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Love Like Winter

Chapter Text

"Raven?"

The syllables have scarcely passed Charles' lips before a pleased blush sweeps over the general's features, followed by a remarkable blurring of her being. While the essential topography of the face does not change, there comes a brief cascade of curls and color. Softer tones; peach, hazel, a riot of cinnamon and gold. These new textures never coalesce, instead disappearing under what Charles can only assume-- based on a momentary break in eye contact and a stiffening of her posture-- is Erik's disapproving glare.

Brief though it may be, it is enough. The prince's eye and memory fill in the rest. That brief glimpse was the future echo of the comely, gilded elf-child Raven once wore like a second skin. Perhaps, indeed, it had once been more familiar to her even than her natural state, so rarely did she deviate from it amongst the puritanical Court. There was never any truth in it; used to fending for herself, the wily chimera child merely amalgamated the expectations of beauty to which she was exposed. A mirage

(every carefully choreographed ritual learned; every magickal exam performed with cautious and deliberate mediocrity; every word held back under bleeding tongue…)

to blunt the hostility on all sides. You made yourself less of a target, armed yourself where you could. With an effort, Xavier refrains from shrugging awkwardly under his makeshift cloak of furs, knowing the itch his body aches to relieve exists only in wings long since excised and burned. Is he so foolish as to feel envy for her in this moment, when her flare of individualist honesty does not change the fact she clearly ranks amongst his foes?

This sharp creature of deep gem tones is certainly far closer to how Raven understands herself-- to who she has always been, perhaps. She is still beautiful; decidedly more in her confidence and iconoclasm. Angles sinuous, rather than gentling, this form wears every inch of armor like the skin it may very well be. Yet there is something weary about her, in her eyes or baring, that speaks to Charles of some impervious strength drawn from brittle, bitter ruins. When she grins at him-- sincere though her delight may be-- it is with teeth as white as cobra's fangs.

 

"No one's called me that in years!" she laughs, head thrown back with the boom of it, as soldiers do. Earnest, but also faintly chastising, as if Charles had in fact misidentified her.

The scholar can only blink, hating himself for the consolatory smile about to bloom instinctively on his lips. Instead, he watches her calmly, trying to impose dispassionate assessment where sentimentality blinded him so fatally before. It has already been painfully proven that these ghosts of his childhood do not come on an affectionate or merciful quest. The sight of her inspires a thousand little pains of heart and lungs, as if marked by splinters of a flaming arrow. The disquiet stems from more than the distant past. He chides himself half-heartedly; unease has been his constant companion since it found him in the catacombs, only moments before
(his bondmate)
the Dark Lord.

 

"This is my right hand," Lehnsherr says, gesturing towards the changeling with one arm. The other is busy, reaching out to rest the weight of sculpted palm on the prince's elbow. He takes a few steps-- nothing obtrusive-- which place him almost between the reunited pair as if to define Charles' space and how others may relate to it. Before Xavier can do more than clench his jaw at introduced to his other childhood companion, Erik continues, "You see before you the general who held Imbrium Promentory through the long winter and," here, a smirk, pleased with his post-facto generosity, "Lord Kelly's valiant attempts at attrition."

Charles frowns, detail-oriented mind snagging on the fact all Elvish intelligence suggested it had been the Dark Lord himself encamped and holding that strategic point. There's no time for question, since Lehnsherr finishes with a smooth and utterly damning statement. The words are as disorienting as a tectonic shift, for all that they may be true.

"Mystique," the Dark Lord intones, "this is my bondmate. My future consort, he who is to be Regnant Lord Charles of House Xavier."

 

The prince-- for surely he will accept no title from his enemy, no matter how flattering-- prides himself that he does not gape. Isn't it enough that Lehnsherr has forged their souls with savage blood ritual? Having gone to that extreme, one wonders why a ruler with such total power would bother with the more institutional contract of matrimony. Though marriage, as opposed to bonding, is common amongst Elves as the political life-blood of the Court, any that cross social strata are required by law to be morganatic. Lady Sharon's careful maneuvering (called 'bed-hopping' with such spiteful delight behind her back) following her husband's death, and Charles' own relegation to son of the King's mistress, is hardly the first or the most drastic example of that.

Some loquacious and reckless demon seems to have taken hold of the scholar, for he hears himself say, "And do you take all your 'legal co-rulers' first by subterfuge, and then by thrall spells?" Surely Erik does not expect him to believe that, bond or no, he would ever be given power in this nest of vipers? Even if such an outlandish boon were possible, the subsequent price attached would likely be very, very high indeed. This knowledge, and the tart question, should be enough to voice his skepticism, but Charles cannot stop himself, "I felt certain I was destined for your harem, since you seem to have learned your method of acquiring mates from satyrs."

The words seem to come from some dim corner of the scholar's being, and they sound far too much like his own mother's own sugar-laced disdain. The nasty bravado may, in fact, be unworthy of the strange and earnest binding oaths Lehnsherr has given him; but the thought of his own openness

(worse, worse than vulnerability, _complicity_. oh, you little fool, how you wanted it all to be real!)

in the bowels of Acidallium still rankles. He must shore up his (confusion/desire/hunger/trepidation) shame with *something*. A line in the garden dirt, as when he was small. See here, my barrier-- I dare you.
Of course, Erik was always one to step over such delineations with a sharp grin.

 

A defensive look flickers over the Dark Lord's face, though it is short lived-- as is the glance of faint incredulity from Raven. Perhaps Erik has more of a temper than he's shown, for her reproachful gaze is fixed on Charles, not her leader.

"I keep no harem, dearest," Lehnsherr answers, old daring mixed with implacable command. "Unless it is a harem of one." There's a wicked light in those storm-green eyes-- half the playfulness of an untried adolescent, half the reverent sensuality of a man.

Charles himself is far too experienced to blush (as he tells himself repeatedly), and he refuses to look away.

Of course, Erik sees that as an additional challenge. "Do you cast me as the satyr-king Eisenhardt?" he asks, smile reminiscent as he references a particularly carnal myth they stumbled upon in the libraries of Chryse Planitia. How Edie had scolded them for seeking out locked and censored scrolls! "That would make you Leto, would it not?"

From the sound Raven makes, she remembers that particular exploit herself.

"That story is hardly one for polite company," the prince demurs stiffly.

To the obvious surprise of all, including Erik himself, the comment illicit brief bark of laughter from the dark mage. The sound has an aching poignancy, like the toll of some great bell muffled by years of rust. "Ah, Little Maus, I'm afraid your current company can hardly be considered 'polite'." Then, to forestall any further jibes in this vein; "It was an Elvish library in which we encountered the tale, no? Quite the salacious little morsel for a trio of enterprising youngsters."

Charles, of course, being the youngest of the lot. As such, he'd been quite mystified by the detailed woodcuts, while simultaneously being the most qualified to translate the accompanying High Tongue text. Eisenhardt, the satyr-king, had looked quite imposing on the page, despite the snare from which young priest Leto was depicted freeing him. Xavier's recitation had been halting but true, until Raven's convulsive giggling drowned him out. 'Erik,' Charles remembers asking, 'If the king loves him so, why should he make his human bondmate scream?'
To say nothing of the sword metaphors.

 

"Had I known we were going to discuss old escapades, I would have brought spirits!" the general says with remarkable nonchalance. She's returned to the tone by which she announced herself, very nearly the joviality of a wedding feast. Is there some slight underscore of strain in it, too-- the upward inflection of hope? Regardless, Charles finds himself confronted with the unflattering desire to punish her. The wounds owed to her are less grievous than others

('_Really_, boy,' says the voice of some now-faceless teacher, 'You've come through all of this with remarkably little bruising, save to your precious pride.')

but he wants her to know he feels betrayed. He will hold her responsible for her part in this, though the celestial powers know he's hardly eager to find out what that might be.

"No wine, and no spirits," the Dark Lord is firm. He takes the pile of clothing and the salvaged boots from Raven. "We have had our communion, and I fear Charles needs something far more substantial for his recovery." And, with much heavier cadence, "I did ask you to wait."

"Apologies, my lord," the chimera returns, sounding only half-sincere. "I wanted to see if Charles was--"

"Well, now you've seen him and you may go." Words dropped like stones in a pool-- no ripples, and hardly any sound.

Golden eyes look heedlessly past their commander, almost pleadingly. "Charles, as soon as I heard--" She takes a deep breath. "Tell me you're alright."

 

Beset by a sudden crawling sensation along his spine, Xavier suppresses the urge to shrug beneath his makeshift fur cloak. It is not an itch that can be eased by friction, these psychosomatic pricklings in long-vanished nerves. Calmly, calmly; "Quite well, thank you. Especially considering the fate one may assume for so many prisoners of war."

The response begins as a chorus from both Erik and the general, but it ends discordantly. "You're not--"

"- a prisoner."

"- guilty of torture and experimentation."

 

Inwardly, the scholar frowns. It cannot be denied that Elves are as bloodthirsty in their own particular fashion, but it is well known that they prefer death as a spectacle-- artistry in all things, not to mention a useful reminder to those who might be tempted to trespass in kind. Kurt, in particular, was a fiend for beheading suspected traitors, who were less likely to be actually seditious than merely politically inconvenient. Charles could never excuse or even ignore such things, protesting when and as ardently as he could, though Cain and Lord Kelly asked many a time if he liked his own neck as stainless as it was. Since the mysterious events humans call the 'Fall', all mortal beings carry darkness within, as he reminds his students daily. It is this ease towards violence and hatred which must be resisted, be one faey, elf, wyvern, werewolf, or man.

Shaw-- whatever he had once been-- was renowned for the darkest of alchemies and torture, and it was not for nothing they called him also the Lord of Knives. The title precedes Charles' birth by more than a century and, even as Shaw encroached on Chryse Planitia, his depredations were well known. He had uses even for the most useless of prisoners; their agonized cries could be heard in Elvish encampments across moors, valleys, and-- once-- even a river. Archers and infantry elves of Jord did not communicate this in their boastful war stories but in whispers, and added the gravity of carrying misericordes to end themselves in lieu of capture.

 

Though he longs give Raven notice on this hypocrisy, he can see very easily that she believes what she is saying. She is offended, and the jut of her chin has that same righteous tilt from childhood. Without quite meaning to, Charles finds himself glancing towards Lehnsherr, whose guilty look is not quite so quick to fade this time. Loki, black magic, whispers of Kadaath… could it be his old friend is disbursing the burden of sakanagi through executions? The thought is only half-formed, blasted away by the fierce sympathy evident on the Dark Lord's face.

"You told her," Charles says, voice sinking like stone-heavy revelation. No, no-- worse still. The other mage may be shielding a little by virtue of more practice, but he is just as new to the full bond as Charles is, and the truth is far too close to the forefront of his mind.

This time, however, Xavier turns his accusation on the chimera instead. "It was you. The Dark Lord's spy of 'great talent and stealth'." He should have known. Is not her race the most natural of saboteurs? A changeling's thin aura and magical signature are almost as fluid as their physical appearance, and Raven perfected her elvish disguise long ago. "You proved to Marko that his stronghold was not secure." The last bit grits out in frustration, for her reaction-- while pained-- holds absolutely no remorse.

"Charles, I am so sorry…" Raven-- Mystique, Mystique!-- says. He must take care to remember the new name she has chosen, to let it be a wall between himself and things long gone. "I left shortly after Eostre, once I revealed myself and Marko refused the treaty. I wasn't there when--"

 

The white mage makes a decisive cutting motion with his hand, thankfully-- if only at the last minute-- leaving it free of any magical impetus. Xavier can see in her face that his own has lost expression, senses the frustration Erik radiates. Well, his two 'old friends' will just have to get used to his courtesan's mask.

"Allow me to relieve your conscience. It was an accident." Those four words seem to have become one, so often has he said them. Or perhaps they are merely a collection of sounds, like the ancient chants that retain vitality only through ritual, otherwise devoid of meaning. "You have nothing to be sorry for." Faintly, the prince wishes his wintery tone had been a touch more chilly still. Perhaps then he would not be faced with the look of oddly strained compassion in those citrine eyes. "In that regard, at least."

She protests, "But they--"

"If you were not there, then you know nothing!" he nearly snarls. Rallying about him, his manna arcs like the many wings of the fiery seraphim. Erik, whose Sight is enhanced by the bond, looks entranced. And, though she may only sense it, Mystique takes a step back.

The flare of power may force some physical distance, but Charles is sadly bereft of fortifications. Once glance at Erik's rapt expression is all the mental mage needs to be drawn into those thoughts, like the inadvertent response to the call of one's name. He seems himself as though glimpsed through colored glass, and then through a vertiginous hall of mirrors, all rippling like the most muted of waves. And why not? It is a scrying bowl in which the Dark Lord viewed Mystique's memories upon her return, just as Erik's mind is now Charles' divining glass.

 

(The curling, scented tendrils of incense wending through a rapacious crowd; a hundred delicacies, arrayed like the rainbow in order to hide their smaller portions, whose mingling aromas are lent visceral animation by the rhythmic pounding of brass drums. All this, seen and noted by the spy. The profusion of apple blossoms and lilies wrought by sorcery from cloth (to obscure the scarcity of the genuine article) and all the added embroidery to mask worn Court regalia. It is her task to see the details, to absorb the most minuscule of tells; because her life has been long at stake in mastering this craft, much of the skill itself is now instinctual. She moves, she sees, and need not crane her head or appear any more alert than the most indulgent of the spirit-soaked crowd.

There. Amidst all this, framed by concentric layers of marble and moonstone balconies, her gaze finds those performers who compose the evenings entertainment. No social dancing this, for Acidalium has been set ablaze with candles for Eostre Eve. Though acknowledged under many different names, almost all creatures of Jord celebrate the time of growth and renewal, and a great deal of effort has been extended to provide those food necessary to the fertility theme. Those youths and maidens newly of age for Court induction wear robes embroidered with lilies, cherries, and the obligatory virile mandrake; more than one of them will yield up their own first fruits this night. Many of these neophytes are among the performers, though they are by no means the sole contribution to the ranks.

'Charles,' Mystique's memory echoes with surprise, undulated by the scrying water and the additional echo-chamber of Erik's mind. And so she has found him, off to the left side of the spacious floor, the foci of one among many sedate, geometrical reels. Clad in a sheer vest of shimmering emerald and a man's velvet corset, he is leading the younger members with the sanguine efficiency of experience, though he is by no means the eldest of the company. There are true courtesans too, those who have apprenticed themselves to this life as surely as Charles dedicated his own to scholarship. He will never be the centerpiece here, for which he is profoundly grateful. Yet the choreography must deliberately acknowledge him at times-- the eye demands symmetry, say the retired Madames and so-called man-servants. He's so…. singularly *exotic*, as they like to say. Combine that comeliness with masculine grace, and it makes Xavier the indivisible prime number. A problem child, ever since he could toddle to the mirrored and marble bar.

Mystique does not know these things, but Charles does-- within himself through startling recall, and also quite literally the detached observer, feeling almost the same bemused curiosity the chimera does. Certainly, the rituals look much more foreign from without. All that carefully outlined motion, minutia of joints and the flexing bipedal form, set to music that denies impulsivity. Elvish dancing at its finest. The spy's viewpoint changes a bit; she is moving amidst the gathered crowd, trying to find a better line of sight. To make matters more curious still, the white mage is aware of Erik watching the memory, and finding the angle very much wanting still. Yes, yes, the press of the audience and the caution inherent in espionage-- but Lehnsherr is impatient for a clear look at the prince's face, his Little Maus fully grown. The layering of these impressions are as overwhelming to Charles as the loud Eostre horns and the press of bodies on the dance floor itself.

 

As if he has leaned too far over the scrying bowl, the real and present Charles falls farther in. Now it is is fully his recollection, likely displayed for his bondmate; he has traveled the dizzying mirrors of perspective to find something visceral once more. The flush of his own body heat, the hum of well-prepared muscles exerted. His wings are folded at his back and bound beneath the deep green vest, not knowing their remaining time is slim indeed. If he'd known, he would have worn them free everyday and damn the sidelong glances. But no, they are chaffing slightly as he crouches, palm to the ground, head bowed as the female dancers move through the circle. Sweat always gathers first at the stems of his filmy appendages-- he rolls his shoulders for relief, rises again. Betsy nears, face composed while her dark eyes suggest her heart began racing long before the performance began. She's probably been panicking since before she laced up her own verdant corsetry, and Charles did not have time to check in on any of the debutants in the chaos of preparations. This is her first time dancing for anything other than class or rehearsal.

As they draw close-- briefly cheek to cheek-- he whispers, "You're doing just fine."

She juts her chin up just slightly, relieved enough to pretend arrogance, as they part and pass the horn-tipped staff between them. The girls have been presenting these totems of fertility, caressing and swooning over them and one another, as the dance calls for. Now comes the more martial portion, a tribute to masculine coupling, followed by an almost tantric duet aligned with the heterogeneous notion of yin and yang.

Xavier sinks to his knees before his new male partner, a baronet both younger and taller, not to mention just as lankily awkward as he's been at every practice. Charles himself has a fluidity of motion that makes him an acknowledged foe with the quarterstaff, and he's an ardent devotee of white crane boxing besides-- both pastimes that hold much more allure than his current one. Staff held vertically, he leans both it and himself towards his partner's strained breeches (clearly, there's no affectation needed there), glancing away from the youthful tumescence to keep from rolling his eyes. In the process, his gaze lands briefly on Lord Stryker, whose position has earned him a seat on the dais near Marko's throne. The warlord's look is avid, translating to the phantom sensation of judgmental fingertips in place of gaze alone. The evaluation of horseflesh. A pale, thick tongue slithers over thin and bearded lips. The nobleman is primed with anticipation, eager to curry favor-- not not with Charles, but with the keeper of the stable. Looking away quickly, the scholar-cum-performer cannot repress a bone-deep shudder; the desire to be away from public spectacle and in his own safe tower, to step outside his body and--)

 

Yes, a body. Not stifled by crowds and a thousand blazing candles, but slightly chilled in a tent full of unconscious magick. Weariness clings to Charles still, but it stems from overtaxed manna, not the healthy outlet of exercise. The only protesting muscles are those of his trapezius and levitator scapulae-- an old ache, familiar pain-spiders that spin splinters are ghostly as they themselves. For a moment, the mundane world seems to swirl and tilt briefly, as if blood is rushing back to his head along with his attention for the present. He blinks, and Erik blinks-- each drawing away from the second Sight their new bond summons so readily.

 

As a result of this unpredictable intimacy, only Mystique's expression betrays any confusion. She, outside their iridescent sphere of mated magicks, would have seen nothing. She can sense the power which must have flared, though, and its clear she knows a great deal of recognition and realignment of facts has taken place. Gears of a water-clock slipping into place. The Dark Lord and his general both look at Xavier expectantly, though Erik's aura betrays a predominant cresting wave in his icy ocean of anger. It isn't directed at Charles-- an aspect that occurs to the prince not because he feels any fear in that regard, but because he once more feels far too exposed. As when chamber doors are thrown open upon not merely a state of undress, but one of wounds which may only be tended alone.

The combined gaze of his friends feels acidic, sulfuric; it takes effort to fight down the shame-- cyclopean compared to the pin-prick of embarrassment during the performance-- of having been seen and, in Erik's case, known. At having been caught, as it were, at something all three of them once mocked, swearing they would never dance for Court. Oh, that childish disdain for adult ritual, it's alien nature rendering unfathomable sensuality all the more ridiculous. '_I_ will never do that-- why would anyone _ever_ do that?' Naive, thinking their standards impregnable, their selves immune to pressure. Yet it is nothing, nothing, once the warped kaleidoscope of childhood's perspective is cast aside.

Having no need of disdain from his enemies in any case, Charles turns away from both of them. He faces the canvas wall of the tent, gaze stalwartly tracing the nonsense burns left by his earlier wild sorcery. He wants to tell them to measure his pain to theirs, knowing they will find it sorely lacking. To tell them that the certainties of childhood fade, that one's personhood and beliefs come under constant attack. That the very things that anchor-- protective loyalties, affections, obligations-- ensure that you compromise, compromise, and compromise more still. He will fling these words at their feet so that they might laugh in his face and ask him what he, spoiled little heir whose mother went to such lengths for mere creature comforts, could ever know about suffering. Poor little prince, pretending patience for hypocrites while his friends were likely whipped bloody; enduring only meaningless ritual rather than Shaw's cruel hand. Pretending that trading his frivolous compromises, even those of his body, could do anything more than pale in the dark-light of slavery. Smile when you're told to, present the correct facade, spread your metaphorical (and sometimes otherwise) legs. How hard a life is that?

'You waste your wishes, Little Maus,' Erik had said, and it is likely true. Their experiences are too divergent, even antithetical, for them to share priorities. If not for a spiritual cord forged by two innocent boys, Charles would have died by the sword of one or another of Lehnsherr's warriors-- perhaps have been slain even by Erik himself. Of course, if the braiding of that link had not occurred, the Dark Lord would not have felt the same draw towards Acidalium. They wouldn't be here, with thousands of dead at their feet.

 

If wishes have been wasted, then words need not be. Charles has enough experience, at least, to know that arguing is often useless; the other party will think what they like, no matter what you say.

Clenching and unclenching his fists to echo the most rudimentary of arithmancy exercises, he says quite calmly, "Yes, I see. I see very well." He does not turn to face either of them, too busy listening to the tones he produces, ensuring they are perfectly inoffensive. Each time he looks at the warrior-maid, he experiences afresh instinctive relief and nostalgia at the knowledge she has survived-- feelings far too open to exploitation. "Thank you for that illuminating discussion, R-- Mystique. Please leave us."

Erik speaks before she can do anything more than draw breath to argue. "You heard my consort; leave us. He commands you as much as I."

 

 

It takes talent to make the click of boots and a sharp salute seem vindictive, but Xavier watches Mystique's shadow do exactly that. The tent-flap rustles and, all too predictably, he feels Erik draw close behind him, deadly hands gripping his upper arms through the furs. Even through those thick layers, which have not quite calmed the elf-prince's shivering, the weight and press of his bondmate communicates a vital warmth. Sinuous, seeping like liquid flame. A strong arm encircles Charles' waist, as snake-like in its coiled muscle as it in its swift movement. Erik is tenderly nuzzling his hair.

"We were interrupted," the Dark Lord says, all too gently. "I had hoped--"

Xavier is not interested in the other mage's hopes-- void-colored things which have grown in the blackest cockles of the heart, and which likely bear far too much resemblance to the desires of Charles' own under-mind. "Tell me of the casualties, Erik."

"You asked for answers--" And well he knows the sound of the Lehnsherr boy hedging.

"So answer me right now."

 

Unsurprisingly, the grip tightens, but not painfully so. Charles stares more fixedly at the patterns on the canvas wall, wondering if the dream/nightmare state of mind in which they were wrought could have lent any meaning to them. Perhaps he may read them as his own internal runes, though he has likely discovered enough unpleasant things about himself for today.

"We're still counting," the warrior says at last, while Charles huffs a laugh which would be more at home as a carrion-bird's cry.

"Surely you must have some idea by now." He frowns, though his companion cannot see it. "How long have I been…"

"Indisposed?" Lehnsherr actually uses the phrase without any irony. "It is roughly the fourteenth toll of the following day."

At this, Xavier turns, shrugging off the other man's hold. "So long? I need to see my students, I--" With dawning horror, "You mocked the oaths I asked for! Whom have you already killed?"

"I have executed no one." Said with bland self-righteousness-- unfortunately, the most difficult to disbelieve. "There are prisoners, yes, not to mention fugitives and deserters. And we have our own dead to count."

Charles raises an imperious eyebrow, wordlessly implying, 'Yes, that was my question.' The muscle in Erik's jaw twitches in what is most likely annoyance, but he has no one to blame for reversion back to the original subject save himself. The silence holds, and the prince manfully refrains from crossing his arms expectantly.

Finally, "Between fifteen and twenty maniples, for the Elves, plus a score of your elite archers. All provision numbers, as those commanders we've captured are reluctant to give the original figures."

 

So many. The archers suffered the least amount of loss, which is fairly typical-- they are, as Lehnsherr said, an elite order. The weight of the dead will have fallen to the younger soldiers, and to those citizens pressed into war-service out of sheer desperation. So much of their martial number had been lost throughout the preceding battle, and Charles knows with perfect, tomb-stone clarity that the Elves will never again raise enough arms to replace the loss. Children, the infirm, the nobility which has not fled or committed ritual suicide, and the scholar mages; these are the primary remnants of their once-great kingdom, now. Even as his stomach turns, rotting through with guilt and loss, Xavier takes note that no sorcerous casualties were mentioned. Such things are unusual in any case, but he had feared his colleagues and students might be mistaken for combatants if Hank did execute their escape plan.

"Of course they won't give you the numbers," he manages. "You'll get no help from me in that quarter, either. Marko was very particular about ensuring I had as little strategic input and exposure as possible." The scholar shakes his head a bit, marveling at how distant yesterday seems-- a morning which began in his locked tower, where he watched the sorcerous snowfall and the assault on Acidalium's wards. How well founded that turned out to be.

"At least four maniples surrendered willingly," Erik says, in a tone that might pass for placating. "And my orders were that civilians-- women and children, the cloistered-- be spared."

"Many an army makes that claim," Charles scoffs. Privately, he must acknowledge that Shaw and Marko considered all three of those groups, as well as schools and libraries, to be *very* appropriate targets."

"The Free People lost only a third of the Elvish casualties," Lehnsherr continues, ignoring the aside. "Of course, our frontal assault involved smaller forces to begin with."

"Because you attacked from behind as well!" Xavier explodes, unable to repress wild gesticulation with his arms, and losing quite a few furs in the process. "From the mountains-- from Leng! Are you quite mad?"

A smirk plays about those thin, well-sculpted lips. "I finished what my 'mentor' began… though to a different end."

"The very ground of Leng has soured," Charles says, belatedly realizing his tone is very similar to one he uses with certain recalcitrant students. "The blasphemies which tread there were so potent that the corruption of their presence has lingered all these centuries!"

 

He cannot refrain from stressing these words, though he can hardly be telling the Dark Lord anything the conquer-mage does not know himself. To have learned at Shaw's feet would have given Erik access to far greater realms of blasphemous knowledge than the vague, whispered histories the Elves have maintained. Lehnsherr is bold, there is no doubt, having grown into a warrior's confidence as surely as his once-lanky body has fulfilled its promise of strength. Can it be that his arrogance-- likely well founded, if he slew Shaw-- has reached such heights that he presumes impunity even from those traces of the Elder gods? Or is it the addition of Charles' own profound magickal strength to his arsenal that has convinced him he's invincible? In either case, if such might is truly his… then all the magistrates of hell cannot protect Jord from however the Dark Lord wishes to shape it.

"Indeed," Erik replies with alarming insouciance. "Shaw sought their leavings. And we have found ruins, the mere desiccated skeleton of what must once have been a mighty and ineffably strange civilization. The tales of Alhazred are correct. There is no life here, though there are still a few… inhabitants."

Out of sheer instinct, Charles summons up enough manna to trace the Yellow Sign protectively in the air. He can't help but fixate on the word 'here'; the shuddering likelihood that they are in or beyond the Forbidden Mountains even now. To the scholar's great annoyance, his use of the obscure metaphysical talisman provokes no real reaction from his captor save the voracious admiration with which he is becoming all too familiar. For all the seeming simplicity of the symbol itself, it requires a great deal of power and deft skill to complete the silent enchantments behind the Yellow Sign. Xavier himself is one of the few mages in Acidalium who can accomplish the task, and he is a great deal younger than the others masters who hold such claim. It is clear from the summer-lightning blaze in those green eyes that Erik finds such exhibitions of power very attractive from his bondmate. Valiantly, the prince does his best to ignore both this and the little fissions of pleasure that chase along the bond, but he is so used to being chastised for 'showing off' that he cannot help but flush anyway.

The thought that he may be standing on the very outskirts of Leng isn't just alarming-- it's disheartening in the extreme. No Elvish cartography extends beyond the single mountain into which it was built. Even if there were some opportunity for Hank and the children to… Charles buries the thought as swiftly as one trying to smother a fire. Suffice to say that any citizen of Jord would be entirely lost to the east of its final-- and now fallen-- outpost.

"Surely," Xavier says carefully, "You have not slated such a place for *conquest*?"

"Shaw had schemes to that effect," Erik seems both disdainful and amused by this. "But I have told you, my love, that I am not Shaw." He's too close again, having accomplished this by surreptitious inches. One large palm now creeps back to Charles' shoulder. "And I think you know that."

 

A long moments of silence follow, so complete that when a drop of jam-- another drying remnant of subconscious magick-- falls against the prince's quarterstaff, the resulting 'plink' sounds more like the discharge of some exotic hand-canon. Lehnsherr draws his captive closer, but he hardly seems to be aware of it, thoughts and gaze focused somewhere beyond the tent's confines. Despite himself, Charles is stuck by the unconscious ease of their physicality. No longer rendered intolerably vivid with freshness and possession, the link between them throbs only with a torpid desire for closeness, for reaffirming communion and physicality.

"The Lord of Carnage was a demon… a once-man… of singular focus," Erik says quietly. His tone is firm, though-- remote, factual. It is not necessarily fear Charles senses from him, but the superstitious dread of pain the prince himself experiences when recalling the loss of his wings. The memory of having suffered at such a high pitch becomes at once unreal and a specter of behemoth proportions. Unable to store the experience or bear to recall such agony, the mind it shrinks from memory for fear the mere thought might cause it to return. As if, like the devil, that bloody angel will manifest at the nearest mention, ready to inspect its handiwork or take another pound of flesh still.

It is the fear of the memory of fear-- of crushing, transcendent horror-- that passes through the two of them like ground-lightning. Lehnsherr puts both arms around his old friend, a motion less consciously protective than it is the instinctive care with which one would shield their own viscera. Absurdly, Xavier thinks of nereids, whose primary endearment loosely translates to 'as dear as my own gills'.

"Do you remember, just before Shaw came?" Erik sounds suddenly very young. "Sitting in the sand-cellar, listening to the storm, not knowing if the simoon came from Nature herself, or as the herald of Shaw's forces?" The prince remembers well, indeed. How his friend would lay out the many knives he forged and re-forged as the smithy's apprentice, the sound of his whetstone drowning out whatever quiet conversation might drift over from his parents. Smiling with sharp bravado, he would show Charles how to grip the different hilts properly, until one of the adults-- usually Jakob-- told him such bloodlust was unbecoming. Then young Lehnsherr would draw his little brother closer, as though they were huddling for warmth, and whisper where one must cut for the killing blow, how one must block and look for weaknesses in the adversary's ill-made weapon. "We did well to be afraid," the older mage murmurs. "Nothing meant anything to Shaw unless it could be deconstructed, and it ceased to interest him the moment he succeeded in reducing it to useless pieces."

The Dark Lord's embrace is on the verge of becoming uncomfortably tight, but Charles' hands come up to find their own painful grip soon enough. He should not be surprised, especially given the ease and acuity the bond has exhibited so far but, when they come, the images are hellish and toxic. Etched in the nauseous anxiety of a young boy, they are at once misshapen and accurate; nightmare that is worse because it is true. Xavier gasps, and Erik cradles him close, hand cupping the scholar's skull, the way one would use their own body as a shield during an explosion.

 

(here, most readily, a whisp-- conjured by Charles' discomfort, by the memory of the Elvish dance. it has been waiting:

When she walks past him, every motion is imbued with her natural grace. Dark hair, darker eyes, skin like the bronze reeds of Chryse autumn. She has been as kind to him as their shared slavery will allow; an extra ladle of water, a dropped bread crust, a glance of sympathy. The last of these is all he can give her now, as she is summoned to their Lord and Master, clad in naught but a cape as red as the wounds she will doubtless receive. Too risky for even a pained smile, so she quirks her lip ever so slightly as their gazes meet-- the language of absolute subtlety learned by conspiring chattel. They are not friends or even comrades, for theirs is a world of constant eyes and quick tongues. Perhaps six words have passed between them, all told. Aside from the occasional glimpse of Raven during sword drills or long marches, this girl has been the only source of comfort he has known since his old life was razed to the ground. He cannot, he must not, think of his precious secret as any more than a brush of shadow in the far, nether regions of his mind-- it is dark enough there that such may go unnoticed, though it is still risky. He should be braver, stronger, a better protector; for if his Master finds that star's glow of warmth, then the fate of Erik's treasure will be the fate of all good things. Worse still, for being the most beloved of blessings.

The black folds of the massive tent pavilion swallow her, with a burst of cymbals like a beast's satisfied rumble. Lord Shaw wants music, and maiden to dance the oldest of dances to his sinister piper's tune. He voices these demands in the same tone he uses to order great feasts for himself, and he considers himself a gourmand in every sense. Proof of this is exposed in brief flashes as Magda-- that is her name, Magda-- moves for, though she holds the cloak closed with white-knuckled hands, her thighs and calves are still occasionally visible. The teeth marks scattered there are deep, livid; the same teeth which gobble up rare desert succulents and gnash happily at slabs of steak that still bleed. Appropriative magick, Shaw calls it; and what is more appropriative than consumption? He eats the hearts of enemy commanders, and sometimes of his own warriors who have showed too much prowess. Their Master breaks open bones and sucks the marrow out like honey.

Magda has danced for the Lord of Carnage for an entire lunar cycle. After this night, a full moon of screams and wet glistening on ebony canvas, Erik will never see her again.)

 

The sorrow-sick memory does not fade as the others Charles and his bondmate have shared-- rather, it cleaves in two with great suddenness, as if a flame has been touched to the delicate strands that associate image with image. There was something behind that gaunt, final gaze from the girl Erik might have called friend in a better life. Another recollection, potent and unruly as all things from the depths of the self, but whose scorching darkness has now been blunted and shut away. Very distantly, the scholar retains enough presence to of mind to hope that, given his own conscious knowledge of and practice with this connection, he will someday be able to manipulate it just as adroitly.

It is a dim consideration, and perhaps gives too generous a view of Erik's skill, for the form sheltering the prince is shivering almost uncontrollably. Xavier himself is left gasping against the hollow of the Dark Lord's throat, where his face has been protectively pressed for some unknown but lengthy period of time. The coppery, old-forest scent of his old friend is strong, the pounding of the carotid beneath Charles' own cheek like a ghost-horse at full gallop. This close, he can see the throbbing pulse as well as feel it, and it would only be a matter of turning his head slightly to soothe it with his lips.

Charles shakes the notion away (thrice-blasted bond!), and lets the empirical world radiate outward from this one observation. Reality seems almost frantically vibrant; the feel of dragon-hide against his finger tips where he has sought in vain to find purchase, the dwindling lantern-light, and the certainty of packed earth beneath his bare feet. Without his furs, the cold is starting to creep back in around his shoulders, but it is easily subsumed by the faint rocking motion Lehnsherr has adopted.

 

A macabre joke, all of this. The bond, Charles' survival at the expense of his people, Erik's insistence that any life beyond the one so recently shattered could ever be constructed from the ruins. Every mage knows that the soul is its own wilderness. No matter how well you think you know yourself, no matter what esoteric degree of mastery you achieve-- no one will ever have the complete cartography of their own inner world. A blessing from the Nameless G-d, since-- be one human, Elf, Faey, or otherwise-- the worst demons are always carried within. Any alliance between himself and Erik only multiplies that inner throng. Dangerous, dangerous, for Charles knows in this moment

(for Charles prayed, he _did_: 'save him, spare him, protect him. let the dye be cast as it may, only guard him zealously if i cannot. if Erik lives-- and he _must_!,' cries that childish voice, 'then let him live always, and have the happiness i cannot'.)

that he would run the seas to crimson if he thought it would give Erik peace.

 

For all the turmoil roiling within both sorcerers, the resultant magickal impact has at least lessened. Though Charles' view is somewhat impeded by the cave-like embrace, the only true change he can see lies in the pile of rabbit pelts,with its multitude of grotesquely blinking eyes, which once rested in the far corner. It has transmuted-- devolved-- into a mass of lacquered insects which promptly scuttle in every direction, though they give both mages wide birth. The nasty little things look like carrion beetles but, while unpleasant, are somewhat predictable given the unstable energies from which Erik accidentally conjured them. All else remains unchanged, including the rubies scattered on the earthen floor-- perhaps because the Dark Lord was actively thinking of his bondmate when he transfigured them from Charles' own nightmare maggots. Xavier actually steps on one as Lehnsherr bows a little over him, apparently convinced they are not close enough already.

"Let me go," the prince whispers, ashamed at the depth of the protectiveness within. His voice is hoarse, as though he hasn't spoken in all the years that separate them from the memory they've just witnessed. It occurs to Xavier that this swaying embrace is not unlike the way Erik would rock them both, when they were both very young and the simoons assaulted their shelter door with wind and merciless sand. What was Shaw, if not the worst storm to ever blow out of Nod? Yet they two, he and Erik, are still here. The vicious victory in this thought prompts him to say again, "Let me go."

 

The Dark Lord drops his hands at his sides, but Charles is still pressed against him. It takes the younger man a moment to realize this is because his own grip refuses to slacken, and another moment still to force those fists to relax. He doesn't spring back as if burned-- that would be too telling-- but he cannot meet Erik's gaze.

"You ask, and I obey," Lehnsherr says. When he looks up, the scholar finds a sardonic smile tugging at his captor's lips. Not mocking, but more as if Erik expects this observation to elicit laughter from them both.

'If only it were that easy,' Xavier muses, wise enough to confine the sentiment to the thinnest sliver of thought. If the bond could be broken, he would leave now-- he would!-- with the children in tow, and not look back.

"Shaw is dead," Lehnsherr seems to be tasting the words, marveling over them almost anew. And then, either because he isn't shielding or because he doesn't care if Charles hears:

(dead/gone/torn-to-pieces shadow man; you are dead, monster, so stay that way and never see, never set one filthy foot near my dear Little Maus)

 

Dry mouthed, choosing to ignore the almost-catechism, the prince prompts, "So you said. You said you killed him."

"Oh, yes!" the Dark Lord says with a full display of teeth. "I stabbed him through, and took back what was mine." His hand lifts, utterly without ostentation, to finger the pendant. "Then I threw him, bleeding but alive, to the servants of those he would have petitioned for power. And did he scream? Oh, ever so much!"

The core of this a child's relish; vengeance folded over time and again like a master swordsman's blade; mulled like wine, distilled. Whatever his intentions in choosing an apprentice, Shaw was actually writing the future in his own blood. It is not Erik that Charles is afraid of, though, or even the obvious delight in murder-- it is the capacity he sees that terrifies him. And the temptation. A will like that could command the sun to stand still, or move backwards; blaze a path towards its desire and leave everything else burning in its wake.

"It's alright," the Dark Lord murmurs, far too gently. Charles can see his reflection in his friend's moon-void pupils, the distress written on his own face. Lehnsherr has withdrawn only a pace or so, still too close to truly be free of that siren draw, but at least he holds both hands up in the universal invocation of the unarmed. "I will always protect--"

 

Charles holds up his own hand as if to push the words away. He does not want them, or the guilt and obligation that lie within their comforting facade. "I am grown now, Erik, as you are. My own man-- a fighter, if not a warrior, and a prince in my own right." Distantly, he observes Lehnsherr's reaction as being more confused than contradictory, as if he cannot see what the first subject has to do with the second. Casting his mind back fretfully for the original thread of their discussion, Xavier cannot help but wonder if talking with Erik will always be like this-- a circuitous snake eating its own tail. One certainly hopes not, as the whole affair is exhausting.

"If any more of my kinsmen surrender, do not kill them," he says, wavering between plea and command.

The dark mage nods, lowering his hands and shifting awkwardly, as if he is no longer quite sure what to do with them if he cannot place them where he likes. "As my oaths ensure; in returning to Acidalium, they would be beyond my reach. You have done your duty by them."

Charles chuckles darkly, shaking his head at the notion, and persists, "Let my people bury their dead."

"That task has began-- I'll not stand in their way." Edging closer again, damn him-- Xavier can practically see the other man's body hum with anticipation. As the black-smith's apprentice, Erik had always been praised for his single-minded focus, but this is approaching ridiculous.

"Then I want to see the children." At Lehnsherr's frown, he elaborates, "My students," and narrowly refrains from rolling his eyes.

"They're quite alright." The honesty is also somewhat dismissive. "One of my lieutenants situated them in the Healer's tent-- away from the worst of the wounded," the warrior adds quickly. "They're being given every courtesy. I would never treat your charges as prisoners, dear." Having apparently settled this matter to his satisfaction, Erik says, "You haven't eaten nearly enough--"

"Must I repeat myself?" Charles asks, exaggerating his tone to match his profession. "If I am to be your legal consort, then show me the respect due the position. Or am I a hostage even within your own camp?" Laughing bitterly as the thought occurs to him, "Surely if you filled my step-father's Court with spies, you can let me out of your sight amongst your own followers."

"You are my legal consort," Lehnsherr says with satisfaction, predictably choosing the most lunatic aspect of the situation to fixate upon. "*My* regnant."

Not wishing to indulge Erik's apparent fascination with possessive pronouns, Xavier makes a willfully dismissive gesture. "Then leave me, so I can change."

 

Though he does move as if to go, the Dark Lord seems compelled to offer one last ploy. "If you wish to block the bond, perhaps we might meditate now. Together."

While the eyebrow he raises is one of disbelief, the prince inwardly congratulates himself. If nothing else, the uncomfortable and inadvertent sharing they've already encountered has proved enough incentive for Lehnsherr to concede them both their privacy. The borderlands of their bond will need clear delineation, as meticulous as those new territories carved by any post-war convention, but Xavier has no intention of surveying that landscape with his mate actually in tow. It will likely be… treacherous enough as it is.

"I have responsibilities," he replies cooly. "Though, mark me, I will see to my shielding soon enough." It's in him to wonder if perhaps Erik isn't trying to hide something, or at least delay its revelation, but even the slightest skin over their connection reveals something far simpler and more damning. Quite plainly, Lehnsherr is reluctant to leave Charles' side, half expecting his 'treasure' to be snatched away by jealous gods. The fervent, clutching pull from his end of the bond is evidence enough of that.

Blushing at this ardor would be foolish, so Xavier forces it to become a minuscule smirk of triumph he cannot fully relish. Erik shouldn't be the only one allowed to manipulate the emotional dynamics here. The other mage appears caught, then (incongruously!) a bit sulky, before these emotions at last resolve themselves into an expression that evokes a vertiginous sense of deja vu. Oh, does Charles know that warning gleam in those smelt-green eyes! It grudgingly acknowledges the prince's victory, but states very clearly that Erik will charge his friend for it later-- likely at the most unexpected and inopportune moment.

"Very well then," the Dark Lord murmurs, with an unnecessarily ironic bow. Without another word, he turns, leaving the heavy canvas to flap a pitiful time or two in his wake. The warrior's tred is heavy enough to be heard, but it *does* recede, and no shadow comes to play beyond the curtain. When it finally hangs still, Xavier is afforded what will very likely be the most privacy he can hope for in the foreseeable future.

 

Charles wastes no time in exploiting this, and the few unexpected resources Erik has unwittingly handed him.

 


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