach the void. To cross the void is death. He had no interest in dying or passing into limbo, lost forever to a frozen steppe. He no longer knew what lay on the other side; if in crossing he would find the boy with the blue eyes or his mother's gentle hand. He feared finding neither.
"And when the Envoy came they were stricken deaf and dumb and blind, for one cannot descend from paradise without sacrifice," Erik quoted, finger tracing then the edge of an eye, wondering what became of the boy. Had he waited for Erik's return? Did he wonder where Erik was? Did he think of him at all?
"And when the Envoy left, it was back through the void, for they and they alone held the power to cross. For our sin was still upon us, and paradise forbidden."
He set aside the pages then, running a shaking hand through his hair, his heart weary. He'd wanted for privacy, to live his life away from the prying eyes of others, and yet he felt acutely his isolation; his loneliness. Erik stood from where he'd crouched; crossed to the entrance of the yurt, and pulled the tapestry aside, his eyes immediately drawn to black, billowing smoke.
The settlement was in flames.
The scent of it caught his nose then, burning grass and heated clay. He narrowed his gaze, seeing then smoke coming from one of the yurts, the frantic sounds of shouting and the shrill cry of horses reaching his ear.
Without thinking, Erik ran.
The steppe blurred beneath his feet, each step bringing him nearer the flames. A group of people had gathered around the burning yurt, metal buckets passing between them, but already he could tell they were too late to save the home. Erik reached out then with his curse, feeling the pull of one of the horses' troughs, a heavy thing; too heavy for three men, let alone one. He crooked a finger, guided more by need than any mastered skill, his curse too long avoided for Erik to have any control. He floated the trough towards the yurt, ignoring the startled gasps and horrified stares, and dumped the water over the flames.
It did little to quell the fire, Erik reaching for another trough, feeling then sweat bead against his lip, his jaw clenching as his outstretched hand trembled. They were out of the rainy season, short though it had been, the grassland dry and arid; a spare spark could set the entire thing ablaze, consume the entire settlement.
Overhead, as if to dispute the season, came the distant call of thunder. Erik glanced up and saw then the start of swirling clouds, unnatural. He saw, too, the Eldest, standing with her hands outstretched. Clouds formed above her, growing heavy with moisture until the first few drops of rain began to fall. Erik dumped his second trough onto the flames, but it was no longer needed, the Eldest's rain becoming a torrent, falling steady and hard until all that remained was the smoldering ruin of a yurt.
"Is anyone hurt?" she called then, allowing her hands to drop. The rain lessened in steady increments until it vanished completely; the clouds already dissipating.
"None," came the response, Erik glancing then to find the family to whom the yurt belonged. A young boy, perhaps old enough to gaze upon the void, stood clustered next to a woman, half hidden in her skirts. His gaze was down-turned, his expression chagrined. Erik felt a spike of sympathy for the boy, the fire no doubt his doing.
The Eldest nodded, sparing the boy--John, Erik thought his name--a final glance before she departed. Erik saw then familiar stares--stares from his own childhood--directed at the boy. He understood now why they called this a curse. How many, he wondered, had manifested in such a violent manner.
How many had been met with anything other than fear?
He thought again of the boy from his childhood, Alex, little younger than Erik was now, when he left. He thought of the Eldest and of Logan, respected and revered, but alone and isolated, with neither spouse nor child. He thought of all the others he knew who drew themselves apart; of the whispers that followed in their wake. He thought of those who had disappeared, their leaving unquestioned. He thought, too, of his sister with a husband who loved her and two glorious children she kept out of Erik's reach. He thought of those children and what they might become.
And then he thought of the void; thought of bright blue eyes and what lay on the other side.
The settlement was already helping to sort through the rubble; to save what could be saved. By nightfall they would have built a new yurt, not quite as grand, though solid and cool against the summer sun. Erik watched as they worked together, so perfectly coordinated the task seemed effortless. He thought then of the awkwardness that would descend should he attempt to join them, and turned to return to his yurt.
In the days that followed, no one mentioned the fire, or the boy, and when Erik saw him it was always with his head down, shying away from the stares of others. Were he a better man, Erik might have sought him out, but a lifetime of seclusion had done little to teach him social graces, Erik at a loss. Instead he took to drawing the boy's yurt, covered over in flames, and on the edge of each picture, though it made little sense, there was always a man, watching from a distance with bright, blue eyes.
Weeks later, when the boy disappeared, no one batted an eye, regardless of his age. It was only his mother's frantic worry that spurred the settlement into action, and then only a few came forward to aid in the search.
"You're coming," Logan said to him, as though Erik would refuse. It was heartening to know there were some who would not allow a boy to vanish, even knowing what he was.
They rode towards the void, strange after so many years away. He'd watched the processions each time someone came of age; stood once holding a banner, apart from the others, watching a girl of twelve ride off with her mother. He'd watched again upon their return, the girl's eyes bright with excitement; the mother's smile proud and wide. He'd ached then, remembering all the countless days he'd spent standing before the void, staring through its veil. To see it now, looming ahead, was like coming home.
"I'll follow the north line. You take the south," Logan said when they dismounted; nervous horses skittering as he secured them to the ring. Erik nodded, though there was little they could do if the boy had crossed.
He tried not to look at the void, though his gaze was inescapably drawn towards it, Erik seeing then familiar desert; familiar columns. It made his heart skip a beat, old longing surging as he stepped towards it, the pull of the beyond as powerful now as it ever was. The only thing that kept him from stepping over was its emptiness, Erik longing then for a pair of familiar eyes.
It struck him then, as he stared through the veil, that he hadn't truly appreciated the world beyond. He'd seen it only as desert wasteland, Erik too fixated on the boy with the blue eyes to notice the scale of the ruins. He saw now that it was an entire civilization. Though swallowed by desert, once it would have been magnificent. He wondered then if it belonged to his ancestors; if this was the paradise his people lost, cast onto the steppe to live upon the grass. Unbidden, he raised a hand towards it, wanting then to feel the sand beneath his feet; the hot sun above his head. Erik took a staggering step forward.
A flicker of movement caught his eye, John's name on his tongue as he searched frantically through the ruins. His gaze was immediately drawn to the man picking his way across the broken city. It was not John, Erik's breath catching when he realized who it was. The boy was no longer a boy, but a man, his expression bright and surprised when he caught sight of Erik.
Erik's heart thundered in his chest.
He stood, a hair's breadth from the void, feeling its cool mist on his face, his hand still outstretched.
He watched, numb and dazed as the man ran towards him, wide smile breaking across his face. In the distance, he heard shouting, jubilant, though he could not bring himself to turn from the void. He wanted then only to cross, to step through to the boy's side; to succumb to his siren pull. Erik took a step forward. The boy's expression fell.
He shook his head, eyes growing wide, hand coming up in a bid to stop Erik from crossing, but it was too late, the lure of the beyond no longer within his capacity to resist. He knew now why so many had succumbed to the pull of the void, the threat of death and limbo no longer sufficient enough to stay his feet; his sister's loss a distant thing compared to the force of his desire. There was only the boy, bright eyes beckoning, Erik realizing then how firmly the boy how burrowed into his heart. He cursed himself for having waited so long.
We do not breach the void, his mother had said, when he was a boy and new to such things.
We do not breach the void, the Elders had said, when he was an adolescent, weak though he thought himself strong.
We do not breach the void, his father had said, when he had reached the flush of manhood, stout and brave and unafraid.
We do not breach the void, his sister had said, seeing Erik's growing obsession in the paintings upon his walls.
A lifetime spent avoiding the void's pull, spent ignoring his heart's desire; Erik had grown weary.
"We do not breach the void," he whispered to himself, even as a wall of white enveloped him, distant shouts at his back, the boy's wide, worried gaze beckoning him forward.
Chapter 2: Act 2
Charles glanced to the horizon, haze highlighted by the glare of the sun. He knew the sight well. It spoke of a coming sandstorm, though still a ways off. It would be nightfall before it hit; plenty of time to reach the void and back.
He wasn't the only one warily glancing to the east, Charles passing several who were hanging thick drapes or covering stalls. He paid them little heed, ignoring their stares as he traversed the city. They knew who he was and where he was going, though in recent months Charles had begun to wonder if they weren't right; if his obsession with the void was as pointless as it was fruitless. The void had already given up her secrets; what else could he possibly hope to learn?
Tel Aeslah was quiet today, the impending storm sending most indoors. Charles navigated empty streets until he reached Low Gate, the city's southernmost gates standing open to admit the morning sun. Beyond, the outer city housed Tel Aeslah's less desirables: nomads and peddlers and whores, a place where he could buy anything and everything his heart desired.
Like the city proper, the outer city did not hold his attention--not today. Charles navigated the sea of vividly coloured tents, their silk fluttering in the breeze. He ignored the din of hawkers crying their wares, the outer city teeming with life while the people in the inner city were cloistered behind their walls. He ignored the withered fruit pressed beneath his nose and the scented incense that watered his eyes. He passed stalls selling golden idols and ones selling bejeweled trinkets, but nothing could dissuade him from his task. There was nothing he could possibly want here that he couldn't find in one of the inner markets.
That did not stop him from slowing near one of the book sellers, Charles' gaze flitting across the worn volumes that sat on the man's table; spines cracked and pages yellowed. The bookseller caught his eye and started forward, but Charles held the man back with a shake of his head. He didn't have time for this today.
Slowly the outer city grew sparser, until eventually there were only a handful of boys, their goats grazing on the sparse patch of grass that grew alongside the river. It was little more than a trickle at the moment, one that meandered along the city's eastern wall and then bent south, running towards the delta. In the wet season, short though it was, the river would overflow its banks, flood large sections of the outer city; lap against Tel Aeslah's walls. Charles turned away from it now; took the path east, towards Urkanli, the desert's forgotten city; home of the void.
Outside the protective embrace of the city, the desert sun hovered above, radiating heat that left the air acrid and stifling. The coming winds had picked up the sand, Charles wrapping his scarf around his face to keep it from his lungs. He turned west, following the road to its most distant point.
Once, when he was a boy, the trail he followed was a well-trodden one, archaeologists still going into Urkanli to study. He'd gone so many times with his father; seen first-hand the uncovering of stone and the re-tracing of history. He'd listened nightly to his father's thoughts on the city; on what had happened to her inhabitants. But it was not Urkanli that held his attention, but rather the void, Charles instantly drawn to it. He could proudly boast having a great-great grandfather who had crossed, centuries ago, when the void was misunderstood and the council still debated its purpose. Now it was little more than a dividing line on a map; a schism that ran between one universe and the next, a cosmic accident, as random and fortuitous as life itself, and the only thing the council debated was how best to keep it from collapsing.
At his back, the city dwindled, until Tel Aeslah disappeared into the surrounding desert, her walls the colour of sand; her banners as blue as the sky. Ahead, the road, covered over with sand so that only her guideposts showed, curved dead west, Charles quickening his pace, wishing then, as he did every trek, for a camel. His great-great grandfather, revered as he was, had not the foresight of investment.
When Urkanli came into view, it was as dim shapes in the distance, easily mistaken for a mirage. It wasn't until he drew close that he saw the pillars for what they were: great, towering things that dwarfed him in size. The entire city was grand, open and airy, meant to accommodate hundreds of thousands of people; far more than Tel Aeslah would ever hold. Urkanli sat in ruins now, broken columns and sand covered mosaic streets; the civilization that once called it home lost to legend.
At the far end of the city, the void sat like a curtain, white mist like an approaching sandstorm; impossibly large. No matter how many times he came, it still struck him with awe; the idea of his world intersecting with another as humbling as it was inspiring.
The ruined foundations of once great buildings served now to block the wind, Charles pulling his scarf from around his face; tucking it into one of the pockets on his tunic. He could feel the sand in the toes of his boots, gritty against the underside of his feet, and his hair was no-doubt caked through with the stuff. Charles ran a hand through it; shaking out what he could before stepping towards the void.
What he saw on the other side--a dim, vague outline--gave him pause.
It had been so long since he'd last seen the boy from his youth. Back then he seemed too wonderful to be real, and as Charles grew older and the boy vanished, he wondered if he wasn’t yet another desert mirage. The possibility of it being him was slim, but Charles still clung to hope, his heart quickening as he drew near.
The closer he came, the more distinct the view grew, heavy curtain turning to frosted panes until Charles could make out the man who stood across the void, staring into Charles' world as Charles stared into his. He knew immediately he was looking at the boy from his youth, the slope of his shoulders and the set of his spine impossible to mistake. Something caught in his throat and he staggered forward, wondering then if he'd stepped into a dream, Charles so used to disappointment. He'd devoted his life to studying the void, and yet it was impossible to lie now and say that was the only reason he came. The man across the void lingered in his memory like a ghost; haunting his dreams and occupying his every stray thought. He was the first to ignite a spark in Charles' heart, the first to draw his interest. And now here he was, after so many years away. A wide smile broke out across Charles' face.
Without thinking, he started towards the void, hand stretched out before him. Beyond, grass meadows and towering mountains made him gasp in wonder, as they always did, though they could not hold his gaze for long. That was reserved for the man, who now stared through the void with wide eyes, Charles momentarily overcome by the urge to cross; the man's company too long denied. He thought then of the cost; of the delicate balance that hung between. His grandfather, several greats removed, had lost his eyesight. What might Charles lose?
To pay an unknown price and leave everything he knew behind, all for a man who was in essence a stranger seemed ridiculous in the light of day. And yet, oh how the man had captured his imagination. He could no longer lie and say his interest in the void was not tied directly to the prospect of seeing this man again; of staring into his piercing eyes. Standing before the void, watching the man's approach, Charles felt keenly his pull. In the years of his absence, he had begun to think the man a figment of his adolescent imagination; a vain whisper of hope that he was not alone in the universe. It was heartening to prove him real, and if the man's expression was any indication, he shared Charles' exultation.
I want so badly to know your name, Charles thought, pushing the idea forward, hoping it might breach the void where his voice did not. His gift had strengthened in the man's absence, but if the message carried, the man showed no signs of it.
He stood now, on the cusp of the void, expression determined; hand stretched towards the mist. He held himself like a warrior of old; like the ones Charles' nursemaid used to tell him about when he was still a boy. The sight brought a surge of desire, old interest that set Charles' heart racing, his pulse fluttering in his neck. His smile grew wider.
This close, it was easy to see the changes time had wrought. The man wore new lines in his face; his features hardened into adulthood, having lost their boyish softness. Charles scrutinized them now, committing them to memory lest another six years pass before Charles saw him again.
It was perhaps this scrutiny that caused him to miss the man's first step forward, Charles' smile vanishing when the man stepped forward again, his expression dazed, as though some force compelled him through the void. Charles shook his head; held out a hand as if the force of his horror could prevent the man's crossing. The man paid him no heed.
A flicker of movement from over the man's shoulder drew his gaze, Charles seeing then a second man, along with a boy, no older than Charles was the first time he came to the void. The man's hand rested on the boy's shoulder, holding him fast, as if to keep the boy from bolting. His features were twisted with confusion, confusion soon replaced by anger and frustration, a name coming to his lips.
Charles turned in time to watch the man slip completely through the void, the void shimmering to accommodate him, fracturing like glass as he crossed. One day it would fracture completely, two worlds colliding together, destroying everything in the process. Above his head, the sky momentarily grew dark. Charles held his breath, his stomach sinking even as a traitorous part of him delighted at the man's coming.
Was this what he had been waiting for? Hoping for?
The man wore fierce determination like armour; his eyes alight with hope and anticipation. They faded the second he finished his crossing, his eyes growing wide as his left arm fell limp to his side. Charles moved without thinking, reaching the man's side just as his knees might have given way; catching the man then around the waist and holding him fast.
"Why did you cross? Why did you cross?" he asked, frantic, scanning the man for any other sign of injury, flinching at the terror and confusion in the man's gaze.
Beyond, obscured now by rising mist that surged to fill the fracture, the man and the boy stood staring at the fissure. The man shouted a name, his words carrying through the still healing cracks.
Charles turned back to the man before him, his complexion turning ashen. He was staring at his now useless arm.
"Erik? Is that your name? You can still go back." The void had not healed from his crossing. To cross back now would not damage it further.
Erik's head shot up at the suggestion. He stared at Charles now, as though not convinced Charles was real; not convinced he'd actually crossed. Charles watched then as his gaze slid past Charles' shoulder, to the ruined city beyond. His eyes were wide when he once again met Charles' gaze.
"Erik," Charles said again, softer this time, as though coaxing a sand gazelle.
Erik still started; turned then to glance back through the void, breath catching when he caught sight of the man and the boy. They frantically searched the void, trying to see past the mist Charles knew stood as barrier on the other side. Slowly, Erik turned back towards him.
"I breached the void," he said. He glanced again to his arm. "Am I dead? Is this the afterlife?"
He did not sound particularly upset about the prospect. Charles shook his head.
"You're not dead, and you can still go back."
Erik shook his head. "I'm not going back."
Charles tried not to let his shock show, but it was a hard thing, and something of it must have shown, because Erik immediately opened his mouth, shoulders setting as though expecting an argument. Charles forestalled him with a raised hand.
"I won't make you," he said, giddy at the prospect of Erik staying, though with the man standing before him it was easy now to remember he was an absolute stranger. He glanced again to Erik's arm.
It drew Erik's gaze there, grey-green eyes dimming in the face of his confusion.
"I'm sorry, but there is a price for crossing. I don't know why, but all of those who have crossed have had something taken from them. I'm afraid it can't be undone." He did not mention the farther-reaching consequences.
Erik glanced back up to meet Charles' eye. A shadow fell over his face, some unnamed sadness further dimming his eyes. The sight made Charles' chest clench in sympathy. He stepped forward then, gaze searching, but Erik shook his head, turning then to stare back across the void. The boy and the man still stared into its depths.
"I don't even know your name," Erik said when he turned back, eyes strangely distant, though he no longer seemed concerned by his arm.
Charles swallowed the urge to laugh then, the ridiculousness of the situation striking him. He still expected to wake at any moment. It wouldn't be the first time he'd dreamed of the handsome stranger crossing to his side. How long had he spent thinking of this man, dreaming of this man; wishing for things he'd long since denounced as impossible? How long had he been coming to the void, claiming scientific interest when it was his heart that drove him. Charles' stomach fluttered nervously.
"My apologies. My name is Charles. Charles Xavier and it is a pleasure to finally meet you."
The man nodded and then cleared his throat.
"Erik, son of Lehnsherr," he said, face darkening, frustration twisting his lip. He glanced to his arm, frowned, and then awkwardly raised his right--clearly not his dominant one--to extend his hand.
Charles accepted it warmly. Erik's gaze went wide at the contact.
It was impossible then not to reach out with his gift, brush his mind against Erik's. It was a startling thing to experience, Erik's passion striking like a thunderbolt, his will carved from iron, its edges sharp, and yet Charles could not discern a single thought. It was like running into a wall. Many would have recoiled, but Charles surged forward, drawn by a mind so bright it seemed to outshine the sun. A wide smile came to his lips. Erik's expression grew puzzled.
"My apologies, Erik, but your mind; I cannot even begin to tell you how incredible it is. I can't read it."
Erik's confusion deepened.
"But I'm getting ahead of myself again, forgive me," Charles said, glancing again to Erik's arm. He raised an eyebrow, waiting for Erik to nod before stepping forward, into Erik's space as he reached for Erik's arm. Erik went impossibly still, but he nodded when Charles withdrew his scarf from inside his pocket. He used it as a make-shift sling to secure Erik's arm to his body, tying it neatly over his opposite shoulder. Charles did not miss Erik's steady exhale when he drew back, nor did he miss the brief spark of interest that came with Charles' proximity.
"If you're not going to go back," Charles said, Erik turning to follow his gaze through the void, where the man and the boy were retreating, shoulders slumped with defeat, "then we should get going."
He glanced then to the horizon, where the storm steadily approached.
"There's a storm coming."
He turned then, intending to leave, but Erik was still staring through the void. Charles returned to his side.
"You can still go back."
Erik shook his head. "There's nothing for me on the other side," he said, turning then, arm still held awkwardly across his body, despite the sling. Charles nodded, having heard Erik's words before. They were spoken by all who crossed. Charles wondered then, not for the first time, what could possibly chase anyone from a land so vivid and rich into a world of sun and sand; wondered what untold horrors could possibly make Erik's people so willing to pay so ultimate a sacrifice. He wondered, too, how many more could cross before the damage to the void became too great.
"We should go," Charles said again, nodding past the ruins, to the desert beyond. Erik frowned.
"Where?" he asked, Charles only then realizing that Erik knew nothing of this place; that tradition and law dictated he was now Charles' responsibility.
"To the city. It is several miles from here. I have a dwelling there; you can stay with me."
If the offer surprised Erik, he did not show it, his expression growing contemplative. He turned then, catching Charles' eye, his gaze searching.
"Do you know of a woman, with dark hair and kind eyes? She is a carver. She died some years ago and it is said those who die cross the void."
It had not occurred to Charles until that moment that Erik's people might have attributed some supernatural explanation for the void. His people had long since dismissed such claims.
"I'm sorry," Charles said, feeling then something spike in his chest. "Was she..."
"She was my mother."
Charles felt the knot in his chest loosen, though he was not proud. He nodded; feeling then a well of sympathy, his own mother not a year dead and cremated.
"I'm sorry, Erik. I assure you, all those who have crossed are decidedly alive. This isn't an afterlife." Charles would not have wanted him to labour under the delusion, painful though it was to cut a last remaining hope.
Erik seemed to understand. He nodded, falling willingly into step at Charles' side then, the walk back to the city somehow easier for his presence. The edge of the storm was fast approaching, the wind towards them, forcing them to keep their heads down to block out the blowing sand. They did not speak again until the city came into view, Charles pointing it out, awe and amazement reflected in the widening of Erik's eyes. He stared, agog, as though the city rising from the sand was a sight he'd never expected to see. Charles smiled, and started them forward.
Sand had drifted into the corners of the courtyard, the polished stone beneath his feet gritty with the stuff. Above his head, the sky was a deceptive shade of blue, no trace of the storm remaining save in the sand swept streets and dust-covered windows. Charles did his best to clear a space and then began working through his forms.
The exercise required the clearing of his mind, but he was hard pressed to do so, his thoughts continuously drifting into the guest suite, where Erik still slumbered, exhausted from his first night in the city. Charles swept his arms wide, feet shifting as he widened his stance, right arm coming up to block as his left hooked under, a blow that would have dislocated his opponent's jaw--had Charles an opponent. He spun quickly and crouched down; leg sweeping out, knocking his imaginary opponent to the ground. Charles twisted then, vaulting over on one hand to land above his opponent, elbow coming in to crush his throat.
The form took less than a minute and should have focused Charles entirely; instead he found himself smiling, drifting back to the apprehensive way Erik had huddled against the divan, mind spiked with fear as the storm howled outside. He'd not known Erik's thoughts, Erik's mind still a mystery to him, but the colours of Erik's emotions were clear, Charles catching his awe and his anxiety. When asked, he'd spoken of rainstorms that swept the steppe, telling Charles he'd never seen a storm of sand, the end of time descending as the storm turned the fading light of day into the sharp dark of night.
"They've been coming more often," Charles had said. "As the void thins, the storms grow worse, though they pass soon enough."
Erik hadn't commented, but Charles could tell he was troubled. He had sought sleep soon after, while outside the storm continued to rage.
Charles stood from where he was now sprawled; set his feet together and began another form.
He managed three before something caught on the periphery of his vision. Charles ignored the fluttering of his stomach and forced himself to finish his last form, pausing then to settle his racing heart before he turned to greet Erik.
Erik was standing framed inside the doorway, looking decidedly awkward. Charles smiled brightly and took a step towards him.
"Did you sleep well?" he asked.
Erik squared his shoulders and stepped out into the courtyard, pausing then to glance up at the sky. His gaze narrowed.
For a man displaced between worlds, staring up at an unfamiliar sky and having slept in an unfamiliar bed, he was strangely at ease. Not for the first time Charles wondered what his previous life was like, to make this preferable.
"We should have breakfast and then see the council. We should have gone last night. With the storm, it will be forgiven, but best not to delay our going."
He swept past Erik then, into the house, windows still shuttered against the storm.
Charles knew of courage. He'd read of it in the history texts and in the tales of his favourite heroes. He'd seen it in his great-great grandfather's notes; in his decision to cross the void when none knew what lay on the other side, or what price their crossing. There were tales of it even now; of those who crossed the scorching desert to find a new oasis when the river ran dry; or those who braved fierce storms to rescue a child or animal lost outside the city's walls. He even felt it when he stood before the council, defiant, and argued his views, Charles' voice one of many, but respected.
This, however, marked the first time he'd seen true courage.
He saw it in the set of Erik's shoulders; in the way he eyed his breakfast askew, the food clearly new to him, and yet he ate it without hesitation, nodding appreciatively when Charles pointed out the figs and olives upon his plate.
He saw it later, too, as they stood by the door, Erik wide-eyed with excitement and wonder, his earlier apprehension having vanished with the prospect of seeing the city in the light of day. Charles couldn't help but run an appreciative eye over his tunic, wanting then to buy this man vests and jackets that framed his shoulders, fabric billowing, cool against the desert heat. He flushed as soon as he thought it, Erik not a courtesan to be courted, Charles having no rights to his affections. That did not stop the errant thought from sprouting seed, want stirring in his belly.
"The council," he said as they stepped out onto the street, "has ruled Tel Aeslah since its founding. It is a democratic system, with elections held every six years. My father sat on the council for three terms in his later years, and I am rather expected to run at some point."
Charles paused then, glancing to Erik only to find he was listening intently even as he scanned the city, eyes darting to the tops of buildings and then to the tile-laid streets; to billowing curtains stained in reds and purples and blues, and to the sparse vegetable gardens that hung from window ledges or grew on roof-tops.
"But that is rather later. At present I'm a scholar," Charles continued, stopping then, realizing he still knew so little of Erik. "But what do you do, or rather what did you do? We can always find something similar for you here. The council tries very hard to help those who have crossed assimilate into society." He did not mention the faction that wanted Erik and the others removed from the city; that wanted them sent back across the void.
"I am a metal smith," Erik said after a moment's hesitation, though why he hesitated, Charles could not say.
"An artisan; how wonderful." He could almost picture it, Erik's hands strong and yet dexterous. He'd always wondered, all those years ago when Erik first appeared at the void, and then later, when Erik kept coming. For the longest time Charles had pictured Erik as a scholar, like him, studying the void from the other side, half of Charles' daydreams involving the sharing of their notes.
"No," Erik said, shaking his head. "My mother was an artisan; a carver. I merely forge arrow tips and spearheads. It is no great art."
He sounded embarrassed, but there was something else, Erik keeping something back that Charles desperately wanted access to. He wanted, too, to know everything there was about Erik and Erik's people. To revere art so much that Erik could not claim the practice himself--and he was an artisan, regardless of what he made--was as compelling as it was fascinating.
He wanted to tell Erik as much, to share all that he saw when he met Erik's gaze, but it was then they arrived outside the Great Hall, Erik's steps slowing as they approached the hall's steps.
He could sense Erik's wonder; his amazement at such a feat of architecture. Even Charles had to admit the Great Hall deserved its name. It towered above the other buildings, filling the entire centre of the city; a great golden dome that formed the city's heart, its walls the colour of sand, its roof burnished like the yellow sun. Great archways framed its core. They were duplicated above, where a wide veranda encircled the dome, blue and yellow silk banners rising from the six spires that framed its points.
"The jewel of the city," Charles said, starting up the stairs. They rose above even the highest of the city's buildings before reaching the hall's entrance. Its wide, rosewood doors stood open.
Charles stepped inside, and was immediately accosted by Emma Frost, her white robes trailing behind her today, train dragging through the sand that seemed to cover every spare inch of the city. She wore a scowl that seemed permanently set into her features, her eyes flashing ice when she saw him.
"There you are," she said, coming to a stop immediately before them. "You have to make them see reason, Charles. The trade minister has been assassinated and they still refuse the peddlers' guild audience."
Charles eyes grew wide with shock, though it was hardly the first assassination the city had seen. Still, he knew Janos, his loss keenly felt.
"My condolences," Charles said, knowing Emma considered Janos, if not a friend, then at least an ally. They stood on the same side in a decades' long debate; the opposite side of Charles. "But I am not certain what you intend me to do. I don't sit on the council and trade negotiations are hardly my area of expertise."
It was then that Emma seemed to notice his companion, her eyes narrowing when she caught sight of Erik, standing beyond Charles' shoulder. Charles turned, seeing then Erik with his eyes locked on Emma, his expression set in stone; decidedly unimpressed. Emma sniffed and then turned her attention back to Charles.
"They will listen to you because this is about the void and you are the resident expert. The peddlers' guild wants access to the inner city for its outer city members. They can no longer compete with the increased frequency and severity of the storms. We've dragged our feet long enough, Charles. Something has to be done."
Charles shook his head, fumbling then for a way to derail the discussion before it got into unsafe territory. He didn't want Erik to feel unwelcome; didn't want to give him an excuse to change his mind. It was for naught, Emma's interest drifting, her gaze once again coming to rest on Erik.
"My apologies," Charles said, turning then. "Emma Frost, this is Erik, son of Lehnsherr. Erik, this is Emma Frost, a colleague of mine."
He watched, awkward tension descending as Erik inclined his head, though his gaze still held suspicion and open mistrust. Emma's stare was little better. She glanced back to Charles.
"There was a rumour floating around that you brought home a stray. I can't say I'm surprised to find it's true."
"Emma," Charles chastised, feeling then a spike of irritation and annoyance from Erik. Emma's mind was finely cut diamond, her gift similar to Charles', allowing her to effectively block his probing. Still, he did not miss the slight hint of colour in her cheeks, the rebuke hitting home.
The debate had spawned far longer than his lifetime, and Charles had long since chosen his side, as had Emma. Charles was merely grateful a childhood friendship was not ruined by opposing politics. He'd lost far too many friends to Tel Aeslahian politics.
"Just be careful," she said, glancing again to Erik before spinning away, her robes dragging behind her.
"My apologies," Charles said when she was gone, turning back to Erik.
Open curiosity was written across Erik's features, that and a deep-seated suspicion that made him look older than he was. Charles sighed. He had hoped to avoid this, the matter far too complicated for a brief conversation. He suspected that was no longer an option, Emma's words still hanging in the air between them.
"As strange as it sounds, assassinations are commonplace, I'm afraid to say. They're frequently used in political maneuvering, and considered honourable moves in forwarding one's goals. The man Emma was talking about was Janos Quested."
Erik cocked an eyebrow. "He was killed because he would not meet with some guild?"
Charles shook his head, frustrated then--and how to explain centuries of culture? "No. He was killed because he stands as a prominent member of one of the city's factions. It really is complicated."
He wanted to have this conversation elsewhere, inside the sanctity of Charles' home, perhaps over a glass of wine, but Erik remained unmoved.
"It's the void," Charles said. "It's thinning. It has been for years, and as it thins it disrupts the balance of our universe, threatens our very existence. There is some debate on what to do about it. Janos simply stood on one side of the debate. I stand on another. But we can discuss that later."
He held his breath then, certain Erik might demand an explanation, but to his surprise--and delight--Erik merely nodded, Charles leading them forward, towards the council chambers.
They sat at the heart of the hall, directly beneath the dome. A large, echoing room, gilded in rare and precious metals with intricately carved stone, it was by far the most stunning craftwork inside the city. Charles paused outside the iron door, wanting then to see Erik's face when he laid eyes upon it. He turned, smile falling when he caught sight of Erik's expression, Erik staring at the doors with the same kind of awe Charles thought ought to have been reserved for his first glimpse of the room's interior.
"Ah, metal smith," he said, remembering then. "They are impressive."
Erik nodded, stepping forward then, hand coming out to brush against the door, fingers tracing along their etchings: two men on horseback riding across the sand, the void, framed by towering columns, shimmering at their back, a shining star guiding them home. He sensed then something new, a pull of desire and attraction that had nothing to do with sex and yet was just as primal. He saw then Erik close his eyes; lean into the metal, the metal seeming to vibrate beneath his touch. Charles smiled.
"Metal. That is your gift," he said. He had wondered, but manners prevented him from asking. His great-great grandfather's research suggested the gift was uncommon amongst Erik's people, and yet those who had crossed brought with them new and marvelous talents.
Instead of flushing with pride, as Charles half expected, Erik went very still, tension creeping into his shoulders. He dropped his hand as though scalded, spine straightening as he stepped away from the door. They hadn't discussed Charles' gift yet--he'd meant to, but there were so many things they had to discuss and Charles had forgotten his promise to explain. It was true those who had cross were reluctant to discuss their gifts, but this was the first time Charles had seen such open fear.
"It's fine," Charles said, allowing Erik his reticence. He brushed past Erik's shoulder then, pushing through the doors; metal warm from where Erik's hand lay upon it. Inside, the council chambers echoed with the door's opening.
It was impossible to miss Erik's startled inhale. Charles smiled.
There were few who could look upon the great dais and not be overwhelmed by its splendor. The entire platform was carved from polished white stone, so fine it seemed spun from lace. Scenes from nature; trees and vines and things not found in the desert--things only seen in the city's sparse collection of books--shifted into fanciful birds and fantastic butterflies. Images of moving water, artfully crafted, were set in white clay, the dais great, gleaming and impossibly beautiful. Charles stiffened with pride and turned to catch Erik's gaze. He saw there wonder, but also, recognition.
"You know this place," he said, surprised. Erik nodded.
"I have seen it a thousand times over; painted onto silk and lacquered on pots. It is the City of the Dead, where the deceased spend eternity, and yet..."
There was something in his gaze; hurt that Charles soon identified as disappointment.
"It has been in the city since its founding, though we know now it was brought from Urkanli. You said you could see through the void after you touched it. Perhaps your ancestors could as well, and saw the dais before it was brought to the city."
Erik did not answer, but he inclined his head, frown still tugging at his lips. Charles took the gesture for what it was; a bid to change the topic. He turned from Erik then; brought them forward to face the council.
They sat in an arc around the dais, chairs carved from the same rosewood as the Great Hall's front doors. Charles met Emma's gaze, inclining his head in recognition of her place. At her side, an empty chair marked Janos' place, Charles touching his breast in respect for the dead. A day would come when he would sit amongst them, but for now Charles stood before them and met each gaze in turn. Jean earned a friendly smile, as did Lorna. He met the hard gazes of Sebastian and Nathaniel without flinching, though there was no love lost between them. Had they not sat on Janos' side in the debate, Charles might have thought them responsible for his murder. Neither were above cutting down their opposition. Charles still suspected they were behind his father's death.
It was Jean who opened the questioning, standard questions asked of all who crossed the void, though this marked the first occasion Charles had been witness to it. Erik answered their questions dutifully, though Charles could feel his reluctance. He could sense from the flare of his thoughts that he found the process both intrusive and awkward, though he showed no outward signs of either, Charles again reminded of his courage.
"And do you agree to take responsibility for this man?" Jean asked when they were done with their questions, turning her attention to Charles. It immediately drew Erik's gaze, incredulity plain in the set of his jaw.
"I do," Charles said, without hesitation, forestalling Erik's argument with a raised hand. He could feel the swell of Erik's indignation, though Charles ignored it, inclining his head towards the council members. They dismissed him with a wave of their hands.
He waited until they were out of the room, the doors shut firm behind them before turning to Erik who now wore his rage openly.
"It is our custom. I found you, so you are my responsibility; at least until you have come to know our ways. This is how it has always been."
Some of Erik's anger dissipated, his expression growing confused. "There are others, from my world, still living here?" he asked. Charles nodded.
"There are a few, though only one close to your age. I can introduce you if you'd like."
Erik nodded, some of his earlier tension vanishing. He turned then, leading them back the way they had come, until they were once again standing outside the wide, rosewood doors. Charles stepped up to stand at Erik's side, turning so that they were standing shoulder to shoulder, staring out over the city. Charles felt the shifting flare of Erik's thoughts, wonder and excitement and lingering unease all taking their place as he stared over the markets and residential districts; over the great institutes for learning and the stables and the council houses. Charles loved his city, as much as it frustrated him; he was proud now to show it off.
"Later," he heard himself say, though it was a distant thing, "I can give you a tour."
Erik nodded, still staring out over the city, his gaze drawn now to a line of washing hanging between two houses, the scraps of fabric fluttering in the breeze.
The path to Tel Aeslah's Grande Bazaar--the city's largest market--took them along the north wall. It took them past the city's stables, the scent of horse heavy in the air. At his side, Erik's steps slowed, nostrils flaring as he inhaled.
Charles slowed to match his pace, glancing over then, seeing a shift in Erik's countenance that made his own steps light. He'd worried last night, Erik clearly overwhelmed by the city, the events of the last few days catching up with him. His expression was clearing now, the colour of his thoughts growing light. Charles remembered then the horses he saw through the void; Erik's people obviously familiar with the animal.
"They're not common here," Charles said, Erik glancing over, confusion evident in his frown. "The horses, I mean." Charles came to a stop then, pointing out the back end of a squat clay house, high wall blocking it mostly from view. "Those are the royal stables, though to be fair, Tel Aeslah doesn't strictly have royalty. It does have several successful families and merchants who have taken it upon themselves to hold meaningless titles, and one of the things these self-made royals do is keep and race horses. The next race isn't for a few weeks, but they will be practicing. We can go watch them if you like."
He could tell Erik meant to dismiss the notion, though he did not miss the hint of longing in his gaze; the want that went beyond mere homesickness.
"You're actually an anomaly, having even ridden a horse. It is a very select privilege here. Come on, we have time and it's on the way."
A small white lie, the practice track well outside the city gates; as far away from the market as they were now, twice over. Still, Charles led Erik to the north gate; no outer market here, only the wide expanse of desert, pale yellow sun having just crested the horizon.
"They practice in the mornings, before it grows too hot. Once a year, the cities hold competitions, with the winners meeting in the Grand Crown. It eases tension between the states. Horse racing is far less costly than war." Charles gestured to a swirling cloud of dust out beyond the line of civilization. He could feel Erik's concentration as he squinted; as he tried to see beyond the haze of sand. "Come on," Charles said, leading him forward.
They were not the only ones outside the city walls; there were many who came to watch the practice runs, wanting the inside edge when it came to betting and odds. Charles made for a wide red and white stripped tent had been set up not a quarter mile from High Gate. Erik followed, appearing outwardly hesitant, though Charles did not miss the eager excitement clamouring amongst his thoughts.
The horses became easier to see the closer they got, billowing sand clouds becoming trails behind each animal. He waited until they'd found shelter beneath the tent, dozens of spectators crowding the long wooden benches that sat beneath its shade, to lean into Erik's space and say, "They're spectacular, aren't they?"
They frightened him a little, if he was honest, Charles having only seen them from a distance. Still, they were stunning to watch, Charles enraptured; Erik just as overcome if his open mouth was any indication.
"They're very well looked after," Erik said as the horses came back around, side-stepping neatly as they waited for their next run. Charles scrutinized them, though he knew so very little of horses it was hard to say one way or the other. Certainly they looked well taken care of, their coats glossy and bright, their manes braided with intricate ribbons of silk. They were sleek and well-muscled, tassels and harnesses and bits decorated with vibrant reds that stood out against the blacks and tans and whites of their hides.
The men who rode them, trained from childhood, were entirely hidden in billowing white. Like spectres, they faded into the background, their horses the reason people braved the sand and sun to come and watch. Charles watched as they stepped neatly into a line, his breath catching then, as much from feeling Erik's excitement as his own. He'd not been to see them racing since he was a boy.
At his side, Erik leaned forward, lip caught between his teeth. He wore one of Charles' scarves today, wrapped around his arm, keeping it flat against his torso. Its tie brushed against his neck, captivating Charles so much that he missed the start-horn; missed the plume of sand that exploded with their charge, glancing up only in time to see them disappear in a cloud of dust.
"Remarkable," Erik said, sitting back. Charles couldn't help but agree.
"We can stay and watch them some more, if you like," he said, but Erik was shaking his head, already standing, gaze once again drawn to the trail of dust moving away from the city. When he turned back he was smiling.
"Thank you for this," he said.
Charles beamed, delighting at the knowledge that he'd somehow pleased Erik.
"You're quite welcome. Should we continue to the market?"
Erik nodded; cast one final glance over his shoulder at the retreating horses, barely visible now, save for the cloud of ever-moving dust, and then turned back to Charles.
The city streets had grown busy during their time outside the walls, however brief. Erik drew closer to his side, still unused to the press of so many people--they passed in pairs, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, spouses and friends and cousins; all intent on starting the day, tending to business or chores. They passed a man selling withered dates and a woman selling silk scarves. They passed a young couple, hands intertwined, shy smiles on their lips. Erik watched them pass with wide-eyed wonder.
"Are there no cities on your side?" Charles asked. His great-great grandfather's notes hadn't mentioned any, but times changed.
They passed a carried divan, silk curtains obscuring some merchant, or perhaps a guild-head. It drew Erik's gaze from the two men. He eyed it askew.
"We have a settlement, but I doubt there are more than three-hundred people living there. I think there might be that many on this street alone."
Charles couldn't help but chuckle. He imagined then Urkanli, teeming with life as it once undoubtedly did; the city meant to hold at least ten times as many as Tel Aeslah. Lost to the desert now, her inhabitants scattered or dead or, if his great-great grandfather was to be believed, living now across the void.
"Tel Aeslah houses thirty-thousand," Charles said. At his side, Erik blanched.
He squared his shoulders, though, and continued on, wrapped in his courage. He did not waiver once after that, even when they rounded a corner, the narrow street they'd been following opening onto a wide thoroughfare, pedestrians competing with divans and carts and livestock. Charles navigated them through the crowd, the press of people growing thicker the nearer the market they drew.
A good number of people wore black ribbons tied to their wrists, a symbol of mourning, no doubt meant for Janos' passing. There would be a state funeral later today, though as someone who held an opposing ideology, Charles would be well not to attend. Still, he bowed his head in respect for those he passed, Tel Aeslah's politics a dangerous, at times deadly game.
The nearer they drew to the market, the busier it got, Erik clearly discomforted by the press of so many people. His thoughts spiked with alarm and he pressed in close to Charles, as though wanting the physical reminder of Charles' presence. He wasn't afraid of the crowd--not that Charles could tell--but it made him nervous, as though it might shift into a mob and turn on him at any moment. He was, Charles realized, preparing to defend himself; to defend Charles.
"Here," Charles said then, reaching over to take Erik's still-working hand. He thought to appease Erik's nervousness, but he also had no wish to lose Erik amongst the throng. At his side, Erik froze.
He stared between them, at their joined hands, flush coming to his cheeks. Charles frowned, afraid then that he'd made another cultural misstep, but Erik's shock cleared a moment later, his expression going carefully blank, and he did not relinquish Charles' hand.
Charles offered a squeeze and then led them towards the Grande Bazaar.
They passed the streaming banners that marked its entrance, yellow and green that seemed to catch Erik's gaze. He paused to stare at them; hand still clasped in Charles', Charles acutely aware of the warmth that passed between them. Beyond the banners, the street opened into a large square, the space filled with rows upon rows of stalls, some covered over by colourful bits of fabric, others left open to the sun. People moved about the stalls, buying bolts of fabric or ripe pieces of fruit. Hawkers called their wares here, too, though it was quieter than the outer markets, their voices a hypnotic hush, drawing costumers with the promise in their gaze.
The stalls of the market loomed above them, Charles comforted by their protective embrace. It was obvious Erik didn't feel the same; he stuck to the middle of the aisle, hand tightening around Charles', gaze hardening with suspicion. Charles thought then of the other side of the void; of wide, rolling grassland and a settlement of only three-hundred people. It was no wonder the city astounded him.
"If you see something you'd like, I have more than enough money," Charles said, touching then the purse at his hip as he nodded to one of the stalls; this one selling clay pots that reminded him of the ones his great-great grandfather had brought back from across the void.
No sooner had he said it then he felt a tug at his waist. Charles cursed himself for his foolishness, for his vain attempts at impressing Erik. He caught only the briefest of glances at the boy who'd snatched his purse: bright yellow hair streaking through the crowd. Charles brought a hand to his temple. He sent his thoughts out, navigating the crowded street, searching for the boy's mind. A bolt of shock caught his attention almost immediately, the crowd gasping; collectively moving aside as the boy Charles was looking for came skittering across the sand, dragged by the purse in his hand.
He caught sight of Charles then, eyes growing wide, fear and guilt flickering across his features before he relinquished his hold on the purse, the purse still hovering. Before their eyes, the boy disappeared, displaced sand the only evidence he was ever there. Charles' purse floated neatly back into his hand. A wide grin came to his face.
"Oh Erik, that was remarkable," he said, turning then, but in place of the pride he was expecting there was only open horror, as though Erik couldn't believe what he'd done. He glanced around nervously then, as though expecting the crowd to lynch him for the display. Charles didn't need to tell him that no one was watching; that they'd all gone back to their day-to-day lives.
He tucked his coin purse into his breast pocket then, tugging on Erik's hand until Erik started forward again. Erik came at Charles' urging, but it was clear he was still ill at ease with what had just happened.
"His gift was invisibility," Charles said. "They are popular with the thieves' guild, so I can't say I'm terribly surprised. They have a girl who can walk through walls like they're not even there. I can read and manipulate minds, and you can manipulate metal. How extraordinary."
He expected Erik to marvel, perhaps even smile, but instead he glanced at Charles, horror written across his features. Charles frowned.
"I'm not wrong. The only thing in this purse is gold coin," he said, touching the purse through his jacket. "And the other day, those doors; it is metal you can control, isn't it?"
"You speak as though I ought to be proud; as though I ought to embrace my curse."
Charles blinked at that, thoughts skittering on the world curse. His frown deepened. "Curse? No, Erik, it is a gift. Those blessed with it are extraordinary."
If anything, he thought, it was those few not blessed who were cursed. Charles could not imagine living without his gift.
He watched Erik's eyes grow wide, Erik shaking his head, as though denying Charles' words. Charles tried to imagine then what would have caused Erik to believe such a thing. He came to a stop, turning so that they were standing face to face, Erik's good hand still clutched in his. The crowd swept around them, but Charles paid them little heed, the marketplace disappearing as Charles stared into Erik's eyes.
"It's not common, is it?" he asked, thinking then of the horses, his awe mingled with fear. "Amongst your people, there are only a few of you. That's why you crossed."
Reluctantly, Erik nodded. When he spoke, it was as though he was reciting from text, his words strangely hollow; his eyes glazed with memory.
"An old man's arrogance condemned my people to live beyond the void. They were banished, stripped of their language and their knowledge and everything that made them a people. And they were cursed, tainted in punishment for their sins. And when the Envoy came and returned that which was taken, they left our curse upon us, for our sin was not yet washed clean. That is why the void still stands."
Charles eyes grew wide at that. It continued to surprise him, how deeply woven into myth and legend the void was for Erik and his people. For Charles' people, it was nothing more than a scientific curiosity, a random cosmic event that forever altered the existence of two worlds. But how to explain that?
He thought then of his great-great grandfather's notes; of having taught the people on the other side his language, of having shared their culture. Did Erik's people think they were the Envoy? So many questions, and yet how to reconcile the two?
"You won't believe me, not yet, but I promise you this is a gift. Here we celebrate when a child manifests their gift. It is a sign they've come of age; they are welcomed into adulthood. Allow me to show you mine, and you can show me yours."
He could tell Erik was drawn by his words, Erik's eyes bright as he stared into Charles' face. Hope reflected in his thoughts, though a second later he withdrew, shaking his head.
"We shouldn't be talking about this," he said, turning then to head deeper into the market, Charles reluctantly following his lead.
If he couldn't convince Erik, there was always a chance Alex could.
He led him then towards Alex's stall, the market growing denser the further they went. Charles turned at the next branch, following a narrow line of stalls towards one of the back corners, where a single stall stood apart from the others; shaded by one of the walls that marked the market's eastern edge. Charles stopped; gesturing towards it.
"That stall belongs to one of your brethren," Charles said. Erik's confusion cleared; replaced by a tense jaw and dark look.
"This is what I have to look forward to? A dark stall hidden at the back of the market, kept away from the others?" He sounded angry; very angry.
Charles tutted and shook his head. "He does not keep apart because he is from across the void. He keeps apart because of what he sells. Look." He pointed then, to the paper tubes and fanciful shapes that lined his tables and his shelves. The sun pierced the fabric of his tent, casting green light into the space, making those shapes and tubes seem innocuous, though Charles knew they were not. He had seen Alex's creations at work; had watched their explosions with wide-eyed, childlike wonder. In truth, their beauty was probably why Alex was so rarely bothered by the opposing faction.
At his side, Erik relaxed.
"Fireworks," he said, Charles spinning then to stare openly at him, unable to keep the excitement from his voice.
"Yes, you know them! I was right. There is some debate over whether the craft came from across the void, or if Alex learned them elsewhere, after his crossing. They're wonderful things. He's started his own guild, you know, but they keep their secrets close. He is quite admired for his talent."
Erik offered a brief nod.
"They're not common across the void. We use them once a year to mark the summer solstice and the start of the great hunt. He was apprentice to the firework master when he left. I remember that now."
It was Charles' turn for shock; for as much as he knew Erik and Alex were similar in age, he had not expected Erik to know the man.
"You knew each other, then?" Charles asked, recovering quickly.
"I was only a boy," Erik answered, starting forward then, an effective end to their conversation.
Alex's stall was empty; void of life, though it was evident he had not gone far. Charles was content to wait, to ghost fingertips across the tubes, wondering then what made them work; wondering then if Erik knew the answer.
"You might not want to touch that," a voice came from his right, Charles withdrawing his hand as though burnt, spinning in time to see Alex emerge from a small tent, hidden by the stall's shadow. He was staring at Erik, a slight frown pulling at his features. When Charles glanced over, he found Erik staring back.
Alex broke eye contact first.
"I heard rumours someone else had crossed," he said, stepping into Erik's space, his leg dragging behind, his hand braced against a cane. He extended a hand, expression polite. "You look like your mother. My mother counted her amongst her friends."
It hurt to see the look of sorrow that swept across Erik's features, Erik inclining his head, his eyes dimmed by the memory. Alex withdrew.
"My condolences," he said, clearly well versed in whatever subtle gesture Erik had given to indicate her passing. There was so much Charles didn't know; so much he wanted desperately to know.
"I remember when you left," Erik said, suddenly, the weight of his gaze still heavy with his loss. "They sent out search parties."
Alex coloured, awkward embarrassment settling over his features. "I would have thought they'd be glad to get rid of me," he said.
Charles wanted then to protest--on Alex's behalf, on Erik's--but Erik's expression suggested that he understood completely what Alex meant. Charles heart went out to him then, even as he struggled to understand what had happened; what had possibly driven Alex, and then Erik, from their world.
He didn't get a chance to ask, Alex nodding over his shoulder before turning on his heel, leading them then into the tiny tent. Inside, the space was small and sparse, a single carpet and several cushions sat upon the floor. Charles frowned, though it faded as soon as he got a look at Erik's face, Erik breaking out into a wide grin. He sank onto one of the cushions with complete ease. So, too, did Alex, despite his leg. Charles struggled with robes and fabric before getting comfortable, fumbling for several minutes with his legs before he got them tucked into place.
Alex waited until Charles was seated to serve tea, though it was unlike anything Charles had had before. It was too strong by far, and entirely too bitter. Erik sighed appreciatively as he inhaled, smile growing soft with his first sip.
"It's not quite the same, but it is close. I'll introduce you to the merchant," Alex said.
Charles shifted awkwardly on his cushion, feeling then a stab of possessiveness unlike anything he had felt before. It was only natural Alex would want to take Erik under his wing--it would probably even be for the best--but Charles had wanted the honour for himself; to share it now brewed something ugly in his chest.
At his side, Erik did not answer, though he was watching Alex in the same way he'd watched Emma yesterday; suspicious and uncertain, as though he did not yet trust Alex's intentions. Strange that he had not once looked at Charles in such a manner.
"What is it you can do?" Erik asked then, setting down his tea. Charles followed suit, though it seemed odd to set the little china cup on the carpet, precariously balanced next to his cushion.
When he glanced back up, Alex's expression was troubled.
"They think it's a gift here. They taught me to control it, but even then I'm not sure it is. I can show you if you want, but not here."
Charles felt that same spike of annoyance, but he kept the thought buried, even when Erik nodded, accepting the invitation. He watched then, somewhat surprised, when Erik reached out, something tickling at Charles' breast until his coin purse emerged, hovering in the air like it did earlier. He slowly lowered it back down, Charles catching it in his palm.
"Metal," Erik said, simply. In place of the smile Charles was expecting--hoping for--Alex merely nodded.
"It's remarkable," Charles said then. "You're both remarkable."
Erik drew himself up at the compliment, hint of colour flooding his cheeks, pride easing the tension in his shoulders. Alex on the other hand seemed unconvinced; his gift heavy around his shoulders, an unwanted burden. Charles ached for him; ached for all of Erik's people.
They didn't linger long then; small pleasantries exchanged and plans made before the rustling of noise drew Alex's attention. They made their goodbyes, Charles leading Erik back into the market, Alex already attending to his customer.
The feel of Erik's gaze was not yet familiar, his arrival too new. Charles moved through the last of his forms, trying not to let the weight of Erik's scrutiny distract him. It was a difficult task.
He turned, sweeping down low to touch the ground; then back up again to kick out behind him, pivoting then until he was righted, hands pressing together near his centre. He bowed then, first to his imagined opponent, and then his audience. Erik tilted his head curiously, hair mussed with sleep.
"Good morning," Charles said, moving towards him. Erik stepped through the door to meet him.
"What is it you were doing?" he asked. It marked the first time Erik had asked such a direct question. Until now he'd seemed content to listen; to allow Charles to share what he would, answering efficiently any questions put towards him. For however much Erik had ensconced himself in Charles' life--in his home--he was an intensely private man. Charles delighted in having drawn his curiosity.
"It is a form of hand to hand combat," Charles said, gesturing them inside.
He wiped at the sweat on his brow with his shirt sleeve as he brushed past Erik, feeling then a jolt of energy between them. It made his spine tingle, Charles sweeping into his squat abode; crossing to a low shelf, carved into the clay wall where a single chest sat prominently on display. Charles pulled it open.
"It is traditional here to learn it when we are very young, though few continue beyond later childhood. It came quite naturally to me, so I have continued." He pulled free then a sash, vibrant purple in colour, tiny embroidered stars sewn into the silk. A wave of awkwardness overcame him then, Charles unused to boasting. Still, he offered it over.
"I am considered a master," he said, proud then, but it was for naught, Erik not looking at the sash. He stared instead into the chest, eyes wide. Charles followed his gaze.
Sitting upon a battered old book--his great-great grandfather's, the earliest known writings on Urkanli and the void--was a childhood relic, the knife he recovered next to the void. He'd wondered if it had come through the void, but had discounted the possibility, assuming it was of archaeological significance. He'd struggled for years with his guilt; having taken the object without telling his father or his father's colleagues.
Unthinking, Charles reached into the chest, withdrew the knife and offered it to Erik, bone handle first. Erik stepped away, thoughts frightened and confused.
"Clearly you recognize it," Charles said, wishing then his gift could pierce the fog of Erik's thoughts, but it was like looking through the void at a distance, Erik hazy at best.
"It was my mother's," he said, which shocked Charles to his core. He fumbled for words for several minutes before making the connection.
"It was you. You thought she was on the other side, in your City of the Dead." Erik nodded. "Oh, Erik, I'm so sorry. But it is yours; you have far more rights to it than I. Here." He offered it again, Erik hesitating only briefly before accepting it; slipping it into a side pocket.
Charles could tell, if only from the lines of his face, that he had no wish to discuss the knife, Charles hesitating then; intending to place his sash back in the chest, seal it away, but before he could act Erik was reaching for it.
He stopped just shy of touching it, fingers hovering over the silk.
"You've studied your whole life," he said, and Charles did not miss the emotion still constricting his throat.
"What you saw me doing are called forms. They're done slowly, in order to imprint each set into muscle memory." He paused then, anticipation fluttering in his stomach. "I can teach you, if you like."
The thought of teaching Erik--of grappling with Erik--was so appealing Charles had to fight from swaying forward; from letting his tongue dart out to lick his lips. He had long since passed the point of denying his attraction to Erik, and he was certain Erik reciprocated, but how to navigate such things when he did not know Erik's customs; that was a problem. He could not afford a misstep.
"Later, of course," he said when Erik didn't answer, tucking the sash back into the chest, Erik watching its retreat. He sealed the chest behind him and stepped back, wanting then to clear his head, mind foggy with Erik's proximity. "I thought you might like to attend the baths. I go weekly. They're a lovely way to relax and catch up on the local gossip."
The thought of sharing a bath with Erik was just as appealing as grappling with him, though Charles managed to keep his interest from showing; or at least keep it subtle enough so as to not send Erik packing. If there was anywhere he might broach the topic, it was neck-deep in water. Custom and decorum tended to float away inside a bathhouse.
Erik was frowning, clearly confused by the request--and it struck Charles then that Erik's people probably didn't have bath houses. For all he knew it might be entirely inappropriate. Still, after a brief moment of hesitation, Erik nodded, relief flooding Charles until he had to lock his knees to keep them from buckling.
"Wonderful. Allow me to change."
He didn't linger through his ablutions, slipping into a clean tunic and vest before returning to the main room where he found Erik sitting against the far wall, knees drawn to his chest. He held his mother's knife in his hand; was running a thumb across its blade. Charles cleared his throat. Erik blinked, re-sheathed the knife and then stood gracefully. He inclined his head.
Outside, a misty haze hovered on the horizon, another storm brewing, Charles frowning when he saw it. It came too close on the heels of the last one.
Erik's arrival had thoroughly distracted him, Charles having done nothing since he came.
There were relatively few people out this early, and yesterday's procession had left the city somber and melancholy. Janos was not loved by all, but he was respected. Charles navigated them through the winding alleys and closes that zigzagged across the city, taking them to the bathhouse. He passed dozens of discarded desert flowers, yellow ones shaped like stars and blue ones shaped like bells. They grew in sparse thickens amongst the cracked ground that ran east of the city, Charles having no doubt hoards of children were sent for their gathering; a final honour for Janos' service to the city.
The bathhouse sat near the southern gate, the entrance Erik had taken into the city, and his steps grew lighter as he began to recognize his surroundings. His thoughts held open curiosity, tinged with growing familiarity--for Charles, for the city. He was growing comfortable in his surroundings; was coming to accept Tel Aeslah as a place he might one day call home.
Charles let the emotion wash over him, feeling then like he had the first time he laid eyes on Erik, giddy and disoriented, yet delighted by the discovery. A smile tugged at his lips; his steps quickening.
The bathhouse, when it came into view, shone like a glittering jewel in the mid-morning sun. Erik's steps slowed as he glanced towards it, following the line of its stone spires as they reached into the sky. It was nothing compared to the Great Hall, or even the splendor of the Bazaar, but Erik seemed drawn to it.
There weren't yet many passing in and out of its doors, though they stood open, brass glinting in the sun.
"The bathhouse, I presume," Erik said, sounding rather guarded; rather uncertain now that they'd reached their destination, though that same pull of curiosity--of interest--still echoed in his emotions.
"I'm assuming public bathing is not common on your side of the void?" Charles asked. Erik shook his head.
"Water is a luxury we do not care to waste."
Charles offered a grave nod. "I confess, this is a luxury, and it does pain me occasionally that I indulge, but I have found it one of the best places to keep up with the pace of the city; to hear her news and learn her secrets before they become common knowledge."
Erik did not stop him, or present an argument, so Charles pressed on.
"The river we passed on the way into the city circumvents her walls, but it starts at an underground source; an ancient lake, buried deep beneath the sand. It follows two paths; one to the river, and one to the bathhouse; a constant pool of warm, inviting water. It is quite invigorating."
He paused then, just aside the doors, glancing to Erik to ensure he was willing to proceed. Erik offered a single nod, Charles smiling then; leading them inside.
He navigated him through the wide corridors, arched ceilings high above their heads. The scent of clean, warm spice reached his nose, Charles inhaling it into his lungs, feeling then some of his tension dissipate. He hadn't lied when he said he found the baths invigorating. Ahead, the corridor curved, branching off to the left and right, Charles taking the right branch until a wide set of doors obstructed their path.
The change rooms were always the best source of the city's gossip. Charles learned more inside these walls than he did in an entire year of attending council meetings. He pushed open the heavy doors--more brass--and crossed to his customary peg, where a clean linen robe awaited his use. The walls here were rough, stone-cut, unlike the carefully carved tiles that lined the corridors. Erik stepped into the room, thought spiking with discomfort.
"It will be quiet this time of the day," Charles said, already slipping off his vest.
He was well out of his clothes before he noticed Erik had made no move to disrobe. He was standing stock-still, staring at Charles like he wasn't entirely certain it was permitted; like he was expecting reprimand. Charles shucked off the last of his things and reached up to retrieve his robe, the stone floor cold beneath his feet.
"Here," Charles said, remembering then Erik's arm. He stepped into Erik's space, intending to untie Erik's sling, but Erik immediately drew back, colour staining his cheeks. Charles let his hand drop back to his side. He frowned then, wishing again that he could pierce the veil of Erik's thoughts.
Erik's emotions were too tangled to make sense of, but Charles caught some of it; he caught Erik's embarrassment, his confusion. He caught, too, something of Erik's desire, Charles smiling then, understanding dawning, though it did nothing to help him navigate what should have been a very simple matter.
"My apologies," Charles said, pausing then to cinch his robe. Erik's embarrassment didn't disappear entirely, but it no longer showed in the flush of his cheeks. He shook his head and stepped forward, turning then with his arm towards Charles.
It still amazed Charles how thoroughly Erik had accepted the loss. He hardly now seemed to notice it. Charles wasn't so sure he could bear such a thing. It was a mark of Erik's strength, his pragmatism and his courage that he accepted the price without complaint.
Erik's embarrassment spiked again when Charles stepped into his space, but he didn't draw back this time, holding himself perfectly still as Charles untied his sling. Charles knew he was more than capable of doing the task himself--had since Charles first tied it into place--but he tolerated the assistance, even allowing Charles to carefully lower his useless arm back to his side.
He glanced up then, catching Erik's eye, Erik's pupils wide; his gaze hazy. He was staring at Charles like he wanted to commit the sight to memory. The look vanished the second Erik became aware of Charles' scrutiny, new spots of colour blooming across his cheeks. It was almost comical watching his expression shift into casual indifference.
"Here," Charles said again, brazen as he reached for the hem of Erik's tunic, half expecting Erik to pull away. Erik went perfectly still, but he allowed it, shivering slightly as Charles' fingers brushed against his stomach. Charles pulled the garment over Erik's head; hung it neatly on the peg. Charles debated then helping him with the rest.
Erik made the decision for him, quickly--and with surprising efficiency--shucking off the rest of his things, until he stood as naked as the day he was born, Charles swallowing heavily at the sight. He turned then, Erik's robe outstretched in his hand, not subtle as he ran an appreciative eye across Erik's body. More quickly than Charles would have thought possible, Erik slipped into his robe, cinching it tight. He was very purposely not meeting Charles' gaze.
"Is this not permitted in your culture?" Charles asked, stepping forward then. He reached out to catch Erik's good hand, drawing him forward by it. "I am certain you share my attraction."
Whatever answer Erik might have given was lost to the sound of approaching voices, Erik drawing back, though Charles did not miss the hope that flared in his thoughts--and the shame. Another stumbling block, cultural misstep upon cultural misstep. Charles withdrew, permitting him his reluctance. He gestured then, to the wide arch that led into the bathing pool, somewhat surprised when Erik nodded.
The bath was empty, which seemed odd, but then there were many in the city still in mourning, Janos' passing having struck a nerve. Charles felt a momentary twinge of guilt at his distraction, but in truth he knew Janos only in passing, and rarely agreed with the man.
The baths occupied a large domed room, tiled walls glinting with sunlight that streamed in through the open windows. Latticework dividers offered privacy screens and there were lines of benches along the walls. The scent of spice was stronger here; several long divans sat along the opposite wall, tables at their side boasting oils and instruments of massage. Charles disrobed next to one of the benches, setting his robe atop it. He glanced to Erik and found Erik staring straight ahead, avoiding Charles' gaze entirely. He quickly pulled off his robe, fumbling a bit with his arm before setting the robe on the bench.
It was Erik who led them into the water, descending stone cut stairs into the bath with haste. Charles took a moment to appreciate his retreating backside and then followed Erik to a corner alcove, beside one of the far windows, sunlight streaming into the room. It highlighted the steam misting off the water, obscuring them from sight. Erik's thoughts seemed caught on the novelty of the situation, though a thin undercurrent of embarrassment still managed to leak through. Charles waded to his side.
"Tell me something of your people," Charles said, choosing one of the long stone benches that ran the length of the pool. Seated, the water sat just below his chest. Erik came to sit at his side, angled slightly away, though he did not seem bothered by their proximity.
He seemed almost eager.
"What do you want to know?"
Charles considered. "Family units," he decided on. He could almost feel Erik's frown.
"Mine?" he asked, though he left no room for Charles to answer. "I had my mother and my father and my sister. My sister married, and she had her husband and two children; a twin boy and girl."
Charles sank a little further into the water, the heat seeping into his muscles, leaving him languid and open.
"So that is how it's done. Were you expected to find a wife; sire children?"
Erik sat up a little straighter. Across the room, the same voices from before signified the arrival of company, though they chose their own alcove, far enough away that their voices faded to a faint murmur.
"Is that not how it's done here?" Erik asked. He sounded honestly curious.
Charles laughed. "Some marry and sire children. Some take lovers. Some take vows of chastity. Some find a courtesan. Others do a little of each. There is very little outside the realm of possibilities."
The statement seemed to stop Erik short, because he froze, growing entirely too rigid, as though considering just what Charles meant by realm of possibilities. Charles took the opportunity presented, sliding himself along the bench until Erik's back was angled towards him, Erik practically in his lap. He reached out then, brow furrowed as his breath caught, awaiting Erik's reaction. It was somewhat surprising to set his hands on Erik's shoulders without incident.
Erik was still tense beneath him, and he held himself perfectly still, but he allowed Charles to dig fingers into his muscles, soothing away some of his tension.
"I have taken no vows," Charles said, very quietly, half afraid too loud a pronouncement might frighten Erik away, "but I sometimes imagine that I have. There have been a few lovers, here and there, but no one who has captured my attention as you have. I hope that is not too forward."
There was a long pause before Erik said, "It is not." He leaned back then, not enough to ripple the water, but enough that Charles felt the increased pressure.
"I thought not," Charles said, wanting then to lean forward; to press his lips to Erik's neck, seal their agreement with a kiss, but it was then the voices drifted closer, Erik immediately drawing away, face flushed scarlet when he settled back on the bench, a good foot of space between them.
Charles frowned. He tried to remind himself that this was undoubtedly new to Erik--that he did not know this was accepted; that no one would find fault in their affection.
He intended to say as much, navigating something he didn't fully comprehend more challenging than he'd originally suspected, but it was then the voices caught his attention, new lines marring Charles' face as he registered what they were saying.
"I can't say I blame whoever ordered it done. The man was a staunch supporter of void deportation and suddenly changed his mind? It would have undone years of work," someone said. Charles didn't recognize the voice, but his jaw still clenched.
"I heard it was a disagreement with the peddler's guild," a second voice said. "Though you're right, his support for the other side might have changed the course of Tel Aeslahian politics forever. Good riddance, I say."
It was hard to keep his temper in the face of such open bigotry, never mind the blatant disregard of human life, but Charles managed to refrain from calling out; starting a debate in the middle of a place of refuge.
"What were they talking about?" Erik asked when the voices had drifted past.
Charles grimaced. He had intentionally avoided discussing this with Erik. He resigned himself now to his fate.
"I'm sorry, my friend. I haven't exactly been entirely open with you. I mentioned several factions existing inside the council, but not what those factions were."
It pained him now to think about it, Charles firmly against void deportation. Those who thought sending Erik's people back across the void would undo the damage were wrong--Charles was sure of it. If anything, doing so might hasten the void's collapse. He took a deep breath, struggling then to explain it to Erik.
"I told you Tel Aeslah's council helped those who had crossed assimilate into society, and while this is strictly true, what I didn't mention is that there is a faction within the council that would see everyone who had crossed deported back to their side."
He watched then the scowl that spread across Erik's face, anger and discomfort flashing in his eyes.
"Please believe me, the faction is small, and wields little influence. They believe sending you back will repair the damage done to the void by your crossing, but there are few who hold to the theory. The damage is done and cannot be undone, and sending anyone back will likely damage it further."
He'd hoped to appease Erik's concern, but his scowl deepened.
"So there are people who don't want me here?" he asked, sounding somehow betrayed. Charles shook his head.
"I promise you they are the minority."
"And yet they murdered a man who would have me stay?"
Charles shook his head. How to explain Tel Aeslahian politics to someone who hadn't lived his entire life in the city?
"It's more complicated than that."
It sounded awful to say, Charles momentarily horrified by his city, assassinations commonplace.
"This is a game of politics, a game of personal gain, and those who see you deported have something to gain by it. They do not care about the void."
He thought the explanation might help, but Erik seemed unwilling to hear it. He slipped from the bench and waded back towards the stairs, seeming intent on leaving, their earlier intimacy having vanished. Something clenched in Charles' chest; sudden fear that Erik would leave. Cursing under his breath, Charles stood from the stone bench and followed Erik from the pool.
Tel Aeslah occupied only so much space, her residential quarters having the tendency to grow up rather than out, penned in as they were by the city's walls. Charles' abode occupied the lower level of one of the squat, three-story complexes, his back door opening into the courtyard. The door was shut fast now and the windows shuttered against the storm howling outside.
Blowing sand obscuring the last of the day's light, Charles moved about the kitchen with a heavy heart as he prepared the evening meal. He was still somewhat surprised that Erik had come home with him.
"I didn't tell you your crossing the void had damaged it because by then it was too late," Charles said, still caught in their earlier argument. "Had you returned immediately after your crossing, while the void was still unstable, it would have been fine, but once the void had healed, the damage was done."
He carried the plate of food over to where Erik was sitting, borrowed cushion placed on the floor. He still held himself stiffly, and every so often he cast a nervous glance over his shoulder, towards the window where the shutters rattled with the wind. Charles hesitated briefly before sitting across from him, plate of food on their right as he shifted forward, allowing their knees to touch.
Erik looked over sharply. A surge of want flared across his emotions, though his face was still carved from hard lines.
"I don't think the void was ever meant to be crossed, and with each crossing it grows weaker. It is entirely possible it will at some point collapse completely, and I fear it will destroy both our worlds in the process. We should have never crossed it to begin with. The damage was done long before you crossed and I would not have you leave," Charles said.
Across from him, staring intently into Charles' eyes, the food at his side ignored, Erik frowned.
"And this other faction? What do they believe?" he asked.
Charles hesitated, still uncertain how to explain the city's politics. "There is opposition to almost everything in the city, but the void is polarizing. There are those who believe its weakening is a matter of balance. That if we send those who crossed back to the other side, it will repair itself. As I've said, they are the minority, and current scientific understanding does not support this theory."
Erik glanced again to the window, the shutter still banging against the window frame, threatening to blow loose, fill the room with sand.
"And these storms are related to the thinning of the void? They're going to get worse until the void collapses."
Charles immediately shook his head. "It's only a theory. All of this is only theory. For all I know the void might continue forever, long after we're lost to sand."
Erik shook his head. His gaze grew distant then, and when next he spoke, it was with the hollow lilt of revered knowledge.
"We do not breach the void," he said. "Amongst my people, it is forbidden. Look at the price I have paid for disobeying."
He nodded then to his arm, the first time he had openly acknowledged it--the first time he was anything other than stoic and accepting of it. Charles swallowed, stunned momentarily speechless.
It struck Charles then, sitting across from this man--this man who'd haunted his every waking thought since he was a boy--that he still knew so little of Erik. He wanted then to know everything about him; to breach his mind and see the whole of his being. The thought of him leaving turned his stomach to lead, Charles wanting then to reach out; to cling to Erik, beg him to stay. Instead he remained where he was, sitting placidly and allowing Erik his anger.
Across the room, on the table, the single tallow candle flickered and went out, its wax burned down. It left them sitting in near darkness, sand-blotted sun casting the room in reddish hues; Erik little more than a vague shadow.
"I'm sorry you had to pay a price, but it is already paid and going back won't change that."
"But it might help restore balance," Erik said.
"Only if you believe the theory, and I do not. The only reason for crossing would be to negotiate a treaty with the other side, stop crossing once and for all, but the idea has been discussed and was dismissed." He did not mention his father's role in its proposal.
Instead he drifted forward as he spoke, wanting to see the lines of Erik's face, obscured as they now were. It brought him closer than he was expecting--closer then he'd been since this morning at the baths, Erik filling his space, reminding him of their earlier, ignored but not forgotten conversation.
"I don't want you to leave," he said, pleading now, though he cringed to hear it in his voice.
Erik's features softened. "You'd risk the stability of the void for me to stay?" He didn't sound particularly upset.
I'd risk anything for you to stay, Charles didn't say, but he didn't have to, his expression undoubtedly giving him away. Erik deflated.
"I don't want to leave either," he said.
Had Charles not been sitting, relief would have buckled his knees and sent him crashing to the ground. As it was he swayed forward, coming fully into Erik's space, unable to stop himself from surging into a kiss, wanting only then to keep this man forever. Erik froze, seeming stunned by the sudden move, uncertain how to respond, but just as Charles moved to draw back--to offer an apology for his haste--Erik shifted forward, pressing into the kiss.
It lasted only a second, and then Erik was drawing back, cheeks stained with colour, though the shape of his thoughts showed his pleasure. Charles offered what he hoped was a reassuring smile. To his surprise, Erik rolled his eyes, shaking his head before he turned to the plate at his side. He drew it forward with his good hand and squinted at the sliced eggplant, obviously unfamiliar with it. Charles grinned.
"It's good, try it," he said, wanting so much more than a brief kiss, but he was unwilling to push for more than Erik was willing to give.
Erik nodded, even as he reached for the eggplant, sticking a slice in his mouth and chewing before his expression once again turned serious.
"Are you in any danger?" he asked after he had swallowed, seeming unwilling to abandon their conversation until he was assured of Charles' safety.
Charles wasn't entirely certain how to answer that. Certainly he was known--and by now the entire city knew he had taken Erik into his home--but he was hardly a councillor, his words respected, but not binding.
"I highly doubt it," he said, smiling then. "Janos was a politician. I am merely a scholar."
He couldn't tell if his words had appeased Erik, but Erik nodded again, turning back to the plate to choose another piece of eggplant. Outside, the storm continued to howl, sandstorm covering the city in red. Inside, lit only by the fading and obscured sunlight, they sat cross-legged on the floor, plate between them, and ate.
Charles stood inside the threshold of the guest suite and stared. Erik still slept with his back to the wall, as far from the edge of the bed as he could get, as though afraid he would otherwise fall off. Charles smiled; from what Erik had told him, the pallet he'd slept on before crossing the void was quite low to the ground.
At his side, a hollow pocket, carved into the wall, held Erik's knife. Charles smiled to see it there. He glanced briefly back to Erik's face, found his eyes fluttering against dreams, and then glanced to the map hanging above the bed, the void a dotted grey line, the land beyond obscured. Tel Aeslah was marked by a stark black cross, the other cities tiny stars or hashes depending on their size. Urkanli was marked by a circle.
Charles tore his gaze from the map, something tugging at his subconscious as he turned from Erik, left him sleeping and headed out to the courtyard, the city's latest storm having left a thick coating of sand across the limestone floor. Charles didn't bother clearing a space, the sand gritty beneath his feet. He started his forms.
Erik was awake by the time he was done, standing now in his customary place inside the door. He was watching Charles without his usual hesitation. Charles did his best to ignore him entirely, pivoting as he kicked, sweeping around before coming back to standing. He paused to catch his breath and then offered a bow; one to his invisible opponent, and one to Erik. By the time he straightened, Erik was pushing off the door frame and closing the distance between them. There was something in his posture--loose and relaxed--that suggested his sleep had been good. Charles only wished that sleep had been shared, but he was nothing if not patient.
"Good morning," he said, smiling then, drinking in the sight of Erik's sun-kissed skin, the desert good to him.
Erik came to a stop just outside of Charles' reach. Charles tutted and then stepped forward, coming fully into Erik's space to stretch up on tiptoes and press a kiss against the side of Erik's jaw. Erik still tensed, but when Charles drew back, he was smiling.
"I've arranged a meeting with the council." Charles accepted the linen towel Erik handed over, Charles having not noticed it before now. He used it to wipe sweat from his brow. "Will you come?" he asked.
Erik shook his head. Charles swallowed the urge to frown.
"Alex offered to take me beyond the city's walls and show me his... gift," Erik eventually managed, though he still tripped on the word, like he hadn't truly accepted that his gift was anything other than a curse. Patience, Charles reminded himself.
He gave a curt nod, even as he struggled against a wave of jealousy. It was hard not to think of Erik as exclusively his, however much Erik was his own man. Their relationship, tentative and unconsummated though it was, had clearly shifted. Of that Charles was certain.
"The market's on my way. If you want, I can walk you," Charles said. He hoped he sounded more confident than he felt; less like a jealous spouse worried about competition.
Erik's smile chased away most of Charles' worry, but it wasn't until he added, "I'd like that," and then leaned into Charles' space, casting a furtive glance over Charles' shoulder before pressing their lips together in an all too brief kiss, that Charles felt the last of his doubts dissipate.
Erik drew back almost as quickly as he'd come, twin spots of red staining his cheeks, though his expression was smug. Charles offered a wide grin, getting one in return that would no doubt leave him floating for the rest of the day.
"Shall we?" Charles said, gesturing over Erik's shoulder. Erik nodded before leading them back inside, where they had eggplant for breakfast, Erik having grown fond of the vegetable.
Later, Charles led them out into a brilliant blue sky, the sun already hot above them. At his side, Erik was wearing one of Charles' shawls. It billowed behind him, making him look like a hero of old. Charles preened to see it, though he chastised himself for the possessive surge that swelled in his breast. His only consolation was that Erik's thoughts held the same emotion, Erik keeping close, allowing their shoulders to brush even as he scowled at anyone who so much as glanced in Charles' direction.
The city after a sandstorm teemed with life. People beat rugs with wooden sticks, or swept doorways free of sand. They were unlatching shutters and uncovering stalls; returning the city to her former glory. Charles wondered how long they'd have before the next storm swept through; before they were once again swallowed under by sand. They still hadn't cleared away the worst of the last storm, a good number of the streets sand-locked, drifts obstructing doorways or blocking entire alleyways.
Charles watched it all with a critical eye, keeping close to Erik's side, lamenting their coming parting.
"Please be careful," he said once they were standing beneath the fluttering banners that marked the Grand Bazaar. "And here." He handed over a small purse of coins, waving off Erik's protests before they could form. "Just in case, and I'll see you back home."
He wanted then to step into Erik's space, to offer another kiss, but Charles' courtyard was one thing; a busy street at the mouth of an even busier marketplace probably beyond Erik's tolerance. That did not stop Charles from reaching out, fingers sliding neatly into Erik's good palm. He gave a brief squeeze and then withdrew, giving Erik a gentle tap to get him on his way.
Erik was smiling as he set off for Alex's stall.
It was somewhat painful parting from Erik's side. He'd lived an entire life without him, and yet watching Erik slip past the banners, navigating the wide aisles and weaving through the crowd, Charles felt something like longing strike up in his breast. It was only a morning, he told himself, and then turned on his heel, heading towards the council chambers.
Away from the Grand Bazaar it was quiet, Charles climbing the steps to the Great Hall in solitude. There was no Emma waiting for him on the other side of the rosewood doors, just as there was no Erik to marvel outside the doors to the council chambers, hand ghosting across the engraved riders. Charles hesitated all the same, remembering then the warmth of Erik's thoughts; the raw power of his gift. Unbidden, a smile came to his lips, Charles pushing open the doors and stepping into Erik's City of the Dead. He crossed polished white marble tiles to reach the foot of the dais.
Jean intoned a greeting.
"Charles Xavier. You have requested audience with the council. State your reasons," she said.
Even expecting the question, Charles hesitated. He glanced to those sitting on the dais, stately figures amongst whom he might someday number. He met Jean's steady gaze, and Lorna's piercing stare. He met the cold eyes of Sebastian and Nathaniel. Only Emma offered him a soft smile, the one she reserved exclusively for Charles, Charles acknowledging it with a brief incline of his head.
"There is a rumour floating around that Janos Quested was killed for changing his stance on void deportation," Charles began, keeping careful watch on Sebastian and Nathaniel. They gave no indication of their guilt, though Charles had no doubt they were involved. He cleared his throat before continuing.
"It is only a matter of time now before news of this spreads, and when it does it will reopen the debate. I know it is not my place, but I am here to encourage you to decide on a course of action before the city falls into chaos."
There was more he wanted to say--wanted to argue his side--but before he could Sebastian leaned forward, all eyes turning to watch as a slick smile spread across his face.
"And what course of action would you recommend, Xavier? I am sure the council is very interested in your proposal. You wouldn't be here if you didn't have one."
Charles swallowed against the urge to snipe back, Sebastian's goading not worth losing control of this meeting.
"Something to appease both sides," Charles said, keeping Sebastian's eye, though he showed no sign of surprise. If anything, he looked patiently amused.
"We send an Envoy, comprised of those from beyond the void--volunteers only--to negotiate a treaty."
He was expecting debate, perhaps even outright opposition. Instead his proposal was met with blank stares. Even Sebastian and Nathaniel sat quietly, watching Charles with open scrutiny, Charles refusing to flinch--refusing to give them the satisfaction.
In the end it was Lorna who answered, though she sounded oddly reluctant.
"The idea is not without merit. The council will consider it," she said. Charles inclined his head. It wasn't a yes, but it also wasn't outright refusal. He turned to catch Jean's eye.
"I agree," she said, glancing then to Emma, who inclined her head. She might not agree with Charles' politics, but she would not publically refuse his request and he could tell she saw the idea's advantage.
Sebastian and Nathaniel said nothing, but they were already out numbered, so it hardly mattered. Charles bowed and then turned to take his leave. He made it as far as the engraved door before Sebastian's voice stopped him.
"Is your boy volunteering?"
Charles spun, unable to keep the colour from draining from his face. He mastered himself a moment later, schooling his features to indifference.
"If the council agrees to my proposal, then they may seek volunteers amongst all who have crossed. The choice is not mine. It is Erik's."
Sebastian said nothing, but his smirk remained firmly in place.
Charles didn't linger to see if there were any other comments on the matter. He stepped through the wide metal doors, releasing a shaking breath when he reached the other side. He moved quickly through the corridors to reach the outer doors.
Outside, the sun sat high in the sky, a brilliant ball of gold that sapped the moisture from Charles' skin. Charles pulled his flask from his belt to take a sip of stale, warm water. He returned it almost immediately, starting down the steps and towards the residential quarter, hoping only that Erik had finished with Alex; had taken refuge from the coming heat inside the cool, breezy walls of Charles' home.
The streets had grown quiet this close to midday, the weather hotter than usual, sun baking the city. Charles moved slowly, feet dragging as he crossed through the Grand Bazaar-- Alex's stall empty--and out the other side. He had to navigate narrow corridors and alleyways to get to his complex, Charles not a block away when he turned down one such alleyway only to have two men step out of the shadows, blocking his path.
Charles grew instantly alert, body growing tense and then relaxing a second later. He came into a neutral stance.
"Is there something I can help you with?" he asked.
The men glanced between one another. They didn't respond.
"I thought as much," Charles said, resigned. He waited patiently for their charge.
It was hardly the first time he'd been so accosted--that was reserved for his seventeenth naming day, an attempted kidnapping in retaliation for something his father had done. His last was a little over six months ago, one of the city's factions undoubtedly displeased by his increased funding.
When it came, it was raw and without skill, his opponents clearly little more than hired thugs. He shifted out of their reach easily.
"Is this over my treaty proposal?" Charles asked as he ducked a particularly wild swing. He shifted neatly from one thug to another, not yet making contact, simply enjoying his warm up. "Because if so news travels exceedingly fast."
It wouldn't surprise him, though. There was a reason Janos was cold and buried before Charles had heard even the faintest of whispers. Had he known the man had changed his stance, he might have approached him; spared him his fate.
Fighting was easy when his opponents telegraphed their every move, their thoughts dull and sluggish, Charles recoiling from their boorishness. He might have used his telepathy to stop them completely, though when he sent the thought out, it scattered like the sand. Their gift, then, some mild immunity to telepathy. They were still no match for his fighting skills, Charles easily avoiding their swings.
He finally grew tired of sidestepping their increasingly wild--increasingly angry--swings, Charles turning abruptly, leg coming out behind him to take out one of the men's knee caps.
A more honourable fighter might have avoided the area, but Charles was a master; he knew there was no such thing as a clean fight. He swung around, pivoting to bring his foot to the second man's throat. The man fell to the ground with a wordless gurgle.
It should have been easy then to dispatch the first man, but it was then he heard his name shouted, strangled sound laced with fear and worry. Charles paused mid turn, glancing over his shoulder to see Erik rushing towards him, shawl billowing behind him. His face was a mask of fury, his eyes wide with fear.
Please stay back, Charles sent, remembering too late that his gift did not work on Erik. It distracted him long enough that the first man--the one limping on a single leg--got in a hit, sharp pain spiking in Charles' ribcage as he staggered, compromised now that he was injured. Erik rushed past him with a deafening roar.
Charles watched, eyes growing wide, mouth falling open, as Erik tackled the first man, bringing him to the ground single-handedly, Erik's face red with rage, his eyes shining murder. The man landed with a heavy thud, gasping as the wind was knocked out of him. Erik kept him pinned there with his knees and raised his good arm, a heavy metal mallet coming to his hand. At the far end of the alley, a discarded toolbox, obviously brought out to make repairs after the storm, clattered against the stone street. Charles mastered his bruised ribs and darted to Erik's side, reaching out then to catch him around the wrist, before he could crush the man's skull with the hammer.
"If it's quite all right, I would still like to question him," Charles said, glancing down then at the man, his eyes wide with fear. "Though I doubt he knows much. Hired help, I'm assuming?" When the man didn't answer, Charles set aside formalities--and niceties--and dove into his head. It was far easier that way.
"Those men were trying to kill you," Erik said, entirely too calm. Charles didn't miss the raw edge in his voice.
He stood, impossibly still, framed inside the doorway of Charles' kitchen. His clenched jaw betrayed his anger, and he held himself stiff, as though expecting someone to break through the front door and make a second attempt. Charles abandoned his chair in favour of crossing to Erik's side. Doing so pulled awkwardly at the bruising he could feel spreading across his ribs.
"And they didn't succeed," he said, but how to explain Tel Aeslahian politics to Erik. Charles didn't think this wasn't the first attempt would appease him very much.
If anything, the statement only made Erik angrier. His expression darkened, anger flaring in his eyes.
"That's it? They didn't succeed? Have you given any thought to what might have happened if they had? And what if they try again? Or do you think they will be content knowing you walked away?"
He stepped forward then, coming into Charles' space, looming over Charles as he trembled with rage. Charles probably shouldn't have found his proximity as thrilling as he did. Erik drew nearer still, Charles unconsciously licking at his lips.
"You let them go, Charles. And you haven't even told me why they wanted you dead."
It was like being doused in cold water. Charles watched, still half caught in Erik's spell, as Erik withdrew; crossed to the main room where he sank unceremoniously onto one of the cushions that now lived permanently on Charles' floor. Charles shook his head and then followed after, kneeling at Erik's side. He set his hand on Erik's good wrist; an exact mirror of earlier, when he'd stayed Erik's hand.
"I saw into the man's mind, and he did not wish me dead. They meant only to send a warning, though I know that doesn't make this easier to bear."
If Erik's expression was any indication, it made it a good deal worse.
"Do you remember that night after the bathhouse, the argument we had?" Charles asked. Erik frowned, clearly thrown by the change in topic. Charles pressed on. "Those men we overheard suggested Janos was killed because he revoked his support for void deportation. I've been thinking about that, and I'm worried about what that will mean."
He held up a hand then, forestalling Erik's comments.
"Rest assured this debate has spanned entire generations, so my worry isn't for what it would mean for you, but rather what it would mean for the city. Whenever this debate resurges, it results in months of argument and inaction. The city comes to a standstill. I have been thinking about how to prevent that from happening and today I presented the council with an alternative."
Erik was listening intently now, head cocked to the side, expression carefully blank. Charles laughed--weak and dismissive.
"I actually thought they might listen; that they might take the suggestion under advisement, but there was more opposition than I thought. I can see now there are too many people invested in the debate--too many people who want to see progress stifled--that do not wish to see this resolved. Politics is not always a slow game in Tel Aeslah. Those men were sent as a warning. They want me to stay out of it."
Erik still didn't look convinced. He was still sitting on his cushion, back against the wall, silent and contemplative. Charles waited, sensing then his need for silence; his need for time.
"What alternative did you present?" he asked. Apprehension and worry radiated from his thoughts.
Charles offered a weak smile. He'd been hoping to avoid discussing this with Erik directly.
"It's something my father once considered. I simply suggested we give the idea a second look. He wanted to negotiate a treaty with your side, a way to stop void crossings once and for all. I suggested they send an Envoy, volunteers from amongst those who had already crossed. I thought it would appeal to those in favour of void deportations."
Erik's eyes grew wide and he stared at Charles like Charles had somehow betrayed him. Too late Charles saw Erik's assumption. He shook his head.
"I don't mean you," he said. Erik's expression remained hard.
"Won't sending people through further damage the void?"
Charles reluctantly nodded. "There are risks. How the void works is still not entirely understood. We know only that it weakens with each crossing and that a price must be paid. We know, too, that once that price is paid it cannot be asked for again. This is why I recommended seeking volunteers from those who have already crossed." He shifted forward then, close enough now that he could feel Erik's heat. "I don't mean you. There are others."
Erik remained silent, sitting with his knees drawn to his chest, his good arm wrapped around them. He wore his vulnerability like a concealed weapon; only the faintest outline, but if one knew what to look for, it was there. Charles wanted more than anything to crawl into his lap and reassure him.
But he still didn't know how to navigate this thing between them, and his ribs ached with bruising, so he watched the play of emotions over Erik's face instead; worry and doubt settling into resolve.
"I should return," he said, his words striking Charles like a hammer, their shock catching his breath. He shook his head, somewhat violently.
"That's not what I meant," Charles said, scooting forward then, ribs be damned.
Erik cocked his head. "Why not? It makes perfect sense. As you said, I have already paid the price. And I haven't been gone long; I am known to my people and have the ear of the Eldest. If anyone were to go, it should be me."
Charles was still shaking his head, panic settling in his stomach, threatening to steal his breath entirely.
"I didn't mean you, and it doesn't matter. There is no treaty. There will never be a treaty."
Erik didn't look particularly concerned. "Do I really need one to cross?"
It took a good deal of effort for Charles to maintain his composure--and it was a near thing--his entire body trembling against his tension, the thought of losing Erik--of Erik crossing the void when Charles had no idea what might happen--too much to bear.
"This is all theory and conjecture, Erik. We have no way of measuring the void. What if I'm wrong? What if you cross and can't come back? What if you cross over and it collapses the void. No. Absolutely not. I shouldn't have proposed the idea to begin with."
Despite his impassioned speech, he could tell Erik was unmoved, something clenching in Charles' chest then, mounting frustration curling his hands into fists. He gave up on decorum then, ignoring his aching ribs as he climbed fully into Erik's lap. Erik gave a startled gasp, staring wide-eyed and startled.
"If you think for one minute I am going to let you leave when I've only just found you, you are dead wrong," Charles said, leaning forward then to claim Erik's lips.
It took Erik several seconds to respond, but when he did it was to push forward, good arm coming around Charles' shoulders to pull him close, the kiss growing heated.
Finally, Charles thought, uncertain how they'd managed to wait this long. He would have taken Erik to bed that first night if he'd thought Erik receptive.
Charles broke the kiss first, tearing away to latch onto Erik's jaw, kissing his way along the rough patch of skin, finding then Erik's fluttering pulse point. He bit down, sucking at the skin there, revelling in the way Erik shuddered beneath him. Erik groaned, and then to Charles' complete and utter surprise, pulled away, bringing his hand to Charles' shoulder to give a rough push. Charles stumbled, coming dangerously close to losing his balance; slipping from his place on Erik's lap. He blinked, gaze foggy with lust.
"We haven't exchanged vows," Erik said, all in a rush, though he sounded regretful and his eyes were blown wide with lust, his cheeks flushed with desire.
"Vows?" he asked. Erik swallowed and then licked at his lips. The sight was mesmerizing.
"Is this not the custom for your people? I have not known a man to lie with another, but this seems acceptable to you. Do you also lie together without speaking vows? To do so is a grave insult to the Elders. It implies their blessing is not welcome. I..."
He trailed off then, seaming both confused and agitated. Charles was still struggling to keep up with the conversation. Had Erik just proposed to him?
The answer wasn't forthcoming, a knock on the courtyard door drawing their attention. Erik grew instantly tense, his thoughts spiking with alarm. His arm returned to Charles' shoulders, twisting them so that Charles was half hidden behind Erik's chest. Charles closed his eyes and cast out his thoughts.
"Relax, it is only Emma," he said, the words spoken into the warmth of Erik's neck.
It was somewhat painful, both literally and figuratively, to untangle himself from Erik, Charles eventually getting free. He crossed to the door and pulled it open, permitting Emma entry. She strode into the main room, looking decidedly unimpressed.
"You could have at least given me warning you were planning that," she said, casting a critical eye over him as though searching for injury. Movement from across the room caught her gaze, Emma glancing to where Erik was in the process of standing. A frown tugged at her lip.
"A simple no from the council would have sufficed," Charles said, torn between returning to Erik's side--their unfinished conversation burning in his mind--or leading Emma into the kitchen. Emma took the matter into her own hands and crossed into the room, claiming a spot at Charles' table.
"This isn't something to joke about, Charles." She waited then until Charles had taken a seat at her side, frowning again when Erik joined them, though she made no comment. Her gaze slid back to Charles. "Half the council is willing to entertain the notion, but Nathaniel and Sebastian think you're making some kind of power play."
Charles waved the notion off. "Of course they do, but they obviously don't take it that seriously," he said, adding, so that Erik wouldn't here, I'm alive, aren't I?
Emma tutted. "You're alive because I caught wind of the plan before it hatched and managed to get to your assailants before they got to you. The order was for your head, and rest assured Charles, they will try again."
Charles tried not to show his shock--he didn't want to worry Erik--but he clearly didn't succeed, the idea beyond a little alarming. Erik seemed to agree, because he sat forward, expression turning to ice as his hand came to the table. A vein throbbed in his neck, his jaw twitching.
Charles shook his head. "I can understand not wanting to pursue the idea, but it can't be worth killing me over." The idea was unfathomable. Emma's expression grew incredulous.
"Charles, darling, you suggested crossing the void with a treaty, and while you've suggested it was simply to prevent future void crossings, what they heard was alliance with another race beyond the void."
Charles' eyes grew wide. "They think I'm staging a coup?"
"Or at the very least securing a new avenue for trade. You have recently formed an alliance with someone from beyond the void, and you were seen in the marketplace with another. But it doesn't matter. The very notion is a threat to their position. Honestly, Charles, I could have told you all of this if you'd only thought to consult me first."
She was livid, Charles could tell, and he rather couldn't blame her. Anyone else would have dismissed the idea entirely--especially anyone who knew Charles--but Nathaniel and Sebastian were suspicious of Charles' every motive. Their collective family histories ensured it.
"So I simply withdraw the offer, apologize," Charles said, already knowing it wouldn't be enough. Emma didn't bother trying to hide her disappointment.
"You need to flee the city, Charles. If they want you dead, they will succeed. Go to Tel Terilth. Go to Pangora. But you need to leave."
She glanced then to Erik, as though trying to decide if she ought to include him in her warning. Charles was still reeling from her suggestion. Tel Terilth or Pangora; it hardly matter, they were both city states, as complicated and dangerous as Tel Aeslah, except neither was home, Charles without influence in either. He had no interest in being chased from his home.
He stood then, pacing through the kitchen and into the main room, though it wasn't enough. He ducked out the courtyard door then, breathing in deep the dry desert air. The sun sank in the west, fading yellow light heralding the dusk. The sound of boots on tile made him turn. Emma stepped out the door, Erik on her heel.
She came to meet him in the middle of the courtyard. Erik stayed back, moving to lean against one of the pillars that framed the complex. After a moment's hesitation, he sank to the ground, knees again coming to his chest. Despite the relaxed pose, Charles could tell he was poised and ready for action. He met Emma's eye.
"We haven't always seen eye to eye, but you've been a good friend, Charles, and I don't want to see you go, but if you stay, we will bury you like we buried Janos."
She looked so terrified in that moment that Charles' chest constricted. He offered a soft smile, feeling then a swell of affection so great he almost drew her into a hug. She rolled her eyes, clearly sensing the thought. Charles laughed.
"I have never wanted for a sister," he said, "and I think that's because I've always had you." He paused then, swallowing against the sudden urge to cry. "We'll leave tonight. They won't make another attempt so soon, and by the time they do, I'll be long gone."
The thought of leaving Tel Aeslah--of leaving everything he had known behind--was painful, and while Charles wanted to stay and fight, he knew Emma was right. If they wanted him dead, they would find a way. Besides, an idea was forming, one he suspected might solve far more problems than any fight ever could.
The hard part would be convincing Erik to give it consideration.
Chapter 3: Act 3
He watched the woman leave--Emma Frost, and Erik hated her--a surge of possessive indignation swelling in his breast. He did not like the way her eyes lingered on Charles; did not like the tremble of her bottom lip when she bid Charles farewell. Charles was his and his alone: Erik had claimed him, had spoken his intent, and he would find a way to exchange vows, Elders or no Elders. Surely Charles' people had some equivalent.
I pledge my life to thee, in the sight of the Elders, in the sight of the settlement, and in the sight of the void.
Erik let the words echo in his mind.
Charles lingered--overlong in Erik's opinion--in watching Emma's retreating form. It took tremendous effort to remain seated on the floor, Erik having chosen the position to keep Emma off her guard. He did not know the game of Tel Aeslahian politics, as Charles described it, but he knew people, and he would not give her the advantage. She looked at him the way those back home did, after they'd discovered his curse--gift, Charles called it, and Erik loved him for it.
When she was gone, the courtyard falling silent, Charles turned back to him, expression pinched. Erik ached to see it. He stood then, a difficult task with only one arm, but it was worth it to reach Charles' side. He had no wish to leave Charles--no wish to return home--but if it meant saving Charles' world--Charles--then Erik would gladly do so.
Charles crossed to his side.
"You're in danger here," Erik said, wanting then to tear apart anyone who dared to hurt Charles. He would kill everyone inside this city if it meant keeping Charles safe.
He doubted Charles would approve.
"I am," Charles admitted, fear coiling in Erik's stomach. It crept up his throat until he thought he might choke on it. Erik stepped into his space.
"Tell me who is responsible for this," he said.
Charles shook his head.
"I may not be able to read your thoughts, but I can sense their flavour and I will not be party to an assassination."
Erik cringed to hear the word, Charles world still a tangle of confusion for him. He could not imagine such a thing, words like assassination and murder foreign to him before coming here.
"Then what do you suggest we do?" Erik asked, watching as Charles smiled, reassuring and yet tinged with false confidence. In the time he had known Charles--truly known him--he had not seen him uncertain. This marked a first.
Charles did not answer. Instead he slid his hand neatly into Erik's--and Erik still delighted at the contact, though he was slowly growing used to being touched. Before Charles, no one had thought to touch him, not since his mother's passing, Erik still able to feel her fingers in his hair; hear the soft cadence of her voice as she sang her songs.
Charles led them back inside.
"Sit," he said, gesturing to the cushion on the floor. Erik sat. Charles claimed the space at his side.
Desire made him reach out then, gathering Charles close until Charles was all but perched in his lap, exactly where he was when Emma Frost interrupted them. Erik wanted so badly to kiss him, vows or no vows.
"Erik," Charles said, suddenly serious. "Emma is right. I have to leave the city. Not for my sake, but for the city's. I am both known and respected. If I am assassinated it will send a message. The city will erupt into chaos. I have to leave, to save Tel Aeslah; to preserve the safety of my people."
Erik tightened his grip.
"I think, though, that this might work to our advantage. You said you did not need a treaty to cross. That you had the ear of your Eldest."
"What are you suggesting?" Erik asked, dread creeping into his thoughts, Charles intentions already clear.
Charles smiled. It held such promise, Erik wanting then to give this man his entire being.
"We cross together," Charles said. Even knowing it was coming, Erik's eyes grew wide.
We do not breach the void, his people said, and Erik well knew why. The price he'd paid was dear. He would never make another arrow tip; never sketch another portrait. Across the void, in a book hidden inside his yurt, there were dozens of images of wide blue eyes, and yet he had not done them justice--not by far--and now he would never capture their true beauty. He glanced then to his arm, emotion fluttering in his stomach that was soon dispelled, replaced by quiet acceptance that ought to have bothered him more than it did.
His price was paid, and if what Charles had told him was correct he would not pay another, but what price would Charles pay?
"No," Erik said, shaking his head. "We'll go to one of those other cities she mentioned. We can start over there. The risk for crossing is too great."
But Charles was unconvinced. Erik could see it in the set of his jaw; in the fierce determination that blazed in his eyes.
"The risk for not crossing is too great." He paused then, catching Erik's eye. "This isn't the first time I've considered this. It's simply the first time I've been given a reason for it."
Erik shook his head. "You said it was only a theory. You said you couldn't be certain. You would risk an unknown cost on a theory? I will not allow it."
He tightened his grip, then, the light having faded, evening fast approaching until it crept into the corners of Charles' home, casting long shadows across the floor. Charles' expression grew soft.
"You paid the price for me, why would you possibly think I wouldn't pay it for you?" he asked, Erik's heart constricting to hear the declaration.
He thought then of all that he had learned; he thought of Charles' theory, of the threat to Charles' people. He thought of Tel Aeslahian politics; of the threat to Charles. He thought of the other cities that occupied this land, cities he had only seen on the map that hung on Charles' guest-room wall. He thought of travelling to one of them; of finding nothing but the same, more danger and intrigue, things Erik would rather live without. He thought, too, of crossing through the void; of what it would mean to take Charles home.
He realized then that the choice was never his.
"When do we leave?" he asked, Charles lighting up, wide smile spreading across his face. He leaned forward then, sealing their lips together, Erik shivering at the pleasure that sparked across his skin; radiating through his core until it settled in his groin. Across the void, they could speak the vows, though only if he could convince the Elders to accept their joining. The task would be difficult, though not insurmountable.
Charles withdrew, too soon for Erik's liking, though already he'd pushed too far. Charles was still wearing a bright smile, made softer by the haze in his eyes.
"Before first light," he said, and then to Erik's dismay stood, already moving around the house, packing things he thought they might need for their journey.
The arrangements took most of the night, Erik weary and worried by the time he crawled into his borrowed bed, Charles lingering inside the doorway for several long minutes before uttering goodnight and then disappearing into his own sleeping quarters. For the first time since arriving, sleep proved elusive, Erik spending long hours staring up at the ceiling, watching the play of moonlight against the plaster. When he did fall asleep, it was to uncertain, confused dreams.
The sun had not yet risen when Charles appeared at the side of his bed, hand wrapping around Erik's good shoulder to shake him awake, Erik groggy from too little sleep. It was still strange, sleeping so high from the ground, though Charles' presence was a welcome change from his usual mornings, when he woke alone and sought Charles' company in the courtyard.
More than anything Erik wanted to wake every morning with Charles at his side.
"We need to leave," Charles said, Erik nodding; slipping then from the bed to pull on his clothes.
There would not be another attempt on his life until at least mid-afternoon, Charles assured him. Those on the council who wished to see him dead--and Charles refused Erik their names--would not breach etiquette so freely.
"It is considered ill-form to make an attempt more than once in a twenty-four hour period," Charles had said, Erik's mind reeling with the peculiarities of Charles' culture.
"Are you sure about this?" Erik asked when they were standing inside the doorway, the sun not yet above the horizon, the sky kissed pink with approaching predawn. Erik watched as Charles gazed east, the sky hazy with the approach of another storm. The steel of resolve settled over his features.
"I am sure," Charles said.
Erik nodded, and then led them outside.
He kept close to Charles' shoulder as they navigated the alleys and byways, seeking a less travelled route outside the city. The loss of his hand hampered his ability to fight, but for reasons Erik couldn't explain, it had accentuated his curse, the pull of the city's metal enough to reassure him that he could protect Charles if the need arose.
It did not.
They traversed the city unmolested, Charles walking confidently forward, head held high, as though he wasn't facing banishment. Their path spilled out into a square, smaller than some of the ones Erik had seen, though a fountain still sat at its centre, its basin dry. The mosaic tiles at its base were still sand-covered; grit beneath Erik's boots.
"It only runs in the rainy season," Charles said, nodding to the fountain. He took them south then, Erik glancing briefly north, towards the gates through which Charles had shown him the horses.
Their new route passed them close to the Grand Bazaar--Erik could see its streaming banners beyond a line of houses--something clenching in the pit of his stomach that he thought might be regret. He had enjoyed finding someone from his side of the void, Alex someone he might have one day called a friend.
The Bazaar's banners disappeared from view, Charles taking them further into the city, until the south gate loomed before them, the outer market a colourful oasis beyond the city's wall.
Charles led them through it without a backwards glance.
It struck Erik then that he would never see this again; never taste eggplant or inhale the scent of sandalwood. He would never feel the dry heat of a desert sun beating against his face; never sit emerged in a mineral bath, muscles loosening in its heat. He'd spent so little time in Charles' city, and yet he would miss it.
They passed the last of the outer market's stalls, the desert looming ahead, the city at their back. Charles led them steadily towards Urkanli, the sun cresting the horizon just as Tel Aeslah dwindled from view. Erik was momentarily caught by his first sight of a desert sunrise. It highlighted the sky in shades of purple and magenta, a single band of fiery red marking the line of the approaching sandstorm. Erik's steps slowed as he appreciated its beauty--something else he'd never see again--Charles appearing at his shoulder then, hand coming to his elbow.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" he asked, sounding nostalgic, a man preparing to see something for the last time.
"We don't have to cross," Erik said, thinking then of the other desert cities; of all the places they could hide that would keep Charles from harm.
"I am eager to see what a sunrise looks like above grassland," Charles said, smiling then, the sight dissuading some of Erik's worry. The pull of the void intensified then, as though the decision wasn't truly theirs to make. Erik offered a wide grin.
"It is beautiful," he said, and started forward again.
Ahead, the desert shimmered, lines of growing heat becoming distinct shapes as the ruined city that Charles called Urkanli sprang into view. It loomed now on the horizon, Erik watching in awe as tiny dots resolved into looming columns, the city far larger than he remembered. He hadn't noticed its magnitude the first time, still in shock at having crossed--still too giddy at having met Charles. It was easy to see now, the sprawl of ruins twice Tel Aeslah's size. Even its smallest structure would have dwarfed Tel Aeslah's Great Hall, though he could see the footprints of smaller buildings and monuments, vanished now. Erik's throat ran dry. He reached for his water flask; realizing then he could not offer Charles anything half as grand.
But Charles seemed uninterested in material things, the personal effects he'd brought with him scarce: books and mementos, the sash from inside his wooden chest, a handful of herbs; all stuffed into a single bag strung over his shoulder. Erik carried his water flask; that and his mother's knife.
"It's not too late to change your mind," Erik said when the ruined city swallowed then, the void a looming mass just on the edge of their vision. Erik purposely avoided looking in its direction.
Charles stopped then, turning so that they were standing face to face, framed by sand and stone. He smiled.
"Funny, I remember saying something similar to you."
Erik made himself look then, breath catching when the void sprang into view. It shimmered in the distance like a curtain of mist, though more opaque than Erik remembered. Without instruction, he stepped towards it, the void drawing near, growing clearer with each step.
He stopped when he reached it, familiar longing striking in his breast when he caught his first glimpse of the other side, towering mountains and golden grasslands sparking the nostalgia of having come home. Charles came to stand at his side.
He remembered then the first time he saw the void; stood and stared into the mist at his father's side, casting his mother's knife into the fog. He remembered, too, his first sight of Charles, the shock of staring into those impossibly blue eyes. Charles was so young then--Erik too--the connection between them an instant thing, spanning universes. It seemed fitting to be standing here now, side by side.
"You said once your great-great grandfather crossed," Erik said. Charles nodded. "What was his price?"
Charles smile grew thin, but he answered without hesitation. "He lost his sight."
Erik winced. "And you? If you lose your sight, or your voice, or your arm, or your leg: what then?"
Across the void the sun was rising, reflecting off the summer-dry grass, an entire field of golden flame. Erik squinted; imagined then he could see beyond the rolling hills, to his village, where its silken banners still fluttered in the wind. Was there anything for them there? Was it really worth the price?
"I was rather hoping you'd have me regardless of what I lost," Charles said. Erik shook his head. That went without saying.
"I cannot even guarantee my people will welcome me home, let alone accept you amongst them. They might have no interest in our words, and then you will have paid the price for nothing."
He did not believe that would prove true--they would accept any lost child home, and Charles would be revered, the Envoy returned--but the possibility existed. Charles was watching him, eyes narrowed as he scanned Erik's face. There was no hesitation in his gaze; only open curiosity.
"You really believe this is the right course of action, don't you?" Erik asked. Charles smiled.
It left him with little else to say. Erik shook his head and turned towards the void.
Once, when Erik was a boy, his mother not a spectre, but flesh and blood, Erik would sit at the entrance of their yurt and stare out over the settlement.
He would watch the comings and goings of his people, women in colourful skirts and men in plain tunics, banded with colour. He would watch them going about their day: Elders teaching children and healers healing the sick, clay masons building houses and weavers spinning silk. He would watch the processions of those who came of age and bear silent witness to their return. He would watch the children, younger than he, as they scrambled after chickens and goats. He would watch, and as he did, he would imagine what his future might hold. The settlement teemed with life and importance, while Erik struggled with doubt.
"When you're older," his mother used to say. "After you have seen the void, you will find a trade and court a wife. You will do us proud." She'd run fingers through his hair then, a calm, soothing gesture, and Erik would close his eyes and imagine her smile, wide and happy for the son she raised into a man.
But he never saw that man; never found the path she meant for him to take. He thought she would be proud all the same, though he was not the man she had perhaps envisioned. He was no longer even the man who first crossed the void, what seemed a lifetime ago now.
He remembered her words, though, the soft lilt of her voice as she spoke, the power of her words as she attempted to guide him down the path she'd set for him. He wondered sometimes if he might have reached its end had she lived. He wondered if he would have found the same happiness he'd found at Charles' side. He doubted it.
"A day will come," she would say, "when the void will fall and the price of our sin will have been repaid. Look to that day, Erik, but do not want for its coming."
He hadn't understood the true meaning of her words until now, the change such knowledge might bring. He feared crossing; feared returning to his settlement only to find he'd outgrown it. He feared, too, what it might mean for Charles, standing now resolute at his side.
And when our sin has been repaid.
The void will fall as though unmade.
To fertile grounds we will return.
Carrying burdens we have yet to learn.
He knew now his mother's faith was flawed, her reason wanting. He knew what lay beyond the void, and what would happen if the void fell. He knew beyond any the weight of that coming burden. He glanced once over his shoulder, staring into the haze of desert, the approaching storm now blotting out the sun. He lingered a moment in goodbye, and then he turned to stare at his feet; saw where grass crept across the divide. The void shone like painted glass, Erik wanting then to spare Charles his coming fate; to turn and flee before the price was paid.
But Charles still stood at his shoulder, gaze cast ahead, staring through the veil at towering mountains and rolling plains. He exhaled sharply and started forward, Charles' name coming to Erik's tongue, but it was too late, Charles passing through. Erik closed his eyes and followed on his heel.
The scent of the steppe struck him as he stepped through the mist, stealing his breath. A pang of nostalgia, fierce and bright, struck in his chest, Erik opening his eyes to stare out across gold-kissed grasslands. Something like longing coiled in his gut. He took a staggering step forward, startled then by Charles' cry.
Erik spun, feeling as though he was trapped in sand, too slow to prevent Charles' fall. He staggered forward, rushing to Charles' side, but by the time he got there Charles already lay sprawled across the ground, his eyes wide with fear.
"What is it? What did you pay?" Erik cast frantically for the source of Charles' distress. Charles met his gaze with glazed eyes, expression terrified and confused. He swallowed.
His mouth opened, and then closed again, as though something was lodged inside his throat. Tension grew inside Erik's chest until his heart was held in a vice, every fibre of his being screaming at him to do something; to undo whatever it was they had just done. When Charles spoke, Erik's blood ran cold.
"I can't feel my legs," he said. And then, breath pulling at his lungs, "I can't feel my legs."
Panic swept across his face, settling in new lines, Erik's world dropping out from under him. He shook his head, a desperate bid to deny what Charles was saying; to deny what was now plain to see, Charles' legs limp beneath him.
He glanced then to the void, thinking of carrying Charles back through, hoping to undo the damage that was done. Fool that he was, to have allowed Charles to convince him of this.
"Erik, no, it is too late," Charles said, reaching then for his arm, fingers curling around his wrist. Erik met his gaze; startled to find wonder there, his earlier panic slipping away, unnatural acceptance settling across his features.
"There has to be some way," Erik said, willing then to tear the world apart if it meant returning what was taken; if it meant correcting his mistake.
Charles let out a laugh, the sound caught between giddy delight and hysteria. Erik frowned to hear it.
"Oh, my friend," Charles said, tightening his grip on Erik's arm. Erik shook his head, but Charles merely smiled. "Don't you see? I have paid the price, but I have been given something in return." His smiled widened. "I can read your mind. I have no idea why it was barred from me before now."
He sounded delighted by the prospect, though Erik could not imagine anything worth this price. He glanced to Charles' legs, sprawled uselessly across the ground, grass trampled beneath him. Beyond, lines of sand crept through the void, spilling onto the plains.
"I'm so sorry," Erik said, wanting then to weep; for all that he had lost, for his faith and lingering belief, for his arm and Charles' legs, and for the coming destruction they might fail to prevent. He wanted to curl into a ball as he hadn't since he was a child, his mother's fingers in his hair. Instead he knelt at Charles' side and directed Charles' hands around his neck.
It was difficult work, Charles without his legs, Erik with only one arm. He got Charles over his shoulder, Charles offering only a marginal protest before he clung to Erik's waist, Erik's hand braced around Charles' hips. It was awkward, Charles dangling like a filled sack, Erik horrified by the necessity of it. Charles accepted the proceedings with a calm acceptance that sent chills down Erik's spine.
"You could leave me and retrieve aid," Charles said when he started for the village, wavering slightly against Charles' weight. Erik shook his head.
"I'm not leaving you."
The journey across the steppe was long without horses, and Charles was a heavy weight to bear. He kept himself perfectly still, though his grip tightened in his fear, Erik pausing to adjust his hold. His steps grew weary as they continued, until twice he staggered, Charles eventually tapping at his side.
"We should stop," he said. "I do not wish to be a burden."
Erik had no intentions of stopping, intent on the path as he was, trails well-trodden by the press of countless hooves, but he froze then, glancing over his hip to meet Charles' upside down face. His eyes were wide and beseeching; his cheeks flushed with blood.
"You do not wish to be a burden?" Erik asked, unable to keep the incredulity from his voice. "Charles, your crossing has cost you your legs. How can you be so calm?"
He remembered then his own crossing; remembered staring down at his arm in disbelief, uncertainty and fear swept aside, replaced by eerie calm as he immediately accepted its loss. The void's doing, then, yet another price it extracted. Erik raged.
"What's done is done," Charles said, though his voice wavered, if only briefly. Erik started them forward.
The steppe was dry with the height of summer, the ground hard packed. The scent of grass caught his nose then, calling forth a dozen summers past. Erik's entirely boyhood flooded back then: memories of his mother, of his first trip to the void, of learning to ride his first horse. He inhaled deep even as he scanned the horizon, gaze catching on the falcons as they dove for their prey. He shifted Charles on his shoulder and crested a hill.
Beyond, the steppe stretched out over the horizon, where the fluttering green and gold silk of the yurts caught in the midday sun. They shone like beacons, Erik so overcome by the sight that he sank to his knees, Charles letting out a yelp at the sudden movement. He bent then, setting Charles down lest he drop him on his head. Charles used his arms to shift himself so that he was sitting, staring out towards the village. His face was red from the journey, but his eyes were bright. Erik dropped to his side, unable to stop the words that passed over his tongue.
From the east they came.
Across the rolling steppe.
A caravan of golden silk.
In which the Envoy rode.
"I imagine now they must have staggered, sore of foot and weary from their price. I wonder if anything I knew was true," he said.
He glanced to Charles; found Charles rubbing absently at his legs, frown pulling at his features. He traced a line across his thigh. Erik suspected he wasn't listening.
"Strange, I can feel everything above and nothing below," he said, glancing over then. Erik gestured to his arm.
"I can't feel anything below my bicep. It should terrify me, and yet it doesn't. I hardly thought of it. But what I truly don't understand is why I lost an arm and Alex lost a leg, while you lost two legs."
Charles' smile grew bitter. He gave a shrug.
"To answer your first question, I can tell you there is always a grain of truth hidden beneath layers of intrigue. I also have no doubt that our acceptance of the price is unnatural. If you asked before I crossed, the only thing I would have feared losing more was my mind. Now I am simply grateful I was spared the latter.
"I do not know why you were spared an arm while I lost both my legs."
He sounded so impossibly calm; so impossibly accepting. Erik struggled with his rage.
"Save your anger, Erik. We have a treaty to negotiate." Charles nodded then across the steppe, to the fluttering silk in the distance. Erik followed his gaze, the settlement seeming so very far away.
Erik stared into the eyes of the Eldest, her gaze firm, disbelieving. She was the only one who did not look at Charles with wide-eyed wonder, instead keeping her eyes locked on Erik's.
The Elders were gathered inside her yurt, would-be gawkers cast aside, though their shadows loomed and the occasional murmur travelled through the walls. Erik's sister was out there--not yet an Elder--along with her twins. She'd fainted when she saw him. Amidst stares and shouts and peppered questions, an Elder had appeared, leading Erik, Charles still draped over his shoulder, to the Eldest's yurt where they'd waited long minutes for admittance. The Eldest sat before them now, as though preparing to pass judgement. Her expression suggested she found them wanting.
Erik fought the urge to duck his head; kept his jaw clenched as he met her gaze.
"We do not cross the void," she said, pronouncement at the end of Erik's explanation. He gaze flickered briefly to Charles, perched now on silken cushions. He offered a smile. She withdrew.
"We do not breach the void," she said again. "And you have done so not once, but twice. Did you think beyond your heart's call?" She glanced briefly again to Charles, and then back to Erik, gaze piercing. "What you have done is not without cost."
Erik's expression grew hard. He glanced to Charles' legs, spread out before him on the rugs, and then down to his arm, secured across his chest.
"I know well the cost."
"Do you?" The Eldest made a point this time to meet Charles' eye, unflinching. Erik tracked her gaze; found Charles staring back, eyes wide with wonder.
"You know," he said, sounding awed. The Eldest nodded.
"To cross the void weakens the barrier. The void grows thin. Already we see the consequences of our crossings. The summers grow longer, the world hotter. Our rains are weeks delayed. It is only a matter of time before our world turns to dust. This is the knowledge of the Elders. This is our burden to bear."
She opened her palm then, tiny rain cloud forming over her hand, an exact mirror of the demonstration she'd given Erik so long ago now. Erik could not tear his gaze from Charles' face, watching growing understanding slip in to take the place of Charles' wonder.
The Eldest nodded. "We are the lost children of Urkanli, and the price of our crossing was the memory of our life before. Your Envoy returned it to us."
It took Erik several seconds to process what she meant by that, seeing then the abandoned ruins, a city lost to the desert. He stood abruptly, anger colouring his cheeks.
"You have known this? All this time, you have known this? And you did not think to tell the people."
He thought then of Charles' people, of how they embraced their gift; of how they encouraged its use. He thought of what it might mean to live without the stares, without the hiding. And then he thought of every story he'd heard; every song he'd sang, and wondered if any of it were true.
The Eldest turned to meet his glare, gaze steady.
"This was the knowledge the Envoy returned to us, yes. And there was much debate over whether we ought to cross back, but in crossing we would further weaken the void and a day will come when it will weaken too far. We would not hasten that day and so a decision was made to keep this knowledge secret. Only those in this room know of it. I only tell you now because you have returned from beyond with an Envoy's child."
She glanced around the circle then, the Elders meeting her steady gaze. Erik thought then of the Elders' prayer: Hands shall wither and be reborn. To daughters strong and true. and knew then it was not only the stole of power that was passed from mother to daughter. The Elders had know, had perpetuated a lie, all in the name of keeping their people safe.
Erik exhaled; took then a shuddering breath, the scent of horse catching his nose. He turned back to Charles, found him watching the Eldest with a knowing smile, as though he'd suspected as much and was finding his confirmation. Erik's jaw grew tense. Across the room, suspended over the Eldest's fire, an iron teapot crumpled into a heavy iron ball.
"They deserve to know," Erik said. "They deserve to know this is not a taint; that we share this with our brethren across the void. They deserve to know where we came from."
The Eldest had the grace to look chagrined.
"We did what we thought best. We cannot allow anyone to cross over. To do so might irrevocably damage the void," she said, glancing to Charles. Charles' eyes grew wide. He shook his head.
"Truth should never hide in layers of intrigue."
Erik might have imagined it, but he thought he saw a brief flare of relief flicker across the Eldest's face.
She stood then, gesturing to those gathered around her circle. Erik reclaimed his seat, not yet dismissed from her presence. He watched as the Elders rose and left the yurt. The crowd outside buzzed with excitement, though they soon grew quiet again, the tapestry over the Eldest's door falling shut, blocking out their clamouring. She crossed to her alter, lit a candle and then glanced to what was once her teapot, frowning.
"We've been studying Urkanli for centuries now," Charles said, tracking her movements lazily.
Erik glanced over to find him adjusting his legs, still undisturbed by their loss. The sight seeded new rage in his breast. Charles caught his eye and waved it aside.
"There were several theories, of course, on what happened to her inhabitants. Most believe her well simply ran dry and the people sought a new source of water, finding it in what is now Tel Aeslah. But the possibility of them having crossed the void has been raised."
He waited then for the Eldest to return; to sink onto her cushion and incline her head. She listened intently, as caught in Charles' spell as Erik.
"My great-great grandfather had this book. It was old, very old, and talked about a distant event which my great-great grandfather seemed to think corresponded to the creation of the void--the first collision of two universes. It suggested Urkanli was destroyed by the event, and that the people were torn; that half left to establish Tel Aeslah, while the other half crossed the void. I don't think anyone took it seriously, but then it was my great-great grandfather who led your Envoy."
That impressed the Eldest, Erik could tell. For the first time since meeting Charles, something akin to respect settled across the whites of her eyes. She had discounted him, he knew, born to the wrong gender, but she saw now someone she considered an equal.
But her acceptance vanished almost as soon as it had come, replaced by the hard lines of responsibility. She gave Charles a level look, as though defying him to find fault in her reasoning.
"We cannot allow them to cross. We cannot allow anyone to cross. With each passing season I fear for our people. The void thins and if it erodes completely, all is lost. I do not want to see my people lost."
Charles offered a rather sombre smile. "Neither do I, but they are entitled to the truth, and I believe when presented with the options, they will choose to stay. My people will not welcome them with open arms; not in numbers. It is in their best interest to remain."
The Eldest gave a brief nod, glancing then between them. When she'd found what she was looking for, she caught Charles' gaze.
"This is your will?"
Erik frowned, uncertain what she meant, though Charles must have understood because he nodded, smile growing soft.
For a long minute the Eldest said nothing, but then she smiled, soft and accepting and so very much like Erik's mother that the sight instantly displaced the remainder of Erik's irritation.
The Elders had dispersed most of the crowd, so that when Erik left, Charles laid across a cart, propped on dozens of silk pillows, there were only a handful of stares. He brought Charles to his yurt, though they had not discussed it, vows still unspoken.
It was a relief to be away from the settlement, vacant though it seemed. He could still feel the press of hundreds of eyes. They stared out windows and from behind tapestry doors. Strange that in the teeming city of Tel Aeslah he'd felt completely alone, and yet, here in his boyhood home, he was acutely aware of the intrusiveness of the settlement's curiosity.
"You can't blame them," Charles said, drawing Erik's gaze.
Charles sat, regal like a warrior of old, come home scarred from battle, wrapped in fame and glory. For him the settlement did not stare. They looked on with wide-eyed wonder.
"I can and I will," Erik said, ending the discussion. It was a relief to wheel Charles into his home, untouched since his leaving.
His yurt seemed smaller than he'd remembered; the air stale and the light dim. He brought Charles to the centre of the inner room, not entirely certain what to do now that they were here. The Elders would share the truth with the people, forbid them from crossing and encourage them to embrace their gifts, their secrets too long accepted, too long kept. It enraged him that it took Charles' coming to force their hand. They should have shared their knowledge after the Envoy's coming.
At his side, Charles was glancing around curiously, still unbothered by the loss of his legs--some trick of the void, Erik was now certain. Erik tracked his gaze, taking in the sparse furnishings and threadbare rugs. He regretted his austereness now. He wanted to give Charles a home, a place he could call his own. Instead they would live apart from the others, inside modest surroundings, while they continued to draw every curious eye, Charles still without his legs. He should have insisted they seek another alternative.
"Give them time, Erik. You are asking too much of them too soon." He seemed perfectly at ease, perfectly content seated in his cart.
Erik scowled, but before he could give answer the tapestry over his door swung inward, Erik's sister ducking inside, her eyes flashing fire. Erik fought against the instinct to recoil. She still had their mother's eyes.
"You crossed the void," she said.
She seemed oblivious to Charles' presence, though he was impossible to miss, the cart taking up most of the inner room and she was forced to step around him to come and stand before Erik, expression disapproving.
"You crossed the void. How dare you do such a thing? We do not cross the void."
Her anger was warranted, but it was the tremor of her lip that gave away the lie. It was not his crossing that had upset her. It was his leaving.
"I'm sorry," he said. Her expression fell. She had lost her mother and her father, and then Erik. He understood her anger.
But she had their mother's heart, so it was unsurprising when she reached out, drawing Erik down to her shoulder, a comforting gesture; a mother's gesture. Erik felt something knock loose in his chest. It crept up his throat, coming free as a sob. She clung to him.
After, seated on borrowed cushions from her own yurt, Erik told stories from the other side, Ruth's eyes wide with wonder, her gaze occasionally drawn to the man at Erik's right.
"Then there is no City of the Dead," she said, still apprentice and not yet Elder. She had not learned the truth.
Erik shook his head. "There is only desert, but there are great, sprawling cities and wonders beyond your comprehension."
Ruth's lips pressed into a line. "And we are barred from it."
It was Charles who answered. "There is wonder here, too, and family."
Ruth did not answer, but she adjusted her skirts, still the pale beige of the Elders' apprentices. She reached for her cup of tea, taking a sip of what was undoubtedly the lukewarm dregs. Her wince confirmed Erik's suspicion. She set her cup down and turned back to Charles.
"I feel as though I've known you my entire life," she said. Charles offered a smile.
"It is my telepathy..." he began, but Ruth shook her head.
"No, it is Erik. You have haunted his heart since he was a boy."
She said nothing further, leaving Charles speechless as she stood, straightening her skirts before gesturing to the door, the day growing late and her children awaiting her coming. When she was gone, they ate the sparse meal she'd brought. Erik's cupboards were bare and he was reluctant to seek any of the communal meals. After, he helped Charles prepare for slumber, offering up his pallet in favour of spreading cushions across the floor.
It was strange to sleep with the scent of horse in his nose; the scent of dry grass lingering on his tongue. Memories of his mother, long since buried beneath the grass, came flooding back, Erik lost to her stories and her songs. Fiction now, but oh the power they'd held, his entire boyhood lost to their magic.
When he woke in the morning, it was to find Charles struggling from the pallet, trying to stand on nonworking legs.
"We shouldn't have left," he said, not for the first time, but Charles merely smiled, gentle and accepting.
"We've saved two universes," Charles countered. Erik shook his head.
"You can't possibly know that."
But Charles was unwavering, his words filled with determination. "I do."
The visitations began early, the Eldest arriving first, followed by Ruth and her twins. By noon, Erik had seen half the settlement, his nerves frayed, Charles a steady point of serenity at his side. When the tapestry against the door fluttered again, it was only Charles' hand, firm and warm around Erik's wrist, that kept Erik from casting out their latest well-wisher.
"Relax, I ain't stayin'," Logan said, wheeling a wicker-back chair into the room. Erik let his gift extend out, feeling then the sturdy metal of its frame; of its wide, balanced wheels. "I heard your boy might need a chair."
He pushed it forward then, inclining his head first to Charles and then to Erik. Erik's breath caught, speechless at the thoughtfulness of the gift. Charles smiled wide and bright.
"Please, Logan, is it? Stay," he implored, but Logan refused with a shake of his head. He glanced once to Erik's arm and again to Charles, sprawled across the cushions on the floor, and then drew himself up, turning to duck back out the way he'd come in. Erik took a hesitant step towards the chair. He ran shaking fingers across its back. When he glanced back to Charles, Charles was smiling.
"I want you to be angry about this," Erik said, hating then what had been taken. He'd have gladly paid his price a thousand times over if it had meant sparing Charles.
"And yet I'm not," Charles answered, raising his arms.
Erik let the matter drop, crossing to Charles' side. He placed him gently in the chair, lingering then, enjoying the feel of Charles' heat, the scent of Charles' skin. Charles pressed forward and smiled against his cheek.
"We will adapt to this," he said, sealing the promise with a light kiss, one that left Erik tingling all the way to his toes.
He hoped Charles was right.
Erik's yurt was slowly accumulating all the things needed to make a home. He bought cushions and silk and odd bits of furniture; anything that might make Charles' stay more comfortable--more permanent.
They still lived apart from the others, the Elders slow to change their sermons; the people slow to accept so drastic a change. It frustrated Erik, but he accepted it, Charles the voice of reason when he argued that they couldn't expect an entire culture to abandon their perceived origins; replace them with something new.
"Has anything changed then?" Erik asked, watching out the yurt's door, tapestry tied aside to let in the light. The scent of dry grass filled the air. The rains were late in coming.
Charles wheeled himself forward, wicker chair creaking beneath him. He stared past Erik's hip, at the settlement below, where people went about their daily life, casting the occasional glance to the yurt that stood apart, one of theirs returned alongside a revered guest. Erik shook his head.
"Give them time, Erik. You're too impatient," Charles said. Erik turned to glance over his shoulder, watching as Charles smoothed the lines of his lapels. The blue silk matched the blue of his eyes, Erik momentarily struck by his beauty.
Charles must have caught the thought, because he smiled, bright and happy on this, the most important day of Erik's life. He brushed his hands across the tops of his knees, frown tugging briefly at his lips, but soon enough it cleared. Erik tore his gaze away and crossed the room.
He stopped at the chest that sat at the end of what, after today, would be their marriage bed. He knelt at its side, pulling it open to reveal a battered leather volume, Erik reaching for it with his good hand, fingers brushing against its cover. He pulled it free, stood and returned to Charles' side. Charles cocked his head, question dancing in his eyes. He'd seen it before, but never had Erik offered its content for his perusal.
"Here," Erik said, setting it on Charles' lap. Charles looked perplexed, as though he couldn't divine Erik's intentions. Erik caught his lip between his teeth, hand coming up to absently tug on the betrothal chain he wore around his neck, bear pendant catching between his fingers. He'd laboured hours over its creation, metalsmithing difficult without his dominant hand, though he was learning and now fully embraced his powers, even if it did earn him stares. Charles wore the pendant's twin, their house's new symbol.
Charles flipped open the book to the first of Erik's sketches: an early one, from shortly after their meeting, Charles little more than a boy. Charles eyes grew wide. He reached a shaking hand towards it, tracing fingers over the arch of his eye, a hairbreadth from touching the paper, not quite smudging the charcoal.
Slowly his hand withdrew. He flipped the page.
It embarrassed Erik now to see how many he had, dozens upon dozens of pictures of Charles alone. Charles' breath caught again when he reached the ones done with the metallic paints, touched smile spreading across his face. When he'd seen them all--examining each with agonizing care, the hour growing late--he glanced up, eyes hazy like the void. A single tear slipped free to cascade down his cheek. He swallowed, closed the book and then set it aside. His chair creaked again as he moved forward.
"I thought of you too, you know. Every day. Even after you stopped coming." He reached out then, gathering Erik's good hand in one of his. He nodded over his shoulder. "Are you ready?"
He led them out of the yurt, lifting Charles' chair by the metal in its wheels to get it over the uneven ground. He saw the Eldest before she saw them, her back towards their yurt, her gaze locked across the steppe. She stared towards the void, unseen, though even from a distance Erik could feel its pull. He knew now he was not the only one.
Erik rounded his mother's burial stone, steps slowing as he ran his hand across her stone. When he glanced up, the Eldest was watching their approach.
"You are prepared?" she asked them both. Erik nodded; glanced then to Charles, relief blinding him when Charles did the same.
He set Charles' chair upon the ground, turning so that they stood face to face. The Eldest stood at their side, framed by the steppe as it fell into the settlement, streaming wisps of silk catching in Erik's periphery. When she spoke, it was with booming voice, the sound carrying, Erik imagined, all the way to the void and beyond.
"We come here, in sight of the village, in sight of the void, and in sight of our dearly departed, to join these souls. Erik, son of Lehnsherr, and Charles Xavier from beyond the void, have asked to speak the vows, and the Elders have granted their permission."
She inclined her head, her only acknowledgment of the rarity of such a thing. Change moved slowly, but in this at least they had not dragged their feet.
Erik tore his gaze then from her face; found himself staring into familiar blue eyes, this time without the void between them. Charles offered a smile, Erik's stomach fluttering then, nervousness climbing up his throat. A wave of warmth from Charles soon displaced it, though when Erik spoke, his words were choked with emotion.
"I pledge my life to thee, in the sight of the Elders, in the sight of the settlement, and in the sight of the void."
It was a relief to say the words, though the knot in his stomach didn't loosen until Charles had repeated them.
"I pledge my life to thee, in the sight of the Elders, in the sight of the settlement, and in the sight of the void."
He had to lock his knees then to keep from falling, Erik grinning, wide-mouthed, tooth-filled grin that no doubt lit his entire face. Charles returned it, equally happy. It was easy then to lean forward; to press into Charles' space, Charles stretching up until their lips brushed together, the pendant around Erik's neck slipping free to dangle between them. The kiss was far more tentative than the ones they'd shared before, yet it somehow felt more solemn, a promise made so many years before, when he'd first seen Charles' eyes through the void. Erik withdrew, missing then Charles' warmth, his scent, but it was worth it to see the light in Charles' eyes; to hear the Eldest say, "You are joined."
When she thought of her mother, it was to remember the soft scent of her skin, the warmth of her hands and the lulling swish of her skirts.
"Wanda love," she would say, putting aside her readings, the endless scrolls that littered their floors, to come and kneel at her side. Back then she seemed impossibly ancient, full of wisdom and life; all the things Wanda hoped someday to find.
She would take her hands and stop her from doing whatever it was she was doing; and those days it was often unraveling matter, simply to learn the limitations of her gift.
"Wanda, love," she would say, "let's try putting something together rather than taking it apart," and then she would guide her hands--so much smaller than her own--in turning braided grass into polished stone, marvelling at the gift that had been given; the power that was hers alone.
And then she would speak of the void.
"In the days following their exile, the void lingered, a gateway between worlds. And when the Envoy had come and gone, a man crossed the divide. And he was thought lost to the City of the Dead, to the desert beyond the mist, but he did return. And with him he brought a child of the Envoy, who carried our salvation. For the Envoy's descendant, crippled though he was, brought forth new knowledge and knew hope. It is he who taught us to embrace our gift; he who returned to us our stolen history."
She would smile then, mysterious and proud, fingers curling as she cast her own spark, electric energy flashing across her fingertips.
"The man who crossed was my mother's brother, your great-uncle, and the reason we survive today."
And Wanda would smile, for her family's story, Erik's story, was one of her favourites. Her mother would brush aside her hair then, tucking it neatly behind Wanda's ear. Her voice would grow low, and when she sang, it was almost whispered, though the words lost none of their power.
Beyond the void, a land of wonder.
Of desert sun and sandstorm thunder.
A people divided, by decisions long since passed.
Never united, the threat too great.
Beyond the void we do not go.
But in our memory we will hold,
A sacrifice made that saved our land.
And kept us safe from the sand.